Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The End of the World

With the approach of 2012, apocalyptic thoughts are in order, not just because of the passing of the old year but also because the next winter solstice will, according to some, bring the end of the world. Throughout history--at least throughout Western history--there has been no shortage of those who propound eschataological theories, and this matter of the Mayan calendar is simply the latest in a very long line which includes the Anglo-Saxon Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Joachim de Fiore, Karl Marx, and Oswald Spengler, to site some of the more impressive. (One might also name Al Gore, though perhaps he is not quite in Spengler's league.)

I recently came across a very different apocalyptic statement, one which took me quite by surprise because of the the way in which it differs not only from the more sensational predictions found here and there in our culture but also for the way in which its content differs from its title. The title is "A Song on the End of the World," and the whole is a poem by Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. It is found in his volume Ocalenie (Rescue--aptly named, since it was published in 1945), and it runs as follows:

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspouts young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy near the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightening and thunder
Are diasppointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

This poem struck me as a revelation and that for various reasons. First is the drama of the poem itself. On my first reading, I was pruriently drawn in by the title, hoping to find, if not some certain secret gnosis about the end of the world, then at least some information about the eschatological views of a poet I admire. But as one reads through the poem, hoping to find some portentious significance in the bee circling the clover or the yellow-sailed boat approaching the island, one feels growing disappointment and doubt. Both disappointment and doubt are confirmed at the beginning of the third section, in which the poet confesses that you will find no traditional apocalyptic here: in the poet's view, the end of the world consists only of ordinary things, though it is well to note that these ordinary occurrences are all of them suffused with a joy--explicitly in the case of the porpoises and young sparrows and infants being born, more implictly in the glimmering of the net which is growing better under the careful hand of the fisherman.

But the poet goes further still. The final section of the poem gives us a pointed assertion that the traditional accounts of the end of the world are wrong: the end of the world will not come as one grand, climactic event, though such events as the sack of Rome or WWI do indeed occur in human history. No, the summation of all history, the thing that in the end brings clarity and a sense of order to experience is nothing less than existence itself, which, according to the white-haired prophet at the end of the poem, is the most important thing itself. Those philosophical malcontents who wish to see the end of the present order because for them human history is a series of miserable failures better blotted from all consciousness desire a final accounting, in which they, the virtuous, will be recognized by all as having been right all along, while their foes will finally understand in a stunning epiphany that they have lived in darkness and error. For Miłosz, however, the point of human existence is apparently not a matter of meting out justice to the rest of mankind; human existence is something far more wonderful, something that surpasses the ability of any human intelligence to lay hold of, sum up in a phrase or a system, and thus possess (with self-satisfaction) more than can some rival thinker or actor upon this stage of life.

But the poem is not simply a debunking of an overly-dramatic reading of human history. It is also the most wonderful of affirmations. One might expect that a writer who had lived through the Nazi occupation of his beloved homeland and the subsequent invasion by the Soviet Union, one who had by the time he wrote this song expressed himself in an unforgettable poem on the slaughter of the Jews in Poland, one might expect such a writer to long for a final accounting that would bring to book all those perpetrators of titanic evil that flourished in Europe during the middle third of the twentieth century. Instead, however, he delivers a quiet, joyful affirmation of the most common and, dare one say, banal events.

Such an affirmation might well be a puzzle until one reflects again on the title. Our hunger for sensationalism blinds us to the other meaning of the eponymous phrase: "the end of the world," i.e., the purpose of the world, the reason for the world. Here the poet of Catholic sensibilities, one who perhaps heard less at Mass about the final moments in history when Christ will come back to judge the world than about the coming of Christ every day in the bread and wine, seems to point out that the world is indeed instinct at every moment with divine significance. Every event he describes, every happening is a celebration of something that is, a recognition that the Divine Existence has called all things into being and that they are good. In such a view, the myriad, countless beings now on earth and all their riot of vitality serve as evidence of the sheer goodness of God's creation. The purpose of the world, then, its end, is to hold brimful God's creation in all of its magnificent particularity.

In an introduction he wrote many years later to an anthology of poetry that he edited, Miłosz casts the same ideas in prose: "When W.H. Auden says that the poetry 'must praise all it can for being and happening,' he is expressing a theological belief. Affirmation of life has a long, distinguished past in Western thought. Thomas Aquinas' placing of an equal sign between God and pure being belongs here, as does the constant identification of evil with insufficiency of being, by means of which the Devil acts as the power of nothingness. Also in this history is the song of wonder at Nature conceived as the work of the Creator's hands, work which inspired countless painters and supplied a powerful impetus to scholars, at least in the first phase of victoriously ascendant science. 'The Metaphysical Sense of the Wondrousness of Being' means, above all, that contemplating a tree or a rock or a man, we suddenly comprehend that it is, even though it might not have been." ("Against Incomprehensible Poetry" in To Begin Where I Am.)

That calling attention to what is, says Miłosz, is one of the characteristics of good poetry. Homer, I think, would agree, for he is above all the poet of wonderfully specific physical detail, and so would Shakespeare. Anna Akhmatova, who like Miłosz suffered as a poet under a Communist regime, says in a famous line that poetry arises precisely from a jumble of trash. One man's trash, says the old apothegm, is another man's treasure, and thus what Akhmatova surely must mean is that poetry begins in specific experience. On this even the poets of classical China and Japan agree. This affirmation underwrites Miłosz's very fine "Song on the End of the World."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, ctd.

Still thinking about the passing of Christopher Hitchens (an obsession fueled in part by reading through so very many eulogies by so many different people), I recently came across the following paragraph in Czesław Miłosz' essay "Religion and Space," which seems apposite:

"I am not afraid to say that a devout and God-fearing man is superior as a human specimen to a restless mocker who is glad to style himself an 'intellectual,' proud of his cleverness in using ideas which he claims as his own though he acquired them in a pawnshop in exchange for simplicity of heart. Besides, it seems to me that we are born either pious or impious, and I would be glad were I able to number myself among the former. Piety has no need of definition--either it is there or it is not. It persists independently of the division of people into believers and atheists, an illusory division today, since faith is undermined by disbelief in faith, and disbelief by disbelief in itself. The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions--the bread on the table, the rough tree trunk which is, the depths of 'being' I can intuit in the letter opener lying in front of me, entirely steeped and established in its 'being.' My piety would shame me if it meant that I possessed something others did not. Mine, however, is a piety without a home; it survives the obsessive, annihilating image of universal disjointedness and, fortunately, allows me no safe superiority."

Well said (as always with Miłosz) and almost perfectly appropriate to the occasion.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the obituaries of Christopher Hitchens with which the press abounds today is the way in which they teem with moving and amusing details of a life fully lived. That certainly is the theme of Hitchens' (awkwardly titled) memoir of a couple of years ago, Hitch-22, a book that is nothing if not a contemporary celebration of Epicureanism--in the best sense of the term. On the more immediate, physical end of the Epicurean spectrum, there are the booze and the smokes, both of which seem to have been ever-present personal accessories. They were not, however, pure affectations, for Hitchens seemed to think them essential to the somewhat bohemian figure he cut among contemporary journalists, a throwback to the adventurer-writers of the early and middle twentieth century, towering figures like George Orwell (whom he adored) railing against oppressive tyrants at a time when people played for keeps. That the booze and cigarettes were both props and something more than props is clear in the photographs from Vanity Fair illustrating Hitchens' stint in the gym conducting research for a series he did on healthy living. The photos show him, cigarette and glass in hand, in a health club, in which he looks as much at home as he would at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in rural Mississippi.

But there is also a higher-end Epicureanism of which he was, once again, one of the principal exponents of our time. For Hitch-22 is also a testimony to friendship, and to the friendship of many of the foremost men of letters of the English-speaking world, such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan. (So enthusiastically does Hitchens testify to friendship that a number of his eulogists in the press today have hastened to point out that they, too, were among the number. Christopher Buckley, for instance, in his obituary on Hitchens for the New Yorker, writes in his usual self-serving way, making clear in his tribute that he knew Hitchens very well indeed.) Hitchens' memoir speaks also of the joys of reading, of writing the well-crafted sentence, of high polemical drama, and of fine conversation. This is indeed the stuff of the high-minded epicure, even as wine, women, and tobacco--all of which abound in Hitch-22--form the dreams of the garden-variety epicures of any time and place.

If Hitchens' life had simply been filled with fun and drama, however, he would have offered little more than entertainment, but like any good work of art, his life gave instruction as well as delight. His best--and defining--quality is his opposition to tyranny in any form, particularly political. His aversion to those who abused power marked him throughout his life, and it does much to explain his opposition to the Vietnam War (which he opposed in part because of the way the young draftees, mostly from the lower classes unable to purchase college deferments, were at the mercy of politicians who to all appearances were more interested in their careers than in the lives of the soldiers). Near the other end of his career, it explains his support for George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, since to him American involvement meant the end of a ruthless regime that capriciously, often for its own entertainment, brutally ended the lives of its citizens. And in his case, as in that of his hero Orwell, his firm belief in human freedom and equality proved stronger than his ties to party or his loyalty to any group. One of the most interesting sections of his memoir recounts his journey in 1968 to a Cuban work camp for international supporters of the Castro regime, an experience with which he quickly grew disillusioned when his minders refused to let him wander the country and see for himself how the revolution had remade society. His deepening suspicion of Castro's regime led him to speak out against it, though in the 1960s and early 1970s, support for Castro, as for Mao, was still a shibboleth of the radical left, with which Hitchens had long identified.

