Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Northeast Elitism: Nothing New

The Chicago Boyz blog reminds that the northeastern pretensions that seem to turn so much of the rest of the country off are really nothing new.
The core strength of 'liberal' America resides in the descendants of Yankee puritans, a memetic 'Greater New England' that sprang from the Yankee diaspora which settled the Northern tier of the country. These folks have been living uneasily with their fellow Americans for over 350 years. They have been trying to reform the rest of us for our own good the whole time: Revolution, abolition, prohibition, civil rights, environmentalism. Sometimes they are even right, as much as I hate to admit it. Look at a picture of Cotton Mather, or Susan B. Anthony, or any eat-your-peas liberal do-gooder. The eyes: sad at the foolishness and injustice of the world -- the mouth, a mirthless line -- and the jaw, set in determination to rectify the world's wrongs and smite its wrongdoers. Those Yankees, genetic or memetic, are the core of the 'progressive' element in American life, and they have been for centuries, and they'll never change.
A similar argument has been made by William J. Stuntz at Tech Central Station, who makes the divide between East and West.
Easterners like theory and process. Westerners care more about outcomes than procedures, and they like whatever works. Easterners are cautious; Westerners take chances. Easterners like universities, legislatures, and the U.N. Westerners like businesses, the executive branch, and the Army. Eastern politicians are more likely to talk down to voters -- think of Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, or John Kerry -- because they are instinctively less democratic; they come from a world where social and educational class matters and where institutions seem to outlast people. (I teach at a university that is nearly four centuries old.) Western politicians are more optimistic, believe that problems can be solved and limits surpassed. Also that institutions are temporary things: they are the creatures; people are their creators, and creators matter more than the things they create. The flip side of optimism is rootlessness: if life isn't working out, go somewhere else and reinvent yourself, like Easterner-turned-Westerner (and Democrat-turned-Republican) Ronald Reagan. Easterners are more likely to be defined, and confined, by place. Eastern candidates want to protect a lead and play it safe -- Dewey, anyone? -- while Westerners roll the dice, not only in campaigns but in the White House: Reagan's simultaneous tax cuts and defense buildup (Howard Baker called it "a riverboat gamble," and it was), Bush's war in Iraq and his decision to wrap his arms around the third rail of American politics.
To these observations I would add my own that the subtle influence of New England's own religious heritage, the sense of being 'selected', which has ironically lost it's religious connotations and changed into a secular-centered ideology, has fostered an often self-righteous belief in the "obvious" and "inherent" wisdom of the opinions of the average northeastern liberal.

I would take Stuntz's theory a bit further back though, as I believe that it was, for the most part, the adventurers and individualists who were the ones with enough gumption to board those creaky vessels, leave their old lives in stagnant Europe and create a new life in America. They were the risk takers and those willing to put their destiny in their own hands. The New England colonies were, obviously, some of the first American colonies and were the first to experience widespread population growth. Succeeding migrations, first to the western frontier in northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and western Massachusetts, then the Ohio Valley, and so on, saw subsequent generations of these risk takers and individualists move on. At the same time, those who had built stable, and relatively safe, lives in the northeast stayed home. Their minds turned from survival to aesthetics, ideas and theories that they could put to use to help their fellow man. (Benjamin Franklin believed that one of the first signs of a modern society was this very ability: for individuals to turn from personal concerns to those on behalf of their fellow man and created fire departments and the American Philosophical Society as an outgrowth of this belief). So, relative idleness often provides the atmosphere for the generation of ideas, both good and bad. Sometimes these ideas are tried and they work (the American Revolution, abolition, civil rights) and sometimes they don't (prohibition), but in every case arguments, those who generated these ideas put them in the public sphere for debate. The result was the development of stronger arguments to justify pet theories against skeptical listeners.

The current problem is that many of the "liberal elite", isolated on campuses, holed up in newsrooms, or bound by geography, have managed to narrow the range of opinions to which they are regularly exposed and have lost the ability to provide justification for, or adequately defend, their ideas. This has been occurring for quite some time and has recently been outlined by Mark Bauerlein in a recent article in The Chronicle Review (via Lane Core). Titled, "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual," Bauerlein's article outlines the problem in academia, which he breaks down into three major components:

1) Common Assumption - All of one's peers are likeminded. In other words, they are all liberal and are thus unified in this world view. According to Bauerlein, "The Assumption proves correct often enough for it to join other forms of trust that enable collegial events. A fellowship is intimated, and members may speak their minds without worrying about justifying basic beliefs or curbing emotions." It goes without saying that not all share in this Common Assumption, but unless they are tenured, they have no good reason to make waves in the academic pool. The result is intellectual stagnation, or worse. Bauerlein notes, "Apart from the ill-mannered righteousness, academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom. An assertion of the genocidal motives of early English settlers is put forward not for discussion but for approval. If the audience shares the belief, all is well and good. But a lone dissenter disrupts the process and, merely by posing a question, can show just how cheap such a pat consensus actually is."

