Saturday, December 30, 2006

On Conservative Student Writers

(Thanks to Free Exchange on Campus for pointing out the Campus Magazine piece.)

In an article entitled "Liberal Faculty: A Debate," two Vanderbilt University students, Douglas Kurdziel and Luke Bidikov, offer slightly divergent views on liberal/conservative “balance” within university faculties. As these are student voices and opinions, I am going to treat them with all the respect I provide my own students. After all, as a good “liberal,” I try to encourage my students to learn to think and explore for themselves—just as I would like these two to learn to do. That doesn't mean, though, that I will go easy on them.

Both students admit, at least tacitly, that liberal professors do not indoctrinate—at least, not successfully. And they are right to this extent: we don’t even try. We don’t want to convert our students to our own viewpoints but to provide the tools they need for examining and defending (or even changing) their own. These two are certainly on the road to mastery of the tools of thought but, as a look at their essays shows, they are not quite there yet.

Recognition of the general faculty desire to instruct, not convert is crucial to any understanding of American colleges and universities, but it is one that neither writer really considers in the arguments presented. At the heart of the mindset behind real adherence to the principles of a “liberal” education is the idea that students are to be provided with the tools for learning, for learning really comes through the students’ own efforts and not through wholesale acceptance of the views of others. Teach, don't convince: this could be our faculty credo. Our success in adhering to this is supported by the fact that faculties are not bothered by the idea (asserted by these two writers) that our students graduate with a more conservative mindset than when they entered. But both young writers base their arguments on the assumption that all professors, both conservative and liberal, are trying to convince, not teach.

Many conservatives seem to assume, as these two do and as David Horowitz does, that college professors see their job as indoctrination and not education. So, they argue for that “balance” between liberals and conservatives on the faculty, believing that the contradictory attempts at indoctrination will even each other out. Thing is, political viewpoints really have little to do with what goes on in the classroom. By insisting on “balance,” these people are arguing to change that, to make politics a prime classroom focus—something we liberals don’t want. Even a class on something as politically charged as gay issues is not an attempt at bringing politics into the classroom but to open students’ eyes, to get them to see the world more fully and clearly than they have before. The students needn't exit the class as adherents to some gay "agenda," simply as citizens with a greater understanding of the forces behind that "agenda."

There’s much self-congratulation in the two pieces, a feeling that the writers, as conservatives, are able to get more out of the college experience today than are liberal students. I’m glad they both feel that their experiences at Vanderbilt are worthwhile, but I wish they would open their eyes a little bit more (that’s my teacher personality coming through) and see that there is much more going on.

In what follows, I’ll point out a few problems with the essays, but simply as aids for improvement.

In one of the most famous play reviews of the twentieth century, Dorothy Parker wrote of Katherine Hepburn’s performance in The Lake as running “the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Kurdziel seems to be a bit of a Hepburn in his view of American history:
College campuses have been the birthplace for progressive moments throughout American history, ranging from the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s to the living wage debates of today.

Before the 1960s (a period covering the bulk of American history) few campuses (with the notable exception of the City College of New York) were the birthplaces of progressive movements of any sort. One should be careful of phrases like “throughout American history.” They signal to the reader than a gross generalization is coming. Here, the problem is worse, for Kurdziel then makes it look like he thinks American history starts in the 1960s, something he surely does not believe.

He goes on:
While students may encounter these ideas, their core beliefs, instilled in them by their upbringing, will allow them to stand firm. Even so, conservatives should not stop their efforts to get more conservative professors in academia and to establish a larger conservative presence on campuses.

This is a foundationalist argument, where belief trumps evidence. That beliefs were “instilled” makes them more worthy? Is “standing firm” in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary something to be lauded? Perhaps the “core beliefs” do have validity, but they should not be protected without examination. If bringing more conservative professors to campus makes it easier for conservative students to avoid examining their beliefs, then doing so is wrong. A better argument would be that conservative professors can better challenge the beliefs of liberal students—but we liberal professors do that already (witness that number of liberals we "turn into" conservatives).

Almost always, if I sense a gathering consensus within a class, I will defend the opposing view, challenging my students to defend their belief, no matter what it is. This is a core liberal methodology; it is close to the heart of what makes the liberal arts “liberal.” Willingness to do this is much more important in university teaching than is the particular professor’s political leaning.

A little later, Kurdziel writes:
As professors preach to their students, they will bicker about minutiae, rather than clarifying and strengthening their arguments.

But that’s just what we don’t do. Sure, not all professors do their jobs or do them well, but few of us are ever willing to preach. We are teachers, not preachers, and we do understand the difference.

Soon, there follows an interesting comment, one that may be at the heart of the recent right-wing attacks on academia, but one that reflects little of the reality of American culture:
If liberal professors have a monopoly on academic discourse, then mainstream culture follow suit.

