Georgetown's Cultural Revolution

Georgetown's Cultural Revolution

Lama Abu-Odeh
Lama Abu-Odeh

Sandra Sellers, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center, was forced to resign because she was caught on video saying to her colleague and co-teacher David Batson: “I hate to say this… I ended up having this, you know, angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are blacks. Happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on!’ You know? Got some really good ones but there’s usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy. Of course there are the good ones… but come on…” Batson appeared in the video nodding embarrassedly.

The video was a class recording which is only accessible to students in the class and is password protected. The conversation took place after students had logged out and the professors, unaware that the recording of the class ran for 10 minutes after the end of class time, thought they were having a private conversation. A student (not enrolled in the class) posted the video on Twitter and it instantly got thousands of retweets. In response, the dean acted by first referring the culprit professors to the university’s Equity and Diversity Committee for investigation and then, after the Black Law Student Association of Georgetown (BLSA) issued a statement declaring what was said was racist and demanding that Sellers be fired, he terminated Professor Sellers’s contract. Batson was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the Diversity Committee, which will also investigate whether the professors’ alleged bias affected the grades they gave their students. He later resigned. The dean described the conversation between him and Sellers as “abhorrent.”

What was interesting was what ensued afterwards. The black faculty at Georgetown Law issued a statement denouncing what Sellers said, describing it as “grounded in white supremacist thought.” The statement argued that Sellers’s comments amounted to a stereotype about black students that inevitably had a negative effect on their performance and called for revisiting all the grades awarded by her. The statement insisted that her comments were not “unique” as the “legacy of white supremacy is insidious” and called on professors who “operate from unspoken white supremacist notions… to examine their own flawed thought patterns and correct them.” A black professor called for non-black faculty to issue a statement “not necessarily in support of the letter already written, but from the position of their privilege within racialized spaces like the classroom” and wondered “in what numbers would such a letter be supported and with what reservations?” Quickly and on cue, a statement by the non-black faculty was drafted in which the signatories “acknowledge[d] [their] responsibility as non-Black faculty members to engage in the constant work of examining and revising [their] own flawed premises.” They also “acknowledge[d] the many levels at which [they] must confront ongoing white supremacist notions underlying ideas of merit that may contaminate assessment and performance.” This sentiment was repeated four times in the statement, each time drafted slightly differently but making the same point. Close to every member of Georgetown Law’s non-black faculty (and others) signed the letter.

I, and a few others, withheld our signatures.

In the face of this overwhelming support by the non-black faculty, two white professors of the boomer generation with plenty of progressive credentials pushed back.

One agreed with the general framing of the incident as described in the statement by the black faculty but worried about the precedent of firing a professor for expressing her views to a colleague in what she had good reason to think was a private conversation, especially as this firing was in violation of Georgetown’s policies on secondary use of videos recording class content. Georgetown’s policy prohibits secondary use of these videos by anyone for any purpose whatsoever, with primary use being confined to students enrolled in the relevant class.

This was followed by another email in which this professor expressed exasperation at the twin statements on the grounds that they handed the political Right an easy target from a culture war perspective and suggested a more earnest effort was needed to address the question of poor performance by minorities at Georgetown Law. If they were performing badly, then surely the faculty needed to figure out ways to better serve them. He called for putting aside the narrow conception of merit which underpinned the poor evaluation of some students, linked as it is to filling vacancies at rich law firms, and suggested instead training students to acquire a range of skills for different types of employment.

The other professor who pushed back complained that the two statements relied overmuch on the notion of “unconscious bias” which presupposed the problem is linked to the shortcomings of particular individuals, when, in fact, “structural racism” is to blame. She expressed sorrow for the destruction of the career of Professor Sellers without due process and insisted that structural racism would not be cured by diversity training but required the thoughtful use of additional resources for “unprepared low performing students”. She went on to advocate that we redesign our courses so that they’re more reflective of the experiences of minority groups. While she began her email by describing the torment she went through on whether to “sign or not sign” the statement by the non-black faculty, the male professor expressed his opinion without, in his words, “sugar coating it,” and described the statement by non-black faculty as a form of “virtue signaling.”

Both of these statements were met by silence.

