Stanley Kurtz, fellow, the Hudson
avid Horowitz has reawakened the nation to the reality of campus censorship. Yet many a pundit remains in denial. Instead of denouncing the pervasive atmosphere of intellectual intimidation that made the Horowitz scandal possible, the critics dissect his personality. We're told that if Horowitz would only get that chip off of his shoulder if he would just stop shoving his intentionally provocative arguments down people's throats all would be well.
Let Horowitz's critics go to the University of Alaska at Anchorage, where an extraordinary and deeply revealing case of political correctness is now playing itself out. The case is reminiscent of the Horowitz affair but for the fact that its protagonist is not an aging white male conservative provocateur, but a mild-mannered socialist-feminist poet of national renown.
Linda McCarriston, a teacher in the creative-writing program of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, finalist for a national book award, past fellow at Radcliffe's prestigious Bunting Institute, stands accused of publishing a poem that amounts to racist hate speech against Native American Indians. Not only have there been calls to censor the poem, there have been serious attempts to interfere with McCarriston's ability to teach. And now a complaint against both McCarriston and the university has been "accepted for resolution" by the U.S. Dept. of Education's Office of Civil Rights a complaint that charges McCarriston with racial discrimination, as evidenced in part by the fact that she gave a non-white student a B instead of an A.
All of these charges are patent nonsense. Taken together, they constitute a threat to academic freedom far more deep and direct than even the Horowitz affair. And remarkably, the victim in this affair is a woman of the Left a woman who is herself one-quarter Native American. One of the many things that make the McCarriston affair so important is that the entire dispute is, quite literally, the criminalization of an intellectual disagreement originating in the classroom. And the McCarriston affair also gives spectacular support to Harvard Professor Harvey C. Mansfield's controversial claim that there is an intimate connection between grade inflation and affirmative action.
The McCarriston affair began in a poetry class called, "Left Out." The title refers to McCarriston's conviction that various poets on the Left have been unjustly excluded from the literary canon because of their politics. All went well until the course rolled around to a discussion of the Hispanic poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca. At that point, McCarriston suggested that Baca's life and poetry might have hit a dead end as a result of his ethnically based politics. An aficionado of classic socialism, McCarriston believes that class solidarity can, and should, trump political division by race or ethnicity. But McCarriston's critique of Baca's ethnic politics raised intense objections from one Diane Benson, a Native American poet and activist taking McCarriston's class. Instead of directly engaging with her teacher's reading of Baca, Benson sat in angry silence during McCarriston's critiques of identity politics, periodically uttering the word "bulls***."
All of this can be gleaned, not only from McCarriston's account, but from the numerous and impassioned letters written by the vast majority of students in the class defending McCarriston against the charges of racism now leveled against her by Diane Benson charges that have engulfed the Anchorage campus, and the city of Anchorage itself, in months of conflict.
The struggle between Benson and McCarriston was confined to the classroom until last December, when Diane Benson seized upon a just-published poem by Linda McCarriston and e-mailed it around the nation and the world, accompanied by a call to "squash" the poem's harmful untruths. Benson's message also contained an expression of grave concern at the fact that McCarriston was continuing to share her "seriously flawed opinions" about poetry and ethnicity with her students.
Benson took her complaint against McCarriston's allegedly racist poem to university officials. Then Benson organized a student demonstration against McCarriston to be held in McCarriston's own classroom. The administration asked McCarriston to cancel that class, but she refused, whereupon the administration insisted that the demonstration take place outside the classroom. Meanwhile, dressed as a warrior, and with an accompanying bodyguard, Diane Benson danced at the demonstration she had called against her own teacher's alleged racism, during a break in the class.
The Anchorage press has been preoccupied for months with attacks by Native Americans on McCarriston's supposedly racist poem. But what's really going on here is a classroom intellectual disagreement gone wild. As both McCarriston and many of her students maintain, Benson seized upon a poem that, under ordinary circumstances, would never have stirred a protest, simply to retaliate against McCarriston for her words in the classroom.
McCarriston's poem, "Indian Girls," describes the plight of Indian women who flee their homes to escape child abuse, only to end up at downtown bars, worse for the wear. According to Benson and other Native American critics, the poem as much as accuses all Indian men of being child abusers. But this is simply ridiculous.
"Indian Girls," is not saying that all Indian men are abusive. McCarriston told me very clearly that she believes that sexual abuse in any culture is "a very small percentage." McCarriston's point is that, however limited its occurrence, the reality of sexual abuse deeply shapes the relations of men and women in any culture. I may not agree with McCarriston's feminist take on sexual abuse, but it is no more legitimate to censor her view than it would be to censor David Horowitz's ad. If McCarriston loses her free speech in this matter, I lose mine. More than this, McCarriston's view is not racist.
Far from being a condemnation of Indian culture, McCarriston's poem is simply conveying her "Old Left" politics. In the poem, the narrator tries to get the abused and fallen Indian women to see that she, too, has experienced something similar. (McCarriston's poems are often about her personal struggle with sexual abuse and her recovery from alcoholism.) In effect, the poem can be read as saying to Diane Benson, "Look, I know that Native Americans have suffered deeply. But my people have too. I am also a victim of abuse and alcoholism. And many whites, like many Indians, are victims of sometimes oppressive men, and of the old patriarchal religions. So let us join hands across our cultural differences and fight these oppressive forces together."
