When the Mob Has a Point: The Firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley
Naomi Schaefer Riley was a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education until this week, when she was fired for writing this blog post, in which she argued for the elimination of university Black Studies departments, by mocking a few dissertation topics in the field.
Today, Riley has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (where she used to be an editor) defending herself. She notes that she made similar arguments in a book that she published before she was hired at CHE: "It is not merely that [many] departments approach African-American studies from a particular perspective-an Africa-centered one in which blacks residing in America today are still deeply hobbled by the legacy of slavery. It's that course and department descriptions often appear to be a series of axes that faculty members would like to grind." She concludes:
My longtime familiarity with the absurdities of higher education did not, I confess, prepare me for this most absurd of results. The content of my post, after all, is hardly shocking; the same thing could have been written 30 years ago. And perhaps that's the most depressing part of all this. Despite the real social and economic advancement that has been made by blacks in this country, the American faculty is still stuck in the 1960s.
One thing that Riley says is true: CHE knew who she was when they hired her, and almost certainly caved to a mob-like outcry when they fired her. Writers should not be fired solely for holding unpopular opinions. That said, she neglects to mention that she is also guilty of an offense that constitutes a very legitimate reason for a writer to be fired: being stupid. Let's look at a bit of content from her infamous blog post:
That's what I would say about Ruth Hayes' dissertation, "‘So I Could Be Easeful': Black Women's Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth." It began because she "noticed that nonwhite women's experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery." How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in "natural birth literature," whatever the heck that is?
Is "natural birth literature" really an impossibly difficult phrase to understand? I would posit that it is not. Everything needed to fully grasp its meaning is right there in its three words. One more:
But topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, "Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy's dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.'" The assault on civil rights? Because they don't favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights?
Well, assuming that the civil rights movement benefited black intellectuals in the academy, then yes, people like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and John McWhorter can reasonably be described as intellectually assaulting the civil rights legacy that benefited them. Yes, they can. That, too, seems very easy to grasp, in a way that cannot be automatically refuted by typing rhetorical questions.
So, to Naomi Schaefer Riley, I offer this bit of qualified support: we stand with any writers who were fired purely for taking a principled and well-argued yet unpopular stand that their weak employers could not endure. However, we also cannot think of any better reason for a writer to lose their job than the fact that they are a hack who makes poorly thought out arguments. I mean, being dumb is essentially the only good reason to fire a writer. (This is, we admit, an inherently subjective judgment which can be argued about ad infinitum. But the standard for hackery at the Chronicle of Higher Education is presumably a bit higher than it would be at, say, RedState.com.)
Riley may have been a victim of a mob. But the mob had a point.