Indeed, his willingness to break with colleagues, to risk ostracism by the tribe, is another of his most admirable qualities. Perhaps the best portion of his memoir concerns the events surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. Because the novel is offensive to radical Islamic sensibilities, it earned Rushdie a fatwa from the Aaytollah Khomeni, who placed the author under a sentence of death. Then as now, left-wing artists and writers, those who prided themselves on their transgressive boldness in applauding such desecrations as gained Robert Mapplethorpe his fame in the 1990s, were cowed into silence when confronted with a religion that is willing to answer blasphemy with death. (Even Rushdie himself tried to placate the Islamofascists by issuing an essay in which he claimed that he was, in fact, a believing Muslim.) Hitchens alone stood up to such threats and urged the international community of writers to sign a petition of solidarity with Rushdie. As if to confirm (for the hundredth time) what Mario Vargas Llosa has said about los intellectuales barratos, those who talk a good game about their independence of thought but who can without difficulty be bullied or bought into silence, Hitchens was at first almost alone in this stand. Eventually he persuaded such as Susan Sontag to stand with him, but some, including Arthur Miller (whose Crucible, precisely about how terrible it is for a state to bully its citizens, is supposed to serve as a cautionary tale about the McCarthyism of the 1950s) proved very reluctant indeed. Eventually Hitchens rounded up enough signatories to make a credible show of opposition to Khomeni's censorship, but had it not been for his single-handed efforts, this chilling act of repression would have met no serious response anywhere in the Western world.

Toward the end of his life, Hitchens gained a deal of notoriety for his atheism, which is surely his least attractive quality, though it is in a way related to those traits that made him so admirable. Hitchens was no great philosophical thinker; the stands he took usually issued from the viscera, which is perhaps why he could be so passionately devoted to his causes. Such an m.o. works very well indeed when the topic at hand is the oppression of women under sharia law; it works less well when the topic is the existence of God, a question that has summoned some of the subtlest and most profound philosophical thought in the history of the West. Hitchens was a thorough-going atheist, and as a philosophical matter, atheism is simply untenable. At the very most, a person committed only to the merest logical consideration of the question can be an agnostic, because just as one cannot prove God's existence through logic, so neither can one disprove His existence, either. One can only go so far as to raise serious objections to the arguments for the existence of God, but calling into question His existence does not by any means prove conclusively that He doesn't exist. When Aquinas asserts that the universe must have a creator since everything we see has a cause, one can indeed respond with, "Then who made God?" But this problem with Aquinas' argument does not mean that God does not exist; and to anyone confidently asserting that He is not, one can always ask with Pascal, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" To this question the atheist has no response, nor can he ever have, and thus his confidence that God does not exist is a confidence based on nothing at all. For this reason, Hitchens' insouciance about the matter, though it was of a piece with his more attractive political convictions, was ultimately annoying because he uttered with such conviction assertions about which if he was certain then he was wrong. His commitment in the matter led him at times to foolish extremes, as when, having to defend in debate with Dinesh D'Souza the position that religion poisons everything, he explained away the horrors of the atheist regimes by using the utter sophism that Naziism and Communism were deeply religious at their core. Much better to have conceded uncertainty on the big question and not therefore have felt himself required to utter nonsense on the subsidiary points.

Had he done so, however, had he been more philosophically modest, he would not have been Hitch, the embodiment of common sense, whose instinctive understanding of right and wrong endowed his commitments not only with wit but with a strong emotional force. That emotional force, which runs throughout a rich and colorful life, animated his politics for good and his metaphysics for ill. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Debate Tonight

Newt Gingrich I think took on water tonight as a result of the strong attacks on him from all sides because of his lobbying for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. His explanations were sophistic, and the attackers were able to speak much more clearly than he on the matter.

I think that Newt Gingrich has floated an interesting idea about how to rein in the courts. He certainly gave a very strong answer to Megyn Kelly's skeptical question by citing the precedent of Thomas Jefferson firing eighteen federal judges. I think that Michelle Bachmann showed her stature by not attacking Gingrich on this matter simply in order to gain attention. I think too that Romney's answer was weak: unless I misheard, he indicated that Congess is not supposed to oversee the judicial branch. (One possible alternative response to Gingrich might have been that the best answer to the problem is not so radically to interfere with the courts but to nominate--and fight tooth and nail for the confirmation of--wise judges.) Ron Paul's assertion that all the justices on the Supreme Court are good and bad is a bit childish. In what serious sense is Justice Thomas bad; in what legal sense at all is Justice Ginsburg good? Kudos to Megyn Kelly, however, for posing questions on such an important matter.

Ron Paul is now arguing that there is no evidence that Iran is soon to get a nuclear weapon. He may be right, but he might be wrong. "I would say the greatest danger is that we would overreact," he just said, but isn't the greater danger that Iran will get a nuclear weapon? Just now Paul has paraphrased the CIA as saying that radical Muslims come here and want to harm us because we are bombing them. Really? 9-11 occurred because we were bombing the Muslim world? Incidentally, I am glad that Bachmann cited the IAEA report that asserts Iran is about to gain a nuclear weapon and that Paul flatly disputed her point. We should know tomorrow who was correct.

I'm not sure I understand what Rick Santorum's purpose is in this campaign. Michelle Bachmann represents the solid conservative position more ably and attractively than does he; all he does is split that vote, which otherwise would be showing more strongly than it is at the moment.
If it were to show more strongly, it would gain more media attention and might grow stronger still.

Great answer by Gingrich on the matter of the Keystone pipeline and the way in which the current Administration is tied in knots in ways which hurt the nation because of his reelection campaign. Michelle Bachmann made the same point with less dramatic language.

On the whole, I think that Gingrich did well tonight, and I think that Paul did himself no favors. I am also glad that Michelle Bachmann did well. TMH still supports her for President. She may not have a prayer, but more than any other candidate she speaks clearly consistently.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wealth and Children

In 2010 27.4% of the US population was under the age of 20; the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on August 3 that only 16.5% of the population of Germany is under the age of 18. That's a staggering difference which demonstrates once again how difficult it is to establish permanent economic guarantees in any society. Particularly in the American system, in which we never actually have cash in a program like Social Security but simply pay current retirement benefits with the cash coming in from workers' salaries at the moment, we require enough workers at any given time to pay for the retirees currently receiving benefits. Without setting up individual accounts, in which my money, which I pay into the system, remains untouched by anyone else and unused until I retire, the entire system is at the mercy of demographics. I.e., the fewer babies we have, the more expensive a program like Social Security gradually becomes. In a socialized system, everything depends on demographics, which makes it doubly odd that the left is generally for expanded social programs and smaller population growth. These two principles are completely inconsistent.

The fact that our future economic health also relies on the number of babies we have reminds us that social engineering can never insulate us from simple biology. Nature will always win out in the end. While we can insulate ourselves from it to some degree by air-conditioning, heating, artificial light, antibiotics, and shark nets at the beach, we cannot ultimately engineer the untouchable, self-sustaining economic safety net, a perfect machine that we can wind up and then leave to run smoothly while we amuse ourselves with other matters. Just as our very fine Consitutional republic also requires the cultivation of sacrificial virtue in order to function properly, so also our economic safety net demands the sometimes difficult sacrifices of having children in order to ensure a more secure future for the nation and the individuals in it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Proposition 26

Next week brings election day to Mississippi, and we at TMH are delighted that his Excellency Joseph Latino, the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Jackson, is finally stamping the Catholic perspective on the politics of a state that has for too long ignored the powerful moral teaching of one of the world's great institutions. In particular, Bishop Latino has taken a very courageous stand on Proposition 26, the proposed human life amendment to Mississippi Constitution. The proposed amendment would define life as beginning at conception and would therefore outlaw abortion in Mississippi at any stage. While most of the Christian rubes and rednecks in Mississippi have taken the predictable, pedestrian position that Christians should support the initiative, Bishop Latino has taken a surprising and principled stand against proposal. In so doing, he has done a truly marvelous thing.

First, and most important, he has instructed the state and the watching world how effective truly clear thinking is when one confronts difficult moral questions. The Catholic Church possesses a legacy of careful and incisive moral thinking unparalleled in philosophical history, and his Excellency has drawn upon it extensively to show exactly why the Catholic Church in Mississippi opposes this proposed amendment. Although the proposal would end abortions in Mississippi, his Excellency reasons that we should not support such a bill in Mississippi until that bill is likely to become law throughout the nation. In so doing, he has not only stood firmly for the lives of the unborn in Mississippi, but he has provided a valuable lesson in political strategy. Since his reason for opposing the bill is that it is not national in scope, he has shown us that we really ought never to act unilaterally in Mississippi. If, for instance, Gov. Barbour wishes to move forward on using state funds to help businesses hire and train unemployed workers, we now strongly oppose that effort because it is not a nationwide initiative. For the same reason, we now understand fully that we should oppose the new legislation on school bus safety, since the law would affect only Mississippi and not the United States generally. Indeed, since we have a budget shortfall, we could follow the logical implications of Bishop Latino's reasoning to very good financial effect: we could abolish the entire committee structure of the State Legislature and simply have the legislators vote to enact any law for the State of Mississippi that is passed by the U.S. Congress. And of course state legislators would need only to vote yes on any of these questions, since to vote no would be in effect to vote a difference between the law in Mississippi and the laws of the nation--something expressly forbidden by the implications of the Bishop's carefully considered statement. All of the money thus saved by severely curtailing the activity of the Legislature could be used to help the poor in our fair state, provided of course we did so in ways authorized by national legislation.

