The Crisis of the American Elites

Judith Butler and Ed Whelan share little in common—save their willingness to direct cruelty against ordinary people in defense of eminent colleagues.

Judith Butler delivering her Adorno Prize lecture, "Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life?"
Judith Butler delivering her Adorno Prize lecture, "Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life?" (Thomas Lohnes / dapd / AP)

Judith Butler and Ed Whelan have probably never met. And if they did, we may be quite certain that they would have very little use for each other. After all, what does the professor of comparative literature, the author of (among other works) Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, who teaches in the critical-theory program at UC Berkeley, have to do with the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the co-editor of Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived? And yet, they find themselves embarrassed by nearly identical behaviors, forced to make shamefaced admissions that they have behaved like nasty, irresponsible idiots.

Butler wrote a letter, signed by 50 other professors, urging New York University’s president and provost not to implement disciplinary sanctions on Avital Ronell, a professor of German, comparative literature, and English, for the sexual harassment of a graduate student whom Butler described as having “waged a malicious campaign against” Ronell with “malicious intention.” (Style point: It’s bad for anyone, including literature professors, to repeat the same strong adjective in one paragraph). Ronell, who also holds the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is, needless to say, a very important person in the world of critical theory.

Whelan, an intimate of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is now a candidate for the position of associate justice on the Supreme Court, wrote a bizarre extended tweetstorm defending his friend from the accusations of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her at a party 35 years ago. In an elaborate eruption on Twitter, Whelan provided diagrams and photographs of the party house in question and concluded by fingering one of Kavanaugh’s classmates, whom he identified by name and whom Ford pointedly said had not been involved.

Firestorms of disapproval erupted in both cases. Butler published a letter in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which she confessed to not knowing a whole lot about the accusations against Ronell, admitted that she should not have attributed motives to the student in question, conceded that accusations of sexual harassment should be resolved on the basis of evidence, and regretted having implied that Ronell’s academic reputation should earn her “differential treatment.” She also confessed that she should not have signed her letter as the president-elect of the Modern Language Association—the 25,000-member association of literary scholars. Her letter appeared next to an article with the title, “I Worked With Avital Ronnell. I Believe Her Accuser.”

For his part, Whelan declared that he had made “an appalling and inexcusable error of judgment” and had “grievously and carelessly wronged the person I identified,” and took down his tweet thread. He then went back to attacking Ford’s memory of the attempted rape. As of this moment, we do not know if Whelan will face a lawsuit for defamation of character, but we do know that by virtue of running a think tank whose name leads with the word ethics, he is in hot water.

The stories of Whelan and Butler have nothing to do with whether one thinks Kavanaugh and Ronell did nothing at all or behaved appallingly. They have everything to do with the current crisis of American elites in many fields, including the law and higher education. For the lawyer and the professor are exquisitely similar. Their academic pedigree is magnificent: Harvard Law School, Yale graduate school. Their position in their profession is eminent, if detached from the rest of the world. If you are a liberal, you probably do not know or care that Whelan writes often for National Review and is a leading figure in conservative legal circles; if you do not know, or care to know, much about critical theory, the writings of Butler are academic in the unflattering sense of that term. But in their world, they are, if not royalty, lords of the realm.

Their motives here are also similar: Eminent friends are being taken down at the peak of their professional career by someone who is, in their world, a nobody. It’s outrageous, and it has to be stopped. And if, by so doing, you defame a classmate of Kavanaugh’s, accusing him of attempted rape, or effectively threaten to obliterate a graduate student’s career by lending a mob of literature professors the imprimatur of the MLA, so be it. That is the point and that is the sin: the willingness to stomp hard on a defenseless little guy in order to protect your highly privileged pal.

Of the many forms of cruelty, that directed against those who are weak or powerless is one of the worst. Of itself, it undermines whatever legitimacy a person can claim by virtue of intellectual or professional distinction. Societies and governments will have elites—that is simply inescapable, except perhaps in an ancient city-state, and probably not even then. But in a free society, for those elites to exercise their power—their very real power, as those subject to it well know—they have to do so with restraint and good judgment. The alternative is, sooner or later, revolt, which is why higher education often finds itself battered by angry citizens who, in a different setting, conclude that the legal system, too, is rigged.

Butler and Whelan deserve credit for admitting their mistakes and apologizing. But there is not much evidence that they have thought about the broader point here. The issue goes well beyond the graduate student and Kavanaugh’s classmate who got an undeserved accusation. It is, rather, the broader setting that caused two eminent people to choose tribalism, hyper-ideology, and personal attachment over fairness, a moderate willingness to withhold judgment, and merest decency.

If Whelan and Butler were ever to meet and to look at each other closely, they would realize that they are looking in a mirror, and they should not be pleased by what they see. And those who will insist in response to this article that it is outrageous to compare Whelan to Butler, or Butler to Whelan? You have conclusively proven my point.