Two images of William Jennings Bryan have settled into the public memory, neither of them flattering. One is the fundamentalist mountebank familiar to viewers of Inherit the Wind, with its fictionalized rendering of the Scopes trial. In it, the character based on Bryan proclaims himself “more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” He is, in short, a crowd-pleasing creationist numbskull, and nothing more.
The other portrait of Bryan is less cinematic, but darker. The classic version of it appears in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948 and still selling around 10,000 copies each year, according to a forthcoming biography of the historian. Hofstadter sketches the career of Bryan as a populist leader during the economic depression of the 1890s, when he emerged as the Midwest’s fierce and eloquent scourge of the Eastern bankers and industrial monopolies.
Yet this left-leaning Bryan had, in Hofstadter’s account, no meaningful program for change. He was merely a vessel of rage. Incapable of statesmanship, only of high-flown oratory, he was a relic of the agrarian past –- and the prototype of the fascistic demagogues who were discovering their own voices, just as Bryan’s career was reaching its end.
Historians have been challenging these interpretations for decades -– beginning in earnest more than 40 years ago, with the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine, who is now a professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. It was Levine who pointed out that when Bryan denounced evolution, he tended to be thinking more of Nietzsche than of Darwin. And the Nietzsche he feared was not today’s poststructuralist playboy, but the herald of a new age of militaristic brutality.
Still, old caricatures die hard. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to pick up Michael Kazin’s new book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) without imagining that its title contains a snarl and a sneer. Isn’t the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity and anti-elitist sentiment always just a disguise for base motives and cruel intentions? To call someone godly is now, almost by default, to accuse them of hypocrisy.
But Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, has a very different story to tell. Revisionist scholarship on Bryan -- the effort to dig beneath the stereotypes and excavate his deeper complexities -- has finally yielded a book that might persuade the general reader to rethink the political role played by “the Great Commoner.”
In an earlier study, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), Kazin described the emergence in the 19th century of an ideology he called “producerism” – a moral understanding of politics as the struggle between those who built the nation’s infrastructure and those who exploited it. (The farmer or the honest businessman was as much a producer as the industrial worker. Likewise, land speculators and liquor dealers were part of the exploitive class, as were bankers and monopolistic scoundrels.)
The producerist ethos remains a strong undercurrent of American politics today. Bryan was its most eloquent spokesman. He wedded it to a powerful (and by Kazin’s account utterly sincere) belief that politics was a matter of following the commandment to love thy neighbor. As a man of his era, Bryan could be obtuse about how to apply that principle: His attitude toward black Americans was paternalistic, on a good day, and he was indifferent, though not hostile, concerning the specific problems facing immigrants. But Kazin points out that there is no sign of nativist malice in Bryan’s public or private communications. Some of his followers indulged in conspiratorial mutterings against the Catholics or the Jews, but Bryan himself did not. At the same time -- canny politician that he was -- he never challenged the growing power of the Klan during the 1920s.
It’s an absorbing book, especially for its picture of Bryan’s following. (He received an incredible amount of mail from them, only about two percent of which, Kazin notes, has survived.) I contacted Kazin to ask a few questions by e-mail.
Q: By today's standards, Bryan seems like a bundle of contradictions. He was both a fundamentalist Christian and the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He embodied a very 19th century notion of "character," but was also exceptionally shrewd about marketing his own personality. For many Americans, he was a beloved elder statesman -- despite losing his two presidential bids and otherwise spending very little time in elected office. How much of that contradictoriness is in Bryan himself, and how much in the eye of the beholder today?
A: Great question! The easiest part to answer is the first: for Bryan and many other reform-minded white Christians, there was no contradiction between their politics and their religion. The “revolution” being made by the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers was destroying the pious republic they knew, or wished to remember (slavery, of course, they forgot about). What Bryan called “applied Christianity” was the natural antidote to the poison of rampant capitalism. The rhetoric of Bellamy, the People’s Party, and the Knights of Labor was full of such notions -– as were the sermons and writings of many Social Gospelers, such as Washington Gladden and Charles Stelzle.
On the character-personality question – I think Warren Susman and many historians he influenced over-dichotomize these two concepts. No serious Christian could favor the latter over the former. Yet, the exigencies of the cultural marketplace and of celebrity culture in particular produced a fascination with the personal lives of the famous. So Bryan, who was as ego-obsessed as any politician, went with the flow, knowing his personality was boosting his political influence. Being a journalist himself, he understood the rules of the emerging game. Do you know Charles Ponce De Leon’s book about celebrity journalism in this period?
Q. Oddly enough, I do, actually. But let's talk about the people to whom Bryan appealed. From digging in the archives, you document that Bryan had a following a loyal following among professionals, and even successful businessmen, who saw themselves as part of the producing class threatened by the plutocratic elite. Was that surprising to discover? Normally you think of populism in that era as the politics of horny-handed toil.
A: As I argued in The Populist Persuasion, when “producerism” became a popular ideal in democratic politics, Americans from many classes were quite happy to embrace it. It thus became an essential contested concept. But among a broad cross-section of people, the critique of finance capital was always stronger in the South and West, where Bryan had his most consistent support, than in places like Philly and NYC.
As for the letters -— I enjoyed that part of the research the most, although it was frustrating as hell to find almost no letters that were written during the campaign of 1908 and only a small number from then until the 1920s. If only WJB or his wife had revealed, somewhere, the criteria they used when dumping all that correspondence! That, at least,would have been a consolation. Of course, if they had kept nearly all of it, I’d still be there in the Manuscript Room at the Library of Congress, tapping away.
Q: I get the impression that Bryan might well have become president if women had been able to vote in 1896 or 1900. How much of his appeal came from expressing the moral and cultural ideals associated with women's "civilizing" role? And how much of it was sex appeal of his rugged personality and magnetic stage presence?
A: Ah, the counterfactuals! Bryan’s image as a “godly hero” certainly did appeal to many women, as did his eloquence and good looks (the latter, at least while he was in his 30s and early 40s). His support for prohibition and woman suffrage would have appealed to many women as well.
In 1896 and 1900, he carried most of the states where women then had the vote (in the Mountain West). Although that may have been because of his free silver and anti-big money stands, which is probably why most men in those states voted for him. On the other hand, his radical image could have limited his appeal to women elsewhere in the country. Women voters, before the 1960s, tended to vote for safe, conservative candidates.
Q: Another counterfactual.... What if Bryan had won? What sort of president would he have been? The man was great at making speeches; none better. But could he really have cut it as Chief Executive?
A: As president, he probably would have been a divisive figure, perhaps an American Hugo Chavez -— but without the benefit of oil revenues! If he tried to carry out the 1896 platform, there may have been a capital strike against him, which would have brought on another depression. If he hadn’t, the Populists and many left Democrats would have deserted him. The sad fact is that he hadn’t built a strong enough constituency to govern, much less to win the election in the first place.
Q: Finally, a question about the subjective dimension of working on this biography. Any moments of profound disillusionment? Rapt admiration? Sudden epiphany?
A: I wish I had time to pursue this important question at length -- perhaps I’ll write an essay about it someday. But briefly: I started reading all those fan letters and experienced an epiphany. Millions of ordinary people adored this guy and thought he was a prophet! And he was certainly fighting the good fight -– against Mark Hanna and his friends who were initiating the U.S. empire.
I also was impressed by his ability as a speech-writer as well as a performer. He could turn a phrase quite brilliantly. But after a year or so, I had to come to grips with his bigotry against black people and his general inability to overcome his mistrust of urban pols (although he didn’t share the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of some of his followers).
The problem was, in the America of a century ago, Bryan would not have been a hero to the white evangelical grassroots if he had been as clever and cosmopolitan a pol as FDR. So I ended up with a historian’s sense of perspective about the limits of the perceptions and achievements of the past. In recent speeches, E.J. Dionne muses that perhaps we should ask “What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?” I’m not sure that’s a useful question.
Recently, a New York Times reporter called me to discuss legal matters. He co-wrote a story about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the next day's Congressional hearing on domestic spying and other anti-terrorism matters.
The Times story briefly included mention of our conversation, outing me as a long-time friend of the AG, identifying me as one of his "supporters," and using a quip that I had used, that Gonzales was "one of my three Republican friends." He also printed one of several examples I had related concerning Gonzales' lawyering skills, and he accurately noted that he and I "disagree on almost every issue." Alberto and I came to Houston as professionals at the same time in 1982, and we have had many personal and professional activities in common, as young Mexican American lawyers in the same city will do.
The conversation had been nearly an hour, and the reporter accurately and fairly captured my answers to his many questions, which ranged from Governor Bush's DUI to whether or not the Geneva Convention covers al Qaeda. I get calls regularly from reporters, and thought nothing more of it. However, when I came into my office on Monday morning, I found about 20 e-mail messages from fellow faculty members across the country, condemning me in one way or the other about the remarks I made. The story had been posted on several faculty-driven listservs, along with public and private remonstrances and notes of support. One said, " Este buey no merese tu apoyo" (This mule doesn't deserve your support), while another was headed: "What are torture and war crimes against Muslims/Arabs/Asians of Color between friends?" Thinking that I could not address each one, I posted this note on a law professor listserv:
"All I have to say is that I have many friends, including most who wrote me. I have never required loyalty oaths of my friends, nor they of me. I disagree with many people about many things, but have never set as a precondition of friendship that we agree on social or political issues. I am not about to start doing so now."
We were off to the blogging/listserv races. Since then, I have received dozens of faculty responses, public and private, mostly along these lines: "Hell, Michael deserves this because he in effect endorsed Gonzales" to "Man, I disagree with his choice of friends but he clearly has the right to choose his friends" with all the degrees along this spectrum. The most vociferous have accused me of war crimes, guilt by association, and the like. The most cutting mistook my reluctance to respond further to each iteration as thin-skinned aloofness: "And it is really too bad that some people can be talked into shutting up or walking away just because their feelings get hurt."
A few lawyer friends and family members weighed in, uniformly positive, and reminding me how much they always disagreed with me on various matters. A few whose voting behavior I did not know revealed themselves as Republicans, and assuming I was counting them among the three I had thought I had; overnight, my Republican posse doubled.
After a week of this, I am astounded that people do not see the difference between friendship and politics. It is not often I need to guard my left flank; this whole thing has me baffled, and somewhat amused. I feel like I am in a Mark Twain novel, looking down at my own funeral from the church balcony.
In an odd way, this whole thing has been salutary -- being slimed by some of these folks in public actually helps (such as the "war criminal" calumny from one bozo who has kept carping), but some of the scorchers I have received (in English and Spanish) were of more interest to me. For example, a professor whose work I have always admired wrote me: "Michael, for what it's worth, I think that you are you entitled to have whatever friends you want to have, and to maintain your friendship despite some political disagreements. But further, such disagreements can deepen real friendships, and when the one or both of the friends are important political actors, maintaining the friendships can also improve national politics by giving those actors access to different information and opinions than they might get from their toadies."
That is my story and I am sticking to it. I am the oldest of 10 children, and we disagree all the time. How could it be otherwise with friends and colleagues?
At the end of the day, I have come to believe that Al Gonzales is probably more worried than I am about our friendship ruining reputations, now that he has been outed as my friend. The whole imbroglio with the nomination of Harriet Miers shows that Republicans can be fickle with friendships and affiliations, but I work hard to keep my friends. And as a postscript, the then-University of Houston president who hired me and with whom I have stayed in touch over the years, Barry Munitz, was in the news this week over the situation at the Getty Trust, where he resigned as president. I do not know Barry's political affiliations, but it has been a tough week for my few friends in high places.
But I will say this: when he returns to Houston, it is Al Gonzales' turn to buy.
Michael A. Olivas
Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center.
The heated rhetoric surrounding immigration reform legislation in Congress threatens to drown out an important, bipartisan effort to resolve a decades-old inconsistency in federal immigration law concerning postsecondary tuition costs for undocumented students who have graduated from high schools in the United States.
The “DREAM Act,” which was incorporated into the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration reform bill last week, would allow states to provide in-state tuition for postsecondary education to undocumented students who have attended (for at least three years) and graduated from high school in their states.
Federal immigration law now prohibits them from doing so, though that has not stopped several states, including “red” states like Utah, Kansas, and Texas, from adopting such legislation in recognition of the fact that there are more than 50,000 of these students each year that graduate from high school as -- in nearly every way -- children of the American dream.
Of the DREAM Act, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) stated, “I find it inconceivable that we would provide greater benefits to persons who are here illegally than to American citizens. It makes a mockery of the rule of law."
However, Congress must ensure the debate over the education of undocumented students is actually grounded in the law, rather than rhetoric. Federal law related to this issue was interpreted more than 20 years ago by the United States Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision.
Plyler v. Doe involved a Texas law that effectively banned undocumented minor children from participating in public elementary and secondary education. The Court heard arguments that sounded quite similar to those used to deny in-state college tuition for the same students: that providing K-12 education rewards illegal immigration, that we should not give public benefits to those in the country illegally. The significance of this case is not that it settled once and for all the ideological arguments surrounding immigration. Rather, the Court created protective legal precedent for minor undocumented students by carefully examining the intersection of immigration law, the distribution of public goods, and individual rights as protected by the Constitution of the United States.
The Supreme Court’s decision addressed the question: Did a child break the law because the parents brought the child into the country illegally as a minor? The Supreme Court said “no.”
The Court ruled that such children, in fact, were entitled to equal protection under the law, one of America’s most cherished legal principles. As cited in the Court’s opinion, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that “[n]o State shall…deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As a population within the state’s jurisdiction, undocumented students were, therefore, entitled to equal treatment under the law. In the opinion of the Court, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., wrote, “To permit a state … to identify subclasses of persons whom it would define as beyond its jurisdiction, thereby relieving itself of the obligation to assure that its laws are designed and applied equally to those persons, would undermine the principal purpose for which the Equal Protection Clause was incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Court further argued that federal immigration law, despite “sheer incapability or lax enforcement,” was not a justification for denying children equal protection and access to education.
In recognition of this principle, several state legislatures have passed laws to allow in-state postsecondary tuition for undocumented students who have attended public high schools in state for more than three years. They realize the legal “no-man’s land” these students occupy, and have sought to remedy it under the law.
The central relevance of the Supreme Court’s case to this debate over in-state tuition for undocumented students is that we cannot simply ignore what Justice Brennan called the “shadow population” of students who go about their daily lives and contribute to our society in the same way that we all strive to contribute. Moreover, we cannot deprive these students of the equal protection that our Constitution provides simply because they graduate from the high school setting where the Supreme Court has decided that it applies.
Though the issue is easy to weigh down with heated rhetoric, we hope that the law will, in fact, prevail, and that Congress will pass the DREAM Act. As Justice Brennan concluded, “[W]hatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation.”
Last month, Thomas M. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton published Without Precedent, an account of their time as co-chairs (Republican and Democratic, respectively) of the 9/11 Commission. Whatever the uses of a deliberate and scrupulous bipartisanship in political life, it does not make for good memoir-writing. I read it, but kept slipping into that mild coma that is an occupational hazard for anyone who reviews a lot of not-very-good or just-sort-of-okay books for newspapers.
Yet one thing about Without Precedent did prove quite interesting: the strong emphasis on conspiracy theorists. Or rather, to be more exact, the authors' preoccupation with trying to head them off at the pass. The spectre of the Warren Commission must have haunted their dreams. They put a lot of thought into establishing what they call "core principles" intended to prevent "the kinds of conspiracy theorizing that have followed in the wake of other inquiries." They mention this guiding intention not once or twice, but roughly a dozen times.
"We decided to be open and transparent," they write, "so that people could see how we reached our conclusions about 9/11, and we demanded access to every document and witness in part to demonstrate that we had left no stone unturned in our investigation. We also adopted a policy of openness to the general public: people could send information to our offices, and somebody would review that information."
Clearly preventing conspiracy theory was a major concern -- which also suggests that Kean and Hamilton must have known that it was, for all practical purposes, an effectively hopeless endeavor. The impulse to frame things in terms of conspiracy has very deep roots. It is not an American specialty, by any means. But there is something sobering about reading the pamphlets from the years just before the Revolution and discovering that the patriots were, let's say, a tad paranoid at times. (George Washington worried about the "systematic plan" of King George and minions to turn the colonists into slaves "as tame and abject," as he put it in an interesting turn of phrase, "as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.")
The idea that malevolent secret forces are at work behind current events is much too seductive to banish. And now, as the fifth anniversary of the attacks approaches, we have regular reminders that the 9/11 commissioners' efforts at prophylaxis have failed. The single best-publicized source of conspiracy theory on the matter is a group calling itself Scholars for 9/11 Truth whose members have been much in the news lately. Both Kevin Barrett and William Woodward belong to the group, and I've read Barrett's work in one of their journals.
Now, a word about labels before we go on. You will not find many kind words about the "The 9/11 Commission Report" in publications associated with Scholars for 9/11 Truth, such as the magazine Global Outlook. (It is now starting to show up at some newsstands, inconspicuously mixed in with other journals of news and commentary.)
But not all criticisms of the report have been works of conspiracy theory, by any means. A few months after it appeared, the essayist Benjamin DeMott made a shrewd initial assessment of the punches pulled by the commission in the course of its investigation. And there is a tough-minded little book by the political reporter James Ridgeway called The Five Unanswered Questions about 9/11, published last year. Each sees the official account of 9/11 as inadequate. The commission (they contend) did not push hard enough to identify and hold accountable those whose malfeasance permitted the terrorists a chance to strike.
According to Scholars for 9/11 Truth, however, the events of that day were not a product of systemic failure. Very much to contrary: It was an all-around success for the U.S. government, which attacked its own citizens and, in the case of the Twin Towers, used hidden explosives to bring them down through "controlled demolition," since the impact of two jetliners could not have done it.
Furthermore, there may have been a third plane in the air at the time. "Was it meant to confuse defensive response?" asks a contributor to The Journal of 9/11 Truth, published by the group. "Was it monitoring (or controlling) the attacks? Was it a back-up in the event of a miss on the towers?"
Let's ask another question, just to round things out: Did that mysterious third plane near the Trade Center actually, you know, exist?
