“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.
Not long ago, this column tried to launch into the world a neologism that seemed clumsy but (alas) necessary: “Islamophobofascism.” Indignation at this coinage was not surprising, of course; nor was it long in coming. That the expression was presented with tongue at least slightly in cheek seemed obvious. But not obvious enough, perhaps. Islamophobes hate it when you compare them to fascists.
And in any case, the joke was on me. One week later, David Horowitz’s young supporters at Michigan State University celebrated Islamofascism Awareness Week by hosting a speaker from the British National Party – one of those groups that, until recently, held that the Holocaust did not happen, but that if it had happened, which it didn’t, the whole thing would have been totally understandable. It seems they have rethought this question and now conclude that there was a Holocaust, after all. Apart from conducting subtle historical debates, the BNP has increased the efficiency of Britain’s skinheads by, so to speak, giving them a list of the kinds of people they should concentrate on beating up.
It seems that Islamofascism Awareness was a howling success, and that another such week is already being planned for the spring, but I’m sure everyone will be more careful in the future. It might sound like a really fun idea to hold a torchlight parade, for example, and end with a rally calling for Muslims to be put in special camps – but it’s probably to be a fiasco, public relations-wise. You live and you learn.
Some who objected to the term “Islamophobofascism” clearly had certain difficulties in regard to reading comprehension – objecting, for one thing, that I downplayed the menace of terrorism. Actually I made perfectly explicit that ignoring it is not an option for someone who lives in a bull’s eye city like Washington, DC. But it doesn’t follow that stirring up the nativism and xenophobia of your fellow citizens strikes all of us as the best way to deal with such anxieties.
Just for the record, it might be a good idea to spell out very clearly something that was implied in that earlier column:
The organizers of stunts like Islamofascism Awareness Week are the “useful idiots” of jihadism. They are directly helping the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. Short of stealing plutonium or blowing yourself up, one of the best things you can do to help spread terrorism is to support efforts that make the United States look like the enemy of Islam. Just remember, Al Qaeda is counting on you to raise “Islamofascism Awareness.”
That may sound like hyperbole. It isn’t. I mean it as literally as possible. Leaders of Al Qaeda have spoken on the matter, and their message is clear.
A blueprint and timeline for global jihad can be found in a book called Al Qaeda: The Second Generation, by Fouad Hussein, a Jordanian journalist who befriended a circle of then-obscure mid-level leaders when they were imprisoned in Jordan during the 1990s. One of them, a jihadi named Abu Musab, al-Zarqawi, went on to bigger things. According to Hussein, this circle developed a strategic perspective intended to unify the Muslim world against the West by 2020.
Hussein’s work was serialized in 2005 by Al-Quds Al-'Arabi, an Arabic publication based in London. It seems not to be available in translation – an astonishing circumstance, all things considered. I learned of it through the extensive synopsis provided by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark in their new book Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, published last month by Walker & Company.
The crux of the younger generation of jihadi strategists’ thinking – so runs the account in Deception – turns on their realization that 9/11 had yielded only limited benefits for Al Qaeda. It might cheer up some of those with animosity toward the American behemoth, but it didn’t really advance jihad that much. At the end of the day, hostility towards the U.S. was a much weaker force in the world than respect for the power of the dollar. Even spectacular acts of destruction were just not enough. A long-term plan was required.
The challenge was to destroy American “soft power” while stoking rage within the Muslim world. To go beyond the “Awakening” created by 9/11, it would be necessary to begin a second stage that the planners referred to as “Opening Eyes.” This phase would have two aspects – one per eye, I suppose.
One eye would be opened when ordinary Muslims saw that the United States and Europe were fundamentally hostile to Islam itself. This process would advance when “draconian laws [were] enacted in North America and Europe which appeared ... to discriminate against even well-integrated Muslims,” write Levy and Scott-Clark. The other eye would open through intensifying sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The cumulative effect would be to halt and reverse any influence that the non-Islamic world might have upon the faithful. If everything went well, “Opening Eyes” would take until about 2006.
