cj#673> Tilting against the academic windmills


Richard Moore

Dear cj,

This may be a subject I should have responded to in only a personal
message.  But Wanxia did submit the matter to cyberjournal, and it may be
of general interest, so I'll leave it to you to decide.



Dear Wanxia,

I can see that you are troubled and confused by your experience in
academia.  Just as victims of physical abuse sometimes blame themselves,
you seem to be haunted by self-doubt even in the face of obvious abuse from
what would appear to be a personally vindictive and culturally chauvanist

Your experience was in Canada, but your concerns are expressed in terms of
North American attitudes.  I'm going to respond as if your experience were
in the US, because I undertand that better, and can better deal with the
issues you raise.

"Justice" and "democracy" are central to America's rhetoric, but, as you've
observed, are dubious in practice.  The Declaration of Independence, with
its "all men are created equal" was obviously to be racistly interpreted
given that native Americans and blacks were excluded (and Canada's
treatment of natives is entirely comparable).  There is no reason for you
to doubt your skepticism in this matter.  The Liberty Bell was cast twice,
and both times it cracked as soon as it was struck.

The hypocrisy of America's human-rights rhetoric on the world stage is even
more blatant today - it is used extensively as a propaganda tool for
geopolitical manipulation, but has almost no basis in actual intent or
action - in fact a cynical disdain for human rights is closer to the truth.
Here the US situation may depart, perhaps considerably, from that in

Central America provides a microcosm.  While Cuba is subjected to intense
sanctions, purportedly for abuses of human rights and democracy, death
squads and torturers, trained and funded by the US, abound in countries
which are openly supported.  The true reason for emnity toward Cuba, and
this is explicity confirmed by recently declassified documents, is that it
provides to the Third World a persuasive model for development that is
contrary to America's designs for Third-World exploitation.  My own
perspective is that Cuba is the most democratic nation in the Western
hemisphere, although establishing that, even to the cyberjournal audience,
would be a whole new topic.

America's attitude towards China is hypocritical in several ways.  China
can be fairly criticized, and I presume you would agree, on human-rights
grounds, but America is hardly in a moral position to be the accuser.  In
fact America's substantive behavior toward China - extensive investments
and trade (code-named "engagement") - are aimed at exploiting the adverse
social conditions in China for the corporate profits that can be obtained.

There is a distinction, of course, between the geopolitical attitudes of
the elite who control America, and the attitudes of individual citizens.
Although there has always been considerable individual racism, there is
also a sincere and widespread belief in equality and justice, and many
brave people have endeavored (much like China's democracy activists) to
bring national policies (domestic and international) around to that agenda.
It is this wellspring of sincere concern for human rights, in fact, that
enables the elite to employ this particular style of cynical manipulation.

One can almost forgive the Founding Fathers their racism, as it was a part
of the culture of the time - their cynicism was at least partly unconcious.
When Jefferson said "all men are created equal" he was in fact extending
the reach of justice from the tiny elite (who enjoyed it in Britain) to a
broader class - all white male property owners.  In the overall scheme of
things, that was perhaps a step forward for humanity.  But today's elite
cynicism cannot be forgiven - it is conscious, intentional, heartless

Your experience in academia, in my opinion, brings up issues on several
different levels.  Is "P" racist?  In terms of his historical theories, it
would appear that he can be justly accused of a kind of racial and cultural
chauvanism.  But is he a racist on a personal level?  He may be, but I'm
not so sure you have a good case in that regard.  More likely, he may be
reacting to your criticism of his theories.  You may be more the victim of
petty academic revenge than racism - you probably embarrassed him
considerably by your astute, well-researched, and cutting rebuttals of his
pet theories.  In this regard, I would ask you if he treated other Asian
students, who didn't challenge his theories, in a discriminatory fashion.
In some sense he has a right to hold racist beliefs; it is only his
behavior toward others that can be the subject of official objection.  This
may be a culturally-based Western ethical perspective on my part, but one
which is probably also held by those to whom you appealed for review.

My guess is that your petition might have been received with more sympathy
if it had focused on the issue of academic impropriety - that case seems
like a strong one.  It is a tenuous argument to first prove that P's
theories are racist, and then use that as evidence that his behavior toward
you was motivated by racism.  This would raise fears among those who
reviewed your case that, if they went along with you, it might lead to a
climate of censorship of academic pursuits.  His racism would need to be
considerably more overt before they'd feel comfortable setting precedents
about judging the content of his teachings.

My advice, at this point in the drama, would be to cut your losses and
focus on doing what serves your own best interests.  You pursued the moral
high ground and, unfortunately, didn't prevail.  You could try again with a
modified petition, but given what's transpired your prospects of success
would be dim.

The judgement by the OHRC that your English is too poor to understand P's
theories seems more overtly racist than what P himself did. This is
something that you must take into account in deciding your strategy.

