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Mons Simplicitatis

“WHY ARE MY LIT PROFESSORS SO WEIRD?”

I get asked this sometimes (particularly by folks out of the military and using that sweet MGI Bill). Derivations of this inquiry include, “You write books? Okay, so why are my English profs so hostile/accusatory/obsessed with being aggrieved victims?”, “Why does my lit teacher always harp on sexism while staring at me like that? He doesn’t even know me.” Perhaps you even landed here after Googling up something exactly like that title phrase-- in which case, ol C-Dawgg is glad to be here for you. What the hell, today’s a good day to burn a few bridges.

I’m going to give this to you straight, as the kids say. No sugarcoating. It took me years after graduation to figure out what I had witnessed during my Master’s. The constant, seething accusations against a generalized prejudice. The sheer hostility. The toxic academic environment.

It’s a scam.

The vast majority of English/“American Studies” professors are not victims of an intolerant society. Now don’t get me wrong, contemporary America can be a somewhat intolerant society. I’m saying it’s super good odds your lit professor isn’t a victim of it, far from it, and the constant pounding away at the patriarchical hegemony by your Gender Roles in 20th Century Western Lit prof is insincere, at best.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the 2010 median income of postsecondary teachers at $62,050 per year. That’s better than EMTs ($30,360), paralegals ($46,680), cops ($55,010), or even the median US household income ($50,502). Mind you, we’re also talking about a job where you get to work inside, can sometimes rig your schedule to create a three-day weekend, sometimes get state benes, get summers off, and the odds of something heavy falling on you, or exploding around you, are notably low. Not to mention tenure. Oh my God, tenure. Imagine a job that you cannot be fired from, short of fucking a goat on campus, or stating in print that the victims of 9/11 were “little Eichmanns” (Ward Churchill, for anybody who cares).

See, actual research is hard. You have to type things into search engines, conduct interviews, assimilate data, sometimes even visit a library. Bitching about a generalized sense of unfairness, while giving serious stinkeye to a few obvious targets among your students, is easy. Plus it’s going to appeal to a certain percentage of your students, the lick-the-jackboots type. Stanford Prison Experiment and all that. This is understood by your lit professors running the scam at a base, instinctual level.

The advanced version, for your profs who take it to the next level, is running plays out of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. That’s a book written by Robert Jay Lifton and published in 1961. Lifton did that hard actual research thing, interviewing Chinese dissidents and US servicemen who’d been POWs in the Korean War. What he came up with was a formula used by totalitarian regimes for brainwashing. This formula is based on eight criteria: Sacred Science, Demand for Purity, Confession, Loading the Language, stuff like that. I’ll let those of you who are interested Wiki the book up, and decide for yourself how Lifton’s formula applies to your humanities classroom. Pay special attention to the Loading the Language criteria, part of which is what Lifton dubbed “Thought-Terminating Cliches”. What happens in class when the prof denounces the patriarchical hegemony or declares a student statement to be racist or sexist? All discussion ends, the topic shifts. The actual truth of the matter is that life is generally more complicated than that.

(Who are the members of this patriarchical hegemony I heard so much about anyway? What are their names? Are their tax returns public information? Do they honor Freedom Of Information Act requests? If not, the CIA takes FOIA requests, so is this patriarchical hegemony more powerful than the CIA? What are the prizes for oppressing minorities, dinnerware at five, they pay your mortgage at ten?)

The vast majority of reasonable people can agree that sexism, racism, and sexual orientation discrimination are malign and notably unAmerican things. Reasonable people can agree that denying somebody a job based on their gender, race, or sexual orientation is potentially actionable (although it's probably best just to move on), definitely frowned upon. Violence against anyone for the same, we can agree, is a crime. Moreover, perhaps the fundamental point of Lifton’s work is that hating anyone is the first step in making you a slave. My point here is that these sentiments are being twisted in the humanities classroom into something else, unprofessional, thought reform, something where the cure is worse than the disease: A deceptively aggressive indoctrination technique promoted by the self-appointed Fairness Police, where fairness is doled out depending on one's adherence to the ideology, and whose primary targets are superfunny jokes.

Something that obviously gets lost in the political correctness quagmire is a healthy respect for intellectual freedom. You have the indelible, Godgiven right to think about the lewdest, vilest, nastiest, most hateful stuff possible, and that right is absolute and sacred. I guarantee you, he who wishes to put unreasonable constraints on your words wishes to put constraints on your thoughts, and in his inmost heart wishes to be your master.

One final story. In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, submitted an essay to a prominent postmodern cultural studies journal at Duke. In it, he hit upon all the favorite catchphrases that your weird lit prof loves to use. “Transgressing”, “Feminist and poststructuralist critiques”, “modernist versus postmodernist culture”… sound familiar? The thing is, it was total nonsense. Amongst the lit crit jargon, there was some fall-out-of-your-chair hysterical satire snuck in about Euclid being “inflicted” on high schoolers, space and time being “distinct and absolute” in the Newtonian worldview, Einstein’s general theory of relativity becoming “contingent and dynamical, encoding in itself the gravitational field”, plus a bunch of stuff that goes way over my head but I suspect is piss-your-pants funny in certain speakeasy-frequenting, unsavory physics circles.

On the day of publication, Sokal revealed that the essay was a hoax. He said he did it to show (paraphrasing) how absurd the American lit crit community had become, that one of their leading journals couldn’t even be bothered to check if an essay made any fucking coherent sense or not before they published it. The greater scam is that out of control.

The point here is if you’re feeling disenfranchised, you’re not alone.

It’s got to be next to impossible growing up in America nowadays. One side scams you in your humanities classroom, while the other scams you from Fox News and half a dozen radio shows and their countless copycats. Our youth are in a psychological crossfire, everybody giving you somebody to rage against. The heteronormative patriarchical hegemony. The little Eichmanns. The welfare queens. The feminazis. The pro-choicers who endorse mass murder. The Mexicins tryin ta steel owr jerbs. The terrorists who hate us for our freedoms. No wonder we’re a failing empire. How could we expect otherwise?...

“So what do I do, Chris? I can’t drop out of school because of X,” you may be saying. Ah, don’t worry about it. I was in the same boat myself. Just recognize the situation for what it is, try to do your best, realize a biased bad grade or several isn’t going to be the end of the world. Do what you have to do, but in your heart, dissent. Be a thoughtcriminal. Harold Bloom at Yale said something about reading what you want to read, not selecting what you read in an effort to make your neighbor a better person. In so far as you can do that, do that. Seriously, do that.


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