The implications of the Bishop's far-sighted edict reach further still. If we as Mississippians should enact only national legislation, then we would save enormous psychic and physical energy. Think of all the annoying newspaper editorials, guilty of raping so many Mississippi forests to produce newsprint on which to express controversy, that would now disappear. All the local radio shows, so concerned with controversies of state politics, could be replaced with shows on gardening, kite flying, and other specialized hobbies. The benefits would be manifold, perhaps the greatest of which would be the removal of disagreement and argument from the airways and public spaces. Mississippi would become the Uncontroversial State, and retirees would flock to our shores to live their golden years in one unbroken stretch of peace after a lifetime spent in the tug and push of the real world where not everyone agrees.

By making the statement that he did, Bishop Latino also assures a greater stature for the Catholic Church in Mississippi, a state in which the Church has for too long had a minority voice unheeded by the majority of citizens. By making common cause with such groups as the ACLU and the Obama Justice Department, the Church will become much more highly respected by the majority of Christians in the state. Although some Southern Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Independent Methodists, Southern Methodists, Presbyterians, members of the Church of Christ or Church of God, Holiness and Pentecostals will find it odd that the Bishop opposes an initiative protecting the life of the unborn, they will do so only because of their general lack of education. If evangelical Christians are too stupid to recognize the boldness of standing strong for nuance then they are beyond any hope of political enlightenment. In drawing upon the rich Western heritage of casuistry, the Bishop has given new life to all the old connotations of Jesuitical thinking and shown how much more important technical abstractions are than practical politics aimed at preserving human life.

No, in supporting with such clear and principled political reasoning his position on the sanctity of human life, Bishop Latino has shown us the way forward. We are never prouder to be Catholic than when we hear on the radio the heretofore rather unappealing liberal voices laced with all the postmodern sarcasm that the enlightened can muster as they condescend to explain to the awkward hayseeds throughout the state that even the Diocese of Jackson joins them in opposing this method of protecting human life. And the smugness is pleasantly contagious. When our neighbors shake their head in puzzlement at why a Church so strongly pro-life in word as the Catholic Church can oppose Proposition 26, we can now look down upon them ourselves and savor for a brief moment our consciousness of intellectual superiority. And in the next moment we can savor the further delight of explaining to them exactly why his Excellency has taken the courageous stand that he has. Although no one has yet actually understood when we offer that explanation, we are certain that their incomprehension is due entirely to their obdurate ignorance. Any truly educated equivocator will see immediately the self-evident justice of the Catholic position.

In telling us that we must not act unilaterally, his Excellency finally relieves of us a great psychic burden. For some, it is embarrassing that Mississippi should always be last: last in health, last in education, last in per capita income. By arguing so eloquently and so well that Mississippi should enact only national initiatives, the good Bishop persuades us that Mississippi should never strive to improve herself when she might be working to improve the nation. In so doing he makes us all, in one keystroke, feel better about ourselves. No need to work to make Mississippi safer than the nation generally when it comes to human life. Better to stay home on election day (which promises to be cold after all and who knows maybe rainy as well) and watch The X Factor on demand. The unborn will take care of themselves, and by following the first-rate moral guidance of the Diocese of Jackson, the Catholic Church in Mississippi will take very good care of itself now and in the future.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Another friend sends me a link late today to yet another story--this time in First Things, R.R. Reno's review of Naomi Schaeffer Riley's book The Faculty Lounges. The delightful pun in the title, which reminds me of a former colleague who to all appearances did nothing all day but wander from office to office with a mug of coffee in hand, seems to be the best thing about the book. Apparently Riley has produced another volume in what has by now become an almost venerable genre--the conservative attack on tenure. The instinct is understandable, for who does not lament the fact that virtually the entire system of American education, from elementary through graduate school, is in the hands of left-wing teachers? This system produces liberal students in schools of journalism, education, and liberal arts all across the country, who upon graduation spend years proselytizing for the left-wing cause until, in due course, they learn through experience that life is not at all the utopian concern they were taught it is and they begin on the way of wisdom to unlearn the teaching of the colleges.

That, as I say, is a huge problem. Would Barack Obama ever have made it to the White House with an electorate that had been educated in high school and college about the differences between Carter and Reagan? And yet, despite the damage that a bad system of education can multiply throughout society, tenure is not the root of the evil, nor is its abolition the solution.

One notes, for example, that while telling us that Riley explains well how tenure ensures conformity, the paragraph in which Reno summarizes Riley's explanation doesn't really explain anything at all: "Far from securing a free and open academic culture, tenure can have the opposite effect. Riley does an especially good job showing how tenure constricts rather than expands the intellectual diversity of most college campuses. Colleges and universities want to give jobs and tenure only to qualified applicants—and qualified applicants are those who think the same way as the already tenured professors on the tenure review committees." To some extent, this is true, as the case at the University of Kentucky showed last year, when a qualified professor was not hired to teach astronomy precisely because, as emails from the search committee revealed, they feared his Christianity. But it is unclear how precisely tenure causes this problem. The difficulty lies in the fact of the bias of those who hire. A left-wing system of education will produce a left-wing faculty, who will tend to hire clones of themselves. Whether or not those who hire have tenure will make little difference.

One suspects that the conservative opposition to tenure is two-fold. First, the university faculties really are singularly left-leaning institutions in the context of a generally conservative society. Since these faculty also enjoy the singular privilege of tenure, it seems logical that the tenure must be the root of the liberalism. But tenure is not necessarily the cause of the liberalism: if it is, the critics of tenure ought to provide a more convincing explanation for how the one causes the other. Second, conservatives, who tend to value the free market as a model for most human endeavor, are understandably suspicious of a system which, after a period of probation, provides a sinecure for whoever is lucky enough to receive one. That universities ought to be run as free-market enterprises, however, is far from certain. In their old traditional form, when they laid the groundwork for the magnificent tradition in the humanities, universities were grossly inefficient in economic terms. College faculties were assembled to teach a handful of matriculating students, an an entire Oxford College--All Souls--existed (and still does) purely for research, not educating any students at all. However, if one contrasts that inefficient system with the for-profit institutions of today or the general tendency of third-tier and regional universities to be run like businesses, one will find that the former system, which lavishes great expense on the relationship between teacher and student actually produced something worth having--a system that gave us a canon of great works of literature that nourish the human soul and the means for any curious mind to study those works through a body of helpful scholarship that guided the student through such works as docents through a museum. The current system is in danger of cranking the greatest number of warm bodies through the smallest number of classes to ensure that they produce the largest possible body of tuition-paying students, who are ensured of graduation so that they can one day contribute alumni dollars to administrations that are fat, happy, and completely in charge of the budget bag.

If we want universities that actually educate students, we will indeed need serious reform. But that reform should begin with administrations, which ought to be even more bothersome to conservatives than tenured faculty. University administrations continue to drive up the costs of education by providing ever greater salaries for themselves and their rapidly-growing armies of support staff, who make their jobs ever easier as they gain an ever-larger slice of the university finances. And since they are largely the ones who allocate those finances, they embody corruption. It is they, whose numbers since the late 1970s have been increasing rapidly, who drive up the cost of education, not professors, whose numbers and salaries have remained relatively flat over the same period of time. At the university where I teach, the only thing that stands in the way of the administration's turning the institution into another business on the order of Best Buy or the local Toyota dealership is a tenured faculty which can sometimes act as a conscience for the school and through opposition shame the administration into abandoning some of its most cynically self-interested initiatives.

Although conservatives often describe tenure as existing primarily to protect the controversial speech of some professors, such I think is not its primary purpose. Going back to the beginning of Western society is the idea that human beings can live two types of life--the active and the contemplative. This is in part what lies at the heart of Achilles' great choice in the Iliad, and it is the point of the Gospel pericope about Mary and Martha. Some do while others teach, and both action and contemplation are necessary for society to flourish. In part this realization is an example of the old medieval argument about whether knowledge or action is supreme: the answer is that the world needs both. Action without knowledge is dangerous, says Confucius, while knowledge without action is useless. Society needs librarians and researchers. We need the contemplative Einstein, Gödel, and Turing, as we also need the active Ford, Edison, and the brothers Wright. Those without tenure have the compensation of being free, if they work hard enough, to grow very wealthy indeed; those with tenure will never grow wealthy, but they will have the security they need to study, think, educate themselves in the sometimes impractical knowledge that in the end makes them better teachers. To use one's tenure, for example, to acquire a range of languages, which permits reading a rich variety of untranslated texts, makes one a better teacher than he would be if he had been forced by lack of tenure into the greater productivity of writing articles and books that would do neither him, nor other teachers, nor his students any good. Such studies deepen a mind to which any students who wish can have access: such access enriches their life and helps them approach the richness of culture that is one of the chief ends of a liberal education. A professoriate without tenure constantly worried about productivity on someone else's timetable will not be able to serve as such a guide.

