Among the many embarrassments of the Charles Murray visit to Middlebury is the open letter signed by 58 faculty members and addressed to President Laurie Patton. The letter was composed a few days before Murray’s arrival, and it has nothing to do with the students and rabble-rousers who turned the campus upside-down later that week. the professors merely ask Patton to cancel her plans to introduce Murray. They do not hint at protests or boycotts or any other disruption. The key issue for the professors is legitimacy.
They say so explicitly. Ms. Patton must withhold her participation in the event because her appearance will “lend legitimacy to it.” The letter says this twice. Mr. Murray’s work, they claim, is so out of bounds, so tainted and biased and unscientific, that he does not qualify for any recognition by a place of higher learning. He has no credibility, not as a scholar and not as a researcher. He is a “discredited ideologue”; his work “has been thoroughly discredited.” The guy is nothing but “a well-funded phony.” The only reason that MUrray has any stature at all is that he does the bidding of a racist and sexist organization, the American Enterprise Institute, which likes Murray because he helps them advocate “public policies targeting people of color, women and the poor.” This whole affair, the faculty insist, “is an insult to the integrity of Middlebury College.”
It’s a remarkable declaration, but not for the reasons most readers of it probably think. The allegations of racism are to be expected, as is the charge of eugenics (which the faculty make in the letter). In The Bell Curve, Murray and co-author Richard Herrnstein accepted the contention of many intelligence researchers that intelligence has a genetic component (though the experts disagreed on how and how much, and Murray and Herrnstein remained open on those questions). Ever since, Murray has been accused of hidebound racist attitudes, and the accusations in the faculty letter repeat them without elaborating.
What is surprising is something else: the hard insistence on legitimacy and credibility. For most people, those characteristics are solid concerns, obviously so. We want people at the podium to have conducted legitimate scholarly and scientific work, and we expect them to have earned credit from their peers.
But that’s not what leftist professors believe. For them to invoke legitimacy, to wield it as a judgment of who does and does not get to speak, and to do so without any hint that legitimization is a highly political, problematical practice–all of this runs against the critical theory that the professors have been espousing ever since the Seventies.
Marxists, feminists, Jacques Derrida, and, above all, Michel Foucault targeted legitimation as in one way or another an exertion of power. To declare something or someone legitimate or illegitimate, they said, amounted to an imposition, a discursive identification that allowed institutions (capitalism, patriarchy, psychology . . .) to classify and control objects and maintain institutional boundaries.
Critical theory catechized graduate students and young professors to do two things. One, they should suspect the norms and categories and procedures that legitimate persons and objects. When Derrida talks about binary oppositions such as nature/culture, he does so not to justify them. He wants to deconstruct them. Foucault takes the sciences of madness not as efforts to identify and contain and help suffering psyches. No, they are attempts to screen reason and the rational disciplines from anarchic human impulses. We should keep our skeptical radar strong whenever we see such legitimations in play.
The other lesson of critical theory was to spotlight the rogue figure, the transgressive individual, the Queer. Phenomena that don’t fit, identities that cross boundaries, ideas and individuals that threaten a reigning order . . . they deserve our attention and, often, our sympathy. This is especially the case when a band of people claiming to bear an institutional authority gangs up on a person who doesn’t conform and won’t adapt.
Needless to say, the Middlebury faculty letter matches this model perfectly. In this case, however, it is the professors who play the heavy. They are the ones wielding legitimacy and credibility against a guy who won’t follow the rules. Murray’s the interloper, the profs are the accredited and institutionalized ones. True, Murray has the American Enterprise Institute behind him, but the professors have Middlebury College behind them. In fact, they have the whole universe of liberal academia on their side, a much m ore powerful force in American life than any DC think tank. They want to turn Murray into the big power figure who tramples on everyone else, but the truth is the opposite. It was Murray who had to flee the grounds, not the Middlebury-ites.
So what we have is rank duplicity on the part of the professors. They play a double game. For decades they have challenged the protocols of science and traditional humanities, drawn critiques of truth and objectivity from Marx, Nietzsche, and post-structuralism, and recast legitimacy as a power play. But when a researcher from outside their own institution comes along, one who has developed theories and evidence on racial or sexual differences that threaten progressive designs, they pull out all the norms that they previously undermined. They must discredit him, disallow him admission to the halls of learning. They are legitimate, he isn’t.
If the maneuver weren’t so patently corrupt, it would be funny.