Monday, May 5, 2008

Academic liberals ≠ liberal academics

Previously on "What's wrong with American academia"
Part 1
Part 2 (latter part of post)

Today's instalment:

It's a common criticism of academia that it remains isolated in a lofty ivory tower peopled with latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberals. The accusation is, of course, an old stereotype. But while it typically comes from right-of-center students and working-class people who feel silenced or marginalized, I make it from a left-of-center academic's perspective -- from within, you might say (and a little bit from without also). I consider the majority of these allegedly latte-drinking, Volvo-driving scholars to be conservative -- even those who publish in "radical" academic journals -- because they hide in that ivory tower and refuse to engage with social injustice around them, despite theorizing and analyzing it till they're blue in the face. "You don't want to be seen as a troublemaker," one professor, who has published under a "radical" series, advised me. There's something profoundly unethical about making your career by expounding a vision that you don't live. Oh wait, it already has a name: hypocrisy.

Yeah, these people vote Democrat, and they lecture and write books about Rosa Parks and postcolonial resistance and Gramsci. Their office doors signal their views with self-consciously earnest flyers and cartoons, all progressive of course: "Had a good weekend? Thank a Liberal!". The self-congratulatory ring is probably not intentional.

Even the trappings are true to the stereotype: two of the four profs on my committee drove European cars (the third had a Civic -- a humble non-hybrid, I belive -- and I don't know what the fourth one drove). I don't think I ever saw any of them drink a latte, although their wine-drinking preferences (imported, i.e. non-US) were a sufficiently bourgeois equivalent. And what a flurry of excitement when Wegmans opened in town: 100 kinds of cheese, all imported -- why, we could all pretend we were in Paris! Now, I've nothing against the cheese, of course, except that it started at $8/lb. What I did find offensive was the look of fatuous delight on the professors' faces, which brought to mind the image of old Parsis in a South Bombay audience, tapping their feet to "Britannia Rules The Waves", nodding their heads in time and singing along, feeling mighty cultured.

One humble professor I knew drove an old Japanese car, taught about slavery and race, and is openly gay -- check off three boxes on the liberal list. She displayed a sense of great accomplishment in going to Cuba, although her trip was evidently quite affordable and legal. She brought back some cigars which she shared with a chosen few (including me) at a barbeque. I didn't hear her say much about the Cuban people, markets, or streets. But she made sure to casually mention that these were the most expensive Cuban cigars there are. Sometime later, she had her kitchen remodeled with beautiful handmade tiles ordered from another poor country. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for increasing the consumption of artisan products from poor countries. But every room in her home shouted, "I love Third World things!" Therefore, by association, she must love Third World people, right? After all, I'm Third-World, and she granted me the privilege of puffing at one of her horrendously expensive Cuban cigars (which, by the way, was like casting pearls before swine -- I don't like cigars, and I found it no less disgusting than any other cigar. If I must smoke, let it be a cigarette).

Liking Third World things, and visiting Third-World countries, is easy if you have the money and a visa. It does not make you liberal or warrant a sense of accomplishment, if you're bourgeois (which, let's face it, college professors are). Ivory-tower liberals, like other bourgeois, can afford to consume the Third World.

True, they choose to travel to Venezuela or Kenya, when they could have chosen Paris or Amsterdam (well, often they've already done Paris and Amsterdam). But that choice doesn't automatically make them liberal any more than skateboarding does. Voluntarily risking life and limb by traveling to a poor country -- through exposure to tropical viruses, flying on tinpot planes, etc -- is adventure, like risking injury or death by skiing or bungee jumping. Voluntarily exposing oneself to danger, as a thrilling diversion, is the fatuous delight of the rich -- quite a different thing from exposing oneself to danger to earn a meager livelihood, as many poor people (in poor and rich countries) do out of necessity.

