How To Deal With Fringe Academics

How To Deal With Fringe Academics

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 8 2000 9:00 PM

How To Deal With Fringe Academics


Judith Shulevitz is the New York editor of Slate and writes the " Culturebox" column. John Tooby is a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Slate has invited them to discuss the academic fringe in general and Kevin MacDonald in particular. Alex Star, the editor of Lingua Franca, is moderating. Click here to read his introduction and recap of the brouhaha over MacDonald.


Dear Alex and John,

Great questions, Alex. Let me take your points one at a time.

First, Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. You ask: "Must anyone who wishes to make use of De Man's or Heidegger's work first come to a definite view of how their one-time fascist sympathies affected their ideas, then make that view known to the public, before going on to the public?" My answer is no, any more than anyone administering an SAT test has to raise the eugenicist theories held by Carl Brigham at the time that he invented the test. I also have to say that comparing the MacDonald case to the Heidegger and De Man cases is unfair, because there's a huge difference between criticizing scholars for things they have said or done that are unrelated to the main thrust of their work and talking about their work proper. In other words, when you talk about MacDonald, what you're talking about are his ideas.  When you talk about those two, you're talking about extracurricular activities. Odious activities, I grant you. Heidegger embraced Hitler in 1933 as Germany's savior, was made rector of the University of Freiberg, and while in that office instituted policies that resulted in the expulsion of Jewish professors and students. He was also something of a casual anti-Semite. De Man wrote a book review as a very young man in Switzerland in which he fretted about the Jewish influence on literature--a blatant expression of anti-Semitism which was, depressingly enough, quite mild by the standards of his time and place.

These actions discredited them as people--but not necessarily as scholars. You have to work harder to show that their important ideas were anti-Semitic or had anything to do with Jews and Nazis at all, and that has not been done. It can be argued and has been argued that Heidegger's German triumphalism is fatally entwined with his more significant philosophical claims, but that is a minority opinion. De Man's theories of rhetoric have been seen as a way of explaining away his earlier anti-Semitism (if everything's rhetoric, than what does it matter what he said?), though personally I think that the people who make that case haven't understood De Man, who considered rhetoric to be quite powerful.


In other words, to dismiss the entire body of work of an anti-Semite or racist or Nazi or Stalinist or Maoist, you have to make one of two arguments: 1) Intellectual labor is always and necessarily a reflection of political beliefs, or 2) The work in question, even on a seemingly unrelated topic, is really a cover for Nazism or Stalinism or Maoism or whatever the offensive ideology may be. Argument No. 1 is silly on its face, and I've never been persuaded by any version of argument No. 2 when it comes to Heidegger and De Man, though it's a lot trickier in Heidegger's case than in De Man's. The case of Noam Chomsky is even more clear-cut. Here's a brilliant linguist whose ideas remain the dominant paradigm in his field, even though his political notions are dismissible and wacky. If the philosophy or the linguistics or the literary theory is good--if it is true, as Alex would say--well, then, we praise the ideas and criticize the author. That does no damage to the first imperative, the principle of free and unfettered inquiry, as far as I can see.

But MacDonald! It's not as if all he ever did to link himself up with neo-Nazis was testify a week ago Monday at the David Irving trial. (By the way, John, while on the stand he cited his executive positions at HBES as proof, in part, of his solid professional standing in the field.) MacDonald has created a body of work in which he advances several ideas barely distinguishable from those used not long ago to justify the mass murder of the Jews. In that work, he claims to be building on the ideas of respected scholars. His work has been recognized by many in the scholarly establishment, such as David Sloan Wilson and MacDonald's editor, Seymour Itzkoff. (Of course, MacDonald also thanks in his acknowledgments other fringe scholars, such as J. Phillippe Rushton, the Canadian who believes that brain size correlates to intelligence.)

Now, maybe MacDonald's ideas are true, and my refusal to accept that fact is just part of my Jewish genetic heritage--my propensity to deceive myself about the awful truth of my people. I'm not exaggerating here--that's how he would see it. Or maybe his ideas are just the ravings of a lunatic. Is silence (or failure to cite in scholarly articles) the most deafening refutation they could receive? David Irving clearly doesn't feel that MacDonald's work has been definitively refuted. Nor do the many anti-Semites and revisionists who endorse or reprint MacDonald on their Web sites. And now, because I believe in shedding light on hate speech, rather than letting it thrive in the dark, I'm going to provide links to a half-dozen poisonous sites, where, if you're in doubt about the power and tenacity of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, you're invited to buy the books of "a real expert on the subject, California State University psychology professor Dr. Kevin MacDonald." Here's a link for the National Journal, a site that mourns the unatoned genocide of 15 million Germans in World War II. Here's the same citation at "White Pride Worldwide" and again at "Radio Islam." Here's an article on MacDonald at the National Alliance, an Aryan supremacist group. Here's a Holocaust-revisionist site that reprints an article by MacDonald on how Jews promote immigration in order to combat "the establishment of ethnically and culturally homogeneous societies in which they reside as minorities." (A Slate reader tells me that he has brought this possible copyright infraction to MacDonald's attention several times, and MacDonald has never done anything about it.) Here's MacDonald being cited by a pro-Serbian group; and here's a rave review of MacDonald's books on a Web site defending Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. There are other sites devoted to various nefarious causes in which praise is heaped upon MacDonald--anti-immigration sites, Holocaust-revisionist sites, and general anti-Semitism sites--but I've gotten tired of reprinting URLs. So, more available on request.