If this were the case, then American culture would have moved far to the left over the last thirty years. Clearly, it hasn’t. As both Kurdziel and Bidikov admit, not even college students “follow suit.” How can Kurdziel argue that any academic “discourse” will cause “mainstream culture” to follow it? All evidence is to the contrary.

Kurdziel finally claims that:
The most important argument for attracting more conservative professors to universities focuses not on the ramifications of allowing liberal academics to dominate the discussion, but instead on what will happen if conservative students have no one to guide them.

But this simply shows his lack of understanding of the role of college professors. We aren’t there as guides but as teachers. We don’t want to tell our students what to believe, but how to learn about the world. If we guide at all, it’s to an understanding of methodology and an ability to negotiate the complexities of thought and the world. This is the difference between a college of liberal arts and one devoted to religious training. There, the intent clearly is to guide. There, panic would reign if it were discovered that graduating students were less religious (for example) than incoming.

There is plenty of “guidance” for both liberals and conservatives in our culture. Our colleges don’t need to get into that business.

Which brings us to Luke Bidikov’s essay. He writes:
Liberal students[…] do not have to hear opposing views; they can turn off Fox News if they want to. Conservative students, however, cannot stop listening to their professors. Liberal students, unlike conservatives, can completely immerse themselves in a bubble, devoid of conservative influences.

Given the conservative dominance of our national debate for a generation now, this is an impossible argument to sustain. Even on the most isolated college campus, students are bombarded by conservative ideology. Also, though most conservative students are quite willing to listen, learn, and debate, there is a surprising number who refuse to listen at all, encasing themselves in a bubble of iron belief, one much stronger than anything a real liberal will willingly construct. There’s another danger in this kind of statement: Bidikov is writing as though he really understands the experience of liberal students. Not being one, he cannot really tell what their experience might be.

Bidikov’s essay contains other assertions that cannot be supported. He says that:
colleges convince slightly more Democrats to become Republicans than the other way around.

While it may be true that there is a motion from Democrat to Republican during college years, it does not follow that colleges “convince” students one way or another. More likely, the students become more influenced by the wider media culture with its strong conservative taint. Bidikov even shows that he knows this, arguing that, in the face of liberal ideas:
right-minded students [are able] to carefully shape and mold their arguments (drawing on the wide range of conservative media available to them) until they become more convincing, more rational, and more truthful. Constantly asserting one’s opinion against adversity improves one’s clarity of thought and promotes ease of argumentation.

He follows that with a statement that contradicts what he and Kurdziel have already stated, that college students graduate more conservative than they entered:
After years of agreeing with their peers and professors, liberal students leave college with a mindset that is far to the left of the average American. Conservatives, on the other hand, leave college with a full range of well-defined, persuasive ideas.

Actually, college students graduate with political attitudes remarkably similar to that of the general American population. And conservative students, if these two are representative examples, certainly don’t show “a full range of well-defined, persuasive ideas” that is any greater than that shown by liberal students.

Some students do leave college with a good grounding in logic, an understanding of the scientific method, and familiarity with the avenues for research in a number of fields--as well as a knowledge of history and culture. These, however, cannot be characterized as predominately liberal or predominately conservative. Ideology, in fact, has nothing to do with a student's success or failure in education.

When Kurdziel and Bidikov learn that, they will have taken another important step in their own educations.

Good luck to them!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Question They Should Have Asked

Many of those who supported the invasion of Iraq, such as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute who made the statement today on Public Radio’s Radio Times, say it was a ‘close call.’ Given the information they were provided, the argument goes, it appeared that something did have to be done about Saddam Hussein. After all, he had committed “genocide” and had used chemical weapons against his own people—and had certainly once embarked on a nuclear program.

Such people further excuse themselves, as O’Hanlon does, by saying that the invasion wasn’t “wrong” anyway—it was the aftermath. If, they say, we had gone in strong rather than on the cheap, we wouldn’t be in the situation we face today.

All of these people have weaseled out of responsibility—not that many of them had any in the first place—by deflecting attention from the clear and simple fact that it was no ‘close call’ in determining to support or oppose the invasion. It was only a close call (if then) if one did not ask one significant question:

“What do we do if we fail?”

Even now, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates states that ‘failure is not an option.’ Like O’Hanlon and the other pundits now trying to excuse themselves, like George Bush, like most of those who supported this travesty of a war, Gates refuses to consider that we could lose—not to mention that we have lost.

Any good strategist has a plan in case of failure—or has considered, at least, what the consequences of failure might be. The possibility of failure, certainly, has to be considered in making the initial decision. Eisenhower, for example, was so aware of the possibility of failure on D-Day that he even wrote out a statement taking responsibility for the failure that, of course, did not happen. The planning for what to do if things did not work out only stopped once the Normandy landing was a success.

