Georgetown Law School’s Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law Louis M. Seidman cannot even be bothered to wear a coat and tie when participating in a debate on a major issue of national public policy, i.e. defending the supposed constitutionality of the Obamacare health insurance mandate.
I smiled recently with bitter amusement upon reading of Stanford University’s preposterous appointment of an “atheist chaplain” when I came upon the detail that made the story perfect: the new padre in charge of unbelief is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.
It seemed to me to speak volumes about establishment university administrations’ systematic pattern of what really amounts to nothing less than long-term embezzlement via the application of institutional resources and funding for purposes diametrically opposed to those which the institutions in question were created to pursue. It sounds like a joke when you observe that one of our most elite divinity schools graduates doctors of divinity specializing in atheism, but the pattern of institutionalized academical heresy and treason obviously extends far beyond mere theology.
Over the weekend, the New York Times published an editorial, written in complete earnest by a tenured professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown, one of the country’s top-tier law schools, titled “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.” Its author, Professor Seidman, who has been teaching, i.e. obviously traducing and malpracticing, Constitutional Law for nearly four decades, brazenly argued in favor of ignoring the Constitution altogether.
As someone who has taught constitutional law for almost 40 years, I am ashamed it took me so long to see how bizarre all this is. Imagine that after careful study a government official — say, the president or one of the party leaders in Congress — reaches a considered judgment that a particular course of action is best for the country. Suddenly, someone bursts into the room with new information: a group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves might have disagreed with this course of action. Is it even remotely rational that the official should change his or her mind because of this divination?
Obviously what this country needs to do is the precise opposite of seeking spiritual counseling from atheists and constitutional legal analysis from opponents of constitutional government. We need to take back our most important and prestigious institutions from the flakes, creeps, and radical fanatics who have infiltrated and occupied them. Our best-credentialed elite ought not to be enthusiastic adversaries of the historical country, culture, and civilization which created the institutions awarding their credentials and vesting them with influence and authority.
Glenn Reynolds typically just does the best job of aggregating imaginable and merely points in the direction of something worth a read with a brief quotation or a witty one-liner.
Paul Krugman’s already infamous typo’d-editorial from yesterday clearly struck a nerve, because Professor Reynolds uncharacteristically actually took the time to swat him down.
Everybody’s angry, to judge from my email, about Paul Krugman’s typo-burdened 9/11 screed. Don’t be angry. Understand it for what it is, an admission of impotence from a sad and irrelevant little man. Things haven’t gone the way he wanted lately, his messiah has feet of clay — hell, forget the “feet” part, the clay goes at least waist-high — and it seems likely he’ll have even less reason to like the coming decade than the last, and he’ll certainly have even less influence than he’s had. Thus, he tries to piss all over the people he’s always hated and envied. No surprise there. But no importance, either. You’ll see more and worse from Krugman and his ilk as the left nationally undergoes the kind of crackup it’s already experiencing in Wisconsin. They thought Barack Obama was going to bring back the glory days of liberal hegemony in politics, but it turned out he was their Ghost Dance, their Bear Shirt, a mystically believed-in totem that lacked the power to reverse their onrushing decline, no matter what the shamans claimed.
Plus, a comment: “I’m not ashamed. If Dr. Krugman, and the circles he moves in, are ashamed then they’ve left us. 9/11 didn’t become a wedge issue because we left them.”
[A] suffocating sensation often came over me whenever I opened Deconstruction and Criticism, a collection of essays by leading theory people that I spotted everywhere that year and knew to be one of the richest sources around for words that could turn a modest midterm essay into an A-plus tour de force Herę is a sentence (or what I took to be one because it ended with a period) from the contribution by the Frenchman Jacques Derrida, the volume’s most prestigious name: “He speaks his mother tongue as the language of the other and deprives himself of all reappropriation, all specularization in it.” On the same page I encountered the windpipe-blocking “heteronomous” and “invagination.” When I turned the page I came across— stuck in a footnote—”unreadability.”
That word I understood, of course.
