Sheldon Hackney’s apologia pro vita sua is an elegant, persuasive defense of a judicious approach to the culture wars, but it is also an indispensable study of the press, much of which played useful idiot to the crackpot right’s crusade against what they took to be campus radicalism as they pumped themselves up for the Gingrich moment of 1994. Led by the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which devoted no fewer than seven editorials to Hackney’s thought-crimes during the spring of 1993, the press jumped all over Hackney, charging him with despising free speech and truckling under to disruptive nonwhite students. A chorus of reliable pundits chimed in against the demonic Ivy Leaguer: Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Pat Buchanan, and John Leo, among others. In an uproar of maximum feasible misunderstanding and viciousness reminiscent of the Whitewater froth running concurrently, the press produced a caricature of the actually (in his phrase) “mild-mannered, unassuming” Hackney. The result, when Bill Clinton nominated Hackney to run the NEH, was “not only … the worst time of my life, but … an out-of-body experience. I followed the story in the press of some idiot named Hackney, who was either a left-wing tyrant or a namby-pamby liberal with a noodle for a spine. My critics couldn’t decide which. Not only did I not recognize him, I didn’t much like him either.”
To Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, Hackney was the “Crackpot Prez” of the University of Pennsylvania, where he had not only had the audacity to employ Lani Guinier, but also had permitted a white (Israeli, as it turned out) student to be charged with violations of student conduct for yelling what was arguably a racist remark at some noisy black students, standing up for university due process in this and other controversial cases. At a time when anti-PC fevers ran high, these cases–or rather, the inflamed, distorted version of them caroming through the right’s uproar machine–became canonical.
To Hackney, the saga of his attempts to hold a middle ground at Penn is “a story about the gray area, about how hard it is to be a centrist when the forces of polarization are so strong.” When some black students, outraged by what were at the least a series of insensitive racial sneers in the Daily Pennsylvanian, stole 14,000 copies of the paper from the free racks around the campus, Hackney not only forthrightly condemned this act but also had the audacity to note that “two important University values, diversity and open expression, seem to be in conflict.” It is a matter of some irony that the paper’s then executive editor, who claimed (falsely, says Hackney, who has gone to some lengths to substantiate his story) to have requested the university administration’s help in guaranteeing the paper’s distribution would be unfettered, was one Steven Glass, later a shooting star at The New Republic until exposed as a serial fabulist. Glass falsely charged that “Hackney … stopped short of condemning the theft” by black students of the newspaper, which had been given to right-wing provocations with racial coloration. Glass was a central promoter of the story line that the right-wing press picked up–casting the university administration as Pilate. A visitor from Mars might wonder why Glass, a serial liar ushered into a brilliant career by various gatekeeper luminaries on the right, isn’t an object lesson in the degeneration of a Gomorric intellectual culture. John Leo, George Will, are you listening?
Hackney is too polite, too evenhanded, and too close to his story to ask such a persnickety question. He tells his tale of Penn and the Senate debate methodically–at times in more detail than anyone not intrinsically fascinated with the doings of the University of Pennsylvania will care to absorb. He is alert to the deeper meaning of the culture wars, which he interprets as the right’s attempt to roll back the 1960s cultural insurgencies.
Whatever Helms and The Wall Street Journal thought, Hackney was an old-fashioned liberal, objecting to a “polarized atmosphere [in which] the public has no chance to understand complex issues. Not only are moderates trampled underfoot, but the great gray areas where life is actually lived, the areas of ambiguity and tradeoffs between competing values, are rendered toxic to human habitation. This is not healthy for a democracy.” Eventually some conservatives came to understand what he had in mind–Orrin Hatch supported him, for example.
Today Hackney is back professing history at Penn, and the Christian Coalition’s ex-mastermind has just led the Georgia Republican Party to senatorial victory by impugning the Democratic incumbent, a triple amputee, for unpatriotic thoughts. To each the pursuit to which he was destined.
Todd Gitlin is author of the forthcoming Letters to a Young Activist (Basic Books) and a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.