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The Academic Origins of the American Revolution

Campus Week: The intersectional monster has risen up against its white progressive boomer creators, and there’s little they, or anyone else, can do about it

Lama Abu-Odeh
September 14, 2020
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
Cancel culture on campusSara D. Davis/Getty Images
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
Cancel culture on campusSara D. Davis/Getty Images

No sooner had white liberals purged conservatives from academia (9% of all university faculty is conservative; the number is vanishingly small in the liberal arts) than they witnessed a rebellion to their left. A younger generation of scholars arose that had learned well what the progressive academics of a previous generation had taught them, namely, that there is no such thing as objectivity or neutrality, and that all knowledge claims are about power. While progressive academic boomers developed these ideas in part as a weaponized critique of an earlier generation of academic white men—whether liberal, conservative, or leftist—who had lorded it over them, they now find themselves the object of the rebellion of the generation they themselves mentored. The chickens have come to roost in their own backyard.

Did boomers ever believe in their own ideas? Yeah, sort of. There was some rhetorical flourish in the argument “it is all about power”; it was an exaggeration they were aware of. But the dominant men they were struggling against held their feet to the fire and they had to invoke some sort of empirical reality independent of power; invoking the empirical power of disparity studies was their armor in the attack against the enemy. But the younger rebellious generation introjected the argument “it’s all about power” wholesale. Instead of supporting it with empirical evidence, they supported it with moral certitude, since, after all, “reality is socially constructed.”

The younger academic generation is in no mood to argue about social reality; it is in the mood to assert morality. While the assertion “it is all about power” was meant to induce radical skepticism, a new generation has turned it into a moral certainty. And while the appeal to subjectivism—tell your story—as an attack on objectivity was meant to bring other experiences into the discussion, subjectivism has now become the be-all for a new generation which has adopted its own distinctive form of argument in which grievance is mixed with aggression and narcissism.

Stranger still, while in the previous generation, state power was the object of critique, for the new one, the state is to be mobilized against the fellow worker academic who said or wrote the wrong thing. It is not that the progressive boomers didn’t feel moral about their ideas; it’s just that the younger generation seems to have zoomed in only on the moral claims of the previous progressivism.

What has enabled this large and often frightening shift in academic discourse? The answer is complicated. Part of the answer lies in the increased hires of “diverse” faculty who, instead of using the empathetic patronage of white progressive faculty to advance their careers (as I did), have turned to the diversity department, with its threat of state power, as their protector.

What is striking to me about the norms that the younger generation of academics want to enforce through invoking state and bureaucratic power is their relationship to the norms governing the micro culture of white progressives in their dealings with minority faculty and students. I would characterize these norms as ones of exaggerated empathy, psychological “joining,” generalized sense of guilt, generosity of evaluation, and self-censorship. What the new generation of scholars want is for the academic micro culture in which they grew up to be universalized as the general norms of the university; indeed, of the larger culture.

At first, the norms that were jointly developed in the micro culture of white progressives and their minority protégées, and was confined to those relationships, found no resistance from outsiders who treated it as a peculiar local subculture in academia. Yet once they were launched as a universal project, they naturally met with pushback. And since the new agents of history see their project as moral and have little interest in persuasion, they instantly read every resistance to their designs on norm universalization as immoral. Like children coddled by sympathetic elders, they were shocked once they left home to find that the big bad world disagreed with them. To argue against our norms makes you a bad person, they insisted. What is demanded of you is to become a white progressive: to act as if you were one and to believe as one.

Another reason for the current academic rebellion might be that academia over the past two decades has turned into a network of patronage networks. At the heart of each such network stood a celebrity scholar, often charismatic, who had the power to distribute goods to his mentees: Jobs, fellowships, tenure letters, speaking gigs. This patronage power was only possible because this celebrity scholar was able to raise funds; the sources of funding multiplied in the neoliberal economy, and extended beyond the confines of the university, underwriting the scholar’s celebrity status. These networks act as autonomous enclaves, premised on different methodological approaches, and barely address or engage with each other’s scholarship. Decrying the morality of a celebrity scholar or his favorite rival protégé may be an easier way to undermine their power than writing a scholarly work to discredit their ideas. One could always aspire to divert funds from the celebrity scholar to oneself.

Indeed, if there is anything that characterizes academic scholarship in the age of neoprogressivism is that much of it is decades old. Original ideas spun in the ’80s and the ’90s are rehashed, albeit readjusted to accommodate the shift in liberalism from individual rights-based liberalism to diversity liberalism. “Intersectionality” is the term of art of diversity liberalism where identity groups compete for a place in the hierarchy of grievance, and white liberal feminists concede to their Black compatriots a place of precedence. In the absence of conservatism and classical liberalism, faculty workshop discussions sound like echo chambers where everyone agrees with everyone else, and minority scholars are cheered unconditionally by white cohorts as if universities have turned into caucus of the Democratic Party—everyone in the room is always understood to be a Democrat.

On a bad day, the new rebels want to cancel you: cause you to lose your job, a prestigious fellowship, or institutional affiliation; force a journal to withdraw your article; deplatform you from a conference panel or a speaking gig. On a good day they want to send you off to read more Robin DiAngelo, the holy priestess of diversity training, to consider your defensiveness about your “white privilege.” And in case you were confused about the new academic moral norms, the diversity department at your university sends you regular emails about the latest panel discussing “structural racism,” a regular reminder that the new bureaucrats have this uncanny capacity to justify their income by warning us of a “systemic” problem only they can solve.

