The end of an era at a great intellectual journal - a victory for the mindless

January 18, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

It's done now. He's been sacked, cashiered. Joseph Epstein had written 91 essays in consecutive issues of the American Scholar since, at age 37, becoming its editor with the Spring 1975 issue. That quarterly journal is the wholly-owned organ of Phi Beta Kappa, the college honors society. Those pieces have been published in five collections. They stand among the best essays written in the English language in the current generation. A sixth volume is in the works.

Epstein's 92nd essay, titled "I'm History," is characteristically civilized, civil and courageous. As ever, its core conclusion is unequivocal: "The small clique of people who despised the American Scholar under my editorship were winning the day within the Senate of Phi Beta Kappa [which] far from being representative of the organization at large, is almost wholly made up of academics, and in academic arguments, I have noticed, the radicals almost always win, even though they rarely constitute a majority."

They won. They fired him.

That clique is a power throughout America, not just in Phi Beta Kappa's Senate. It reaches far beyond the ambition to muzzle, to strangle - to destroy the American Scholar as the supremely distinguished journal it has been.

That clique is the militant enemy of the Western tradition of liberal thought, of the cumulative body of free and courageous inquiry that has set humankind aside from the lesser vertebrates since the onset, anyway, of the Renaissance.

Illiberal stalkers

It is the instrument, in American university education, that is extruding graduates and postgraduates who are politically indoctrinated cultural illiterates. It is the most illiberal force still stalking this planet since the death of state Marxism.

For six or seven years now, Epstein has been tracked by the radical left in the academic humanities jungle. He refused to capitulate to their demands that the American Scholar polemically broadcast their doctrines, their political programs - the extremes of multiculturalism, ultra-radical feminism, gay and lesbian agendas for literature and the arts, deconstructionism, new historicism, speech-act theory, structuralism, victimhoodism and other manifestations of what Epstein has baptized "O.K.isms." These refuges of the soulless, artless, witless, are not a joke; they dominate faculty and course choices of many universities.

The fruit of Epstein's integrity has been that the contents of the American Scholar have continued to be among the most intelligent, learned commentary and reflection being published in America - while most other organs of opinion have become predictable showcases either for these radical fads and trivial fancies or equally predictable choruses of arch-reaction.

The message of Epstein's firing is stark: If his successor strays millimeters from the narrow dictates of the radical-left culture theorists, her tenure at the American Scholar will last roughly 11 minutes .

In "I'm History," Epstein reports that "I did run a critical piece on multiculturalism and a strong denunciation of academic Marxism. The truth was, I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy, and I didn't want to devote much space to things in which I could not take any serious interest."

His enemies' voices are the ululation and glossolalia that, in the most obvious example, make Modern Language Association conferences unintended burlesques of Appalachian snake-handling rituals or Haitian festivals celebrating the sanguinary sacrifice of young goats.

That may be a trifle severe, but it's precious close to the literal truth. Who are they? Mainly professors in large universities, people who teach and write about culture theory, who practice O.K.isms. With few exceptions, Epstein's enemies are people unknown outside their academic fraternity. Their prose tends to be impenetrable, their doctrines mystical and illogical.

The clique that crucified Epstein is totalitarian in strategy. It is anti-intellectual in nature. It is rapine in its will to obliterate dissent. It is immensely, tragically, often viciously powerful in its control of academic departments, faculties and institutions all over this land. The Political Korrectness Kops are, in effect, that clique's Little League.

Genuine liberalism

Epstein was a civil rights activist in Arkansas, a progressive liberal in the classic sense of both terms all his life. It has always been hard for genuine liberals to stand up to radicalism of the left. It is painful to be perceived or painted as insufficiently open-hearted.

For many of these radicals, Epstein's most enraging offense was not written in the American Scholar, but in the spring 1991 Hudson Review. In that essay, titled "The Academic Zoo: Theory - in Practice," he analyzed the conquest of humanities, especially English literature, departments by culture theorists.

It was, and remains, a brilliant article, historically important and enduringly immediate. Perhaps the articulation that most dismayed those who now have fired him was his definition of the political program of the tenured radicals: "It is an intellectual version of the Whole Earth Catalog - a pallid, boiled-down, warmed-over, unisexual, blandified Woodstockian version of heaven on earth. Heaven for them, as I see it, hell for the rest of us."

If you give a tinker's dam for the health of your civilization, read Epstein's farewell. Read the Hudson Review piece (any decent library has both). Then, most importantly, do something: Fight the tenured radicals.

Get angry. Get active. Write. Shout. Demand. Complain. Campaign. Withhold contributions and other support. Ridicule and torment. The alternative is passive collaboration in the trashing of what's left of the liberal tradition, the wan hope of civilization.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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