Norman Levitt, spiked-online and the Sokal Affair


Posted to on October 17, 2005


This name might not ring a bell with comrades, but Norman Levitt was a math professor at Rutgers who provided Alan Sokal with the original inspiration to send in his spoof on postmodernism to Social Text. What many people don’t know is that the special issue on the “Science Wars” that Alan’s article appeared in was basically a response to a conference under this rubric that Levitt had organized at NYU with funding from the Olin Foundation, a scummy rightwing outfit. My original take on the deeper dimensions of the Sokal affair can be read at:


I hadn’t been paying too much attention to how these issues have unfolded, but today my eye caught a link on Denis Dutton’s Arts and Letters website whose lead-in read:


“You doubt that Malcolm X was a paragon of humanitarianism, that gender is a construction, that Native American myth is true? You’re culturally incompetent...”


Since Dutton is a New Criterion type conservative with a deep animosity toward the academic left, I assumed that the link would lead me to that kind of publication. Surprise, surprise. When I clicked it, I was delivered to, where the article by Norman Levitt titled “Academic strife: the American University in the slough of despond” can be read.


Just a word or two to situate the players. In addition to his reactionary opposition to postmodernism (which is of a different character than the sort emanating from an Alex Callinicos, for example), Dutton is a fellow traveler of Frank Furedi’s libertarian cult now grouped around spiked online. Once the purveyors of “Living Marxism,” the ex-Revolutionary Communist Party was unique on the British left for its breathless devotion to DDT, atomic power plants, genetically modified crops, etc.--all in the name of a kind of crude productivism associated with an undialectical understanding of the Communist Manifesto. Nowadays, they have dropped the Marxist pretensions and put forward their corporate PR in the name of “advancing civilization”, “increasing human freedom”, etc. In other words, they sound exactly like ABC television’s John Stossel who gained some notoriety for claiming that organic food is less healthy than that treated with chemicals.


The last time I spoke to Alan, he assured me that Levitt was some kind of “social democrat.” Although that claim was questionable at the time, it can no longer be made based on the evidence of the spiked article, which rails against "political correctness" on campus in the following terms:


Here is an illustrative if fragmentary list of transgressions that would likely strip an academic of any chance of being designated culturally competent:


Suggesting that affirmative action might conflict with other standards of justice and equity, or that opponents of affirmative action are not ipso facto Klansmen waiting for their white sheets to come back from the laundry;


Taking issue with the claim that Malcolm X was a paragon of humanitarianism and political genius;


Disputing the wisdom of feminist theory as regards the social constructedness of gender;


Asserting that the early demographic history of the Americas is more accurately revealed by scientific anthropology than by the Native American folklore and myth celebrated by tribal militants;


Expressing doubts that 'queer theory' should be made the epicenter of literary studies.


This is just a laundry list of complaints that you find on any given day on David Horowitz’s website, in the pages of the Weekly Standard, etc. It is painfully obvious that Levitt has morphed into a reactionary slug of the kind that is making life difficult for radicals in the teaching profession. There has been a well-orchestrated campaign afoot for a number of years to silence pro-Palestinian professors, people such as Ward Churchill, etc. All this is taking place in the name of “restoring balance”, creating higher academic standards, etc. But make no mistake, the ultimate goal is to purge the university of reds and pinkos, whether they are classical Marxists or trendy followers of postmodernist fashion.


The last time I saw Sokal was at a conference at the New School in October 2001 on “Science, Knowledge, and Humanity: Debating the future of progress” that was organized jointly by Norman Levitt, spiked-online and Virginia Postrel, the editor of Reason, a libertarian magazine, and an occasional contributor to the NY Times business pages. I didn’t speak to Alan at the time because I was not really in the mood to confront him about the sordid company he was keeping. I only hope that he has wised up over the past 4 years.