For Woolf readers
You know you've always wanted to taste Mrs. Ramsay's boeuf en daube. Now you can.
January 30, 2008
Columbia students want ROTC
In 2005, Columbia students voted overwhelmingly to restore ROTC to campus--and were shot down by the faculty, who overwhelmingly felt that it was more important to register their distaste for DADT than to allow students to choose their own educational and career paths.
Now, in the wake of the Las Vegas Democratic debate--which saw Clinton, Romney, and Obama all declaring that they would enforce the Solomon Amendment if elected--the Columbia Spectator has renewed the call for ROTC's return to campus:
Opponents of ROTC argue that the program's treatment of gays and lesbians violates the University's anti-discrimination protocols. Those protocols should be enforced against businesses and other institutions, but the U.S. military is in a different category altogether. For all its faults, the military has too integral a role in American culture and society to be summarily banned from campus. Concerns about discrimination are surely legitimate, and any future ROTC program should be designed with the rights of LGBT students in mind. Columbia should look to the example set by MIT, which reimburses the Department of Defense on behalf of students removed from ROTC due to their sexual orientation. But to deny the military access to campus outright disengages Columbia from military issues and renders the University largely irrelevant in discussions of how issues like DADT should be addressed.
Columbia's opposition to ROTC has failed to end DADT. In the meantime, without an ROTC program on campus, there has been little discussion of DADT and little effort to effect change. DADT is an unjust and impractical policy, but it must be fought in a way that does not sideline would-be military officers—or would-be Columbia students who may be dissuaded from applying. ROTC's return to campus would be the perfect occasion for a major speech by University President Lee Bollinger articulating Columbia's opposition to DADT. A forceful denunciation of DADT would send a clearer message of where Columbia stands than does the University's current policy.
By welcoming ROTC back to campus, Columbia has the opportunity to gain a more diverse student body and an improved connection to national issues. At the same time, the University can take a stronger stance against DADT by actively engaging with the military. It is not inconsistent to support ROTC while opposing DADT. By repeatedly inviting controversial speakers to campus, Columbia has proven that it understands the benefits of interacting with that which it finds morally wrong. Likewise, bringing ROTC back to campus is by no means a blanket endorsement of its policies. Rather, doing so provides the University with a greater opportunity to challenge them--as it must.
Did I mention that all three Democratic candidates said they would enforce Solomon if elected? There clearly is some enforcing to do, as the example of Columbia shows. Columbia gets hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research funding each year, and every penny of it is on the line when the faculty engages in openly partisan anti-military activity of this sort.
At the very least, Columbia should have allowed the student referendum to carry the day--and should have, on the strength of it, begun exploring whether creating a campus-based battalion would be financially feasible. It's expensive for the government to run ROTC on campus, and student enrollment has to be steady and substantial to make it work. And it may be that the DoD would decide, of its own accord, not to open an ROTC chapter on Columbia's campus. But as things stand, we aren't going to get any answers about that.
Meanwhile, Columbia's faculty continues to regard the campus as an ideological fiefdom, and to treat students not as independent agents, but as pawns in their political games.
January 29, 2008
... Stanley Fish and the humanities is up at Minding the Campus.
You never know when you are going to run into someone trying to find the right words to defend the idea of the literary canon in a culture that increasingly devalues it. Between the masses of non-readers (periodically depressingly documented by the NEA) and the scholars who deplore the theoretical and political ramifications of a fairly fixed, historically transcendent clustering of great works, the canon has become something of a non-starter. And people who know in their gut that this is wrong struggle to articulate their reasons why in language others will accept.
This phenomenon was on display last spring, when ACTA released its Vanishing Shakespeare study, which showed that among the top 70-odd colleges and universities in the country, only 15 required English majors to study Shakespeare. The response of many academics to that study--denying the validity of the findings (majors do TOO read Shakespeare), scoffing at the notion that college-level literary study should guarantee substantial exposure to Shakespeare (as long as most majors happen to read a play or two somewhere along the way, that's fine), and refusing to accept responsibility for failing to require students to acquire that exposure (student choice is all! Who are the professors to tell them what they must know?)--was telling.
So, too, is a column in this morning's Arkansas Democrat. Entitled Critical Mass (of all things), it consists of a long and eloquent attempt by columnist Philip Martin to explain why Shakespeare matters to us all, and to help parents understand why they should want to see their kids studying Shakespeare in school. Worth a read.
January 28, 2008
Just finished reading Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which I enjoyed both for its first novel-ness (I really, really like reading first novels, for the way they reveal a person in the act of sinking their imagination into a particular art form) and for its handling of guilt. The novel is billed as a tale of guilt and redemption--many reviews talk about it this way--but the redemption part is not really redemptive, and the point is that it can't be. Real guilt is forever.
You only know this if you are yourself guilty--or, more precisely, if you know that you are guilty. I think most of us go through life blithely unaware of the worst things we've done, perhaps even flattering ourselves that we're pretty blameless after all. Or, if we choose to take responsibility for any order of guilt, it's an abstraction, one we can easily deal with. Environmentalism is my favorite example of easy, indulgent guilt release. Drive a Prius! Buy a carbon offset! Hug a tree and turn off your lights! Or if you're Sheryl Crow, impose a hygienically unsound TP quota! Don't it feel fine!