Mission accomplished! Of course, the Iraq war has been valuable to Al Qaeda, and not for inciting new hostilities between Sunni and Shia. It opened a recruiting station and training ground for holy warriors,conveniently located and funded by the American taxpayer. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of activities such as Islamofascism Awareness Week in consolidating the success of “Opening Eyes.” According to Hussein’s account of Al Qaeda’s strategic thinking, it is absolutely vital for long-term plans that educated and capable people from Islamic countries feel unwelcome in the United States.
The important thing is for smart young Muslims to stay home – keeping their brains and money safely contained within Muslim countries. That will preserve them from baleful outside influences. It will also mean that Al Qaeda will have a better crack at recruiting them – thus carrying forward the later phases of the plan.
In keeping with the extended metaphor of awakening and activating future jihadi warriors, the current phase of operations (stage three) is called “Rising and Standing Up.” Its goal, in short, is to destroy secular authority within the Islamic world. By the early years of the next decade, the Al Qaeda strategists expect to be able “to burn Arab oil, to use gold rather than dollars, harming the global economy, and to launch a sustained period of cyberterrorism,” write Levy and Scott-Clark.
“The U.S. would by then be weak,” they write in their paraphrase of Hussein’s book, “and unable to shoulder responsibility for the current world order. Instead, Washington would retreat into isolationism, impacting on Israel’s ability to defend itself. All these events would enable the fifth stage, the declaration of an Islamic state between 2013 and 2016, a period when Western influence would have been so greatly reduced in the Islamic world that resistance to al-Qaeda’s ideas would be negligible.”
The sixth phase, “Total Confrontation,” calls for atomic, biological, and chemical assault by “faith against atheism.” The final conflict should be complete by 2020.
Hussein’s book is “wide-ranging, difficult, and in places impenetrable,” write Levy and Scott-Clark, “with plenty of it unsourced and some of it unintelligible.” Its author “stressed that he had gone to extreme lengths to verify most of what he had been told,” they note, but “the nature of the organization and the war it is involved in made it impossible for Hussein to straighten out all of the allegations put to him.”
It was, nevertheless, a best-seller. Whatever challenges it might pose to a translator, this Al Qaeda version of the Pentagon Papers seems like it would have an audience in English. We might want to pay attention to one bit in particular.
“Those who had spoken to Fouad Hussein between 1996 and 2002,” report the authors, “claimed that an American-led war in Iran over its nuclear programme was what they were working towards. The US would be unable to resist assaulting Iran’s nuclear sites, they predicted.” It would be a welcome development for Al Qaeda (which is Sunni) since leveling Iran would be a blow at the Shia. The country would then be opened up to Sunni influence.
As Levy and Scott-Clark note, the whole scenario would sound improbable if it didn’t seem to be working. And if American campuses turn into places where no Muslim feels welcome, that would mean a nice little boost to recruitment. Indeed, it sounds like the jihadis are positively counting on it.
The 2008 elections have created some bizarre situations, particularly in Iowa, home of the first votes during the caucuses on January 3. After years of struggles to get more college students to vote and engage in politics, it is strange (and disappointing) to watch Democratic candidates suddenly declaring that students shouldn’t vote.
The debate over student voting was sparked when Barack Obama’s campaign gave out 50,000 fliers on college campuses declaring, "If you are not from Iowa, you can come back for the Iowa caucus and caucus in your college neighborhood." Since Obama has the strongest support of any candidate among college students, and many out-of-state students in Iowa come from his home state of Illinois, this was no surprise. But the reaction may have startled Obama, who worked in the field of voting rights as a lawyer and a law professor at the University of Chicago.
Hillary Clinton proclaimed, "This is a process for Iowans. This needs to be all about Iowa, and people who live here, people who pay taxes here.” Apparently that doesn’t include the out-of-state students who pay higher tuition in Iowa, not to mention the various taxes on their books, supplies, and pizza, and the income taxes on their salaries.
A Clinton spokeswoman went even further, “We are not systematically trying to manipulate the Iowa caucuses with out-of-state people. We don't have literature recruiting out-of-state college students.”
It wasn’t only the Clinton campaign that complained. Chris Dodd’s Iowa director, Julie Andreeff Jensen, said in a statement: “I was deeply disappointed to read today about the Obama campaign's attempt to recruit thousands of out-of-state residents to come to Iowa for the caucuses.... That may be the way politics is played in Chicago, but not in Iowa." Even Dodd’s wife claimed about voters, “They really resent it when candidates try to sign up people who are not really from Iowa.”
But encouraging young people to vote is only something to resent if you think students shouldn’t be voting. Actually, pretty much everything about the Iowa campaigning has a manipulative feel to it, including the Clinton campaign’s efforts to oppose the Obama campaign’s recruiting of students. After all, Hillary Clinton polls badly among college students, so she has few votes to lose. Instead, her campaign is skillfully appealing to the most xenophobic prejudice of older Iowa residents: the fear of people from Illinois.
This Illiniphobia is generated from many sources, from Big Ten rivalries to traditional border state snobbery, accentuated by the fear of big, bad Chicago and all its evil, urban influences. And not coincidentally, this fear goes along nicely with Clinton’s race against the junior senator from Illinois, Chicagoan Barack Obama.
Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen wrote a blog post called “The Illinois Caucus” that denounced Obama’s efforts. According to Yepsen, “While it’s legal for college students to register to vote in Iowa to do that, this raises the question of whether it’s fair, or politically smart” since it “risks offending long-time Iowa residents.” Yepsen proclaimed: “We have to respect the integrity of this caucus system.” But part of the integrity of the process is encouraging everyone who lives in Iowa to vote, even if they’re a college student from out of state.
As Rock the Vote tells students, “As a college student, you have the right to vote from the residence that you consider ‘home,’ including your campus residence.” Here’s the law nationwide: Anyone can register to vote where they live. College students typically “live” in two places, their campus address where they spend most of the year, and the home address of their parents. Students can choose where they wish to register. There’s nothing illegal at all so long as you don’t vote twice in the same election. College students from other states are “outsiders” only in the sense of their hometown. There is no fraud here, nor any danger of fraud.
This is a fundamental issue of voting rights that should be core for all people, even if you think the students in Iowa may not vote for your favored candidate. Ever since 18 year olds have been allowed to vote, in some college towns, officials have worked hard to try to stop students from voting, fearing that these students might, if organized, wield enormous influence. After all, no one would dare to express the fear that “too many” African-Americans or Latinos might vote in the election.
Mike Connery of Future Majority called this opposition to voting by college students "advocating voter disenfranchisement." Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "Barack Obama doesn't believe that we should disenfranchise Iowans who meet all the requirements for caucus participation simply because they're in college... We should be encouraging young people to participate in the political process - not looking for ways to shut them out."
Rock the Vote cites many examples of attempts to attack student voting rights. In 2004 near Prairie View A&M (a historically black university located in a majority white county in Texas), District Attorney Oliver Kitzman publicly declared, “it’s not right for any college student to vote where they do not have permanent residency,” and threatened to prosecute students who tried to register to vote. In 2004, after several students at the College of William & Mary ran for city council in Williamsburg, Virginia, the local register declared four students did not live in town and could not run for office or vote there. In February 2007, a state representative in Maine even proposed a bill to ban students from voting where they go to college.
As a New York Timeseditorial pointed out, “Political campaigns and elected officials have used a variety of tactics over the years to keep students from voting. There are often too few voting machines, so lines stretch for hours. Sometimes, students are falsely told that they will lose financial aid, health care or even car insurance if they vote while attending school.”
I've seen those long lines. On Election Day in November 2004 at Illinois State University, I witnessed enormous lines of students snaking through the student center, waiting for up to three hours after the polls closed for the opportunity to vote. The president of the university issued a statement praising this tremendous outpouring of student civic interest. I saw something much different: a fundamental injustice that threatened voting rights. After all, in the areas where students mixed with non-students, such as my home, the wait to vote was about 15 minutes. In some places with almost no students, the wait was negligible. Yet the Republican county officials hadn’t planned for a large student vote (which happened to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats).
Long lines to vote aren’t merely a terrible inconvenience; they threaten the ability of many people to vote. For students who have to go to class or go to work, a three-hour wait isn’t always possible. And even the most civic-minded person would have to think twice before standing for hours just to cast a vote. Local governments in college towns are rarely responsive to student needs for the simple reason that students usually don’t vote in local elections, and they like to keep it that way. If you encourage students to vote for president, they might get used to the idea of democracy and start to want local representation, too.
College officials could do a lot more to assure the right of students to vote because they have influence in the community. They must work to ensure that adequate supplies and facilities are available for precincts on and near campus, so that students don’t have to wait in longer lines than everybody else. In Iowa, where the caucus will occur during winter break, Grinnell College students coming to caucus will sleep on a gym floor, while the University of Northern Iowa is planning to keep open some of its dormitories to accommodate students.
Of course, civic engagement must mean much more than mere voting. The understanding of democracy among college students must focus on much more than just the first Tuesday in November. For the next year, all colleges should create a civic engagement program to encourage students to participate not merely in elections but in the broader scope of public activity, such as debating what policies are best for the country, and which candidates are the best to elect to federal, state, and local offices.
But the quest to promote civic engagement by college students must begin with access to the ballot box.
Although we have a long way to go until the end of primary season, the turnout of younger voters has been high so far. As one of many watching CNN, and waiting patiently for our turn to weigh in, I’m impressed with those crowds of cheering college students bobbing their candidate signage. High school and college students are out in force for most all of the candidates (particularly Paul, McCain as of late, and Obama), although the youth vote leans Democratic at this moment. Journalists witness their passion as we do, with surprise and delight. For researchers who have spent our academic careers puzzling over elections, public opinion, and political communication, it simply couldn’t be a more promising start to an election year. Time will tell whether the so-called “youth vote” will sustain, build, or diminish come November. But at this point, thanks to the lack of an incumbent, some interesting candidates, YouTube, and the new structure of the primary season, scholars of political behavior and those who want to promote student engagement have many positive developments to scrutinize.
Public Service and Elections
Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when college students were a force in both electoral politics and the shape of political culture, campuses became quieter, although certainly not silent. We have seen compelling moments of intense student political activity since then, during election campaigns and in response to American policies abroad. Students made impressive showings on campuses across the nation in the 1980s, for example, protesting U.S. involvement in Central America or pleading with their administrative leaders to re-examine investment in South African apartheid. But there is no question that campuses are quieter than they once were, with regard to national electoral politics.
This is not to say students have been apolitical. Identity politics is an important and legitimate form of political engagement, and students have participated with vigor in critical and celebratory campus efforts related to race, gender, and sexuality. And conservative and liberal students have both been admirably outspoken on matters of free speech across the nation. Students do look outward, contrary to the oft-heard complaint that they are self-obsessed or egomaniacally pre-professional. In fact, anyone who has spent significant time on campuses in the past few years knows that there has been a tremendous awakening of interest in community, with students volunteering in great numbers to support K-12 programs, environmental efforts, faith-based organizations, HIV-prevention, anti-poverty initiatives, and more. This earnest collective effort, which these days tends to start in high schools -- has now become a central aspect of campus life: Sororities, fraternities, sports teams, honor societies, and whole classes can be found tutoring, cleaning up communities, and flexing their muscles as citizens in the very best sense of that world.
We watch this student heavy-lifting in public service with respect and awe. I recall a far less impressive set of undergraduate years: My fellow students and I spent many more hours playing Frisbee with bandana-sporting dogs on the quad than we did mingling with neighbors outside the campus gates. The altruism and generosity of our students are precious, and should be encouraged and admired. But those of us who study American politics worry that all the student public service we see might not quite take the turn from humanitarianism toward electoral politics. Shouldn’t these civic tendencies somehow lead to campaign participation, voting, and policy debate, in order to have the greatest effects?
Among students, sitting aside the tremendous surge of interest in public service and the public good, is an ambivalence or even distaste for conventional politics. In my experience, with the exception of some political science majors and a few others who somehow find their way to electoral politics, what the Democrats and Republicans (local, state, or national) are up to is a real bore. In general, students find “public policy” to be mind-numbing, once they find out what it really involves: hearings, complex budget maneuvering, extended debate, long periods of inactivity, professional lobbyists, tabled bills, and often, watered-down legislation.
And we in political science don’t help much. While the texture of everyday life in the United States is determined largely by state and local governments -- so vital in taxation, public health, education, and crime control -- state and local politics research is viewed as among the less “sexy” areas of expertise in political science. A typical college or university American political science curriculum is dominated by courses on the presidency, Congress, the courts, or national media, public opinion, elections, and political behavior. We do a poor job of bringing state and local politics to our students through the curriculum, and so it is no surprise that what government does feels very far away. It is something that happens in Washington, and affects them in some abstract way that they are told matters, but feel only slightly.
What we see, then, is an odd bifurcation in students’ sense of citizenship. They feel a deep sense of belonging through their community service: They’ve worked in the soup kitchens, tutored struggling elementary school kids, cleaned up parks, and aided staff in grim mental health centers. But this activity composes only one aspect of citizenship. Commitment to place -- being a caring member of a community -- is a critical dimension of American citizenship, but so are political knowledge, the exercise of rights, and pro-active engagement in conventional elections and governance.
Can we move our students from their current understanding of citizenship as belonging and local engagement, and take them to a more complex (and, granted, often dull) form of citizenry? Can we link their local public service, humanitarianism, and intense feelings of global citizenship (even if often Starbucks-inspired) to American electoral politics -- the “meat and potatoes” arena from where U.S. domestic and foreign policy actually emerge?
We can do all these things, but only if we have students paying attention in big numbers, as we may well have in 2008. It takes work on our part and theirs, and not only through political science courses.
Making the Most of 2008
Again, it’s a long year ahead with an extraordinarily fluid political environment and many twists and turns to come. But in the meantime, I have been reflecting the sorts of venues that enable us to work best on enduring aspects of citizenship, including forging those local-national politics links with our students. Professors and administrators should do the usual things: pursue candidates to speak on campus, encourage voter registration and “get out the vote” drives, and talk with students about the election where we can. In addition, though, we must structure the discussion on campus for the longer term.
I have failed as often as I have succeeded in my attempts to focus students constructively on national campaigns. So, let me close with some rules of thumb that might be helpful in using Election 2008 most effectively:
1. Don’t organize any election event without students leading and organizing. I am embarrassed to admit how many election-oriented forums I have organized or tried to organize, with refreshments, that resulted either in non-events or in a panels of my distinguished colleagues outnumbering students in big empty lecture halls. Even on the most frenzied October election season evenings, our students are still pulled in many different directions, so don’t count on them coming to a forum even if you’ve lined up your leading campus experts and famous authors.
2. Use current media advertising as a starting point for discussion. One of the best and most enjoyable ways to discuss elections with students is to show them what’s being aired, for their critique and to spur debates. While our students are on the Internet always, they don’t sit down and watch broadcast television in real time very often, so they likely are missing the advertisements that most Americans see each evening. A format for student discussion that enables them to see what other (particularly older) voters see, works. And it’s a fine moment to pursue that ever-elusive “media literacy” we hope our students leave college with. Although Web sites like YouTube are for younger Americans, the abundance of both official campaign advertisements and political films by amateurs are a welcome bonanza for the scholarly analysis of public opinion formation and political rhetoric.
3. Polls may often be dubious and annoying, but they do engage. The reason we see so many “horse-race” polls during election years is that this quantitative discourse has become -- for better or worse -- the way media (and therefore voters) engage elections. The polls shape our discourse because we follow the journalistic lead: We too want to know who is ahead, and strategize the expectations game along with the pundits. Polls -- or a census is more likely -- of dorm floors, students waiting in bank or bank lines, and in classes, are inevitably and chronically exciting. Use them for good, and don’t worry too much. I find that students in the minority on our campuses are typically fairly vocal and proud, so I haven’t seen much of what political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls the “spiral of silence” (fear of isolation due to the expression of a minority opinion).
4. Capture the energy, prepare for the letdown. Even if you use Election 2008 as a teaching moment, inside the classroom or out, and achieve tremendous student engagement and passionate display, it will end in a big thud after Election Day. I have counseled many students out of post-election depression, even when their candidates won. There is a way to -- during the height of the excitement of October -- start funneling the passion into experiences that will make our students truly great citizens for the long term. Think about bringing local and state officials -- legislative staffers are particularly good at this, and are thrilled to speak on campus -- to speak with students about how the local and national politics are connected, or about the way majorities and minorities, after elections are over, shape the nature of public policy.
5. Think about talk. While we discuss the campaigns and policies of our favored candidates, we should -- without dampening discussion -- try to push our students to argue better and more effectively. This is exceedingly difficult, especially as the election get heated and students have invested time and hard work in particular campaigns. The more involved they are in a campaign, the less they want to listen to debate. But the campaign is a time when the “culture of argument” is vibrant, and we need to consider how to keep it going long after the election is over. We now have so many fine scholarly works on the pedagogy of controversy, on what makes for meaningful political discussion, and on how to teach argument. It is best to read these works before the onslaught of the fall campaigns, and to keep the enduring nature of political talk in mind, as we help our students evolve into even better citizens than we are.
Susan Herbst is executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia. She is also professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
In 1963, when I was graduating from college, a book was published entitled Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by the noted historian Richard Hofstadter.
In exploring anti-intellectualism as a major current of American culture, Hofstadter examined various facets of our nation’s history over time. He described how those living in rural areas grew suspicious of urban life. He analyzed how utilitarianism and practicality, associated with the world of business, were accompanied by a certain contempt for the life of the mind. He devoted special attention to evangelicalism, although we should perhaps more specifically define his target as fundamentalism, a literal-minded approach to the Bible that involved hostility to all forms of knowledge that contradicted scripture or sought to interpret it as a set of historical documents reflecting the context of its production. He noted how all of this combined to make the term “elite” a dirty word.
This exploration of American national character, which was very much a product of his times, notably the atmosphere of fear and distrust that characterized the Cold War, is still quite timely today. Which is why I felt compelled to re-read Hofstadter’s book last summer. And why I was particularly interested in reading an update and homage to Hofstadter by Susan Jacoby, whose book The Age of American Unreason was published just this year.
Jacoby brings Hofstadter’s arguments into the present, illustrating them with examples from the times in which we live today. She talks about the powerful role played by fundamentalist forms of religion in current America; about the abysmal level of public education; about the widespread inability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience; about the dumbing-down of the media and politics; about the consequences of a culture of serious reading being replaced by a rapid-fire, short-attention-span-provoking, over-stimulating, largely visual, information-spewing environment.
She, like Hofstadter, invites us to consider how all of this has affected the great venture that is American democracy? So, let us do so.