The silence to my mind is telling. It speaks of the lack of resources within progressive thinking that could be drawn upon to resist the trend that has bedeviled American academia over the past few years. The academy is a different place today than it was only a year ago and was different a year ago than it was five years before. Terror and dread fill academic workers, professors, and staff alike, and it is everywhere. Neither the call for distinguishing between unconscious bias and structural racism; nor for dismantling “merit” so that “minorities” succeed, seem able to do the work the authors of these emails want them to do. They fail to deliver responses of the kind, “Let’s just talk about this. Maybe the problem is overdetermined and is not reducible to ‘unconscious bias.’” What they beget instead is a combination of dread and virtuous self-congratulation. These two sentiments, dread married to virtue, constitute to my mind the affective embodiment of progressive ideology prevalent among white liberals as developed in its most privileged space: academia. They are typical. They are two faces of the same coin: flip and you see dread, flip again and you see virtue.

Both of the push-back statements by the rebel academics take it for granted that many of the assumptions made by those within the progressive camp, as represented by the two statements, are correct. One idea, which neither challenges, is that “minorities” are in a bad place in contemporary America simply in virtue of being minorities. Having agreed with this foundational premise, the two dissenters assume that debate is possible on how best to go about fixing the problem. But the problem is the ideology that frames the question in this way.

Progressive liberals are blind to the fact that there is a regime take-over apace everywhere in academic institutions. A new ruling elite is taking over academic institutions by using its “minority status” to exercise a “soft” coup and is appealing to the minoritarianism of progressive ideology to legitimize its coup—or, if you like, to “manufacture consent.” I will call the adherents of this ideology the “progressoriat.”

The reason that challenging any aspect of this dominant ideology is taboo is because it leaves you vulnerable to the charge that you are uncomfortable with the project of empowering minorities—not just the transfers of power from traditional elites to historically disadvantaged groups that has already begun to take place in the academy, but further transfers of power. The only acceptable response when confronted by any aspect of the ideology that has facilitated this coup is to enthusiastically endorse it—to celebrate it. If you’re not a minority, anything less risks being interpreted as dread at the prospect of your own imminent loss of status—or, if you are, as evidence that your soul has been “colonized” by white supremacists. As I said, virtue as the other side of dread.

The position of the progressoriat in relation to this coup is akin to that of communist activists in relation to a communist takeover. At first they see it as representing what they always fought for; then with time they find themselves having to decide whether its first atrocity is to be criticized or understood as necessary; then, when the next atrocity takes place, they feel they must tolerate it because they didn’t object to the first atrocity and, before long, a time comes when any objection can only be made at a huge cost to themselves. The unfolding history of the new coup is being written every day across the domain of academic institutions in the US as the progressoriat watch muffled, hesitant objecting in private, and then, when someone makes their reservations public, finding themselves at risk of being suspended or losing their jobs.

The new elite taking over academic institutions has at its disposal an arsenal of tools to perpetuate its rule. It not only postures as representative of others in the way communists did—the “intelligentsia” representing the worker or the peasant in the latter’s case and representing victim groups in the former’s. The new elite can also represent itself as victims, an opportunity even communists would have baulked at. Members of the new elite have no hesitation at weaponizing their feelings, silencing opponents by claiming they’ve offended them. And, of course, such claims are readily accepted by the progressoriat because of their acceptance that minorities are necessarily oppressed. In this way, the new power elite can present itself as being victims, as well as representing victims. In other words, it has the power to make itself The Cause. This is why the insistence on the ubiquity of unconscious bias is important: it allows the new elite to consolidate their status by continually self-referencing as victims. Bias being everywhere means that the new ruling class, in spite of having seized power, can continue to present themselves as being oppressed. By constantly claiming to be offended, triggering Pavlovian apologies and vows to “do better” from the progressoriat, who appear to have endless reservoirs of self-abnegation, the new elite establishes rituals that renew its rule and solicit ongoing consent to this rule.

The ranks of this new ruling class are refreshed by immigrant academics who come to understand themselves in the way progressivism understands them: as minorities who can also act victim-like if they want—a precious endowment in the cultural academic market. Intersectionality awaits to welcome them and give them a warm hug. They can be treated on principle as black-adjacent. To do that, they quickly learn that they have to concede leadership to their black colleagues as having the greatest claim to victimhood. If they don’t play the victim card, they throw away valuable currency when it comes to shinning up the academy’s greasy pole. A colleague of mine commented that I was wasting precious victimhood resources by refusing to sign the statement by non black faculty: Muslim, Palestinian, woman, dadidadida. This is the cleverness of minoritarian rule: a coalition of minorities that, collectively, form a majority but that is nevertheless always able to invoke its minoritatian status to preserve its power. Power is presented as the absence of power to preserve actual power.

