13 Dec 2006

No Conservatism on Campus

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Mark Bauerlein, in Chronicle of Higher Education, sounds a lot like David Horowitz, describing the academic left’s policy of apartheid concerning conservative ideas, thinkers, and scholars.

Just as an example, he compares the status of Hayek with Foucault:

Decades ago a thinker who’d witnessed oppression firsthand embarked upon a multibook investigation into the operations of society and power. Mingling philosophical analysis and historical observation, he produced an interpretation of modern life that traced its origins to the Enlightenment and came down to a fundamental opposition: the diverse energies of individuals versus the regulatory acts of the state and its rationalizing experts. Those latter were social scientists, a caste of 18th- and 19th-century theorists whose extension of scientific method to social relations, the thinker concluded, produced some of the great catastrophes of modern times.

Here’s the rub: I don’t mean Michel Foucault. The description fits him, but it also fits someone less hallowed in academe today: Friedrich A. von Hayek, the economist and social philosopher. Before and after World War II, Hayek battled the cardinal policy sin of the time, central planning and the socialist regimes that embraced it. He remains a key figure in conservative thought, an authority on free enterprise, individual liberty, and centralized power.

And yet, while Foucault and Hayek deal with similar topics, and while Hayek’s defense of free markets (for which he won the Nobel prize in economics in 1974) influenced global politics far more than Foucault’s analyses of social institutions like psychiatry and prisons, the two thinkers enjoy contrary standing in the liberal-arts curriculum. Hayek’s work in economics has a fair presence in that field, and his social writings reach libertarians in the business school, but in the humanities and most of the social sciences he doesn’t even exist. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, a week didn’t pass without Foucault igniting discussion, but I can’t remember hearing Hayek’s name.

Hat tip to Karen Myers.

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Dominique R. Poirier

Sorry to make things that long, once more, but since I cannot but consider Never Yet Melted as an entertaining way of spreading knowledge and favor the intellectual improvement of its readers, I feel compelled to follow this line and so to give my comments the form of a useful contribution.

I’m French and, as such, I oft heard about Michel Foucault. In France, places and occasions during which you’ll have much chance to hear about Michel Foucault are parties and long socialite dinners during which, at some point, someone (a female usually) is going to ask to another guest “Did you read Michel Foucault?” In this country, it is perceived as a component of the expression of the most fashionable demonstration of intellectualism. Too bad then if the other person answers something as inappropriate as “No, who is it?” But, the situation is likely to know a reversal if instead the other person’s answer is “Yes, of course. What do you think about The Order of Things (best known Michel Foucault’s book in France), by the way?”

In fact, in most cases, truly, none of these two persons did read any book written by Michel Foucault. In revenge, at least one bought one of the books this author wrote, or has been offered one someday, but gave up toward the page 50; or 100 for the most courageous. Other authors such as Pierre Bourdieu, Alain Finkelkrault, Bernard Henri Levy, Jacques Derrida, or much older ones such as Kant, Heidegger and Spinoza are concerned by this phenomenon.

What share in common all those modern sociologists, philosophers and other authors is that they chiefly participate to the making of the public opinion, and more especially this of the middle class and lower upper class. At a higher intellectual scale they distract population exactly as sports, actors and singers do; and so contribute to shape social life and trends in a given country. That’s why so much publicity is done for them. The more books they write, the more they write for the MSM, the more the MSM write about them and their books and ideas, the better it is.

Shaping the public opinion is an already old activity less or more discreetly supervised by states since the beginning of the spread of printing and literacy. Before and until these earlier times, it mainly occurred through spoken tales. The making of public opinion occurred first in England with The Spectator, a daily publication published from 1711 to 1712, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. The stated goal of The Spectator was “to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality… to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffeehouses.” It famously recommended that its readers “consider it part of the tea-equipage” and not leave the house without reading it in the morning. One of its functions was to provide readers with educated, topical talking points, and advice in how to carry on conversations and social interactions in a polite manner. In keeping with the values of Enlightenment philosophes of their time, the authors of The Spectator promoted family, marriage, and courtesy. Political ideas came latter, and from the age of Jean Jacques Rousseau on, to be precise.

The Spectator was widely read in its time, by Addison’s estimate. Each number was read by 60,000 Londoners, about a third of London’s population at the time. Most of these were not subscribers, but read the paper in coffeehouses which bought it. These readers came from many stations in society, but the paper catered principally to the interests of England’s emerging middle class mainly made up of merchants and traders large and small. The Spectator was instrumental in the structural transformation of the public sphere, which England saw in the eighteenth century. This transformation came about because of, and in the interests of, the middle class.

Addison and Steele are considered as the founders of the making of public opinion. Their idea was quickly adopted in Prussia where its successful experiment seduced Catherine the Great of Russia who soon imported it in her country.