But real understanding was rare with theory. It couldn’t be depended on at all. Boldness of execution was what scored points. With one of my professors, a snappy “heuristic” usually did the trick. With another, the charm was a casual “praxis.” Even when a poem or story fundamentally escaped me, I found that I could save face with terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as “semiotically unstable.” By this I meant “hard.” All the theory words meant “hard” to me, from “hermeneutical” to “gestural.” Once in a while I’d look one up and see that it had a more specific meaning, but later—some-times only minutes later—the definition would catch a sort of breeze, float away like a dandelion seed, and the word would go back to meaning “hard.”
The need to finesse my ignorance through such trickery-” honorable trickery to my mind, but not to other minds, perhaps—left me feeling hollow and vaguely haunted. Seeking security in numbers, I sought out the company of other frauds. We recognized one another instantly. We toted around books by Roland Barthes, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Walter Benjamin. We spoke of “playfulness” and “textuality” and concluded before we’d read even a hundredth of it that the Western canon was “illegitimate,” a veiled expression of powerful group interests that it was our duty to subvert. In our rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors—the ones who drank with us at the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up our pants and skirts—we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.
For true believers, the goal of theory seemed to be the lifting of a great weight from the shoulders of civilization. This weight was the illusion that it was civilized. The weight had been set there by a rangę of perpetrators—members of certain favored races, males, property owners, the church, the literate, natives of the northern hemisphere—who, when taken together, it seemed to me, represented a considerable portion of everyone who had ever lived. Then again, of course I’d think that way. Of course I’d be cynical. I was one of them.
So why didn’t I feel like one of them, particularly just then? why did I, a member of the classes that had supposedly placed e weight on others and was now attempting to redress this crime, feel so crushingly weighed down myself?
I wasn’t one of theory’s true believers. I was a confused young opportunist trying to turn his confusion to his advantage by sucking up to scholars of confusion. The literary works they prized —the ones best suited to their project of refining and hallowing confusion—were, quite naturally, knotty and oblique The poems of Wallace Stevens, for example. My classmates and I found them maddeningly elusive, like collections of backward answers to hidden riddles, but luckily we could say “recursive” by then. We could say “incommensurable.” Both words meant “hard.”
I grew to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they, too, were fakes. In classroom discussions, and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedentary study habits, and sense that confusion was something to be avoided rather than celebrated, appeared unsuited to the new attitude of antic postmodernism that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was an incoherent con, and I—a born con man who knew little about great literature—had every reason to agree with them. In the land of nonreadability, the nonreader was king, it seemed. Long live the king.
This lucky convergence of academic fashion and my illiteracy emboldened me socially. It convinced me I had a place at Princeton after all. I hadn’t chosen it, exactly, but I’d be foolish not to occupy it. Otherwise I’d be alone.
Finally, without reservations or regrets, I settled into the ranks of Princeton’s Joy Division—my name for the crowd of moody avant-gardists who hung around the smaller campus theaters discussing, enjoying, and dramatizing confusion. One of their productions, which I assisted with, required the audience to contemplate a stage decorated with nothing but potted plants. Plants and Waiters, it was called. My friends and I stood snickering in the wings making bets on how long it would take people to leave. They, the “waiters,” proved true to form. They fidgeted but they didn’t flee. Hilarious.
And, for me, profoundly enlightening. Who knew that serious art could be like this? Who would have guessed that the essence of high culture would turn out to be teasing the poor saps that still believed in it? Certainly no one back in Minnesota. Well, the joke was on them, and I was in on it. I could never go back there now. It bothered me that I’d ever even lived there, knowing that people here on the great coast (people like me— the new, emerging me) had been laughing at us all along. But what troubled me more was the dawning realization that had I not reached Princeton, I might never have discovered this; I might have stayed a rube forever. This idea transformed my basic loyalties. I decided that it was time to leave behind the sort of folks whom I’d been raised around and stand—for better or for worse—with the characters who’d clued me in.
In the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto, responds to the recent editorial by Charles Krauthammer, to explore even further the pathologies of “the snobbery of the cognitive elite.”
