Inside The Ivory Tower

Several months ago I noted that the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb had pointed out in one of her many books that much that happens within the Ivory Tower has an impact on much of what happens  in what people like to refer to as “the real world.” The obvious example is “P.C.” that started within the Tower and has permeated our culture at present, especially the halls of corporate America where lawyers earn big fees making sure no one says anything to anyone the might get someone into trouble — or, more to the point, drag the corporate body into court. One might mention the postmodern attack on truth and factuality which has reared its ugly head outside the Ivory Tower in the form of “Alternative Facts.” In any event, all of us might want to pay attention to what those folks behind those ivy covered walls are up to.

Of greatest concern, in my view, is what is called “Identity Politics.” This movement started in the mid 70s in our academies of higher learning and has mushroomed into a full-out assault on everything once considered sacred, including much of the subject matter that comprises the bulwark of Western Civilization. In any event, the mantra in the Ivory Tower these days is that we must trash the detritus of Western Civilization — all of it bad — and care about, if not care for, the chronically disadvantaged, the marginal folks who have been long ignored in academia, and without. This has resulted in a spate of courses in such things as “women’s studies,” “black studies, “native American studies,” and the like. I have blogged about such courses before, but the main point is that these courses are important in their own way, but they are narrow in scope and have wrongly displaced the core of liberal courses that espouse a broad approach to education and also have the goal of putting young people in possession of their own minds, not the minds of their politically motivated instructors. “Studies” courses tend to be dogmatic and confuse education with indoctrination. The defense, when there is one, is that education has always preached and it is now “our turn.” But this a mistake of the first order. Education is not about preaching at all, regardless of what the message happens to be.

In any event, there are those who say that our institutions of higher education have become nothing less than therapy clinics designed to make sure that all who enter will never suffer the slings and arrows of bigotry or insult. This, too, is not a bad thing  — up to a point. We need to be sensitive to the concerns of those who have been marginalized and who might suffer from disguised attacks on the values they hold most dear in the form of language they find hurtful. But at the same time, higher education is supposed to prepare young people for the world outside the Ivory Towers and pain is part of life, as is racism and bigotry. And all ideas are deserving of consideration regardless of how unpalatable they might be. These young people might be better off in the long run if they confronted their fears and suspicions in a place where such things can be discussed in a rational and coherent manner, rather than pretending life is all skittles and beer and finding out later it is not so.

As far as the influence of identity politics outside the hallowed halls of academe is concerned, it has been said of the liberals who lead the growing numbers of folks within the academy in their collective outrage against all things Western that their influence is bringing about the demise of the Democratic Party. I have seen it argued that it is precisely the concern with marginalized people and the concomitant ignoring of “Mainstream America” that is destroying the Democratic Party. Instead of bringing America together, separateness is the word of the day. The connection here is liberals within the walls and liberal politicians without. And this despite the fact that Hillary Clinton, in the recent election, collected three million more popular votes than did her opponent — what’s-his-name. The logic I must say, leaves me a bit confused, but the point may be worth considering. It seems unwise to ignore the major players in the game of politics, the folks that could win or lose an election.

The Democratic Party has historically drawn its strength from the mass of men and women who have been ignored by the wealthy fat cats who control the strings of political power. The Democratic Party, it has been said, cares about people, the Republican Party  cares only about profits. Simplistic, I would agree. But perhaps not entirely wrong. In any event, it might be wise for the Democratic Party to take a long hard look at the people it seeks to draw into its house. Just pause and consider the loonies the Republicans have recently invited into theirs! Should the Democrats be concerned only about marginalized people and ignore entirely those who sweat and strain to make ends meet in “Mainstream America,” those folks who have traditionally been the backbone of the Democratic Party? It is a question worth pondering.

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Hitherto Unknown

I am reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book The Moral Imagination, which is a collection of essays about famous people and their take on life. One of the entries is about John Buchan, whom I must confess I had never heard about. He died in 1940 and Himmelfarb describes him as having been a “novelist, biographer, historian, member of Parliament, governor-general of Canada, . . . one of the last articulate representatives of the Old England. . . .the paradigm (the parody some would have it) of a species of English gentlemen now nearly extinct.”