My first encounter with this group's work was in February, when I came across a paper by James H. Fetzer, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, whose name seemed vaguely familiar. And so it was. I had interviewed him some year back about one of his books. Before 9/11, he had carved out a niche for himself in the world of JFK "assassinologists." (You are supposed to call them that. "Buffs" just makes them mad.)
Anyway, Fetzer had done some really groundbreaking work on the famous Zapruder film, which you have almost certainly seen at some point, whether or not you knew that was what it is called. It is the short, grainy, rather shaky home movie of the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas, in which the viewer sees the back of the president's head explode in a cloud of blood and brains.
Other conspiracy-minded researches had studied the horrific images, frame by frame, in an effort to determine just how many gunmen were involved and where they might be located. The ensuing debates kept assassinologists occupied for many years.
To Fetzer, their work seemed naive. He argued (at great length, and in a depth of detail that I cannot pretend to have fathomed) that the Zapruder film itself is a hoax. "The film was redone using techniques of optical printing and special effects," as Fetzer has explained, if "explained" is the word one wants, "which allow combining any background with any foreground to create any impression that one desires, which included removing series of frames that would have given the plot away, such as that the driver pulled the limousine to the left and stopped after shots began to be fired...."
Assassinology has been an overcrowded discipline for some time. Even in the mid-1970s, newcomers were being encouraged to specialize in ever more narrow sub-fields. (That advice sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?)
By contrast the subject of 9/11 offers a whole new set of problems. It demands fresh new developments in conspiratorial research -- new theoretical approaches to explain the evidence, or even to bring it into existence, as in the case of the mystery jet.
It proves difficult to read very much of this material without recalling that Richard Hofstadter once devoted a book to The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). Over the years, historians have spent a lot of time arguing with this or that element of its argument, and my friend Rick Perlstein has been merciless in his treatment of how Hofstadter approached Barry Goldwater.
Whatever its failings as analysis, though, Hofstadter's book is very good indeed as phenomenological description. So it is no surprise to find a good explanation for Scholars for 9/11 Truth in it, even though Hofstadter himself died in 1970.
The conspiratorial mentality or "paranoid style" -- for which important events in public life are best understood as the product of hidden, malevolent forces controlling history -- is strongly prone to assuming a scholarly form. As Hofstadter puts it: "One should not be misled by the fantastic conclusions that are so characteristic of this political style into imagining that it is not, so to speak, argued out along factual lines. The very fantastic character of its conclusions leads to heroic strivings for 'evidence' to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed."
The charge that conspiratorial thinking is incoherent simply will not hold up. "It is nothing if not coherent," writes Hofstadter. The conspiratorial understanding of history is actually "far more coherent than the real world, since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities. It is, if not wholly rational, at least intensely rationalistic...."
And finally, it gives people overwhelmed by history something to do -- nothing very useful, perhaps, but then you can't have everything. It demands "the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions," writes Hofstadter, "the careful preparation for the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable."
Well, there are all sorts of ways of handling trauma. It's no surprise that this one has emerged. Whether or not 9/11 itself could have been prevented, something like Scholars for 9/11 Truth was perhaps inevitable.
Like most of us in academe, I move in a number of educational circles. There are my colleagues at Johnson C. Smith University, my wife’s colleagues at Wingate University, and a host of others. I recently made a decision to try and expand my educational circle somewhat. I am running in a non-partisan election for a seat on the Union County, N.C. Board of Education. In doing so, I have begun to learn just how hard it is to run a campaign -- something that I should probably confess to not doing entirely well. Live and learn.
One of the things that I have been most surprised to learn has nothing to do with all the minutiae of campaigning. The thing that surprised me most was the reaction of my colleagues when they have heard I am running. They are proud of me with a reaction that almost borders on awe. This awe, however, is not entirely comforting. As best I can describe it, it is the awe reserved for martyrs and those who succeed through some slight madness that sets them apart. And before that sounds like it is going too far, the standard response to learning that I have thrown my hat into the ring is begins with something like “Good for you.” Almost immediately after this, however, comes the question, “What possessed you to run for office?” (The alternate is a reflection on what a thankless job it will be.)
Pay attention to that word possessed -- the one with religious and/or demonic overtones and the implication that no sane person would do this.
When it came up in my classes (I don’t teach in Union County so I don’t have to worry about a potential conflict of interest.), the students were more excited. They wanted to know why I was running and what I stood for. They wanted to know what motivated me. “Why did you choose to run?” replaced questions that implied a loss of mental control.
As I thought about this, I began to realize that I was looking at something that went beyond collegial humor and the wry cynicism that academics are famous for developing as a part of their pursuit of something like objectivity. I suspect that I am looking at a flaw in the way the academy approaches politics.
Because of the ongoing examination of the academy by groups concerned with whether there are a bunch of tenured radicals corrupting America’s youth, most of the discussion has been about whether or not professors are trying to indoctrinate their students in one political belief or another in their classrooms. This is, of course, an important concern. If an instructor cannot maintain a separation of our personal politics and our professional obligations, that instructor needs to learn to do so quickly.
But not all political activity is equal and we need to learn to embrace some of it for the benefit of our classrooms.
One of the big movements currently circulating in academe is the move towards “active and collaborative learning” -- a movement being simultaneously developed by academics as a way to improve student learning and a movement consistent with the Department of Education’s interest in seeing more measurable results of what goes in college classrooms. There are books and journals devoted to the study of these approaches and techniques. Several of these techniques, at their core, rely on modeling.
Now with that in mind, consider this: How often do we tell students that they need to vote and participate in their civic lives. How often do we assign plays like Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People or essays like Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and then discuss the issues of war and civil rights that swirled around them yet limit the realm or discussion to the purely academic?
They often hear us speak. They do not often hear about what we do.
So long as we do not model behavior, students will not see anyone participating in the civic realm. The politicians they see on television aren’t real to them. They do not regularly see a person that they know and can personally identify with actively engaging in the civic discourse or hear about the struggle to choose the best course of action to make our towns better from an array of bad options.
What I am advocating here is not something tied to one party or political philosophy. Whether you are a left-leaning anthropology professor or a member of the right of center business school set, we should all be active participants in the civic realm and, importantly, our students should know that those activities are a part of our lives.
For those of you still worried about the long term effects of possession, this doesn’t mean you need to need to run for political office. There is a host of ways to be engaged. It could be something as simple as getting up extra early on Election Day and making sure that you are still wearing the “I Voted” sticker given to you at the polls when you ask your students if they have voted. I’m not saying to ask who they voted for, just whether they had voted. It could be letting them know about the civic or volunteer responsibilities you dealt with last night or over the weekend. You may, in fact, already be doing some of these things.
I know what some of you are saying. We are, on the whole, an overworked and underpaid profession and none of us have the time to put something else on our plate. The truth of the matter is that, unless they are CEO's or come from money, most of the people who are entering local politics are in the same boat. I have heard stories in the political circles I have begun to move in of people dipping into their home’s equity or retirement funds to finance some of their campaigns. While you may not want to make that kind of a sacrifice, you can still make a difference in the life of your students and your community just by making an attempt.
There is a final reason we, as a profession, need to become more engaged -- one that we need to consider and consider quickly. We won’t get the problems faced by the academy solved by the “them” in government until we meet “them” and find out that they are us.
Matthew M. DeForrest
Matthew M. DeForrest is assistant professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University.
"Sixty Minutes" reported a couple of weeks ago that George W. Bush is now, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, reading a book about the Algerian War.
My new year's resolutions preclude taking any of the various cheap shots made conveniently easy by this bit of news. No, mustn't. Instead, it's worth dwelling on an interesting fact there, between the lines. Even someone with a pretty slight knowledge of the literature on the Algerian conflict (okay, I confess it) will immediately know which book Kissinger recommended to the president. It's obvious.
First published 30 years ago, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne, very quickly established itself as the standard account of that period available in any language.
The author had been a member of the British military in the 1940s and a foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in the early 1950s, before going on to write a three-volume history of warfare between France and Germany. He must know how to talk to people: Savage War reflects an extraordinary degree of access to participants in both the Algerian guerilla movement and the French occupying forces. Certainly no French historian had written anything comparable in scope or balance. Perhaps none could -- the passions of the conflict itself having been followed by years of public amnesia.
When Horne's book first appeared, it seemed to be an account of one major, but now largely closed, chapter in the history of postwar decolonization. Subsequent developments -- in Algeria and elsewhere -- have made the past prologue. Savage War has become a de facto textbook for American military officers facing time in Iraq. Doubtless it has close students on the other side, as well.
In recent years, used copies of the book have fetched at least $100 apiece online. Fortunately a paperback reprint has recently been issued by New York Review Books (the publishing house associated with the journal).
In a preface to the new edition, Horne notes that the Israeli press once mentioned that Ariel Sharon's favorite bedside book was a Hebrew translation of Savage War. He then quotes, with approval, a comment by Amos Elon, an eminent Israeli journalist and social critic. Sharon "must have tragically misunderstood it," wrote Elon. "That book could not tell him what to do, but it could have told him what not to do."