The Ground Zero mosque is an affront to the sensibilities of ordinary Americans. “The center’s association with 9/11 is intentional and its location is no geographic coincidence,” as the Associated Press has reported. That Americans would find this offensive is a matter of simple common sense. The liberal elites cannot comprehend common sense, and, incredibly, they think that’s a virtue. After all, common sense is so common.
The British philosopher Roger Scruton has coined a term to describe this attitude: oikophobia. Xenophobia is fear of the alien; oikophobia is fear of the familiar: “the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’ ” What a perfect description of the pro-mosque left.
Scruton was writing in 2004, and his focus was on Britain and Europe, not America. But his warning about the danger of oikophobes—whom he amusingly dubs “oiks”—is very pertinent on this side of the Atlantic today, and it illuminates how what are sometimes dismissed as mere matters of “culture” tie in with economic and social policy:
The oik repudiates national loyalties and defines his goals and ideals against the nation, promoting transnational institutions over national governments, accepting and endorsing laws that are imposed on us from on high by the EU or the UN, though without troubling to consider Terence’s question, and defining his political vision in terms of universal values that have been purified of all reference to the particular attachments of a real historical community.
The oik is, in his own eyes, a defender of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism. And it is the rise of the oik that has led to the growing crisis of legitimacy in the nation states of Europe. For we are seeing a massive expansion of the legislative burden on the people of Europe, and a relentless assault on the only loyalties that would enable them voluntarily to bear it. The explosive effect of this has already been felt in Holland and France. It will be felt soon everywhere, and the result may not be what the oiks expect.
There is one important difference between the American oik and his European counterpart. American patriotism is not a blood-and-soil nationalism but an allegiance to a country based in an idea of enlightened universalism. Thus our oiks masquerade as—and may even believe themselves to be—superpatriots, more loyal to American principles than the vast majority of Americans, whom they denounce as “un-American” for feeling an attachment to their actual country as opposed to a collection of abstractions.
Yet the oiks’ vision of themselves as an intellectual aristocracy violates the first American principle ever articulated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .”
This cannot be reconciled with the elitist notion that most men are economically insecure bitter clinging intolerant bigots who need to be governed by an educated elite. Marxism Lite is not only false; it is, according to the American creed, self-evidently false. That is why the liberal elite finds Americans revolting.
Former conservative Mark Lilla, in Chronicle of Higher Education, welcomes the University of California at Berkeley’s opening of a “Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements” (which is obviously destined to link Edmund Burke, William F Buckley, Jr., and Adolph Hitler in a common pattern of pathological aversion to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful), expressing guarded optimism over the possibility of its getting “professors and students to discuss ideas and read books that until now have been relegated to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.”
The unfortunate fact is that American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas, even though those ideas have utterly transformed American (and British) politics over the past 30 years. A look at the online catalogs of our major universities confirms this: plenty of courses on identity politics and postcolonialism, nary a one on conservative political thought. Professors are expected to understand the subtle differences among gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, but I would wager that few can distinguish between the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, three think tanks that have a greater impact on Washington politics than the entire Ivy League.
Why is that? The former left-wing firebrand David Horowitz, whom the professors do know, has a simple answer: There is a concerted effort to keep conservative Ph.D.’s out of jobs, to deny tenure to those who get through, and to ignore conservative books and ideas. It is an old answer, dating back to the 1970s, when neoconservatives began writing about the “adversary culture” of intellectuals. Horo witz is an annoying man, and what’s most annoying about him is that … he has a point. Though we are no longer in the politically correct sauna of the 1980s and 1990s, and experiences vary from college to college, the picture he paints of the faculty and curriculum in American universities remains embarrassingly accurate, and it is foolish to deny what we all see before us.
Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus (economic diversity worries them less, for some reason). Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem. But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members. That wouldn’t matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries’ books and views, but we know how rarely that happens. That’s why political diversity on the faculty does matter. As it stands, there is a far greater proportion of conservatives in the student body of typical colleges than on the faculty. A few leading thinkers on the right do teach at our top universities—but at some, like Columbia University, where I teach, not a single prominent conservative is to be found.
