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Cryptic campus radicals and conservatives crying wolf

Here’s a text that I excerpted from a longer piece and redacted slightly — details follow. But first, pretend you’re taking the SAT.

The grim reality is this: the biggest gains in educational achievement for minority students, especially African Americans, occurred in the 1970s. With the exception of a few years at the turn of the century, progress has stalled nearly everywhere, despite all the hope we’ve put in charter schools and in fads like a much-touted but now-discredited New York experiment (one of the more absurd manifestations of our faith in markets), offering cash incentives to families whose children regularly attend classes.

Why did the racial gap narrow so much in the ’70s—and why has it stalled since? It’s not because the ’70s was a period of great educational innovation. Instead, it was the one moment in recent American history when there was still political will to support educational integration. Around the country through the mid-’70s, school boards, state departments of education, and the federal government supported plans to desegregate schools.

Many of those plans were voluntary: some were court ordered. The road to integration was bumpy—I don’t need to recap the whole busing brouhaha here (except to remind you of Julian Bond’s famous reminder that white folks had no problem putting their kids on buses in all-white suburbs: “it’s not the bus, it’s us.”) Even if it wasn’t a panacea, when it was tried, integration worked. But it wasn’t tried for long.

Since the ’70s, support for integration, except rhetorically, has plummeted. Many black parents were (and are) rightly skeptical of the rhetoric of some integrationists—namely that mere exposure to whites would somehow magically uplift their children. And most whites tell pollsters and survey researchers that they support racial integration, until more than a handful of minority students show up, and then they bolt. The result is that school districts have resegregated. All but the most hardcore advocates of Jim Crow from the Brown v. Board days would be pleased.

Choose the best answer to complete this sentence: According to the author of this passage, all but the most hardcore advocates of Jim Crow would be pleased because…

A) the achievement gap between black and white students hasn’t narrowed since the ’70s.
B) plummeting public support for integration has allowed some school districts to resegregate.
C) the idea that black children will be uplifted by mere exposure to white children strikes some black parents as racist.
D) the Supreme Court recently struck down school integration plans, even when they’re voluntary.

I hope the answer is obvious. But I took out the author’s second to last sentence (I also left out a parenthetical plug for the book The American Dream and the Public Schools). Here’s the full final paragraph:

Since the ’70s, support for integration, except rhetorically, has plummeted. Many black parents were (and are) rightly skeptical of the rhetoric of some integrationists—namely that mere exposure to whites would somehow magically uplift their children. And most whites tell pollsters and survey researchers that they support racial integration, until more than a handful of minority students show up, and then they bolt. The result is that school districts have resegregated. And more recently, the Roberts Court has struck down even voluntary school integration plans. All but the most hardcore advocates of Jim Crow from the Brown v. Board days would be pleased.

Based on the redacted text, the answer to my pretend SAT question is B. Both A and C are vaguely plausible but misconstrue the overall thrust and D comes out of nowhere. D becomes a plausible answer when the sentence I took out is put back in. But is the author — University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue — singling out just the court decision for hypothetical praise? It seems to me that he isn’t, that what would please a bunch of moldy old segregationists would be the fact of continued segregation, which in Sugrue’s narrative is reinforced and extended by the court decision.

According to KC Johnson, though, Sugrue is actually “branding the Roberts Court with a Jim Crow brush.” Well, not a brush, exactly, because how do you brand with a brush? What Sugrue is really using is “extraordinarily charged rhetoric.” Johnson made the claim in a post last August on Minding the Campus, and he has no trouble backing it up — he just lifts the two sentences that make his point and ignores everything else (I’ve quoted about a third of Sugrue’s piece).

The core of Johnson’s argument, if you can call it that, is a piece of precision typecasting. He introduces Sugrue as a “serious scholar” who’s produced “first-class work on important topics” — he’s “hardly an academic crank.”

Nonetheless, two recent items from Sugrue have been, to put it mildly, striking. First was his participation in the “Crying Wolf” project, the scheme to pay graduate students and younger professors to produce “research” that conformed to the Wolfers’ political agenda.

Then came this assertion, at Ta-Neishi [sic] Coates’ Atlantic blog: “And more recently, the Roberts Court has struck down even voluntary school integration plans. All but the most hardcore advocates of Jim Crow from the Brown v. Board days would be pleased.”

Though he didn’t link to the decision, Sugrue presumably was referring to Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, in which the Roberts Court struck down a Seattle school-assignment scheme…. […]

People of good faith can, and do, disagree on the merits of the Parents Involved decision. It was, after all, decided by a 5-4 vote…. But could any fair-minded observer seriously maintain that the decision would satisfy “all but the most hardcore advocates from the Brown v. Board days”?

