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.

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