Once upon a time, the leaders of our country were the kind of men -- and, let’s face it, it was a men’s club at the time -- who were learned, who valued scholarship and science. The American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 at the instigation of Benjamin Franklin, counted also among its early members presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
In adopting as its mission the promotion of “useful knowledge”, the American Philosophical Society reflected a time in which the sciences and the humanities were not divided from one another, and in which there was no opposition between what we might now call pure and applied science. What it did reflect was an opposition between Enlightenment values of reason and empirical research, on the one hand, and what we might call “faith based” beliefs, on the other. There were clergymen among the early members of the APS, but they were those who felt that their religious convictions did not stand in their way of their desire to be among the most educated members of their society.
That was then. This is now: We have a president who believes that “creation science” should be taught in our schools. As Jacoby points out, we should understand “how truly extraordinary it [is] that any American president would place himself in direct opposition to contemporary scientific thinking."
But let’s not just pin the tail on the elephant here and pick only on the Republicans -- or, to be more precise, on the extreme right wing of the Republican party, since there are, after all (though they may be increasingly hard to locate), moderate, thoughtful -- one might even say, liberal -- Republicans.
Let’s look at the Democrats, at the nomination fight we all followed – followed, it seems, since the early Pleistocene. Here we had two candidates vying to run for President who had been educated at institutions that are among the most distinguished in our country: Wellesley, Yale, Columbia and Harvard. Both candidates were obviously highly intelligent and knowledgeable. Yet both felt the need to play down their claims to intellectuality -- and the winner may still feel that need in the general election. Hillary Clinton chugalugged beer and sought to attach the dread label of “elitist” to her rival. And Barack Obama felt compelled to follow one of the most honest and sophisticated political speeches in recent memory with strenuous displays of folksiness.
And who are we to blame them? If anyone is going to serve as president, the first step is to get elected. What level of intellectual interest and background can political candidates presuppose on the part of our nation’s citizenry? What level of interest in the most important challenges facing us in the years ahead? What level of public demand that assertions be backed up with sound reasoning and actual facts?
To take just one example: citing data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, released in 2005, Jacoby notes that two-thirds of Americans believe that both evolution and creationism should be taught in our public schools. Who would have thought that, all these years after the United States became the laughing stock of the civilized world through international newspaper coverage of the Scopes trial, we would still see the fight we have recently seen in the state of Pennsylvania over teaching creationism in our public schools?
Nor is this simply a matter of religious belief. Many who advocate teaching creationism do so in the name of providing a “fair and balanced” curriculum. This misplaced pluralism, which draws no distinction between the results of scientific inquiry and the content of folk beliefs, is in line with the loose way in which the word “theory” is used, such that Einstein’s “theory” of relativity or Darwin’s “theory” of evolution is on a par with the loose way we use “theory” to describe any kind of wild guess. In this latter sense, “theory” is used as the opposite of “fact”, rather than as a systematic set of hypotheses to explain a variety of facts. Moreover, simply changing the label from “creationism” to “creation science” or “intelligent design” gives this set of untestable and unfalsifiable assertions the veneer of science, which is quite enough for a lot of people who have little or no sense of what real science is.
But let us not let the scientists and scholars themselves off the hook. Jacoby devotes some interesting passages in her book to forms of pseudo-science that were at various times in our history embraced by members of the most educated classes. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we had social Darwinism, which sought to justify differences between rich and poor as a reflection of “survival of the fittest” (which, by the way, was not an expression coined by Darwin). And lest we look upon those benighted forebears too complacently, let us keep in mind that, much more recently, we have had sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which share many of the same faults, though in more sophisticated trappings, as befits the trajectory of the natural and social sciences since the 19th century unilinear evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and others.
Returning to the world of politics, the first presidential candidate I campaigned for myself -- I was 10 years old at the time and we were having a mock convention in my elementary school (those were the days when candidates actually got chosen at the party’s national convention) -- that first presidential candidate was the quintessential, unelectable intellectual Adlai Stevenson, who ran against Dwight Eisenhower. One of the well-known anecdotes about him is the time a woman went up to him after a speech and said, “Mr. Stevenson, every thinking American will be voting for you.” To which he replied, “Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority.”
