Notes & Comments February 1993
Politics & sex at the MLA
The Modern Language Association of America, which boasts a membership of 32,000 college and university teachers and administrators, was founded in 1883. Yet at its most recent annual convention, which took place in New York in December, the date most conspicuously celebrated was 1968. That was the year in which a small group of left-wing academics—mostly professors of English—organized themselves into the Radical Caucus at the MLA. Their purpose was to radicalize the MLA in order to transform the organization into an instrument of the political Left.
Twenty-five years later, the founders of the Radical Caucus had ample reason to celebrate. Presentation after presentation at this year’s convention made it clear that the left-wing takeover of the MLA is now complete. What had once been an association of literary scholars today has become, in all but name, an openly aggressive political-action organization that has turned the classrooms of the nation into an arena for propagating left-wing causes and radical life-styles. The study of literature may still be the nominal reason for the existence of the MLA, but its real mission—at its own meetings, and in the classrooms where its members teach young students—is political activism.
Their purpose was to radicalize the MLA in order to transform the organization into an instrument of the political Left.
Nowhere was the triumph of this radicalization more evident than in the MLA’s presidential address, which at the December convention was delivered by Houston A. Baker, Jr., the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Baker, the first black president of the MLA, simply took it for granted that he was expected to speak about politics rather than literature on this ceremonial occasion, and speak about politics he did—and with a degree of partisan demagoguery once considered more appropriate to a political rally than to a congress of literary scholars. He even coined a new slogan for the kind of political activism he envisions as an appropriate academic course for the remainder of the 1990s. “Local pedagogy” was the name he bestowed upon the particular brand of political action he has in mind for both faculty and students.
Exactly what the president of the MLA meant by “local pedagogy” was made perfectly clear to his large and enthusiastic audience, and it had nothing to do with pedagogy as that word is generally understood. For Professor Baker the most immediate task of such “local pedagogy” at his own university in Philadelphia will be the destruction of white fraternities. These voluntary organizations of undergraduate students were said to pose so great a threat to the rights of women students—especially black women—and to homosexual students that the right of the fraternities to exist at all must be categorically denied. This proposal to deny white male students the right to the kind of voluntary association that Professor Baker and other radicals are demanding for black students, homosexual students, and other “minorities” was greeted with rapturous applause by his audience of more than one thousand academics. Like many other sessions at the December convention, Professor Baker’s address exuded the feverish atmosphere of incipient totalitarianism.
Professor Baker and several others made it clear that their celebration of 1968 was given additional impetus by the prospect that the election of a new administration in Washington signaled a revitalization of the kind of radical activism that has long been associated with “the Sixties.” Professor Baker was perfectly explicit about his belief that “the wicked”—meaning the Reagan and Bush administrations—had now been supplanted by “the rebirth this past November,” as he said, “of the possibility for hope in the humanities.” Now it is our impression that the “wicked” decade of the Eighties didn’t do so badly for radicals like Professor Baker, who managed during that time to turn the political subversion of the humanities into a growth industry—and at very high salaries, too. Still, for the top brass at the MLA, it isn’t enough to have effectively destroyed the standards of literary scholarship and turned the study of the humanities into a branch of radical politics: they are determined to stamp out the last remaining pockets of resistance to their imposition of ideological conformity as well. This is the real meaning of Professor Baker’s call for “local pedagogy” and his belief that the new administration in Washington will lend the weight of the federal government to an even greater degree of enforcement in matters of “political correctness” and “multiculturalism” than is already the case. We were thus given a sign in Professor Baker’s presidential address that the born-again radicalism of the 1990s is likely to make the radicalism of the 1960s look like a picnic.
The MLA has long embraced the graphic celebration of sexual excess and “alternative” sexual life-styles that were such prominent components of Sixties-style radicalism. Even the titles of many papers delivered at recent MLA conventions are unprintable in the mainstream media. But this year’s convention took the obsession with bizarre sexual subjects to new depths. There were a good many sessions at the December meeting in which conventional heterosexual behavior was looked upon with a loathing and contempt that used to be reserved for the most unspeakable criminal acts, while at the same time some of the more extreme varieties of “alternative” sexual behavior—including, in at least one instance, sex with infants—were extolled as if they represented some ideal human achievement. And this defense of the indefensible sometimes entailed a use of language on the part of the speakers—professors who teach kids in college—that is usually confined to X-rated films. Much of the time at this congregation of teachers and scholars, a sense of decency as well as scholarship was in short supply.
Above all, the 1992 convention of the MLA reminded us that the “long march through the institutions” that left-wing radicals called for in the Sixties has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of those fomenting revolt and cultural insurgency twenty-five years ago. In 1968, the Radical Caucus was widely regarded as a fringe group whose activities had nothing to do with the study or teaching of literature. Today, the voice of the Radical Caucus speaks to the assembled dignitaries of the Modern Language Association from the platform of that organization’s presidency. The “local pedagogy” of which Professor Baker speaks is no longer confined to the political rally, where it belongs. It now occupies the offices and classrooms of our most prestigious educational institutions.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 6, on page 1
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