The progressoriat are unable to talk about their impending demise because they have already used their own institutional power over decades to drive away conservatives. They turned their academic institution into a partisan echo chamber. Residing in an echo chamber only increases your moral certitude. Now they are being given a taste of their own brutal medicine. Meantime, the new elite is acting ruthlessly and impatiently and is only happy with declarations of complete submission. Any sign of hesitation on the part of a signatory—”Maybe we should talk about free speech too?”—is met with expressions of exasperation by the all-powerful members of the victim minority faculty. No hesitation or nuance is allowed: nothing but unequivocal loyalty oaths. The progressoriat can only repeat, “I believe in the cause. I believe. I believe. Believe me I believe.”

If this echoes a Maoist take-over, that’s because it is. It passes the sniff test.

Student activists sniffing a transfer of power are pushing it as far as they can, understanding it as part of a general generational take-over of elite institutions. Today’s students show little interest in free speech and appear more interested in moral point-scoring, especially graduate students. Polls show young academics pumped up more on moral steroids than intellectual ones. Why stop when you are winning? The situation is in flux which opens the door for moral entrepreneurs to up the ante. Some enterprising students at Georgetown Law complained to Slate magazine that the dean allowed the Federalist Society to host an event on a multi-racial working class by “three white men.” Moral entrepreneurship means that what it is to be racist is being redefined daily with someone’s demise—an ongoing post-fact articulation of the definition of “bias”—and why not declare conservatism racist while you’re at it?

The new elite in academia is part of a more general phenomenon of the rise of the technocrats who have found a home in the Democratic Party so that academic institutions, who produce these technocrats, are now the direct and unmediated suppliers of a political class whose educated credentials are its claim to rule. Academia has not only become without rival the incubating center of ruling class entitlement—and acts as a result as an extended arm of the Democratic Party—but it has also refashioned itself after the party. Like the latter, the academy acts like a council of elders managing various ethnic tribes residing under its jurisdiction. Note the rush to get out a statement when a minority group has been under assault: a group of sex workers are shot by a sex addict and the President of Harvard rushes out a statement opposing anti-Asian racism (and blaming Trump) because the killer was white and the victims Asians. So did Biden. Technocrats of virtue responding to lobbies of virtue.

The rise of the technocrat is itself reflective of the shift in US liberalism to diversity liberalism. Global capital disenfranchised the white working class by moving its investments overseas and replacing it with a diverse workforce recruited globally through lax enforcement of immigration rules. Technocratic managerialism armed with diversity liberalism is the way global capital rules. Because the white working class has lost power in the process it has to be continually depicted as having earned its demise. It has earned it by being morally compromised: in Hillary Clinton’s words, “the basket of deplorables.” Black elites coming to power as part of this shift feel comfortable exercising class dominance by deriding the white working class as racist. The continual invocation of the storming of the capitol as an expression of white supremacy is par for the course.

In Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got there (2000), David Brooks describes the displacement of the WASPs as the dominant ethnic group in the US with the introduction in the early 60s of “merit” as the primary criterion of admission to universities, especially the Ivies. The new criterion was introduced by WASPs themselves, thus paving the way to their own demise and conceding power to a new emergent group that found its own flourishing within “merit”: the high-performing Jew. This led, a generation later, according to Brooks, to the rise of the Bobos (the bourgeois bohemians) as the new cultural and economic elite. They were bourgeois because they had acquired great riches given the demand for educated labor in the new global economy they had helped create—but they were also bohemian because they imbibed the modernist progressivist values of their Ivy League professors. In other words, like their predecessors, they laid the groundwork for their own destruction by embracing the ideology that evolved into the identity politics of the 90s.

The academic Bobos are now being displaced. Like the WASPs before them, they have written the script of their own demise—in their case, through a dedicated investment in the rise of the minority academic. The progressive ideology they subscribed to left them with no tools to resist their impending fall. What should we call the new elite? The Bobus—the bourgeois bureaucrats? They are bourgeois because they’ve benefitted from the rise in demand for their representative labor in the market of diversity liberalism; and bureaucratic because they have devised the rules enshrining various speech codes and policies that buttress their power. The bohemian questioning of conventional morality, and the drive for experimentation, have been replaced by the stern bureaucrat enforcing a new morality, with its demand for penance for past sins.

When I protested to the faculty diversity trainer, a law professor from the West Coast, that the real minority at Georgetown Law are the conservative students who have been telling me about how isolated and beleaguered they feel, especially with the flood of emails from the administration when Trump was in office denouncing racism, without defining what it is or indeed giving a single account of a racist incident, she quipped, “They don’t have to be at Georgetown. They can go to Notre Dame!”

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Lama Abu-Odeh

Lama Abu-Odeh is a law professor at Georgetown.