“We cannot lose, so why think about what might happen then?” “Thinking of failure is only for those who will fail.” “We are too good and too strong to fail, so don’t have to consider that.” These are the lines of thinking that the supporters of the war, for the most part, followed.

Consequences. These have to be imagined any time a decision to go to war is made. Negative consequences, too. And the consequences of failure. The only things the supporters of the war looked at were the possible positive consequences. They never bothered to think about what might happen if a strong and independent Iraqi government weren’t quickly established.

They should have.

Those of us who opposed the war didn’t oppose it because we supported Saddam (no matter how much the Bush administration and its toadies tried to cast us in that light). No. We opposed it on a number of grounds. Many of us were appalled by the idea of a pre-emptive strike against a power that clearly posed no threat (this was no ‘close call,’ O’Hanlon—anyone with eyes wide open enough to see the operational methodology of the Bush White House knew to discount information from it and to look to other sources, all of which showed that Saddam posed no threat to the US), but just as many of us were looking at possible consequences—including the consequences of defeat.

There were simple facts about Iraq that should have made the negative consequences of failure (even if a remote possibility) so dire that they trumped any possible positive consequences (no matter how likely) of success. The excuse of having been lied to about Saddam’s capabilities does not change the simple fact that anyone with any sense, looking at all the possible outcomes of the war, would have seen (and many did) that this war just was not worth the cost. Success wouldn’t really get us much; failure could be disastrous.

What are those simple facts?

First, Iraq has no real integrity as a nation. Saddam ruled through one ethnic/religious group, keeping two others in thrall. This was clear to everyone: his actions against the Kurds in the north and the Shi’a in the south could not be denied. An invasion, therefore, would be seen by many in these two groups as an opening for establishing their dominance—if not of the country as a whole, at least of their areas within. Second, Iraq is not simply an Arab nation among other Arab nations, or an Islamic state amongst others. Ethnically, Iraq borders four other Arab nations, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. It also borders Turkey and Iran, both states with their own distinct ethnic backgrounds (but both with Kurdish minorities—minorities related to the Kurds in Iraq). In religious terms, Iraq, split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, is bordered by Sunni-dominated Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Kuwait—and Turkey, where the government is secular but Sunnis make up the bulk of the population. Iran, though not Arab, certainly is Shi’a—and keeps a somewhat protective eye on its religious brethren, just as Saudi Arabia and the others do on the Sunnis. If there were not a strong central government in Iraq, these interested neighbors would certainly and quickly begin to meddle in Iraqi affairs. They would not feel it safe to do otherwise (Turkey, for example, has long feared the idea of a Kurdish state that could provide support for its own Kurdish separatists). Third, there was no real ‘government in exile’ that could be called in to replace Saddam’s regime. All that was available were a smattering of rich and exiled Iraqis, few of whom had any base of support inside the country. The likelihood, then, of a strong central Iraqi government that could exist on its own was remote from the start.

Fourth, if the US failed to set up a strong government in Iraq quickly, there would be a real power vacuum at the center of an unstable region. Jockeying to fill that vacuum by all the surrounding powers (not to mention other interested parties—interested because of oil or, like Israel and the US, because of problems with the Arab population of the region) could lead to unintended consequences of all sorts—like providing a new base for Al-Qaeda, a replacement for the loss in Afghanistan.

One did not even need to know all of this (though it was quite clear) to recognize that invading Iraq was a bad idea. Failure would be a disaster—and is.

But what about success? Would that have been any better? What success could their really be?

Democracy? That was a pipe-dream at best. Only a fool could really have believed that a democracy of any sort could succeed in Iraq through American imposition. Another strongman? Whoever it would be (if such a person existed), that person would have merely taken us back to the situation of the 1980s, when Iraq (and Saddam) was a US ally, but not a stable one, or one that could be trusted for even the short term—unless a huge US force remained in Iraq (which would make the strongman a puppet anyway, and a strongman in name only).

No. For anyone looking honestly and clearly at the Middle East in 2002 and early 2003, there was no ‘close call’ in deciding whether or not to support an invasion. It was a bad idea. Clearly a bad idea.

It amazes me that those, especially the pundits, who so heartily supported the war have a shred of credibility today—that they have the nerve to justify themselves and continue to make a living as commentators.

Their intellectual bankruptcy (not to mention the moral and ethical kind) should be clear to all. We should turn our national back on them.

Oh, and by the way: have you noticed that these are the same people, for the most part, now advocating a “surge”?

Think they have asked, "What do we do if it fails?"

I doubt it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Creating a Cripple or Saving a Continent?

Some years ago, a couple of people came into my store. As usual, I tried to strike up a conversation with the one not busily examining merchandise. Turns out both of them worked for an organization that was involved in HIV/AIDS prevention and containment in Africa.

