Opinion: Casting John McCain as bigot shows how academia divides us



Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and serves on his local school board.

In this essay, Maranto describes an increasingly hypersensitive campus culture where even a John McCain can be seen as a bigot, leaving, he says, little hope for the rest of us.

It’s a fascinating piece.

By Robert Maranto

John McCain was someone almost everyone considered an American hero.

Among his finest moments was the his civilized response when, during the 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama, at a rally in Minnesota, a McCain supporter called Sen. Obama an Arab, not an American.

"No, ma'am," Sen. McCain countered, shaking his head sadly and taking the microphone from her. "He's a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about."

McCain’s rebuttal of a bigoted remark was gracious, sensible, and good. Yet in academia, saying that could get you busted.

Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue, the principal proponent of the microaggression concept, contends that McCain's defense of Obama was actually a microaggression against Obama, albeit a well-intentioned one. Sue interpreted McCain's phrase "a decent family man" as implying that Muslim males do not take care of their families, and that Obama is Muslim, and thus dangerous

From Sue's Columbia University to Presbyterian College, as a student, John McCain would have had a lot of explaining to do before a campus disciplinary committee for his comment.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Donald Trump is president.

Academia has failed America, causing needless division and leading most Republicans and many Democrats to question our expertise, even when, as regarding climate change or Mr. Trump’s temperament for the presidency, empirical evidence is on our side.

University based intellectuals have rushed to impose ideological solutions to social problems like discrimination even when social science fails to find their merit. As Emory Professor Scott Lilienfeld shows in "Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence," microaggressions are amorphous, largely unmeasured, and perhaps unmeasurable. By Sue's admissions, microaggressions exist in the eye of the beholder; thus, they are not scientific, but are ripe for abuse.

Similarly, Harvard researchers find classroom "trigger warnings" about disturbing materials do not reduce anxiety and may even increase it; yet many colleges employ them to protect seemingly vulnerable students

Reporters have been complicit. PBS's normally sensible News Hour did a puff piece on microaggressions. Similarly, a front-page New York Times piece gushed over efforts at elite colleges to train students in highly complex ethnic and gender etiquette ("Campuses Cautiously Train Freshman Against Subtle Insults.")

Students who say the wrong thing or even look at someone the wrong way could face charges damaging to one’s college record and beyond. Only the most sophisticated will know enough to comply, the ultimate form of privilege.

To be clear, all societies have powerful elites who define etiquette, setting the bounds of polite discourse. Unfortunately, too many university-based arbiters of taste have made the rules of communication so arcane and fluid that virtually anyone might face sanctions for violating them. Some students avoid interactions with those superficially different from themselves, so as not to risk saying something offending someone. Even edgy comedians like Chris Rock now avoid campus audiences for fear of denunciation for insensitive humor.

Yet when everything is racist or sexist, then nothing is. Without credible social standards, it becomes impossible to hold the likes of Donald Trump accountable for clearly prejudicial statements.

More substantively, when intellectual elites denounce as racist any reasoned discussion of crime, family breakdown, and border security then we lose our critical facilities, and our ability to solve complex problems. From successful education for low-income children at the Kipp, Knowledge Is Power Program, schools, to Clinton-era welfare reforms, to the near miraculous success of the New York Police Department in massively reducing both crime and police brutality, public policy remedies from the center and right have had considerable success. Yet, academics look the other way or even denounce empirical successes, leading policy-makers of both parties to discount scholarly expertise.

Of all the ways in which academia has failed America, none seem more far-reaching than the erosion of a common patriotism, something that vexed John McCain. For McCain, ethnic differences paled beside his shared identity with Barack Obama as “citizens of the world's greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil.”

In other words, Americans have a common identity beyond the intersectional categories promoted in academia. Making academia safe for America would honor Sen. McCain, and really make America great.