The times are a changin’, and plus ca change. Somewhere in between those two expressions lies the truth about the culture wars. As everyone now knows, these “wars” of self-victimization and counter self-victimization are being revived, and if you think the new victims — Christians and campus conservatives — are interested merely in a placid debate, you’ve got something else coming. In the words of conservative commentator David Limbaugh, author of the recent “Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity,” the new vanguard will be led by “scholar-warriors” like David Horowitz, who is now issuing a very warrior-like “J’accuse” to academic departments across the country with his so-called Academic Bill of Rights, which denounces the propaganda tactics of “tenured leftist” faculty and calls for an end to chronic discrimination against campus conservatives. Meanwhile, the Web site for Students for Academic Freedom, a conservative campus activist group started by Horowitz, talks about the “battle” for academic freedom in Colorado, where several colleges have been forced to accept Horowitz’s manifesto.
What kind of egregious violations of “academic freedom” could necessitate the intervention of “battle”-hardened “scholar-warriors?” Limbaugh, complains that “University administrations overwhelmingly invite liberal speakers to deliver commencement addresses. When conservatives are invited to speak, they are often subjected to ridicule and contempt.” (Apparently, when the opposite happens — as it did when Chris Hedges of The New York Times was heckled for criticizing the Iraq war at Rockford College in Illinois last year — it is just a fluke.) Limbaugh also complains that the University of Virginia’s course in Marxism outrageously “posits that the work of the godfather of Communism is … ‘worth devoting an entire semester to.'” (Limbaugh must forgive the rest of us who consider that not only true, but a somewhat worse cause for a “rights” crusade than the treatment of U.S. citizens interned at Camp X-Ray.) Perhaps the Washington Times said it best, in a recent stinging editorial on campus McCarthyism: “The issue here is balance,” the editors wrote.
What’s wrong with balance? Nothing. But Horowitz is laying a buckshot accusation at hundreds of departments across the country of biased hiring practices, accusations based on a handful of reports by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Horowitz’s foundation (the Center for the Study of Popular Culture), and Republican PR guru Frank Luntz. These reports extrapolate from the party registrations of university faculty (overwhelmingly Democratic) that departmental hiring and firing practices are necessarily rooted in a kind of liberal McCarthyism.
If you think I’m exaggerating what is merely a neutral defense of “fairness” in the academy, just look at the text of the Academic Bill of Rights, which proclaims the “rights of students to not be indoctrinated or otherwise assaulted by political propagandists in the classroom or any educational setting.” It is surely worth asking whether that is the language of a bill of rights or if this is nothing more than a wimpy and oblique way of disseminating unfounded accusations of bias, of which Horowitz has made his life’s work.
On a practical level, it seems inappropriate to saddle already overburdened faculty with concerns about being sued for choosing to reject unqualified conservative candidates. On a moral level, systematic bias is a serious matter and a very serious accusation, and for Horowitz to think that department heads, college deans, and university presidents don’t take it extremely seriously already is a slander he is not qualified to make and that they are not qualified to accept.
The larger question is whether crusaders like Horowitz and Limbaugh genuinely want reform, or do they simply despise an institution which has alienated them and which they have thoroughly alienated? For years, Horowitz has placed ads condemning slavery reparations, the Palestinian people, anti-Americanism, and other things he has somewhat capriciously designated as liberal shibboleths, in campus newspapers in the hopes of being “censored” (as he was at Brown three years ago, an event touted in the national press by Horowitz ally and veteran culture warrior John Leo of U.S. News and World Report), and gaining the right to call foul. The borderline racism of an anti-Palestinian ad he placed in last semester’s Yale Daily News was a failed attempt to do the same. Horowitz has tried and failed to thrust conservatism into the academy with newsworthy but substance-less provocations that end up only glorifying himself. So now he’s trying a different scheme. You might say the effect of his harangue against the purported ideological homogeneity of the modern university has been to push more students into “learning environments” like Bob Jones University, where there is no ideological debate whatsoever. So much for “diversity” and “academic freedom.”
But when it comes to the culture wars, being the loudest whiner and biggest victim is all that counts: Horowitz is attracting allies with real power, and the specter of conservative petulance is now haunting the halls of capitols across America. For those keeping score at home, there are now “academic diversity” legislative resolutions in eight states and a similar resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced by Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican. If you’re miffed that we can no longer even keep the culture wars out of the congressional record, you’re not alone. Even Horowitz has had to admit, according to The New York Times, that legislation wasn’t his original intent — he realized that this would be akin to asking Congress to “impose a politically correct faculty on a university.” But it’s not clear that Horowitz understands quite what a fine line he is walking between critiquing political correctness and imposing his own version of it. But then again Horowitz might see things differently, too, if he had a bit less resentment and a bit more perspective — but of course this is precisely what all culture warriors lack. It would actually be too optimistic to say that the culture wars are being renewed. The truth is they never really ended. And with people like Horowitz around, you can rest assured they never will.
Aaron Goode is a senior in Calhoun College.