For several decades, universities on both sides of the Atlantic have not been pleasant places to work.
Since the 1960s, humanities and social science faculties have been the last redoubt of the Left, whether in its Marxist totalitarian or post-modernist, multicultural incarnations. Academics have been allowed to have their way in imposing a stifling political correctness.
However, their parallel subjection to market forces, increasingly litigious students, or in America, aggressive groups that monitor on-campus ideological biases, has not diminished their sense of professional resentment.
This darker climate is reflected in successive literary representations of the modern academy. David Mamet's play Oriana or Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain evoke a much nastier world than that of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim or David Lodge's Howard Kirk, since issues of gender and race were involved.
Occasionally, what many academics suffer in aggrieved silence hits the newspapers or, increasingly, the courts. Life as it pullulates under the rock briefly sees the light of day.
Mary Lefkowitz is a retired classicist who until recently taught at Wellesley College, a women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Her troubles involved an Afro-Caribbean colleague called Anthony Martin from the Africana Studies department. By all accounts, he had done much to advance the careers of young black women under his tutelage.
One evening in October 1991, Martin was part of a group reading Twelfth Night in a college hall. He wanted to pee. On his re-ascent from the men's room, Professor Martin was stopped by a student dorm officer, one Michelle Plantec, who had been trained to ask all non-resident visitors: 'Excuse me, sir, who are you with?' This seemingly straightforward challenge, evidently heavy with undertones that Martin was similarly attuned to spot, prompted the professor to respond by screaming at Plantec that she was 'a f---ing bitch, a racist and a bigot'.
Faced with the on-campus black caucus that soon lined up against her, Plantec had a nervous breakdown and left Wellesley.
Meanwhile, Professor Lefkowitz was becoming increasingly concerned about how Afrocentric ideology was corrupting Classics. She wrote a prominent review of Martin Bernal's book Black Athena, which had absurdly claimed that the cultural and philosophical achievements of ancient Greece had been filched from the ancient Egyptians who had really been black 'Africans'.
Her demolition of the notion of a 'stolen legacy' outraged black activist academics, including Professor Martin.
Lefkowitz fuelled the flames by querying whether one of Martin's own Africana Studies courses should be re-titled 'Africans in the Greek and Roman world', rather than 'Africans in Greece and Rome'.
She was also astonished when, in the interests of a quiet life, a Dean remarked: 'He has his view of ancient history, and you have yours,' a relativist view that took no cognisance of Lefkowitz's 30 years in the field, or that Martin was an expert on the radical nationalist Marcus Garvey rather than Homer.
This dispute about the wording of a course description soon involved one of the less explored varieties of racism in America - namely that many middle-class blacks hate Jews, although anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not an entirely one-way street.
Lefkowitz discovered that recommended reading for one of Martin's courses included an anti-Semitic tract that accused the Jews of involvement in the slave trade.
Since the Germans had 'compensated' Jews for the Holocaust, shouldn't Jews pay reparations for their (non-existent) role in an 'equal' abomination?
As animosities deepened, Lefkowitz attracted the support of local and national Jewish organisations, while Martin upped the ante with a book called The Jewish Onslaught: Despatches from the Wellesley Battlefront.
This act of anti-Semitic mania resulted in Martin not receiving an annual pay rise, although he did become a celebrity speaker on the black campus circuit where such views were commonplace. If the boot had been on the other foot, one suspects that Lefkowitz would have been fired.
A Hull graduate and Gray's Inn barrister by training, Martin sued Lefkowitz for malicious libel - in an article she had raked up the old incident with Ms Plantec - and Wellesley College for racial discrimination in refusing him a merit award.
After several years in the courts, Martin's various suits were summarily dismissed. He has since retired to Trinidad, whence he bobs up on the Holocaust denial circuit.
Lefkowitz herself has become a noteworthy cause, like David Irving's nemesis, Deborah Lipstadt.
Wellesley College shares a home state with Salem, which was also famous for witch hunts. Nowadays they seem to take the form of marshalling advocacy groups, alumni, student claques, rival gangs of colleagues and clients, and ultimately lawyers, newspapers, student informers and spies.
Lefkowitz's enthralling little book reveals far more about this sordid world than she, as an insider, probably realises.
Monday, May 26, 2008
from the Telegraph: Race Odyssey: history in black and white (Michael Burleigh reviews History Lesson: A Race Odyssey by Mary Lefkowitz)