Contra Horowitz, the blackballing of conservatives and conservative ideas is by now instinctive and habitual rather than self-conscious, reflecting intellectual provincialism more than ideological fervor. I recall being at a dinner in Paris in the late 1980s with a distinguished American historian of France who had gathered her graduate students for the evening. The conversation turned to book printing in the early modern era, which she was studying, and the practice of esoteric writing, which was more widespread than she had imagined. I mentioned that there was a classic book on this subject by Leo Strauss. She searched her mind for a moment—this was before the Iraq war made Strauss a household name—and then said, “But isn’t he a conservative?” In a certain way he was, I said. Silence at the table. She smiled that smile meant to end discussion, and the conversation turned to more-pleasant topics.
Nonetheless, Lilla quarreled with David Horowitz’s “anti-intellectual” “dumbing down” indictment of exactly the same liberal dogmatism and intolerance he himself recognizes in an obviously more becoming and appropriate rueful tone which differs from Horowitz by its passive acceptance of the situation.
But even Lilla’s comparatively timid public recognition of the left’s tyrannical regime within most American universities provoked liberal pooh-pooh-ing in a follow-up exchange.
Bruce L.R. Smith, nearly inadvertently, finds real world practical considerations making denial just a bit awkward.
Lilla states that there is not a single conservative at Columbia University. I can assure him that this is not so. In 2000, I returned to Columbia after a 20-year hiatus as a fellow at the Heyman Center for the Humanities. Over the next five years I renewed friendships and acquaintanceships with many colleagues (and met new ones), some of whom can fairly be called conservatives. Perhaps I will prove Lilla’s point by forbearing to mention them by name, other than myself.
How dare Boston College allow its committee on religious art to hang crucifixes in its class rooms. Why, you’d think the place was a Catholic school or something! indignantly huffed a number of secularly-minded faculty.
Iranian-born Chemistry Professor Amir Hoyveda expressed characteristic views.
Not only can such symbols be insulting to those who do not consider themselves Christians, it can be offensive to Christians as well. Taking umbrage by such symbols has nothing to do with the identity of one’s faith. It is about whether symbols that represent a specific branch of beliefs have a place in the scared (sic) space of a classroom where we are to teach the students to think independently and do all we can to be unbiased. ...
In any respectable university, it is the faculty who are responsible for the level and the quality of the education of our students; this does not pertain to administrators, particularly those who are either not scholars or are have never in their lives been highly respected serious scholars. How can such a significant symbol be placed in a classroom and the very people who are responsible for teaching, not be consulted? To me, such an approach by a university administration is irresponsible and anti-intellectual; it is not how a progressive and enlightened university thinks and operates. I can hardly imagine a more effective way to denigrate the faculty of an educational institution.
Such symbols will have a negative effect on many visitors and prospective students and faculty, many of whom will likely be Christians. It represents a bias towards one way of thinking, elevates one set of ideals above others, honors one group of people in preference to the rest without any meaningful discussion or elaboration.
Hoyveda’s propositions are amusing.
Public expressions of religiosity by a religious school can constitute a sacrilegious assault on the (patently more sacred than someone else’s religion) animosity toward that religion of someone like Professor Hoyveda.
Moreover, the classroom is the turf of faculty employees, and mere administrators, lacking advanced degrees in things like chemistry, ought to confine themselves to signing pay checks, and leave all the big decisions to members of the faculty.
Enlightenment consists of pursuing an active policy of rejecting any open expression of affirmation of the superiority of any viewpoint, philosophy, or religious faith, except of course, for secular liberal political correctness which must not only be affirmed, but forcibly imposed, at every opportunity.
Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.
—quipped Columbia University political science professor Wallace S. Sayre (well before Henry Kissinger).
Allen Guelzo argues, however, that those stakes, which include the opportunity to form the background assumptions and fundamental perspective of society’s educated elite, may not really be so petty after all.
