HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 22, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Lack of Balance

Stanley Fish reminds us once again that a large majority of college professors are not Republicans, and that this gives the right-wing a case of heartburn. Mr. Fish and the Republicans are certainly right about the proportion. The political unbalance among professors is very similar to the breakdown between professors who believe the world evolved biologically rather than being created magically a few thousand years ago, and between those who think the earth is a sphere and those who think it's flat.  The reason in all three cases is the same.

There is only one reason why a person who respects knowledge and honest analysis would be a Republican. He would need to be severely rich and intent on becoming vastly richer. Not many college professors meet that standard. Consequently, they don't support Republican candidates or Republican policy. Their reasons for opposition are the same as the reasons journalists hold for not supporting Republicans.

I have on numerous occasions admitted that I have a good deal of sympathy for Republican publicists. They can't admit who they are or what the effect of their policies would be. If they did, they would never win another election. This makes their job very hard. That they have had the degree of success they have speaks well for their enterprise. But they had best give up on the quest to get an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on university faculties. That's a dead end.


Price of Leadership

A theme of this page since I cranked it up more than three years ago has been the state of mind of public leaders. For the most part, they are not serious people. They have traded in their brains for little calculating machines.

It's certainly not an idea that originated with me and it's becoming more common as time passes. This morning in the New York Times we have a column from David Brooks about Deborah Pryce, Republican representative from Ohio, who is ashamed of what she had to do to win her race in 2006. Even her mother was put off by the ads she ran against her opponent. But she had to do it, supposedly, because her campaign was taken over by national consultants. Brooks praises her for remaining aware that what she was doing was disgusting. A majority, he says, would not have admitted it to themselves. Instead, they convert themselves into the nonsense that comes out of their mouths. He quotes Meg Greenfield from her memoir: "Public people almost eagerly dehumanize themselves."

If we have, actually, almost non-human people directing our affairs, what can we expect from them? It's a question that needs addressing but, still, it's secondary to the principal issue confronting us. Why do we insist on selecting mostly mindless people for positions of responsibility?

Throughout the nation people profess to be appalled by the political class. They're all a bunch of crooks is the most common phrase uttered about them. But criminality isn't the main problem.

The American public, evidently, can't stand to hear a proposition that's either unfamiliar to them, or that they don't like.  If politicians are going to bow down to that political taste, they are reduced to uttering commonplace abstractions that say nothing. That's bad enough in itself. What's worse, though, is that gradually the demand weeds out people who find it irritating. And we are left with candidates who actually like empty, sentimentalized abstractions, and not only like them but believe they represent thought. That's who we have now.

We will keep on having them until the public taste changes. Yet, in a process of monstrous circularity, the public mind has been shaped by the emptiness it has demanded. Breaking that cycle won't be easy, and it may require events most of us would wish we could avoid.


Small Revelations

Howard Kurtz in Reality Show, his history of the network news organizations, has this to say about an aspect of the career of Brian Williams, the current NBC News anchor: because he never graduated from college he "overcompensated by immersing himself in the world of books."

Isn't that just awful? It's in small asides like this that American culture reveals itself, and particularly the culture of the media and journalism. A man who wants to know something, a man who wants to stimulate his own thoughts by reading substantial material, is overcompensating.

Where's Richard Hofstadter when we really need him? If he were still around to update his 1963 study, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, he would have so much new material he would require several additional volumes to reach the 21st Century.

The idea that a person who reads books is not really in the game -- unless the game is professordom -- is pervasive throughout American institutional life. The real go-getter will be out hustling people somehow, and knowledge and thought won't be getting in his way. It's astounding that Brian Williams rose up at NBC, given all that book-reading.

Maybe it's worthwhile to stop and say what this attitude actually is. It's almost purely juvenile machismo. The people who practice it most assiduously rise up in the ranks. But they also insure that their institutions will flounder. That's because they are guided by no sense of the past, no serious knowledge of what the human world is, and no imagination for bringing up genuinely fresh ideas.

The United States may not lead the pack of nations in this respect but it is, assuredly, near the top of the list. You would think a good place to start curing the callow disease is the schools. But the schools, themselves, are practicing it.

As I write this I realize that regardless of where I start I find myself returning to the same theme over and over. Is this an obsession? Or might it be an application of Matthew Arnold's argument that if anything is to be learned, it must be taught well and taught repeatedly?

Judging between them might require some knowledge of who Matthew Arnold was, and I can't help being curious as to whether Howard Kurtz could answer that question.