Not that we shouldn't all be looking for ways to shrink our environmental footprints--but that taking steps like these doesn't really cost us much in terms of our souls. The Kite Runner deals with the real type of guilt, the sort that arises from a deed--or a neglect--that can never be undone, or compensated for, or recovered from, and that tends to be immensely personal and private, a matter whose depth is defined by the honesty of one's conscience. It's very powerful in that regard, not least because it takes for granted the idea that the active conscience--the one that can recognize when its owner does harm, and can fathom the depth and lastingness of that harm--really exists.
I'd love to hear from readers: Do you treasure certain works for their treatment of guilt? What are they? Do these works also imagine the possibility of redemption? Do you buy it? Please comment.
Who's on first
When it comes to public universities, it can get a bit confusing about who controls what. The legislature allocates the money for higher ed--but it can't control the research, or the teaching, or the views that emerge from both. This can cause confusion, and it's instructive to see what happens in specific cases.
Take Wyoming. The legislature recently balked at a $500,000 increase for a University of Wyoming environmental research institute--because some have reservations about the research that has been coming out of it. It's critical of the state's coal bed methane industry, they say, and this makes it partisan.
That may or may not be true. The point is that this is not for the legislators to decide--they have to keep their funding decisions separated from questions of viewpoint. The governor got that part right when he issued a strong defense of academic freedom: "The university should be a place for all of these ideas to come out," Governor Freudenthal said. "It doesn't mean I'm going to agree with them, but I think they're entitled to articulate them."
He's right -- but he's also not complete. The legislators have legitimate questions about whether the work coming out of this institute is really solid scholarship or whether it's advocacy work masquerading as scholarship: "The lines got blurred because we weren't sure if we were being asked to fund the educational mission of the university or a public policy mission statement," one legislator said. To put it mildly, it would not be unheard of for a university department to be guilty of that sort of sleight of hand. Entire academic fields are founded on exactly that sort of problematic transposition--women's studies, peace studies, ethnic studies, etc. etc. So the concern is a reasonable one.
So what should happen now? I'd welcome readers' thoughts on this. My own sense is that the legislature would not be out of line asking the university trustees to put their minds at ease. And if the trustees can't answer the question--because they have not been attending to matters of intellectual diversity, academic propriety, and scholarly responsibility--they could do worse than to undertake an institutional self-study to assess the intellectual climate of the university's various departments, schools, and institutes. After all, this is the sort of question they should be able to answer. It's a problem if they can't, and it doesn't bode well for future funding decisions at the legislature.
January 25, 2008
Georgia on my mind
Here's a post I was working on yesterday:
New York Times ethics columnist Randy Cohen recently reprinted a troubling and suggestive letter from a Georgia student:
"Our university requires us students to write anonymous evaluations of our professors. On one evaluation, a student made derogatory comments about a professor's sexual orientation. The university hired a handwriting expert to confirm the identity of the culprit so punishment could be administered. The university claims the student broke the code of conduct, but if anonymity was promised, is this investigation ethical? - S.C., GEORGIA"
Cohen rightly notes that the university is wrong to investigate students in this manner: "Even if a student violated its code of conduct by making a homophobic slur,"he notes, "for the university to abandon its pledge of anonymity is a cure worse than the disease." He reflects that universities lose a great deal when they violate students' trust, including access to the information provided in course evaluation forms.
True. But what's lost in such behavior is far more than administrative access to student information--what's lost is the foundation of learning itself. Free inquiry can't thrive in an atmosphere of intimidation, surveillance, and distrust. And as obnoxious as one student's tasteless misuse of an anonymous evaluation form might be, it pales in comparison to the university's willingness to trample on that student's expressive rights in the name of sensitivity.
Universities should not be in the business of policing--or punishing--student speech. Nor should they be in the business of effectively spying on students. Troublingly, though, they are.
Last fall, William & Mary made headlines when word got out about its new "Bias Reporting Website." The College encouraged members of the campus community to file reports on "bias incidents," which it defined as "harassment, intimidation or other hostile behavior that is directed at a member of the William and Mary community because of that person's race, sex (including pregnancy), age, color, disability, national or ethnic origin, political affiliation, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status. A bias incident may be verbal (whether spoken or written) or physical." So broad was the definition, and so ominous the promise to investigate all complaints, that one could only conclude that W&M was in the business of implementing a police state in which people's right not to be offended trumped all other concerns.
Lots and lots of criticism came William & Mary's way, pointing out that Orwellian tattling arrangements are not only bad for the academic climate, but a violation of the First Amendment to which W&M is bound. The episode was a great embarrassment for the College, which subsequently modified its bias reporting system--but did not do away with it. And of course it didn't. W&M is not alone in using such websites to create a chilling atmosphere of intimidation on campus. Plenty of other schools have them, too--including Georgetown, UCLA, the University of Delaware, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign.