I guess what I'd say, Alex, is that there are certain ideas that are the intellectual equivalent of raising a knife. MacDonald's are among them. If you happen to believe that those particular ideas are true, then, given that they've been used to justify slaughter in the past and could be so used again, it is your moral obligation to proceed very, very carefully trying to dissociate your ideas from such uses. MacDonald has not done so. On the contrary: By testifying in the Irving trial, by allowing his articles to be reprinted by Holocaust deniers, by running around the Web spewing anti-Semitic theories about how Polish Jews got what they deserved in postwar Poland, among other things, Kevin MacDonald has shown that he is delighted to see his anti-Jewish ideas put in the service of Jew-bashing.

But what if you're just MacDonald's colleague? What if, like John, you're the president of an organization in which MacDonald holds several executive positions? If you care about the reputation of your organization and the ideas associated with it, then it is your obligation--when ideas like this are raised--to inform yourself about how they are being used. And if you don't want outsiders to feel that a MacDonald besmirches the good name of your scholarly discipline, then you and your colleagues ought to consider doing the work of separating out the true from the ludicrous, so that future generations (to say nothing of present anti-Semites) won't be deceived by bad scholarship into thinking that ethnic hatred has solid intellectual grounds. If you choose instead to bury your head in the sand, I think it's naive to get upset when others maintain that a MacDonald on the executive board reflects badly on your organization and its larger agenda.

Now, to turn from this discussion of professional ethics to the more interesting and difficult discussion of intellectual substance: As I understand it, the point at which MacDonald goes wrong, at least in Tooby's view, is that he accepts that adaptation can occur at the level of the group, rather than the individual, and that religious ritual and complex theological theories can be viewed as group evolutionary adaptations. As Alex pointed out, this is not the central element in the thought of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, who are bystanders to this debate. Group selection and its consequences are the domain of David Sloan Wilson and his followers. That's where this discussion should go next, since that's the line of thought that makes MacDonald's work possible. If I were advising our editors, I'd suggest that they schedule another dialogue between Wilson and someone on Tooby's side--Tooby himself? Leda Cosmides? Margo Wilson? Martin Daly?--because that's where the really hard and provocative questions would be addressed.


Judith Shulevitz is the New York editor of Slate and writes the "Culturebox" column. John Tooby is a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Slate has invited them to discuss the academic fringe in general and Kevin MacDonald in particular. Alex Star, the editor ofLingua Franca, is moderating.

Universities, science labs, and professional bodies have the right to prevent expression of offensive opinions within their chambers. When the organizers of, say, a national convention of psychologists reject a proposed panel on race and IQ, they are acting to uphold the standards of their profession, not to suppress unpopular points of view.

Or are they? Two weeks ago, Slate published a column by Judith Shulevitz that examined the writings of an evolutionary psychologist named Kevin MacDonald. The author of three books on Judaism as a "group evolutionary strategy," on Jan. 31 MacDonald testified on behalf of Holocaust denier David Irving in the libel case that Irving has brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt in Britain. He is also a professor of psychology at California State University in Long Beach and an elected officer of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES), an academic society devoted to the field of evolutionary psychology. (Click here for the defense MacDonald posted in "The Fray," Slate's reader-feedback forum, and here for Shulevitz's reply.)

In Shulevitz's view, MacDonald's interpretation of Judaism is ugly and tendentious, and yet MacDonald nonetheless enjoys the prestige that comes from helping to run a respected scholarly organization. She argued in a subsequent column that other members of the society have a responsibility to combat his opinions; even if they can't strip him of an elected post, they can do their best to stop him from using their organization to advance his own agenda.

Evolutionary psychologists and other scientists have responded in droves. (See these postings by MacDonald reviewer John Hartung, group selection theorist David Sloan Wilson, John Horgan, and Steven Pinker.) Some have suggested that MacDonald's work deserves to be taken seriously, that there may well be something to it. Others have noted that the HBES does not subject conference papers to peer review; if some dubious or even offensive words are spoken, well, that's the price you pay for intellectual vitality. Still others have argued a public purge or denouncement of MacDonald's work would only give attention to his repugnant views.

For this "Dialogue," Slate has asked John Tooby, an eminent evolutionary psychologist and the president of the HBES, to discuss these issues with Judith Shulevitz. Could MacDonald's work survive a peer review conducted by other HBES members? If it could, what does that say about the discipline of evolutionary psychology? If it couldn't, should HBES nonetheless allow him to use its good name?

—Alex Star