Slaves, Klansmen and Israeli Salad: Culture Wars Return to Campus

(Corrects and updates events at Emory University in the 16th paragraph of this article published March 7.)

Remember when the campus Culture Wars ended? It was about 15 years ago, sometime after we learned that Paul de Man was a Nazi and Bill Bennett had blown the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Belize at a Vegas Keno parlor. As I remember it, a pact was forged atop the smoldering ruins of the Deke house at Dartmouth College. The radicals were allowed to keep their Afrikana Studies programs and Neo-Pagan safe zones, the conservatives to restock the library shelves with the works of Allan Bloom and unexpurgated copies of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and the nation's elite universities went back to producing engineers and bankers rather than papers with titles such as "Aspects of Iconicity in Some Indiana Hydronyms."

So why, all of a sudden, am I having flashbacks to Women's Studies 201?

It started on Monday, with vague reports of a Ku Klux Klansman roaming the verdant quads of Oberlin College in Ohio. Or, as police now think, perhaps it was simply a woman in a blanket. No matter, the administration decided to cancel classes and hold a "Day of Unity" in which to reflect on what one administrator called a spate of "hate-related incidents on campus." The student newspaper compiled a list of nine recent episodes, ostensibly connected, including someone scrawling "whites only" at a water fountain.

This is admittedly unsettling, and not just at a place as right-thinking as Oberlin, but was it truly a reason to shutter the lecture halls? Not in the opinion of psychology professor Al Porterfield: "It makes me angry to think that we should give this person so much control over our lives as to cancel our mission."

Porterfield has a good point about how overreaction to a perceived threat can be disempowering. Among the occurrences at Oberlin was a swastika drawn on a lecture-hall window, which one Jewish undergraduate called a "very existentially scary moment." Good thing the young man chose Oberlin over Columbia University, as he might have found the occasional campus visits by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad particularly unnerving.

Speaking of Columbia, no outbreak of neo-political correctness would be complete without an appearance from professor of Middle Eastern studies Joseph Massad. You remember him best for characterizing the invasion of Iraq as an exercise in "American male sexual prowess," and for pointing out that New York delicatessens' habit of calling a mixture of diced tomatoes and cucumbers "Israeli Salad" is a brazen example of Zionist crimes against humanity.

In an interview in the cultural journal Jadaliyya this week, Massad explained that Western efforts to introduce rights and protections for gay men and lesbians in the Arab world are a "culturally imperialist symptom of imperial capital's penetration of these countries." Or, as Massad puts it in his inimitable style:

The imperial complicity of the Gay International, including its Arab members, lies in their calling upon all Arabs who refuse the imperial hegemony of the hetero-homo binary to unlearn and unthink the way they desire, and that they learn and think their desires along the lines of the hetero-homo binary, indeed that the way they exist and the way they are, their very ontology, is a form of false consciousness, which they must shed, as the truth of who they are, according to this logic, lies in their adoption of the imperial hetero-homo binary through which they must apprehend themselves and their desires, which will lead, according to the Gay International, to their emancipation.

For the Daily Beast's David Frum, this was proof that among the Ivory Tower set, "If you want to say something obnoxious, stupid, and immoral, first wrap it in gibberish." (Frum, to good effect, ends his post with a photograph of two young Arabs standing on the gallows.)

Yet I think Massad goes further than just espousing the sort of cultural relativism that dismisses "morality" as a concept that hopeless reactionaries like Frum invented to keep the third world down. Perhaps my deconstructionist skill-set has grown rusty, but I think the professor is implying that the Arab anathemization of homosexuality is in itself a product of Western imperialism. So not only are we trying to force our sexual progressivism on the Arabs, but we are to blame for their hostile reaction to it in the first place. That's a nifty trick for a professor wanting to absolve Arabs for persecuting gays without risking being uninvited to Upper West Side cocktail parties.

It's tempting to dismiss all of this as a harmless diversion. Those Oberlin undergraduates will eventually grow up and join the real world, even if Massad won't. Yet a continuing controversy at Emory University in Atlanta shows how the culture-war mindset continues to hamper just the sort of intellectual debate universities should promote.

In an article for Emory Magazine last month on the inability of Congress to compromise over federal spending, university President James Wagner reached (a bit too far) for a historical example:

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution -- "to form a more perfect union" -- the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared . . .

Uh-oh. Wagner, a former engineering professor, was certainly guilty of stepping outside his discipline, not to mention common sense. An Emory history professor, Leslie Harris, countered that the president was misreading the past, saying the compromise "appears to be the flaw that split the nation apart and led to the Civil War." Earl Lewis, a former Emory provost and historian said, "It was the wrong example, and while the details might be there, the context itself was missing." Given this exchange of ideas, we naifs might conclude that the whole event would be an opportunity for the campus community to discuss that context and relate it to the contemporary gridlock in Washington -- a better occasion for a Day of Unity than Oberlin's disappearing Klansman.

But no. In short order the faculty of the College of Arts and Science censured its president, the advocacy group began an online petition calling for Wagner's resignation on the grounds that "praising actions designed to exploit enslaved persons is unacceptable behavior from a university president," and students held a "Rally Against Racism" and protested at the opening of a library exhibition about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (Let's hope they all stayed for the library event, which included a talk from Representative John Lewis, a gentleman who knows a thing or two about racism.)

It's worth noting that, as at Oberlin, the college community was already a bit on edge: a student-run TV program apologized in December for a skit that made light of lynching and cross-burning, and some feel that a round of budget cuts is unjustly targeting programs popular with minorities. The Emory board, for now, is standing behind Wagner, freeing him to concentrate on such vital issues as whether to allow the corporate conservatives at Chick-fil-Ato sell sandwiches on campus. Such is the life of a post-modern American university president.

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

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