When schools across the country are encouraging students to spy on one another; when they urge students to participate in a system of surveillance that is ultimately aimed at curbing and punishing student speech; when they place politically correct comportment above free exchange--then they have made an untenable commitment to "ferreting out" those members of the campus community who do not conform to institutional orthodoxy. In this context, it's not at all surprising to learn of a school sparing no expense to track down and punish students who anonymously cross the school's expressive line. Nor is it surprising to see the confusion of college students who can no longer trust themselves to know when their schools are subjecting them to unethical treatment.
Just as I was getting ready to post, along came Volokh. He's got more details on who this student was (he was a U of Georgia student, which means he ought to have had First Amendment protection), on what this student wrote (it was unconscionably nasty), on how he came to be investigated (his professor insisted on it), and on what it all means.
The bottom line: Georgia was way, way, way out of line on multiple fronts. And the point: There's no longer any point in being surprised, or outraged, or appalled, or shocked, or, conversely, skeptical or quizzical or dismissive. We know what campuses are doing to individual rights, and we learn more every day about the tactics they use. It's a waste of energy and time to have conniption fits about it, or to try to argue that each case is an anomaly that proves nothing. That energy and time are far better spent exposing the problem and fighting it, both in the marketplace of ideas and in the courts.
January 23, 2008
... of Dana Thomas' Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, is up at Knowledge@Wharton.
January 22, 2008
The electric Democratic acid test
Who knew this election would inspire so much literary comparison? Paglia channels Eliot in describing Clinton; Kristol casts the quoting McCain as a manly new Victorian; and David Brooks sees the Democratic race as the sort of hyper-determined sociobiological contest we find in Tom Wolfe's novels:
Both Clinton and Obama have eagerly donned the mantle of identity politics. A Clinton victory wouldn't just be a victory for one woman, it would be a victory for little girls everywhere. An Obama victory would be about completing the dream, keeping the dream alive, and so on.
Fair enough. The problem is that both the feminist movement Clinton rides and the civil rights rhetoric Obama uses were constructed at a time when the enemy was the reactionary white male establishment. Today, they are not facing the white male establishment. They are facing each other.
All the rhetorical devices that have been a staple of identity politics are now being exploited by the Clinton and Obama campaigns against each other. They are competing to play the victim. They are both accusing each other of insensitivity. They are both deliberately misinterpreting each other's comments in order to somehow imply that the other is morally retrograde.
All the habits of verbal thuggery that have long been used against critics of affirmative action, like Ward Connerly and Thomas Sowell, and critics of the radical feminism, like Christina Hoff Sommers, are now being turned inward by the Democratic front-runners.
Clinton is suffering most. She is now accused, absurdly, of being insensitive to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bill Clinton's talk of a "fairy tale," which was used in the context of the Iraq debate, is now being distorted into a condemnation of the civil rights movement. Hillary Clinton finds that in attacking Obama, she is accused of being hostile to the entire African-American experience.
Clinton's fallback position is that neither she nor Obama should be judged as representatives of their out-groups. They should be judged as individuals.
But the entire theory of identity politics was that we are not mere individuals. We carry the perspectives of our group consciousness. Our social roles and loyalties are defined by race and gender. It's a black or female thing. You wouldn't understand.
Even in this moment of stress, Clinton wants to have it both ways. She wants to be emblematic of her gender and liberated from race and gender politics. As she told Tim Russert on Sunday: "You have a woman running to break the highest and hardest glass ceiling. I don't think either of us wants to inject race or gender in this campaign. We're running as individuals."
What we have here is worthy of a Tom Wolfe novel: the bonfire of the multicultural vanities. The Clintons are hitting Obama with everything they've got. The Obama subordinates are twisting every critique into a racial outrage in an effort to make all criticism morally off-limits. Obama's campaign drew up a memo delineating all of the Clintons' supposed racial outrages. Bill Clinton is frantically touring black radio stations to repair any wounds.
Meanwhile, Clinton friend Robert Johnson, a one-man gaffe machine, reminds us of Obama's drug use and accuses him of being like Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Another Clinton supporter, Gloria Steinem, notes that black men were given the vote a half-century before women.
This is the logical extreme of the identity politics that as been floating around this country for decades. Every revolution devours its offspring, and it seems the multicultural one does, too.
Since the 1960s, Wolfe has instinctively understood something vital about American people and American writing--that nonfiction is our new, best narrative form, because we live in a world where truth and falsehood, reality and fiction, facts and stories, are hopelessly jumbled together. At first, this meant to him that he should write nonfiction in a novelistic way. More recently, it has meant to him that he should write journalistic fiction that functions as an anthropology of our times--hence Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and his damning campus indictment, I am Charlotte Simmons.