One can respond, of course, that such a professoriate is rare these days, when more and more faculty members work themselves into ever narrower niches of bizarre specialization that end up as parodies of scholarship. But denying tenure to the few traditional scholars who occupy the universities will not solve this problem. We do indeed need a way to achieve greater diversity of opinion on college faculties, but leaving all professors without protection at the mercy of self-serving administrations will only make matters worse. Whatever the ultimate solutions to this problem, ending tenure will not in the end help anyone--except administrators.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rationalism and Peace

A friend sent me yesterday a link to the current issue of Nature, in which the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker presents the central argument of his new book--that violence has declined over the last decades (or centuries) because human beings fall ever more under the sway of reason, and reason teaches us that we should not be as casually violent as we were throughout much of human history. Although Pinker has a large reputation as a philosopher of mind and language, his thesis, at least as presented in the short space of this article, is not at all persuasive. Why it should have received the honor of a guest opinion prominently displayed in one of the nation's premier journals of science is beyond me, except that the man is one of those growing number of celebrity intellectuals, like Stanley Fish, Richard Dawkins, and others, who have stepped out of the lecture hall in order to address an audience much larger than those who ordinarily listen to them because of a shared interest in a narrow field or because of the requirements of their college curriculum. (That the present writer is also an academic scribbling just now for a general audience is by no means the same thing: the present author is neither a celebrity nor, judging from the number of hits on this blog, is his audience quite general.) Their status, however, as celebrities in one field does not make them experts in another, and therefore they ought not to command special attention simply because of who they are. For a person to be accorded that type of respect, he must have a much larger reputation for wisdom generally. I am prepared to listen with rapt attention to Jesus, Socrates, and Confucius because their words are true, and their words are true because of who they are. Our current crop of celebrity intellectuals aren't anywhere near that league, so we ought to be as skeptical of them as we are of anyone who addresses general topics on life and humanity. One suspects that the real reason Pinker gets so much space in such prestigious places is that he sells. Maybe having him inside the pages of Science expounding on history and human nature is perhaps a little like having Elle McPherson on the cover of Glamour. They both sell copy.

Pinker begins with an a claim that produces almost as much astonishment as his byline: that the twentieth century was not the bloodiest period in human history. The assertion must be astonishing to command our attention--if he simply says the uncontroversial thing, then no one will read him. On the other hand, the truly controversial statement about matters so well studied as the twentieth century or historical atrocity is likely to be wrong precisely because with so much knowledge generally accepted about these topics, telling us something explosive about them is more interesting than enlightening. The truly astounding thing to say about the shape of the earth--as Tom Friedman has shown, if only rhetorically--is that it is flat. In these matters one gets no points for originality if one merely states the truth. So the problem with his opening is that in any significant sense it is untrue. After grabbing our attention with the flashy headline, Pinker begins, as he must, to backpedal: he means, it turns out, that the twentieth century was not the bloodiest if we look per capita--other centuries, in which human population was much smaller, were perhaps as, if not more, bloody. But this is a trivial point. When historians speak of the twentieth century as the bloodiest in history, they have in mind the industrial-strength genocide of Nazi Germany or Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, the willed starvation of the Ukraine in the 1930s or the millions who died in Mao's China. The fact that at the time of these enterprises the population of the world happened to be much larger than it had been at the time of the Antonines is meaningless--a mathematician's point (or debater's trick), not a substantive revaluation that changes the character of the age. Pinker himself seems to forget this point later in the essay when he says "Indeed, because morality furnishes people with motives for violent acts that bring them no tangible benefit, it is more often the problem than the solution. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of rough justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and the eggs broken in genocides to make utopian omelettes, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest." What he seems to describe here when he needs a club with which to beat true believers seems precisely (as the reference to Lenin's metaphor makes clear) to be a description of the twentieth century. He also makes the rather smug point that because the second half of the twentieth century has been relatively peaceful, but this is also beside the point. When a historian calls the twentieth century the bloodiest in history, he does not by "century" mean the years 1900 (or 1901, if one wishes to be as precise as Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower) to 1999; rather he means precisely that very nightmare time of phantasmagoric brutality from about 1915 until 1945--rather as a scholar in English literature defines "the Seventeenth Century" as the period from 1603 until 1660.

The more serious flaw with Pinker's argument, however, lies in his double assertion that the world becomes more reasonable over time and that such reason is responsible for a general decline in violence in the contemporary world. To make the latter assertion, of course, Pinker has to ignore or explain away the inconvenient history of twentieth century (i.e., as defined above), which stands as an unanswerable counterargument to his thesis--hence his eccentric musings on twentieth-century history. But even if we granted his claim that the world grows more reasonable over time, it by no means follows that that reasonableness produces peace. It has, for example, haunted George Steiner for all his career that perhaps the best educated society in all of history--Germany of the early twentieth century--could have furnished us with the one of the most grotesquely violent regimes ever seen. The paradox is there, and if an explanation is to be had, it will require thinking of a deeper level, as Theodor Adorno or Paul Celan indicate, than Pinker's implication that comparatively speaking Nazi Germany wasn't so bad. Indeed, if this is what Pinker is asserting, then he reminds one of nothing so much as the naive optimists of the full flush of the Enlightenment, who were certain that human reason would bring about universal brotherhood and tranquillity, a belief finally shattered by the mindless and unproductive violence of World War I.

And there is, finally, the highly problematic thesis that human beings are indeed growing more enlightened over time. Pinker adduces interesting evidence from IQ tests taken over the course of (once again!) the twentieth century. But this is again to confuse matters. What Pinker discusses is raw intelligence, but it is precisely something along the lines of emotional intelligence, or empathy (a category which, to fair, Pinker discusses) that produces the type of peaceful society that Pinker believes he finds slowly materializing around us. But there is little evidence that such a trait of character is increasing over time. Homer for example wrote almost 3,000 years ago with plaintive eloquence of the senselessness of violence--what is the Iliad but a meditation on precisely that theme? And while Homer was a singular genius, his singularity consisted not in his message, which after all has found a very receptive audience through the ages, but in his ability to compose great poetry. What's more, Homer--and his first, responsive audience lived not in a period of civilization, to which Pinker attributes the rise of an enlightened world view, but in a period of barbarism and violence--seems near the beginning of recorded history to arrive at the type of vision that Pinker implies is a product of modern society. Throughout time, we have had those few who espouse the concern with others lauded by Pinker and those many who do not. It is man's constant nature to be complex, driven primarily not by reason but by passion but to have as examples those who exemplify the possibility that man can live the life of higher reason. This is why the young Jonathan Swift could while a student at Trinity College mark through the definition given in his logic textbook of man as "animal rationale" and substitute his own description of humanity: "animal capax rationis." Moreover, it was a mature Jonathan Swift who shows us in the final part of Gulliver's Travels the problems with a life lived purely according to reason: Houyhnhnmland is so reasonable, so entirely devoid of those Burkean ties of tradition and affection, that for all their peaceful reasonableness, it is a cold and bloodless place perhaps not very far from the totalitarian Utopias that in the past have produced so much misery for so many.

Perhaps the main problem is that Pinker confuses intelligence with enlightenment. Raw intelligence is good for helping to produce the comforts of the technological world we inhabit, but it can be misdirected and is therefore a dangerous substitute for enlightenment. Enlightenment in its truest sense is a type of love--a concern for others deep enough that one respects their freedom as human beings made in the image of God. Such enlightenment does not come easily--certainly it is no mere adornment of nature. It is won by a solid education in the great works of the past, pursued in humility, with an eye toward what we can learn about human nature (for good and ill). Perhaps most of all such an education leaves one impervious to all the various determinisms that would render us less than human by trying to convince us that gender, evolution, economics, biochemistry, society, or the forces of history determine our nature and destiny. Pinker is a good man but ultimately another in a long line of self-regarding thinkers who redefine human nature downward. The easiest thing in the world is to succumb to the spirit of the age and swallow Pinker's nostrum. It is much harder to do the human thing--to subject his thesis to a rigorous analysis made possible by a broadly humanist education and then freely to accept or reject what he says, swayed not by who he is but by whether what he says is true.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Death of Jobs

Sometimes life is an allegory. If Plato and all his fellow idealists are right, life is always exactly that, but sometimes no matter how skeptical you are, life seems transparently scripted in certain ironic moments almost to shout at us the meanings behind the events we experience. Such is the case with the death of Steve Jobs, which made the nation sadder yesterday. I will say little about his passing itself, since so many others more qualified to speak about the man and his achievements have already eulogized him so eloquently and so well. But even I, technologically challenged as I am, have enough experience with the Macintosh computer, the iPod, and now the iPad to lament the passing of one who has revolutionized technology and the way virtually all humans experience it--as well as to lament all the innovations that he would have made had he been granted another few decades among us.

No, what I wish to discuss even more is one of meanings of his passing at just this moment. Surely Jobs' death is ironic since it comes at a time when we are beginning to see the results of our President's socialist vision of spreading the wealth and, instead of encouraging a society that produces, satisfies itself with spending the capital that other generations have created. In the 1970s, when Apple was getting off the ground, Jobs was producing during the day what he had dreamed at night in part because he worked in a field in which government was absent. He did not have to worry about regulations, about government making decisions which he himself could make much better on his own. He was free to create, free to fail, and therefore free also to do everything in his power to ensure that he succeeded. And succeed he did by creating products that people wanted, that met their needs, and that vastly multiplied human freedom by serving as tools that allowed users to unleash their creativity.

Now, however, we inhabit a different world. Candidate Obama promised fundamentally to transform American society, and unfortunately that means changing even what is good about America, like the freedom that Jobs enjoyed to transform America in a far less authoritarian way. No, the President's transformation entails using the power of government to deprive people of choice as ever-increasing regulation tells us what to do and what not to do--in short, as regulation makes those decisions for us that constitute our freedom as human beings and allow us to capitalize on that freedom to create the goods such as those that Steve Jobs did at Apple. While some worry about technology impairing humanity, it might be fairer to say that the greater perennial threat to human nature is expansion of government beyond Constitutional limits. If the great stream of Western philosophy is correct in teaching that the essence of humanity is freedom, then a government that renders us less free by coercing ever more of our behavior and making ever more of our decisions for us poses a very real threat to the freedom that defines us as human beings.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that as government grows, jobs die. It is more than simply a pun to point out that the current lesson of the growth of government killing jobs comes at a time when Steve Jobs died, that great symbol of innovation and economic freedom that has made life so much better for so many people. And he did so with no force other than persuasive power. If you wanted his products, you bought them; if you didn't, you didn't. But that's the way Jobs was--freedom for himself and freedom for you. President Obama, however, has a different vision. For the promise of more government largesse, he asserts that government is the solution of all problems. In his view, government must grow, and therefore it must intrude ever further into your life and mine, taking ever more of our fundamental humanity as it makes ever more of the decisions that define the essence of our humanity.