In France, an experiment similar to this of The Spectator has been successfully attempted from 1674 to 1724 with the publication of The Mercure de France. The Mercure de France was a gazette and literary magazine first published from under the title “Mercure gallant.” The Mercure Galant was a significant development in the history of journalism. Also, it was the first gazette to report on the fashion world and it played a pivotal role in the dissemination of news about fashion, luxury goods, etiquette and court life under Louis XIV to the provinces and abroad.

Eventually, some of the authors writing for these publications were called upon, or acted less or more unwittingly, to serve the foreign policy of their country. In France, during the reign of the king Louis XV, the first organized intelligence service was created. At that time, it was known under the name of “Secret du Roi” (King’s secret), and one of those most prolific and imaginative writers existing of this period and who was to be one of its most successful agent was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, best known for his theatrical works. Beaumarchais, as secret agent, was sent by Louis XV to England in order to write and print pamphlets quite calumnious and discrediting, but always well written, for the young future king of England.
Countless other prolific authors and scholars, already influential in their respective countries, performed missions of a similar kind.
Since then cultural relations between countries and the development of faster and cheaper means of spreading knowledge and literacy put us in the obligation to submit, willy-nilly, to these practices that gave birth to a near science, subtler to mere and blunt propaganda, called “information warfare.”

In many cases the mind of these prolific writers representatives of the intellectual elite, are tortured ones, a fact often revealed by further readings about their childhood and life in general. Those personal difficulties, troubles, and problems compelled them to express their feelings toward other, and so, in some cases, to publish it with success. In turn, when these persons are, at the same time, intellectually of a superior breed and creative minds and victims nonetheless of neurosis, their writings or discourse may be quite challenging for the average and balanced person. When this occurs, this average and balanced person, whose general culture and education may not be up to the circumstance, face a dilemma. Either the person feel intellectually overwhelmed and soon gives up, or, on the contrary, honestly reaches to the conclusion that further efforts are worth to be done to understand, at last, what is the author’s point; especially when this author benefited of extraordinary publicity. In this second case, a well identified weakness of our mind is responsible of this attitude in the sense that we are all “naturally” inclined to willingly accord credibility to anything seems intellectually challenging, sparkled with rare words, and sustained by numerous and authentic historical and scientific references. Such demonstrations of education cannot but grants further credibility to its author until a brighter mind questions it. Who would be pretentious enough to pretend the contrary?
Often, this weakness constitutes for the ablest and more tenacious of those authors a kind of “backdoor” which allows them to successfully publish hoaxes and nonsense tales disguised as serious theories and demonstrations of intellectual achievements. Alan Sokal, a professor of physics and faculty member of the mathematics department at New York University, wonderfully demonstrated how far it is possible to go on such ground in successfully submitting for publication a grand-sounding, but nonsensical paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, a highly respected publication. What had to become nicknamed the “Sokal Affair” deserves objective praise since, as experiment, it demonstrated that even no-nonsense and highly minded intellectuals and scientists can be lured that way. (I make profit of this explanation to remind my reader that this phenomenon favored the emergence of many abuses in the frame of the controversial global warming since, truly, no one and none of the state-of-the-art available technology can demonstrate it owes to human activities.)

Back to the matter at hand, it just happens that Michel Foucault is especially representative of these tortured souls benefiting of exceptional intellectuals capacities. His early education was a mix of success and mediocrity until he attended the Jesuit Collège Saint-Stanislas, where he finally excelled. From an early age he showed signs of premature balding and by his mid 20’s lost most of his hair; this fact happening during times when baldness was not at all a fashion. Foucault’s personal life during the Ãu2030cole Normale was difficult. He suffered from acute depression, even attempting suicide, before he was taken to see a psychiatrist. Foucault joined the French Communist Party from 1950 to 1953. He was inducted into the party by his mentor Louis Althusser, another unbalanced thinker who became totally insane and assassinated his wife during one of his crisis of dementia.
Foucault notoriously also joined students in occupying French administration buildings and fighting with police. In 1975 he took LSD at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, later calling it the best experience of his life. In 1978 Foucault made two tours of Iran, undertaking extensive interviews with political protagonists in support of the new revolutionary Islamic government there. In San Francisco of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Foucault participated in the subcultures of anonymous gay sex and sadomasochism. It is suspected that it was there that he contracted HIV, in the days before the disease was described as such. Foucault died of an AIDS-related illness in Paris June 26th, 1984.

Any psychologist or psychiatrist would agree on the fact that these last points of Foucault’s biography leave much room to question at some point the objectiveness we may find in the books he wrote. That’s why I question the seriousness of anyone advocating a way of life or a change in our society based upon Foucault’s assumptions. I also express my surprise to see that the works of a well known far leftist and agitator collected further interest, as little as it may be, in a country such as the United States.

Now, Michel Foucault is a renowned writer, if not a sociologist whose achievements will bring further improvement in our society in the times to come; while Frederick von Hayek is, at the opposite side, a reputed economist whose field of research requires down-to-earth approach and turn of mind. These two men hardly suffer comparison.



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