What's happening with the Clinton-Obama contest--which, if you saw the debate last night, has escalated in intensity and absurdity since Brooks' column appeared on the 15th--is very much a figment of the world Wolfe sees when he watches it from within his perfectly pressed white suits. If Clinton and Obama are looking more and more like cartoon characters (if Edwards has never seemed like much more than a cartoon character), that has much to do with the manner in which they have become caricatures of their own ideological affiliations and careerist aspirations. That, in turn, seems like an inevitability in contemporary politics. The Republican candidates are, of course, susceptible to similar analysis--this is not a partisan argument, but a characterization of a system that seems increasingly unreal, and whose participants seem less like actual people than like fictional resemblances of themselves.
For fun: check out Wolfe's 1989 Harper's essay on how certain moments in time beget and necessitate certain relationships to genre.
January 21, 2008
The other Victorians
In his victory speech after winning the South Carolina primary Saturday night, John McCain acknowledged the economic challenges we face, and then said: "But nothing is inevitable in our country. We are the captains of our fate."
McCain comes from a generation that, in its youth, was made to memorize poetry. And when I was able to get in touch with him Sunday in Florida, he told me that one of the poems he had memorized in school was William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" (1875). McCain actually recited snatches of the poem in our cellphone conversation--not something he does every day on the campaign trail, he pointed out.
In any case, here's Henley's Victorian warhorse:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow'd.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The young Henley had written this following the amputation of his foot because of tubercular infection. He lived until age 53, apparently unbow'd and unafraid, a productive poet, critic and editor. (The one-legged Henley also served as an inspiration for his close friend Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" character Long John Silver.)
One can see why "Invictus" might have appealed to the young McCain. One can see why snatches of it might have stuck in his mind while a prisoner of war, and after. But his allusion to its coda reminds us of what’s so distinctive about McCain as a contemporary political figure: He's not thoroughly modern.
In this he differs from his competitors. Mitt Romney is the very model of a modern venture capitalist. Mike Huckabee is the very model of a modern evangelical. Rudy Giuliani is the very model of a modern can-do executive. They are impressive modern men all. But John McCain is a not-so-modern type. One might call him a neo-Victorian-- rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled.
Maybe a dose of this type of neo-Victorianism is what the 21st century needs. A fair number of Republican and independent voters seem to think so, if one can infer as much from their support of McCain at the polls. But, amazingly, a neo-Victorian straightforwardness might also turn out to be strategically smart.
If Paglia thinks about Clinton rather the way George Eliot thought about her morally compromised political bounders, with a kind of reluctant empathy ever ceding to judgment, Kristol thinks about McCain as a timely historical anachronism whose usefulness is closely connected to his childhood immersion in second-rate Victorian verse. The one treats the candidate as a compromised character whose political future is projected and predicted by her troubled childhood; the other treats the candidate as a man of character whose particular mettle was shaped by the rhyming mores of another era.
It's enough to make you want to dive into some Trollope, who was himself very fine indeed on the subject of elected office, character, and self-compromise. Check out Phineas Finn if there's an opening in your bedtime reading.
January 18, 2008
Wrong wrong wrong
England has got itself some impossibly complex problems when it comes to multiculturalism--and institutional indulgence of manipulatively deployed minority sensitivities has a lot to do with it.
From the Daily Mail:
Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government backed study has revealed.
It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.
There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades - where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem - because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques.
The findings have prompted claims that some schools are using history 'as a vehicle for promoting political correctness'.
The study, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, looked into 'emotive and controversial' history teaching in primary and secondary schools.
It found some teachers are dropping courses covering the Holocaust at the earliest opportunity over fears Muslim pupils might express anti-Semitic and anti-Israel reactions in class.
The researchers gave the example of a secondary school in an unnamed northern city, which dropped the Holocaust as a subject for GCSE coursework.
The report said teachers feared confronting 'anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils'.
It added: "In another department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils.
"But the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 (11- to 14-year-olds) because their balanced treatment of the topic would have challenged what was taught in some local mosques."
A third school found itself 'strongly challenged by some Christian parents for their treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict-and the history of the state of Israel that did not accord with the teachings of their denomination'.
The report concluded: "In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship."
But Chris McGovern, history education adviser to the former Tory government, said: "History is not a vehicle for promoting political correctness. Children must have access to knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable."
The researchers also warned that a lack of subject knowledge among teachers - particularly at primary level - was leading to history being taught in a 'shallow way leading to routine and superficial learning'.
Lessons in difficult topics were too often 'bland, simplistic and unproblematic' and bored pupils.
It's good that the problem is being documented--but it's worth noting, too, that the problem exists because teachers get neither the training nor the official support they need to handle difficult subject matter competently and confidently. They shy away because they don't know what else to do. Documentation of the problem makes it possible to address it--but addressing it is going to be another matter entirely.
Via Joanne Jacobs.
January 16, 2008
Solomon and Sound Bites
Last night, Senators Clinton, Edwards, and Obama debated one another in Nevada--and took some interesting questions about ROTC from MSNBC's Tim Russert. Russert asked each presidential candidate whether they would enforce the Solomon Amendment--and each said yes, but then hurriedly changed the subject. Obama spoke about his national service program. Edwards talked about homeless veterans.
Russert got furthest with Clinton. "There's a federal statute on the books which says that, if a college or university does not provide space for military recruiters or provide a ROTC program for its students, it can lose its federal funding," he asked. "Will you vigorously enforce that statute?"
"Yes, I will," she replied, quickly shifting to a discussion of a new G.I. bill for veterans and her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Circling back around to the subject of ROTC, she concluded on a note that gave Russert an interesting opening: "I think that everyone should make available an opportunity for a young man or woman to be in ROTC, to be able to join the military and I'm going to do everything I can to support the men and women in the military and their families," she said.
Russert responded by pressing Clinton on the question of availability: "Of the top 10 rated schools, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, they do not have ROTC programs on campus. Should they?"
Russert's question is a pressing one--but Clinton sidestepped it: "Well, there are ways they can work out fulfilling that obligation. But they should certainly not do anything that either undermines or disrespects the young men and women who wish to pursue a military career."
There certainly are ways they can work out "fulfilling that obligation." But it's questionable whether they are--and it's also arguably the case that these schools are doing plenty to "undermine" and "disprespect" students "who wish to pursue a military career." Harvard students who wish to do ROTC must travel to MIT--and can only train there thanks to the good will of anonymous alumni who pay the six figure fee MIT requires. Harvard's faculty has refused to pay it for years now, as a protest against "don't ask, don't tell." Yale fought a five-year court battle to keep the military off campus (and finally lost last fall). Columbia recently refused to restore ROTC to campus, despite a student referendum overwhelmingly supporting such a move--and the reasons had to do with faculty distaste for DADT. Stanford students have an untenably long commute to ROTC programs at other campuses--and Stanford's law school has come under fire for subjecting students wishing to interview for military jobs to some unusually unpleasant treatment. None of these schools grants course credit to students enrolled in ROTC--a circumstance that has historically posed a hardship for cadets.
It was good to see ROTC raised in the debate, though it would have been better to see the issue explored more thoroughly. The candidates' glib sound bites belied the seriousness of the subject they were asked to address, and their assurances that they would enforce Solomon lacked the credibility they would have gained had those assurances been accompanied by more knowledgeable, relevant responses.
Rinse, lather, repeat
It's not often that the Hollywood gossip bloggers are behind the curve. All you have to do to register that fact is see how long it takes news that breaks on TMZ or Perez Hilton to hit the MSM, and to note that the MSM is getting a lot of its Britney, Paris, and Lindsay news (if it can even be called that) from those sites.
So it's fun to see a little reversal now and then. Last week, Perez Hilton belatedly got word that at the University of Michigan, you can take an English class called "How to Be Gay." His posting in turn made the rounds of the internet, touching off commentary on sites ranging from gawker.com to townhall.com. Today, the Michigan Daily reports on Hilton's reporting, noting the errors it contained (contrary to Hilton's claims, the course is not offered this term), and noting, too, that this is not exactly news. Controversy has surrounded this course ever since it was first taught seven years ago.
It's fun to see fluffy but hugely trafficked sites taking note of what gets taught in English departments, even if those sites are a bit factually challenged. And it's interesting to see how debates about what should and should not be taught in literature courses tend to cycle round and round and round over time--because for every delighted Perez Hilton out there celebrating courses such as Halperin's, there's a dour state legislator trying to shut them down, and the back and forth just repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, then as background noise. It's as though our memories are so short, and our capacity to advance collective understanding is so minuscule, that all we can do is rehearse the same basic polarized positions year in and year out.
I'm not really up for that this morning, so I will just link to the long post I wrote about Halperin's "How to Be Gay" class back in 2003.
January 11, 2008
Not a viable heroine
I'm a sucker for character development--which makes me an inexhaustible consumer of Victorian novels and Law & Order episodes (not as incommensurable a pairing as it may seem), and which makes me, too, a bit of a lifelong sucker when it comes to human relations. I can get so caught up in trying to understand why people do the crazy, mean, small, or inexplicable things they do that I tolerate it much longer than I should. The search for explanations can, when carried on too long, turn one into an accidental apologist. But it also creates a keen appreciation for those who can balance explanation and judgment. Hence the draw of novels--and of social commentary that proceeds along novelistic lines.
If George Eliot were reporting on the election cycle, she might produce a piece rather like the one Camille Paglia has recently published on Hillary Clinton. Margaret Soltan cited this piece the other day quite selectively--which is how I found it. She flagged the detail about how Hillary-the-governor's-wife used to read books in the bleachers at Arkansas football games, and tongue-in-cheekly cited it as a reason to vote for Clinton.
But the rest of the article amasses many reasons not to--and does so in a manner that is strongly reminiscent of how the great Victorian novelists handled character, amassing evocative detail and then interpreting it through a moral lens that is ultimately most interested in evaluating quality of character. That evaluation, in turn, is grounded in a strong sense of how early formative experience shapes personality in almost overdetermined ways that one may mask, but never escape:
A swarm of biographers in miners' gear has tried to plumb the inky depths of Hillary Rodham Clinton's warren-riddled psyche. My metaphor is drawn (as Oscar Wilde's prim Miss Prism would say) from the Scranton coalfields, to which came the Welsh family that produced Hillary's harsh, domineering father.