Steve Jobs will live on in the innovations produced by his vision, his freedom, and his choices. And when the United States eventually replaces President Obama's statist vision with one that again treats us all like adults capable of making our own ways in the world, the jobs--as represented by Steve Jobs--will once again return and allow us all to live the lives we choose.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

An Exemplary Life

The coming of fall--and it has come in the most delicious way to us: deep blue skies, cool temperatures, brilliant sunlight etching deep shadows, and a fresh breeze--the coming of fall always puts one in a wistful mood. In addition to bringing harvest, it brings longer nights and therefore, if one turns off the television, it brings reflection, in part on times past and people we have known.

One of the best I have known is now gone--he passed away last year at 89 after a long life, full for the most part of adventure and more recently of a quiet retirement. His name was Arthur Lewis, an Englishman born in Cheshire and raised near Solihull. I do not know where he attended school, but he made his way to Oxford, where he eventually earned his M.A. He was ordained a priest in the Church of England and went almost immediately to Africa, where he served happily as a missionary. In his first decade, he worked in Zanzibar and Tanganyika, then German colonies, but he lived in the great period of decolonization, as one nation after another another all over Africa declared independence and, sometimes bloodily, less often peacefully, established existence by severing ties to the European powers that had carved up the continent a hundred years before in what historians call the scramble for Africa.

As the countries in which he served declared independence and then more often than not established Marxist regimes generally hostile to European settlers, he moved south, eventually landing in Rhodesia, where he worked happily for many years. He was devoted to the people he evangelized and spoke in enchanted terms of their goodness of heart and of the beauty of the countryside near his mission of St Peter in the Honde Valley and later Inyanga, where he served from the late 1960s. He never took the condescending attitude of some of the white settlers in Rhodesia--he respected the natives, particularly those who dealt honestly with the white farmers, who, it must be admitted, brought a great deal of stability and prosperity to south-central Africa in the years following the Second World War. In the years after UDI--the Unilateral Declaration of Independence pronounced by Rhodesia in order to dissolve its ties with an England that looked too eager to decolonize Rhodesia and therefore withdraw any protection for the white settlers--Fr Lewis eventually became a senator in the Rhodesian parliament. It would be easy to criticize him as a racist who took part in the government of Ian Smith, but if others were, he was not. His was a moderate position: he worked for justice and equality for the black Africans while trying to ensure security for the white Africans who had farmed that fertile land so well.

In the end, there was no place for his moderate views in Sub-Saharan Africa of the 1970s and '80s. Caught between the left--which consisted of power-hungry natives who played upon Western white guilt in order to establish their own personal kleptocracies and Westerners who burnished their progressive credentials by supporting such regimes because they were run by black Africans--and a right that feared dispossession and used violence to preserve its status, people like Fr Lewis were prophets who went laregely unheeded by those they came to warn. As the 70s became the 80s and Rhodesia became first Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe, "conditions on the ground," as they say, began to deteriorate--first for the whites, as Mugabe gained power, and then finally for everyone, as it became clear that he was consolidating his power far beyond the mandate of the Constitution. It saddened Fr Lewis to leave in such circumstances, but after an adult life working in Africa, he returned to England by way of South Africa, where he and Gladys, his beloved wife of many years, retired. They eventually came to stay at a retirement home for Anglican clergy, St Barnabas' near Solihull, not very far from the home of their son Anthony, who regularly visited them.

I came to know him in the mid-70s, when, because of his friendship with my father, he would visit our home in South Carolina, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of other Rhodesians, always engaged in traveling the United States in order to spread news of what was actually happening in his part of the world. He was convinced that if only Americans could learn the truth of the situation--that the civil war in Rhodesia was in fact not a struggle of white against black, as claimed by the liberal Western media, but an integral part of the Cold War struggle of freedom against Communism--then America would end the crippling sanctions and allow Rhodesia to survive and evolve into a model nation in which white and black could share power and live peacefully together.

But he was an idealist, though an idealist of the best kind--a large-hearted, good-natured man of God, who genuinely loved Africa and those who lived there. He had thought that good work would be rewarded, and that the Rhodesia he imagined and worked for could come to exist because it would have been such a good and peaceful place, but he did not reckon on the heart of darkness--on the ambitions of such as Robert Mugabe, who, like all tyrants, was willing to destroy his nation and the lives of countless people who lived there in order to fulfill his will to power. Indeed, Fr Lewis must have come late in life to realize the limitations of his idealistic view, for he wrote a book, privately published, in which he recounts his adventures in Africa and the sadness he felt over the violent loss of the world in which he worked. He called the book Too Bright the Vision? a title that seems to capture both his optimism and his disillusion at its passing. It is a wonderful book, good natured and, in places, lyrical, as it bears witness both to a life of adventure and of idealistic integrity. Indeed, he was a fine writer, who produced a newsletter that he wrote single-handedly trying to spread the news of his organization, the Rhodesia Christian Group. Alas, the final number came last year; it was written not by Fr Lewis but by his children, and it recounted how he himself had died, not long after his heart was broken by the death of his wife.

I will forever remember a man who came to have a large influence on my life. He was the first liturgical Christian whom I knew; I remember being fascinated by his regular practice of saying morning and evening prayer by himself in his room when he stayed with us. On his last trip, I occasionally joined him. We also would take long walks together, on which he would challenge my thinking: it perhaps meant little enough to him, but for a young person cutting his intellectual teeth, his mild correction of my assertion that a particular dog we encountered was mean came as something of a revelation. It forced me to think about the differences of humans and animals and set me on the long road to the traditional idea of the differences between animalia and the Aristotelian animalis rationale (to say nothing of Swift's animalis capax rationis suggested by the attitude of the West to Fr Lewis' adopted homeland of Rhodesia). He regaled me with stories of his undergraduate days at Oxford, where he had as professors in the English course both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He was in the small group of students to whom Lewis read the draft of The Problem of Pain, and he recounted to me an anecdote of C.S. Lewis on the platform at Oxford awaiting a train to London that has been collected in none of the biographies, since he was the only witness of the event.

More than such insights and more than any sense he imparted to me of having a privileged childhood because it contained first-hand contact with people of such caliber, knowing Fr Lewis taught me that my own father was not the only person in this world with unsullied integrity. There are any number of people who walk among us as examples. They have high ideals, and unlike too many, they live by them, even if it costs them--socially, professionally, financially. Those who as the cliche puts it go along to get along have their reward of a dull life lived in security. But they will always seem rather shabby by contrast to those who genuinely live the high ideals they profess. Such a one was Fr Arthur Lewis, who was something of a latter-day Quixote. He did not indeed go about the world like Cervantes's knight with a Rueful Countenance, but he preached and taught with joy, and his life well lived points to a spirit that took delight in this world and inspiration from the world beyond.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Debate Tonight

On the whole, all the candidates--with the possible exception of Gov. Perry getting tangled in the syntax of attacking the two Gov. Romneys or talking about "mating Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain"--even Rep. Paul, did very well. Newt Gingrich did particularly well; Rep. Bachmann also did very well, for the small amount of time she was able to speak. I herewith announce the formation of the Bachmann Equal Time Association. Anyone who cares to join BETA may consider his initiation the sending of an email to Fox News requesting that Michelle Bachmann receive the same amount of time as, say, Gary Johnson. For crying out loud, let her speak! She has been a very strong Republican voice over the past three-year disaster of the current administration, and we ought at least to let her say what she has travelled from Minnesota to Florida to say.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Oracle of New Haven

In an interesting recent interview (posted here) passed along the today by a good friend, the Yale English professor and celebrated intellectual Harold Bloom speaks on a variety topics, primarily the five books of literary criticism that have most shaped his own work in that field. Along the way he mentions two that would be at the top of any humanist's list--Ernst Robert Curtius' magisterial European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages and M. H. Abrams' essential study of Romantic literature and aesthetics, The Mirror and the Lamp. Not only does Bloom rightly praise these books, but he does so in a thoughtful, insightful way.

Then, unfortunately, Bloom turns to politics, where his vision seems far dimmer. In a completely gratuitous observation, Bloom arguing for the importance of an educated populace, says that Tea Party is an example of the dangers posed to democracy by an essentially uneducated rabble. Going still further, Bloom insists that the Tea Party resembles the early supporters of Hitler who brought him to power and then ... well, we all know what they ended up being responsible for. For several reasons, this comparison is laughable. Indeed, in the area of mob psychology, one would do better to read Ann Coulter's Demonic, which explores that topic in some (albeit polemical) depth, than the half-baked musings of Harold Bloom.

