A New Style of Radical Stalks Academic Freedoms


March 28, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

LOS ANGELES. — It would appear that the fascist takeover of the American university will not after all take place. It is no doubt an offensive exaggeration for me to so describe the new radicalism which has gained a place of power on the humanities faculties of many universities, but it is not an indefensible accusation. They deny the very idea of liberal education.

The program of the radicals is ordinarily thought leftist. It combines elements of early Marxism, black nationalism, ''Third Worldism'' and feminism. In some respects it is a new manifestation of the university radicalism of the 1960s. However, there is another connection that is more important.

Two of the principal intellectual influences upon the new radicalism, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the Belgian ''deconstructionist'' literary theorist Paul de Man, later an influential teacher at Yale, were both Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s or 1940s. Heidegger, a thinker of great influence in contemporary philosophy (the dominant influence upon Sartre and French Existentialism), was also, according to Jacques Derrida, the originator of ''deconstructionism,'' the intellectual progenitor of that method of textual criticism and analysis. Deconstruction says that texts have many meanings that are independent of the author's conscious meaning, hence that no objectivity of literary communication exists.

The central tenet of the new radicalism is the corresponding belief that no objective truth or value exists, nor disinterested scholarship, only power relationships. Power determines ''truth,'' and intellectual life and scholarship are forms of political struggle.

This is contrary to Marxism and to leftist thought in general, which holds that objective forces do work on history and society. Truth exists, Marxists say: Marx discovered it, and Marxists act upon it. There is a fundamental difference between people, like Marxists, who believe in using power to advance a doctrine they believe objectively true, and those who believe that power creates truth. Both are enemies of the free university, but different kinds of enemies.

The argument that ''there is no such thing as intrinsic merit,'' as Stanley Fish, chairman of the Duke University English Department, states it, may be called a radical relativism (or subjectivism), or an epistemological nihilism. In either case, it defies an assumption upon which Western education and Western civilization rest -- which, of course, it is meant to do.

The new radicals hold Western civilization as the product of racial and sexual hierarchies they wish to unseat and replace. Whereas Marxists interpret society in terms of class, the new university radicals do so in terms of race and sex (or ''gender,'' to employ their neutered vocabulary; ''sex'' has too many distracting implications).

Their political aim is enfranchisement of formerly disenfranchised groups, thus reversing the existing hierarchies of power and social privilege. They hold that individuals find their fundamental identity and value not in what they are but in their race or other collective existence -- an assertion which could equally be made by a fascist or a Marxist.

They say that the claims of a collective or racial nature are accordingly superior to those of individuals, and that ''individual rights'' are merely a coded defense of privilege. However, one result of this, as Dinesh D'Souza writes in the latest Atlantic, is that ''the young blacks, Hispanics and other certified minority-group members in whose name the victims' revolution is being conducted are the ones worst served by the American university's abandonment of liberal ideals. . . . Even more than others, minority students arrive on campus searching for principles of personal identity and social justice. . . .''

Until recently, articulate opposition to the radicals came mainly from conservatives. The opposition now has mobilized liberal as well as conservative scholars, and has moved from the professional and partisan press into such journals of general readership as the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic and the news magazines. The radicals have been put on the defensive, but the struggle certainly is not over.

The intellectual community is as prey to fashion and ideology as any other, and 50 years ago ''political correctness'' on the university campus required one to be Marxist and wear the workman's boot and cap. That passed.

This too will pass, probably more rapidly, since the new radicalism has a certain fundamental silliness about it, and an intrinsic contradiction. If there is no truth, and all is power, what significance can attach to a movement whose power base is a few score professors of English in a handful of privileged universities in one parochial Western country, remote from the experience of mankind's masses?

The serious issue is the damage that may be done before this passes. An academic orthodoxy that denies disinterested scholarship, independent standards or intellectual and aesthetic value, intellectual objectivity, textual meaning and the integrity of communication, and devotes itself to political action, can leave a great deal of wreckage behind. Who will educate the generation that follows a generation thus educated?

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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