2) The second component is what Bauerlein terms the False Consensus Effect, which "occurs when people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. If the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way." However, most now realize that those outside of the academy, the average American, if you will, holds opinions vastly different than those found within the Ivory Tower. As such, Bauerlein says, "Some take pride in a posture of dissent and find noble precursors in civil rights, Students for a Democratic Society, and other such movements. But dissent from the mainstream has limited charms, especially after 24 years of center-right rule in Washington. Liberal professors want to be adversarial, but are tired of seclusion. Thus, many academics find a solution in a limited version of the False Consensus that says liberal belief reigns among intellectuals everywhere." (Fine examples of this are the recent NY Times column by the historian Gary Wills or reading the majority of the regular fare at the History News Network.)

As such, there is no such thing as conservative intellectual within academia because "Professors cannot conceive that any person trained in critical thinking could listen to George W. Bush speak and still vote Republican." However, they realize that there are some intellectuals in other areas of society, such as the various think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute and others, but they right off the veracity of the work done in these institutions because they are privately funded by big business. As Bauerline points out, nearly all "references to 'right-wing think tanks' are always accompanied by the qualifier 'well-funded.'" In general, they believe that to be conservative means to be ignorant. "When a Duke University philosophy professor implied last February that conservatives tend toward stupidity, he confirmed the public opinion of academics as a self-regarding elite -- regardless of whether or not he was joking, as he later said that he was."

There are conservatives on campus, though out of necessity they usually wait until they are safely tenured before speaking up. Ruth R. Wisse of Harvard recently offered a conservative insight into the situation:
Personally, I greatly enjoy being in the conservative opposition. My colleagues are cordial, and since I'm not looking for promotions I willingly sustain an occasional snub for the greater advantage of being able to speak my mind. Students making the transition from liberal to conservative are often wounded by their first exposure to the contempt that greets their support for the war in Iraq or opposition to abortion or whatever else separates them from the liberal campus. I suggest to them that, as opposed to living in constant terror of offending some received idea, they relish their freedom of expression. The self-acknowledged conservative never experiences intellectual constraint.

But this enviable autonomy doesn't extend to graduate students or untenured colleagues. Recently, I had two encounters with sobering implications for the academy. A junior professor told me that when she began teaching at Harvard she resigned from several organizations that would have betrayed her conservative leanings. She hadn't wanted to give colleagues an easy excuse for voting her down when she came up for tenure; but now that the prospect of tenure was before her, she didn't know whether she wanted to stay on in such a repressive community. My second conversation was with a rare pro-Israel Muslim whose contract as lecturer hadn't been renewed, very probably because he was critical of the way his subject was being taught. This young man was in a great mood. He was leaving for Washington, where he could make a greater contribution to national security.
Presumably he was going to one of those morally compromised think tanks so demonized by the majority of the liberal professoriat.

This attitude casts a pall over the academic side of academia as well. "When laymen scan course syllabi or search the shelves of college bookstores and find only a few volumes of traditionalist argument amid the thickets of leftist critique, they wonder whether students ever enjoy a fruitful encounter with conservative thought. When a conference panel is convened or a collection is published on a controversial subject, and all the participants and contributors stand on one side of the issue, the tendentiousness is striking to everyone except those involved. The False Consensus does its work, but has an opposite effect. Instead of uniting academics with a broader public, it isolates them as a ritualized club." A local example is offered by Paul W. Anghinetti, professor of English at Rhode Island College:
The litmus-paper test for the English department resides in its course offerings, which will reveal, even to those possessing only a casual familiarity with traditional English offerings, its radicalized shape. Euro-centrism, Feminism, Marxism, The New Historicism, Reader Response, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction Theory got adopted with a fervor worthy of medieval scholastics or Muslim fundamentalists. Collectively, these post-modern dogmas obviated any semblance of traditional literary theory.

Dead White Male authors became anathema to my colleagues, who shuddered at the sound of "Milton," "Melville" or "Hemingway." Even Shakespeare had to be cleansed of his racism and sexism. Literary value yielded to extra-literary political and theoretical concerns.

Down with form and content, up with socio-political and pop agendas! John Ellis's Literature Lost and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals tell the debacle more efficiently than I have here.

3) The final social pattern is the Law of Group Polarization, which, as described by Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of political science and of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, "predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs." Bauerlien offers a few examples of this phenomenom, but what is most important is that debates between like-minded people aren't debates at all. Accortding to Bauerlein, "The problem is that the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they've reached an opinion through reasoned debate -- instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit. If participants left the enclave, their beliefs would moderate, and they would be more open to the beliefs of others. But with the conferences, quarterlies, and committee meetings suffused with extreme positions, they're stuck with abiding by the convictions of their most passionate brethren."

Bauerlein does point out that the same would occur if the overwhelming number of people within academia were all conservative. The bottom line is that intellectual diversity is the most important goal for our society, at all levels. Liberals in some regions of our nation, particularly here in the northeast, have lost the ability to even accept contrary arguments. Conservatives have tall walls to climb before they can even get to the base of Mt. Liberalism and begin the real work of convincing people that they offer a real alternative. Before that work can begin, conservatives first have to convince liberals, as well as those who live in an environment dominated by liberal thought, that they aren't out to starve their kids and grandparents, fatten the wallets of the rich, or embark on a religious crusade. Yet, once the debate is engaged, the conservative argument finds a receptive audience because conservatives have learned to convince people. In contrast, the success that liberals have had in dominating academia and the media has only served to render them ineffective. People don't like to be dictated to, they like to be convinced. Should conservatives one day find themselves in the dominant positions in the media and academia, they would do well to remember that intellectual consensus is not always a good thing.

No comments: