John Fekete and Moral Panic

First published in English Studies in Canada 21.3 (September 1995): 347-53. Unusually, the editor commissioned two reviews of John Fekete's book Moral Panic, and published them side by side in parallel columns. The other review, by David Williams of McGill University, concluded by declaring that “Anyone who believes in the value of higher education and is committed to academic freedom must read the account of the attack on these values that John Fekete has had the courage to write.” My own judgment of the book was less flattering.

Review of John Fekete, Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising (Montreal and Toronto: Robert Davies, 1994)


John Fekete's Moral Panic incorporates three distinct literary genres: it is at once a jeremiad, a martyrology, and (somewhat less obviously) the testament of a strong cultural theorist fallen among neoconservatives. My own reactions to the book are no less multiple: they include respect, exasperation, and (since I remain an admirer of Fekete's previous work) a certain sadness. This book, I would insist, merits close reading—not least by those who will find themselves, as I do, in sharp disagreement with most of its conclusions. However, Moral Panic also exemplifies to an embarrassing degree the very condition it sets out to analyze. And, since its arguments are marked by serious and systematic failures of understanding, the book cannot be accepted as an adequate guide to the complex issues with which it engages.

In his first chapter, Fekete informs us that “Politics has historically begun where biological factors and the demands of the body give way to the common concerns of a cultural community, a body politic” (22). What he calls “biopolitics” is thus by definition a kind of anti-politics, “a regression from politics to a new primitivism which promotes self-identification through groups defined by categories like race or sex” (22). This regression involves a dissolution of cultural boundaries, and hence fosters a condition of “moral panic,” which Fekete associates with “fearful imaging of shifting or collapsing boundaries in the meanings, values, codes, and institutions that make up our cultural world” (22-23). This implied narrative seems to me tendentious. In Plato's Republic, “biological factors” (including eugenics and a dread of gender instability) are very much in evidence:1 the political, as one could demonstrate from this and other examples, has for good or ill always included the biopolitical. But Fekete's narrative defines factors of this kind—and in particular what he calls “biofeminism”—as intrusive.

“Biofeminism,” which includes nearly all of the feminist thought of the past two decades, is the principal object of attack in this book. Fekete claims to have been “reading and teaching feminist texts for more than twenty years” (16); rather more obviously, he has been attending to the writings of contemporary American anti-feminists. As he acknowledges, “biofeminism” is roughly equivalent to Christina Hoff Sommers's term “gender feminism” (351 n. 1).2 And he is grateful to Warren Farrell's The Myth of Male Power and to Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae for reminding us “of things we used to know and talk about ... before two decades of biofeminism succeeded in inflecting our thoughts and feelings with the viral cancer of half truths and the emotional tyranny of false appeals” (345 n. 4).3 Remarks of this kind do not amount to evidence of engagement, critical or otherwise, with feminist literary and cultural theory. Thus, when Fekete writes that “Biofeminist patriarchy theory, abducting the last third of this century, is exactly as divisive, exactly as false, and exactly as seductive as theories of racial supremacy and class supremacy had been in the first and second thirds of this century” (35), I am not sure that he knows what he is talking about—but I hope he is aware that language of this kind amounts to panic rhetoric.

If Moral Panic contained no more than shaky political theory and overcharged rhetoric, it would not deserve our attention. However, Fekete's charge that “Biofeminism has much to answer for, for hijacking the discourse of women's 'liberation,' diminishing and redirecting the concept of liberation to aim at 'equity,' and deforming and abusing the goals and practices of equity to assault all the libertarian principles that could provide meaning and moral value to it” (14) is backed up by five chapters that criticize recent studies of violence against women, and by a further three that explore the impact of feminist advocacy on Canadian universities.

The main target of Chapters 2 to 6 of Moral Panic is the 1993 Report of the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women—which as Fekete demonstrates engages in statistical panic-mongering on a grand scale. For example, the Panel's claim that 80% and 50% respectively of Canadian Native girls and boys under the age of eight are sexually molested turns out to be derived at third hand from an estimate by one physician practising in the Mackenzie Delta (122-30). The no less distressing claim that 83% of disabled Canadian women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes is again derived, at several removes, from a single source: a study that reports interviews with fewer than three dozen institutionalized mentally handicapped women in California (138-44).4 And the report from which the Panel drew its most sensational result—a lifetime prevalence figure for sexual violation of 98%—is revealed to be both incomplete and methodologically chaotic (147-61).

Fekete's work in tracing these and other instances of irresponsible generalization is clearly valuable. However, his own wrestlings with statistics need to be approached in the same spirit of “intelligent scepticism” (40) that he recommends we bring to the work of social scientists. Fekete is right to note errors like the one by which prevalence figures for rape (26%) and for attempted rape (20%) in an American study were transformed in a Canadian pamphlet to the information that “47% of all women will be raped in their lifetimes”—thus doubling a rape figure that is arguably already too high (44, 48-50). However, when he turns to consider claims as to how many charges of sexual assault and rape are false—he cites figures of 14%, 40%, and 60% (the latter derived, at second hand, from an investigation conducted by the U.S. Air Force)—the scepticism he applies to other cases in which one might suspect ideologically driven statistical inflation is quietly forgotten. Fekete's bias is equally apparent when he challenges studies of domestic violence against women by citing evidence of “symmetry between male-to-female and female-to-male violence ... at every level of severity” (76). Scoffing at the insistence of responsible social scientists that such supposedly “objective” data need to be supplemented with information about the context, intention, and consequences of the acts, Fekete does not explain why, if domestic violence is symmetrical all the way up, 3.2 times more women than men die as a result of it (65).