Hillary's feckless, loutish brothers (who are kept at arm's length by her operation) took the brunt of Hugh Rodham's abuse in their genteel but claustrophobic home. Hillary is the barracuda who fought for dominance at their expense. Flashes of that ruthless old family drama have come out repeatedly in this campaign, as when Hillary could barely conceal her sneers at her fellow debaters onstage -- the wimpy, cringing brothers at the dinner table.
Hillary's willingness to tolerate Bill's compulsive philandering is a function of her general contempt for men. She distrusts them and feels morally superior to them. Following the pattern of her long-suffering mother, she thinks it is her mission to endure every insult and personal degradation for a higher cause -- which, unlike her self-sacrificing mother, she identifies with her near-messianic personal ambition.
It's no coincidence that Hillary's staff has always consisted mostly of adoring women, with nerdy or geeky guys forming an adjunct brain trust. Hillary's rumored hostility to uniformed military men and some Secret Service agents early in the first Clinton presidency probably belongs to this pattern. And let's not forget Hillary, the governor's wife, pulling out a book and rudely reading in the bleachers during University of Arkansas football games back in Little Rock.
Hillary's disdain for masculinity fits right into the classic feminazi package, which is why Hillary acts on Gloria Steinem like catnip. Steinem's fawning, gaseous New York Times op-ed about her pal Hillary this week speaks volumes about the snobby clubbiness and reactionary sentimentality of the fossilized feminist establishment, which has blessedly fallen off the cultural map in the 21st century. History will judge Steinem and company very severely for their ethically obtuse indifference to the stream of working-class women and female subordinates whom Bill Clinton sexually harassed and abused, enabled by look-the-other-way and trash-the-victims Hillary.
How does all this affect the prospect of a Hillary presidency? With her eyes on the White House, Hillary as senator has made concerted and generally successful efforts to improve her knowledge of and relationship to the military -- crucial for any commander-in-chief but especially for the first female one. However, I remain concerned about her future conduct of high-level diplomacy. Contemptuous condescension seems to be Hillary's default mode with any male who criticizes her or stands in her way. It's a Nixonian reflex steeped in toxic gender bias. How will that play in the Muslim world?
The Clintons live to campaign. It's what holds them together and gives them a glowing sense of meaning and value. Their actual political accomplishments are fairly slight. The obsessive need to keep campaigning may mean a president Hillary would go right on spewing the bitterly partisan rhetoric that has already paralyzed Washington. Even if Hillary could be elected (which I'm skeptical about), how in tarnation could she ever govern?
But Hillary herself, with her thin, spotty record, tangled psychological baggage, and maundering blowhard of a husband, is also a mighty big roll of the dice. She is a brittle, relentless manipulator with few stable core values who shuffles through useful personalities like a card shark ("Cue the tears!"). Forget all her little gold crosses: Hillary's real god is political expediency. Do Americans truly want this hard-bitten Machiavellian back in the White House?
Paglia compares Clinton to Nixon. But Eliot's Bulstrode--before his fall--also somehow comes to mind.
By the way, if you haven't read Middlemarch--or even if you haven't read it in the last five years--try to find the time to do it. It's a new book every time, and it's a masterful portrait of how hypocrisy, personal weakness, driving ambition, and a false belief in one's own infallible integrity combine to create politics as we know it.
January 10, 2008
Tackling campus narcissism
Donald Downs offers a highly intriguing analysis of why college sports has the hold on us that it does--especially when it is so widely recognized that college athletics has increasingly little to do with educating students:
... sports provide an outlet for legitimate feelings and beliefs about virtue that the contemporary campus tends to downplay or thwart. This provision is both positive and negative. It is positive because of the virtues sports embody, but it is negative to the extent that the obsession with sports serves as a compensation for other campus failings. Let me explain.
In Culture of Narcissism (1976), the late, astute social critic Christopher Lasch praised athletic endeavors for the way that they preserved virtues that were starting to come under assault in the political and educational realms when he wrote. To be successful in competitive sports, an athlete must work hard, subject himself or herself to appropriate discipline, and be prepared to accept that playing time is based on merit. Results matter a lot more than excuses. Personal responsibility and a measure of courage are important to athletic success; excuses based on victimhood do not avail. And individuals are ultimately judged by their efforts and acts, not their backgrounds. (In the latter respect, Lasch echoed Martin Luther King's famous maxim about being judged for the content of one's character, not one's race.) In Lasch's view, athletics embody virtues that not only built America, but also make meaningful citizenship and progress possible. But he portrayed these virtues as threatened by the values of the emerging therapeutic society, in which self-esteem, self-indulgence, and a debased notion of equality hold sway over the rigors of responsibility and achievement.