Just as a matter of form I’d expect something like, Sugrue, guest blogging at the Atlantic, wrote a piece lamenting the declining fortunes of school integration. His focus is mainly the Obama administration and the public at large, but he takes one wild jab at the Supreme Court: “And more recently, the Roberts Court…” (I don’t actually think it’s a wild jab at the court, I’m just trying to get into the spirit of Johnson’s post). Coming from Johnson, though, the context-free attack quote is nothing new or surprising. In the closest parallel I know of from the lacrosse case, a nine-word quote is used to show one-sidedness when the message, in context, is exactly the opposite. The one distinctive piece of information Johnson mentions as he frames Sugrue’s quote is the name of the host blogger (it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, though). Why, of all things, choose that?

Johnson treats the quote as if its meaning is self-evident (it’s not *) but to understand its significance you need to know about the author. You don’t need to know very much, though — just two things. On one hand, he’s a fine scholar who’s written, according to Johnson, “one of the three or four best books currently in print on 20th century American political culture.” On the other hand, his name recently appeared on the list of advisers to this highly questionable “Cry Wolf” project. The contradiction unmasks Sugrue as a particular campus character — the impeccable scholar who, after so much time in the mind-numbing bath of far-left groupthink, has no idea what counts as reasonable in the real world. Bill Chafe is probably the closest counterpart in Johnson’s Wonderland at Duke. But for an example of a professor whose critical intelligence goes out the window when he goes partisan, it’s hard to do better than Johnson himself.

Perhaps Johnson’s easy certainty that he’s ferreted out a cryptic campus radical is an honest reflection of his experience in academia, and it’s hard to argue with experience. Whatever the source of his convictions, though, what he’s articulating is the well-worn logic of a demagogue exposing dangerous subversives. Most of the work is done by the assumptions about the hypnotic effect of groupthink on the left-wing herd. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of milking a tell-tale quote for all it’s worth. It’s easiest to pull off if you believe, and it looks to me like Johnson is totally convinced that the couple of lines of Sugrue’s that reached out and grabbed him are deeply revealing and also completely disconnected from the text they’re embedded in.

The post about Sugrue seems to be an attempt to flesh out Johnson’s claim, in an earlier post, that the participation of scholars of Sugrue’s caliber in the Cry Wolf project “illuminates the depth of the corruption in the contemporary humanities.” The project got a flurry of attention early in the summer, when Andrew Breitbart got hold of an email requesting proposals (read it here). The goal outlined in the email is to build a library of “policy briefs” that could be used to construct counterarguments when conservatives try to shoot down progressive initiatives by “crying wolf.” Inside Higher Ed has a good overview of the flap, which was kind of hot for about a week and played out mostly on Breitbart’s Big Journalism and Minding the Campus (at least that’s what I’ve found of it).

When Patrick Courrielche broke the story, he called the email RFP “a rare look at how progressives and labor unions attempt to manipulate the national media narrative.” And he thought his readers might be surprised that there’s a cerebral side to the labor movement. Labor unions “have always been considered” (by “[m]any conservatives and libertarians,” that is) “the rough and rugged group that intimidate their opponents through the ‘persuasion of power’” — “a swarm of purple shirts, with the forearms of a lumberjack and a penchant for terrorizing teenagers.”

The next day, Kurt Schlichter outlined how the project would threaten the tax exempt status of the project leader’s institution. Like his Big colleague Courrielche, he also used his first paragraph to make it clear that he was dealing with wrong-headed people with an unsavory project.

The ‘Cry Wolf’ leader Professor Peter Dreier has a clear right to solicit all the biased, agenda-driven, fraudulent ‘research’ he desires under the First Amendment of the Constitution he and his pals have so little regard for.

This is just what you’d expect from a media conglomerate run by a man who “want[s] it to be in the history books that [he] took down the institutional left” — he’s no Arnold B. Truthington of Accuracy Lane, nor are his writers. That’s not to say that no legitimate issues were raised in the dozen-plus pieces Big Journalism ran about Cry Wolf — some of Schlichter’s points might have merit, for instance. But he and Courrielche are up front about their Big Bias, and I appreciate that — it saves me the trouble of trying to sort the truth from the fantasy and fabrication.

Big Journalism isn’t all slick polemic, though. There’s also room for a plain-speaking Tea Partier like Liberty Chick. And it turns out that the less you know about actual research at actual universities, the more clearly you can see how vastly catastrophic this thing is.