As I had spent four years in Africa myself during the 1980s, I was interested in what they were doing. As I had buried (quite literally—I ran a small Quaker cemetery for a few months between stints in Africa) way too many AIDS victims, I was also quite attuned to the disease and even to the then-new anti-retrovirals that were just coming into use.

As they were leaving, I said something to the two women that bothered me almost as soon as I had said it, something I am only now coming to understand.

My thoughts were not clearly formed, but they came from my own personal experience in Africa. My words seemed callous to my ear even as I said them—though I knew there was something important in there, somewhere. Only today, this evening, did I suddenly understand just what it was I had been trying to express.

What I said was something like this: “We’re worrying too much about AIDS in Africa. Few people, where I lived, made it past their 40s even before this new disease. AIDS isn’t increasing deaths as drastically as we may think; many of its victims would have died young anyway.”

As I said, I was horrified with myself.

This evening, someone on the BBC show “The World” was talking about healthcare in places where HIV/AIDS is a problem. She said that concentration on AIDS had an unfortunate side-effect, the increase in problems (and deaths) from other sources.

Suddenly, I realized why I had said what I did, that day years ago. Without even consciously realizing it, I was badly paraphrasing the policy philosophy of the best of the aid organizations in the developing world: the entire community needs to be considered as part of any development project, even one with an ostensible focus on one disease.

Even one with ostensible focus on certain individuals. Save the Children, for example, doesn’t simply pay for individual children’s needs, but works to improve their entire community.

The same needs doing with any development project, even one so critical as the stopping of a pandemic. It’s not the same as addressing a problem in the United States or in any of the other countries with strong infrastructures, economies, and health-care systems. What we are doing with AIDS in Africa is like putting a patch on an old inner tube. That patch may stop the major leak, but (with that spot now stronger) other parts of the rubber will break down, new leaks will appear. The tube will be no better than it was before.

Malaria, for example, a huge killer in Africa, should have been wiped out years ago. Wars, corruption, and other problems kept that from happening. Even were it under control in one country, problems in the next would end up undoing the progress.

That radio program said that, right now, more is being spent on healthcare in developing countries than ever before. But it isolates too frequently, focusing on specific problems in specific places.

Some of this is needed. We can’t ignore the crisis situations. But by merely meeting them, we are not improving the situation. Africa, in particular, continues to stumble, no how much is done through well-meaning aid efforts like Live Aid in the 1980s. The HIV/AIDS efforts of today may have no greater effect in improving the lives of Africans as a whole.

This is what I was trying to get at, those years ago. The problems in Africa are so severe that no project, especially from the outside, focusing on just one issue—no matter how vital it seems—was not going to do much towards solving Africa’s problems.

Why not?

Part of the reason is that we in the West tend to “send in” specialists in particular problems. Each has a focus: HIV/AIDS, education, malaria, prenatal care, small-enterprise development, reforestation. Each of these, though important, can’t answer the problems of the developing world alone. Yet each jockeys for a larger part of the aid pie.

There are plenty of organizations—Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, The Mennonite Central Committee, among them—that do try to work with communities as a whole. Many others, as if overwhelmed by the sheer number of problems, just close their eyes and focus on a single piece.

And that has dangers. At the end of World War I, my grandfather was wounded by shrapnel in both feet. The doctors thought they would lose the one, so concentrated on it, and were quite happy when they realized they had saved it. But gangrene had set into the other. Nine amputations later, and my grandfather had no leg below his upper thigh. He could easily have died—others did, when what seemed a lesser wound was overlooked.

Or not simply a lesser wound. In Catch-22, Yossarian tries to take care of a gaping leg wound on Kid Snowden as they fly back from a bombing run. He does so, but Snowden keeps complaining of the cold. Yossarian finally tried to warm him up but, in moving him, sees that his stomach has been torn open, his intestines sliding out. Yossarian, too, had been trying to treat the wrong wound.

I hope that the situation we are in now is not as serious as Snowden’s. There was no way he could survive. But we do need to be treating the whole patient, and not just a part. If we don’t, at the best we will end up with a permanent cripple.

And a crippled continent is not something we can afford.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Freedom and Responsibility

Many of the people who bandy about the term “academic freedom” show little understanding of just what it means. Most people seem to think it is just another version of the First Amendment right to free speech. Others, such as David Horowitz, belong to the Humpty-Dumpty school of “academic freedom” definition: it means whatever they want it to mean at the moment. But then, Horowitz (unlike college professors) doesn’t have to take responsibility for his words anyway.

On his blog last Friday, Horowitz had this to say about whether or not a professor can speak his or her mind:
Not as a professor he doesn't. Who in his right mind would say that a geography professor has the right to espouse the view that the world is flat, or an astronomy professor to say that the moon is made of cheese, or any professor to say that African Americans are apes and pigs and should be destroyed?

Let me try to untangle this a bit.

Horowitz is writing about the case of a professor at the Canadian St. Xavier Francis University who attended Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s the Holocaust Denial conference in Iran. Shiraz Dossa, a professor of political science, presented a paper at the conference but claims he is not a holocaust denier. Horowitz feels that, by even attending the conference, Dossa certainly is proclaiming himself a denier, leading to his statement quoted above.

Now, Dossa was rather foolish in attending that conference, but attendance doesn’t equal denial, any more than marching in a parade where NAMBLA also marches equates endorsement of NAMBLA—or attending a lesbian commitment ceremony raises questions about one’s competence to be a federal judge.

Horowitz, of course, knows that. But honesty has never been his strong suit intellectually, so he willingly breezes past it to make his other point—that professors don’t (as he says above) have the freedoms that the rest of us take for granted.

Horowitz also knows that “academic freedom” has different parts that affect different actions in different places. What a professor says or writes within an academic context, for example, is covered in a manner distinct from what she or he writes or says in, say, the political arena. But Horowitz, with his trademark dishonesty, ignores this. In fact, there are three distinct aspects of academic freedom: in research, in the classroom, and in the political realm. They all have different responsibilities that go with the freedoms (as all freedoms have). What Horowitz is doing is conflating these three, and for his own political ends—not for the betterment of our universities.

When Dossa writes an academic paper, it is reviewed. Often, this happens before publication. In other instances, it happens afterwards—but it does get reviewed, and Dossa’s standing within the academic community is affected by it. If he is already a tenured full professor, his job may not be affected, but his reputation certainly will be—and reputation means a lot in academia (just as it does elsewhere, certainly more than in punditry, where people like Horowitz can be caught lying and continue to reap huge speaker and appearance fees).

I don’t know what the paper was that Dossa presented in Tehran was about, but even the fact that he presented there is taken into account in such review (the venue of presentation means quite a lot in terms of promotion and tenure). This doesn’t mean that Dossa can’t hold a particular view or present wherever he wants, only that he has to defend what he has said and where. This is what is happening right now at St. Xavier Francis University, where Dossa is feeling heat from his colleagues.

When Dossa steps into a classroom, a different set of standards apply. Here, he has the responsibility of making sure his own beliefs do not trump those that are the standards of his field. He can even argue that the world is flat, as long as he does not insist that this is an accepted academic position. He can make his own beliefs clear to his students as long as he does not claim primacy for them. This is where people who support such things as Intelligent Design try to shoehorn themselves into the classroom, claiming that all beliefs should be presented equally—but that doesn’t wash. There is a hierarchy of knowledge that has to be accepted (even while someone tries to change it) within academia. Intelligent Design cannot be presented as the equal of evolution for it has no real scientific, research, or academic basis of any sort. That doesn’t mean that an ID supporter cannot mention it up in the biology classroom, only that it cannot then be given that equal status. The teacher may say something like, “I believe that evolution is wrong and ID right, but my personal belief has not yet become accepted by scholars. Therefore, though I want you to understand my belief, I am going to teach the more acceptable system while continuing my own research into this alternative.” Faculties monitor this through peer evaluation and student evaluation overseen by the faculty. This is a complex issue, obviously, and one that has never been explained to anyone’s satisfaction—but it is not (fortunately for this discussion) relevant to Dossa’s participation in the Tehran conference. As far as I know, at least, no one has claimed that Dossa espouses holocaust denial in the classroom.

Within the academy, then, professors do face certain restrictions that arise through the academic-freedom compact between the faculty and the institution. By agreeing to allow the faculty to have academic freedom, the institution demands that the faculty police itself. That is, scholarship and teaching need to be reviewed by peers for promotion, tenure, and even re-appointment. In other words, “academic freedom” on campus is freedom from outside interference, but does not mean complete freedom to espouse any view one wants—and this, of course, is what Horowitz is using to make his point. It is not true, however, that a professor can’t speak his or her own mind.

Just like anyone else, professors may say anything they want (with the same few caveats faced by the rest of us) in the public sphere. In many ways, this third aspect of academic freedom is simply a re-affirmation of general rights to freedom of speech (First Amendment rights in the US—I am not sure what they fall under in Canada, but the rights are basically the same), extending them to job protection for academics who are involved in public debate.

There’s something really peculiar about Horowitz claiming that professors don’t have the right to express their opinions, for his entire campaign against academia these past few years has been based on his claim that professors do have exactly that right, but that a left-wing cabal has been shutting conservative voices up and forcing them out.

In other words, Horowitz is trying to insure that those who agree with his fringe, right-wing views cannot lose academic jobs for what they say and believe—but that others, such as Dossa, can.