The narratives of the institutional persecution of Canadian professors by their own universities that occupy Chapters 8 and 9 of Moral Panic are in a similar manner both valuable and suspect. The three cases analyzed at length in Chapter 9 are, in different ways, genuinely shocking. These involve, at Dalhousie, a charge of sexual harassment that ought to have been immediately recognized as vexatious (256-66); at Waterloo, a quarrel between an admittedly “difficult” senior scholar and a junior woman colleague that by Fekete's account resulted in unjust disciplinary actions (267-86); and at Victoria, a blatantly political deployment of sexual harassment charges in the context of what appears to be an opportunistic manipulation of the “chilly climate” issue (286-318).5

The fourteen cases discussed in Chapter 8, however, are a mixed bag. In two of these, the university in question acted decisively to defend the academic freedom of faculty members; in a third, I believe a fuller presentation of the case would show that harassment proceedings were justified; in a fourth, which has nothing to do with gender politics, the complainant was Xerox Corporation; and in a fifth, a law professor accepted feminist criticism of his pedagogy, and denounced the intervention of Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association as “feminist baiting” (212).6 Of the remaining eight cases, at least five can be taken to exemplify cowardice, “casual tyranny” (246), or a lack of good judgment on the part of university administrators; in another two, it seems likely that gender issues were improperly or injudiciously used to deal with faculty members who for other reasons were an embarrassment.

That leaves the case of Philippe Rushton, the University of Western Ontario psychologist whose overtly racist theories have for the past six years been a source of controversy. Drawing on Barry Gross's biassed defence of Rushton in the journal Academic Questions, Fekete uncritically quotes Rushton himself (“This is unheard of in science, that something should become forbidden”), and treats his work as “one of the limit cases of free inquiry and expression” (214-16). Nowhere does Fekete hint that many distinguished psychologists think otherwise (as one of them declares, “To admit ... Rushton into the scientific mainstream ... is a betrayal of science”).7 More bizarrely still, nowhere does Fekete recognize in Rushton's work a particularly grisly example of what he elsewhere calls the “dark mythologies” and the “mental debris” (12) of biopolitics. Nor does he pause to note a relevant symmetry in this case: the president of UWO, while vigorously defending Rushton's academic freedom, did not hesitate to summon television cameras into a senate meeting to publicize his own attack upon the academic freedom of four women faculty who had criticized systemic sexism at Western.8

This slip, given Fekete's blinkered understanding both of feminism and of academic freedom, may not be very surprising—but it seems to me a conclusively revealing one.




1  See for example Republic 386c-388b, where Socrates expresses concern that those who are being bred as guardians (388a) may be rendered feverish and effeminate (thermoteroi kai malakoteroi, 387c) by exposure to the wrong sort of poetry; his anxiety about the instability of gender and class identities resurfaces more distinctly at 395d-396e.

2  See Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994). Published some six months before Moral Panic, this book anticipates it in several respects: Hoff Sommers is highly critical of social science work on violence against women, displays a rancorous hostility to contemporary feminist cultural theory, and claims that feminism has contributed largely to making American colleges “islands of intolerance in a sea of freedom” (107).

3  See p. 193 for a more extended use of this disease metaphor in Fekete's account of “the cancerous progress of infectious sex panic, and panic remedies.” One wonders whether he is aware of the manner in which metaphors of social pathology have served in totalitarian discourses of the right and left as means of evoking panic.

4  Not content with generalizing from this tiny sample to the Canadian population at large, the Panel subsequently inflated the prevalence of sexual abuse figure to 90% in its training video “Without Fear” (144-45). (The term “prevalence” in crime statistics refers to the percentage of a population victimized in a particular manner over a long period, which may range from ten years to a lifetime; “incidence” figures indicate the percentage of a population victimized in a given year.)

5  For wide-ranging discussions of the “chilly climate” barrier to women in Canadian universities, see the essays collected in Breaking Anonymity: The Chilly Climate for Women Faculty, ed. The Chilly Collective (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995).

6  For some context on the issue of sexism in Canadian law schools, see Bruce Feldthusen, “The Gender Wars: 'Where the Boys Are',” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 4 (1990): 66-95; rpt. in Breaking Anonymity, pp. 279-313.

7  Leon Kamin, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics,” in Russell Jacoby and Naomi Glauberman, eds., The Bell Curve Debate (New York: Times Books, 1995), pp. 102-03. Gross's article is “The Case of Philippe Rushton,” Academic Questions 3.4 (Fall 1990): 35-46. Academic Questions is the journal of the neoconservative National Association of Scholars, an organization of which Gross is Treasurer.

8  See Breaking Anonymity, pp. 61-170; esp. pp. 137-42.