A small committee of professors and academic professionals, normally held in high regard, have blatantly betrayed the trust of the public and quite possibly smeared the reputations of all colleges and universities nationwide. By soliciting “paid activists” to create research papers that are intentionally designed to silence opposing viewpoints, they have undermined the political system and manipulated the governmental policy making process.

In fact, these “so-called scholars… intend to ‘undermine the credibility and arguments’ of those who happen to hold opposing viewpoints to theirs” (**). Liberty Chick misses their even wilder claim, that they’ll do it with 2000 word “policy briefs” that are “well documented and scrupulously accurate.” Everybody knows that real Americans who love their country (and the First Amendment) undermine their opponents with poisonous rhetoric and brutally edited videotapes. These so-called scholars, it’s clear, must be stopped, or else.

The critics with university connections aren’t quite so scattershot, they’re a little smarter about context, and they raise some plausible issues on the margins. Basically, though, the two with the most to say were happy to cry wolf along with Breitbart. The way Erin O’Connor reads the Cry Wolf email, it’s asking researchers “to scramble the difference between disinterested scholarship and agenda-driven advocacy work.” For KC Johnson, the bottom line is that the project “imperils academic integrity” (or at least “little doubt exists” that it does — these things have to be properly hedged). It’s “faux scholarship” based on an “Alice-in-Wonderland conception of what constitutes academic research,” since the conclusion is preordained, and of course with these shifty leftists it’s always Wonderland one way or another.

Is it really so hard to tell the difference between original, peer-reviewed research in the social sciences and a policy brief that draws on that literature? Apparently these critics believe that it is. It’s hard to tell, though, because they never get real about what they expect the Cry Wolf briefs to look like and what sort of scholarship would be scrambled or undermined. Their case is strictly pie-in-the-sky — “disinterested scholarship,” “academic integrity,” “academic freedom” and the “search for truth.” Vocabulary notwithstanding, they’re either as starry-eyed as Liberty Chick or they’re playing dumb.

They also failed to get real about the intermixing of scholarship and partisanship, something that no writer on Minding the Campus can claim to be ignorant about. The site is a wing of the Manhattan Institute. According to a New York Times piece they proudly quote, the Manhattan Institute’s VERITAS project is in the business of “finding like-minded tenured professors and helping them establish academic beachheads for their ideas….” (my favorite part is that they’re hoping to bring back “a triumphal interpretation of American history” — it’s not so much about the issues, I guess, as about the poor old boys’ battered egos). I’m not bringing VERITAS up because it’s equivalent to Cry Wolf — it’s not at all. Other conservative initiatives might be — Inside Higher Ed has a little about that. All I want to suggest is that if the institute really believes in “offering an engaged debate for readers concerned with the state of the modern university” and all that other high-minded stuff on the “About Us” page for Minding the Campus, they’d put the issues in context and they’d put their cards on the table. Most of the time, from what I’ve seen, the site is just a mild-mannered cousin to Fox and Breitbart, far more interested in rhetorical leverage than anything else.

On Cry Wolf, though, O’Connor was the main academic water carrier for Breitbart (she’s not on Minding the Campus but on her own blog). After about a day of following the story on Big Journalism she was wondering why all she heard from the rest of the academic world was “thunderous silence.” When were the institutions involved going to distance themselves from the “blatant political advocacy work” and “initiate disciplinary proceedings”? It was like she was taking her cues from Liberty Chick, who feared that the Wolfers “risked discrediting the entire educational sector as a respectable source for research.” All that for a mere $50K! That’s a lot of bang for the buck. VERITAS couldn’t even manage to buy triumphalism at Cornell for $50K.

* Who do you end up with when you take the “advocates of Jim Crow” and set aside “all but the most hardcore”? For me that calls up the folks who voted enthusiastically for the likes of Orville Faubus and George Wallace — a whole lot of very ordinary white southerners, including a number of my relatives — and excludes the ones who were willing to bomb a church. It seems to me that Sugrue’s “extraordinarily charged” rhetorical flourish is highlighting the irony of all that water under the bridge — four decades worth — and so little to show for it. Beyond that, all I see is the uncontroversial claim that segregationists would be pleased by segregation. (go back ^)

** Actually, the Cry Wolf organizers are more specific about whose credibility and arguments they hope to undermine. It’s not “those who happen to hold opposing viewpoints,” as Liberty Chick writes. That would be so mean, to pick on people for views they just happen to hold. It’s “the organizations and individuals who use such dire social and economic prognostications to thwart progressive reform” that they’re going after. (go back ^)

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  1. […] of informing the public. I know it well from my dealings with the academic hack KC Johnson. Give no context but plenty of rhetorical subtext. Point readers in the direction you want them to go but take no […]