Now, there certainly are problems with how academic faculties police themselves. The majority can become too strong, forcing a certain toeing of the line. But one cannot honestly ask the faculties to protect those promoting one type of view while banning those with another, as Horowitz wants.

In fact, Horowitz notwithstanding, Dossa should and does have the right to speak his mind and even to attend conferences foolishly. As do conservative faculty members. Unlike Horowitz, however, Dossa and others on our faculties (even the tenured ones) have to face the consequences of their words—for that, as I have said, is one of the most critical aspects of academic freedom, something not imposed on the general public, and certainly not on David Horowitz.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"We Simply Cannot Afford to Fail"

So says Robert Gates, speaking on Iraq his first day as Secretary of Defense. Thing is, failure is no longer an option, a possibility, or any other part of the future.
Failure has happened. The question now is what to do about it.
It’s a failure that cannot be blamed on the lack of will of the American people, on unsupportive Democrats, or even on that horrible liberal media.
It's a failure of the people in power, of imagination, of strategy, of ethics, of morality, of more...
We could write a poem about it, dedicated to the Bush administration:
How did you fail us? Let me count the ways.You failed us to the depth and breadth and heightNo mind can reach, when feeling out of sightOf the start of your failure in that place.You failed us to the level of everyday'sMost urgent need, by all considered Right.You failed us freely, by any view or light;You failed us purely; your friends don’t even Praise.You failed us with the passion put to useOn your old griefs, and with your childish faith.You failed us with arrogance doomed to loseWith my lost faith,--You failed us with the breath,Smiles, tears, of all our lives!--and, if God choose,I shall hate your failure even after death.
The horror for us now is that no solution to the situation can come about until the US admits that it has failed, stops talking about “success” (it ain’t agonna come) and starts honestly trying to find a solution. Not a victory, but a solution.
No, those of us who want us out aren’t “surrender monkeys” or people cheering for the defeat of the US. The defeat has already happened.
Question is, can we stop fooling ourselves long enough to stop the killing before it gets worse?
The answer is, not until we recognize that failure is not an option only because the failure has already happened.
When did it happen? Oh, come on: it began the moment the decision was made to invade Iraq. The project was doomed from its very conception.
Neo-cons, Bushites: you failed! Don’t compound your failure by refusing to recognize it!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Intellectual or Polemicist? Or Both?

Mark Bauerlein, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, makes a claim that when “we assess intellectuals, we enter a rarified habitat of books and ideas.” His article, entitled “How Academe Shortchanges Conservative Thinking,” is rather a head-scratcher. Or it is until one realizes that he means any book and any idea.

Trying to set up an opposition between conservative intellectuals, who he sees as being outside of academe, and liberals ones, those inside, Bauerlein uses the likes of Andrew Sullivan, Michele Malkin, David Horowitz, and Dinesh D’Sousa as examples of conservative “intellectuals.” To be honest, he does mention a few real conservative intellectuals—problem is many of them, like economist Friedrich A. von Hayek, existed inside academe, cutting into his dichotomy. He tries to get around this by remembering that Hayak wasn’t discussed much in his graduate school department, while Michel Foucault was. I don’t know how much one can glean from that: The mathematician Kurt Gödel wasn’t discussed much in my department even though he was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century—but my department was English. Everything has its place and time, and complaining that a certain thinker wasn’t the focus of discussion at a certain time in a certain department says very little about the importance of a thinker, especially in his or her field, especially when the department that Bauerlein was in was not Economics but English.

Not surprisingly, given his tendency to ignore significant distinctions, many of Bauerlein’s conclusions are based on blurred boundaries. Ultimately, his argument is that we need to bring more conservative “intellectual” thought into academia. But, again, not all books, nor all ideas, fit into any “rarified” intellectual realm. Not even all writing by an intellectual belongs there. Bauerlein talks of three books, one each by Sullivan and D’Sousa, and one by Michael Bérubé, a Penn State professor who certainly is an intellectual. He discusses all three as though they were all intellectuals (I am not sure that Sullivan would make that claim for himself; D’Sousa might, but few would agree), and all three books as though they belong in an intellectual realm.

Thing is, none of them does. Though that’s not to demean any of them or their arguments.

Let me explain: Following in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton (who was referred to as “Tom S**t” for some of the nasty things he wrote in the popular press, but who also composed a great deal of The Federalist Papers), Bérubé writes in different ways for different audiences. Case in point are his two books this year, books that appeared just a month apart, the What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? that Bauerlein writes about and Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities. The former, though it is about academia, isn’t really an “intellectual” book. It’s an attempt to step into the public sphere (as Bauerlein does recognize) and speak in a polemical fashion as part of a broader, American discussion. The latter, even though it even includes blog entries, is much more an “intellectual” work.