The conservative revolution was supposed to be a revolution. It has not been. It has been an insurgency. And while that insurgency captured a vast swath of open territory, it failed utterly to capture the key citadels of American culture, beginning with American higher education.
The academic left likes to complain about how the conservative onslaught forced it to “retreat” to the ivory tower – but without acknowledging that the ivory tower had become the Gibraltar of American life. For better or worse, an undergraduate degree has become the prerequisite for entry into middle-class life. Academics control the narrow neck through which America’s managers, writers, thinkers, bankers, politicians, and executives must pass, and that passage has acquired an atmosphere, no matter how self-pityingly the academic left likes to deny it, in which Left assumptions are set as the default positions
The academic Left is correct when it pooh-poohs the idea that it conducts a massive ideological de-programming; but then again, it does not need to. It has merely to nudge the standard deviation of the politics of the future ruling class a few clicks to the left for conservatism to seem abnormal. Conservatives made the disastrous mistake of assuming that if they abandoned those tedious and expensive plans to lay siege to the university, they would be free to move on to the larger and more easily-annexed plains of government and finance. They were wrong. Governments change, finances crash, but the faculty is forever.
Peter Berkowitz, in the Wall Street Journal, identifies the source of the irrational immoderation and limitless self-righteousness of today’s community of fashion as our Gramscian-hijacked educational system.
Some will speculate that the outbreak of hatred and euphoria in our politics is the result of the transformation of left-liberalism into a religion, its promulgation as dogma by our universities, and students’ absorption of their professors’ lesson of immoderation. This is unfair to religion.
At least it’s unfair to those forms of biblical faith that teach that God’s ways are hidden and mysterious, that all human beings are both deserving of respect and inherently flawed, and that it is idolatry to invest things of this world—certainly the goods that can be achieved through politics—with absolute value. Through these teachings, biblical faith encourages skepticism about grand claims to moral and political authority and an appreciation of the limits of one’s knowledge, both of which well serve liberal democracy.
In contrast, by assembling and maintaining faculties that think alike about politics and think alike that the university curriculum must instill correct political opinions, our universities cultivate intellectual conformity and discourage the exercise of reason in public life. It is not that our universities invest the fundamental principles of liberalism with religious meaning—after all the Declaration of Independence identifies a religious root of our freedom and equality. Rather, they infuse a certain progressive interpretation of our freedom and equality with sacred significance, zealously requiring not only outward obedience to its policy dictates but inner persuasion of the heart and mind. This transforms dissenters into apostates or heretics, and leaders into redeemers.
One of my classmates this morning was demanding that I explain why Conservatism has taken an anti-intellectual turn (Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber). I replied:
Conservatism isn’t anti-intellectual. Conservatism is anti a pseudo-intellectual community of fashion following the lead of the treasonous clerks who have hijacked the academic establishment. Why should it be surprising in this “the-great-professor-has-no-clothes” era, when the elite university class rushes to support drivelling nonsense like Global Warming catastrophism and Socialism, that the contrast between the educated fools and the wiser representative of ordinary Common Sense has become a standard cultural meme?
Elite education used to be aimed at producing leaders capable of rational and independent judgement, familiar with the broad sweep of Western culture, men of integrity willing to defend their civilization, their country, and the right. What our elite institutions have been producing for a very long time is a cadre of adequately glib functionaries, nominally acquainted with the standard cultural heights (from a Cliff notes, test taking perspective), opportunistic and calculating and conformist, with no fixed principles beyond sentimentality and a watchful eye constantly fixed on the decrees of the community of fashion. The older elite could be calculated to rebuke folly and resist popular enthusiams. The current elite only aspires to prominent positions near the front of the mob. Our generation grew up more spoiled and pampered than any generation in previous human history. We were favored with greater ease and opportunity than our parents and grandparents ever dreamed of, so, when we went to college, what did the overwhelming majority of our generation do? They rebelled against the terrible tyranny of middle-class American life, betrayed their country and their less-privileged contemporaries fighting and dying in the field to support… Communism. What an opportunity for dramaturgy and self-righteous poses the Vietnam War provided! Any snot-nosed, spotty-faced adolescent could get up on a soapbox and commence denouncing his country and its adult leadership from a supposedly morally-superior high horse and catch himself later in his glory on the 6 PM Evening News. And the generality of today’s American elite hasn’t changed one bit with age.
