Ah, Punditry

I know, I know. This blog is a form of punditry, and here I am, getting ready to be super-critical of what passes for analysis by those in what Molly Ivins called “the chattering classes.” So before I “self-own,” let me begin with a caveat: much opinion writing is thoughtful. Many of the people who opine about the current state of society, politics and world affairs are being intellectually honest even when they miss the mark. Their efforts do help us navigate today’s depressing world.

But. (You knew there was a but…) There are others. A lot of them.

A reader recently sent me a Substack article that displayed several of what I consider the more problematic elements of contemporary argumentation. The article was written by one William Deresiewicz, with an introduction by Bari Weiss. Deresiewicz was a professor at Yale who, Weiss tells us, “separated himself from that herd (“those people”?) when he wrote the book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”

Here is how he begins.

I taught English at Yale University for ten years. I had some vivid, idiosyncratic students—people who went on to write novels, devote themselves to their church, or just wander the world for a few years. But mostly I taught what one of them herself called “excellent sheep.”

These students were excellent, technically speaking. They were smart, focused, and ferociously hard-working.

But they were also sheep: stunted in their sense of purpose, waiting meekly for direction, frequently anxious and lost.

I was so struck by this—that our “best and brightest” students are so often as helpless as children—that I wrote a book about it. It came out in 2014, not long before my former colleague Nicholas Christakis was surrounded and browbeaten by a crowd of undergraduates for failing to make them feel coddled and safe—an early indication of the rise of what we now call wokeness.

This lead-in has two elements of intellectual laziness that drive me bonkers: generalization from anecdote, and the (mis)use of language to label rather than define.

What do I mean by generalization from anecdote? There’s an old saying in academia to the effect that anecdotes are not data. (Just because I saw a guy in a red sports car speeding doesn’t mean that all men who own red sports cars speed.) There is also a significant amount of emerging research on confirmation bias–the very human tendency to search for and find evidence supporting one’s previous opinions and beliefs, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Did the author have students who exhibited the characteristics he deplores? Undoubtedly. Were those students representative of the majority of Yale students? Unlikely.

I taught college students for 21 years (at a less prestigious university than Yale, granted), but I can attest to the fact that the student body was far more intellectually and personally diverse–and considerably less “sheep-like”– than the students the professor describes. His description was especially inapt when applied to my brightest students. I find it highly unlikely that the academically-talented students admitted to highly competitive institutions of higher education (where admission committees give points for evidence of leadership skills and intellectual originality) are students with no “sense of purpose” who “wait meekly for direction.”

I guess we see what we think we’ll see…..

Worse still, in my opinion, is the professor’s willingness to join those who want to turn the word “woke” into some sort of epithet. Woke was a slang term initially coined to describe people who had become aware of–awakened to– America’s structural flaws, become aware of systemic racism, injustice, and prejudice. It  is certainly fair to debate the elements of “wokeness,” or to point to the demonstrable excesses that do emerge, especially among young people, but now the term has taken the place of other perfectly good words appropriated and misused over the years by Republican activists under the tutelage of Frank Luntz. As the Right’s scornful use of older terms like liberal and socialist have gradually lost their power to label folks as unAmerican, accusations of “wokeness” are being used to fill the gap.

I am so tired of labels supplanting genuine argumentation. I am so tired of the sneering punditry that substitutes vitriol for analysis and over-simplification for discernment. Do we have problems in higher education? You bet. Are some students over-reacting to perceived slights? Absolutely. Could we use more appreciation of nuance and shades of grey, and less hysteria over legitimate differences of opinion? We sure could.

But that discernment and tolerance needs to come from both sides of the “wokeness” aisle–including the side populated by intellectually arrogant professors and self-satisfied pundits.


How “Woke” Is Academia, Really?

We Americans harbor all sorts of prejudices about all sorts of things.

One of the problems with racism, anti-Semitism, and similar tribal bigotries is that such attitudes ignore individual differences. When you criticize “those people” (whoever “those people” are in your particular worldview), you inevitably sweep with far too broad a brush.

That impulse–to generalize from anecdotal experiences–isn’t limited to our attitudes about marginalized racial or ethnic groups. It has become a ubiquitous–and extremely annoying– element of America’s polarized political world-views. There is, for example, a widespread–and dangerously oversimplified–belief that America’s universities are bubbling cauldrons of “woke” indoctrination. That charge has become part of the Republican Party’s current war on evidence, science, and accurate history.

Before I retired from my position on a university faculty, I was periodically accused of being part of a liberal “brainwashing” enterprise by people who clearly knew very little about academic life, my particular campus, or –for that matter–the huge differences around the country among institutions of higher education.

I was reminded of those discussions when I read a rant on the subject that had been posted to Daily Kos.

The posted diatribe was triggered by a televised exchange between Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher on the latter’s show, in which the two of them decried the “wokeness” of today’s colleges and universities.

I have likely spoken at more colleges in the past 15 years than Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan put together. The difference is that they speak at select elite colleges and I speak everywhere else. For instance, next week I speak at Hastings College in Nebraska.

