Daphne Patai’s What Price Utopia?

What Price Utopia?Daphne Patai is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she specializes in Brazilian literature. I’ve come to know her, however, for her work as a critic of the politicization of education. She has written and edited books condemning speech codes (including over-broad sexual harassment regulations), feminism, and the reliance on literary theory that has, in her and my opinion, hollowed out the study of literature. She currently serves on the board of F.I.R.E. (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which works against an army of bureaucrats and sanctimonious professors to ensure certain liberties, chief among them the freedom of expression, do not entirely die out on college campuses. In other words, she is something of a personal hero of mine, but her efforts and her principles have made her a modern pariah to all but a handful of devoted followers.

What Price Utopia?: Essays On Ideological Policing, Feminism, And Academic Affairs collects a generous sample of her writings in one tidy volume. The essays on feminism are a penetrating diagnosis of the ideology’s maladies and so, like all such diagnoses, destined not to be read, disputed or even acknowledged by the true believers. For whoever will listen, however, she tears through the movement’s shibboleths – of “rape culture” and the dogma of social constructionism, for example – with astonishing ease, exposing the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy that perpetuates bad and, frankly, hateful ideas. The essay “MacKinnon as Bully,” recounting the cowardly legal threats MacKinnon threatened Patai and Koertge with in response to their wonderful Professing Feminism, elicits much needed laughter as MacKinnon is caught in a web of her own inconsistencies. She delivers blow after devastating blow, often with astonishing economy. Thus, on feminism:

It pursues a the-worse-the-better strategy, barely acknowledging women’s considerable progress in the past few decades or even denying it altogether. It exaggerates to the point of absurdity the awfulness of men. And it enthusiastically indulges in the practice of “concept stretching,” until terms such as rape or sexual harassment lose all definition and become mere signifiers of original patriarchal sin.

Or on the politicization of education:

What students learn is that blame and accusation, self-righteousness and personal confrontations, so-called “political” criteria for deciding among different knowledge claims, and recriminations for “enemies” and pop-therapeutic group support for friends are habited prized and flaunted…

I recognize in her indictments the atmosphere on my alma mater’s campus. I have seen such horrors replicated, even enthusiastically welcomed, on other campuses. And I have charted the influence this stultifying atmosphere of conformity and regurgitated “wisdom” has had on public policy – all of which makes me grateful for Patai’s dissent.

Though I picked this book up for its commentary on feminism and academia more generally, my favorite essays in the collection dealt with literature. One, in particular, analyzes the works of Philip Roth, Nicholas Delblanco and Francine Prose, and convincingly demonstrates how certain of their novels rage against the developments in academia and culture that Patai criticizes. Like Patai, I place my faith for revolution in art and literature, which by their very nature rebel against caricature and conformity.

Finally, an aside: I have been gratified, over the past few years of heavy reading, to find some of my unformed opinions, hunches or misgivings shared by brilliant men and women, who have endeared themselves to me in our shared antipathies. I owe to Patai this beautiful quotation from the novelist Cynthia Ozick, whom I have not yet read but find myself already greatly endeared to:

(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multisyllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviews, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)

One day the fog will dissipate and take with it their malign influence. No more needs to be said.