Ways to Talk about the Firing of Naomi Schaefer-Riley
If you are not a complete nerd like me and obsessed with the inner workings of American universities, you may not be aware that someone named Naomi Schaefer-Riley was fired in early May, from a publication known as the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find out some of the details here and here and here and here.
As you can see from this link, the Chronicle hosts twenty families of blogs, of which Brainstorm is only one. Brainstorm contains twelve bloggers now that Riley is gone. Now there is no visible right-wing female voice in the entire publication.
Keep in mind that the Chronicle lacks not only ideological diversity. Browse through the blogs and you will see a parade of old, white, liberal faces, all of whom have the dainty air of Elizabeth Warren, our purportedly Cherokee darling from Harvard. I have nothing against old white people, but the Chronicle is far worse than the Republican Party at fostering racial class diversity. At least we have Nikki Haley.
Because higher education has been dominated by people on the left for the last four decades, and the Chronicle is seen as the gold standard of the field, Riley's firing can be described as traumatic for conservatives who care about education.
The ironies and hypocrisies in the situation abound: Riley's married to a black man and has two biracial children, but that didn't matter to the 6,500 academics who signed a petition demanding that she be fired for being racist.
The supposedly delicate graduate students offended by Riley were allowed to publish a reply letter in the Chronicle in which they accused Riley of trying to "not to be out-niggered by her right-wing cohort," something that is not only unprofessional, but also particularly offensive, given that Riley's two children are half-black.
The contradictions are dizzying, but leftist academics don't see contradictions. To them, this all makes sense. That's what is so scary.
Mere days after Riley's firing, Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the other Brainstorm bloggers, reacted to a New York Times article and rushed to offer analysis about conservatives' likely intentions to drag up the Jeremiah Wright scandal.
Berlinerblau's analysis was disproved almost immediately when both Romney and Joe Ricketts distanced themselves from the supposed plans to redirect discussion to Wright. Berlinerblau's bad analysis is arguably worse than Riley's, because he formed an incorrect viewpoint based on only one article, and his viewpoint had nothing to do with higher education, and Berlinerblau is not a political scientist, and he was shown wrong within hours of printing his opinion, and his wrongness reflected his longstanding tendency to misread conservatives from his Georgetown perch, and he did this immediately after someone got fired within the same blog cluster for being sloppy and off-topic.
Riley did the rounds in the Wall Street Journal, on Fox News, and in friendly right-wing corners of the blogosphere, but realistically speaking, I don't see any route of redress. Conservatives are so scarce in the academy, and those on the inside so terrified for their jobs, that Riley's fate as a commentator on higher education is hopeless. Luckily, her husband has a solid job, and she can work outside the academic realm. Career scholars who get trashed like this end up on food stamps or drunk in back alleys (seriously) or worse.
Conservatives can fume and counterblog and protest all we want. Within the world of academics, the left has what we call "hegemony."
It is easy to feel lost and powerless, especially when you have lost and you have no power. But the Riley Affair gives us, perhaps, a chance to reflect on our rhetorical strategies as a movement still in exile. Here are some ideas I'd like to offer:
1. Let's stay true to our standards. It was wrong to fire Riley, but her column had a lot of problems. It is not right to dismiss an entire field like Black Studies based on three dissertations that aren't even available for review yet. As painful as it might be, we must hold other conservatives accountable even if it means acknowledging that we are aligning ourselves with critiques from the left.
2. Let's not become the stereotype the left projects, especially when it comes to race. Some right-wing responses to the Riley Affair move beyond Black Studies and start to dismiss black culture and history. African-Americans were forbidden to read and write during the slavery era, yet they produced a rich fount of narratives, music, and folklore. The tradition of black intellectuals (starting with Phillis Wheatley in 1773 and moving forward to today, comprising thousands of volumes of incredible literature) is enough to constitute an entire field known as Black Studies. Black conservatism, which I study extensively in my book (see below), has been extremely important to the Republican Party's history. This fact is all the more impressive given how little black Americans started with; few ethnic groups in the world have accomplished such an enormous cultural turnaround. And do not forget that Classics is another loosely organized interdisciplinary field. The debates among black intellectuals are as rich as the debates between Cato and Caesar, even if many Black Studies scholars don't do their field justice.
3. Let's critique the structural problems of academia itself. The alienation of conservatives comes largely from the priestly structure that the academy inherited from the Middle Ages. Universities in the U.S. still follow the lead of Harvard and Yale, which were patterned after Oxford and Cambridge, where scholarship was a mysterious activity entwined with ecclesiastical authority. Academics like to form cliques and submit to high priests; they expect chastity, poverty, and obedience from newcomers and thrive on emotional torture and ostracism as punishment for apostasy. Not only does this allow for a lack of ideological diversity, which affects us as conservatives, but it also produces an underclass of adjunct labor -- virtual slaves who do most of university teaching while pampered elitists doing "important research" get light teaching loads, sabbaticals, and disproportionate fanfare. The vast majority of American college students eke out their degrees on a tight budget while elite colleges grow fat on untaxed endowments earmarked for special privileges.
4. Let's distinguish between resisting academic injustice and embracing anti-intellectualism. Tom Friedman of the New York Times is hardly an ally to conservatives, so beware when we start to sound like him, extolling the virtue of depersonalized, computerized instruction between super-professors and hundreds of thousands of faceless students getting cheap certificates. The answer to the left's control of intellectual institutions is not for the right to rush to online vocational programs and dismiss outright the role of museums, libraries, and classics. It's hard to feel invested in education when educators are so hostile to us, but we cannot let go yet.
The best we can do at this point is stay watchful and keep trying to strategize our triumphant return to the academy. It will happen one day -- just not now.
Robert Oscar Lopez teaches American literature and Classics at CSU Northridge. His book, Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman, came out in 2011.