Most colleges really aren’t that woke. In fact, being too liberal when I speak is always in the back of my mind. For example, eleven years ago I spoke at New Mexico Tech. From my perspective, it was one of my best nights as a speaker. I performed two shows in a full theater and received a standing ovation. Nevertheless, the woman who booked me refuses to ever bring me back, because a few people walked out and complained. I actually noticed the walkouts, and they did it right after a section in my show where I talked about global warming and childish Republicans who renamed French fries “Freedom fries” and French toast “Freedom toast” in the congressional cafeterias to protest France not participating in the Iraq War.

Additionally, one religious college politely asked me not to speak about evolution, and another booked me under the condition that I not speak out against Donald Trump. Other colleges outright won’t book me because I’m too liberal (i.e. woke). That’s okay. I’m not going to whine about it. I mention it only because people like Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan are clueless about what life is like in the real world.

He’s right.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 3,982 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S. as of the 2019-2020 school year. Believe me–and believe the author of the quoted rant–very few of them look like Harvard or Berkeley.

One of the numerous faculty committees on which I served was the admissions committee, where we reviewed applications for entry into our graduate programs. Those applications were frequently submitted by students from undergraduate institutions I’d never heard of.

When my husband and I are driving out of state, we constantly pass road signs announcing that such-and-such town is the home of such-and-such local college. These are almost always schools that– despite the fact I was “in the field”– I’d never heard of.

The sheer number of these small and often-struggling schools is intriguing; I sometimes wonder about their ability to attract competent instructors, the focus and breadth of their curricula, and the career prospects they offer their graduates.

It is likely that  the quality of these institutions varies widely. I would bet good money, though, that very few of them are “woke.” (To the extent that they are “indoctrinating,” it is likely to be with denominational religious views–and those are most unlikely to be “liberal.”)

Judging all post-secondary schools as if they are all alike shares the same fallacy that characterizes racial and religious bigotry–the notion that all Blacks or Jews or Muslims or immigrants–or Republicans or Democrats–are alike and interchangeable. One of the many, many defects of our current media environment is its tendency to find an example of something–generally an extreme example–and suggest that it represents an entire category that we should either embrace or reject.

Reality is more complicated than prejudice admits.


Sweating The Small Stuff?

We’ve all heard the phrase: don’t sweat the small stuff. My problem has always been in determining what qualifies as “small stuff.”

Many years ago, when I was active in groups like the Women’s Political Caucus and other efforts to ensure a level playing field for women, I remember my impatience with efforts to focus on linguistics. I particularly recall being annoyed by criticisms of the then-female-naming of all hurricanes. Really? Wouldn’t women have been better served by, say, efforts to keep pediatricians offices open after six, so that working moms could take their children to the doctor without having to take time off work, and similar tangible improvements?

Over the years, I have grudgingly acknowledged that language does matter, but I am still conflicted when people express outrage over what we might call “First World Problems.” (I hate the way my dishwasher doesn’t completely dry the dishes–poor me! Of course, millions of people cannot afford food, let alone dishwashers, so bitching about an appliance seems morally clueless.)

The appearance of the so-called “cancel culture” has triggered my longstanding ambivalence. Where do we draw the line?

What made me think about my own recurring internal debate was an article I read a couple of months ago about an effort to make Trader Joe Markets re-name some of its foodstuffs.

The popular grocery chain, famous for its organic, gourmet, and imported foods, came in for some unwelcome notice recently when The New York Times, followed by other news outlets, focused attention on a petition condemning Trader Joe’s for its “racist branding and packaging.” The petition, launched on Change.org by a California high school student, declared that the company “perpetuates harmful stereotypes” by labeling some of its international foods with international names, such as Trader José‘s for its Mexican beer, Trader Jacques’ for its ham-and-cheese croissants, Arabian Joe’s for its Middle Eastern flatbread, and Trader Ming’s for its Kung Pao chicken. The use of these familiar ethnic names amounts to racism, scolded 17-year-old Briones Bedell, “because they exoticize other cultures.”

Columnist Jeff Jacoby pushed back with an argument that I found persuasive:

In reality, they do just the opposite: They familiarize other cultures. They present international foods as accessible and appealing. Far from portraying foreign peoples and their foods as weirdly exotic, the lighthearted branding helps make them as welcome and appetizing as traditional “American” foods. Trader Joe’s ethnic packaging exemplifies the melting pot at its most engaging, lowering the barriers between consumers of different backgrounds and encouraging Americans to explore the variety and joys of other cuisines.

Trader Joe’s customers evidently agreed–protesting the petition, and–as the chain noted in a media release–” reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended­ — as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing,”

Jacoby argues that there is (or should be) an obvious difference between brand names and logos like the Aunt Jemima “mammy” stereotype and other names and products — like the Dixie Chicks, “Paw Patrol,” and even the Coco Pops cereal emblem — that have been criticized for no apparent reason.

It isn’t always easy to distinguish between “woke” efforts to raise sensitivity to genuine slights, on the one hand, and what has appropriately been called “virtue signaling”–accusations intended to position the accuser as more tolerant/aware/inclusive than the target of the criticism, on the other. But in a time when rightwing extremists pretending to be Black Lives Matter are fomenting civil unrest, and white supremicists are infiltrating police departments, warriors for civic justice need to make the effort.

We can sweat the smaller stuff later.