The Individualist - Part 2: An Interview with Anne Wortham
APRIL 09, 2014 by THE FREEMAN
The first part of our interview with Anne Wortham made waves. In this second part, we go deeper into her experiences in higher education. Wortham is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University. She wrote her first piece for The Freeman in 1966.
The Freeman: In higher education, you are something of a pariah. Would you care to talk about why you think that might be?
Wortham: Although I am certainly not highly regarded in the academic world, I don’t think I am currently viewed as a pariah, at least not among most of my colleagues in the sociology department at Illinois State University. I am simply off the radar screen of mainstream academia. At ISU my presence is noted by the courses I teach and membership in campus governance committees. This is largely a consequence of my lack of active participation in professional organizations, political groups, or civic activities. Although I am a member of the Sociology of Culture section of The American Sociological Association, I am not actively involved. While my book, The Other Side of Racism, was published by a university press, most of my articles, though based on my scholarship, are published in opinion journals that are not read by sociologists. The reason is that I know that what I have to say will be rejected by the peer-reviewed professional academic journals. Fortunately the World & I Journal exists and publishes the kind of in-depth articles that I write.
My most recent work has appeared online at the Mises.org website. Other essays have been published at LewRockwell.com. On November 6, 2008, my letter to Americans that criticized their election of Obama to the presidency was published on the Rockwell website. Editors of the site gave the essay the title, “No He Can’t!” which did not reflect my judgment at all. I was certain that he could move the country further down the road to serfdom, and indeed he has done precisely that. It was among the 10 best-read on LRC for February 2009. And for five weeks it was among the top five most-read articles on the site. It went viral on the Internet and was reprinted in newspapers and various blogs. I was swamped with hundreds of emails, phone calls, letters, interview requests, and speaking opportunities. It was read by various radio talk show hosts. Emails have continued to arrive as late as this year. I would guess that over 90 percent of the responses were positive. I turned down all the requests for interviews and speaking engagements, as I didn’t want additional publicity to complicate my relations with students and faculty at ISU, and I didn’t want to be exposed to possible assault at a public event.
I am fairly certain that the essay is disapproved of by faculty who are aware of it, but no one has spoken to me about it. I did receive a message from the ISU president’s office asking whether I was the author of the article. The question came as a result of inquiries the office was receiving from college administrators around the country.
The Obama essay was but an episode of public visibility. I remain essentially invisible in the academic world. Yet there is a record of academic criticism of my ideas. It all began with the denunciation of me by Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University in his review of my book, The Other Side of Racism. Asante condemned the work as “neoracist” and a “complete mastery” of “Eurocentric individualistic ideologies.” He accused me of being totally ignorant of “African concepts” and of failing to see the “antagonism between European individuality and African collectivity.” He found it abominable that someone who was both female and black defended the tenets of individualism as persistently as I did.
The Freeman: Has that been all?
Wortham: No. The next major blow to my reputation came in 1983 upon my joining the faculty at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In a letter to the dean of the KSG, which was shared among Harvard's black faculty and beyond, Martin Kilson, a black professor in Harvard's government department, objected to the KSG’s appointment of a “disciple of Ayn Rand's ‘Objectivism’.” According to Kilson I was unqualified to teach the course on ethnicity and public policy because “Wortham doesn't believe ethnic realities should figure into public policy, especially not for Black folks, though maybe for some kinds of White folks. And anyway, any good student of ethnicity in modern society . . . can tell you that The Other Side of Racism is a bad book and bad social science.” In another communication he denounced what he called the book's “militant and polemical ideological thrust” as “tantamount to a right-wing moral slam-in-the-face of Blacks' century-old strivings for equality in American society.”
Although I am not a conservative, my presence in the wider academic world is basically as a subject of critical analyses of works on black conservatives.
In 2002, 20 years after Kilson’s denunciation, he was still on my case, and included me in a group of black intellectuals whom he denigrated as “‘conservative true believers’ . . . convinced that problem areas in the modern development of African Americans . . . in our racist American democracy could be resolved by fervent application of classical capitalist processes.” He accused us of believing “that racism was merely an aberration on the face of an otherwise perfect American Republic, not, as I and other progressive Black intellectuals believe, a deep-rooted pathology at the core of the American Republic that must be activistically challenged in order to uproot.”
In a collection of essays on Dimensions of Black Conservatism in the United States, author Sheri Smith criticized my “individual ethos” and characterized my defense of the contemptible Lester Maddox’s right to refuse to serve blacks in his restaurant as being “against the collective sentiment of the African American community, and in this case, the larger American community.” In her view the flaw in my argument is in asserting my own “individual reasoning” (read: subjectivism) over the collective sentiment of the general population. The fact that I was insisting on the universal protection of the right to property was overlooked. So we are left with the impression of Wortham as a defender of a white racist.
In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America, Angela D. Dillard includes me in a group of minority conservatives whom she describes as having “participated in delegitimizing the idea of demanding collective redress from the state for historical and contemporary wrongs, an idea that has traditionally guided the struggles of women and minority groups for inclusion and parity; ... shifted the focus to individuals and away from social forces in a far-too-simple story of success and failure, one that demands no redistributive justice for a large segment of American society; have allowed their conservative allies to ignore the criticisms and in some cases the very existence of nonconservative women, homosexuals, and people of color.”
