Progressive professors: the root of all evil

December 23, 2022 • 11:00 am

. . . or so says Russell Jacoby, author and Professor Emeritus, Department of History, UCLA. What seems weird to me in his Wikipedia bio is this:

In 2009, he was appointed to the Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair of Critical Theory.

That cannot be true (I used to say that I occupied a “folding chair of biology,” but Moishe Gonzales? No way! Is that a mockery of intersectionalism?).

Anyway, folding chair or not, Jacoby has a good piece at Tablet, a piece that blames the woes of the world on “progressive” (i.e., woke) professors, who are no longer professors because they can’t get university jobs.  In a long-form piece at Tablet, though, Jacoby indicts them because they’ve created the culture-wars in which we’re now embroiled.

Click below to read it for free.

Jacoby first provides a canned history of “public intellectuals,” a position that once existed outside of academia and was remunerative (e.g., Edmund Wilson and Lewis Mumford), but disappeared as inflation outpaced the fees paid to journalists. After that, intellectuals were forced to take jobs at universities. Most of them weren’t explicitly political, but by 1980 most academic “intellectuals” had not only moved to the Left, but began to write in incomprehensible prose that made their “radical” lucubrations inaccessible to the public—ergo not influential. Who in the public has read Judith Butler or Homi Bhabha?  Jacoby reproduces the famous sentence by Butler (below) that won her a Bad Writing Award (a prize that sadly has disappeared). If you can tell me what this Butlerian sentence means, you’re a better person than I:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

This is the reason why, for a long period, professors had almost no influence on public culture.

But then. . . but then Leftist professors began to metastasize into the public, and the trouble began. I’ll give a few excerpts from the piece, which is well written:

But my critics and I both missed something that might not have been obvious 30 years ago. By the late 1990s the rapid expansion of the universities came to a halt, especially in the humanities. Faculty openings slowed or stopped in many fields. Graduate enrollment cratered. In my own department in 10 years we went from accepting over a hundred students for graduate study to under 20 for a simple reason. We could not place our students. The hordes who took courses in critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, radical anthropology, Marxist cinema theory, and postmodernism could no longer hope for university careers.

What became of them? No single answer is possible. They joined the work force. Some became baristas, tech supporters, Amazon staffers and real estate agents. Others with intellectual ambitions found positions with the remaining newspapers and online periodicals, but most often they landed jobs as writers or researchers with liberal government agencies, foundations, or NGOs. In all these capacities they brought along the sensibilities and jargon they learned on campus.

It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture. The leftists who would have vanished as assistant professors in conferences on narratology and gender fluidity or disappeared as law professors with unreadable essays on misogynist hegemony and intersectionality have been pushed out into the larger culture. They staff the ballooning diversity and inclusion commissariats that assault us with vapid statements and inane programs couched in the language they learned in school. We are witnessing the invasion of the public square by the campus, an intrusion of academic terms and sensibilities that has leaped the ivy-covered walls aided by social media. The buzz words of the campus—diversity, inclusion, microaggression, power differential, white privilege, group safety—have become the buzz words in public life. Already confusing on campus, they become noxious off campus. “The slovenliness of our language,” declared Orwell in his classic 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” makes it “easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Orwell targeted language that defended “the indefensible” such as the British rule of India, Soviet purges and the bombing of Hiroshima. He offered examples of corrupt language. “The Soviet press is the freest in the world.” The use of euphemisms or lies to defend the indefensible has hardly disappeared: Putin called the invasion of Ukraine “a special military operation,” and anyone calling it a “war” or “invasion” has been arrested.

Yes, this is correct, and I’ve recently discussed the euphemisms that are afflicting everything, with an example from Stanford University’s IT group. Now, of course, we know what the “takeover is”: it’s what happens when “progressive” academics who have taught or taken “studies” courses moves out into society and ensure that we can’t have nice things:

When employees protest that they feel unsafe because their company is publishing an offensive article or book, we know what university courses they have taken. When the ACLU drops any mention of the First Amendment from its annual reports; when one of its directors declares, “First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege”; and when its counsels its own lawyers to balance free speech and “offense to marginalized groups,” we know they studied critical race theory. When women are dropped from Planned Parenthood literature with the explanation, “It’s time to retire the terms ‘women’s health care’ and ‘a woman’s right to choose’ … these phrases erase the trans and non-binary people who have abortions.” Or when the NARL (National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) announces it is replacing the phrase pregnant women with “birthing people” and declares, “We use gender neutral language when talking about pregnancy, because it is not just cis-gender women who get pregnant”; we know those who authored these changes majored in gender studies and critical blather.

We know this, but we have to suffer the consequences. The self-righteous professors have spawned self-righteous students who filter into the public square. The former prospered in their campus enclaves by plumping each other’s brilliance, but they left the rest of us alone. The latter, their students, however, constitute an unmitigated disaster, intellectually and politically, as they enter the workforce. They might be the American version of the old Soviet apparatchiks, functionaries who carry out party policies. Intellectually, they fetishize buzz words (diversity, marginality, power differential, white privilege, group safety, hegemony, gender fluidity and the rest) that they plaster over everything.

Politically, they mark a self-immolation of progressives; they flaunt their exquisite sensibilities and openness, and display exquisite narcissism and insularity. Once upon a time leftists sought to enlarge their constituency by reaching out to the uninitiated. This characterized a left during its most salient phase of popular front politics. No longer. With a credo of group safety the newest generation of leftists does not reach out but reaches in. It operates more like a club for members only than a politics for everyone.

One of the reason Jacoby mentions “harm” and “safety” is because when the NYT published an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton saying that perhaps the military should intervene if protestors started creating damage, the paper’s staffers said they felt that the piece put them “in danger”. (It still baffles me that nobody laughed out loud at this ludicrous claim. Did they think that Cotton would come to New York and start shooting at them?) And the op-ed editor, James Bennett, was fired.

Jacoby gives several similar examples, but it’s Christmas and you have time to read the piece for yourself. It has a fair amount of good snark, too, including this slap at law professor Catherian MacKinnon, a feminist who became famous for opposing pornography. And again this rings true, and also underscores Jacoby’s point that opposition to freedom of speech now comes almost exclusively from the Left. That is shameful given that free expression was once a hallmark of that shade of the political spectrum.

The first sentence of an article by Catharine A. MacKinnon, a chaired professor at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law schools, who is the leading anti-pornography feminist, runs: “The First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful.” She specifies: “A First Amendment appeal is often used to support dominant status and power, backing white supremacy and masculinist misogynistic attacks.” It is a means for “dominant groups to impose and exploit their hegemony.” Note all the buzz words: dominant power, white supremacy, hegemony. The position marks a sharp shift from the traditional civil libertarians, who prized free speech as protection for dissenters. These civil libertarians are now dismissed as misguided First Amendment absolutists or worse, right-wingers, even Fox viewers.

A problem emerges from the half-baked Marxism of the law professors and their students, who toil and tweet in NGO land. Marx did declare that the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas, but qualified that both cleavages exist in the ruling class and that a new revolutionary class challenges the dominant ideas. Perhaps he was wrong, but at least he posited movement and conflict. It could also be noted that the term “hegemony,” a favorite of campus leftists, derives from the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. For all his subtlety and inconsistencies, the imprisoned Gramsci saw social antagonisms as ever-present. As one commentator has put it, “Gramsci’s concept of hegemony” provides the basis for an intellectual elite to engage in a “war of position” that will prepare the way “to overthrow the existing order.”

War of position? Nothing could be further from the minds of these professors, who portray power as omnipresent and static. That the First Amendment is a tool of the powerful, professor MacKinnon’s pathbreaking insight, comes right out of hackneyed Marxism; it could be said with equal truth about any sector of society. “Housing is a weapon of the powerful.” “The media is a weapon of the powerful.” “Education is a weapon of the powerful.” For that matter professor MacKinnon, who teaches to the most privileged at the most elite schools, is a weapon of the powerful.