If you're fighting for yourself, it is time for pragmatism.  If you're
fighting for justice, you may have already pursued this particular case as
far as you can - free yourself to employ your astute idealism on more
promising battlegrounds.


Date: Wed, 21 May 1997
Sender: Wanxia Liao <•••@••.•••>
Subject: This might be the real reality here in this culture (fwd)

It seems here people and the governments are always criticizing China for
its "human rights abuses". That might be in fact, misleading to many Chinese,
as well as the rest of the world about the reality in North America, since
they might then reason that North America must be a land of democracy and
free speech. But the reality might be that not every body's rights to
free speech and academic freedom are allowed in this
multi-racial/cultural society. This is what I learned from my experience.
Only because I proved that Asians did have concept of beauty in history,
have I got into a big disaster and lost everything in my life for it. My
faith about "justice" and "democracy" of this society has been shaken.
Here I would like to share my experience with you and later maybe the
whole world, and I'm also interested in your opinions, as I'm very
confused and open to advices and new perspectives.

I was an academic in China, now an immigrant in Canada. In 1991, I was
registered as a part-time MA student in East Asain Studies Department at
the University of Toronto, Canada, and enrolled in a course named History
of Chinese Painting.

I started this course in January. One day in Febury, our instructor,
(from now on I use letter P to denote him) asked us to study his recent
paper entitled "Epistemology of the Buddha Image", now published in an
Australian university's conference article collection after certain revisions.
 P read and explained the paper to us in the class. I became little puzzled
when P was talking about "the concept of beauty" in a contex of Asian-European
 cross-cutural comparative study. He told us that, Adam and Eve in the
Genesis story of Bible appreciated "Every tree is pleasant to sight", then,
he read, it was the "first aesthetic response in history. ... Because what
happened in the Garden of Eden, the intuitive response presumbaly exsits
now only as a logical fiction, at least on the earth, but it is nevertheless
logically necessary." (P.6 of his article) As to what kind of logic necessity
it is, he does not say in his article.
However, one thing is clear that this necessity is not applied to
Asians. He told us, Asians did not have the concept of beauty in
history, because, "beautiful" this word in Indian and
Japenese languages did not originally mean that as same as Adam and Eve
's appreciation of "pleasant to sight", but meant something as "the taste
of food" (p.31 ), or the "closeness of the feelings of affection in a
nuclear family." (p. 32) Therefore, he read: "We can safelyy identify
'beautiful' is a European concept."(P. 34) I sensed something strange about
the logic of this comparison, so I spontaneously asked with curiosity: "So
what's the origin of the English word 'beautiful'?" P stopped, and
couldn't speak a word for a while, then said: "You reminded me." Then he
continued to read that, if the concept of bueaty is applied to Asain art,
"we may be extending the meaning of this concept and possiblyy creating
more confusions about it." (p. 34)

After the class, I studied P's paper as required. I found that in it P
openly calls to revive a 1930's Nazi art history theory called Style, and
to re-establish a "biological approach" to art history studies. I had
previously studied all approaches of modern art history
studies in Western scholarships, but never heared of such a
Style-biological approach. Then this is what I learned from his paper:

        There are countless technical terms and materials, for techniques
        and for the subject of art: but they do not tell the whole story. The
        missing ingrident is usually identified as Style." (p. 17)

        The word "Style"  is used by many writers on art in similar ways
        to the word "race" or "breed". (p. 17)

        This usage is open to many of the same methodological and ethical
        objections as when it is applied to human or any other sentient
        beings. It is probably no coincidence that the most influential
        theories of artistic stylle were formulated in Germany in 1920's
        and 1930's. Even Meyer Schapiro, in his celebrated essay Style,
        admits: "The theory that the world view or mode of thinking and
        feeling is the source of long-term constants in style is often
        formulated as a theory of racial or national character ...[such
        concepts]... have been common in European writings on art for a
        hundred years and have played a significant role in promoting
        national consciousness and race feeling." (p. 18)

        In fact this method has long been criticised by biologists: because
        the selection of aspects can only be arbitrary, and because it brings
        one up against the uncomfortable facts of discordant variation,
        which makes it logically impossible to select natural divisions
        in a population differing internally by several characters. (p. 19)

Then P goes on to contend: "Nevertheless, we do need a way of cutting the
cake." (p. 19) So:

        I have no hesitation in recommending that it should be de-throned
        from its present revered position among art historians." (p.20)

I was indignant to think about that, now that P had fully recognized the
racist nature of this theory, and now that from an academic perspective
it is "logically impossible" in its application in art history studies,
what else except racist feeling, could be his motivation in reviving such a
Nazi theory?  I also found that P's discussion on the "concept of beauty"
is his most important evidence of "racial distinctions" for his
"biological approach" theory. But it has such an absurb nature, as even
I, a Chinese student knew that, Western scholars had already produced
scholarly research works on primitive arts early at the turn of the
century that prove, all kinds of human beings, even some kinds of animals
are able to appreciate "pleasant to sight", (like Adam and Eve did). (For
instance, a male peacock would use its colorful and bright tail to
attract female peacocks...etc.) I believed that
P's opinion precisely met the Webster's Dictionary's definition of
"Prejudice" : an opinion or learning adverse to anything without just
ground and without sufficient knowledge. And since it is adverse to
minority races, it is a racial prejudice.