Buchan is also a bit of a cynic and I find myself drawn to many of his witticisms and observations about the people he sees around him — mostly found in his novels apparently. As I say, I had never heard of this man, which is a bit embarrassing since he is quite remarkable. In any event, he has this to say about civilization, a civilization which he regards as “a very thin crust” over the barbarism that lurks always just beneath the surface:

“A civilization bemused by an opulent materialism has been met by a rude challenge. The free people have been challenged by the serfs. The gutters have exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world. The beggar-on-horseback rides roughshod over the helpless and the cavalier. A combination of multitudes who have lost their nerve and a junta of arrogant demagogues has shattered the community of nations. . . .There is in it all, too, an ugly pathological savor, as if a mature society were being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

Remarkable prose. And telling insights. If we were to alter the word “serfs” in the second sentence above and replace it with “mindless minions” Buchan could be describing what has just happened in this country, now under the thumb of a “beggar-on-horseback” if there ever was one.  But Buchan’s gaze extends beyond the  borders of any particular nation to the world as such. And it would appear that he saw  what has come about in this country and other “developed”  (and undeveloped) nations as well: mature societies “being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

What concerned Buchan primarily was the boiling cauldron beneath the surface of civilization in the form of a black heart, the dark subconscious mind, within so many of the humans he saw around him — even before Hitler and Stalin had taken center stage. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard:

“Once the subconscious, lawless instincts of men were liberated and broke through the barrier erected by civilization, ‘there will be a weakening of the power or reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty; and there will be a failure of nerve.’ It was not the reason of state, even of a hostile state, that alarmed him but the force of unreason itself.”

At times we come across a mind that, while perhaps a bit cynical, sees clearly what the rest of us fail to admit is there, or never saw in the first place. But given the events of recent times where the force of unreason has most assuredly been released and at least two of the major players on the world stage strut their stuff and play “chicken” with nuclear weapons (neither of these men having a brain the size of a chicken’s), one must shudder to think that Buchan may have been prescient. The gutters have indeed “exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world.”

We live in hard times and many of us prefer to think about more pleasant things. But despite our determination to look the other way, when we hear the ring of truth it stuns and demands our attention.

Religious Americans?

In reading books by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have cited on numerous occasions in these posts, I delight in the fact that she and I agree so much with one another. This, of course, leads me to conclude that she is a brilliant woman, since brilliance is defined as “in agreement with oneself.” In any event, we do agree about so much and I have learned a great deal in reading her books. She insists on one point, however, that strikes me as simply mistaken and I decided to write this post pointing out just where I think she went wrong.

Himmelfarb insists that America is the most religious nation on earth — or certainly in the West, at any rate. She cites de Tocqueville as support who, when travelling in America in the nineteenth century, was struck by the religiosity of so many Americans. Indeed, he was convinced that the American Republic rested on religious faith. As he said:

“Religion is the first of [America’s] political institutions because it was the prerequisite of both freedom and morality — and thus of republican government itself. . . . [Freedom] considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own duration. . . . At the same time that the law allows the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

The problem is, of course, de Tocqueville visited America in 1831 for nine months and while his book was extraordinary — and still is — it may not be totally adequate to describe the state of things in this country today. But, more to the point, de Tocqueville and Himmelfarb both neglect to define what they mean by “religion” and this causes problems. Himmelfarb seems to mean by the word simply church and synagogue attendance which is higher in this country than it is in many European countries, especially France. As it happens, though, fewer than 40% of us report that we attend church regularly – and critics insist that this figure is inflated. In fact, attendance in church among the young has lately fallen off drastically and the vast majority of the “millennial” generation – born after 1980 – claim no church affiliation whatever. But, regardless of these figures, church attendance does not determine religiosity, especially in the age of mega-churches that serve our favorite coffee laté and provide us with television sets on site to fill our empty minutes when we are not browsing in the bookstore for souvenirs. Indeed, many churches are nothing more or less than social clubs where folks go to meet and greet one another for an hour or so of a Sunday in order to make themselves feel good about themselves.

But it behooves me to define what I mean by “religion.” When I was  freshman in college back in the dark ages I wrote a seminar paper on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as a religious work. The first question out of my seminar leader when I sat down to defend the paper was “what is religion?” I looked aghast. I gaped, I was stunned. I thought everyone knew what religion is! So I struggled and tried to bluff my way, which did not serve me well. Accordingly, I now seek to make amends for past failures and will define religion as a set of beliefs based on the conviction that there is something in the universe greater than the self and that we owe to that entity respect and reverence, even devotion. Those who are indeed religious center their lives around the worship of this entity and find meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to something greater than themselves.

Contrast today’s notion of what it means to be “religious” with the medieval world in Europe in which church was the center of most people’s lives, with daily attendance (sometimes twice daily), prayers in the evenings, and total dedication to making one’s life on this earth a preparation for the next one. In that regard, I do think Lucretius’ book was religious and his “entity” was Nature, which he sought to love and respect and, as far as possible, become one with. In doing so, as a Stoic, he was convinced that, with discipline and determination, we could become one with something greater than ourselves and find peace in a chaotic world. For the truly religious, there is profound mystery in the world and it gives meaning to their lives.