The proliferation of diversity departments in universities has come with the increased globalization of American universities and increased reliance on international student tuitions to subsidize the expanding administrative apparatus and yearly salary increases of an aging faculty which, with the absence of a mandatory retirement age, hangs on to its salary windfalls until the bitter end. Diversity departments are the new managers of the diverse campus, where the trade-off of high tuition fees for “diversity” protection is the base of neoliberal university profitability.

The boomer generation of progressives is horrified by all this. They didn’t want their teachings to be reified into moralistic stances. They meant to instill skepticism in their students. They didn’t exactly bargain for being targeted by moralists. But seeing their own ideas rehearsed back to them from those they tutored, they know of no way to resist. To push back against the rebellion from their mentees still feels like betrayal of their progressive beliefs, even if the mentees have changed the terms in which this progressivism is understood and even if they feel increasingly alienated from this new form of progressivism. So, they are silent.

While academia bred those ideas and has come to reap the results, it is only a microcosm of what is happening across the span of cultural institutions. From the arts to the media to Hollywood to schools to the NGO sector to rights activist organizations, the same generational rebellion is taking place with white progressives overseeing those institutions finding themselves with few means of resistance.

In the meantime, workers in these institutions are terrified. If they show any opposition to the new moral agenda, they risk their jobs. As the young rebels push their moral revolution, boomer progressives buckle. And the more old progressives buckle, the more energized the rebels and the harder they push. Why stop when you are winning?

One could dismiss it all as a moral rebellion sweeping the world of liberal or formerly liberal institutions except there are no other kind; liberals have captured all institutions of public culture, a process that has been unfolding for a while now and only intensified after Trump’s election. For a while, it seemed to liberals that taking on the progressive mantle themselves and unleashing the moral rebellion in their ranks was a good weapon to wave in the face of Trump and his base, until they found themselves purged by their own revolutionary guards. It was all fun and games until the mob came for them.

What is notable is that it is not just liberal institutions that are buckling, but corporations as well. Employers, armed with diversity mantras, are happy to regulate the speech of their workers and threaten their livelihoods if they say the wrong thing. Fear of being sued, and fear of social media shaming that could jeopardize their market shares, is one driver, of course. But an opportunity seems to have fallen into their lap where corporate power can now act progressive, and they are happy to grab it. Human resources departments act like the Baath party, where workers are encouraged to spy on other workers and loyalty oaths are extracted.

In this new politics, liberalism has become the new authoritarianism. Meanwhile, corporate America has become the most eloquent speaker for social progressivism as long as it helps their bottom line. Having globalized their operations, corporations now boast a very diverse work force, especially with loose rules on immigration and work visas. They are happy to manage the diversity of their workers and regulate speech at work for the benefit of the aggrieved complainants and exercise the power of employment at will—this time, for the good side. Add in the fact that with globalization, corporations have no loyalty to any state; indeed, they often see themselves replacing the state, whose traditions, history, icons, and statues mean very little to the predominantly cosmopolitan professional managerial class.

Long before the rebels advanced with their cultural revolution, armed with postmodernist critique, the elite corporate world had already dropped any fealty to any culture and had deracinated itself. On sale to China, this class treats the United States as just a convenient place to make a profit.

Conservatives stand equally helpless. The domino effect of this moral rebellion as it sweeps liberal-dominated cultural institutions and corporations alike has exposed the weakness of social conservatism as a possible antidote. Stripped of much of its public power through the courts, it is much more of an aggrieved observer of cultural transformations than an actor in it. The conservative-dominated Supreme Court is happy to split the difference with progressive liberalism to retain its political legitimacy, so long as its project of economic deregulation is uncompromised.

For months, as the Bernie Sanders presidential candidacy unfolded, economic progressives waited for the revolution against corporate elites to happen. No sooner did his candidacy fail than the moral rebellion of social progressivism erupted with the murder of George Floyd. A different wing of progressivism took to the streets and as cultural institutions bent to its demands like a house of cards, it has proven a far mightier agent of disruption than the Sanders movement. Economic progressives latched on to the Black Lives Matter movement and declared themselves its supporters. Since their program was premised on mobilizing a multiracial working class, they wanted a piece of the protest action.

Yet even though the official program of BLM waxed eloquent on the ills of capitalism, its activist provocateurs seemed more interested in getting whites to kneel and confess their white privilege than push for an identifiably Sanders-like economic program. Seemingly dominated by middle- and upper-middle-class white and Black college kids, BLM decried the structural racism of American society—that’s the racism you are not aware you have but stay tuned because we are going to reveal it to you.

The rise of Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” to bestseller status speaks volumes on the kind of identity politics the liberal establishment and its corporate allies, especially in the tech sector, favor. Their command is moral: Search deep into your soul as an individual and recognize the tumor of racism that has taken hold of your thoughts. Do not resist, your resistance reveals your guilt. We are here to help you recognize it. Once you do, we will teach you how to become an anti-racist. Donating money to BLM helps your spiritual recovery.

Meantime, ordinary people outside the intelligentsia watch and wonder what happened to their country.

Lama Abu-Odeh is Professor of Law at Georgetown. She writes on gender, law, and multiculturalism.