Academic standards for most of the twentieth-century were essentially consistent with the virtues Lasch praised. Standards grew progressively tougher, and universities defined excellence largely in terms of intellectual merit and achievement. Advocates of the therapeutic ethic were rare, and had little official recognition or power on campus. As is now well-known, this changed with the rise of the post-liberal university in recent decades. Today, the concept of merit is challenged in many quarters, and excellence is now prominently associated with "diversity," not intellectual power per se. Administrative positions and offices dedicated to inculcating and servicing the therapeutic ethic have proliferated throughout higher education. Deans of students are often more concerned with making students comfortable and esteemed than with ensuring that their intellectual horizons are challenged and truly stretched. Policies cater to identity politics rather than to individuals who transcend group ideology; and individual courage is devalued compared to sensitivity and victimhood. We have witnessed what Nietzsche called a "transvaluation of values," only in a direction that Nietzsche - who taught the difference between what is noble and what is not - would have disdained.
To a significant extent, this transformation of values has been imposed on campuses by special interest groups. Meanwhile, the majority of students and campus citizens probably still value such traditional virtues as intellectual merit, achievement, competition, and courage. Sports provide one publicly prominent vehicle for expressing and sharing these values. Perhaps most importantly, spectator sports might be the only realm in which a sense of community persists on today's campus. Torn by ideological disagreements over the very meaning of the university and the poisonous differences promoted by identity politics, sports is the one arena that gives us the possibility of a common cause that is also consistent with traditional conceptions of virtue. I have personally witnessed this unifying effect of spectator sports many times. According to this interpretation, the growing fetish of Big Time Sports on campus is -among other things - a manifestation of the attempt to maintain traditional notions of community and virtue on campus.
Thinkers from Marx to Freud to Lasch have taught that fetishes are both useful and detrimental. They are useful because they give us a provisional sense of meaning and commitment in the face of mental and social conflict and incompletion. But they are detrimental, in turn, because they are but compensations (substitute objects) for the more meaningful commitments that characterize more mature personalities and cultures. Fetishes help us to deal with the ravages of life, but they are second rate, not the best that we can do. What if universities were to someday attain a true sense of academic community? Would Big Time Sports then return to its proper place on campus? Or is the cat now irretrievably out of the bag?
I love the idea of college athletics as displaced fetishism for fans. I do think Downs overstates the case--for many fans, sports is not about virtue but about winning, and at many schools, sports programs have been corrupted irreparably because winning matters so much more than anything else, including the futures of the players. Still, there is much to be said for the manner in which college athletics involves a communal staging of values, and perhaps a cathartic, acceptable venue for vicariously experiencing meritocratic ideals that have fallen by the wayside in students' daily lives. Of course, the key word is vicarious--a quick look at stats on cheating in college will confirm that.
Thoughts are welcome.
January 9, 2008
The new cynicism
The other day, renowned literary scholar Stanley Fish devoted a lengthy New York Times blog post to being unable to articulate a reason why the humanities matters. "If it were true [that the study of great works enlarges the soul], then most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who's been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn't so." Fish smugly presents his inability to defend humanistic study as a good thing, even as proof of its value.
Margaret Soltan saw through the pose, though, and cut pointedly to the chase at University Diaries:
Note what's missing in this account: Not merely the idea that humane study civilizes and perhaps morally and even spiritually ennobles; but also the idea that the path of humanistic education and cultivation is in some sense a path directed toward greater and greater disclosure of the truth--however 'situated' we want our sense of the truth to be. Fish's justification for the study of literature and philosophy rests entirely on his observation that the technical activity of decoding meaning and comparing knowledge systems yields--in himself and others--pleasure.
This is a supremely aristocratic account of humane learning, in which the glory of novels and ontologies lies in the peculiar, indefinable delight (Fish does not characterize humanistic pleasure) they afford us. Stewards of humanistic institutions shouldn't be expected to be any more "good-hearted and honest" than their faculty; they should be expected to run their institutions in whatever way maximizes the possibility of exposing the largest number of people to humanistic pleasure.
Rejecting Fish's echo-chamber ideal of the humanities, Soltan suggests that such a vacuous position is the sad result of too much relativistic postmodernism, imbibed for far too long. Even though Fish has shed a lot of the "there is no truth, there is only text" posturing that made him famous, his thinking is still tainted by it ... and his vision of the humanities is correlatively elitist and decadent. Considering how much energy Fish and others have exerted in recent years trying to tearing down elitist, decadent models of artistic apprehension, this is ironic, to say the least.
Today, Russell Jacoby reveals an undeniable animus toward the academic humanities. Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jacoby appears at first to be offering an update of his 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. In that book, Jacoby stirringly argued that, in the wake of the 60s, new academics were neither interested in nor capable of reaching a wide audience--and that they had thus succeeded in creating a professional culture that rendered their work mediocre and irrelevant:
They grew up in a much-expanded campus universe and never left its safety. Younger intellectuals became professors who geared their work toward their colleagues and specialized journals. If this generation--my generation!--advanced into postmodernism, post-Marxism, and postcolonialism, where the Daniel Bells and Lewis Mumfords never trod, it did so by surrendering a public profile. It neither wanted to nor, after a while, could write accessible prose. The new thinkers became academic--not public--intellectuals, with little purchase outside professional circles.