First, as many have pointed out--chief among them Mark Steyn--it is rather remarkable that America's mob, if we can take the Tea Party as such, is not a mob that clamors for power or its own benefit; instead of demanding that the government spend more to make their lives easier, Tea Partyers plead with the government not to spend money unnecessarily, not to provide the student loans, medical benefits, inexpensive pension plans, subsidized cars, and government sinecures that might well improve their lives and their families' over the near term. Agree with them or not, one has to admire a political movement that takes as its chief aim that the government not grow larger, not control more of its citizens' lives, when it might be taking to the streets demanding government largesse as so many other groups in our recent history have done. As Steyn points out, we have recently witnessed in England, France, and Greece large destructive mobs angrily denouncing the mildest of government austerity measures, burning buildings, beating spectators, looting shops, and spreading fear and panic among their fellow citizens. These things the Tea Partyers have not done: indeed, last summer, when the Democrats in Congress and the mainstream media tried desperately to prove that the Tea Partyers were unruly and dangerous demonstrators hurling racial epithets, they found not a shred of evidence on behalf of their claims. In a world awash with cell-phone photography instantly transmissible around the globe, no one anywhere was able to provide any evidence at all to show that the Tea Party was violent, racist, intemperate, or anything other than a peaceful, if vocal, group expressing to the world their deep conviction that America is on the brink of financial ruin. A thesis, by the way, for which one can easily find evidence far more abundant than one can for the theory that the Tea Party is destructive. (One staggering statistic, relayed early on in Mark Steyn's new book, After America: at current levels of spending, the United States will by 2020 require 20% of global GDP simply to finance American government debt. To object--even strenuously--to such ruinous policies is hardly destructive: on the contrary, it is the single most constructive thing the average American citizen can do to save the country from permanent financial collapse.)

One might point out further that if he had wanted an example of a truly destructive, thoroughly uneducated mob, Bloom might have looked toward the flash mobs wilding through the Wisconsin State Fair or the streets of Philadelphia. They are truly destructive, since their activity offers nothing beneficial and seems the definition of nihilism in action, and one suspects that the folk that comprise these gangs are far less educated even than the Tea Party.

And, finally, there is the matter of education itself that Bloom raises. It is in fact true that many of Hitler's violent early followers were indeed restless, uneducated thugs, frustrated with their inability to get ahead economically. It is equally true, however, as George Steiner frequently points out, that the society that not only allowed Hitler to come to power but which in large part abetted his ascent was the most well educated society in the world to its time: a society who humanistic education perhaps remains unmatched even in our own day. It was, after all, Martin Heidegger who spoke so lovingly of the "fair hand" of "Der Fuhrer." As Clive James charateristically put it in a review of Primo Levi's Drowned and the Saved, "It is undoubtedly true that some people who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But some people who can't remember the past aren't. More disturbingly, many of those who can remember the past are condemned to repeat it anyway. Plenty of people who remembered the past were sent to die in the extermination camps. Their knowledge availed them nothing, because events were out of their control. One of the unfortunate side effects of studying German culture up to 1933, and the even richer Austrian culture up to 1938, is the depression induced by the gradual discovery of just how cultivated the two main German-speaking countries were. It didn't help a bit. The idea that the widespread study of history among its intellectual elite will make a nation-state behave better is a pious wish. Whether in the household or in the school playground, ethics are transmitted at a far more basic level than that of learning, which must be pursued for its own sake: learning is not utilitarian, even when--especially when--we most fervently want it to be."

And there's the rub. When Burke spoke of an untutored populace as dangerous for a free society, he didn't mean untutored in academic subjects. (If that had been his point, then the more we gather knowledge over the centuries, the better our governments would be, which is not exactly the type of ameliorative view of history that a conservative like Burke would embrace. If it were true, then we would be far wiser than Lincoln, to say nothing of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.) No, by "untutored," Burke meant untutored in the virtues. One doesn't need to be a polymath to know that it's better to have a hard-working, honest, caring neighbor than one who memorizes the encyclopedia; a knowledge of classical Greek is fine, but a knowledge of one's limitations and the willingness to mend them is far more profitable to the average citizen and his neighbors. Or, as John McCain would say, character--not sheer education--is destiny.

In his interview, Bloom makes some wonderful points about literature and its proper study. But in speaking about politics, the dauntingly learned Bloom shows that he lacks not nowledge but wisdom. He might have looked to Noam Chomsky as a cautionary tale. Chomsky is a linguistic theorist of unmatched brilliance, but when it comes to politics, he is simply about as wrong as it is possible for a person to be. In the classroom, we will learn from Chomsky and Bloom. Outside the classroom, on the streets of the Republic, where all, no matter what our intellectual achievements, are equal, we will be guided by the wisdom placed within us by God and, if we have character, treasured--a wisdom honed by humility and experience.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Silent Treatment?

According to Chris Wallace on today's Special Report, both he and Brett Baier have received a flood of emails over the past couple of days from supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul demanding more coverage of their man, who finished a very close second to Michelle Bachmann in the straw poll at Ames, Iowa, on Saturday. At first blush, they have a point: Rep. Bachmann has received a great deal of press for her showing; Texas Governor Rick Perry, who didn't even compete at Ames, has received as much; surely the man who almost won the poll ought also to receive his fair share of attention?

As is often the case with Ron Paul, however, the closer look tells the tale. The Congressman is very well known for standing against wasteful government spending, primarily because such spending exceeds Rep. Paul's strictly conservative interpretation of Constitutional limits on the role of government. But closer scrutiny shows that Ron Paul, like many others in Congress, has voted for Federal spending (on such projects as funding research on the reproductive lives of shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico) that happens to benefit his constituents but which also seems exactly the kind of spending that he criticizes others for receiving. While TMH agrees with much of what Rep. Paul preaches, we also find some of that preaching a bit unconvincing since his actions in part belie his ideas.

And a closer look at the coverage of Paul's campaign reveals a deeper story than a media conspiracy to ignore him to death. The serious media, interested in careful analysis about what is likely to happen over the long term in the campaign, does not wish to devote a great deal of time to a candidate who simply cannot win the nomination. And his inability to win the nomination is emphatically not due to a lack of coverage by the media. The fact of the matter is that Paul's views are idiosyncratic: because so many of his supporters believe that 9-11 was "an inside job" (a view that Paul has been somewhat reluctant to repudiate), because he believes in an essentially isolationist foreign policy, because he believes we should end the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard, his views are out of the main stream of Republican opinion. That in turn means that his support in the Ames straw poll is extremely solid but that it could not grow significantly larger. To be sure, Bachmann defeated him by only a narrow margin, but, if the field had been smaller, she could well have beaten him by more.

Since Bachmann--and Pawlenty and Romney and Gingrich and Cain--are in the mainstream of Republican thought, any of them might have won. If fewer other candidates had participated in the poll, Bachmann would have received more votes because some who supported, say, Pawlenty might, if he had not been running, supported Bachmann. But because Paul is so different from the other candidates, it is unlikely that in a smaller field he would have attracted more support than he did. Now that Pawlenty has dropped out of the race, his support will drift to most of the other candidates; but because Paul is so unique, very little of Pawlenty's support will swing his way. Those who can be attracted to Paul support him already; since because of his views he is unlikely to gain support as the field inevitably narrows in the coming months, his slice of the pie cannot get any bigger: in fact, relative to the other candidates, his slice will only grow smaller. For this reason, he cannot ultimately win, and no amount of media attention will change that fact because it will not essentially change Paul's platform. On the other hand, Bachmann might win; so might Perry or Romney; so conceivably might Gingrich or Santorum--and for that reason, the media will pay more attention to them than to Paul.

As Paul's supporters point out, media bias certainly exists, but that is true of the mainstream media (think of the Newsweek cover of Michelle Bachmann), not of Fox News, for whom Baier and Wallace work. They do indeed cover other candidates more than they cover Congressman Paul, but not because they wish to silence him. Rather, they realize that the very passion of his supporters and uniqueness of his positions ensure that he is always at the peak of his fortunes, and that peak is simply not enough to make him a serious long-term contender. Congressman Paul is admirable in many ways, not least because his candidacy invites people to think seriously about important issues that we ignore at our peril. Ideas alone, however, do not ensure political viability, and since Paul is in the current political climate not viable as a first-tier candidate, he will not receive first-tier political coverage.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

It is Hard to Grow Up

In 1999 the French novelist and thinker Pascal Bruckner published a book-length essay entitled La tentation de l'innocence, in which he ponders the question of why in the West--the freest, most affluent society in the history of the world--so many people purport to be discontented, alienated, and oppressed. Ultimately, he arrives at the conclusion that many westerners, deprived of much in the way of spiritual education, satisfy themselves with a consumerist mentality, viewing themselves primarily as physical beings, whose endless desires are endlessly catered to by a capitalistic society that encourages consumerism so as to foster its own wealth. As a result, many in the West have lost touch with basic human values--particularly freedom, which allows individuals through rational choice and hard work to make meaningful and ultimately virtuous and happy lives.

Instead, says Bruckner, many in western society have adopted an attitude of passivity and often of infantilism, since doing so assures them that like the infants they aspire to be, their needs and desires will be met, not so much by their own parents but by the state, which in alarming ways acts ever more, as time goes on, in loco parentis. And acting like infants entails adopting the pose of the victim. Whoever is a victim, says Bruckner, is entitled to the sympathy of society, to the protection of the paternal state, to a life free from the possibility of catastrophe or failure. Indeed, Bruckner gives several examples of even radical Muslims who play the ultimate trump in the game of sympathy--identifying themselves with the Jews of the Holocaust. For whoever can claim to be currently in the position of European Jewry in the middle decades of the last century has it bad; no misfortune in history, as Timothy Snyder has shown again in his masterful Bloodlands, compares with that of the Jews subjected to the Holocaust.

Bruckner provides good evidence for his thesis--some shocking, some (as in the case of the woman who, after bathing her poodle and then attempting to dry it in her microwave, sued the manufacturer of the oven for not issuing a warning against using it to dry live animals) amusing (depending, of course, on how one feels about poodles)--and all of it adds up to a depressing assessment for those who subscribe to Edmund Burke's belief that free societies require a virtuous populace. More depressing still when one reflects that were he writing the book today Bruckner might find in the riots currently under weigh in England (to say nothing of the anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece, Spain, and Israel) more examples to hand than he could possibly use.