In that regard, there do not seem to me to be many religious Americans. The data suggest that the traditional churches are closing their doors or seeking to conform to the pattern of the non-denominational churches that focus on fellowship and good feeling, demanding as little as possible from the parishioners and continually reassuring them that they are loved and are among the happiest and luckiest people on this earth. In a word, those churches that do manage to fill their pews do not demand “respect and reverence” for the God they profess to worship. Certainly not sacrifice. Parishioners, for the most part, do not center their lives around the church and its teachings. Indeed, the churches demand very little of their worshippers at all. They seek, rather, to make things as easy as possible for the congregation so they will continue to attend and help pay for the new roof.

I exaggerate, of course, but I seek to make a serious point: the claim that Himmelfarb makes about the supposed religiosity of the American people rests on flimsy evidence and flies in the face of the fact that so many “religious” people in this country have tended to resort quickly to violence, elect self-absorbed morons to political offices, and are caught up in the self-as-God movement which places the focus of their lives on themselves and not on something greater than themselves “out there” in the world. I conclude therefore that Himmelfarb was mistaken — at least on this topic.

Don’t Be Judgmental!

So often these days we hear that we mustn’t be “judgmental.” This is an admonition that we not make moral judgments about people. Moral judgments seem to scare the bejesus out of us. After all, who are we to say someone is evil until we have walked a mile in his shoes? Or something. In any event, it is a strange attitude since so many of those who say this are indeed judgmental — perfectly willing to condemn the killing of whales, the destruction of the rain forest, the price-gouging by large corporations, and the exploitation of the employed by those who refuse to pay them a living wage, the total ineptitude of the current president. We are, none of us, entirely nonjudgmental, though our condemnations are more accurately described as “pronouncements” rather than judgments, since there is so little thought behind them.

In an article not long ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education philosophy professor Robert Simon noted the unwillingness of his students to condemn the Nazis for the extermination of millions of Jews. One student commented: “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?”  Simon reports that his students make similar comments with regard to such things as apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Who’s to say??  I had nearly the same type of response in an ethics class years ago when discussing Adolph Hitler, the epitome of evil. One student raised his hand and suggested that if we were Nazis we would think Hitler was a hero. So who are we to say? The answer I always give to this question is that we are all “to say.” The fact that skin-heads would revere Hitler is beside the point. The question is whether they could ground their judgment in arguments and evidence that would stand up to criticism and the answer is a resounding “no!” That is, anyone with a brain and the determination to use it can make sound  moral judgments. It is not easy, but it is not absurd or a waste of time. Hitler either was or he was not evil. We can’t have it both ways. And the fact that Hitler’s rationale for the “final solution” was based on faulty genetic and biological premises makes any argument defending him absurd on its face, regardless of how we feel about what he did.

Hannah Arendt noted many years ago that if the Germans in the 1930s had been a bit more judgmental than Hitler would never have risen to power. It is the faculty  of judgment that sets humans apart — if we can set them apart any longer. It is judgment that leads to the condemnation of the actions of folks like Hitler, Stalin, and Donald Trump. And many of those who condemn people like Trump are among the vanguard of those who insist that we should not be judgmental. They condemn Trump for being vulgar while at the same time looking the other way when Bill Clinton engages in “indiscretions” with Monica Lewinsky. We are none of us entirely consistent.

And there’s the rub. The rampant relativism which people like Gertrude Himmelfarb spent so many pages for so many years identifying and attacking is an obvious fact. But if we probe a bit, however, we see that this relativism is only a symptom of something that goes much deeper: the refusal to make judgments of any kind, the inability, or unwillingness, to use our minds and seek consistency — the first rule in critical thinking. The insistence that we must avoid making moral judgments is really an insistence that we not make any judgments whatever. Moral judgments are no different from any other judgments, really. They are an attempt to approach the truth and find positions that put us on a surer footing than mere speculation and hunches, to move beyond mere feelings and the making of mindless moral pronouncements.

There’s no question whatever that we all are “judgmental,” all of us. We condemn the actions of others right and left no matter how tolerant we claim to be. But the condemnations are, as hinted above, not the result of judgment: they are the result of feelings. We have gut feelings that eliminating the rain forest, killing whales, experimenting with animals to develop better perfumes, telling “dirty” jokes in public, are all wrong. But we don’t ground those feelings in reasonable arguments. Rather than take the time to think about these things and try to determine WHY we think they are wrong, we simply shrug our shoulders and ask “who’s to say??” It’s easier. It saves us a good deal of time and effort. But it also allows for the ascendency in politics of men who lie, spread hatred, are vulgar, and totally self-seeking. A moment of serious reflection would force us to conclude that such men should not be given the reins of power.

So, it’s not so much that we find around us a “rampant relativism,” which we do. Let’s be honest! It’s because this relativism is the result of a lack of judgment that we should not insist we be less judgmental, but that we be more judgmental. We need to stop and think. And in order to do that well we require patience and training. It’s not going to happen if we don’t demand it of our schools and of ourselves. As Arnold Toynbee said many years ago, “Thinking is as hard for a human to do as walking in its hind feet is for a monkey.” And we do as little of it as we can until we are forced by circumstances. The problem is by that time it may be too late.

