Is a tenured conservative as useless as a tenured radical?
Ah, to live in interesting times. I have hardly had enough skepticism in me to keep up,
The liberal intelligentsia spins tangled webs, trying to figure out how they went from a ragtag collection of oppressed underdogs to a behemoth headed by a gay-friendly, biracial, Marxist-trained tyrant with a teleprompter, loosing the hounds familiar to any egregious police state combining Foucault's Panopticon with Hannah Arendt's banality of evil and George Orwell's doublespeak (abetted by tax intimidation, spying on journalists, propaganda, street thugs, bread and circuses, targeted assassinations, enemy lists, blacklisting, and modern slavery).
Though I've been a blue-state urchin all my life, surrounded on all sides by liberal clowns and promiscuous pot-smoking baby-killing child-smuggling atheists, even I could not have dreamt how bad the left could get. After all, back in the 1970s, nobody imagined a Left so totally insane and morally untethered, combining people who willingly mutilate their own genitals with military officers who force the Naval ROTC Honor Guard to salute their gay weddings, would actually win.
Indeed, they won. They won big. And much of it, as I was reminded on May 6 at a symposium, "Schools for Subversion," hosted by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, was won when the Left took over education. The academic war predated and led to their eventual takeover of the media, detailed by Timothy Groseclose in Left Turn. At the May 6 event, panelists were Larry Sand, Kyle Olson, Mary Grabar, and Bruce Thornton. They detailed the frightening ways that an ideology can spread quickly through the entire national education system, from kindergarten to post-doctoral fellowships, and remake an entire nation in the image of homosexual feminist union thugs united against carbon emission. It's amazing. Once you "re-educate" hundreds of millions of toddlers who can't question you, you will soon have a nation that will not even bat an eye at one of their heroes, such as the current President, wiretapping Fox News reporters, shutting down Catholic Charities over gay adoption, and bombing North African countries without congressional approval.
One fact weighs on me quite uncomfortably: I am a professor. Now, I am tenured. I am part of the field that has been instrumental in creating a left-wing police state. What do I do about it?
At the May 6 confab, one professor emphasized the importance of conservative humanities professors like me doing our basic jobs effectively without regard to politics. This advice echoes the declarations from groups like the conservative California Association of Scholars, which stated in its 2012 policy study, "A Crisis of Confidence," that the university needed to keep academics "free from politics." The medicine proposed from the academic right has not been to use the arts and sciences to argue strongly for a conservative alternative to the left; rather, the medicine has always been, in the right-wing mind, to take all politics out of the academy entirely in pursuit of a wholly non-political professoriate.
Remember that the right has erased the barrier between a scholar's classroom persona and what he publishes, chasing after people like Ward Churchill and Erik Loomis based not on what they said while teaching, but on what they wrote as public intellectuals. One inevitable consequence of choosing this war tactic is that it sets a precedent: professors must construe their free speech outside the classroom the way they construe instructional time. Their civic speech is actionable by their employer and the public (especially at state-funded colleges).
Therein lies the rub. We cannot combat liberal academic bias by suggesting that academic work can and should be free of all politics. To argue the latter, one makes it impossible for a conservative scholar to do as liberal colleagues have done, and devote one's scholarship to the important mission of defining civic virtues. The left is so thoroughly integrated throughout academia anyway that they will find it much easier than will conservatives to mask political scholarship as a non-partisan quest for truth.
The conundrum became clear to me as I attended my favorite conference of literary critics last weekend.
The American Literature Association (ALA) has been one of the bright spots of my overwhelmingly leftist field. The ALA was formed by an assortment of author societies led by scholars disenchanted with the rival Modern Language Association (MLA) in 1989. By then the MLA was already an oppressive amalgamation of medieval caste consciousness and suffocating liberal piety. In the academy's obsessively anti-Reagan 1980s, all forms of intolerance and hierarchy had been banished from literary study by the high priests of the MLA, save one cherished pecking order -- the totem pole that placed expensive Ivy League castles at the top and public "teaching schools" at the very bottom.
