The average illegal alien might be puzzled to see his situation analyzed under the rubric of “queer theory.” That confusion would only mean that he has not spent enough time in university circles, where such pairings spring naturally from the all-consuming campaign to magnify victimhood and denounce the American status quo. A recent talk at UCLA’s political science department, “Undocumented and Acting Up: Queering Sovereignty in the Immigrant Rights Movement,” drew on “the insights of queer theory” to propose that both illegal aliens and HIV-positive homosexuals are victims of “simplistic accounts of individual action.” Their “death and suffering,” according to visiting lecturer Cristina Beltrán, are unjustly attributed to their own actions—presumably, crossing the border illegally, in the one case, and engaging in high-risk promiscuous sex, in the other. Queer theory, however, understands these problems to be the result not of voluntary behavior but of “global capitalism, human desire, and government failure.”
Two years ago, after mockery in the right-wing press, UCLA scuttled plans for a center to teach illegal aliens how to become labor- and immigration-rights organizers. But the desire to induct the illegal population into the growing roster of preferred academic victim groups remains strong at UCLA and elsewhere. Being brought under the aegis of “queer theory” is as royal a reception as one could hope for. Beltrán approvingly notes an irony in illegals’ “queer” campaign against the state: illegal-alien activists simultaneously denounce the state while seeking to gain its resources. As for that latter effort, do they ever! According to the New York Times, communities across the country are “still struggling to accommodate” last summer’s surge of illegal aliens, which has taxed local health-care and educational systems to the breaking point.
Beltrán’s talk highlights two key aspects of today’s university culture. First, the concept of personal responsibility is wholly taboo when applied to officially approved victim groups: if illegal aliens don’t yet enjoy all the rights and privileges of individuals lawfully in the country, that has nothing to do with their own decision to break U.S. immigration laws. Their law-breaking was the product of forces larger than themselves, and any impediments that flow from their illegal status are the result of “government inaction and indifference,” in Beltrán’s words. This reflexive denial of individual responsibility is particularly pernicious when used to explain racial achievement and incarceration gaps.
The second feature of current academic culture is the oppositional instinct that motivates all theoretical work in the humanities and much of the social sciences. The impetus is always to find oppression and injustice in the “state, its leaders, ideals, and institutions,” as Beltrán puts it. Social criticism is a legitimate academic enterprise, of course, so long as it rests on a solid grounding in history and fact. But today’s identity-based theorizing represents a worldview and righteous self-definition that precede facts and analysis. The search for victimhood is a quasi-religious credo that motivates and gives meaning to individual action. If you don’t believe that Western society is endemically sexist, racist, homophobic, and heteronormative, you will find yourself at odds with campus norms. Never mind that the prosperity that enables talks on “queering sovereignty” is the product of Western “ideals and institutions.” As long as alumni and other donors are willing to have their hand bitten while feeding this orgy of self-righteous recrimination, the shallow preening that is today’s identity theorizing will only worsen.