Two Cultures

Writing in 1998 the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb predicted the victory of Donald Trump eighteen years later. Well, not exactly. But her analysis in One Nation, Two Cultures  does provide an explanation for the surprising results of the recent presidential election. The “two cultures” of which she speaks are the dominant culture and a dissident culture. The former consists of roughly 60% of the population, including the “elite” (her word) who help shape and mold opinion, college professors, journalists, certain bloggers I know of, together with the vast majority in this country of those who lean toward a more liberal take on such things as science, sex, marriage, religion, and morality — which they regard as relative.  The latter consists of a polyglot group clustered around what might be called “moral issues,” issues such as abortion, the Bible, sex in the schools, prayer in the schools, the sanctity of marriage, and the like — not to mention patriotic values, which they regard as closely related to religious values, issues such as respect for the flag, support of the military, and pride in our country. Also, they are uniformly critical of the public school system which, they feel, has too long been controlled by the dominant culture. In Himmelfarb’s words:

“[It is]not only fundamentalists who feel disenfranchised; so too, does a much larger and more varied sector of the population, including many people who are not notably religious but who have strong religious concerns.

“Like the dominant culture, the dissident culture exhibits a wide spectrum of belief and behavior, ranging from a rigid adherence to traditional values only occasionally violated in practice, to a more lenient set of values more often violated. But even the laxer representatives of this dissident culture tend to subscribe to a more “austere” moral code, and to do so more conscientiously than their counterparts in the dominant culture. They do not think of sexual morality as a “personal matter” that can be “boxed off,” as is now said, from the rest of their lives. Nor do they think of religion as a “private affair” that should not encroach upon the “public square.” Nor are they apt to engage in such circumlocutions as “Who am I to say….?” or “Personally… but….”

“At one end of the spectrum of this dissident culture, paralleling the “elites” of the dominant culture, is the religious right, a hard core of determined and articulate activists. Although this group receives most of the public attention, it is only a small part of this culture, for beyond it is a much larger and more varied group of evangelicals, as well as traditionalists another churches — mainline Protestants, conservative Catholics, Mormons, and some Orthodox Jews. There is also a growing number of people who have no particular religious affiliation or disposition — but who have storing moral convictions that put them at odds with the dominant culture.”

The two cultures are neither monolithic nor static, she is careful to point out. There are folks who identify with values in both camps. And people change from one culture to another from time to time.

Yet “In general there is a common set of mind, a confluence of values and beliefs, that locates most people, most of the time, for most purposes, within one or the other culture.”

Of interest is the fact that a large portion of the dissident culture, who generally regard themselves not only as “God-fearing” but also as true “patriots” are very much involved in public, and especially political, affairs. 68 percent of the dissidents strongly believe that “our system of government is the best possible system,” as compared with 53 percent of the whole. And while many of those in the dominant culture are disenchanted with politics, prefer a Third Party candidate in major elections,  or are even too busy to vote, the vast majority of the members of the dissident culture are actively involved in politics. A great many of them have both wealth and position — which explains their presence in the Electoral College and their subsequent unwillingness to switch their vote to Hillary Clinton despite the fact that she had won the popular election by nearly three million votes. Those in this group are involved and they are well positioned to exert political pressure beyond their numbers.

This all helps to explain how a man like Donald Trump won the presidency. He tapped into the deep well of resentment and frustration that characterize the dissident culture and gave them a voice and credibility. It is no wonder that the dissidents refuse to listen to criticism from the dominant culture, especially the media, since their Man is here to deliver them to the promised land where many, if not all, of their hopes and dreams will be realized. After generations of seeing the dominant culture hold sway over this country they now see themselves with a tight hold on the reins of power. And their commitment to this man runs as deep as their resentment of the dominant culture — so much so that if and when Donald Trump is impeached there will be a very loud hue and cry indeed. The culture war which Himmelfarb regarded in her books as a mere metaphor for the rift between the two cultures, will become an actual war with casualties.

 

 

 

The Family and Civil Society

At the very core of what used to be called “civil society” sits the family. This is where the young are taught such things as civil discourse, self-discipline, responsibility, and the restraint that eventually becomes what we call “character.” There are those who insist that the family so described is no more. In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist who spent forty years writing Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (once regarded as a “must” read and now simply becoming musty on the forgotten shelves of university libraries) predicted the dissolution of the family and eventually of civil society. This would result, Schumpeter insisted, from the success of capitalism — not the failure, as Marx would have it. This is because capitalism breeds a culture of calculation focused upon self-interest and short-term thinking. But above all else, it breeds a temper opposite to the temper that insists upon self-sacrifice for the needs and goods of those we love and a genuine concern for our children and their children.

At the heart of capitalism, insists Schumpeter, is the process of “rationalization,” as he calls it, the mind-set of folks raised to think that material goods are the measure of success and the source of all human happiness. Rationalization leads young people to calculate, for example, whether to not to get married — given the fact that children and the responsibilities of the family would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the things that they think will make them happy. The would-be parents

“. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.”

It is this tendency to calculate that disturbs Schumpeter, not only in the planning of the family in the first place, but later on as parents insist that both must work in order to achieve the level of prosperity they believe is necessary to be happy. This “must” is a felt necessity in a self-absorbed culture that places a premium on material goods and possessions as a key to happiness. It has replaced the urge to make the family unit as strong and safe as possible. The result is a more open and mobile, often broken, family and one in which the children are raised by the entertainment industry rather than by caring parents who teach them about the duties and responsibilities that go with adulthood.

Schumpeter wrote before the Second World War but his concerns have been echoed by more recent students of culture, such people as Hannah Arendt in the 1960s, Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, and more recently Gertrude Himmelfarb — all of whom despaired for the weakening or disappearance altogether of the family unit they saw at the center of civil society which they sought to preserve. Arendt, for example, saw a failure of nerve on the part of both parents and teachers that has led to the rejection of the notion of “authority” especially

“the authority of adults, implicitly denying their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and [which] refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

Himmelfarb notes the erection of a commodified culture created by capitalism in which we find we are “too present-minded and self-centered to tolerate the kinds of constraints imposed on parents in the interest of the family — or for that matter, the constraints on children, who are no less present-minded and self-centered.” She goes on to note:

” Nineteenth and-early-twentieth-century accounts of working-class life are replete with stories of children laboring part-time and contributing their meager earnings not only willingly but proudly to the family. Today children commonly receive allowances from their parents to be spent for their personal satisfaction.”

I can attest to this myself as I received no allowance but, rather, worked after school while in high school in the early 1950s and earned $13.00 a week, bringing $10.00 home to help with the costs of running the home and keeping the remaining $3.00 for my needs during the week. This was the era of the 1950s family that is so often derided by theorists today who see the movement toward more open family groups as a good thing, greater freedom and less restriction and sacrifice — rejecting the notion that discipline and self-sacrifice might be the sorts of things that build character and make families stronger. These same folks regard the parents as incapable of raising their children properly and would rather see them raised by “experts” trained in psychology or social work, persons attached to assorted state agencies.

In any event, one cannot focus exclusively on the weakening of family ties for the disappearance of civil societies, since the Church has also traditionally been an important part of character building, teaching those virtues that helped young people grow into responsible and other-oriented adults. And, for the most part, the Church no longer addresses these issues as they are caught up in the business of turning a profit, filling the pews, and assuring their congregations that they are loved regardless of how they behave.

But it is interesting to ponder the explanation these thinkers point to when they express concern for the successes of capitalism and its decided reorientation of values in creating a calculating, self-interested, commodified culture that measures success and happiness in terms of annual income (which, by the way, helps to explain why children, and their parents in many cases, hold teachers in such low esteem). Have we really come to an age in which, as Schumpeter insists, the average parents calculate the pros and cons of raising a family in terms such as these:

“Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

On Not Reading Macaulay

I must confess I have read little of the historian/essayist/poet Thomas Babington Macaulay. But apparently very few historians read him either even though he is reputed to be one of the best historians ever to have set pen to paper (as was done in the old days). Indeed, the breed of new historians, about whom I have written in the past, regard the old historians as part of the problem with the world today: yesterday’s news, not important enough to waste time on. Many of them prefer the New History that makes few demands on their time or effort (how symptomatic of our times, eh?). They would prefer to do such things as psychoanalyze Hitler and determine that his hatred of the Jews, if not his reasons for declaring war on the rest of the civilized world, was the result of the failure of a Jewish doctor to save his mother who was dying of cancer. Or they would like to rewrite history “from the bottom up,” focusing on the little people whom past historians have ignored because of a lack of documentation to create accurate pictures. Lack of documentation is not a problem for these “historians.” They just make stuff up!

In any event, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (yes, her again: she is brilliant) the tireless defender of the Old History and a great admirer of Macaulay notes not only that historians don’t read him anymore, she notes that the problem goes even deeper:

“a commentator [on Macaulay in 1959] thought it safe to predict that Macaulay would indeed be read half a century hence, ‘if there are readers left.’ It is not clear whether the ominous proviso referred to a nuclear catastrophe or simply to the death of the written word as a result of television or a debased mass culture. What was not anticipated was that professional historians would turn against Macaulay, making him seem . . . unreadable and unmemorable. . .”

I have commented on the death of old ways of doing history in previous posts so I shall not go there again. But the broader point is worth some serious reflection. The notion that we would lose our desire to read because of “television or a debased culture” is prescient — written as it was in 1987. It would be hard to argue against the fact that we now live in a digital age that has replaced the reading of books with television, iPads, wifi, and video games.

A critic recently noted the spike in interest of late in Orwell’s 1984 (are people actually reading it?) in light of the recent ascendency of a man into high office who looks more and more each day like a dictator and less and less like the leader of a democracy whose citizens are the ones he works for. The critic noted that Huxley’s Brave New World was more appropriate because while Orwell warned against the burning of books, Huxley warned against the loss of any desire to read in the first place. Huxley looks increasingly like he saw things everyone else was missing.

The point of all this is that we lose so much in turning our backs not only on great minds like Macaulay’s but on all of those who have brought us to this place in time, a time when we have come to realize the ills of former days, the lack of respect for persons world-wide; the persecutions of those who differ from us (though there are those who would prefer to keep the persecutions alive); the wholesale exploitation of other countries in the name of profit; the need for a more cosmopolitan and less nationalistic outlook on the world around us of which we are a part — also seeming of late to have lost much of its appeal. For all our problems and challenges, in many ways we have made moral progress and much of that progress is due to the great thinkers, not only in the West but in the East as well, who have informed our thinking and created the categories by means of which we seek to make sense of the world we share in common and which seems so confounding at times. In any event, before we turn our backs on those great minds altogether we should at least make sure we have read them. It is very sad indeed that we seem to have become determined to ignore our past and especially those who created out of that past a deeper and more interesting world, people like Thomas Babington Macaulay.

 

New History?

I have been exploring two themes recently in my posts. On the one hand, I am concerned about the current state of civilization, that is, the delicate fiber that holds together diverse peoples out of respect for law, tradition, and for one another. On the other hand, I have explored many of the problems in higher education that seem to somehow have had an adverse effect on the world outside the ivory towers that once protected those inside from prying eyes. I have been especially concerned about the movement called “postmodernism” that has taken over in our universities and which rests on the central tenet that there is no such thing as truth, only “texts.”

A major movement within the academy since the late 1960s has been “New History,” one of the bastard offspring of postmodernism. It is based on the notion that history is simply another form of literature and historians are no longer to be held to the standards and rigor that ruled the discipline for generations, demands for evidence and the desire to approximate the truth about the past as much as possible. Footnotes and reliable references are no longer required. Again, since there is no such thing as truth, there cannot possibly be any accurate depiction of the past. The new historian, therefore, is free to wing it, make things up and tell it like he or she would like it to have been. New history is more about the historians than it is about history itself.

One of the most prominent historians to have defended Old History against the onslaught of the New Historians is Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in past posts. She has done a remarkable job of seeking to defend truth against the attacks of the subjectivists and relativists, but one has the sense that she is spitting against the wind — and she knows it. In any event, she has written a number of books attempting to show the absurdity of rejecting standards of evidence and attempts to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible and one of those books, The New History and The Old addresses the topic directly. In that book, a collection of her papers, she recounts the following anecdote about a Conference she attended in 1969 when New History was aborning and was regarded by most historians as merely a passing fad, a novelty soon to be dismissed. As Himmelfarb tells us:

“. . .what the history profession needed was a “little anarchy.” This . . . was the great merit of the new history — its variety, openness, and pluralism. . . . .there is no meeting ground between [different ways of approaching history] and there need not be. All that was necessary was the tolerance to permit “different people doing different kinds of things in different ways.”

What we have here is the wheels of an academic discipline falling off. The notion that two or three or four historians are free to reconstruct events in accordance with any loose principles whatever, drawing on psychology, anthropology, science, or any other unrelated discipline and every one of those views is somehow legitimate and is to be respected by historians across the boards is on its face absurd. Tolerance is here carried out to the extreme of denial that there is anything we ought to agree about, anything beyond different ways of doing things. Anything goes. We are intolerant if we do not make room for the absurd and the outrageous. There is no truth available, only opinion.

Traditionally, the various academic disciplines each had its own distinctive manner of approaching problems that require reasonable solutions. There has always been disagreement about the best way to approach those problems and one never really expected any two thinkers in diverse academic disciplines to agree with one another about which is the better way. Hell, it was seldom the case that two academics within the same discipline agreed about much of anything! But that disagreement was the key to keeping lines of communication open and encouraging the exchange of diverse opinions and theories which were designed to eventually lead us all closer to the truth about the human condition. Dialogue requires open minds and a conviction that there is a goal to be achieved in the end, no matter how long it takes. Difference of opinion was a good thing because it made us careful about the way we conducted research and put together evidence and arguments. Difference was a means to an end, not the end in itself; but it was required in order to eventually reach some agreement about what is true and what is not. With New History, as Himmelfarb notes,

“Two historians working on the same subject are apt to produce books so disparate that they might be dealing with different events centuries and continents apart.”

What has occurred, not only in history but in all of the humanistic disciplines and the social sciences as well, is that they are all dangerously close to becoming as like one another as possible in their unanimous rejection of the notion that there is a truth worth pursuing, rejecting in one way or another the conviction that if one applied the techniques of the various disciplines one could at least hope to reach some degree of accord about what is and what is not the case. In a word, it used to be held that there is an answer to every question, but that answer must be sought by each thinker in accordance with the rules laid down within the discipline he or she has chosen to pursue, different ways to achieve a common goal, as it were. The current relativism, the rejection of the notion that there is any truth, blurs the distinctions among the various disciplines and tells us that it really doesn’t matter what anyone says about much of anything because there is no point in reasonable pursuit of truth since there is no such thing as reason or truth anyway. There is no point in searching for a common meeting ground on which we could all stand in search for something beyond personal opinion. The most persuasive or colorful writer or speaker wins.

Needless to say, this relativism has found its way into the world outside of the academy and we now find ourselves surrounded by such things as “alternative facts” and the notion that truth is a matter of who shouts loudest and is able to shut down opposing points of view. Might makes truth.

 

Commissars of Culture

Little known to folks outside the ivory towers that used to house higher education are the machinations of those who struggle for power within, elbowing one another aside to claim the title of commissar of culture, kings or queens of political correctness. In fact, the struggle is about over as the dominant thought in colleges and universities today is to convert institutions of higher education where young people once came to achieve some degree of intellectual freedom into Therapeutic Centers where they are made to feel good about themselves in a climate that increasingly resembles a Country Club. In any event, this was foreseen a couple of decades ago by the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in previous blogs. In her insightful book about the demise of virtue and its replacement by “values” that oh-so-closely resemble feelings, she tells us this about the movement just then aborning, recalling the character of Mrs. Grundy the embodiment of the “narrow-minded, self-righteous, and self-appointed censor.”

“The Mrs. Grundys of our day, vigilantly supervising the proprieties of conduct and speech, command the respect of many of those who profess to be in the vanguard of enlightened thought. Some of them, appointed to direct ‘sensitivity,’ and ‘consciousness’ sessions — ‘facilitators,’ they are sometimes called — enjoy the status and perquisites of well-paid administrators in corporations and universities.”

Himmelfarb refers here to the fact that many of our larger corporations are caught up in the political correctness game and watch every word for transgressions that are deserving of, at the very least, a note in the perpetrator’s personnel file and an official reprimand. They also watch, like collective hawks, for the slightest sign of variation from company policy or, worse yet, words or actions that might result in lawsuits brought against the company. In many ways this mirrors the universities where faculty and students are warned not to say or do anything that might ruffle the feathers of anyone who might insist that his or her feathers have, indeed, been ruffled. This is the Age of the Victim where real suffering has been replaced by papier-mache replicas made by the victims that look surprisingly like self-portraits.  But Himmelfarb would have us  begin to talk once again about serious moral issues rather than the pseudo-issues that closely resemble a tempest in a teapot and tend to stand in the way of serious discussion and an honest exchange of ideas.

She reminds us of the character in Dickens’ Bleak House, a Mrs. Jellyby, whose children are hungry, dirty and out of control at her feet while she writes a check to help out a tribe on the banks of the Tiber. Dickens called hers a “telescopic philanthropy,” her eyes “having the curious habit of seeming to look a long way off as if . . . they could see nothing nearer than Africa.” Himmelfarb accordingly coins the term “telescopic morality” to describe the latest shenanigans in the universities where mountains are made of mole hills and real issues are ignored because of the latest faux pas in the faculty lounge or the student newspaper. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard, these “New Victorians” who pride themselves on bringing attention to the latest outrage have invented the “Telescopic Morality” that focuses on the trivial and ignores the serious.

“The code of behavior they zealously monitor is at once more permissive and more repressive than the old; casual sexual intercourse is condoned, while a flirtatious remark may be grounds for legal action. It is a curious combination of prudery and promiscuity that is enshrined in the new moral code. .  . They. . . do not condemn promiscuity; they only condemn  those men who fail to obtain the requisite consent for every phase of sexual intercourse.  . . . They are not concerned about the kinds of crime that agitate most citizens — violent, irrational, repeated, and repeatedly unpunished crimes; they only propose to pass new legislation to punish speech or conduct normally deemed uncivil rather than illegal. . . . Telescopic morality . . . also distances moral responsibility from the moral agent.”

And there’s the key: the loss of a concern for virtue out of a confused and confusing concern about hurt feelings has eliminated any discussion whatever of the responsibility of those who commit atrocities and cause real pain and suffering. Our attention, rather, is directed toward the young man about to use the “N” word in a term paper to the faculty member who is ridiculed by his colleagues for suggesting in a faculty meeting that perhaps intellectual diversity is more important than cultural diversity.

Himmelfarb does not call for a return to the Victorian age. She knows as well as the rest of us that it was in many ways a miserable time for a great many people. But, she insists, at least they discussed moral issues and weren’t afraid to address them in the public arena. They didn’t have to apologize for bringing up moral questions in public while insisting that, of course, “it’s only my opinion.” They weren’t so concerned about the manner in which they spoke as they were the matter about which they spoke. And in this transition, this movement toward form and away from content, away from virtue and toward values, we have lost sight of those things which matter most, such things as character, duty, and taking responsibility for our own actions instead of finding someone else to blame. In casting out Victorian values we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

 

Ideas Have Consequences

I have spent the major part of my life in schools: eight years in “grammar school,” four years in high school, and eight years in college and graduate school. Then I taught for 42 years, first in a private grammar school then in colleges and universities. One might say I have an academic bent in my thought and a bit of a preoccupation with what is going on (or not going on) in education circles these days. I have written a book and numerous blog posts and articles on education and its present ills. As I say, I come at questions from a decidedly academic perspective.

Accordingly, I hesitate to write once again about one of the major movements in our colleges and universities, because I dare say readers have become a bit tired of the themes I return to so often. But some of those themes have wider application, as I have been at pains to show. One of them is put forward by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have drawn on for several of my blog posts. She is a bright and interesting thinker and I have always managed to find ruch veins of gold in her many pages. Writing in the mid 90s of the last century, for example, she foretold on the resurgence of nationalism which we are seeing happen today. In one of her more recent books she has this disclaimer:

“Perhaps [my] book should be labelled ‘The Confessions of an Unregenerate Prig,’ because it is dedicated to the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality and that there is a connection between the two, as there is also a connection between the aesthetic sensibility and the moral imagination, between culture and society. We pay lip service to the adage ‘Ideas Have Consequences,’ but it is only in extremis that were take it seriously, when the ideas of a Stalin or a Hitler issue in the realities of gulags and death camps. It is the premise of this book that well short of such dire situations there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and polity.”

Indeed, a number of ideas that originated in academia have found their way into the world of everyday life, such things as Affirmative Action, Political Correctness — in the sense that certain words that offend certain people are taboo — and, most recently, the esoteric movement in our colleges called “deconstructionism.” As an academic pursuit, deconstructionism began with literary and philosophical texts in an effort to show that the text means what the interpreter wants it to mean — drawing on what he or she thinks the writer was thinking and what they know about the political and social background of the writer and the text itself. The idea is to “de-construct,” i.e., take it the text apart and put it back together in a coherent fashion. There is no correct reading of the text, only interpretations. The movement has infiltrated schools of literary criticism, philosophy, and history and has threatened to reduce all academic disciplines to social studies and unintelligible psychobabble. It is a complicated movement, but it begins and ends with the rejection of truth and reality, insisting that both are constructs, made up by readers and interpreters of “texts.”

The grand pooh-bah of deconstructionism was the French thinker Jacques Derrida. When one of the founders of deconstructionism, Paul de Man, was discovered to have been an avowed Nazi who continued to support Naziism even after the Second World War, Derrida joined a number of his fellow deconstructionists in deconstructing the world and words of De Man in an attempt to prove that he didn’t say what everyone knew he had said. They insisted that de Man “proposed not the extermination of the Jews but only their expulsion from Europe” despite the fact that this was clearly not what he had written on numerous occasions. Deconstructionists determine what was written, not ordinary readers like ourselves. We see the words but cannot possibly know what they mean until their meaning is revealed to us by the deconstructionist themselves. In general, as Himmelfarb notes:

“Still another [apologist] reminds us that although many facts about the affair have emerged, facts in themselves are meaningless. ‘It’s all a matter of interpretation, and each interpretation will probably reveal more about the interpreter than about de Man.”

This denial of “facts” and the accompanying denial of anything resembling “truth” has clearly made its way outside the hallowed halls of academe, like a science experiment gone bad, — and moved beyond the reading of literature and philosophy to the “real” world (which is itself a construct, or so it is claimed). We now have a President, for one, who is a master of desconstruction (albeit out of ignorance; I doubt that he ever heard of Derrida!), a “gaslighter” who is intent on convincing us all that black is not black and white is not white — unless he tells us otherwise. The crowd at his inauguration was the largest on record because he and his minions say so — and despite the photographic record and the testimony of those actually in attendance.

As an academic exercise deconstructionism has done little more than turn off would-be English majors who would rather read exceptional literature than read theories about those books written by so-called experts within their fields. It would therefore appear harmless, a fruitless exercise for academics that makes them feel important. But it is not harmless, as we are now becoming painfully aware. Ideas do have consequences and we are forewarned to keep on our guard: join the ranks of the “Unregenerate Prigs” who insist that there are such things as truth and reality — independent of all of us, even those who insist it is only they who are in the know.