In this sense, none of the three books Bauerlein writes of is an “intellectual” work, but Bauerlein, somehow, moves from the fact that Bérubé is an intellectual to assumption that a book by him must be intellectual to a further assumptions that all books he (Bauerlein) can force into any sort of similarity must also be “intellectual.”

Bauerlein ignores the fact that there is a real difference between “intelligence” and “intellectual.” Sullivan and D’Sousa might be smart and may write books, but that alone does not make them intellectual.

Of course, neither does being an academic. Nor does one not being an academic keep one from being an intellectual. Eric Hoffer was one of the most important post-WWII intellectuals in America, yet he was no academic. Sullivan and D’Sousa, however, are essentially political polemicists, quite a different animal from the intellectual, though some of the markings (a certain native intelligence, for example) are the same.

Even Bauerlein, who has intellectual credentials of his own, is writing no “intellectual” piece in this case, though it is published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Though the polemical nature of his piece, in fact, may be the explanation for the sloppiness of his definitions.

However, just because something is meant for a broader, less “intellectual” audience does not provide excuse from intellectual rigor. Bauerlein, like Bérubé, sometimes writes as a polemicist (as he does here). And, even though it is certainly possible for polemicists to write about intellectuals, it’s a little unseemly for an intellectual to leave his rigor behind for the sake of scoring polemical points.

There are plenty of real intellectual conservatives inside academe (the whole idea that our universities are strictly leftist is the result of another purposeful blurring of distinctions). Thing is, few of them feel the need to act as polemicists—there are plenty of those on the outside already. The same is not true for their liberal counterparts. There has been no movement to establish well-financed liberal think tanks as an outside polemical base. So, liberal academics have to take up the battle that their conservative colleagues can much more safely ignore.

Though Bauerlein claims otherwise, the fact that conservative polemicists dominate outside of academia certainly is no basis for claiming that they, and their ideas, should be welcomed inside. As Bauerlein himself says, writing of D’Sousa, “the genuine and troubling dilemmas he uncovers are reduced to a campaign strategy.” Which is exactly why D’Sousa (and most of the conservative polemicists) remain outside of academe.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Company They Keep

OK, I know: my bias is showing.

But I am sick to death of the way the elite in America lord it over the rest of us, and how they, really, are all one—no matter their political “disagreements.”

A story (subscription required) in the New York Times two days ago still has my blood boiling. It’s titled “Lunch Menu: D’Amato, Koch, Clinton, ’08.”

What’s worst for me is that these are people who have become wealthy through politics. They are eating at New York’s posh Four Seasons restaurant on what should be our dime. Or $250.00 (or more) for the lunch.

No… I take that back. What’s worst for me is seeing Hillary Clinton going over to the other side without a qualm.

All I could think of was the end of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Remember the commandments? At first they included “All animals are equal.” At the end, that has been changed:

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUALBUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERSAfter that it did not seem strange when next day the pigs who were supervising the work of the farm all carried whips in their trotters. It did not seem strange to learn that the pigs had bought themselves a wireless set, were arranging to install a telephone, and had taken out subscriptions to John Bull, TitBits, and the Daily Mirror. It did not seem strange when Napoleon was seen strolling in the farmhouse garden with a pipe in his mouth-no, not even when the pigs took Mr. Jones's clothes out of the wardrobes and put them on, Napoleon himself appearing in a black coat, ratcatcher breeches, and leather leggings, while his favourite sow appeared in the watered silk dress which Mrs. Jones had been used to wear on Sundays.
It doesn’t seem strange that Hillary Clinton, too, has taken on the trappings of the American elite.

The pigs and the humans soon have a dinner together (just like the three at the Four Seasons). One human, Mr. Pilkington, gives a speech:
He would end his remarks, he said, by emphasising once again the friendly feelings that subsisted, and ought to subsist, between Animal Farm and its neighbours. Between pigs and human beings there was not, and there need not be, any clash of interests whatever. Their struggles and their difficulties were one. Was not the labour problem the same everywhere?
Napoleon, the chief pig (or should he now be called Hillary?), soon rises to give a speech of his own:
He too, he said, was happy that the period of misunderstanding was at an end. For a long time there had been rumours-circulated, he had reason to think, by some malignant enemy-that there was something subversive and even revolutionary in the outlook of himself and his colleagues. They had been credited with attempting to stir up rebellion among the animals on neighbouring farms. Nothing could be further from the truth! Their sole wish, now and in the past, was to live at peace and in normal business relations with their neighbours. This farm which he had the honour to control, he added, was a co-operative enterprise. The title-deeds, which were in his own possession, were owned by the pigs jointly.
From outside, some of the other farm animals have been watching:
There was the same hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs? Clover's old dim eyes flitted from one face to another. Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing? Then, the applause having come to an end, the company took up their cards and continued the game that had been interrupted, and the animals crept silently away. But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously. Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
No matter how much they may fight among themselves, let’s not be fooled: Hillary Clinton has become one of them.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Troop Buildup: An Analogy and a Rant

Among my other activities, I am a business owner. I've a store/gallery in Brooklyn, New York. It doesn't make much money (not since the blows of the dot-com bust and then 9/11), but we get by.