So far so good--and so far still a good approximation of the self-imposed pointlessness of much academic work. Jacoby then goes on to seem to consider whether the Internet, with its capacity for making intellectual discussion public, accessible, and democratic, has affected this pattern much. But he pretty well dismisses that possibility out of hand--which makes for a thin discussion in which Michael Berube's retirement from blogging is somehow supposed to indicate the failure of electronic media to recreate an intellectual commons. And soon the reason for the thinness of this discussion is apparent--Jacoby is less interested in assessing whether blogs and other electronic media have exerted a useful, democratizing pressure on academic discussion than he is in using it to shoehorn in potshots at conservative critics of academe.
If this sounds random and bizarre, that's because it is. But it's worth tracing the thought process anyhow. Watch the progression in his last few paragraphs:
On the Internet, articles, blog posts, and comments on blog posts pour forth, but who can keep up with them? And while everything is preserved (or "archived"), has anyone ever looked at last year's blogs? Rapidly produced, they are just as rapidly forgotten.
The fate of public intellectuals today allows no neat and certain answers. Even the effort of the indefatigable Richard A. Posner, judge, professor, and conservative, falls short. In his 2001 book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Posner sought to finally give precision to this topic. He wanted to nail down the species and measure its worth, which he found inadequate. Enamored of, if not blinded by, a market approach, Posner found an absence of quality control in public intellectuals. He tabulated Web "hits" and scholarly citations, not only to identify leading intellectuals, but also to indicate their defective quality. Public intellectuals, he concluded, gain attention as they lose scholarly credibility. The more they address public issues, the less their professional colleagues refer to them--for good reason, according to Posner.
As public intellectuals step outside their specialties, they offer substandard information, Posner argues. For example, Stephen Jay Gould attacked (in The Mismeasure of Man) the notion of IQ, but Posner declares that the late Harvard professor lacked expertise on the subject. Gould was a paleontologist, not an authority on intelligence. The scientists who objected to a national antimissile defense system, the lawyers who protested the Clinton impeachment, and the professors who questioned the invasion of Iraq did not know what they were talking about. None possessed the requisite professional knowledge. Posner uses the stick of specialization to dismiss those with whom he disagrees. The decline of public intellectuals correlates with the rise of Richard Posner.
Other conservative commentators may be more on target, although they draw the wrong conclusions. Some years after the publication of The Last Intellectuals, a few critics began, and have not ceased, to bemoan an overrepresentation of liberals and leftists in academe — the so-called tenured radicals. The argument and its evidence seem defective. For starters, how are such political animals identified? And how much does it matter if a Republican, Democrat, or Naderite teaches "The History of Ancient Greece"? Moreover, what does "overrepresentation" in the university mean? Compared to what? The post office? The State Department? Wall Street? Who says all of society must be statistically homogeneous? Finally these aggrieved conservatives seemed supremely uninterested in the political cast of the more-substantial faculties in fields such as the sciences, medicine, and engineering. It is their poor cousins in the humanities who drive them to distraction.
Yet let us accept, for the moment, the argument that humanities departments house more leftists than Home Depot or the police department. Shouldn't this be something that conservatives celebrate, not decry? Doesn't this mean that the system works elegantly, not poorly? Are these professors the successors to the last generation of intellectuals? If so, society has successfully insulated them. They inhabit a protected environment where they can neither harm each other nor reach outsiders. As academic intellectuals subvert paradigms and deconstruct narratives in campus symposia, conservatives take over the nation. Brilliant!
Talking dismissively about blogs becomes a way of introducing a dismissive discussion of Richard Posner, whose own work on the decline of public intellectuals offends Jacoby's sensibilities. Talk of Posner, in turn, licenses the shift to a discussion of "other conservative commentators"--and thence to an oddly shrill concluding digression on the evils of the conservative critique of academe. That digression not only caricatures the critique it claims to summarize, but then degenerates into a nasty cynicism in which the insularity and irrelevance of a left-leaning academic humanities is held up as a marvelous triumph for the conservative caricatures evoked by Jacoby's final paragraphs.
The point: Neither Jacoby nor Fish can think of a single positive, sincere reason why the academic humanities should continue. Fish's best effort devolves into a snobbishly amoral account of art as a source of pleasure (one is reminded of Lord Henry in Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray). Jacoby doesn't even get that far--as far as he is concerned, the wilfull obscurity of scholars who share his politics is tantamount to complicity with those who don't. And, in an academy where one's political affiliations are often an unyielding bottom line, that's a terrific condemnation.
It's interesting to watch Jacoby's argument go off the rails when he broaches the subject of conservatives. It's a variant of the Conservative Derangement Syndrome that seems to affect so many otherwise reasonable critics of higher ed. And it's interesting, too, to consider how the empty-handedness of the Stanley Fishes--who say we should value the humanities but can't say why--licenses the kind of manhandling Jacoby gives them here.