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Cold Comfort U
by Joseph Knippenberg

I have friends who love being irritated. It gets their intellectual juices flowing. They would enjoy Michael Keefer's Lunar Perspectives. So would those who are "into" contemporary trends in literary criticism, ranging from postmodernism and poststructuralism through feminism to cultural materialism; for Keefer, who teaches English literature at the University of Guelph and has served on the board of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) , is one of their own.
The rest of us would be less enamoured of this work, finding it on occasion breathtakingly tendentious, often obscure, and only sometimes sane and commonsensical.
Keefer's intention in writing the book is to reassure the general public that what they have read in the popular press about political correctness on college and university campuses is by and large overblown. There are, he insists, no monolithic feminist and multiculturalist thought police going around repressing miscreant members of various faculties who unwisely dissent from the politically correct line. Indeed, the most celebrated North American anecdotes of political correctness run amok "turn out under close examination to be either paranoid inventions...or else...Orwellian fabrications."
Let us set aside for the moment the fact that the "close examinations" on which Keefer relies are not his own and that he has not consulted all the relevant sources. Much more interesting and revealing is his explanation of what is behind the effort to publicize the abuses of political correctness. Here Keefer reveals a talent for discerning conspiracies and hidden agendas that I have seen in only two places: the films of Oliver Stone and the debates among graduate students at the University of Toronto in the 1970s. Thus in his view the most prominent popular accounts-Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind-ultimately serve the same purpose: "a reimposition of orthodoxy upon those sectors of the academy in which a spirit of critical interrogation has gained some footing" so as to protect the "kleptocracy" that came to govern the United States during the Reagan-Bush years. His argument for this astounding conclusion boils down to this: because the arguments and descriptions contained in these books are "unconvincing" or "demonstrably false", the authors must have been moved by some other motive to write them.
Keefer's rather crude and dismissive treatment of his adversaries is reminiscent of the worst kind of Marxist reductionism. Instead of taking their arguments seriously and engaging with them in an "open-minded" search for the truth (a notion at any rate "deconstructed" by postmodernism), he discredits them and seeks immediately for the economic interests they must serve. Of course, they are in distinguished company, for as Keefer presents him, even Socrates is merely an apologist for the Athenian aristocratic patriarchy, "anxious to construct and to sustain" "rigidly gendered and class-based identities". In the pages of Lunar Perspectives we never encounter the Socrates who uses androgynous oaths, acknowledges women as among the most important of his teachers, insists that the only potentially just aristocracy is one that is strictly based upon merit, and suggests that in "the real world" the philosopher might be most at home in a relatively tolerant democracy.
Because, Keefer avers, "human truths can [never] be anything but contingent, situational, and paradigm-specific," it is essentially impossible for him to distinguish between knowledge and ideology. If the genuine pursuit of the truth is impossible, then the university is not a special place to be protected from what one of my teachers at the University of Toronto once called "the rug merchants", but rather a ground to be contested by various interests. Keefer doesn't happen to like the corporate types who threaten his interests and would make his life as a teacher of literature much more difficult, but ultimately he cannot offer a vision of the university that compels anyone other than those who already inhabit his camp.
Of course, that Keefer is wrong does not make his chosen adversaries right. Indeed, he makes a telling point (one he unwittingly shares with Bloom) against those conservatives who assume that the Western tradition univocally supports their position. They overlook, he insists, the extent to which the very authors they celebrate are revolutionary and heterodox, challenging in various ways the status quo. If we look closely and seek actually to learn from "the canon", we will not necessarily find mere confirmations of what we hold dear. Indeed, its greatest value is its capacity to challenge us to rethink our commitments in the light of the incisive criticisms and compellingly presented alternatives it contains.
This stricture goes as much for Keefer as it does for Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, former heads of the American National Endowment for the Humanities (and Republicans). While these two may search through "the classics" for proof-texts supporting "family values", Keefer seems to assume that, as he puts it, a "truly critical deployment of reason...would quite obviously threaten a common culture which...attempted to paper over and obscure social and cultural faultlines rather than subject them to examination in open debate and dialogue." A truly critical deployment of reason, in other words, would bring to the fore the issues of race, class, and gender so dear to those at the cutting edge of contemporary study of the humanities. Keefer does not seem to be aware of the possibility that his liberal or social democratic egalitarianism may be as vulnerable to reasonable criticism as is the traditionalism he attributes to his adversaries.
Because he is not really open to conservative alternatives to his vision and because he blithely assumes that everything is political and hence ideological, Keefer poses as great a threat to the independence of the university as the corporate interests against which he inveighs. For him, academic politics cannot be anything other than power politics. The university is a ground to be fought over and captured, either by the oppressed or by their oppressors. It is not an institution that can or ought to stand apart from society, maintaining a genuinely critical distance and cultivating in the young a thoughtful allegiance to principles that have the tentative assent of reason. Keefer's university is not one that I can respect or defend. By being frankly political on behalf of particular groups (the supposed clients of those who indulge in race, class, and gender studies), it can mount no principled defense against those who would use it on behalf of other groups that may dominate other parts of society. With their substantial resources, the rug merchants will inevitably win that battle. Keefer and his allies will lose, but so will I.

Joseph M. Knippenberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and is associate professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. He is co-editor of Poets, Princes, & Private Citizens: Literary Alternatives to Postmodern Politics, recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.


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