Horne goes on to spell out what George Bush and Tony Blair might have learned from a careful study of Algeria. His point is much the same as the one made by Elon. "At the very least," he says, "its lessons might have imposed caution before getting involved in Iraq in the first place."
He notes "at least three areas where the echoes are particularly painful, if not deafening."
One was how easily a guerilla force could maximize its impact through a focused and demoralizing use of force. The National Liberation Front (FLN) initially concentrated its firepower, not on the French military, but on members of the Algerian police who remained loyal to France. The result, writes Horne, was "a deadly loss of morale among the police, with defections to the FLN, and the French army defensively reduced to protecting the police, instead of concentrating on active 'search and destroy' missions." Sound familiar? "The 'insurgents' in Iraq," writes Horne, "have learned from this strategy with deadly effect."
A second parallel is the effect of porous borders. Geography is destiny. Whatever advantage the French army might secure within Algeria itself at any given moment, it was "paralyzed by its inability to pursue its FLN enemy across into its friendly bases in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco." Change that to "Syria and Iran" and the scenario is as familiar as the day's headlines.
Finally, Horne points to "the vile hand of torture; of abuse, and counter-abuse."
Let's be clear about something: Horne is no sentimental idealist. There is a reason that military officers study his work. He's pretty hardboiled. So when he says that one of the major lessons he learned from Algeria is that "torture should never, never, never be resorted to by any Western society," it isn't out of insufficient realism.
"In the production of reliable intelligence, regardless of the moral issue, torture is counter-productive," he writes. But it also proves disastrous in other ways.
Horne places less emphasis on morality than morale. And in that regard, torture is a weapon that can be relied upon only to blow up in your face. "In the Algerian War," he concludes, "what led -- probably more than any single other factor -- to the ultimate defeat of France was the realization, in France and the world at large, that methods of interrogation were being used that had been condemned under the Nazi Occupation." Torture is also a gift to the enemy, given "the propaganda value even the least substantiated rumors of it can arouse."
Another new reprint, this time from University of Nebraska Press, harkens back to the Algerian War's closest equivalent to dissemination of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The Question, by Henri Alleg, was published in France in 1958 and soon banned by the government, which only guaranteed that there was a huge audience for the clandestine edition that soon appeared.
Alleg was a French-born journalist for an Algerian Communist newspaper (the same one for which Albert Camus had been a cub reporter in the 1930s) who was arrested by the French military in 1957. The authorities wasted little time before putting him to "the question," as the idiom for torture called it. He managed to write a narrative of the experience while still in prison. It was smuggled out and published,, and very quickly translated into numerous languages -- attention for it benefiting, to no small degree, from the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre.
The Question appeared in England and the United States in 1958, but the book has been out of print for decades. Sometime in 2002, James D. Le Sueur, an association professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, decided that the time was right for a reprint. "I don't remember the exact date," he told me in a phone interview, "but it was before the abuse scandals."
Unfortunately his intuition was very good.
It made sense to think of University of Nebraska Press, in part because the publisher had already issued Le Sueur's edition of the wartime journal of Mouloud Feraoun, an important Algerian intellectual. Two years ago, Nebraska also brought out a revised edition of Le Sueur's book Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria.
There was also the matter of convenience. "I'm a faculty member," he says, "so I could just walk over to the press’s office."
ReadingThe Question now, you get flashbacks to the past few years, including the discussion over "waterboarding" -- an interrogation technique we were assured, from some quarters anyway, is really not that bad.
Alleg does not use the expression, but he describes waterboarding from the victim's side. After enduring a few sessions of electrocution, he was tied to a plank, a tube stuck in his throat, and a rag rapped around his head. "When you want to talk, all you have to do is move your fingers," one of the torturers told him.
"And then he turned on the tap. The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breath in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn't hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save myself from suffocation. In spite of myself, the fingers of my two hands shook uncontrollably."
Cheered by this sign that Alleg is ready to surrender, the torturers stop for a little while. Then they get really mad because he still won't talk. So under the faucet he goes, three more times -- passing out, waking to vomit water, and to endure the beatings. And this is only the beginning.
“My case is exceptional,” Alleg writes, “in that it has attracted public attention. It is not in any way unique.” If anything, as a French citizen, he got off lightly: Muslim prisoners were treated much worse.
As we discussed Alleg’s book, Le Sueur mentioned another title that I’ve heard of, but never read: The Gangrene. Published about a year after The Question, it provided an account of the “muscular interrogations” (as another euphemism puts it) of Algerian immigrants in France itself. The torture spread, like gangrene.
That book, too, is long since out of print. The English translation from 1960 was by Robert Silvers, who went on to found The New York Review of Books. It seems like a good candidate for a new edition.
On the other hand, making such books available only does limited good, in itself. In the preface to the new edition of Savage War, Alistair Horne notes that he sent a copy to Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 “at the suggestion of his staff.” For his trouble, he got a polite but dismissive reply.
Everything is bound to change, of course, given that there is a new Secretary of Defense. And the president is reading Savage War now -- all to the good. Things will really start to improve once he begins to apply what he’s learned. That’s assuming, of course, the Pentagon is actually building a time machine.
Imagine that there is a reactionary and theocratic regime somewhere in the world -- one that routinely violates human rights, censors newspapers, harasses labor unionists, and punishes women for “sex outside of marriage” (even when they committed that "crime" by being the victims of rape). Suppose the regime does all this, and more, while enjoying friendly relations with the United States. Not so hard to picture, I'm afraid, realpolitik being what it is. We used to give big fat foreign-aid checks to the Taliban, remember.
But let's go further. Let's imagine that (in spite of everything) there are eloquent and courageous critics of the status quo within the country who fight to get a hearing. They organize, they demonstrate, they publish; they exploit every opportunity available to put forward an alternative vision of their society. The dissidents find that their fellow citizens, especially young people, are interested in what they have to say. They also often find themselves, no surprise, in prison.
Furthermore, let's picture the ranks of that opposition as filled with eloquent and well-read academics and intellectuals -- men and women who turned out, hard questions already formulated, whenever Jurgen Habermas or Antonio Negri showed up to give a lecture.
Courageous, committed, and smart.... What's not to like? Wouldn’t their peers in the United States want to do everything they could to support the dissidents? Wouldn’t there be solidarity groups, and teach-ins, and militant slogans hailing their cause as urgent and just?
Okay, now suppose that all of the above were true -- except for the part about the regime having U.S. support. Suppose, rather, the thugs in charge were full of anti-imperialist sentiment, ready to denounce most of the evil in the world as an American export....
You probably see where this is going.
“In hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Iranian intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists in recent years, I invariably encounter exasperation,” writes Danny Postel in Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, a recent addition to the Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series distributed by the University of Chicago Press. “Why, they ask, is the American Left so indifferent to the struggle taking place in Iran? Why can’t the Iranian movement get the attention of so-called progressives and solidarity activists here? Why is it mainly neoconservatives who express interest in the Iranian struggle?”
Postel, a senior editor of the online magazine openDemocracy, sees the Iranian situation as a crucial test of whether soi-disant American “progressives” can think outside the logic that treats solidarity as something one extends only to people being hurt by client-states of the U.S. government.
“Of course we should be steadfast in opposition to any U.S. military intervention in Iran,” he writes; “that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. Iran is, as the Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini puts it, ‘a state at war with itself.’ Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”
Postel’s title is a nod to Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading “Lolita” in Tehran, of course -- but also to Habermas’s work of social analysis from the book from the early 1970s, Legitimation Crisis. The role that recent European critical theory has played in Iran is a topic revisited by Postel in the booklet’s four sections -- one of them being a reflection on Michel Foucault’s journalistic writings on the Iranian Revolution, and his failure to discuss it after the clerical dictatorship was established. The highlight of the book is an extensive interview with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo that deserves the widest possible audience. (Fortunately it is also available online.)
Habermas’s concept of “legitimation crisis” refers to periods when, as his translator sums it up, “the ‘organizational principle’ of a society does not permit the resolution of problems that are critical for its continued existence.” That notion may apply to Iran now. The viability of a regime has gone seriously into question when it feels threatened, not just by war clouds on the horizon, but by its own young people’s interest in studying philosophy.
But after reading this short book, I had to wonder if there might be another legitimation crisis under way – one affecting American scholars and activists who see themselves as progressives, who thrill to that oft-repeated demand to "speak truth to power." An unwillingness to extend support to the Iranian opposition puts into question any claim to internationalism, solidarity against oppression, or defense of intellectual freedom.
I sent Danny Postel a few questions by e-mail. Here’s a transcript of the exchange.
Q: You contend that the American left has shown an unseemly reticence about supporting oppositional movements in Iran: human-rights activists, feminists, journalists critical of the theocracy, etc. You say that there has been a double standard at work -- a tendency to express solidarity with movements if, but only if, the regimes they oppose are American client states. Is that something you've done yourself, in the past? If so, what made you question that tendency?
A: I came of age politically in large measure through the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s. As I say in the book, our solidarity with struggles for justice in places like El Salvador was simultaneously a struggle against U.S. policies in the region -- namely, its support for death squads and murderous regimes. So there was a confluence between what we were against and what we were for: it was all of a piece.
