‘The fish rots from the head’
It might seem bizarre to blame the murder of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty on a nebulous conspiracy of leftist academics, given that the perpetrator, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, was an 18-year-old who had never been to university. But earlier this month in Le Monde, 100 French academics gave their backing to Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, when he responded to the murder with a flood of invective against universities. ‘Islamo-leftism is wreaking havoc,’ he said. Paty’s murderer had been ‘conditioned by people who encourage’ a type of ‘intellectual radicalism’ and promote ‘ideas that often come from elsewhere’, i.e. from across the Atlantic. ‘The fish rots from the head,’ he added darkly.
Blanquer was following the example of the president of the republic. ‘Academia is guilty,’ Macron said in June, because ‘it has encouraged ethnicisation of the social question’, leading to the spread of ‘secessionist’ views. This ideological critique formed the basis for a recent law targeting ‘separatism’, one of the few government initiatives to have survived Covid-19. The academics writing to Le Monde after the murder of Samuel Paty agreed. They lamented the ‘racialist and “decolonial” ideologies (transferred from North American campuses)’ that are ‘feeding a hatred of “whites” and of France’. And they demanded the Ministry of Education ‘put in place measures to detect Islamist tendencies’ at universities, ‘to engage our universities in this fight for secularism and the Republic’.
These may appear to be interventions in a peculiarly French culture war: a combined spectre of ‘anti-white racism’, a ‘Muslim problem’ and pernicious American influence is, for many in France, an irresistible combination. But there are plenty of global parallels. In September, Donald Trump issued a directive to stop federal organisations delivering anti-bias training that drew on ‘critical race theory’ or ‘white privilege’ because they were ‘un-American propaganda training sessions’. In South Africa, Helen Zille, the former leader of the Democratic Alliance, has often attacked ‘critical race theory’, which she calls ‘a new set of ideas rooted in Frantz Fanon’s writings’. Last month, the UK women and equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, claimed in the House of Commons that teaching ‘elements of critical race theory’ in schools – in particular, ‘white privilege and inherited racial guilt’ – was illegal.
You could respond by pointing out the inaccuracy of these assertions. ‘Critical race theory’ isn’t a radical new academic doctrine, but the name given to a specific set of interventions in American legal theory that sought to show how racism could be entrenched in the law. The first annual Workshop on Critical Race Theory was held in 1989 and drew on research going back to the 1960s. Most contemporary scholars researching race and racism – whether writing about Shakespeare or the World Trade Organisation – don’t use the term ‘critical race theory’ to describe their work. The critical study of whiteness is a centuries-old tradition among black intellectuals, going back at least to Frederick Douglass. The term ‘white privilege’ was coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 (it is not new, did not come from critical race theory in American legal studies, and is not particularly reflective of current scholarship on whiteness). And, far from being taken over by scholarship on racism and postcolonialism, French academia has been famously hostile to it: graduate students interested in those topics have often had to emigrate. For a political project that targets intellectuals, though, these details are beside the point. The term ‘critical race theory’, like ‘postmodernism’, is now in the hands of its self-professed enemies, who are not especially interested in its relation to actually existing scholarship.
There’s nothing new about seeing universities as nurseries of radicalism. As the signatories of two open letters in response to Le Monde pointed out, ‘islamo-leftism’ sounds remarkably like ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’: both terms conjure a dubiously semitic, dangerously powerful minority in bed with left-wing intellectuals. In Britain, hostility to universities is so prevalent among Conservatives that it was recently described as the party’s ‘new Euroscepticism’ by Jo Johnson, the former universities minister. Erdoğan’s Turkey and Modi’s India – to take just two notable examples – have targeted university students and faculty in their campaigns of mastery over Kurdistan and Kashmir.
Many academics have risen to the defence of their colleagues. But some, like those who wrote to Le Monde, are doing the opposite: openly backing the suppression of bodies of research they don’t like. Eric Kaufmann, who teaches politics at Birkbeck, suggests ‘we should applaud’ Trump’s order banning critical race theory. In France, the Conference of University Presidents and the main students’ union, UNEF, condemned Blanquer’s remarks as ridiculous and irresponsible. But a right-wing students’ association, the Union Nationale Interuniversitaire, was delighted. It asked only that Blanquer go further. ‘Now that we agree on the Islamo-leftism of the UNEF and its hatred of everything that makes France,’ they said, ‘can we talk about the hundreds of thousands of euros of public subsidies that UNEF has been receiving for decades?’