Now, some may argue that a thrilling diversion is harmless. Could be, but it's not always so. My liberal Japanese-car-driving professor wants to visit a Third World country while her colleague's father is still governor, so she can be a guest in the governor's palace. Traveling to poor countries in a way that underscores how privileged you are, and lets you find more ways to exploit that privilege, does not (or should not) enhance your liberal credentials. It's the imperial fantasy of a farm-girl-turned-bourgeois-professor in small-town America. She's privileged by American standards (tenure, respectability, etc), but not really big cheese. At $45-50/hour (I'm guessing), she probably can't afford to fly business class and stay in club floor suites. But in a Third-World governor's palace, servants will bring tea to her four-poster bed every morning, and a liveried chauffeur will drive her around town. After a week or two, liberal credentials renewed by Third-World visit, she will return to Smalltown, USA, suitcases bursting with silk and silver -- precious pieces of imperial fantasy -- and hold forth authoritatively on the country she returned from.

So what does it mean when this conspicuous consumer of Third-World goods tells a Third-World person they have no right to be in the US? She was not an immigration officer. She was not my employer or advisor. She was not a law enforcement officer. I had never even taken a class with her! Yet she pronounced a judgement that it was not for her to pronounce, on a story that she hadn't fully heard. Hearing it might have brought to the surface the possibility of standing up for me, against one of her colleagues. Moral dilemmas are icky and complicated. The fewer sides of the story you listen to, the simpler you can keep it, at least in real life.

(Oh, and she also neglected to pay me for some work I did for her. Work without pay is that stuff you teach and write about, Professor Liberalism -- slavery!)

The real demonstration of one's liberal values is to be willing to standing up not just for someone, but also against someone, and to strive to ensure a fair hearing. That would be worthy of a sense of accomplishment -- crossing divides, sticking your neck out for what you profess (but perhaps they're called "professors" because they only profess), forging an equal partnership with the marginalized, not splitting "Others" into "good" and "bad" (e.g. "You're okay, but other Asians are not."). In a consumption situation, your beliefs are not tested. There's no dilemma.

Consider the non-dilemma situation of the Cuban-cigar-sharing barbeque: some white-American locals and some internationals were invited. "International" has a nice, liberal ring to it, doesn't it? But you want to be careful not to go too foreign, because then everyone has to work at understanding the conversation, and that just ruins the evening. So, a white couple from Oceania and myself, an Asian (me, the only non-white guest of the white professor who would later tell me I had no right to be in America). Looking back, I see why I was the perfect liberal accesory: non-white, with an accent distinct enough to be "foreign", but not so foreign as to ruin the evening. I'm articulate in English, and my views are liberal. I add a touch of diversity to any gathering, without demanding that people cope with my foreignness. No dilemma, no inconvenience.

In the dilemma situation, I not only got no hearing, but was roundly told to get out of America, and -- incredibly petty -- not paid for work done. By a racism-hating, Republican-bashing, slavery-decrying feminist gay tenured professor. The amount she owed me was not a big sum, but when it's coupled with a "Get out of America" lecture, you have to wonder about people who make their career writing about slavery.

To be sure, disengaged academics will write brilliant books, if they're brilliant. But they will never inspire or change a life. The most brilliant professors I've known as a graduate student are generally pedantic and boring in their discussions of even the most moving and profound subject material. The one professor who stands out in my memory (and the memories of most of his students) as life-changing had an incredibly courageous pedagogy (nothing edgy, just utterly earnest, honest, and challenging) and a skill and sensitivity that could only have come from the sincerity of the questions we all grappled with in class together. Thirteen years later, I'm still moved to tears when I read the papers I wrote for him. He was denied tenure at the university where he taught me, and I suspect it was because he allowed people to question received notions of pedagogy as well as of race. Only the luckiest among us get to encounter one or two teachers in our lives who are that gifted and devoted.

Isolation in the ivory tower can, of course, impoverish scholarship itself. (I am speaking of humanities and social sciences, which is what I know best). But more on that some other time. Coming up on future episodes of "What's wrong with American academia":

  • Pointless punctuation
  • Antidepressants and the privatization of social dysfunction
  • Faffology

Stay tuned!

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