This is the message that Linda McCarriston was trying to convey to her class. It is the message that Diane Benson has rejected and assaulted as a threat to the politics of ethnicity that she favors. The tragedy is that craven university administrators and now, perhaps, the federal government out of fear of offending minority sensibilities, have allowed a single angry student to transform a simple classroom difference of opinion into a profound threat to academic freedom and standards of excellence.
The initial response of University of Alaska administrators to the McCarriston affair was shamefully weak. In addition to the attempt by the administration to cancel her class, McCarriston had to deal with the efforts by Ronald Spatz, the chair of her department, to appease her critics by downplaying their calls for censorship and by referring complaints about the poem to higher-ups for possible action.
For a moment, the tide was turned, thanks to the intervention of Alan Kors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who helped to make Mark R. Hamilton, the president of the University of Alaska system aware of the situation. Hamilton rightly concluded that threats to investigate a professor simply for writing a poem posed a danger to academic freedom. President Hamilton himself a poet issued a ringing defense of Linda McCarriston's intellectual freedom, and categorically demanded that all threats to "investigate" her be immediately dropped. Hamilton also asked the chancellors at the U of A's three campuses to endorse his statement on academic freedom and disseminate it widely.
President Hamilton's forthright and courageous declaration brought praise from many quarters, and has, to a degree, shifted the climate at the University of Alaska against the calls to punish or censor McCarriston for her poetry. But for weeks after Hamilton's letter was issued, the chancellors at the U of A's three campuses offered no endorsement of his views. Nor was the president's statement "disseminated widely," as he had ordered. Worst of all, in the wake of President Hamilton's ringing declaration that no investigation of McCarriston is called for, the United States Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has announced its own investigation of an anonymous student's charges of racism against Linda McCarriston. It is not difficult to guess who that student is.
The OCR is investigating allegations that a minority student was treated differently by McCarriston because of her race; that her complaints of racism were ignored by McCarriston; and that, out of racism and retaliation, the student was given a grade lower than she deserved. On the near certain assumption that the complainant here is Diane Benson, it is possible to say that these charges are sheer nonsense although, given the profound threat they pose to academic freedom, those charges are anything but trivial.
The letters by the students in McCarriston's class make it clear that Benson was in no way treated differently by McCarriston because of her race. The letters do describe Benson's repeated efforts to commandeer class discussion, and her fury when McCarriston tried to bring discussion back to the texts, and to her interpretations of those texts. But this is hardly racism.
As for Benson's grade, it could only have been a B, rather than an A. (The university's grading system does not include pluses or minuses.) Out of fourteen students in the class, seven got A's and seven B's. With so inflated a grading system, are we now to take a B as evidence of racism? The McCarriston affair, it seems, is much more than a threat to academic freedom. It is also a "smoking gun" confirmation of Harvard Professor Harvey C. Mansfield's controversial claim that grade inflation is linked to affirmative action.
Of course the notion that a B instead of an A might be evidence of actionable racism makes the pressures involved in grading minority students stunningly clear. But things don't end there. Linda McCarriston has been directly pressured by her department chairman, Ron Spatz, to be "more solicitous" of the success of Native American students than of others whom she grades. Because of her belief that grade inflation was depriving students in general of "the right to recognition for their excellence," McCarriston has considered creating a two tiered grading system--a transcript grade, and a "real" grade. So without knowing it, McCarriston is proving the claims of and walking in the footsteps of Harvey C. Mansfield.
What makes this case more interesting still is that "affirmative action," in the official sense, is not at work. The University of Alaska at Anchorage has an open admissions policy. Nonetheless, with a local Native American population of 17 or 18 percent, and with intense competition among universities for students, there is a tremendous push to draw in more minorities a push that creates a kind of de facto affirmative action, even under conditions of open admissions. That drive to enroll more minorities at the U of A explains the attempts by administrators to placate Native American demands for the punishment or censorship of Linda McCarriston. And all of this shows that the corrupting effects of affirmative action on the core values of liberal education extends far beyond our elite, selective universities.
It is difficult to catalogue the many implications of this remarkable case of political correctness. The investigation by the OCR shows how easy the system now makes it to literally criminalize intellectual disagreements originating in the classroom. The chilling effects on academic freedom of this federal investigation can hardly be exaggerated. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights was perhaps the central engine of campus P.C. during the Clinton years, and the McCarriston affair shows how important it now is to find someone to run this office who can stem the damage it is doing every day to higher education.
But the most interesting thing about the McCarriston affair may be its revelation of the sheer breadth of the threat to free speech on campus. When even a nuanced and well-meaning feminist poet on the Left gets the Horowitz treatment, we know that something truly menacing and pervasive is at work. The liberal pundits now bashing Horowitz ought to take an honest look at what their rationalizations for campus P.C. have wrought. The Left is now devouring its own. And all of us are paying the price.