MONDAY, MAY 31, 2021
Our Town's thought leaders gone wild: A reader could almost imagine that Sarah Viren had buried the lede.
Viren's fascinating report appeared in yesterday's New York Times Sunday Magazine. The lengthy report was headlined as shown:
The Native Scholar Who Wasn’t
More than a decade ago, a prominent academic was exposed for having faked her Cherokee ancestry. Why has her career continued to thrive?
In the main, Viren's report deals with a false, possibly fraudulent claim of Native American ancestry on the part of one "prominent academic." That prominent academic would be Andrea Smith, who currently seems to be a professor in the Ethnic Studies department at Cal Riverside.
In the main, Viren's report deals with just that one "prominent" person. But this type of false or fraudulent claim seems to be amazingly widespread.
Has Professor Smith falsely claimed to be Native American (more specifically, Cherokee) and a person of color? Has she built a "prominent" academic career on this false foundation?
Apparently, the answer is yes—but apparently, Smith isn't along. Very deep into her piece, Viren unveiled a much wider claim:
VIREN (5/30/21): It’s a problem that has been known at least since 1992, when, in an early use of the term “ethnic fraud” in a newspaper, The Detroit News published an investigation into what were then known as box-checkers: students who [inaccurately] identify as Native American on their college applications...It was accompanied by a shorter piece about similar lies by Native-identified faculty. Of the 1,500 university educators listed as Native American at the time, said Bill Cross, who helped found the American Indian/Alaska Native Professors Association, “we’re looking realistically at one-third of those being Indians.”
Say what? "Of the 1,500 university educators listed as Native American" as of 1992, roughly a thousand may have been making false claims concerning their ancestry / identity? As many as two-thirds of these educators may have been making false claims?
Can those remarkable statements be true? We can't answer that question. But in her preceding paragraph, Viren had quoted Kim TallBear, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate professor at the University of Alberta, addressing the sweep of the problem.
“There are so many fakes in academia,” Tallbear was quoted saying. Referring to the flap about Smith which reached critical mass in 2015, Tallbear added this:
“It just felt like we needed to recognize the pervasiveness of the problem.”
On its face, it's amazing to think that there could be so many fakes in academia—or at least, that there could be so many fakes of this particular kind.
That said, had Viren possibly buried the lede? As she continued the passage we've posted above, she finally cited the highest-profile case of this type:
VIREN (continuing directly from above): The most prominent example of this is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was listed as Native American by both Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania Law School when she was on the faculty at those institutions and has since apologized for claiming that identity.
Viren was very deep in a very long report before she mentioned Warren, whose puzzling case has never been resolved in a sensible way.
Why did Warren allow herself to be listed as Native American by both Harvard and Penn during her academic career? We've never seen a serious attempt to resolve that question.
When this question hit the mainstream discourse, mocking nicknames quickly held sway among conservatives and Republicans.
Among Democrats and liberals, and in the mainstream press, a jumble of mumblemouthed discussions, sometimes mixed with some very soft soap, have also stood in the way of a real attempt to settle that question.
Conceivably, this might have resulted in disaster had Warren received the Democratic nomination for president last year. Similarly, John Edwards' hidden affair and hidden paternity would almost surely have doomed his chances had he won the nomination back in 2008.
What explains the various claims about Warren's ancestry / identity? We have no way of knowing, though one possible explanation was always blindingly clear. But Viren's lengthy essay suggests that the inaccurate claims about Warren's ancestry / identity were just one drop in a very large bucket of misdirection and misstatement within the academic world.
What explains the misstatements concerning Warren? At that point, it doesn't really matter any more. That said, it's amazing to read Viren's report about the (continuing) claims made by Smith, the "prominent academic" referenced above.
At this point, an ancillary questions comes to mind:
If Smith is a "prominent academic," why haven't you ever heard of her? Why can't you describe her work?
Apparently, Smith actually is a prominent academic. That said, she's a big fish within an academic pond which isn't especially well known to the wider world.
Very few people have heard of Smith; even fewer know why she could be described as "prominent." But the world within which Smith has prominence has large effects on the wider world, including on the failing political fortunes of our own failing town.
These professors today! Over the past fifty years, they've played a very large role in establishing the political values and viewpoints which animate Our Town. We especially refer to Our Town's values, beliefs and understanding concerning matters of gender and race.
At present, these topics dominate the politics of Our Town, not always in ways which make sense. Many of our understandings and outlooks trace back to our professors.
Viren is a professor too, at Arizona State. In this passage, she explains why she's interested in the question of Professor Smith's apparently false claims:
VIREN: When I began researching this article, I wanted to understand why stories like these seem to dominate one industry—my industry. As a white academic, I watched, aghast, as other white academics were outed for pretending to be scholars of color, both in real life and online. It seemed absurd to me at the time but also horrifying—in part because the outings coincided with a moment of national reckoning on questions of race and representation, and a number of universities, including mine, had recently committed to hiring more scholars of color. I kept wondering, as the former academic Ruby Zelzer posted on Twitter in September, “Academia, do we have a problem?"
“Academia, do we have a problem?" This question seems to lie at the heart of Viren's report. A bit later, she added this:
VIREN: All of this was a little bewildering to watch from the sidelines. Academia is an industry, like journalism, that defines itself in large part by its ethical standards; we’re supposed to educate people and produce knowledge. So what does it mean that we’re also a haven for fakes?
Is academia a haven for fakes? In one narrow but amazingly widespread way, that's what Viren seemed to be saying.
Certainly, though, for better and/or for worse, academia is the source of much of Our Town's current political thinking, especially in the general areas of ethnic and gender studies. It seems to us that it's worth examining the quality of the work which has been coming from that reserve, along with the integrity of some of the many players.
Starting with Viren's lengthy essay, we'll try to do so this week. Also, this:
In effect, the later Wittgenstein said a lot of our highest academic work was essentially fake, or was at least hopelessly flawed.
Could that be true of the work produced, at age 24, by Professor Godel, "the greatest logician since Aristotle?" Currently, we're exploring such unthinkable possibilities in a series of long, lazy afternoons.
As our society slides toward the sea, we're allowing ourselves to have nice things in those afternoons. Our question, and we regard it as a serious question:
Academia plays a a major role in the politics of Our Town. Has academia possibly had a problem for a very long time—and if so, should we possibly start to notice?
Tomorrow: Very clearly stated