Almost eight years ago, before things began to go sour for small retail (and believe me, they are sour, no matter what anyone tells you about the state of the economy), I decided to open a second store.

I opened it in a place hours away from New York, but where I had connections. I thought it would be fast and easy: get in, set up, see the money start rolling in, and get back to my major business back in New York.

That's not what happened.

The only people who seem to shop in downtown State College, PA are students interested in tee-shirts and beer and their visiting parents--whose ideas of gifts, sad to say, were not the subtly scented soaps and sophisticated cards I sold so well in Brooklyn.

It was great at first: I rented a space and moved in, setting up a gallery upstairs above my spacious street-level shop. I couldn't believe how easy it was. Setting up my Brooklyn store had taken months and a huge investment. This was costing relatively little. I felt proud and, frankly, a little arrogant.

The expenses, though, soon started to pile up... but the income did not. Because I wasn't able to pay as much attention to the store back in Brooklyn, that one started to get more expensive, too. I was making the drive back and forth weekly, trying to run both--and running each poorly.

The State College store, which I had had such hopes for, started to cost more and more. In Brooklyn, I hadn't had to advertise (a strength of location); in State College, I did. Nothing seemed to help, though. I wasn't covering the rent, let alone the cost of goods and other expenses.

After eight months, I pulled the plug on the store in State College. It was difficult. Not only did I have to break my lease (something I hated doing), but I had to admit defeat.

But I did. I returned to Brooklyn full-time, where I began to teach a little part-time, to begin to pay off some of the debt I had incurred over the past year.

Though it had been humiliating to fail, that failure, once I accepted it, led me to new projects and even a new career (though I still manage the store on a part-time basis, my focus now is on what has become a full-time teaching gig). Though I am still cleaning up the financial mess sparked by the State College venture, I am making progress--and it looks like the Brooklyn store, whose survival was doubtful for a time, may survive.

When I look back, I am so glad I did not continue the State College store. I could have. My line of credit was not yet exhausted when I closed it up. More money could have been poured in, and more time.

The store, however, was never going to make it there. More effort would not have changed that. All continuing would have done would be to increase my debt--and, likely, force me into avenues other than the one that led me back to teaching--which I am loving.

Many people, of course, have been through experiences similar to mine. When we look back, it's with relief that we did finally pull the plug and get out. Sure, we had to break our promises to fulfill certain obligations, but we weren't going to be able to fulfill them anyway, not in the long run. Getting out gave us the chance, among other things, to return our focus to our situations at home, situations that deteriorate gravely when we are too involved in something too far away.

Now the rant:

Why the hell is our government contemplating increasing troop levels in Iraq? We have failed there; everyone know it. All we are doing by staying, at this point, is pouring lives and money down the drain. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that--the country has even said it quite clearly in this last election.

Thirty thousand, fifty thousand more troops: That's not going to help in Iraq any more that it would have helped my State College store survive for me to dump another thirty thousand or fifty thousand dollars into it. The store was not sustainable; the war is not sustainable.

There is no "victory" that we can achieve. There's no "success" that the US can pull off. Ronald Reagan once said:
It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.
He was right. But would that be victory? Would it be success? No, not in Vietnam--and not, today, in Iraq.

The only "victory" or "success" we could achieve in Iraq at this point is destruction of the whole country. Only then will it be peaceful. That is, unless the US is long gone.

We have lost, we messed this up, big time. We never should have gone in there in the first place, for we never did have any chance of success. The new neo-con argument that we messed up the occupation is beside the point. Yeah, we messed it up, but the occupation was doomed from the start. You just can't go into a functioning country and expect to change it through force. We may not have liked Saddam or his government, but the country was working a lot better then than it has been since. That's the difference between the occupations of Germany and Japan and that of Iraq: Things had gotten horrible in Germany and Japan. The situation under the occupation was immediately better. No matter how we try to frame it, the situation in Iraq got immediately worse with the US invasion--and it could not have been otherwise.

I'm defeatest, you say? Damned right! I'd be stupid to be otherwise. To claim anything else but defeat in Iraq right now is naive or willfully blind.

Sometimes you just have to admit mistakes, bow your head, go home, and attend to business there. Call that "defeatism" if you want, but it's the only realistic path.

America knows that. Almost everyone in America, that is, knows that.

Except these damned fools, waist deep in the Big Muddy and still saying, "push on."