As far as I know, my colleagues in the sociology department are unaware of the journal articles and books that examine my ideas. But I am certain that they would agree with many of the negative assessments. Yet, I don’t think they despise me as a pariah. They simply view my defense of reason and individual rights as objectionable and irrelevant to the sociological enterprise. My response is to resist internalizing their judgment or taking responsibility for their ill-informed and flawed conclusions.
The Freeman: What do your students make of you, by and large? Are they shocked? Inspired? Challenged?
Wortham: My students generally know only one side of me: as the transmitter of knowledge from the canon of sociology and from my experiences. Although what I teach is consistent with my sociological perspective, I try not to place myself between my students and the scholarship in the field. However, in the context of examining a particular topic I will introduce students to ideas they are not likely to encounter in other courses. I use aspects of my philosophy, intellectual resources, and biography to illustrate the theories and concepts we study.
For instance, as an illustration of the application of the methodology that Max Weber called “ideal types,” I introduce students to the typology of major ideologies in American politics identified by William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie in Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum. We discuss other typologies, but in this case I want them to know that when American politics is analyzed in terms of its two major dimensions—government intervention in economic affairs and expansion of personal freedom—four ideological categories can be identified: liberal, conservative, populist, and libertarian.
In our examination of the theories of Karl Marx, students learn that the slave trade was an enterprise of mercantilism, not capitalism, as capitalism is characterized by free labor; that in 1848 Karl Marx was witnessing mercantilism alongside early capitalism; that most of the policies Marx believed were necessary to carry out the socialist agenda are now part of the government’s regulation of the American economy; and that the U.S. economy is best characterized as a mixed economy of capitalism and socialism that is referred to as “regulated capitalism” or “welfare state capitalism,” in which there is the practice of “crony capitalism” by business and the government. I refer them to Ian Bremmer’s 2009 Foreign Affairs article, “State Capitalism Comes of Age,” in which he defines State capitalism as “a system in which the State functions as the leading economic actor and uses markets primarily for political gain.” They also learn that Marx incorrectly found the value of products in the labor that produced them rather than in the price buyers are willing to pay for them.
They are shocked when I tell them that I am an example of someone who Marx would say is in a state of false consciousness. The reasons: As a black female wage earner, I do not think according to the oppressed groups of which I am a member. I do not support affirmative action; I do not view men as oppressors by definition, or as incapable of understanding me as a woman; I do not envy the rich for their wealth, or believe I have less because they have more. I tell them how, in the 1970s, people like me were told that we needed our consciousness raised.
I know that my self-presentation is disturbing to some students, but I also know that it is the first time most of them have ever heard a black person describe him or herself in this way. For some it is a welcomed perspective that challenges their perception of the ideologies guiding blacks and women, while confirming their own views. For others it not only challenges what they believe most blacks think, but they conclude that I am indeed in a state of false consciousness, and I see the light go out of their eyes. On rare occasion a student has dropped the course. And just as rarely a student has asked to meet to learn more about my views.
During fall 1989, I gave two talks at Smith College. In the first, I spoke on individualism in the black community. My basic argument was that whites do not have a monopoly on individualism, that blacks can be individualists, too. Suddenly, in the middle of my talk, a black student ran out of the room crying. I knew I was speaking in a language that was offensive to her. Students told me of the offensiveness of my views during the question period after the talk I gave the next night. They told me, in effect, that I spoke in a language that should not come from someone who is black and female. They had been taught that my ideas were the same as those used by racists to justify their exploitation of the disadvantaged. One young lady, a white student, condemned me and said I should not have been permitted to speak there.
I could understand why the students were offended by what I said. Collectivism is now taken for granted and taught to students under the guise of diversity, civic engagement, and social change leadership. It is a key element of the American Democracy Project (ADP) initiated in 2003 as a multicampus program by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in partnership with The New York Times. When today's students hear the principles of individualism articulated, they think they are hearing an opposing brand of collectivism that they call Eurocentrism, or they believe they are hearing a philosophy that is hostile to the poor, the needy, and the brotherhood of man. While I do not profess individualism in the classroom, when appropriate I do teach the difference between individualism and collectivism, and what is at stake in the conflict between those opposing worldviews. My approach is not that of a proselytizer, but of a teacher. My aim is to enlighten them, not to convert them to my side.
Recently, I was invited to be an advisor to the Black Sociology Students organization. In my refusal of their invitation, I wrote to them that although I have nothing against students forming an informal group of those who have the same interests or identity background, I do not join groups that emphasize racial, ethnic, gender, or religious perspectives, whether in scholarship or cultural and political interests. I also told them that while I am very interested in sociological scholarship on black Americans, I question the validity of distinguishing the practice of sociology by racial and other ascribed attributes of those who teach and practice the science. In my view sociology should not be taught or practiced in terms of “whose side are you on?” Lastly, I advised them not to engage in self-segregation; instead, for the sake of their scholarship and careers, they should join the department’s Sociology Club or Alpha Kappa Delta, the international sociology honor society.
So far, only one student has approached me about my statement, but I expect that some black students who are aware of it and are also in my courses may respond with negative course evaluations.
The Freeman: Anne Wortham, it’s been an honor and a pleasure.