This is the American intellectual community, a tree hugging, Socialism-embracing, holier-than-thou, cause-loving, empty-headed collection of noisy poseurs and conformists. American Conservatism is simply a movement applying a critical gloss to the mass politics of the last century and attempting a serious defense of the traditional values of the European West and the principles on which the Government of the United States was founded. These days you have to be an extremist radical to argue that state and federal constitutions should be read to mean what they actually say, not interpreted so as to turn seasonal rain puddles into “navigable waterways” or equal protection before the law into a mandate to coerce your fellow citizens.
Adam Kirsch, in the New Republic, warns of the rise of another philosophic defender of bad causes, one who has perfected the technique of using a soupçon of wit to disguise the real flavor of the Communism.
The curious thing about the Zizek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror—especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose “lost causes” Zizek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes—the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Zizek claims, “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy”; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Zizek is “a stimulating writer” who “will entertain and offend, but never bore.” In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that “the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred”; but this is an example of his “typical brio and boldness.” And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Zizek remarks that “Heidegger is ‘great’ not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement,” and that “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough”; but this book, its publisher informs us, is “a witty, adrenalinfueled manifesto for universal values.”
In the same witty book Zizek laments that “this is how the establishment likes its ‘subversive’ theorists: harmless gadflies who sting us and thus awaken us to the inconsistencies and imperfections of our democratic enterprise—God forbid that they might take the project seriously and try to live it.” How is it, then, that Slavoj Zizek, who wants not to correct democracy but to destroy it, has been turned into one of the establishment’s pet subversives, who “tries to live” the revolution most completely as a jet-setting professor at the European Graduate School, a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana’s Institute of Sociology, and the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities?
A part of the answer has to do with Zizek’s enthusiasm for American popular culture. Despite the best attempts of critical theory to demystify American mass entertainment, to lay bare the political subtext of our movies and pulp fiction and television shows, pop culture remains for most Americans apolitical and anti-political—a frivolous zone of entertainment and distraction. So when the theory-drenched Zizek illustrates his arcane notions with examples from Nip/ Tuck and Titanic, he seems to be signaling a suspension of earnestness. The effect is quite deliberate. In The Metastases of Enjoyment, for instance, he writes that “Jurassic Park is a chamber drama about the trauma of fatherhood in the style of the early Antonioni or Bergman.” Elsewhere he asks, “Is Parsifal not a model for Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, with Laurence Fishburne in the role of Gurnemanz?” Those are laugh lines, and they cunningly disarm the anxious or baffled reader with their playfulness. They relieve his reader with an expectation of comic hyperbole, and this expectation is then carried over to Zizek’s political proclamations, which are certainly hyperbolic but not at all comic.
When, in 1994, during the siege of Sarajevo, Zizek wrote that “there is no difference” between life in that city and life in any American or Western European city, that “it is no longer possible to draw a clear and unambiguous line of separation between us who live in a ‘true’ peace and the residents of Sarajevo”—well, it was only natural for readers to think that he did not really mean it, just as he did not really mean that Jurassic Park is like a Bergman movie. This intellectual promiscuity is the privilege of the licensed jester, of the man whom The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed “the Elvis of cultural theory.”
In person, too, Zizek plays the jester with practiced skill. Every journalist who sits down to interview him comes away with a smile on his face. Robert Boynton, writing in Lingua Franca in 1998, found Zizek “bearded, disheveled, and loud … like central casting’s pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual.” Boynton was amused to see the manic, ranting philosopher order mint tea and sugar cookies: “’Oh, I can’t drink anything stronger than herbal tea in the afternoon,’ he says meekly. ‘Caffeine makes me too nervous.’” The intellectual parallel is quite clear: in life, as in his writing, Zizek is all bark and no bite. Like a naughty child who flashes an irresistible grin, it is impossible to stay angry at him for long.
