The Strange Delusions of Leftist Academic Philosophers
by Steven Yates
"When reason goeth against a man, a man goeth against reason."
~ Thomas Hobbes
A few weeks ago my one-time colleague Professor Tibor R. Machan emailed a prospective letter to the editor of a British philosophy journal to a number of us in his address book. His letter quotes a leftist British philosopher named Jonathan Ree, writing in the Winter 2002 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine devoted to the events of September 11 and their aftermath, that "philosophy as a whole has been solidly and securely right-wing and libertarian in the last thirty years. I don’t think that leftist anti-Americanism has been exactly the majority view."
Professor Machan, perhaps the most widely published libertarian philosopher in the English-speaking world and more than competent at analytic philosophy generally, found Ree’s remark confusing and flabbergasting. Confusing, because "philosophy as a whole" could be almost anything. What it means to characterize areas of the discipline such as, say, philosophy of mind or of science as "right-wing" or "libertarian" is anyone’s guess. However, if Ree is referring to areas of philosophy where applying such categories at least makes sense, then as Professor Machan puts it, "Professor Ree is telling us something that is blatantly false."
Baffling is more like it. Of American philosophers who have made major contributions to libertarian thought, only the late Robert Nozick was positioned to be influential, having been at Harvard. Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia got libertarianism on the philosophical radar screen. Besides Nozick, the list of professional philosophers who have made worthy contributions to libertarian, Objectivist (Ayn Rand’s philosophy), neo-Aristotelian, or Austrian School thought, or somewhere in between, is fairly substantial. It includes (besides Machan): John Hospers, John O. Nelson, David Gordon, Jan Narveson, Barry Smith, Douglas Rasmussen, Douglas J. Den Uyl, Eric Mack, David Kelley, Fred Miller, Jeffrey Paul, Ellen Frankel Paul, Barry Smith, N. Scott Arnold, James Chesher, Loren Lomasky, Daniel Shapiro, and Chris Matthew Sciabarra, as well as up-and-comers such as Tara Smith, Gregory Johnson, Roderick Long, Aeon Skoble, and myself.
Not a one of us is at a prestigious Ivy League or Ivy League-type institution. Moreover, many would-be up-and-comers have hung onto livelihoods by their fingernails, keeping their mouths shut about their libertarianism or Objectivism while they had to change university affiliations every one to three years and hoped. Others are at "think tanks" (occasionally, I observe in fairness, this is by choice). But some have been forced to seek employment outside intellectual professions altogether (this, to a scholar, is almost never voluntary).
All this stands very much in contrast to the major liberal and leftist philosophers of the past 30 years: John Rawls (Harvard), Ronald Dworkin (Harvard), Richard Rorty (Stanford), Peter Singer (Princeton), and so on. Harvard is notorious for courting the most radical leftist writers in the country in whatever discipline, having once made a bid to hire militant feminist "legal theorist" Catharine MacKinnon away from Michigan. Harvard’s Afro-American Studies department has, of course, gained recent notoriety due to the antics of its members.
What is clear is that these people can return to Princeton whenever they want. Or go back to Duke, for that matter. They would be welcomed with open arms. Ree, of course, is not in this category. He is one of the "footsoldiers" who can be counted on to say the right things. Such people, I am more than convinced, are far more likely to integrate into the vast majority of philosophy departments in the English-speaking world simply because it is common knowledge that in these departments liberals and leftists predominate. All one need do to test this claim is get the issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education which surveys political affiliations. Liberals are the majority. Leftists with more radical views than the liberals come in second, and as statists, the two usually get along smashingly. Libertarians are well down on the charts, and conservatives in academe are virtually an extinct species.
In other words, all we need do is compare the comfortable situations for academic leftists and liberals with scholars of the various libertarian, Objectivist and Austrian-school orbits. We find that those Jonathan Ree labels "right-wing" and libertarian, far from dominating the profession "solidly and securely," are barely visible at all. Many are barely surviving. As a veteran of the multi-year academic job search, I can certify that association with such perspectives is often a kiss of death.
Some time ago I noted a delusion that seems unique to our times, in which leftists are able to portray and possibly actually perceive themselves as a beleaguered minority surrounded by the academic equivalent of Hillary Clinton’s "vast right wing conspiracy." Perhaps the purveyors of tolerance really do not want any voices in the academy except their own. Or perhaps it is more than even that, and we are seeing one long-term effect of the warping of higher education itself, resulting in a literal inability of some so-called scholars to perceive reality correctly, much less investigate and evaluate ideas and stances other than their own fairly and responsibly.