In the following class, when we started talking about the paper, I
brought up my question about the "concept of beauty" again. P replied
that he had checked out and found that the English word "beautiful" was
borrowed from Latin language. ( So do we now have to say that English
people or European people did not have the concept of beauty in history
either, according to his "epistemological" logic?) Of course I did not
say that but just said:"The Chinese word 'beautiful' is one of the earliest
Chinese characters inscribed on oracle bones, dated from 16-11 B.C., and it
originally meant 'pleasant to sight'."
P then sais he would re-consider his opinion. I went on to request P to
give me some demanstrations about his "Style - biological approach", as I
couldn't find any more explaination about it in his paper. P declined and
told me: "You don't have to agree with my opinion." I said:"No I don't. I
just have an academic interest. If it's true, why not?"

After that I started writing my first term paper for P after the outline
of my paper was approved by him. I found for the subject of my paper I
had to use some materials from the oldest Chinese texts which happened to
contain the clear appreciation of "beautiful". I doubted it would make P
uncomfortable, so I hesitated a long time. Finally I found this was the
only way to make the best out of my paper, considering that "academic
freedome" was always claimed to be uphold by this society, I put them
out, and believed P  would understand it in the consideration of the
context of my paper.

When i got my paper back in October, I found in his comment to my paper,
P says: "The best part of  this paper is in the last section where yyou
have collected early Chinese passages which show appreciation of
'beautiful'. I have to agree with your findings here." ( Later after
that, he changed his writing from "the shopworn epithed 'beautiful' which
we can safely identify as a European concept" only to "...as largely a
European concept", which I of course still can't agree.) Meanwhile, P gave
a very low mark B- to my paper because of the "poor English". I talked
with him about my dissatisfication on this mark, he raised it to a B,
which I still consider too low.

However, I felt we were still friendly with each other, so I thought
it was only an academic dispute anyyway. Then I informed
P that I was applying to study a Ph.D program with My supervisor Prof. X,
and requested him to write me a reference letter as he was one of the
only two professors I had taken courses from.

However, months later, I discovered that our conflict had gone out of the
academic field: in his reference letter for me, P falsified a title for
himself: my MA supervisor. From such a fatal capacity he objected my Ph.D
application. Moreover, he did something more substantial to disqualify me
from  Ph. D admission consideration: he submitted a B grade for me as my
final grade of the course while he was still giving me classes. And when
he submitted this grade he by-passed the Chairman of the Department, who,
as an academic regulation in the Dept. was routinly signing off all grade
submission forms of the department, and  who is an Asian (Korean). And
since the University was not aware of that I started the course not in
Sept. but half way in January, his submission was accepted at the
University witout my knowledge. This is a serious violation of the
university's grading system. As a result of P's interference, my
application was failed at the Departmental admission Committee. The
Document recorded: "Ms. Liao is unranked since she received a B ranking
from one refree." (All of these are black and white in the university's

I believed what P did to me was a reprisal, a racial harassmant, so I
started an appeal at the university. But it was dismissed. And during
such a process, I lost two jobs that were affiliated with U of T. i never
understand why they would even bother to fire me from my counter help
position at the university's cafteria where I had worked deligently for
two years. Maybe they knew that was my major income source, and in
Toronto, even a counter help position is hard to get these days. I've
never been able to find another one since then. Meanwhile, I lost
basically all my relationships and friendships under U of T's manace.
Because of such an overwhelming political oppression and financial
difficulties, I never made it through to the graduation of my MA,
needless to say Ph. D. My American dream - to continue my academic career
in such an internationally reknown land of free expression, is now broken,
and I now live in a complete poverty and deppression.

I then took my case to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. After 4
years, now the OHRC has dismissed my complaint. In the case summary they
say that my English was too poor to understand P's paper so to lay
"racist charge" against it. then i submitted P's own words in an attempt to
revive the Nazi racist theory. But the Commission still concludes there
is no racial prejudice in P's paper, and I was not subjected to
differential treatment by P.

I never cared about politics before, but now I need to understand the
political settings arround me. Maybe something has been fundamentally
changed, or maybe I just simply made a mistake in understanding the reality?

I feel very confused and depressed. Advice needed. If all of you think
what I fought against is not racist, I'm willing to reconsider my
position. Maybe I'm too far, in fact, from the reality of North America?

Who ever wants to have a look at P's paper, just let me know I'll send
you a copy.

Wanxia Lia


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