Unexpected Story

Appearing on Hardball, Pat Buchanan quoted Whitaker Chambers to the effect that a characteristic of conservatives is they leave their wounded on the battlefield. Buchanan was speaking about the Larry Craig case.

It's interesting how this story has metamorphosed from a tale of a hapless, hypocritical senator to one about the treachery and mean-spiritedness of right-wing politics. The speed with which the Republican Party rushed to dump Larry Craig, without giving him a chance to tell his side of the case, was, at the least, brutal. Mitt Romney led the pack but there were plenty of others following along in his wake.

The common explanation is that Republican politicians are terrified to be associated with the taint of homosexuality. It may seem a bit mystifying when one considers how many of them practice it. But the theory is that the Republican base is so hostile to same sex practices any hint of sympathy with it would be disastrous.

Perhaps that is the reason. Still, I suspect that ambition, and the worship of ambition -- defined as we tend now to define it in America -- is equally a part of the explanation. In Republican theology, real men win. They trample anything in their way on the road to victory. That's why they deserve not only our respect but our willingness to follow their lead. Larry Craig got in the way. That's why he was trampled. Or, as he put it, run over and backed over in order to be run over again.

It would be pleasant to think that Larry Craig might learn something from the experience and, consequently, rethink some of his former positions. But so far there's no indication of that.


Truthfulness

There are throbs of suspicion now about whether Michael Mukasey got a corrective call from the White House which changed the tone of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nominee to be Attorney General says he didn't. He spent the evening at home with his family.

Whether or not he's telling the truth is, at the moment, impossible to determine. He seems certain of confirmation anyway, so it maybe it doesn't matter. Yet, I can't help wondering about it.

It strikes me as unlikely that no one would have phoned him after his first day of testimony. Perhaps, knowing that he would get calls, he took the phone off the hook and refused to talk to anyone. Somehow, I doubt that was the case.

He seems, rather rapidly, to have adopted the Bush stance of proclaiming that torture is forbidden by law yet refusing to define it. If we can't say what torture is then a law prohibiting it is meaningless. Interrogators can do anything to a person and then, simply say it wasn't torture. Thus the ban on torture becomes merely a decorative trinket of American law, looking pretty but having no effect. That's clearly what the Bush administration has wanted -- the sound without the substance.

Is that what Mr. Mukasey wants also? Evidently, the Judiciary Committee is unable to find out.


The Main Theme

A recent Jeff Danziger cartoon offers me a chance to reassert the principal political theme of this page. In case you didn't see the drawing, it shows a diminutive George Bush, in a generalissimo suit, seated on the edge of a desk, grumbling, "I don't want some wussy peace prize... Where's the war prize?" Behind the desk, in a gigantic chair, Cheney comforts him, "Yeah.. The real man prize! Real men get people killed."

My theme? Not only the American government, but the American people are far too eager to solve their problems by killing people. They like the idea because they think it's heroic, and manly. This is a concept that has long since passed into the realm of immature nonsense.

Killing causes suffering and misery. But those are probably not the main reasons to do everything possible to avoid it. It's ugly, in all instances, and people who engage in it dirty their souls, whatever their justification. The dead, at least, are dead and therefore beyond any further degradation. But the living who like to kill and tell themselves tales of heroism after indulging in it are living in filth. And filthy living is worse even than suffering and pain.

We in this country need to grow up enough to recognize that.


Costly Schooling

We've known for some time now that education is getting expensive. But the latest version of it seems completely out of hand.

Jim Hoagland, writing in the Washington Post, tells us that the main consequence of the adventure in Iraq is that the U.S. military has learned to seek local solutions rather than to try effecting national transformation. And he implies, fairly strongly, that the lesson may be worth the cost, that is if we apply it intelligently.

Viewing the Iraq war as a graduate course for the military is a piquant idea. Perhaps the Pentagon will work up an entire catalog in which this effort will be listed as "Antiterrorism 202." The syllabus will read: "Invade a small impoverished country. Kill 100, 000 of its citizens and spend the lives of 4,000 of our own forces. Observe the ensuing insurgency, and decide whether large or small scale operations are indicated for managing it."

The university budget will estimate the cost of this course as half a trillion, although all the professors understand it could be well beyond that.

I've always been an advocate of education, but maybe that's just one more of my mistakes.


............................................................................................................................................................................


Comment On This Article
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)


Return to the Table of Contents



Home           Contact Us           Mailing List           Archives           Books on Sale            Links



Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.



This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts