The Counter-Enlightenment in Our Midst

I’ve been vacationing for a couple of weeks on a Great Lake, swimming, sailing, hitting the local tourist attractions, and reading books on the Enlightenment . On vacation I deliberately try to avoid the news (so I don’t spoil it playing tiny violins after reading sad tales like this one), but somehow I ended up reading a summary account of rabble-rousers and their roused rabble at town hall meetings about health care reform, and the contrast between that and my reading left me feeling depressed.

It was Voltaire, I think, (or perhaps Diderot) who wrote that violent resistance to arguments just meant you were too stupid to form arguments. We have seen this playing out around the country, with right-wing professional idiots (leaders?) encouraging their followers to shout, disrupt proceedings, deliberately avoid debate, and all the other tactics of the stupid and inarticulate in the face of calm reason. The irony is that these leaders and their followers seem to think of themselves as "conservatives" of some kind, but it’s not at all clear what they want to conserve other than the wealth and power of private insurance companies. They certainly don’t seek the ordered liberty so beloved of some who deem themselves conservatives. I’ve long speculated that there aren’t really any conservatives in America anyway. There are only variations of reactionary against the Enlightenment ideals of the founding.

Historians of conservatism–e.g., Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Jerry Muller–often trace the beginnings of conservatism in the English-speaking world to Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France (though Anthony Quinton goes further back to Bolingbroke, if I remember correctly). Burke himself, though, was a beacon of tolerance and reason compared to aggressive soldiers of the Counter-Enlightenment like Joseph de Maistre. A clubbable man and friend of Adam Smith and a supporter of the American War of Independence such as Burke couldn’t have been otherwise. As the title and movement of conservatism were born and spreading through Europe, it made some sense. The conservatives were trying to conserve, or at least to resurrect, an older regime of authoritarian political and religious order that was actively under assault from Enlightenment values such as liberty, equality, toleration, reason, education, and individual rights against the state.

In America, such a tradition makes little sense, despite Kirk’s heroic efforts to give American reactionaries an historical tradition. America was the first country founded upon Enlightenment values. Granted, Americans themselves have rarely in the mass lived up to those values, and the history of America is to some extent the development of these enlightened  values over the darker forces of our nature for two hundred years. No one with eyes to see could say that America is a perfectly enlightened or tolerant country, but without a doubt the enlightened values of the founding have slowly found favor with a greater percentage of the population. Those Americans resisting the ideals of reasoned discussion and debate, toleration for the Other, individual rights, liberty, equality, and education are thus not conservatives, but reactionaries. They don’t wish to conserve or even resurrect a fallen order, but to impose darkness on the land.

To give some substance to these musings, let’s briefly examine two figures of the Enlightenment who are in stark contrast to the shouting rabble and their beloved leaders in the recent meetings: Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith.

Kant wrote a late essay called "What is Enlightenment?" that summarized some of his views. For Kant, enlightenment meant throwing off the self-imposed shackles of leaders and having the courage to use your own reason to make decisions. The motto is sapere aude, or "dare to know." Enlightened people educate themselves, use their reason, and challenge irrational authority. They are not looking to be lead. The unenlightened desire to be led. They want people to tell them what to believe about important issues–about God, religion, ethics, politics. The unenlightened take on faith, for example, the literal truths of religious texts because they have been told to do so and have rarely had more faith in their own capacity for reason than in the word of another. This is not to say the unenlightened are stupid, though sometimes they are. This is merely to say they are unreasonable. Many of them wouldn’t object to this at all. Recall Tertullian’s famous defense of his Christian belief: Credo quia absurdum est–I believe because it is absurd. De Maistre and other figures of counter-Enlightenment were no different. For them, reason is not a primary value.

In the current debates, as in so many others in the country, we see this playing out. We see people who want to be led, who take their marching orders from radio and television entertainers like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, or from others hidden inside various advocacy groups. They don’t reason, they don’t dare to know. They certainly don’t balk at the irrational and foolish. They’re encouraged to become part of a mob and they do it in an attempt to forestall any rational debate by any side in the discussion. I heard one woman interviewed on the radio who claimed that she opposed a public health plan because she didn’t want her health care decisions made by "some bureaucrat." Regardless of one’s position in this debate, this response–no doubt fed to her by someone leading her on–is absurd. If she has health insurance now, who does she think is making decisions about her coverage but some bureaucrat, and, what’s more, a bureaucrat with an eye on the profit margin of her insurance company rather than the needs of her health. An enlightened person would say, oppose or defend whatever you wish, but at least have intelligent reasons for doing so.

It’s a more curious contrast with Adam Smith, a mainstay of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the most misunderstood writers of contemporary times. In this country, Adam Smith has the reputation of being an absolutely laissez-faire economist, totally dedicated to the "invisible hand," opposed to government, a friend of the capitalist class and an implied enemy of those who find themselves losers in a perfectly free market. Both right and left have this illusion of Smith. Rich financiers in the Reagan years supposedly sported ties with Adam Smith’s image, thinking he was one of their kind. Leftists are seldom any better. I once had a strange interaction with a fellow library school student, a socialist of sorts with an M.A. in history, who saw me reading The Wealth of Nations. The student refused to read Smith "because he was a capitalist," thus demonstrating his own lack of enlightenment. He’d been told all he needed to know by some professor or pundit, and relinquished faith in his own power to educate himself and make reasonable judgments based on his own knowledge.

Adam Smith was a defender of what he called the "system of natural liberty," and he did indeed describe and defend the division of labor and free trade that undeniably builds wealth in nations. However, he was not necessarily a friend of the capitalist or an opponent of government, as anyone who has ever bothered to read Smith would know. Does this quote from the Wealth of Nations surprise you?

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

Does this sound like a friend of the rapacious capitalist? What else are lobbyists and business interest groups but conspiracies against the public? Cabals dedicated to their own interest at the expense of the common good? Or this argument against mercantilism:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it. But in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.

How many of our laws, regulations, and subsidies are truly dedicated to protection of the individual and unorganized consumers, and how many to the protection of organized business interests, i.e., the producers? Whose interests are at stake in the current debate, and whose interests are getting the most attention in the media–the consumers of health care or the producers of it? What would Adam Smith the consumer advocate have to say about the shenanigans of the insurance industry?

Despite my commentary on the health care debate here, it’s not health care or the debate as such that interests me so much as the mob tactics associated with it. We have right wing pundits and entertainers calling President Obama a Nazi while encouraging the sort of mob politics the Nazis themselves used to such great effect. In this case, the end of enlightenment is the rise of the ochlocracy, or "rule of the mob." We’ve had people who might otherwise be intelligent and productive citizens showing up at meetings shouting so that others might not be heard. They’ve been acting like Yahoos, another creation of an eighteenth-century writer. In Gulliver’s travel to the land of the Houyhnhnms he encounters creatures he takes to be humans by their appearance, but finds after watching them they’re little more than bestial savages. Watching roused rabble scream and shout affirms Jonathan Swift’s belief that humans aren’t rational animals, but only animals capable of reason.

This disturbs me as a human and as a citizen, but also professionally. American reactionaries, wherever they have power, try to defund education and any other public good. They would rather send a harmless pot-smoker to prison than a smart poor person to college. With no responsible voices on the political right speaking out against the disruptive mobs, does this mean they support the rise of ochlocracy?

There are mobs of every political stripe, as history has shown, but I’m more concerned professionally by right-wing than left-wing mobs. Left-wing mobs have a tendency to destroy commercial property (as in the WTO protests in Seattle a decade ago) or else just appropriate it (as with most left-wing revolutions). I don’t have any commercial property, and am unlikely to acquire any, so that doesn’t affect me as directly. Right-wing mobs have a tendency to attack institutions of education rather than of commerce. They don’t like book-learning, but they do like book-burning.

The Right has been working hard for a couple of decades to reduce the funding of higher education, and thus make it more difficult for poor, or even the middle class, to afford college. This is insidious destruction of a society of educated and thus often critical citizens. With the active encouragement of people to join mobs and shout down opponents, and the lack of right-winge opposition to demagogic voices, how big a leap is it to imagine mobs being encouraged not just to shout down politicians they don’t like, but to start burning books and such at public rallies? If the reactionary leaders don’t like reasoned debate, how long before they direct the mobs against the the institutions most dedicated to reason and debate–our colleges and universities?

Does this seem far-fetched? Perhaps. On the other hand, one right-wing entertainer with millions of followers is ignorant or stupid enough to compare those who believe in equal rights with women to Nazis. It’s not like we aren’t living amidst millions of loud, ignorant bigots. I see no difference in principle in demagogues encouraging their followers to disrupt peaceful meetings and encouraging them to besiege libraries or disrupt the activities of teaching and learning at institutions of higher education. Both involve resistance to enlightenment, the denial of reason, and the embrace of dark, unruly passions.

But What About? and “Mere Rhetoric”

I listened to some of President Obama’s Cairo speech this morning, and based on the snippets I heard and the summary and analysis I’ve read so far it maintains his reputation as the most rhetorically effective President since Reagan, and probably since Kennedy. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Kennedy’s Commencement Address at American University in June 1963. Kennedy’s speech wasn’t addressed to his university audience so much as to the Soviet Union, and Obama’s approach today was similar, to build bridges to the potentially hostile audience through emphasis on mutual values and goals while not denigrating American values. I recommend listening to or reading Kennedy’s address if you’re unfamiliar with it, but this is my favorite bit:

So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

I submit that it would be difficult to find a more rhetorically effective paragraph in the annals of Presidential speeches. It acknowledges differences without threat, urges common goals while recognizing that not all of them will be met, and summarizes in brief but compelling fashion the underlying joint humanity even of political enemies. President Obama’s speech today tried to make the same points.

One difference between the speeches is in the specificity of proposals. Kennedy, for example, announced that he and Krushchev would soon begin discussing a test ban treaty, and that the US wouldn’t conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere if other states also refrained from such testing. Some commentators and pundits have already begun criticizing Obama’s speech for not articulating more concrete proposals. He didn’t do this, he didn’t do that. He said he was opposed to this, but didn’t say what he would really do. Depending on the perspective, the list of things left out is long: he didn’t denounce Muslim terrorists or dictators, he didn’t articulate a clear solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he didn’t talk about civilian casualties in Pakistan. (Of course, there’s a raft of more inarticulate criticism. If you want to descend into the morass of what passes for common opinion in America, you might sample the comments here.)

The criticism that he didn’t address everything in one speech is a ridiculous one, and one that has been plaguing Obama since the beginning of his Presidential campaign. For one thing, it’s an example of what I recently saw referred to as the "but what about" fallacy. (I thought I’d read this in philosopher Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian blog, but I can’t find it there. If anyone knows the source, I’ll be happy to link to it.) The idea of the fallacy is that whatever claims, arguments, or assertions someone makes, instead of addressing them, it’s easier to evade them and just say, "but what about X topic you didn’t talk about?" That response appears to point out a flaw in the opponent’s position but is really just a variation of the red herring fallacy. "But we’re not talking about X; we’re talking about W," might be the best response.

The other major criticism that has dogged him from the beginning is that his speeches are "mere rhetoric," as if a speech is ever anything but rhetoric. Criticism of this sort is different from the "but what about" fallacy, but it’s still usually a nonsensical criticism mouthed by people who don’t understand how language works. Language is symbolic action. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, often through argumentation, and according to Chaim Perelman the “aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent." The goal of "mere" rhetoric is to persuade, to win people to our positions, to eliminate barriers of distrust and dissent, to reduce threat because, as the psychologist Carl Rogers argued, threat hinders communication. 

Rhetoric is more than just argument, the logical appeal. There are also the emotional and ethical appeals, and Obama is a master of the ethical appeal, the appeal based on character. The character manifest in this speech, and in many of his other speeches, is of a person who understands the world is a complicated place, who recognizes difference and reaches out to the "other," who presents positive values while not dismissing those he doesn’t agree with as evil or stupid, who is so strong in his own convictions that he doesn’t need to demonize the opposition through divisive rhetoric and inane catch phrases, so balanced and calm that he doesn’t feel compelled to rise to the challenge of blowhards. It’s this rhetorical appeal in particular that so many politically motivated people in America neither have nor understand. The demonstration of hatred, the obvious unwillingness to consider the positions of others, the inability to even understand difference, the incapacity for empathy or sympathy, the unrelenting hermeneutic of suspicion, the utterly obvious willingness to say or do anything to win regardless of truth or principle – all of these traits undermine the ethical appeal and yet are rife in our political culture and manifest in many of the critics of this President and his speeches.

The problem for these critics is that they just don’t know what to do with such a politician. If you’re an overweight, multiply divorced, substance abuser, it’s hard to attack the character of a healthy man in a lengthy stable marriage with two loving children. If you’re a blowhard who knows only how to manipulate social divisions and is so rhetorically challenged that you’re considered merely an evil joke by your opponents, it’s hard to smear the character of a man who quite obviously shares none of your cynicism or passion for the complete destruction of people of good will with whom you happen to disagree. Regardless of any specific problems of Obama’s policies that could be articulated, so many of his critics just seem like spoiled, screaming youngsters compared to him. A glimmer of hope for America – seen fleetingly in some Republican reactions to the nomination of Sotomayor – is that the nuanced worldview and the balanced, measured rhetoric of President Obama may by some miracle elevate the level of political discourse in the country. It’s never been particularly elevated before, but there’s always that hope.

Politics and Academics

Since I went to bed before the big decision last night, my celebration, such that it is, consists of the glass of Macallan 12 I’m currently sipping. I say "such that it is," because though I did vote for the winning Presidential candidate and for the first time since 1992 cast a vote for president and didn’t feel soiled by it, everything is still in the same mess it was yesterday, and being somewhat cynical (friends reading this will probably say "only somewhat?") I’m not sure how much one person, no matter how extraordinary, can really accomplish with the Presidency. It seems to me that presidents can much more easily do a lot of damage than cause a lot of improvement. However, just having a president who will avoid doing more damage will be an improvement. I’m trying to feel hopeful, but my political awareness began in the mid-1980s, and my experience of politics hasn’t exactly fostered hopefulness. The thing I find most hopeful in some ways is what the fact that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency says about America and how some things have undeniably changed for the better in the past forty years. As for the job itself, considering the mess he’s inheriting, I can’t help but think there’s a bit of truth in this article.

For higher education, elections seem to bring a fresh resurgence of the criticism that college faculty are too "liberal." My university newspaper has published a list of Princeton professors who gave maximum contributions to presidential candidates. The only surprising thing is that there was actually a professor who gave the maximum to McCain. However, he also gave the maximum in both the primary and the general election to Obama, and in this article explained that he donated to McCain in the primary because he was the least disliked Republican candidate. Some students complained about how this shows how overwhelmingly "liberal" Princeton is. If the research reported in this article is right, at least no one can complain about being indoctrinated with liberal dogma, whatever that is. I know the students don’t care what the librarians think, since librarians aren’t teaching them, but the Republican students at Princeton and elsewhere might be surprised that there might be even fewer Republicans among librarians than among professors. If we’re not careful, David Horowitz will be coming at us with an Academic Collection Development Bill of Rights, or something like that, arguing that for every scholarly book we buy written by a Democrat, we have to buy a book written by a Republican. Imagine how that would change the scope of library collections!

The Republican students who arrive on campus probably do feel alienated, as I’m sure do the Republican professors and librarians. The students, and indeed most critics, think it has something to to with liberal and conservative, but I’m not so sure. You might have noticed that I’ve been putting scare quotes around liberal. It’s not because I don’t think most professors and librarians are liberals of some sort. It’s just that I’m not sure the issue is just about liberal or conservative politics, but has a lot to do with Democratic or Republican politics. Liberal and conservative are shifty terms and most people don’t seem to use them in any consistent way. People seem to pick one they like for themselves, then use the other term to abuse whatever they don’t like. The paucity of political discourse in America means we don’t have many other choices.

One can argue that, for example, George W. Bush isn’t a conservative at all, and that Obama is in many ways a conservative candidate, as former long-time National Review editor Jeffrey Hart recently argued. Conservatives schooled on Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, or a number of other conservative intellectuals from an earlier generation would be horrified that a president started an aggressive war to promote democracy. People who admire the virtues of caution, tradition, and skepticism about grand rational plans one finds in Edmund Burke’s work have little use for the current Republican Party, and for a lot of traditionalist conservatives, Burke’s work formed the foundation of the conservative intellectual tradition. They would argue that the Republicans have become the radical party wanting to make the most drastic changes, sometimes against the will of the people.

There was a time when conservatives wanted to discover and develop an intellectual tradition, so they could rebel against John Stuart Mill’s description of conservatives as the "stupid party." Conservatives were alienated, but they cared about ideas and culture. That’s changed, though. In his article "The Decline of American Intellectual Conservatism," Claes Ryn argues that the conservative movement’s disdain for philosophy and the arts and a pseudo-pragmatism that led to the decline of any intellectual content in conservatism.

But had it not been for the misguided pragmatism and the related problems of conservatism here described, the chronic weaknesses of human nature would not so easily have broken through the defenses of civilization. American conservatism would have been better prepared to resist intellectual shoddiness, corrupt imagination, and a false moral virtue. It would not have had to accept so much of the blame for damage inflicted upon America and the world by self-described conservatives. (Modern Age, Fall 2007, p549)

It might be conservatism, but it might just be the Republican Party, so long considered the conservative party that anyone who votes Republican is seen as a conservative and anyone who votes against it is seen as a liberal. As Jeffrey Hart, Christopher Buckley, and others have shown this year, though, that’s just not the case. It’s the Republican Party that has changed.

As David Brooks put it recently in the New York Times, "What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole." In Brooks’ reading, it’s the Republican Party and its class warfare that has gone out of its way to alienate whole groups of Americans, including many of the brightest and best educated among them. Students and some other critics complain about the "liberalism" of the American academy, but they usually cite the overwhelming majority of Democrats among professors as evidence of that. If they knew and cared, they’d probably throw in the librarians. However, the explanation of why academics tend to support Democrats or liberals could be that except for a brief flowering of conservative intellectuals from 1955-1975 (or so), so called conservatives have tended to find people who devote their lives to ideas and scholarship contemptible. And the Republican Party in the last twenty years or so has become absolutely hostile to academics and intellectuals of all stripes. People who spend their lives doing intellectual work are unlikely to vote for candidates who publicly malign and mock their social group. Thus, it could be not that academia is overwhelming "liberal" so much as that it’s overwhelmingly populated with intelligent, educated people who resent the populism that considers them lesser Americans because of that intelligence and education. Maybe in the end, we all feel the same way. Regardless of how you might feel about some individual political issues, it’s hard to vote for politicians who show nothing but disrepect for your way of life, whether you’re Joe the Plumber or Jane the Professor.

Campaign Rhetoric 2008 (1958?)

Like a lot of you, I’ve been thinking lately about politics and the upcoming election. Some of this thinking has been deliberation about political issues, but not much. Rarely do I get inspired enough by any candidate to vote wholeheartedly for that person, and for me elections are usually about voting the lesser of two evils. Sometimes the lesser evil isn’t even evil, which is a nice change. Considering that I’ve been voting for twenty years in five different states and few candidates I’ve voted for have won, perhaps I’m just a jinx and should vote for the most evil candidate for a change.

We all have different evils. My top ones are stupidity, ignorance, and viciousness. I know this might make me "unAmerican" or "elitist," but I’ll come out and say that I don’t think stupid or ignorant people should be in charge of things, no matter how nice they are. I think I’m pretty smart and knowledgeable, and as a smart and knowledgeable citizen I want people even smarter and more knowledgeable than me running the government. Always I am puzzled when I read about voters who vote for candidates "because they seem like me." Do any of these voters think they’d be qualified to be President? Apparently they do. I don’t think I am, and I don’t think they are either.

In elections, the stupidity, ignorance, and viciousness come out mostly in the campaign rhetoric, and though I find practical politics distasteful for the most part, I’m definitely interested in political rhetoric. Some of the rhetoric in this campaign sounds like it was pulled from a shelf where it had rested since the fifties, dusted off, and put to use once more. Consider the "socialist" label that’s come into use recently. I guess some people think Cold War rhetoric never stales. When the word socialist is used as an attack in American politics, stupidity, ignorance, or viciousness – and perhaps all of them – are almost always present.

I’m not aware of any Presidential candidate in any major American political party that is a socialist. Is there a candidate who wants to nationalize any of the means of production, or, in the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s words, prevent capitalist acts between consenting adults.  Some Americans seem terribly frightened by something called "socialized medicine," but does either major Presidential candidate have a plan to nationalize the health industry? And even if our health service were truly nationalized, would that alone make America a "socialist" country? Would even Hayek think that alone would be enough to put us on the road to serfdom? Oh, I know. It’s the slippery slope. The thin end of the wedge. Nationalize health care, and next thing you know the one party state will force us all to march down Main Street in lockstep singing the Internationale.

There was a time when politicians called supporters of Social Security or Medicare socialists. The implication is that any state relief for the poor or the sick is "socialist," the only problem being that the provision of such service has nothing inherently to do with socializing the means of production or nationalizing any industries and  predates socialism in the West by centuries. Philosophically this is suspect, and historically it’s nonsense. Elizabethan England had poor relief. Was Queen Elizabeth a socialist? The Catholic Church has provided poor relief for centuries. Was St. Thomas a socialist? Any politicians trying to use the word socialist to frighten the ignorant are either too ignorant to know what socialism is, too stupid to make fairly easy distinctions between socialist and capitalist economies, or too vicious to tell the truth.

Another curious rhetorical strategy reminiscent of the fifties is the unAmerican label, as if anyone could actually define what an American is other than by citizenship. One of the candidates for office this year has spoken of "real Americans." Rhetorically, this is an interesting phrase. It involves what the rhetorician Chaim Perelman calls the "dissociation of ideas." In The Realm of Rhetoric he discusses the way some philosophers have split a term into two parts to separate appearance and reality and provide a criterion to distinguish the merely apparent in a particular term.

Term I corresponds to the apparent, to what occurs in the first instance, to what is actual, immediate, and known directly. Term II, to the extent that it is distinguished from it, can be understood only by comparison with term I: it results from a dissociation effected within term I with the purpose of getting rid of incompatibilities that may appear between different aspects of term I. Term II provides a criterion, a norm which allows us to distinguish those aspects of term I which are of value from those which are not (127).

Perelman analyzes the way Plato and Plotinus use this rhetorical strategy to "devalue the sensible world," and politicians who make this move attempt to devalue those who aren’t "real," in much the same way. Often this rhetorical move is fallacious. Philosophers sometimes call it the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, but we can call it the "no real American" fallacy. "No American would support policy X." "But millions of Americans support policy X. " "Well, no real American would support it." Q.E.D.

Both of these rhetorical strategies are contained in a comment on a blog post at the Heritage Foundation, where someone named "Dave" writes that "NO REAL AMERICAN WOULD VOTE FOR A SOCIALIST LIKE OBAMA." The all caps indicate that "Dave" is a very passionate person who wants to make sure you don’t miss his clever point. (By the way, "Dave" also thinks Barney Frank caused the recent banking crisis.)

Sloppy thinking is hardly the sole property of any one political party. Most of us are guilty of fallacious thinking about all sorts of unexamined issues. We think we’re absolutely right and everyone who doesn’t agree with us is just wrong. Sometimes we even think that people who disagree with us are not only wrong, but evil as well. Sometimes it might even be true. I’m glad the election will be over soon, because for the most part the lies, distortions, and oversimplifications of campaign rhetoric on both sides depress me. Just about the only enjoyment I get out of campaign rhetoric is analyzing the fallacies and playing "spot the stupid person." The sad thing is the stupid person often wins.

Political Limbo

Just when I get a break from the second job, along comes jury duty. Where I live, I’m desperately trying to avoid getting on a trial for a gang murder or something. After catching bits of campaign rhetoric lately, I’m not even sure I should be allowed to serve on a jury.

All week a question has been nagging me, making it hard to think about librarianship or anything else. Am I a “real American” or an “east coast elite”? It may seem a trivial question, perhaps even a false dichotomy created in the fallacious mind of a fervent ideologue, but then again, maybe it’s not. I’ve been trying to work my way through the implications, because if I’m not a real American, ordinary and hard working, then I really have no business participating in the upcoming election, and I certainly shouldn’t have to serve on a jury.

Could I be an east coast elite? Boy, that would be nice. I’d like to be an east coast elite. It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a youngster growing up poor in Louisiana. I do live on the east coast, there’s no doubt about that. I live right in central New Jersey, about an hour from the ocean, and I’ve lived either here or just across the Delaware River in eastern Pennsylvania for almost seven years. I’m almost a native at this point, and even know what people mean when they say they’re going "down the shore."

I’m also relatively well educated compared to most Americans. I finished college and have a graduate degree or two, just like most of you. I’ve read a lot of books, including some really hard ones. Were I to attend a cocktail party (which east coast elites apparently do every day), while sipping my single-malt scotch or my dry martini, I could discuss phenomenology, post-structuralism, enjambment, the Markan priority, the fetishization of commodities, or the law of diminishing returns and more or less know what I’m talking about. I listen to classical music on one of my many local public radio stations. I can recite poetry from memory. I value education and high culture and all that sort of thing. I don’t eat meat. Yesterday I even had a latte. It was good.

Then there’s my child. She goes to a private school. Not one of those $20,000 a year private schools that populate the New Jersey landscape, but it’s still private. She’s in the fourth grade and studies subjects like Latin, Greek, history, and geography. That’s pretty elite. She reads a lot of books herself, so she’ll probably grow up to be one of those intellectual types. Plus, she’s tall and athletic and the most adorable child in the world, so real Americans would probably envy her. (I’d put up a photo, but it would just make you feel bad at how inadequate your own children are.)

There are also my political views. Unlike those real Americans, I don’t pay a lot of attention to people’s race, religion, or sexual orientation. I have no problem voting for a black man for President. I think homosexuals should actually be treated like other citizens and have rights and stuff. I think the worldview of most religious fundamentalists is overly simplistic, but as long as they’re not shouting at me or trying to forcibly convert me to their views, I don’t really care what they do. I feel the same way about atheists. “Socialized” medicine doesn’t bother me at all; in fact, I think Medicare is a good thing. Welfare? Fine by me. If we’re hard nosed about it, we can say we don’t want people starving in the streets and blocking traffic. If we’re proponents of liberal democracy, we can say that no people would consent to be governed by a state that would let them starve. If we’re compassionate, we can consider it what Catholics call the preferential option for the poor.

Also, I work at Princeton, which, you may have heard, is one of those snooty Ivy League universities. Princeton is really rich, too. You’re probably aware of that. And a lot of the students are rich as well. Over half of them need no financial aid, and the tuition and fees are approaching fifty grand a year at this point. Imagine having an extra $50K to spend every year, more if there are multiple children in the family going to Princeton, which often happens. My job, such that it is, is more or less intellectual work and requires very little physical labor. In fact, I made a vow to myself never to take the elevator just so I wouldn’t fall into the sedentary librarian’s habit of expanding too much.

On the other hand, while I work at an Ivy League university, I didn’t go to one. All my degrees are from mere state universities. One of those state universities is even in the South, which is just about unforgivable from an east coast elite perspective. Also, being a librarian at an Ivy League university lacks the cultural capital of being a professor at one. Does librarian counts as an elite profession? Considering the stereotypes about librarians in this country, I’m sure it doesn’t. Librarians are always second class citizens of a sort on a university campus. And then there’s my pay. It’s not bad as librarian pay goes, but I’m never going to be rich, and I sure couldn’t afford to send my child to Princeton. I don’t even make enough to use “summer” as a verb. So my job doesn’t qualify me as an east coast elite, even if  it disqualifies me as a real American.

And while I do live in what one of my former colleagues called “the socialist republic of New Jersey,” my neighborhood isn’t fancy or anything. There aren’t any drug dealers or coal miners that I know of, but there aren’t any Ivy League professors or Wall Street types, either. It’s just a standard, boring, middle-class kind of neighborhood. One of my neighbors does own a Hummer, but I think the Hummer might be larger and more expensive than his actual house. About the best that can be said of my city is that we have the state capital here, and that’s not saying much. I get from my modest house to my modest job in a modest eight-year-old Ford. I could be wrong here, but I’m almost positive east coast elites don’t drive Fords. We can probably take that as axiomatic.

Thus, I’m torn. Real Americans would presumably scorn my political, intellectual, and cultural habits and values and probably my diction as well, while east coast elites would disdain my state university degrees, my middling job, and my humble family background. I’m caught on the horns of a dilemma, and I’m not sure I can escape. My only hope is that I can use this argument to persuade the attorneys that being neither a real American nor an east coast elite means I shouldn’t have to serve on a jury for a murder trial. It’s not much, but it may be all I have here in political limbo.

Reds in the Stacks?

Yesterday’s post got something of an odd comment. The first part of the comment wasn’t so odd, but it ended thusly:

“I don’t know how serious you are with this idea, but I am not at all certain that the average person would care what a librarian tells them. Librarians are all communists, anyway.”

As for being serious, since my suggestion was to assign a research librarian to every twelve Americans, it’s probably obvious I was just having a little fun during the political season. It could be amusing to consider what this plan would really look like, but I’ll let someone else do the considering.

It’s the second sentence that struck me as odd. “Librarians are all communists, anyway.” Even if that were true, I don’t see how it would be relevant to the discussion, but I’m wondering what motivates the statement at all. Have I been surrounded by Reds in the stacks all along and just haven’t noticed? That might add some excitement to my ordinarily quiet library. Most of the intrigues where I work are quite banal and none are likely to lead to the abolition of capitalism. Of course, 160 years of communism hasn’t led to that, either, so what do I know.

Just speaking personally, I’m a librarian and I’m pretty sure I’m not a communist, which is a pity because I look good in red. I don’t think I’ve ever associated with any known communist librarians, and considering my past experience with self-professed communists (I was a literature student for several years, after all) I’d probably know if I did. Communists tend to be aggressively evangelical and eager to share the economic and political wisdom they have gained from, for example, teaching American literature. I don’t think any of my colleagues are communists, though I guess they might be. In general, I doubt Princeton would be the sort of place to attract communist librarians. I don’t think they’d feel comfortable around all those rich students. And it would be very hypocritical for my communist colleagues to contribute to TIAA-CREF.

I suppose a number of the librarians in the SRRT consider themselves communists, and I must have worked with some librarians from SRRT before, though none of them have ever tried to get me to join the CPUSA or anything. Perhaps I worked with the democratic socialists instead of the communists. Maybe this group of librarians have convinced my commenter that all librarians are communists, just because they’re so vocal, but if we assume that most communist librarians belong to the SRRT (not an outrageous assumption), and couple that with the fact that most librarians don’t belong to the SRRT, this at least suggests that most librarians are not communists.

I’m not even sure I’ve ever been in a political discussion with any librarians where anyone supported communism. I think being vocally pro-same sex marriage is probably as close as anyone’s come, and that’s not very close. Now it could be that I just don’t hang out in the right librarian circles (or the left librarian circles, as the case may be), in which case I’ll probably never get to know the communist librarians. Also, I instinctively recoil from anyone who wants to proselytize passionately on behalf of their cause, whether that cause is political, religious, or professional, so I’d probably steer clear of the communo-evangelists, just as I would from a librarian wearing one of those Adam Smith ties and crowing about the magic of the market. (Hey, it could happen.) It could also be that most of my interaction with librarians is purely professional, and a library committee meeting is hardly the place to discuss the dictatorship of the proletariat, unless it were, I suppose, a committee for the Communist Party Library, if such exists. But even among my librarian friends, I’ve never heard anyone say, “hey, wouldn’t a communist revolution be a great idea” or “that capitalism thing is pretty bad; let’s abolish it.”

It seems safe to conclude that most librarians are probably left of whatever counts as the political center at any given time in America, but one hardly has to advocate state ownership of all productive property or the abolition of capital to be left of the American center. Just thinking homosexuals shouldn’t be openly mocked or insisting that the rule of law applies to everyone, including the President, seems to be enough. This political labeling is always tricky, though. I know a number of Jewish librarians who are very pro-Israel, and such sentiments anger many on the left, though these librarians are mostly leftish. Even what is considered definitive of left or right is so simplistic at times. You could support social and economic equality, expanded social programs, universal health care, more civic participation, fewer aggressive wars, stronger international diplomatic efforts, increased environmental protections, the legalization of marijuana, and an end to capital punishment, but if it doesn’t bother you that law-abiding citizens own firearms, then you’re hopelessly reactionary in some people’s political ledgers.

Maybe it’s just the nature of libraries. Some people seem to think that libraries in general are communistic, or at least socialistic endeavors. Obviously we’re talking about public libraries here, not academic, and certainly not private academic libraries like mine. The stolid Presbyterians who founded Princeton wouldn’t have liked that idea at all. Were this the case, though, it seems unlikely that Andrew Carnegie, capitalist extraordinaire, would have supported them so much. If support for any publicly funded public goods marks one as a communist, then just about all Americans except the libertarian fringe are communists. That doesn’t seem very likely. There are all sorts of traditional liberal or republican reasons to support libraries and other public goods.

Maybe it’s that open access movement or the copyright issues. Those librarians who want open access to publicly funded research or who argue that current copyright laws are egregiously excessive do seem a bit pinkish in the right light. Or maybe they do. I don’t really know. I’m unfamiliar with the communist position on intellectual property.

This comment couldn’t be based on the the common stereotypes of librarians. No one thinks the little old woman with the bun shushes people because it’s too noisy for her to read the Grundrisse in peace. So it must be based on a librarian’s perception, and presumably a librarian who isn’t in fact a communist, possibly making this something of a paradox as well. I’m just wondering what led to that particular perception, because I just don’t see it. But then again, I’m probably a victim of false consciousness or something.

Everyone Needs a Librarian

I hear there’s a presidential campaign on, so I’m feeling a bit political. I just can’t help myself. With all the policy suggestions going around, I wanted to offer one of my own.

There’s an intellectual breakthrough that comes when one begins to understand that merely stating opinions, no matter how forcefully they are stated, doesn’t impress intelligent people. Politicians, of course, rarely go out of their way to impress intelligent people, and thus sometimes never reach this point, at least in public. College students accomplish this breakthrough when they realize that assertions need argument and evidence and that evidence needs analysis and evaluation. Librarians play a crucial role in this discovery. Along with the instructors, they help students not only find sources for an argument, but help them learn how to analyze and evaluate these sources. It is part of our mission to educate people in the intelligent discovery and use of information. As I survey the state of the republic, sometimes I think everyone in the country needs a librarian. I recommend this as a new public policy. Perhaps the candidates could add this to their stump speeches.

Yesterday afternoon I heard a Fresh Air interview with Al Gore marking the occasion of the paperback publication of The Assault on Reason, his book from last year decrying the disappearance of reason and logic from public discourse. (I didn’t read the book, since I usually don’t read popular books that I think I’ll most likely agree with, but I read the excerpt here.) He noted in the interview and in the book that, for example, at the time of the vote to authorize the war in Iraq, 75% of the American public believed that the war was a retaliation against Saddam Hussein because of his responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. These were people immune from evidence, analysis, logic, and reason. They all needed their own librarians to help them find sources and evaluate their veracity and worth. Then there are those people who believe Senator Obama is a Muslim. Yep, they need librarians, too.

Or let us take the “gas tax holiday” being touted by Senators McCain and Clinton as a way to provide relief to those of us feeling financial pain at the pump. I’m pretty sure there are some sources in the library that would point out that reducing prices (as a tax holiday would do) stimulates demand. Increasing demand for oil will only drive up prices more in the long run as well as increase rather than decrease American dependence on foreign oil. One of the senators thinks the lost government revenue would be made up by taxing oil companies. There are probably some good sources somewhere in the library that point out that businesses make profits by passing their overhead on to consumers. I think those people in Congress have their own librarians, but other devotees of the “gas tax holiday” need their own librarian, too, someone to help them find, analyze, and evaluate sources.

Al Gore talks about the problems of having political discourse governed by 30-second television ads and television newscasters spending the vast majority of their time giving us constantly updated coverage of the banal and insubstantial while not providing coverage of any political debate (I’m paraphrasing). I’ll have to take his word for it, because I quit watching television over 20 years ago. (I do sometimes watch some TV shows on DVD, but I’ve hardly watched a commercial television show or news broadcast during just about my entire adult life.) He rightly notes that the Internet, if it’s kept neutral, can be a great way to bring information to people, and much better than television because it’s an interactive and hot medium. To some extent that’s certainly true. Despite the ravings of Andrew Keen and Tara Brabazon, there is in fact a tremendous amount of thoughtful political analysis on the Internet if one ventures beyond the opinion pages of the newspapers.

However, we could get rid of television entirely, and that wouldn’t help the problem of irrational political discourse. For every thoughtful bit of policy analysis, there are thousands of stories about Britney Spears and the like. Pornography and celebrity news make up such a large and popular portion of the Internet because that’s what people like. Researching and reasoning about difficult issues that will have enormous impacts on their lives is much more difficult than looking at Britney flashing her pudenda to the paparazzi. With cringing trepidation, I just checked the Google entertainment news. The top story was something about Britney Spears, naturally. The second story was about somebody convicted of something to do with stalking Uma Thurman (okay, that one was a little more interesting because he was a U. of Chicago grad school dropout. I wonder if Regenstein drove him to it!). And the third story was on some celebrity engagement. I give the lead paragraph in full: “Following the news that Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds have gotten engaged, friends are speaking out to offer heartfelt congratulations on the pairs’ next step.” I found that sentence fascinating in a number of different ways that had little to do with its literal meaning, but still, it’s fluffy stuff, and very easy to digest mentally.

Gore argues that “the remedy for what ails our democracy is not simply better education (as important as that is) or civic education (as important as that can be), but the re-establishment of a genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way–a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response,” and that “the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework.” I agree, but I have a further suggestion. In addition, everyone needs a librarian to help them do research on important topics and learn how to analyze and evaluate the information they find, just like academic librarians do with students now. Some public librarians might argue that almost everyone does now in fact have a librarian, but fails to take advantage of this valuable resource. This just isn’t enough!

This should be done more the way we work with our writing program. Every class of twelve students is assigned a librarian, who teaches a bit about research and often meets individually with students. I propose everyone in the country be assigned a librarian, or perhaps every twelve persons. That’s the only way this thing’s going to work. The “Everyone Needs a Librarian” campaign assumes that what should be a prerequisite for engagement in democratic politics is in fact woefully lacking in this country, and proposes a solution to fix this problem. I think the ALA needs to get involved. The ALA has an Office of Intellectual Freedom. Perhaps they could also open an Office of Intellectual Rigor to address this issue. They could start on a committee. I’ll serve on it. Heck, I’ll even chair it.

Little Scope for Politics

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a recent article discussing the results of yet another study of why there aren’t many conservatives in academia. David Horowitz tours the country making the standard right-wing argument that leftist professors are indoctrinating students. The hard core ideological professors might be busily trying to indoctrinate their students. The other 99.9% of professors try to teach their students something about their subject. The students ignore the indoctrination attempts and the earnest attempts to teach, instead choosing to drink more beer and hook up more often. It’s a fun game where everyone gets what they want.

The debate over the politicization of academics has been hot at least since Tenured Radicals, which is the first book I read on the subject. This debate highlights one important difference between professors and academic librarians–that for librarians there’s little scope for politics. This is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. I like politics, at least in theory. I read a lot about politics. I teach a writing seminar focused on politics. I follow campaigns. I even have an opinion about the Democratic primaries, but I won’t share it with you. I think most of the conservative scare about students being indoctrinated is malarkey, and I doubt any of the hundred “most dangerous professors” that Horowitz names are at all dangerous. But in a previous life I encountered the zeal of the political prophets and I didn’t like what I saw.

Fifteen or so years ago I entered graduate school in English at the University of Illinois. Because the program was one of those grad student mills that put the bulk of the teaching labor on the graduate students… sorry, that’s too harsh. I mean because learning to teach two sections of rhetoric while taking a full course load is very important training for the life of the itinerant adjunct that seemed to be the future of so many of the graduates because so few of them got tenure track jobs (that’s more diplomatic, I think), everyone entering the program went through a week long teaching boot camp, led by upper-level graduate students. I remember very well how a considerable portion of the discussions during that boot camp concerned not how to teach writing but how much trouble we were all going to have overcoming the conservatism of our students with our radical politics. Basically, they were trying to help us indoctrinate the students with leftist politics. Instead of teaching writing, the goal of many of the grad students was to teach the undergraduates how wrong they were about politics and how right we all were. I was pretty far left myself, but something struck me as wrong about the whole enterprise. First of all, it doesn’t work. Second of all, it’s a betrayal of a higher ideal than politics. The university is the church of reason, not the church of partisanship.

Years later I was working in the writing clinic on campus while in library school, and I recall that during a staff meeting one of the lily-white, suburban-bred, writing studies grad students went on at length about how she used her rhetoric classes to to politicize her students and show them how the bad education they had received in inner city Chicago was the fault of an unjust system. She got no argument from anyone, including me, about the unjustness of the system. But mainly she wanted to teach them to be angry. I thought that was easier than teaching them to write. She also said she more or less spent the class validating their poor writing because it was an authentic expression of their culture and because they were such victims. Standard English, after all, is just the idiom of the oppressive elite. I’m sure they appreciated all this anger and validation when they tried to write job application letters after college.

It was always the grad students, never the professors. The silliness of this grad student culture was one of the reasons I left the English department. The quotidian practicality of library school was refreshing after such nonsense.

Teachers have an opportunity to politically indoctrinate students, even though only the worst ones ever try to do it. One of the nice things about being a librarian is that the job offers little scope for politics, which is why nobody cares much that librarians in general probably skew more left than professors. It just doesn’t come up. There are plenty of political issues regarding libraries, but ultimately library research is good or bad regardless of your politics. The radical historian and the reactionary historian might interpret the historical record differently, but their research shouldn’t be determined in advance by political concerns. Scholars are supposed to hold a standard of research and evidence that transcends their political views, which is why books like Bellesiles’ Arming America cause scandals.

An important part of the job of academic librarians is teaching research skills and helping students avoid the sort of pitfalls politicized “scholarship” can lead to. There’s very little difference between a professor deciding to misquote letters and make up statistics to support an argument about guns in America and a student who says, “I’m writing a paper on X and I need five sources that prove my thesis.” If students are making arguments we disagree with, we don’t refuse to help them. We don’t provide students with sources on only one side of an issue. We want students to explore a subject in depth and form conclusions based upon the evidence, which is what most teachers want.

Collection development offers some scope for political bias, and I suppose there are slipshod librarians who refuse to buy conservative books or subscribe to conservative journals because they don’t agree with them, just as in the past there were plenty of librarians who wouldn’t collect radical literature. If we’re true to our mission, however, we don’t refuse to collect material because of its political view, whatever that is. Academic standards of reason, truth, and evidence are more important than promoting our political views. The best scholarship transcends the partisan hack work that emanates from the right and left in this country, because it’s based on higher standards of truth and evidence. The best teachers don’t try to indoctrinate; they try to persuade based on the evidence. The best librarians help supply the evidence. And, after all, if we’re right, the evidence should demonstrate that.

American Rhetoric

As the fall semester approaches, I’ve been thinking more about political rhetoric. In my writing seminar, we mostly read political philosophy, but we also study rhetoric and analyze popular arguments as well. (My students last semester analyzed popular politics on the class blog, which I think is pretty good.)

Recently I came across the American Freedom Campaign, an effort by several groups to define “American” as including an opposition to torture or the suspension of habeas corpus. It’s hard to believe, but some powerful Americans seem to support these things. Not the American Freedom Campaign, though. Here, for example, is the “Freedom Pledge” they’d like you to sign:

“We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people’s phones and emails without a court order, and above all we do not give any President unchecked power.

I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from assault by any President.”

And they also say that, “under the pretense of the ‘war on terror,’ the White House is dismantling the Constitution, concentrating power in the President and undermining the rule of law. THIS IS UN-AMERICAN.”

In addition to its appeal on other grounds, it’s interesting for the way it plays with some traditional American political rhetoric. What is American? Is it everything that has happened in America? Or only the best parts of the American tradition? Or perhaps that which is unique to America?

Many people criticize America for its past slavery, for example, but slavery wasn’t unique to America. Creating a written Constitution that more or less enshrined classical liberal goals was unique, as was creating a country based on the ideas of liberty and freedom. (For a great book on the distinction between American “liberty” and “freedom,” read David Hackett Fischer’s outstanding book Liberty and Freedom. He uses liberty more in the sense of “freedom from” or what Isaiah Berlin would call “negative liberty” or Benjamin Constant would call the “freedom of the moderns,” while freedom is more like the civic republican notion of political participation and self-government, what Berlin might call “positive liberty” and Constant the “liberty of the ancients.” Fischer does a remarkable job of showing the power of these concepts in American history.)

So is the deplorable history of slavery and racism “American,” or instead are the ideas of freedom and political equality that inspired the founders and led to the eventual end of slavery more “American”? Can both be “American”? Only, I suppose, if “American” is taken in the least meaningful sense of “things that happened in America.” If “American” means those things unique to America, then the term becomes more meaningful, and not just politically. “American” then would include jazz and blues music, for example, but not racism or sexism, which are hardly confined to the United States.

There’s the old saying, “as American as mom and apple pie.” That’s just silly. I don’t know where apple pie originated, but I’m pretty sure there were mothers before the United States existed. But what could be more American than Robert Johnson, or Thelonious Monk, or Johnny Cash, or Wild Turkey, or the rule of law enshrined in a written constitution?

The American Freedom Campaign is plotting a different rhetorical course, though, one where “American” has a powerful political meaning, in this sense one of “a nation of laws.”

I think the American Freedom Campaign’s tactic is both more true and more useful than either a negative anti-Americanism or an overbroad definition of “American.” Defining “American” as whatever happened in America guts the term of any political usefulness, for the left or the right. Thinking of the history of America as the history of slavery, genocide, and oppression (as a friend of mine does) also reduces the power of the term “American.” American and Un-American could be politically powerful if used in effective ways. Reminding people that freedom, liberty, equality, and the rule of law are American, and their opposites un-American, can be persuasive in a way that hostile political rhetoric never can be.