I witnessed the same deception a few weeks ago, when Zizek appeared with Bernard-Henri Lévy at the New York Public Library. The two philosopher-celebrities came on stage to the theme music from Superman, and their personae were so perfectly opposed that they did indeed nudge each other into cartoonishness: Lévy was all the more Gallic and debonair next to Zizek, who seemed all the more wild-eyed and Slavic next to Lévy. Thus it was perfectly natural for the audience to erupt in laughter when Zizek, at one point in the generally unacrimonious evening, told Lévy: “Don’t be afraid—when we take over you will not go to the Gulag, just two years of reeducation camp.” Solzhenitsyn had died only a few weeks earlier, but it would have been a kind of betise to identify Zizek’s Gulag with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. When the audience laughed, it was playing into his hands, and hewing to the standard line on Zizek, which Rebecca Mead laid down in a profile of him in The New Yorker a few years ago: “Always to take Slavoj Zizek seriously would be to make a category mistake.”
Whether or not it would be always a mistake to take Slavoj Zizek seriously, surely it would not be a mistake to take him seriously just once. He is, after all, a famous and influential thinker. So it might be worthwhile to consider Zizek’s work as if he means it—to ask what his ideas really are, and what sort of effects they are likely to have.
Zizek is a believer in the Revolution at a time when almost nobody, not even on the left, thinks that such a cataclysm is any longer possible or even desirable. This is his big problem, and also his big opportunity. While “socialism” remains a favorite hate-word for the Republican right, the prospect of communism overthrowing capitalism is now so remote, so fantastic, that nobody feels strongly moved to oppose it, as conservatives and liberal anticommunists opposed it in the 1930s, the 1950s, and even the 1980s. When Zizek turns up speaking the classical language of Marxism-Leninism, he profits from the assumption that the return of ideas that were once the cause of tragedy can now occur only in the form of farce. In the visual arts, the denaturing of what were once passionate and dangerous icons has become commonplace, so that emblems of evil are transformed into perverse fun, harmless but very profitable statements of post-ideological camp. ...
Joseph Epstein has taught for too many years to believe that conspicuous success in today’s elite universities is commonly a testament to good character. Au contraire, Epstein argues: “Some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools.”
Last week the excellent David Brooks, in one of his columns in the New York Times, exulted over the high quality of people President-elect Barack Obama was enlisting in his new cabinet and onto his staff. The chief evidence for these people being so impressive, it turns out, is they all went to what the world—”that ignorant ninny,” as Henry James called it—thinks superior schools. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, the London School of Economics; like dead flies on flypaper, the names of the schools Obama’s new appointees attended dotted Brooks’s column.
Here is the column’s first paragraph:
Jan. 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.).
This administration will be, as Brooks writes, “a valedictocracy.” The assumption here is that having all these good students—many of them possibly “toll-frees,” as high-school students who get 800s on their SATs used to be known in admissions offices—running the country is obviously a pretty good thing. Brooks’s one jokey line in the column has it that “if a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard-Yale game any time over the next four years, we’re screwed.” Since my appreciation of David Brooks is considerable, and since I agree with him on so many things, why don’t I agree with him here?
The reason is that, after teaching at a university for 30 years, I have come to distrust the type I think of as “the good student.” ...
Frances Widdowson, a political scientist, and Albert Howard, a former government and aboriginal group consultant, suggest that indigenous peoples did not exist at the same level of social and cultural development as Europeans when they first encountered each other. Even more controversially, they suggest many pre-modern characteristics of indigenous societies still exist in First Nation communities today and prevent them from integrating into modern society and succeeding.
This, they argue, is the problem confronting First Nations today: they need to catch up culturally.
Before one assumes this is a “racist” argument, one must understand there is a big difference between race and culture. All societies, including European ones, passed through periods of cultural evolution, which is determined by environmental factors, not biology. At one point, European societies were small, kinship-based societies just like indigenous peoples. Because they lacked surplus food production, First Nation societies did not enjoy the division of labour that European civilizations had at the time and did not have the sophisticated, literate society that grew out of that.