But it strikes me that Bruckner's analysis also goes far toward explaining our present discontents here in our fretful American summer of 2011. At a time that requires robust leadership we have in the highest office in the land a President who embodies the infantilization of culture lamented in Bruckner's book. Does Bruckner argue that we are plagued by people with no discernible values? One might ask what President Obama's core values are--besides his obvious thirst for reelection. As many have pointed out, "hope and change" is curiously devoid of any specific content, since the phrase can mean anything one wants it to. Indeed the mantra functions very like a mirror: the content it provides is only a view of whoever happens to look into it at the moment. If Bruckner writes about a populace in which everyone is convinced of his own uniqueness and therefore his own special right to privileges that do not extend to others, one is reminded of the sheer amount of money our President and his family have spent on junkets and self-serving indulgences afforded by the office he holds. And if in Bruckner's view many westerners behave like children because they wish not to hold responsibility and are therefore free from the need to act, one is reminded starkly of President Obama's incessant, ungracious habit of blaming others for our current problems. He is never responsible; Democrats--even when for two years they held the White House and large majorities in the Congress (including for a time a supermajority in the Senate)--are never to blame. His habit of never calling for and never proposing a budget (except for his feckless budget in the spring, which even every Democrat in the Senate voted against) demonstrates that he wishes to enjoy the office without ever taking the responsibility of holding a position, itself a perfect illustration of what Bruckner means when he writes of the citizen as child.

If Bruckner's book, however, helps us see that a little thoughtful cultural criticism can help us diagnose pressing difficulties, the book also yields melancholy reflections as well, such as the fear that if the problem was alarming enough in France and Europe to call for attention twenty years ago, might the malady have now crossed the Atlantic and come to our shores? Does the fact that we have in the Oval Office a leader who perfectly embodies the infantile behavior that Bruckner discusses mean that America is now very far down the yellow brick road to the puerile utopia of Oz, or is Barack Obama a cautionary tale, a warning that if we are not careful we could end up like Europe--i.e., at the mercy of the marauding yobs currently setting Britain aflame? It is difficult to know, but the next election should go far toward answering that question.

Whether or not Barack Obama represents American character, one thing is certain: his current lack of leadership should come as no surprise at all. He has spent the past three years complaining about the state of the Union, and with some justification, for we are in difficult circumstances. But a complaint is a dodge. It is an admission of powerlessness; it is an assertion that nothing is to be done but, as Shakespeare's very passive Richard II puts it when faced with the great crisis of his reign, "sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings." It is an admission by the passive man-boy that he is not up to the task, that the world is too much for him to handle. The habit of blame in itself tells us that our President has no real solutions. If he did, if he were confident in his principles, if, in short, he were a leader, blame would be irrelevant. He would welcome difficulty for the challenge that it is; he would remind this nation it is great because God has blessed our character with a spirit that rises to a challenge and delights in difficulty, and, as if to illustrate that very truth, he would square his shoulders and get to work. As it is, he blames. He points out tirelessly that he is not responsible. And in so doing he convinces more than any speech he could ever give that indeed he is not responsible--in any sense of the word.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

One Cheer for Fareed

Last Thurday night, driving home from work, I thought I had reached a milestone--metaphorically speaking, of course, because there are no literal milestones in my neck of the woods, unlike, say, along the Appian Way in the imperial days of ancient Rome. No, this milestone was an intellectual milestone, a stone that stood as unshakeable testimony to such an intense intellectual life that it occasionally produced something original. I speak of Fareed Zakaria, the much vaunted journalist and intellectual that graces the pages of Time and appears at the center of his own show each week on CNN. He has all the makings of a star--an international background, heavy with experience in the newly-chic cultures of South and Central Asia, a fist-class education, the ability to hold his own in conversation with the best of them, and yet I must confess that over the years I have found him, well, just a bit thin. Be honest, gentle reader: have you ever actually learned anything from the man? Have you ever come away from his page in Time or his show on the tube and said to yourself, "Yes, I admire the strongly counterintuitive stand he's taking"? Or have you ever thought to yourself after reading his prose or listening to his admittedly musical voice, "Well, there's an idea I've never encountered before. What bold, fresh thinking"? I must confess that after seeing hime a number of times on the ABC show This Week, I came away with the feeling that Zakaria embodies what Alexander Pope once described as the great virtue of fine verse: he says "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." I have heard him explaining that the war in Afghanistan is difficult, I have heard him say that the President's health-care bill faced a tough fight in Congress, I have even heard him go way out on a limb and opine that corruption is bad for countries. But I have never heard him utter an opinion that is bold, striking, and that in the gathering mists of time one will always associate with him.

It need not be thus. Public intellectuals can indeed--and often do--say striking things. Rightly or wrongly, Bernard-Henri Levy this spring strongly pushed Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene militarily in Libya. Francis Fukuyama boldy supported the invasion of Iraq, though it tarnishes his record as a reliable sage that when things there began to look bad, he decided that he had been wrong--just in time for the surge to work and President Bush to receive credit for salvaging an almost impossible situation. And then there is Bill Kristol, who in the darkest days of Iraq, when even so stalwart a Republican as Indiana Senator Dick Lugar was urging President Bush to abandon the mission in Iraq, used the editorial page of The Weekly Standard to argue that President Bush should stay the course and said that leadership often meant taking the hard, unpopular decisions, which with time may yield great victories when the overwhelming temptation is to take the easy way out. In those days, when seemingly everyone was opposed to continuing the war in Iraq, when scores, sometimes hundreds, were killed daily in the chronic Iraqi civil conflict, Kristol took a bold stand and said what might have gone a long way to discrediting him if things should have turned out differently--if things, in other words, had turned out precisely as almost everyone in those days was predicting it would.

Not so Fareed Zakaria, whom one is tempted to call Mr Bromide. His new book, which he is currently marketing, has as its thesis--I kid you not--that in our new multi-polar world, other countries will be as economically powerful as the United States and will come to challenge us militarily as well. Not exactly the fresh, innovative thinking of Pascal Bruckner's Tears of the White Man or Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. Those books may be right (Bruckner's perhaps; the jury's still out on Fukuyama) or wrong, but at least they say something; they provoke thought and provide conversation. Zakaria, by contrast, almost never says anything that wasn't said--and often repeated--by other mouths among the media elite.

So imagine my delight when, driving down the road, as I said, the other night, I caught Zakaria on Terry Gross' Fresh Air flogging his new book and heard him make the argument that, yes, American power relative to that of other countries in the world will almost certainly decline as places like India and China begin to transform economic power to military. But, he said--and this for me was the kicker--that's not necessarily a bad thing. It will be unpleasant if we find ourselves less powerful vis-a-vis China, for instance, but if we think back over the course of American history, it has usually been thus. We have been a world power only since the end of WWII: for most of our history, we have not been a major player on the world stage, and we did just fine. In fact, the decades that we think of as contributing most to the establishment of the American character were not decades when we were the world's lone hyperpower. This insight struck me at the time as brilliant; in the course of thirty seconds I revised my entire opinion of Zakharia. Here at last was an insight both simple and powerful--something that seemed so self-evidently true and yet no one else of any stature was saying it. (Indeed, he went on to make the point the point that since patriotism and American exceptionalism play so well on the stump, politician were almost by definition not going to make it.)

But then came the crash--once again I speak metaphorically. I made it home, but I walked through the door in a fog, because a very quick analysis had shown me that Zakaria made only a seemingly telling point. His point would have been true a hundred years ago: we might easily have been fine as a second-rate power or as only one pole in a multi-polar world. But as things now stand, with the rapid advance of technology, when countries on the other side of globe might now just as well be just off-shore, such a seondary or tertiary role could well be disastrous for the United States. The main reason to be a hyperpower is to project power outward so that we do not have to face battles here at home. During the 1990s, when we were the lone superpower but did not behave as if we were, we invited the type of thinking that led to the attack of 9-11. After 9-11, President Bush once again acted with authority around the globe, and we have remained safe at home. But if, with current technology, we find the world being ordered by the Chinese, then things may become very grim indeed. For my money, I disagree for various reasons with those conservatives who see China as a great threat. But I am not certain that I'm right, and I certainly wouldn't bet the nation's security on it. I would feel much safer--and so would most people around the world--if America remained able to react decisively to any major geopolitical developments abroad.

So, here's to Fareed Zakaria for a good try. But he might do better. Perhaps because he has the privileged background that he does he feels safe by travelling along well-trod paths. Still, right or wrong, I prefer the bolder vision of Bill Kristol any day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Where Credit Is Due

In one of the best things he has written, Mark Steyn over the weekend pointed out that Paul Ryan recently asked Bob Elmendorff in the Congressional Budget Office if he would score the implications of President Obama's non-budget "budget framework," presumably the new postmodern Democrat Party way of not really offering a budget although one is required by the Constitution to do so. Steyn then quotes Elemdorff's lapidary refusal of Ryan's request: "No, Mr Chairman, we don't estimate speeches." Steyn's typically incisive comment shows why he is almost certainly the best political writer in English today: "'We don't estimate speeches': There's an epitaph to chisel on the tombstone of the republic."

