the riley flap and anti-intellectualism

For those who haven’t been following it thus far, Horowitz wannabe Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a screed about black studies as a paid blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education, following up on the Chronicle’s generally positive news story about the discipline. There’s nothing particularly special about the screed; it’s garden-variety right-wing anti-intellectualism, peppered with a well-honed tone of marginalized sanctimony. Given its subject matter, it’s clearly racist too, but as far as I can tell the racism is not the primary cause of the argument but a result of its defiant ignorance.Following the uproar about the blog entry, Riley posted a follow-up not just admitting but bragging that she hadn’t actually read the scholarship in question. More uproar followed, and then the obligatory editorial statement that they love vigorous debate and those who disagree should feel free to do so loudly and often.

Then, yesterday, the editors change their tune and fire Riley from the blog. The reactions, like the rest of this sordid affair, are predictable and vacuous. Right-wingers howl about free speech and the “race card,” and it goes without saying that Riley will feed off the firing to take her place among the canon of right-wingers who take pride in having been marginalized from academia because they don’t like thinking.

The whole thing is sort of revolting and enticing, in the same way as a road accident might be.

I do think the critics made a tactical mistake by highlighting the racist component. The blog entry would be about as objectionable if it were without racist overtones at all — complaining, say, about string theory in physics or new translations of Greek classics without actually paying attention to the scholarship at all. Emphasizing the racism of it provides an easy out for Riley and her ilk to complain about how academics are so “sensitive,” and gives a free pass to the more general, insidious, toxic theme: right-wing anti-intellectualism.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

14 thoughts on “the riley flap and anti-intellectualism”

  1. I had a nice lunchtime conversation about this yesterday with our friend PL, and he convinced me that the central flaw in the Chronicle’s original response was to deploy “teach the controversy” rhetoric. Uninformed screeds cannot reasonably be confused with informed debate. Moreover, I hardly see how this publication’s editorial decisions are a context within which free speech claims can be made.


    1. Jenn, the “teach the controversy” rhetoric seems like a way to spin poor organizational practices until they are unspinnable. In firing Riley, the editor says the article “did not conform to our journalistic standards,” but later says “Ms. Riley’s post was not reviewed until after it was posted.”

      Posts like Riley’s are the reason why most news organizations hire editors to review columns and opinion pieces before publication. The editor’s first job is to limit uninformed screeds that will make the publication look bad! I showed Riley’s column to a friend working as a copy editor at a local newspaper. It took him all of 10 seconds to say he wouldn’t print it.


  2. I disagree with Andrew. The original post was certainly anti-intellectual but it was also profoundly racist precisely in operating under racist assumptions that it is ok to attack marginalized junior scholars whose irrelevance is defined entirely and precisely by their marginality. Riley could have written exactly the same content about the dissertations of white male physicists or economists or medieval historians. That would have been pure anti-intellectualism. The titles of their dissertations are even more meaningless and boring to the uninitiated. But she did not attack somebody safe and privileged, she attacked precisely people who had just been celebrated for entering the academy in a previous Chronicle article. It was a straight-up political attack and it was entirely appropriate to respond to it as such.

    If she’d bothered to do any research about the actual content of the dissertations she could have accomplished her political goals without the anti-intellectualism. (Let’s face it, any dissertation on any topic by any scholar can be ripped apart by someone who has decided to do it.) Would that have made her political goals any different?

    By the way to say that the post was profoundly racist in its assumptions is NOT to say that Riley herself is racist as a general stance in life. It’s the “what you said” not “who you are” distinction.


    1. OW: I agree that it’s racist, I just don’t think racism is the primary motivator for the article. I also think the fact that the critics have emphasized its racist character makes it that much easier for Riley to just accuse them (us) of “playing the race card.” If the critique revolved around the fact that she writes about academia and has neither respect for, nor competence in, academic pursuits, that would make it harder for her to claim persecution.


      1. Hmmm. She’s going to claim persecution anyway. I was just recalling the following analogy in a conversation with a student on another topic entirely, specifically imprisonment disparities. I’m not checking the reference but I think it was Michael Tonry whose work I’m cribbing from by memory. If I blow up a plane because I’ve sold the airplane company’s stock short and killing the people aboard was just incidental to my real interest in making money on a stock transaction, do we say that the killing was less heinous? Wouldn’t many people think it is more heinous to be indifferent to killing people to make money in the stock market than for some reason relating to actual animosity against the victims?

        A case could be made that being entirely indifferent to the welfare of young Black academics in seeking to attract attention and readership to oneself with a smart-ass unintellectual “funny” blog post is much worse than writing a sincere piece with actual racial animosity in mind.

        That’s what was being called out.


      2. I also think the fact that the critics have emphasized its racist character makes it that much easier for Riley to just accuse them (us) of “playing the race card.” If the critique revolved around the fact that she writes about academia and has neither respect for, nor competence in, academic pursuits, that would make it harder for her to claim persecution.

        So is the conclusion that it’s best for anti-racists to ignore racism rather than call it out? That seems rather entirely wrong to me.


      3. So Andy, not to put you on the defensive, but to add to your (and other scatterplotters) thinking on the subject, and in line with Elizabeth’s comment, consider this. You seem to think that the only important audience is White conservatives or White middle-of-the-roaders, and for that audience you think it is important to attack on non-racial groups grounds* of anti-intellectualism because that seems more legitimate to you.

        Other people think that Black people are an important part of the audience, and that standing up in solidarity with Black people when they are attacked is important. If a person is attacked and no one else stands up, they feel alone and isolated. This is actually true of anybody who feels attacked (as I’m sure Riley is feeling now), but it is especially true of people who have been historically disadvantaged and marginalized. If White academics don’t speak up on their behalf, Black academics can and probably will assume that at best we just don’t care and at worst we agree with the attack.
        * I edited the typo.


      4. Elizabeth/OW: I don’t mind being put on the spot, and I do think we have a real disagreement. As I wrote, I don’t see racism as the primary motivation of the piece; I could easily see it as attacking literary criticism, linguistics, anthropology — really just about anything on the humanities side of campus. The fact that both the scholars and the topics were black made the attack less risky for Riley and made the piece racist as well as anti-intellectual (and asinine).

        The question now isn’t whether other scholars should or will “stand up” for the dissed scholars; they should and have. The question is whether we should stand up because those scholars and their topics are black, or alternatively because their scholarship was unfairly and maliciously attacked. I think most scholars — of any race — would prefer to be defended on intellectual as opposed to racial grounds. I also think we set a bad precedent if we imply that unfair, malicious right-wing anti-intellectual attacks are fine as long as the scholars and topics being attacked are white men. And finally I think that emphasizing the racism critique over the anti-intellectualism critique makes it easier for Riley to claim victimization to her audience.

        Of course when one sees racism one ought to call it out. So the analytical question remains: is the piece primarily racist in character and anti-intellectual secondarily, or is it primarily anti-intellectual and secondarily racist? I think the latter, and hence my political argument. If you think the former, I can see the rationale for emphasizing racism in the response.


    2. Contributing to the discussion (on both sides) here’s one a very well-written response by a Black woman. Her argument is that the central point of the essay was to attack their right to exist and be visible as subjects choosing and creating their own careers. I wanted to link to it earlier but couldn’t remember how I’d found it. (Later remembered it had been emailed to me)

      And here is her own follow up including the letter she sent to the Chronicle with 6000+ petition signatures attached which I found when going back to look for the first link.

      You will see that her letter to the Chronicle does not mention race, just unprovoked unprofessional personal attacks, while her original blog post locates those personal attacks as attacks on audacity of Black scholars to exist.

      So we agree that standing up with someone who is attacked is important, while continuing to debate the language with which that support ought to be expressed. My reading is that Ms. Cottom both thought calling this racist was important and that non-racial accusations of unprofessional personal attacks in the “official” letter were the way to go.


  3. It’s also a very lazy and tired piece of right-wing boilerplate. The racist content might make the poor quality more acceptable to that crowd because it’s such an evergreen target.

    Wait – did you say “paid blogger”?


  4. Too many nesting replies in 2., but I’m writing to reply* to
    “andrewperrin This was the first thing I read on the topic – thought it was terrific.”

    Well then, I find it unfortunate that you didn’t link to it, but only linked to fellow white guy Henry Farrell on Crooked Timber. About a black studies controversy.

    You seem to advocate for downplaying race. But the problem is, too often when race is downplayed, it means the continuing whiteness of the academy — and faculty blogs and links.

    *: Respectfully, from one white sociologist to another.


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