There’s no solution offered by Jacoby, just a big kvetch about how things are. And, indeed, given that the “studies mills” are still grinding out students who can’t get academic jobs and will thus infest university administrations and the media for years to come, I’ll have been long underground when and if this movement dies out. But before we become one with the clay, we can at least laugh at the people who call us out for saying words like “Hispanic” or “American,” or tell us that free speech causes them “harm” and makes them “unsafe.”


h/t: Barry

57 thoughts on “Progressive professors: the root of all evil

  1. from the web:
    And his position in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles is sufficiently irregular – he is listed as “professor in residence” and does not have tenure – to suggest someone half in the door and half out. He lists among his awards the Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair in Critical Theory — an homage to the late social theorist Paul Piccone, founding editor of the journal Telos. The improbable name Moishe Gonzales was the pseudonym Piccone used for some of his particularly scathing critiques of academic trends.

      1. I thought a Folding Chair was an externally endowed “soft money” faculty position with a time limit on the funding.

    1. Not sure why there couldn’t be a Moishe Gonzales. After all, there is an excellent American novelist named Francisco Goldman, son of a Jewish father who came here from Ukraine, and a mother who came to this country from Guatemala.

      1. Free speech, housing, education are also the weapons of the oppressed, the poor, the irresponsible, the lazy…. Under new definitions of “equity”, the neediest get the biggest goodie bag, publicly funded of course. This race to be the biggest victim, the poorest, or the neediest is not new. I’m sick of meeting 30 year olds who claim to be 400 year old victims. I’m sick of being told that if I am not actively giving my time, money, and emotional energy to groups of people that exclude me, then I am both privileged and a phobe. What is new is the effort to declare the self proclaimed needy, oppressed victims superior to people who seek to meet their own needs by creating something of value to exchange in the marketplace of life…..for no other reason that they have expressed having the biggest victim feelings. To help balance it all out, we should all take a course in torts and explore our own personal family histories, taking care to annotate every hardship endured by any relative or, hell, acquaintance of ourselves for the past 400 years. Then we should demand everyone around us change the words they use to honor our new awareness of our specialness. We should also demand funding to the tune of say 300k per person from public funds so we can have the space to heal, or at least not work for a while more.

  2. There seems, sadly, to be no real solution to this problem, but eliminating needless jobs from the ever-expanding D.E.I. bureaucracies currently plaguing many (if not most) universities would be a good first step; on this topic, CityJournal has just posted a very good piece from Joshua Katz (the classicist mistreated by Princeton) entitled “Hand Over Your Money and DIE”, in which he casts doubt on the wisdom of Harvard’s recent appointment of its new president.

    1. There is an easy solution, it’s called “Lustration”, look to Eastern Europe who conducted this purge peacefully and successfully

  3. Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair of Critical Theory

    As Bernard Wooley told Jim Hacker, ‘It used to be said there were two kinds of chairs to go with two kinds of Minister: one sort folds up instantly; the other sort goes round and round in circles.’

  4. Dear Friend of HxA,

    “I write to bring you hopeful news: the fever is breaking. That’s not just my view; it’s the headline of two recent columns in The New York Times. In November David Brooks wrote “The Fever is Breaking”, about a loss of momentum for “performative populists” on the far right and far left. He noted that “Twitter doesn’t have the hold on the media class it had two years ago. Peak ‘wokeness’ has passed. There seem to be fewer cancellations recently, and less intellectual intimidation.”

    Jon Haidt
    This is an excerpt from an email soliciting funds to fight the good fight… I think.
    Nevertheless it is optimistic and seem to feel “the stupid” have had their day.

    1. I still think the Money and now careers behind DIE will mean it isn’t a fad. There’s little going back.
      As an ever larger part of the culture the challenge is to curb its expanse. It has tailwinds though, because unlike say a lot of religion (whose damage is obvious) which is on the decline, DIE has the moral high ground. This is evidenced by the moral blackmail of DIE – to oppose it casts one as a bigot.
      NYC (currently Florida)

  5. There seem to be some similarities here with the views expressed by Marxist philosopher Malcom Kyeyune who sees ‘woke’ as a make-work strategy for the privileged classes. A bloated cadre of liberal-arts graduates has found a path to power and prestige through an ideology that allows them to intermediate in the distribution of resources. Look at HR departments and NGOs for example. It is worth listening to his interview with Jonathan Kay of Quillette.