But in a case like Iran, being against U.S. aggression and military intervention -- which we should indeed oppose, and strenuously -- doesn’t necessarily tell us how to think about the internal situation in Iran, or logically lead to a position of solidarity with the kinds of oppositional movements you mention. There’s no direct or obvious link, in other words, between what we’re against and what we’re for with respect to Iran. Most leftists are better at thinking about the first half of that equation, and tend to get confused (or sometimes worse) when it comes to the second half.
So yes, my political consciousness was very much formed within that paradigm, the framework of anti-imperialism. In the 1980s I was definitely less than enthusiastic about the idea, for example, of supporting dissident movements in Eastern Europe. I never sympathized with, and indeed was appalled by, the Soviet empire. Somehow, though, the prospect of standing in solidarity with those resisting it from inside just didn’t stir me.
In retrospect I’m self-critical about that. I now think people like Mary Kaldor (from Helsinki Citizens Assembly) and Joanne Landy (of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy) -- among others on the Left -- were spot on in simultaneously opposing U.S. militarism and supporting democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Eastern Europe. I retroactively stand with them and wish I had been with them at the time.
Realizing that I got it wrong on that front is partly why Iran is important to me. Though I don’t discuss it much in the book, the parallels between Eastern Europe and Iran are manifold -- many of the philosophers and political thinkers who inspired Eastern European dissidents loom large for Iranian dissidents today (Arendt, Popper, Berlin). But the more direct reason for my engagement with Iran is personal: two close Iranian friends, over the course of countless conversations and e-mail exchanges, convinced me that something truly remarkable was happening in Iran, both politically and intellectually. The more I read and explored, the more I was hooked. And I’ve been asked to get involved, for example in the Committee for Academic and Intellectual Freedom of the I nternational Society for Iranian Studies, through which I’ve made more friends. Some of my friends in Iran have been jailed. So my involvement in the issue has become very personal.
My book is an attempt to engage the Left in an argument about Iran. We -- myself included -- have gotten a lot of things wrong. I desperately want us to get Iran right.
Q: So how do you account for the persistence of the blindspot? Is it intellectual laziness? A preference for moral simplicity? At the same time, isn’t the desire to avoid saying anything that could be useful to the neocons at least somewhat understandable?
A: One doesn’t want to generalize: There are different reasons in the cases of different people. I would say that each of the factors you mention plays a part. In some cases it’s one more than the others; in many cases it’s a combination.
Yes, I do think the desire to avoid saying things that could be useful to the neocons is somewhat understandable. But it can also be a cop-out. It was actually more understandable back in 2002-5, when the neocons were endlessly frothing on about their support for democracy and human rights in Iran and it wasn’t as clear to the naked eye how bogus those claims were. Over the last year, however, there’s been a palpable and significant, though largely unnoticed, shift in neocon rhetoric about Iran. They rarely talk about democracy and human rights anymore. They now frame their stance in the terms of Iran as a security threat, with a rotating focus on (depending on the month) Tehran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah, or its role in Iraq. And they’ve ratcheted up the threatening rhetoric, many of them explicitly calling for a military attack.
That puts them at direct odds with the democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran, who are unequivocally opposed to any U.S. attack on their country. With the outbreak of the Israel/Hezbollah/Lebanon war in July-August, several neocons came out of the closet, if you will, as supporters of a war on Iran, calling, in the pages of The Weekly Standard and elsewhere, for the bombing to begin. Since that time there’s been virtual silence from the neocons about democracy and human rights in Iran. How can they claim to support either, when democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran stand diametrically opposed to them on the question of attacking Iran?
That lie is up. What is now blindingly clear to the naked eye, for anyone who cares to look, is that the neocon agenda vis-à-vis Iran has never been about democracy or human rights. What the neocons want in Tehran is a pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli regime; whether it’s a democratic one or not is an entirely secondary matter to them. And Iranian dissidents know this, which is why they want nothing to do with the neocons. Note that the funds the State Department earmarked last year for democracy promotion in Iran met with a resounding thud among dissidents, who see right through the neocons and their agenda.
This is not only a critique of the neocons, though; it’s also a challenge to those on the Left who have bought into the neocons’ Big Lie about being the bosom buddies of Iran’s dissidents. Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons. Utter and complete tripe. Perhaps, as I say, understandable in the past, when it wasn’t as transparent what empty hogwash the neocons’ posturing was. But now that the neocons’ real cards are on the table and their pretense of solidarity with Iranian dissidents has been shattered, the Left can no longer use the neocons as an avoidance mechanism.
Leftists should be arguing not that we might say things that the neocons could put to nefarious ends but, on the contrary, that neocon pronouncements about Iran are fraudulent and toxic. The neocons are hardly in a position to employ anyone’s arguments about human rights and democracy in Iran when they themselves have forfeited that turf. Indeed it’s not the neocons but rather liberals and leftists opposed to attacking Iran who turn out to be on the same page with Iranian dissidents on this Mother of All Issues. It is we who stand in solidarity with Iranian human rights activists and student protesters and dissident intellectuals, not the Bush administration or the American Enterprise Institute.
I intend this point to be both disabusing, on the negative side, and a call to arms, on the negation of the negation side, if you will: Iranian dissidents are actively seeking the support of global civil society for their struggle. Not the support of the Pentagon or the neocons or foreign governments, but of writers, intellectuals, and human rights activists. We ignore their message at both their peril and our own.
Q: Intellectual life in Iran sounds much livelier than one would expect under a theocracy -- if also no less precarious. If you could ensure that every American academic knew about at least one or two of the serious debates taking place there, what would they be? If there were a Tehran Review of Books (maybe there is one?) what would be the recent headlines?
A: The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo speaks poignantly to this question in our dialogue. Citing Sartre’s line, “We were never more free than under the German occupation,” Jahanbegloo observes: “By this Sartre understands that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France. I always repeat this phrase in relation to Iran. It sounds very paradoxical, but ‘We have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic’. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values.”
Habermas was struck by this on his visit to Iran in 2002. A young Iranian political scientist told him that, despite the many constraints and problems in Iran there is, as Habermas paraphrased him, “at least a political public realm with passionate debates.” There really is that palpable sense of vitality in Iranian intellectual life, a feeling that debates about democracy and secularism are deeply consequential in a way that they aren’t here. And yes, the element of precariousness looms large. In a dark irony, within weeks of Jahanbegloo making that observation, he was arrested and spent four months behind bars .
Iranian intellectuals are constantly navigating the Islamic Republic’s red lines: magazines and journals are routinely shut down; scholars and journalists are in and out of prison -- or worse. But as Jahanbegloo’s Sartrean observation suggests, that precariousness plays a huge role in giving Iranian intellectual life its vibrancy and sense of urgency.
There is, as it happens, something like a Tehran Review of Books — it’s called Jahan-e-ketab, which would translate World of Books. And there’s an intellectual journal called Goft-o-gu ( Dialogue). And fancy this: Iran’s leading reformist newspaper, Shargh, had on its staff (until the government banned it in September) a full-time “Theoretical Editor.” Imagine an American newspaper -- not a quarterly journal or a monthly or weekly magazine, but a mass-circulation daily newspaper -- having a “theoretical” section! That alone speaks volumes about Iranian intellectual culture.
What you find in the pages of Jahan-e-ketab and Goft-o-gu and the late Shargh and a philosophical journal like Kiyan, before it too was banned in 2001, are debates about things like modernity ( tajadod in Persian, a huge theme in Iran) and secularism; liberalism and democratic theory; feminism and human rights; universalism and value pluralism. A recent issue of Goft-o-gu, for example, featured an essay on Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” and another arguing against the tendency to blame outsiders for Iran’s problems (what the historian Ervand Abrahamian once cleverly called “The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics”). There are also intense discussions going on among religious intellectuals about things like the separation of religion and the state; whether Islam can be synthesized with universal human rights; and the proper place of faith in public life.
If you were to compare the tables of contents of Iran’s leading journals of critical thought with their counterparts in the West, the similarities would be striking, particularly in terms of the thinkers around whom the debates tend to revolve: Kant (of whose writings there have been more translations into Persian than into any other language over the last decade), Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Arendt, Popper, Isaiah Berlin. Interestingly, these ideas often serve as the nodal points for secular and religious debates alike. Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s leading dissidents, is currently abroad assembling a book of conversations he’s conducting with the likes of Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen, Robert Bellah, and Nancy Fraser, among others. There you have it.
Q: You note that the oppositional movements in Iran are emphatically not asking for support from the U.S. government -- let alone military action. At the same time, it sounds as if some intellectuals and activists there, finding no solidarity among their peers on the left abroad, end up warming somewhat to the American neoconservatives, who at least pay attention to them. How is that contradiction playing itself out?
A: The Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi speaks to this when he observes : “I know far too many Iranian leftists who have gone neo-con as a result of their feeling of abandonment by the American and European left. I wish they had not gone that route.”
But as I said earlier, things have changed on this front. Afshin wrote those lines in June 2005. That was much more the case then than it is now. The neocons have thoroughly squandered any sympathetic vibration they might have enjoyed with Iranian dissidents in the past. Their adoption of a belligerent and bellicose stance toward Iran has severed any pretense of standing in solidarity with progressive forces in Iran. Indeed that bellicosity has served to make the situation for Iranian dissidents and human rights activists dramatically more perilous.
