Unequal to the Task

Carol Iannone

Item 1: A recent New York Times article highlighted a study of 24,000 students over five years that revealed differences between men’s and women’s attainment of sexual fulfillment in the hookup culture. Despite the best efforts of feminism to enforce parity between the sexes in all areas of life—abetted by government, academia, popular culture, the media, as well as the ever-threatening presence of political correctness—it seems that an outstanding “inequality,” as it was termed, still persists. Women do not achieve orgasm in casual sex at nearly the rate that men do—only “about 40 percent of women had an orgasm during their last hookup involving intercourse, while 80 percent of men did.” As one professor observed, “The notion of sexual liberation, where men and women both had equal access to casual sex, assumed a comparable likelihood of that sex being pleasurable.” But, he concluded rather solemnly, “that part of the playing field is not level.” The study also revealed that “roughly three quarters of women in the survey said they had an orgasm the last time they had sex in a committed relationship.” The idea that God and/or Nature may have designed things that way for good reasons cut no ice in the discussion of this particular “inequality.”1

Item 2: The World Economic Forum, headquartered in Davos, Switzerland, issues an annual report, The Global Gender Gap, assessing 136 countries on how far they have gone toward achieving equality between the sexes. David Adesnik, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, looked into the latest offering and was surprised to find that Nicaragua (10) Cuba (15), and Burundi (22) ranked higher than the United States (23). “As it turns out,” Adesnik discovered, “the greatest source of distortion in the index is the inordinate weight given to the number of women in legislatures and cabinets as an indicator of ‘political empowerment.’” No differentiation is made between democracies and dictatorships such as Cuba, where Raúl Castro personally enforces sex quotas in the National Assembly of People’s Power, or Nicaragua, “progressively less free under Daniel Ortega,” according to Adesnik, where the ruling Sandinista Party insists on the representation of women in government.2

These items should tell us something about what the word “equality” has come to mean in our time. It may sound like an entirely unobjectionable, even laudatory, and completely self-evident good, but behind it lies a wagonload of assumptions about life, nature, humanity, the ends we should pursue, and the kind of society we should seek to create and foster.

Equality in the American tradition and thus in the early civil rights movement meant political equality—equal rights before the law—but it has been stretched to conflate with social, cultural, and economic equality, judged not by how fairly individuals are treated, but by parity of achievement among certain designated groups, completely contrary to the American tradition. This is what is called “social justice”: absolute sameness in all areas of endeavor and, in its absence, continuous complaint of deep-seated systemic unfairness that must be addressed as an urgent societal mandate.

Thanks to inspiration rising from our Marxist-oriented, left-wing academy, where it has been a longstanding obsession, inequality has risen as a preoccupation throughout the culture, from President Obama on down. And the focus in the academy has become even sharper of late; it is not too much to say that inequality is now the reigning paradigm, the root and branch, the center and circumference, the ne plus ultra of higher learning.

To begin with, the various postmodern “studies,” as well as the postmodern inflections of the traditional humanities disciplines, have concern with inequality of some type or other at their source. No other prism exists, it seems, through which the contemporary academy can address reality save as a matter of oppressed and oppressor, victim and victimizer, rich and poor, haves and have-nots. In addition, a virtual “inequality studies” has developed throughout the academy (and at Cornell it is formally named so, with capital letters). Some of these studies deal in straightforward policy analysis, but in many others the “core presumption” is, as Charlotte Allen describes it, “that there is something inherently wrong with all inequality, that inequality is somehow the fault of those who do better in society, and that the solution ought to be a forced leveling process via higher taxes, income redistribution, affirmative action, and other forms of government intervention.”3 Allen points to the formulation of the “Robin Hood Index” as an indication of the prevailing mindset. This index is described as “equal to the portion of the total community income that would have to be redistributed (taken from the richer half of the population and given to the poorer half) for the society to live in perfect equality.”4Brrrr.

Some top-tier schools have established stand-alone centers for the study of inequality, and throughout the tiers courses abound with titles such as “Introduction to Social Stratification” (University of Washington); “Politics of Poverty, Inequality and Social Policy” (University of Wisconsin–Madison); “Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy” (University of Michigan); “Segregation and Social Inequality” (Johns Hopkins University); “Seminar on Inequality and Public Policy” (Columbia University); “Social Class and Inequality” (Florida State University); “Social Inequalities, American Culture” (University of California, Berkeley); “Social Inequality” (Baruch College CUNY, Duke University, Hunter College, University of Oregon); and “Social Inequality/Why/Effects” (Fordham University).5

Allen and George Leef looked at the specific reading lists and descriptions of these courses and found them to be, as Major Strasser says to Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, a trifle one-sided: “that income inequality is unjust, has been principally caused by racism, sexism, and free enterprise, and must be combated with a variety of government laws, regulations, and aid programs.”6

The entries in “Inequalities,” our special section in this issue, are not so much head-on analyses of the concept of inequality as windows on how it operates, how it works itself out in the culture nowadays, how it becomes the foundation for promoting victimhood, exploiting incidents of bias, making charges of hatred, and the like.

As Stanley Kurtz explains in “Ecologism: The Campus Cult of Victimhood,” ecologism is the word coined by French intellectual Pascal Bruckner to characterize the religious character of radical environmentalism in which crusaders wield the fear of planetary ruin and thereby find meaning and mission in their otherwise pointless, secularized lives. Moreover, and more to the point of our theme, “In a campus cultural setting where victimhood yields superior power, the global warming apocalypse is a way for frustratingly ‘privileged’ students to cash in on academia’s upside-down market in prestige….With the world about to end, everyone can be a victim, everyone lower-class. Thus the old Marxist model is surpassed and preserved all at once.” And, as with the old Marxist model, the upside-down market means that the crusaders are more equal than others and can assert their superiority of vision over benighted nonbelievers.

Another way of cashing in on the inequality paradigm is through accusations of bias. In “Staged Emergencies: How Colleges React to Bias Incidents,” Ashley Thorne details the tergiversations colleges go through when an incident of bias occurs on campus, and even when it doesn’t occur, that is, when it is a deliberate hoax. In either case, administrators who once abhorred such happenings and the disruption and publicity they might bring, now seize upon them with glad cries, often suspending classes and initiating a frenzy of activity in order to enforce the lessons in social justice and group equality that contemporary students have been imbibing since high school and before.

In “Empathy in Academe: On the Origins of Pathological Altruism,” Barbara Oakley shows how empathy for the unfortunate, demanded by current progressive thinking and aimed at casting more people as victims and equalizing haves and have-nots, excludes the negatives that can arise from it and reflects an inability to make distinctions. “Unquestioned empathy for perceived victims has received special emphasis in academia as well as society at large,” argues Oakley. “This has pernicious consequences,” among them, “driv[ing] people to falsely identify as victims” as well as “providing financial incentives for victimhood,” such as in “the long-term detrimental effect on American families of many well-intentioned welfare programs.”

In “Watching the Watchers: The Neglect of Academic Analysis of Progressive Groups,” George Yancey questions the double standards (they might be called unequal standards) that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) deploys in placing groups on its Hatewatch list. Yancey finds that certain left-wing groups express sentiments comparable to those that consign right-wing organizations to the list. If negative evaluations of other groups are the benchmark for inclusion, there are left-wing organizations that express such sentiments, too, only not of the groups accorded special treatment in our society today. Yancey concludes that something other than the conscientious effort to raise alarms about hatred in our land is at work in the calculus of the SPLC.

Ranking the presidents of the United States has been a metaphysical water cooler pastime of historians since 1948, when the first of these exercises propelled FDR into the pantheon of the greats, along with Washington and Lincoln, just a few short years after his demise. Although somewhat oblique in its relation to our theme, it is another example of how the academy seeks to accentuate inequalities. In “Ranking the Presidents: Scholars versus The People,” Clifford F. Thies statistically analyzes a number of these rankings, examines the values behind them, and compares the scholarly assessments with those gleaned from the general public through surveys.

We feature two review essays in this issue. Peter Wood offers a forceful and critical evaluation of Reign of Error: TheHoaxof thePrivatization Movementand theDangertoAmerica’s Public Schools, the latest book by Diane Ravitch, prolific scholar of education and valued NAS member, in which she continues to argue her repudiation of her previous positions regarding public school reform.

Amy Wax and Isaac N. Cohen directly return to our theme in their review essay of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. Wax, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, and her son, a sophomore at Yale, find that many students who come from the lower socioeconomic strata founder in a school where low-wattage courses and lots of partying are fine only for those with the background and connections to sustain them. For students from the lower strata it is a recipe for disaster: “Most of these women are either sucked into a party lifestyle they can ill afford, or find themselves alienated, isolated, or overwhelmed.” In the egalitarian effort to educate everyone, regardless of intellectual ability or preparedness, colleges are, ironically, fostering greater and not lesser inequality.

Daniel Asia reviews The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century, by John Borstlap. Asia finds a kindred spirit in Borstlap, a critic who laments the loss of beauty in contemporary music that came with the dissolution of standards of distinction and the rise of postmodernism, but also sees the tenacity of timeless musical values in at least some of the new music being created today.

Noted author, poet, critic, and previous contributor Bruce Bawer appears twice in this issue, first with a poem, a welcome and sardonic take on “Diversity,” then with a review of Exiled: Stories from Conservative and Moderate Professors Who Have Been Ridiculed, Ostracized, Marginalized, Demonized, and Frozen Out, edited by Mary Grabar. Bawer finds himself engaged by the personal accounts of six conservative-minded scholars with Ph.D.s in the humanities who felt the big chill in left-liberal academia. To the charge that such evidence is only “anecdotal,” Bawer patiently explains: “Any humanities professor at a North American college or university today knows very well that all the rhapsodic rhetoric about the importance of ‘diversity’ in the academy simply does not apply to political or ideological diversity.”

Not so much a review as an appreciation is Peter Wood’s consideration of Don Quixote Goes to College: From the Trading Floor to the Classroom, A Memoir on Education, by Wight Martindale Jr., which embodies for Wood the very values that NAS upholds.

The Age of Global Warming: A History, by Rupert Darwall, reviewed by William Happer, professor of physics at Princeton, endorses and amplifies Darwall’s analysis of yet another progressive hoax. This review returns us to Kurtz’s subject of climate change fanaticism, spearheaded by people who have only the vaguest idea of what is involved in the “problem” they seek to solve. Happer notes, too, that the policies advocated by the global warming fanatics would actually accentuate one form of inequality, in which developing nations would have to abide by much stricter regulations on resources than those that affected the developed world in the past.

Robert L. Jackson’s latest Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest spotlights some interesting developments in college costs and affordability.

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