Closing in on his second master’s degree in biblical studies, a good friend of mine is about to defend his 60-page thesis on the creation accounts in the book of Genesis. In the eleventh hour, though, he has run into a problem: his advisor has informed him just one week outside of his defense that he needs to “substantially engage” the work of an author whose position, he swears, is utterly immaterial to his project. So, we must ask, from whence comes this unusual demand on the part of his advisor?
My friend’s experience is a commentary on the tragic condition into which the contemporary university has lapsed. A white, heterosexual man laboring under the delusion that an analysis of the Bible could afford to dispense with considerations of race, gender, and class, he is learning what all contemporary students of the liberal arts and humanities learn: there is no datum of human experience that isn’t determined by this triumvirate.
Far be it from me to deny that our personal identities are encumbered by a complex of contingencies and particularities. The belief, though, that all meaning is reducible to and explicable in terms of race, gender, and class is nothing more or less than leftist dogma, a fiction posing as stone-cold fact.
This in itself wouldn’t amount to much more than a passing curiosity if today’s American and European liberal arts and humanities departments weren’t dominated by leftists. But since the situation is otherwise, it is a real problem to with which we must reckon.
The leftist, the academic leftist in particular, is indeed an intriguing character. He (or she) is the self-declared enemy of traditional Western metaphysics and ethics—the philosophy originating with the Greeks (primarily Plato and Aristotle) and the religion of Christianity: for the concepts of “truth” (moral or otherwise), “objectivity,” “Being,” “essence,” “Reason,” and the like, he has no patience. Moreover, it is not all uncommon to find among academic leftists a contemptuous attitude toward the notion of “fact” and even that principle without which philosophers had always insisted thought itself would be impossible, “the principle of non-contradiction,” the law that something can’t be and not be in the same respect and at the same time.
However, before we endorse the leftist’s self-conception and judge that he is a radical critic of the Western tradition, we must bear in mind the following considerations.
First, “the skepticism” of which he is an ardent promoter has roots reaching back into the ancient world. Indeed, from its inception the rich complex of ideas of which the Western philosophical tradition consists has contained no small ingredient of skepticism. It is only by way of reducing Western civilization to a one-dimensional caricature of itself that the leftist can posture as the radical detractor that he imagines himself to be. Like the prodigal son, he has appreciation neither for the priceless inheritance bequeathed to him nor for the sacrifices that were made to accumulate and preserve it throughout the millennia.
Second, and more importantly, the leftist’s “skepticism” is a fake, a rhetorical veneer designed to conceal the fact that his ideological predilections are in reality a species of skepticism’s antithesis, absolutism, a position or school of thought that has enjoyed a prominence in Western thought to which genuine skepticism has never so much as remotely approximated.
The skepticism of more conservative-minded thinkers as Hume and Burke, Pascal, Montaigne, William of Ockam, and the “Ockamist movement” that the latter inspired sprung, not from any desire to prove that “Man was the measure of all things,” but from the keen observation that the powers of the human intellect weren’t nearly as expansive as the West’s theorists have usually supposed. That is, skepticism as it manifested itself in this tradition encouraged, and was intended to encourage, intellectual humility and, not infrequently, faith in God.
His nods to humility notwithstanding, the contemporary leftist is as obsessed with achieving certainty, and as certain that he has achieved it as the villains—like Descartes—against whom he regularly rails. If there are any doubts concerning this, we need look no further than the leftist’s stance(s) on race, gender, and class to disabuse ourselves of them once and for all.
“Racism,” “sexism,” “classism,” “homophobia,” “imperialism,” “colonialism,” and the like are unmitigated evils: of this the leftist has not a shred of doubt. If ever there was a “fact,” this is it, and beyond being a mere fact, it is a categorical “truth.” Anyone who has ever attempted to engage in a discussion with an academic leftist (or, for that matter, any leftist ideologue) over the issues of “affirmative action,” abortion, immigration, “same sex marriage,” the morality of homosexuality, the death penalty, poverty, George W. Bush, the Republican Party, or any number of other issues knows all too well that the tolerance that he ascribes to himself is an illusion. Not only wouldn’t a genuinely tolerant person need to resort so readily to hurling insults at those with whom he disagrees, he also wouldn’t be convinced that just because these insults have been given names by his colleagues and written about by them ad infinitum that they are thereby meaningful, much less eligible for employment in civil, rational discourse.
The leftist doesn’t really reject “fact” and “truth”; he rejects those “facts” and “truths” that are endorsed by his opponents. He is not skeptical of reason’s claims to knowledge; he is skeptical of his opponents’ reason’s claims to knowledge.
Our verdict, then, is clear: the leftist is incoherent. Whether, however, this incoherence is the product of sloppy thinking, hypocrisy, or dishonesty, it is difficult to say. The safest bet is to conclude that, containing as it does all three elements in its DNA, it is a mutt.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.