Every threatening pronouncement from Washington strengthens the hand of the most reactionary and repressive forces in Iran and puts the opposition in ever more dire straits. The irony is that Ahmadinejad is actually on the defensive at home, facing growing disenchantment — but, as Ali Ansari and many others have pointed out, the hawks in Washington are tossing him a lifeline. The neocons are Ahmadinejad’s best friends, and are doing massive damage to the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran.
For these reasons, sympathy for the neocons among Iranian dissidents is nil. But that doesn’t translate into an automatic love fest with the western Left. Progressives in the west have to make an effort to connect up with our Iranian counterparts, to enter into a dialogue with them.
Q: Is there anything specific that oppositional intellectuals in Iran need now, in particular, from any Americans who are in solidarity with them?
A: The number one thing we can -- and must -- do here is to prevent the U.S. government from taking any military action against Iran. That is the Mother of All Issues right now. It’s the sine qua non for any solidarity with dissident intellectuals and human rights activists; the minute the first bomb is dropped the democratic struggle in Iran will be derailed for the foreseeable future, maybe for decades. That message has to be articulated as emphatically as possible over and over until Bush and Cheney leave office.
I’ve long believed a U.S. military attack on Iran to be highly unlikely, and I still think the chances are against it -- but the signals emanating from Washington over the last several weeks have me thoroughly worried. Let’s just say we should prepare for the worst and be on offense rather than defense. We can't wait until it’s too late. There’s a preponderance of arguments against military action on Iran. In fact it’s disturbing that it’s even being discussed. But among the myriad arguments one can offer -- the most obvious being the humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe it would unquestionably produce -- one of the most important, it seems to me, is that the democratic struggle in Iran would be dismantled by it.
It’s already in serious peril just by virtue of the threatening storm currently gathering momentum in Washington. This is the Present Danger, if you will: even if the current maneuvering is actually posturing calculated to bulldoze Tehran, which many suspect it to be (and let’s hope they’re right), it’s an extremely hazardous game with potentially cataclysmic consequences and has to be brought to an end immediately.
It would be highly useful for antiwar activists in the west to know what democratic dissidents, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and liberal intellectuals in Iran have to say on the issue of a US attack on their country. Most antiwar activists in the west would be hard pressed to even name an Iranian dissident, let alone rehearse their arguments. I’d like to see that change.
Antiwar activists and progressive intellectuals in the west should know, and be prepared to say extemporaneously in public debate, what the likes of Shirin Ebadi , Akbar Ganji , Emadeddin Baghi , Abdollah Momeni , and Ramin Jahanbegloo think — most pressingly, what they think of a US military attack on Iran, but also what they think about the human rights situation in Iran, the nature of the Islamic Republic, and what members of global civil society can do to support them. Indeed we should be in conversation with them, and with many other Iranian progressives — writing articles about them, inviting them to speak at our universities, learning as much as we can about them. To use something of an old-fashioned formulation, we should make their struggle ours.
“HITS WITH THE APPROXIMATE FORCE AND EFFECT OF ELECTROSHOCK THERAPY” raved Roger Kimball’s review in The New York Times, as quoted on the paperback jacket of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a surprise best-seller in 1987 and the opening salvo in a ceaseless conservative war against the academic and cultural left. On the 20th anniversary of The Closing, and 15 years after Bloom’s death, the most salient issues concerning Bloom are his role in neoconservative Republican circles and his semi-closeted homosexuality, possibly culminating -- as in Saul Bellow’s thinly fictionalized account in Ravelstein -- in death from AIDS.
In Bloom's introductory chapter to his 1990 collection of essays Giants and Dwarfs, titled "Western Civ," previously published in Commentary, he responded to the reception of The Closing as a conservative tract by claiming that he was neither a conservative ("my teachers--Socrates, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche -- could hardly be called conservatives") nor a liberal, "although the preservation of liberal society is of central concern to me." He saw himself, rather, as an impartial Socratic philosopher, above political engagement or "attachment to a party" and denying, against leftist theory, that "the mind itself must be dominated by the spirit of party."
A close re-reading of his books, however, confirms that they are lofty-sounding ideological rationalizations for the policies of the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Bloom rages against the movements of the 60s -- campus protest, black power, feminism, affirmative action, and the counterculture -- while glossing over every injustice in American society and foreign policy (he scarcely mentions the Vietnam War).
Bloom’s personal affiliations further belied his boast of being above “attachment to a party” and captivity to “the spirit of party.” Today these statements appear to go beyond coyness into the kind of hypocrisy that has become boilerplate for conservative scholars, journalists, and organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni or National Association of Scholars, whose leaders vaunt their dedication to intellectual disinterestedness while acting as propagandists for the Republican Party and its satellite political foundations. The magazine in which Bloom made these boasts, Commentary, and its then-editor Norman Podhoretz, were prime examples of this hypocrisy. Podhoretz proclaimed in his 1979 book Breaking Ranks about Commentary, “I could say that the reason for our effectiveness [against the New Left’s alleged subordination of intellectual integrity to political partisanship] was a high literary standard.” But in the 80s he turned Commentary into a fan mag for President Reagan and in 1991 commissioned David Brock, in his self-confessed “right-wing hit man” days, to write an encomium to the intellectual gravitas of Vice President Dan Quayle.
For years, Bloom was co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago, which received millions from the John M. Olin Foundation. That foundation, whose president was William J. Simon, multimillionaire savings and loan tycoon and Secretary of the Treasury under President Ford, at its peak spent some $55 million a year on grants "intended to strengthen the economic, political, and cultural institutions upon which ... private enterprise is based.
William Kristol wrote a rave review of The Closing in The Wall Street Journal (where his father was on the editorial board), which is also quoted on the paperback jacket; he was at the time Vice President Quayle's chief of staff, and is now editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard. Kimball, the Times reviewer, was an editor of The New Criterion, and yet another Olin beneficiary. (So much for the Times’ fabled vetting of reviewers for conflicts of interest.) The supposedly liberal mainstream media have been complicit at worst, silent at best, in these conflicts of interest concerning Bloom and other conservative culture warriors, as in failing to consider how much the success of The Closing was attributable to Republican-front publicity channels. Yet conservatives have the chutzpah to accuse liberal academics and journalists of cronyism!
More significant for today is Bloom’s influence as mediator between the ideas of his mentor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss, and what has become known as the “neconservative cabal” of Straussians behind the Iraq War in the administration of George W. Bush. Paul Wolfowitz was Bloom’s student; Bellow’s Ravelstein says of Wolfowitz’s fictitious counterpart, “It’s only a matter of time before Phil Gorman has cabinet rank, and a damn good thing for the country.” Ravelstein depicts Ravelstein’s apartment as a high-tech communications center with a Wolfowitz-like disciple in Washington and other movers and shakers in international affairs during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, including the Gulf War -- in which Ravelstein and his protégés (few of whose real-life counterparts ever served in the military) privately condemn President Bush for a failure of nerve in not taking Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein.
Avowed Straussians invoke Strauss’s key ideas such as the defense of the manly, militaristic exercise of power by nation-states acting for virtuous ends, the running of government by a behind-the-scenes intellectual elite serving as advisors to the ostensible rulers, and the elite’s use of “noble lies” extolling patriotism, war, religion, and family values, to manipulate the ignorant masses into supporting pursuit of tough-minded realpolitik. My sense, however, is that Strauss’s, and Bloom’s, high-minded philosophical formulations of these ideas have just been vulgarized by Republicans as a pretext for unprincipled American imperialism, hypocritical manipulation of their conservative base’s faith in “moral values,” opportunism by would-be Machiallevian advisors-to-the-Prince, and the kind of tawdry autocracy, secretiveness, venality, and lying that came to mark George W. Bush’s administration. Bellow portrays Ravelstein reveling in the money, celebrity, and influence in Republican politics that ironically resulted from his best-selling book that decried such vulgar distractions from the life of the mind. He is thrilled at being feted by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, as Bloom was. The implicit moral is that intellectuals, whether of the left or right, who aspire to be the erudite power behind the throne typically end up groveling before it.
Even more anomalously, in the past decade or so, conservative attacks on liberal academics -- whom Bloom and others like Podhoretz earlier accused of betraying scholarly non-partisanship and intellectual standards -- have taken a turn toward ever-more-stridently populist, partisan derision of scholarship and intellect altogether. I made this point in an a column here last year with reference to David Horowitz inciting know-nothing Republican state legislators like Larry Mumper of Ohio and Stacey Campfield of Tennessee to government interference with academic freedom under the banner of The Academic Bill of Rights. (All of the bloviating conservative commentators on my column evaded the issue of conservative flip-flopping between elitist and ad populum lines of argument.)
Horowitz, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh have presented themselves as champions of the rights of the ordinary people against the latté-sipping “cultural elitists” in university faculties, media, and politics itself -- as in the belittling of John Kerry in 2004 as French-looking, or the derision of Al Gore’s scholarly demeanor. Thus Bloom continues to be revered by conservatives, without their registering the bothersome fact that he advocated precisely the kind of cultural elitism that they now savage. (Never mind his atheism and preference for ancient Greek over Judeo-Christian culture, or his tidbits of gay lingo, as in his half-admiring description in The Closing of Mick Jagger, “male and female, heterosexual and homosexual ... tarting it up on the stage.”
All these contradictions in Bloom’s texts and life are an exemplary case of the long-running schizophrenia of American conservatism in what resembles the old Good Cop-Bad Cop routine -- Good Cop intellectuals who lay claim to aristocratic traditions and high moral or academic/intellectual standards, and Bad Cop philistines who are the public face of conservatism, in presidents from Coolidge to Reagan to Bush II, in vulgarian billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife, along with the corporations and their executives whose pursuit of ever-increasing profits debases culture to the level of the lowest common denominator of taste. The baddest of the Bad Cops are rabble-rousing enforcers like Coulter, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and Horowitz. It is the utter failure of Bloom and other conservative intellectuals to dissociate themselves from or even acknowledge the vulgar variety of conservatism, that ultimately exposes the hypocrisy of their lofty ideals and their selective indignation against every variety of liberal/leftist villains.
The same compartmentalized thinking that enables highbrow conservatives to champion Straussian-Bloomian elitism yet not speak out against philistine conservatism has enabled them to evade the issue of Bloom’s homosexuality, particularly in regard to Bellow’s Ravelstein. Bellow avowed that his Ravelstein was modeled on Bloom in virtually every detail. The novel’s narrator, a Bellow near-double and Ravelstein’s best friend, repeatedly insists that Ravelstein designated him as memorialist and instructed him to tell the unvarnished truth. That Bloom like Ravelstein was and notoriously misogynistic, is undisputed. In an article on Ravelstein in The New York Times Magazine, D.T. Max quoted Wolfowitz saying that in Bloom’s Chicago circle when he was alive, “‘It was sort of, Don’t ask, don’t tell.’” But whether Bloom had AIDS is disputed. Bellow’s narrator explicitly describes Ravelstein having the symptoms and medical treatment for HIV. After galley proofs circulated, Max reports that pressure was put on Bellow to revise, and he backed down to the extent of telling D.T. Max, “‘I don’t know that [Bloom] died of AIDS, really. It was just my impression that he may have.’” Yet Bellow subsequently made only minor revisions in the passages about HIV for the final book.
Furthermore, both Bloom and Ravelstein had a young, long-term male companion, whom they held in high regard and made their heir. In the galleys, they are said to be lovers, but in the published version Ravelstein “would sometimes lower his voice in speaking of Nikki, to say that there was no intimacy between them. ‘More father and son.’” Ravelstein also “disapproved of queer antics and of what he called ‘faggot behavior.’” Yet Bellow’s narrator also says Ravelstein “was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways.” Ravelstein himself says, “I’m fatally polluted. I think a lot about those pretty boys in Paris. If they catch the disease, they go back to their mothers, who care for them.’’
A rather vague sequence in which the dying Ravelstein says he still obtains sexual relief from “kids,” and asks the narrator to write a check for an unidentified one, is apparently a censored version of a passage in the galleys that, according to Christopher Hitchens in The Nation, read as follows:
Even toward the end Ravelstein was still cruising. It turned out that he went to gay bars.
One day he said to me, “Chick, I need a check drawn. It’s not a lot. Five hundred bucks.”
“Why can’t you write it yourself?”
“I want to avoid trouble with Nikki. He’d see it on the check-stub.”
“All right. How do you want it drawn?”
“Make it out to Eulace Harms.”
“That’s how the kid spells it. Pronounced Ulysee.”
There was no need to ask Ravelstein to explain. Harms was a boy he had brought home one night. . . . Eulace was the handsome little boy who had wandered about his apartment in the nude, physically so elegant. “No older than sixteen. Very well built...."
I wanted to ask, what did the kid do or offer that was worth five hundred dollars....
James Atlas’s biography of Bellow confirms Hitchens’ account of the galleys and adds, “On one occasion [Ravelstein] recruits a black youth from the neighborhood to satisfy him, insisting that he practices ‘safe sex.’” The racial factor here is disturbing, especially since the passage immediately follows a scornful comment by Ravelstein about the South Chicago “ghetto.” It also highlights the absence of any mention in The Closing of the vast black “neighborhood” that surrounds Bloom’s idyllic University of Chicago.
Atlas’s Bellow biography, published shortly after Ravelstein in 2000, contains only a few pages about the novel tacked on at the end, which cite Max and Hitchens but add little to their accounts of Bloom, other than the above sentence and another saying, “A frequenter of the sex emporiums of North Clark Street, Bloom confessed to Edward Shils that he ‘couldn’t keep away from boys.’”
Now, both at the time of Bloom’s death, when the obituaries labeled his cause of death a combination of bleeding ulcers and liver failure, and subsequently, the issues of Bloom’s predatory homosexuality and AIDS have been evaded by Bloom’s allies. Bellow’s own accounts are quite confusing. After proclaiming that Ravelstein was a true-to-life homage to his great friend Bloom, it would seem malicious beyond belief for him to have fabricated out of whole-cloth a character “destroyed by his reckless sex habits,” whom he knew everyone would identify as Bloom -- especially if, as he later claimed in the Max interview, he really didn’t know the truth.
These questions might not be worth dwelling on if Bloom and his book had not been canonized by social conservatives and Straussians, both of whom anathematize homosexuality and sexual promiscuity of all kinds. If Bloom’s private life was indeed louche, doesn’t that render suspect the encomiums in The Closing to Platonic love, especially in The Symposium, and Bloom’s denunciation of modern sexual license? And might the stonewalling by Bloom’s allies be an instance of the Straussian “noble lie”? (In his Commentary review of Ravelstein, Podhoretz, who elsewhere rages against homosexual promiscuous “buggery” and pederasty, displayed his infallible double standard toward leftist adversaries versus rightist allies in ignoring the more tawdry details to give Bloom dispensation for keeping his homosexuality discreetly closeted, and in accepting at face value Bellow’s late disclaimer about Bloom having AIDS.) Indeed, the Bloom case might be paradigmatic of neoconservatives’ predisposition toward dissembling and covering up vices in their own ranks that belies their exacting of moral rectitude from everyone else.
“Pessimism of the intellect,” runs a familiar saying from the Italian revolutionary theorist Antonio Gramsci, “optimism of the will.” In other words, plan as if the worst-case scenario were inevitable, but act with all the vigor and confidence necessary to win in the (very) long term. It is an inspiring quotation -- or seemed to be, the first several thousand times I heard it.
Gramsci himself suffered years of imprisonment under Mussolini; his laconic advice had a certain moral authority. When it caught on among American leftists during the Reagan years, things were not nearly that bad. But we kept reciting it, and eventually the repetition wore Gramsci's incisive formulation down into a trite formula. It came to embody not courage so much as a mood of profound ineffectiveness.
While interviewing Todd Gitlin recently for an Inside Higher Ed podcast, I was tempted to ask if he had deliberately avoided using Gramsci’s line in his new book, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals, just published by John Wiley and Sons.
Gitlin was once president of Students for a Democratic Society, the largest of the New Left organizations in the 1960s. Now he’s a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. In recent years, he has greatly annoyed some people by suggesting that the American left has not only painted itself into a corner, but even revels in its own marginality and distance from power.
“Doesn’t defeat taste sweet in a good cause?” he asks in the introduction to The Intellectuals and the Flag, a collection of essays that Columbia University Press published in 2006. “The honest truth is that negativity has its rewards and they are far from negligible.... It grants nobility. It stokes the psychic fires. Defeated outrage cannot really be defeated. It burns with a sublime and cleansing flame. It confirms one’s righteousness. It collapses the indeterminate future into a burning present.”
Against this, Gitlin has counseled a less strident and more pragmatic-minded approach to progressive politics -- one that places economic concerns ahead of questions of culture and identity. Richard Rorty made the same call in his book Achieving Our Country (Harvard, 1998), which advised radicals to “put a moratorium on theory” and “try to mobilize what remains of our pride in being Americans” by learning to ask itself “how the country of Lincoln and Whitman might be achieved.”
Naturally this did not go over very well in some quarters. It was dubbed “left conservatism,” and denounced in solemn convocations. The debate unfolded while Bill Clinton was still in office (if just barely, for a while there) and soon exhausted itself without, it seems, any participant changing anyone else’s mind.
Perhaps Gitlin, Rorty et al. were right that a combination of Nietzsche and Nader was a recipe for political irrelevance. But they often seemed to be treating the “cultural left” as scapegoats for failures that mainstream American liberalism had achieved by its own devices. (Identity politics did not put Dukakis in a tank. No queer theorist bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan.)
At the same time, the academic radicals who complained about “left conservatism” were clearly quite content talking only to themselves. When Judith Butler announced that "the critique of cultural iconicity is the means by which cultural iconicity is achieved," it was not the sort of slogan anyone would want to put on a banner. Maybe the old fogeys who preferred “an injury to one is an injury to all” did have a point.
Today we are several disastrous years downstream from that heated exchange. A lot has changed, but not everything. The radical instinct to form a circular firing squad remains unchanged; it is in the genome, probably. Still, the reflex has been interrupted from time to time by distractions from the White House and Iraq. The president’s impending appointment with the dustbin of history -- taking Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” with him, it seems -- permits and even requires some effort to imagine a change of course in the near future.
None of the leading Democratic candidates really counts as a person of the left (no matter what crazy uncle Larry says on his “Down with Marxist Hillary and Obama Commie” blog). One of Gitlin’s points in his new book is that even the forces calling for a relatively modest sort of liberal reformism are only one part of the “big tent” of Democratic activism.
And even were the Democrats in control of the executive and legislative branches, the fact is that the Republican Party will still be able to rely on its organizational “bulldozer” -- capable of staying relentlessly on message, even (and especially) when reality gets in the way. It is “a focused coalition with two, and only two, major components,” writes Gitlin, “the low-tax, love-business, hate-government enthusiasts and the God-save-us moral crusaders.”
In contrast, the Democrats subsume “roughly eight” constituencies, by Gitlin’s reckoning: “labor, African Americans, Hispanics, feminists, gays, environmentalists, members of the helping professions (teachers, social workers, nurses), and the militantly liberal, especially antiwar denizens of avant-garde cultural zones such as university towns, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and so on.”
This is not the place to rehearse Gitlin’s whole analysis. He gave an overview of the book at TPM Cafe recently, and our podcast discussion covers some of the major points.
But it seems worth noting that Gitlin's earlier complaints about “identity” and the jargonizing folkways of the academic left, while not entirely absent from The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, are much less prominent here than in some of his other writings. He appears to recognize that said cohorts do indeed have a place under the big tent -- over in the section for “the militantly liberal” and “antiwar denizens of avant-garde cultural zones.”
The more I think about this, the less sure I am what to make of it. And it’s not just being called a denizen. (You get used to that.)
Treating labor as one constituency and defining it as distinct from blacks, Latinos, feminists, and gays might make sense insofar as each has its own lobbying apparatus inside the Beltway. But in real life (and in the polling booth, for that matter) the terms of identity are by no means clearcut. Gitlin refers to Jesse Jackson’s role as “the voice of post-sixties interest-group liberalism.” Which is maybe fair enough, as far as it goes -- but it doesn’t account for Jackson’s surprisingly strong primary showings among white labor unionists in 1988.
Gitlin writes that now, as the Bush period comes to an end, we may be able at last to “get on with an adult discussion of how Americans may afford health care and decent housing, win decent employment and fair wages, dampen inequalities, stifle murderous enemies, and sustain a livable earth for generations present and future.”
Well said. Speed the day. And when it comes, a large helping of realpolitik will be essential. (Inspirational passages from Antonio Gramsci, maybe not so much.) To repair the damage done to this country over the past six years might take decades -- and that’s putting things with all the optimism anyone can reasonably muster.
But any progressive force that is up to the task will need to do more than tolerate its own multiplicity. It will have to be able to build on its actual strengths -- not all of which are credited by the “left conservative” tendency to treat economic egalitarianism as the primary criterion for social progress.
Ten years ago, state recognition of civil unions (let alone marriage) between same-sex couples was not really part of the public debate. Today, however, it is. The Republican party has to spend a considerable part of its energy defending the principle that the right to get drunk in Vegas and have a wedding must be restricted to a specific configuration of participants. This makes them look kind of silly to a lot of people, including some Republicans.
When a significant portion of the public accepts the idea that gays and lesbians have at very least a right to civil unions, this raises the possibility that the "bulldozer" might just fire its engine into overdrive and go flying off a cliff.
Now, to be frank, I am enough of a “left conservative” to wish that we were discussing nationalizing the oil companies instead. But realpolitik means working with what you’ve got.
Any tendency to regard “mere” cultural politics as a distraction from assembling the forces to launch another is not a matter of being tough-minded and practical. It means ignoring the battles you are already winning -- and taking for granted the forces that have led the fight. There are various things to call such a strategy, but “pragmatic” would not be one of them.
During two blustery days last January, a number of youth mobilization scholars and activists from across the nation convened at the Johnson Foundation Wingspread Conference Center at Racine, Wisconsin. The goal of the gathering was to discuss efforts to register and turn out young voters in the previous midterm election, and to chart strategies for the 2008 election. There was considerable excitement, perhaps even jubilation, over the apparent rise in youth voting. We had turned the corner, many proclaimed, and we had reason to celebrate. Peter Levine, of the University of Maryland, reminded the gathering, however, that while youth turnout seemed to be on the rise, a scant 25 percent of those under 30 went to the polls in 2006. In a historic midterm election, just one of four young Americans had bothered to vote.
It was a splash of cold water.
A few months earlier, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) had issued a report on the civic literacy of American college students. The report concluded that America’s colleges fail to increase their students’ knowledge about America’s history and institutions, and that students are “no better off than when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed engagement in a democratic republic.” Not only are students not learning what they need to participate in a democracy, but the report found that graduating seniors know less than their freshman counterparts -- a phenomenon the authors of the study term “negative learning.” The nationally representative survey of over 14,000 students highlights a coming crisis in American citizenship and links low levels of political knowledge with lackluster participation in activities related to citizenship.
Part of the culpability rests in the nature of voter mobilization efforts. In the drive to register and mobilize as many young Americans as possible, and to do so at the lowest possible costs, many youth engagement organizations focus on populations predisposed to becoming engaged -- what we might call harvesting the low-hanging fruit A fundamental problem with “more-is-always-better” approach is the premium put on quick contacts. If one technique registers 20 new voters per hour, and the other just 10, the former must surely be “better.”
For most of us working in the youth engagement field - both on campuses and off - the goal is to help create better citizens, not simply new voters. Although we view registration and voter mobilization as important (indeed, the organization that we direct, the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, participated in a large, goal-oriented registration program in 2006), we see it as an initial step toward broader engagement and expanded civic enlightenment. Voting is not an end, but rather a beginning.
So what avenues are available to college-level instructors to create better citizens? We believe educational institutions are on the front lines of this important battle. Specifically, introductory courses in American government can provide a wellspring of education for political engagement and civic literacy. In order to maximize the potential of this course, however, there must be a frank discussion of why it is important and how traditional teaching methods often fail to inspire informed and active citizenship.
The ISI study mentioned earlier found that when colleges and universities require history, political science and economics courses, civic learning increases. The study also finds that civic learning increases when an institution is committed to excellence in teaching and pedagogical innovation.
Indeed, at Allegheny College we recently surveyed 350 instructors of college-level American government courses from across the country. Over 89 percent of respondents felt that instructors of American government should work to engage students in the political process, and a full 96 percent believed that an American government college-level course can help engage young Americans.
But achieving this potential will be no easy task. Anyone who instructs an American government course knows the challenges: large classes, a wide range of student abilities, numerous important topics to cover, and cynical and unprepared students. Our survey found the greatest challenge was a lack of student interest. What is an instructor of American government to do with this Catch-22?
We consider the results of the ISI study and our survey to be a call to arms for institutions of higher education and instructors of American government. In particular, the traditional introductory courses in American government hold the key to increasing political knowledge and engaging young citizens. Several states, such as Oklahoma, Texas and California, have mandated basic American government courses for their students, and many colleges and universities have moved in this direction. This equates to quite a broad audience (nearly 800,000 students per year) for up to 45 hours each semester. Some of these students, especially those taking the course only because it is required, are reluctant participants with little previous exposure to political institutions and processes. These students’ political leanings and habits may not be established. The American government course represents an immense opportunity for plugging students into the critical processes of democratic participation.
Political scientists and instructors of American government courses bear a particular burden, as we understand the fragile nature of democracy and the importance of representative citizen participation. Most of us in the field long ago jettisoned the behavioral, value-free approach to political science instruction. We are also the most familiar with new research and potential solutions to the disengagement problem. We have the most opportunities to reach the students who are the least engaged. Luckily for us, we are the ones teaching American government courses – and therefore the ones who have the power to make a significant difference.
We pose the following challenges to two institutions - higher education and philanthropic organizations. To our colleagues who teach American government, we urge you to enter into discussions about the importance of this class and consider requiring it for all political science majors. You may even decide to call upon your college or university to mandate the class for every student. You should also find ways to engage students in course material through active learning and service learning; encourage normative participation, such as in partisan politics; actively teach citizenship skills; and integrate participatory skills with political knowledge.
For our colleagues in philanthropic organizations, we urge you to fund the teaching of citizenship education and the teaching of participatory skills with the same passionate commitment that you fund voter registration drives.
Political scientists bemoan today’s disengaged youth, while occasionally celebrating modest increases in turnout. We decry young people’s lack of knowledge and civic skills and their lack of desire to effectuate change in their democracy. Have we succeeded in our efforts if they vote but are not engaged citizens? The solution is waiting for us in the classroom down the hall. The American government course can and should teach the next generations how to be the keepers of their own government.
Melissa K. Comber and Daniel M. Shea
Daniel M. Shea is professor of political science and director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College. His most recent books include The Fountain of Youth: Strategies and Tactics to Engage Young Voters, and Living Democracy. Melissa Comber is assistant professor of political science at Allegheny.