State of Siege · 11 May 2006

By Jacob

Ellen Messer-Davidow, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, has been writing the same article for years. Its central contention, on display most recently in the radical journal Social Text ("Why Democracy Will Be Hard to Do", Spring 2006), is as simple as it is divorced from reality: The Left, especially the academic Left, is powerless against the tyrannical forces of the Right.

In its latest formulation, Messer-Davidow's gravamen is that in 2000, the political Right not only won an election but it launched a war on American democracy. More precisely, she is convinced that "tightly coordinated and highly organized conservative forces," working in tandem with the U.S. government, have waged a campaign to undermine democracy by, among other nefarious schemes, "suppressing" campus speech.

On its face, this is a curious charge. Considering that the only effort to actually suppress free speech -- the infamous speech codes of the nineties -- found its most vocal cheerleaders among left-wing academics like Messer-Davidow, her sudden embrace of the First Amendment is difficult to credit. Rather than dwell on this inconvenient history, the professor directs her ire at the Academic Bill of Rights, whose "advocates clearly wanted to quell what they regarded as liberal or leftist speech." (That the bill, which calls for the protection of all political speech, would not have served this goal is yet another contradiction lost on the professor.) Worse, according to Messer-Davidow, the bill's effect would be to introduce the teaching of "partisan doctrines as if they were scholarly knowledges."

There are several problems with Messer-Davidow's characterization. On one hand, it obscures the facts: The bill explicitly calls for scholarly "exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints." On the other hand, it's hard to see why the professor should object to the elevation of politics over scholarship. This, after all, is an apt description of her own brand of feminist pedagogy.

A review of her faculty biography, for example, reveals that her primary interest is not scholarship but "social change" -- left-wing political activism in layman's terms. One finds a corresponding commitment to political activism in her 2002 book, Disciplining Feminism: From Social Activism to Academic Discourse. A call to arms aimed at her fellow tenured radicals, the book's chief complaint is that while first-generation feminist activists had proven successful in reshaping college and university curricula, especially in the field of "Women's Studies," they had become, in the professor's estimation, insufficiently political. Feminists were no longer storming the barricades but preaching from the lectern, Messer-Davidow noted, despairing of the "cleavage between knowing change and doing change." What was needed was a recommitment to "academic activism," especially through the creation of specialized college and university curricula to promote "social change" and "scholarship on gender, race, and class."

Surveying the state of modern academia, one would have to conclude that Messer-Davidow's vision of universities devoted to political activism above all has been realized. It is the rare university that has escaped the influence of political ideologues. Even the briefest scrutiny of a putatively a academic department will uncover the professor who studies rap and graffiti as "contemporary forms of expression"; a black professor of comparative literature who exhorts other black scholars to "resist" alleged attacks on their racial identity by "white Western racist discourses"; another professor who describes himself as a "peace educator" and compels his students to study literature from the perspective that violence is invariably wrong; a Marxist professor and anti-globalization agitator who conducts graduate seminars on "Theories of Globalization." And that's just Messer-Davidow's English department at the University of Minnesota.

Messer-Davidow doesn't exactly deny the political bent of much of the professoriate. In her recent Social Text article, for instance, she notes en passant that "when scholars examine the state of the nation during the middle of the twentieth century" they tend to focus mainly on "progressive activism--the civil rights, New Left, women's, and gay movements," as well as protest movements against "toxic-waste dumping, easily available guns, and globalization," a revealing admission about the one-sided political priorities of the nation's scholars. Yet Professor Messer-Davidow derives little comfort from the entrenched position of the academic Left. As she sees it, "late-capitalist dynamics" have made universities uniquely "vulnerable to the conservative bloc."

Her solution -- the same one she has been offering since the 1990's -- is straightforward. Professors must become even more politically involved. Scholars "in the humanities and critical studies must learn how to design research for deployment in public and policy making arenas," she contends. Taking as their model conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, they must "use their skills to do pro bono work for progressive causes." (For Messer-Davidow, the distinction between a scholar and a political activist is one without difference.) Moreover, "progressive, liberal, and reform minded academics" must take up political campaigning and lobbying and even embrace "protest politics to transform the system." Nothing less than complete dedication to politics will hold the right-wing hordes at bay.

Of course, the "right-wing" that has consistently excited the professor's passions is largely a product of her imagination. That has not prevented her conjuring up the threat to American universities supposedly posed by the Right. In a 1993 essay for Social Text -- of which her recent article in the journal is but the latest incarnation -- Messer-Davidow declared that that the political Right, consisting of conservative foundations and think tanks, was "Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education," as the title had it. What worried Messer-Davidow most about this attack was conservatives' intention to break up a "liberal monopoly on higher education," and to "transform the system of higher-education into a free-market economy." This monopoly had to be maintained at all costs. To break it up, she insisted, would be "to impose a right-wing America."

Messer-Davidow has not altered her tune. Today she cites the success of conservative think tanks, and the Republican Party, as evidence of the threat to higher education from the Right, never pausing to consider than that their success in the arena of policy may have something to do with the exclusion of conservative intellectuals from university campuses. For professor Messer-Davidow, the message is always the same. Now, as ever, universities are under siege by the Right.

For all its repetitiveness, Messer-Davidow's underlying theme is correct. Some things never change. What she has been loath to acknowledge, however, is that in recent years the one constant in American academic life has been the glaring lack of intellectual pluralism and a widespread preference for political activism over disinterested scholarship. And it is academics like Messer-Davidow, rather than the political Right to which she ascribes so much influence, that have made this possible.

Jacob Laksin is an assistant editor at and a writer at the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.