  6. I enjoyed Jacoby’s article too. As for solutions to the problems of “studies mills grinding out students who can’t get academic jobs and will thus infest university administrations and the media for years to come,” I think the universities have already devalued their liberal arts and humanities departments by allowing them to be taken over wokist ideologues. Perhaps that will result in fewer indoctrinated students and force the humanities departments to recalibrate.

    Beyond that, there need to be society-wide economic changes. I’d love it if we had more public intellectuals and critics who could exist outside academia, and if journalism could once again be a corrective to academia, instead of its dumping ground. But for that to happen we need costs of living to go way down and for journalism to make way more money. I fear neither is likely.

  7. I read Tablet Magazine regularly. It often has very interesting articles, and this is one of them. It’s well written, funny where the reader needs a break from the gloom, and biting. The thesis that the wacky ideas of humanities professors have finally spilled into the streets is an interesting one. It’s almost certainly part of the problem, maybe even a lot of it. It’s ironic to observe people privileged with tenured jobs denounce “privilege” from their protected chairs. Folding chairs would be better if you asked me.

    No, Jacoby doesn’t offer solutions. But that’s OK. He does us a service in his effort to identify the source of the problem. Sadly, as I’ve argued before and still believe to be true, solutions will emerge only when society discovers how bad the situation has become, when we realize that our institutions have been degraded so far that they can no longer function when they need to function. Eventually, when something goes terribly wrong, we will need to embrace truth again. We can only hope that when this time comes, we’re still up to the task.

  8. When I went to graduate school a few years ago, we had to sit through a DEI workshop for orientation. The Dean excitedly announced that the company/consulting group that had created and was running this series of lectures and workshop was created and entirely staffed by former graduates of my school. It’s a grift, an easy way to transfer money to fellow travelers who will then “spread the word” and indoctrinate more people. It’s a pyramid scheme, a cult, and a wealth transfer from poorer people like students and low-level workers to upper-class “consultants” who all say the same things and use the same buzzwords.

    And to be someone who argues against free speech, you must be comfortable in the thought that you and your comrades are really the ones with power. People who are unpopular and powerless are the ones who need freedom of speech. Those who feel perfectly comfortable in the knowledge that their speech will continue to be allowed are the ones who are comfortable advocating for the repression of speech. McKinnon, you doth protest too much.

  9. McKinnon reminds me of cartoon character sawing off the branch she’s sitting on. She doesn’t realize that if lefties succeed in axing free speech then the right wingers will capitalize on it. They will go after her and her fellow academics with new hate speech laws against insulting Christianity or white people and other nonsense. Whenever a lefty loon protests free speech I want to ask them how comfortable they’d be with a right-wing President and congress determining what speech would be free.

    McKinnon exemplifies the “free speech for me but not for thee” mentality that is rampant among extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. Free speech is what prevents them from censoring their opponents, so of course they’re against it.

  10. Another quote from Jacoby that immediately follows the paragraph referring to Orwell and the Soviet press that our host excerpted:

    “Justifications for liberal desiderata, however, almost immunize themselves to objections. If you question diversity mania, you support Western imperialism. Wonder about the significance of microaggression? You are a microaggressor. Have doubts about an eternal, all-inclusive white supremacy? You benefit from white privilege. Skeptical about new pronouns? You abet the suicide of fragile adolescents.”

    That’s why they are winning.

      1. Toomey et al – Transgender Adolescent Suicide Behavior. Pediatrics, 2018, 142(4),
        Turban et al – Pubertal Suppression for Transgender Youth and Risk of Suicidal Ideation. Pediatrics, 2020, 145(2)
        Michael Biggs – Puberty Blockers and Suicidality in Adolescents Suffering from Gender Dysphoria (RE Turban et al.). Archives of Sexual Behavior, volume 49, pages 2227–2229 (2020)
        D’Angelo et al – One Size Does Not Fit All – In Support of Psychotherapy for Gender Dysphoria. Archives of Sexual Behavior volume 50, pages 7–16 (2021)
        Michael Biggs – Suicide by Clinic‑Referred Transgender Adolescents in the United Kingdom. Archives of Sexual Behavior volume 51, pages 685–690 (2022)
        Levine et al. – Reconsidering Informed Consent for Trans-Identified Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Volume 48, Issue 7, 2022
        Leor Sapir: Pediatric Gender Medicine and the Moral Panic Over Suicide. July 19, 2022
        Hyperbolic rhetoric about suicide rates may do more to increase suicide than prevent it.
        Carol Tavris: Trans reality. “I didn’t know there was another side.” Skeptic, 27/1, 2022, 19-22

  11. Thanks, I really enjoyed this. I recently read a comment in the FT referring to the “Woke Industrial Complex” which I thought was an excellent term for what is described here. But of course, the FT can be dismissed as a weapon of the powerful.