The failure to see obvious differences in civilizations, they argue, is part of the “post-modern” thinking dominating academia.
The problem as they see it is that well-intentioned academics, seeing the disadvantages First Nations face, feel guilty and as a result, never criticize First Nations, no matter how problematic some aspects of their cultures are for modern life.
Roger Kimball savors Sarah Palin’s arrival on the political scene as a kind of Joan of Arc of the culture wars.
Sarah’s lucky that the establishment left is so thoroughly secularist, or they’d be preparing her stake now.
In the early 1960s, Bill Buckley famously observed that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University. It is perhaps worth pointing out that Bill, a Yale man, was not singling out the Harvard faculty for special opprobrium. Harvard was merely a synecdoche. .. It was the smug, “progressive” liberal consensus that our elite academic institutions inculcated, even back then, that Bill objected to, not Harvard per se. ...
It’s only from the eyrie of the “Harvard” Weltanschauung that a largish random sampling of citizens is found culturally deficient. And this leads me to a crucial point about “Harvard” and the “progressive” consensus it represents: it is sophisticated about everything except its own naïveté. It champions cultural relativism–absolutely. It is suspicious when someone shows up peddling “the truth,” especially about moral matters; but it embraces its perspective on the world as inarguable. According to the gospel of “Harvard,” all right-thinking (i.e., left-leaning) people agree with the various positions set forth in the catechism of liberalism. To champion the various dogmas set forth in that catechism, says “Harvard,” is simply to exhibit one’s contact with reality. To dissent from them is to exhibit one’s ignorance, bad faith, or malevolence. Nice work if you can get it!
If you can get it? The amazing thing is that there is nothing easier. The liberal consensus has tenure. I mean, it is thoroughly institutionalized, and not only in academia. It has metastasized throughout elite culture. It’s what you are likely to uphold if you were graduated from an Ivy League college, went to law school, or work for The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, etc. It explains the little frisson Chris Matthews felt travelling up his leg as Obama spoke last winter. It also explains the incredulous, spluttering rage that Sarah Palin has provoked in purlieus of liberal self-satisfaction. I call it “Palin Hysteria Syndrome.” Just this morning, for example, I received this email from an acquaintance (I preserve the original orthography and diction: he is a careful writer as a rule, but clearly his emotion got the better of him here):
i read you blog posting on Sarah Palin. Quite a suprise. Never would I have thought you suceptible to trailer trash. More suprising were the comments about Palin’s “executive experience” and being governor of the country’s “largest state.” Once upon a time, those were the sort of sphistries against which you waged glorious battle. The strange bedfellows induced by politics are not integrity and compromise.
“Trailer trash,” eh? Clearly, as Victor Davis Hanson put it yesterday, “Team Obama, the mainstream media, and the entire American intelligentsia” are acting “as if they were collectively hit by a cruise missile aimed from Middle America.” “Cruise missile” is good: it suggests the unexpectedness and deadly accuracy of the blow. But I like to think that Boston phone book–or maybe it’s the Juneau phone book–is finally getting some of its own back. Bill Buckley would be pleased.
The Challenge: Name the silliest argument to be offered by a serious academic in the last 25 years and to be taken up and be gravely masticated by the larger world of intellectual debate.
Examples given include Global Warming, and Kimball’s current favorite, Francis Fukuyama’a “End of History.”
It’s not going to be easy to top those very deserving entries. Off the cuff, the best I can do to compete is to offer the obvious choice: Martin Bernal’s 1987 Black Athena contention that Ancient Greece cribbed Western Civilization from Afroasiatic and Semitic sources.
My proposed runner-up would have to be the late John Boswell’s 1994 thesis in The Marriage of Likeness that the early Christian Church blessed Gay unions via brotherhood ceremonies, a thesis equal in both creativity and impertinence.
Interestingly, both of my choices are theories emanating from, and central to, bogus academic departments created essentially as compensation to victim groups.