So fine a comment, in fact, that Charles Krauthammer used it this afternoon on Brett Baier's Fox News Channel show, Special Report. Krauthammer recounted the same story without credit, which is fine, since he might have gotten the information from somewhere other than Steyn's piece, but then he went one too far by offering his own reflection on Elmendorff's statement: "There's an epitaph to carve on the tombstone of the Obama Administration." Krauthammer, a veritable oracle of Conservative wisdom and a national treasure, is right to find Steyn's statement attractive--great minds thinking alike, deep speaking unto deep. But when he's citing Steyn's opinion in Steyn's own inimitable image, he ought to give credit where credit is due. Krauthammer, on record many times as disdainful of the President's desire to spread the economic wealth, ought to fight hard himself against the temptation to steal Zeus' thunder.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Beginning

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."--Genesis 1.1
"The tree of Eternity has its roots in heaven above and its branches reach down to earth. It is Brahman, pure Spirit, who in truth is called the Immortal. All the worlds rest on that Spirit and beyond him can no one go....The whole universe comes from him and his life burns through all things."--The Upanishads
"And your God is the One God: there is no deity save Him, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace. Verily in the creation of the heavens and of the earth...there are messages indeed for people who use their reason."--The Qur'an, Al-Baqarah 163-4

As the passages above indicate, throughout human history the question of the origin of the universe--and of the human life that contemplates it--has been a religious one. In the foundational past, even when scientists have turned their attention to the matter, they have seen the question of origins in a religious light, which is why Aristotle's first proof for the existence of God turns on his observation from physics that all movement has a cause.

In modern times, however, things in this area, as in so much else, have changed. It certainly feels as if in the past several decades not a year passes in the United States without some controversy surrounding the teaching of creationism in the public schools. Whether it arises from choices of textbooks in the Texas schools or passage of a referendum on the matter in Kansas or Pennsylvania, this controversy is as common--and its participants' opinions as predictable--springtime windstorms in the nation's heartland.

The common opinions, however, tend to recur because they never provide consensus, and they do not provide consensus because they tend to obscure the real issuse at stake. From the traditional prespective, the real issue is that the teaching of evolution as fact is a threat. Darwin knew this back in the 1850s before he even published Origin of the Species. His wife was a devout Anglican, and Darwin knew that since evolution ultimately was incompatible with traditional religious faith his book would cause an estrangement. If one amputates God's creative hand, the limb becomes useless; gangrene eventually sets in, and before you know it, God, as Nietzsche put it in Also Sprach Zarathustra, is dead. To be sure, we do have among us our counterparts of the cheery Victorian optimists who saw, or pretended to see, no conflict between science and faith, but the problem is that the faith that never conflicts with science is not the faith that most people live by. Most Christians tend to believe in a personal God Who has intervened to create history and intervenes in history to create salvation; they do not believe in a philosophical abstraction that can, with care, be defined in terms that allows Him to coexist with the creative energies of natural selection.

It is therefore simply the case that when a parent has educated a child to believe in a God Who has created the world, the teaching of evolution as a fact in the schools is a provocation. Whether or not evolution is true, it tends to conflict with what millions of good religious people of various backgrounds teach their children. Another was of putting this is that the teaching of evolution in the schools allows the schools to enter into an area that has always been religious. To teach evolution is to teach that God did not create the world in six days; to say that is to render a religious opinion. If we must not mix politics and religion, then the schools much not teach religion, but teaching about humans origins is to teach religion. Teaching chemistry is not, since no signifcant religious group denies the existence of chemistry, any more than religious people of good faith would object to the teaching of, say, cell biology. But to teach students that life evolved is to teach them that the Bible, the Qur'an, the Upanishads are wrong, or at least that they must not be taken literally in the passages where they speak of God creating man.

TMH does not wish to be clever: we realize that it's paradoxical to say that the teaching of science is really the teaching of religion, but that is in fact true. It is also true that when a child has been raised to believe what the Declaration of Independence says--that man is created by God--the teaching of evolution will begin to raise religious doubts in his mind. And the schools are not supposed to raise religious doubt. When Bill Maher sneers at the ignorance of creationists, he does so not because he is offended at a possible violation of church and state in Oklahoma: he does so because he does not believe creation to be intellectually credible and he does not want people to believe that they were created by God. He smells a threat, which is just what good religious people smell when faced with the possiblity that their children will be taught that evolution is a fact.

The only real solution to this problem then is not to teach evolution in the public schools because to do so is essentially to assert that the religious statements quoted above either are simply not true or are not true in the sense in which many believers understand them. And this claim by the proponents of evolution is a religious claim. And religion, so they tell us, has no place in the schools. The other possibility, however, is to say that we will allow religious discussion of origins in the schools, in which case we must give equal time to both the evolutionist and the proponent of creation. However, what we must not do is to teach religion but slyly call it science so that one religious point of view gets heard while the other does not. Such passive aggression causes resentment--precisely the resentment that fuels these regular eruptions over the role of creation and evolution in our public schools.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Power Tends to Corrupt

As if to put beyond any doubt the validity of the analogy between President Obama and Jimmy Carter, inflation, which was at almost historic lows for the past quarter century, is now beginning to resurge to an unsettling degree. One inflationary trend, however, for which the current administration cannot be blamed is that of highter education, which has been shooting upward for almost precisely that same quarter century in which the general inflation remained so low. Of all the causes, however, to which people point for this rise in the cost of college education, none is so important, and so much overlooked, as the cost of administration.

When I went to college, cost was hardly a concern. Attending the large southern state university ten miles from my home, I was able to procure a very strong education for the cost of $500 per semester (I lived at home); for the final two years, I absorbed most of that cost through scholarships received because of my academic work. Hence, a solid education almost exactly twenty-five years ago cost my family $2000. Nowadays such money would hardly come close to paying for a semester at our most modest regional universities.

Many reasons contribute to this inflation. The fact that universities now, like never before, compete with one another for students and therefore simply require lavishly appointed dormitories, cafeterias, and wellness centers (the very name a perfect example of linguistic inflation, when one considers that these used to be called "gyms"); the fact that we have ever-more-lavish sports facilties, together with the people to staff them; the fact that we now require campus psychiatrists, medical staff, security, and a daily menu of institutionally-sponsored entertainments--all of this necessarily drives up the cost of living in the campus township that students will inhabit for four, five, or six years of their lives.

But another very important inflationary pressure (as the economists call it) is the rise in bureaucratic administration. At the school with which I am affiliated, we have a campus student population of, say, 2,000--more or less the same population that the school has had for several decades. Not very long ago, a man who had begun his career at this school in the late 1960s told me (with little exaggeration) that when he arrived on campus, the administration consisted of the college president, his secretary, five deans and several filing cabinets. At present, while the number of students has increased only slightly, the administration consists of a president, a handful of vice presidents, essentially twice the number of deans, a variety of associate deans (most of them created in order to satisfy the aspirations of unremarkably talented folk distinguished only by their unquestioning devotion to the senior administration), a veritable army of chairmen (called "chairpersons" as if to demonstrate an apparently iron law that language inflates to match bureaucracy), and logistical divisions supporting all these folk. The fact that the student population has remained fairly constant throughout these rapid changes leads one to suspect that the reason for all these new positions is not to serve the students.

The cyncial might say that the purpose of so many administrators is to serve not the students but the administrators themselves, since they are all handsomely paid for the mysterious and often vaguely-defined services they provide. This situation, deplorable though it is, does have the merit of raising a puzzle, which may at least help clarify thinking when applied to institutions around the country more significant than my own. The riddle is this: if administration is so grossly inefficient and sucks up so much money for so little return, how does it survive? It would seem, particularly in a day when universities are increasingly run like businesses, that such a system would prove unworkable, since businesses with bloated administration invariably implode sooner or later.

The answer I think lies in the fact that while universities pretend to be businesses, they really are not. They are often attracted to business models because university administrations, like all administrations, seek power, and the business model is essentially autocratic. While in the golden age of American education universities were largely run by faculty, administrations now favor a more hierarchical model of government--with its lack of transparency, its limited circle of those truly making decisions, and its emphasis on rank and chain of command. Ordinarily, in government for instance, hierarchical institutions do not compete as well as democratic institutions because over the long run free contributions by large groups of individuals tend to make smarter decisions than small groups closed off from free and open discussion. Businesses, however, overcome this inherent limitation because those at the top are constantly subjected to enormous pressure to succeed. The CEOs and their staffs are immediately responsible to shareholders, who like to see healthy quarterly earnings reports. If they don't, the CEOs lose their jobs.

But the modern university is not in this way analogous to a business. The CEOs of the universities have adopted from business a more autocratic model of governance, but they have not at the same time assumed the same responsibility to succeed. They are, to be sure, responsible to boards of trustees, but they are also cushioned from the effects of corrupt or otherwise bad decisions because, being funded by the state (if public) or by the endowment (if private) or both, they are rarely in a situation in which one bad deicion, or even series of decisions, will bleed the institution completely dry. No matter how bad things get (within reason), they are always assured of a stream of revenue--not of their creating--which will always shelter them to some degree from the pressures of reality that ensure that businesses make more efficient decisions.

The problem, then, seems to be this: the contemporary university has adopted the worst of two different systems. It takes the money that allows an open, democratic institution to function despite the inefficiencies inherent in such an open process of government and combines it with the more closed management system of the world of business. And it is precisely this closed system of governance that is inappropriate to a setting like the university. Best for all is an open system of governance, and its inherently higher cost is provided for by the guaranteed moneys that flow into the university no matter what decisions (within reason) are made there. Worst of all is the closed system of governance, but it is kept honest in business because it must constantly make sound decisions in order to assure its own survival. Unfortunately, in the current system of higher education in this country, more and more universities are adopting a closed system of governance, while maintaining the supply of money that assures the governors will be able to maintain their positions for considerable periods, despite results. And when that happens, the governors will be ever more tempted to make decisions in their own best interest, not in the best interest of the institution.

And so the public as a whole pays the price, in higher taxes and higher tuition, of subsidizing institutions which, so long as they accept public money, ought to be transparent and open. That they are not means that everyone, whether student or tax-payer, pays a real price for the opaque and closed system that is the contemporary university.