  12. Hemant Mehta, fresh from calling someone a harlot on social media, is really, really mad at Jerry and Richard Dawkins for even raising this issues.

  13. We have talked a lot about postmodern science quackery, but postmodernist legal scholars were the real brains behind wokeness. This interesting book (, although it is obviously a bit outdated, explains how a group of legal scholars in the 80’s and 90’s (Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Williams, Mari Matsuda, and Catharine MacKinnon) developed the notions that now dominate the American left: That America is hopelessly bigoted, that members of dominant groups are presumed to be participants in bigotry, that bigotry inserts itself invisibly into everything in society, and that censorship of anything deemed offensive is necessary to combat bigotry.

  14. Reading Butler and others of her ilk is self-flagellation.
    In America, Marxism is a brand to solicit donations for your non-profit.
    The ACLU, realizing its brand was dwindling, decided to jump on the bandwagon of intellectual dimwits.
    Legal scholars, like McKennon, are only spewing shallow opinions, couched in legal jargon and socio-babble, based on beliefs conjured in the minds of clever dullards in academia.
    Finally, mention of Gramsci. The”woke” absurdities of today are more Gramsci than Marx.

  15. Given Professor Jacoby’s long history of publishing serious criticisms of contemporary education, I’m hoping that his tongue is pretty firmly planted in cheek here.

    That said, I do wonder whether his years of service have just blinded him to standard corporate practice. It’s kind of a sad example of the availability heuristic to think that the swarms of failed academics have found their true calling as a woke mob. And of course, it’s silly. The answer, rather, is staring us right in the face right in the piece. Public intellectuals stopped getting paid. Teachers stopped getting paid. Graduate and adjunct labor became a cheap and largely sustainable path toward raising administrative salaries and cutting faculty. The universities *never* stopped growing. They just stopped *hiring.*

    And along the way public funding got cut to the bone, and the corporations moved in and took the institutions over. Corporations and HR departments love nothing more than cost-free social justice nonsense. The more people focus on semantics and the semiotics of statues and the like, the less attention they pay to who’s looting the till. (It sadly goes without saying that the only people with the training to even recognize that that’s happening are paying off massive loans for their J.D.s and M.B.A.s; all the cream is just bought off.)

    Meanwhile any kind of truly redistributive program is papered over in exchange for nonsensical goals of “parity.” As Adolph Reed memorably puts it, the DEI branch of C-suite is happy if .001% of the people in the room hold 90% of the wealth, so long as the board is approximately 14% black.

    It’s a strange case of the narcissism of small differences that would give a half-baked hack like Judith Butler a starring role in any cultural process. Nobody actually reads her! (and if they did what would–what could!–they take away?!)–they’re little more than gang signs for alternatively pampered and neurotic (which group frequently depends on their lineage) grad students–forgotten as soon as the bills have to be paid. (The same goes for CRT, of course, which was a misbegotten theory of legal interpretation that flourished for about five minutes in two law schools in the mid 90’s, and has virtually nothing to do with the lefty critical theory that took up a serious research program in the postwar period. Jacoby, no doubt, knows all this.

  16. This is a great piece and reminded me of an incident way back in the dinosaur days of 1974, while a student at SVA. During class in art appreciation, the professor, a visual artist himself, presented a monograph he had written that was so dense it seemed to be written in another language. Ironically, his objective was to pronounce visual art dead. At first I was furious (youth and fury are peaches & cream) but then I started to laugh. This was the first time I came across “incomprehensible prose” and recognized how obtuseness disregards actual reality. Intellectual silliness eventually eats itself.

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