For a long time the MLA has been a cornucopia of cartoonish snobbishness, simultaneously anti-intellectual and clannishly pedantic. The celebrity system of the MLA ensured that "rock star" scholars with plum sinecures at top universities could deliver recycled odes to feminist queer Marxist antiracist struggles of the late twentieth century, all the while patting themselves on the back for overseeing an academic culture plagued by skyrocketing tuitions, unconscionable graft, unemployed scholars, and unreadable jargon-heavy screeds of doubtful value to anyone.
In the MLA, leftism is at its most shamefully evil, with something for virtually anybody with common sense to despise. For instance, it was at the MLA that thousands of young scholars shuffled from posh suite to posh suite for the yearly "job market," massaging the colossal egos of graying hippies with endowed chairs in the desperate and unlikely hope of landing a tenure-track job. It was also at the MLA that academic presses shopped around for new tomes to publish, usually on safe topics that mirrored the neoliberal and self-serving, even if hoary, scholarly projects of their editors and reviewers. Hobnobbing, snubbing, clique-building, heel-clacking, and overpriced drinks abounded while humanity and dignity -- the values supposedly at the core of literary study -- were in short supply. So it was natural and fitting that something like the ALA would declare a holiday from Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, and start their own society.
Enter me in the late 1990s -- an almost-thirty conservative scholar hoping to do something, no matter how big or small, to counteract the march of liberal academic tyranny. The ALA was a natural home for me. In disciplinary terms, the ALA was both conservative and renegade for its time. Unlike the MLA's increasing drift away from authorial research, which was still taboo thirty years after Roland Barthes famously declared "the death of the author," the ALA's focus was pugnaciously loyal to the special role of authorship. The patriotic fervor of labeling the association "American" with no disclaimers was a big plus as well. The ALA was also more egalitarian, costing less than the MLA to attend, and evincing less dominance by the Harvards and Stanfords that got to steamroll the MLA. Here, I could revel in the greatness of the writers I adored, including some like Edgar Allan Poe, Phillis Wheatley, John Winthrop, and William Wells Brown who were viewed skeptically (to put it nicely) by the chic presenters who were applying the feminist theories of Julia Kristeva to Octavia Butler novels and citing Madonna Studies at the MLA. In 2005, for instance, I was honored to be on a panel devoted to American exceptionalism. I have fond memories of my earliest presentations on Winthrop, Poe, Whitman, and Thoreau.
This year it felt very different for me. For the first time, I attended the ALA having been "outed" as a conservative and having been the object of public, widely broadcast assaults on my character by activists in the LGBT community. It was also my first time attending as an associate professor. It struck me how old I felt, with my creeping gray hairs and thirty pounds of fat I gained writing The Colorful Conservative. All the Boston landmarks were familiar to me from past ALA conferences, always held close to Copley Square. But I am aging.
I am no longer the renegade belletristic transgressor joining forces with other people happy to resist the liberal elitism of the MLA. Now I am conservative in the personal sense, a middle-aged father increasingly concerned with the world my students as well as my own descendants will inhabit. The ALA has stayed true to its mission, for the most part, leaving the author at the center of literary scholarship and denying the encroachment of politicized theory as well as it can. (There are now more panels that seem explicitly "queer" and "feminist", but they are still not overwhelming the meeting's general focus on traditional literary study.) This is all good, except that a conservative literary critic should want to fight political fights, not in spite of, but rather because of his investment in the literary heritage of his nation. The American conservative who teaches literature is teaching young people about the foundational virtues of our republic. If he cannot draw from the great narratives of the country's history, then how is he to pass on any sense of these virtues against the all-consuming firestorm of liberal indoctrination elsewhere?
As always, the ALA was an invigorating time for me. For a few days I can forget the pro-gay leftist Mafiosi at my Los Angeles state university; I get to talk about something I love, great books. But I also love my politics. I left the conference aware that this organization, while the gold standard for scholarship, offers the American intellectual right a faint model for changing things: We cannot beat the MLA and all it represents by claiming that we don't want to argue over politics. We do. We must. We will. Personally, I am committed simply to finding the right venue for the fight. The goal will not be to claim neutrality, but to brandish what we believe proudly, in the name of great writers like Thoreau and Whitman who made our country's values into what they are.
Robert Oscar Lopez is the author of Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman (University Press of America, 2011). He is associate professor of English and classics at CSU Northridge. He also edits English Manif.