To investigate this point further, I draw attention to a letter to the editor that appeared in the November 2001 issue of the American Philosophical Association’s Proceedings and Addresses. The letter was a response to a link I published to my article on the current state of academic philosophy. I discuss this not to win anyone’s sympathy but because the letter is a textbook illustration of the paucity of thought that might explain delusions about a libertarian or right-wing dominance of professional philosophy. The author of the piece, Colin Allen of Texas A & M University, had little to say about the issues I raised. Rather, he attacked organizations I am or have supposedly been associated with, to insinuate that since I must be a covert racist, my criticisms of academic philosophy can safely be ignored. In other words, Allen attacked ad hominem – a strategy I used to teach logic students was fallacious and to be avoided in responsible debate. Moreover, his ad hominem also supplied information that was simply wrong. For example, he wrote that the site "hosting [my] web pages" is named for "one of the founders of the League of the South." Lew Rockwell, however, is not a founder of the League of the South. Nor does the Mises Institute mechanically "advocate secession" – though many LewRockwell.com writers (myself included) are willing to examine the potential of secession as a strategy for checking otherwise unlimited government power. This sort of live-option treatment does not equate to advocacy – something liberals appear to understand if the topic is something dear to their hearts, like abortion.
Let us dwell on the idea of secession for a moment. Allen certainly has a hornet-sized buzzing critter in his bonnet about the subject. State-worshipping liberals and leftists (and probably all neocons as well) regard it as taboo. They seem literally unable to discuss it rationally and analytically. Allen thus fails utterly to note a distinction implicit in my earlier discussion between the concept of secession itself and particular secessions. The former has an explicit definition: secession is the act of jurisdictional separation by a distinct people from an established government to achieve self-rule. It is therefore to be distinguished from civil war, in which two factions fight over control of a single government. In this case, our use of the term Civil War is a straightforward misnomer. The Northern states and the Confederacy were not fighting for control over the Washington government; the Confederacy was fighting for freedom from that government. Secession and civil war are therefore separate categories.
The separation of the Southern states and formation of the Confederacy is not history’s only act of secession; it is not even the only secession in our history. The separation of the original 13 colonies from the British Empire, formally announced in the Declaration of Independence, was an act of secession. Other acts of secession occurred more recently when the Baltic States (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia) achieved independence from the former Soviet Union, when Slovenia separated from the soon-to-disintegrate Yugoslavia, and when regions such as the Ukraine and Byelorus became separate countries instead of parts of Mother Russia. Efforts at secession do not always succeed, of course. The Confederacy did not survive the North’s assault; so far, Chechnya has failed to gain independence from Russia, Tibet is still a part of Mainland China, the Kurds are not free of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Quebec is still part of Canada. Secession is contemplated whenever a distinct people with a distinct culture desires freedom from a larger government and culture perceived as hostile to its interests. Notice that it is possible to discuss secession in this general way without mentioning chattel slavery. But if anyone is enslaved, it is a people forced to live under, and pay taxes to support, a regime not of their choosing.
Perhaps, though, just to raise such a topic before the Colin Allens of the academic world is to invite automatic associations with "neo-Confederate hate groups" and calls for monitoring by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is symptomatic of the cognitive malaise that has fallen over much of higher education over the past 40 years or so. It is part of what has turned campuses into war zones. In my book Civil Wrongs (ICS Press, 1994) I connected the rise of affirmative action as a systematic policy offering federally-mandated race and gender preferences to the rise of multiculturalism, militant feminism, and political correctness. One of the primary raisons d’etre of the latter was to silence the mounting criticisms of preferential policies, after all. Given the irrationality inherent in snowballing "feminist critiques" of this or that, we saw further assaults on standards of objectivity, truth, rationality, and on the concepts of merit and desert.
The egalitarianism inherent in affirmative action ideology required attacks on these standards, because their consistent application solidly refutes egalitarianism. Hence the Hobbes quote at the outset. Of course, denials that anyone is ever "really" objective, rational or acquires at least some truth literally do not make sense. They involve the logical equivalent of a boomerang, having implications for themselves. The radical feminist who dismisses objectivity as a "male-biased" superstition, for example, is implicitly denying that she is ever objective. In that case, there is little reason to take her seriously. Such arguments were once a staple of the best of traditional Western philosophy going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. The classical philosophers developed them in great detail and wielded them with great skill against such notions as Protagorean relativism, the remote ancestor of today’s postmodernist sophistries. Such reasoning is not often seen today, and when someone does employ it, he often receives blank stares of noncomprehension. This, too, goes along with the demise of the modern academy.
With the rise of the leftist notion that everyone should be economically and educationally equal, no other results could have been obtained than a general dumbing down and the production of a delusional consciousness. The left-liberal axis has lowered educational standards across the board and created a kind of insular environment in which a leftist or liberal, just sane enough to perceive that not everyone thinks the way he does, can imagine a "vast right-wing conspiracy." The facts don’t matter, because in this environment there are no "facts," no one is ever really objective, and (with a nod to Bill Clinton, for whom the majority of academic philosophers voted twice) it all depends on what the meaning of "is" is. In this environment, a Jonathan Ree can contend, with all seriousness, that American philosophy is "solidly and securely right-wing and libertarian," and a Colin Allen can go off the deep end about slavery and "neo-Confederate hate groups" when someone such as myself treats secession as a valid concept for philosophical examination and a potential strategy for achieving freedom from repressive regimes.
March 9, 2002