In her chapter on “Public Life”, which is subtitled “Defining Dumbness Downward”, Jacoby opens by talking about the extemporaneous speech given by Robert Kennedy on April 4th, 1968, when he had just learned, before taking the stage in Indianapolis, that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. Kennedy began by invoking from memory the following lines from Aeschylus:
Even in our sleep, pain which we cannot forget Falls drop by drop upon the heart, Until, in our own despair, Against our will, Comes wisdom Through the awful grace of God.
Jacoby notes how inconceivable it is today that a major political figure, an aspirant to the highest office in the land, would use such a quote, given the pervasive fear nowadays of seeming to be an “elitist." Yet Robert Kennedy was not showing off to his audience or condescending to them. He just assumed that he could address them in this way, whether or not they themselves were familiar with these lines, much less could quote them from memory.
Jacoby’s discussion of the dumbing down of our public, political culture follows a chapter on what she calls “The Culture of Distraction”. She worries over the consequences of our being constantly bombarded by noisy stimuli, by invitations to multitask in a way that fosters superficiality as opposed to depth. The major casualties of our current media-saturated life are three things essential to the vocation of an intellectual: silence, solitary thinking, and social conversation.
She delves into a problem I have recurrently nagged Barnard students about: the isolating effects of new technologies. Many a time and oft, I have urged students to get off their cellphones so that, as they walk along, they can engage in reflection, contemplate surroundings, and talk to those with whom they are actually sharing your physical space.
I also share with Jacoby great concern about the fact that more information is not at all the same thing as more knowledge. We are living in an age when we have GPS and Google maps at our fingertips, but most Americans are unable to locate Iraq on a map, even though we have been at war there for years. Nor do most people feel any interest in doing so. On the other hand, when President Franklin Roosevelt was needing to reassure citizens in the early days of World War II, when things were going very badly in the Pacific, he asked people to go out and buy maps so that they could follow his fireside chat on the radio and understand the geographical challenges facing the military.
Can we ever get back to something like that? To a more educated citizenry, since there can be no true democracy without it?
If there is any chance of achieving such a goal, those of us who have chosen the academic vocation must do our part. In addition to addressing one another, we must address wider publics. And we must make use of new modes of communication as they become available. That means, for example, using cyber channels not just for blogging the like-minded (the Internet fails to achieve its liberating potential insofar as it is composed of myriad gated communities), but for opening new doors. It means learning from and working with journalists who are seeking to achieve the highest ideals of their own profession. And being active citizens ourselves, so that we can help elect the women and men who share our goals.
Judith Shapiro this month ends a 14-year tenure as president of Barnard College. This essay is adapted from her keynote address at this year's Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at the college.
Among the most striking phenomena associated with Barack Obama’s successful bid for the Democratic nomination has been his ability to attract young people to the political process. Youthful volunteers have staffed his campaign. They have used Internet skills to advance his candidacy and build his organization. They have even been among the thousands of small donors who have contributed to his record-breaking fund-raising efforts. In state after state, their support for Obama during the primaries significantly exceeded his margins among voters from other age groups.
The success of the Obama campaign refutes the oft-repeated notion that young people today are uninterested in national politics and are less ready than older generations of Americans to become responsible stewards of our democratic institutions. This resurgence of youthful activism delivers an important message for our colleges and universities.
The disengagement of young people from our country’s political processes after the 1960s has been well documented. Many studies have shown that during the last three decades of the 20th century, young Americans demonstrated less interest in public affairs than had previous generations, and also were less well informed about political and public policy matters, and less likely to vote.
The withdrawal of young people from active interest in public affairs paralleled reduced attention to citizenship by our colleges and universities. While higher education has long claimed as a core mission preparing students for democratic participation, it is a mission honored in recent years mainly in the rhetoric of college catalogs. Few campuses today provide organized or explicit programming with this focus, either inside or outside the curriculum. Most of our academic institutions address this matter only indirectly, by fostering the intellectual skills and qualities -- critical thinking, habits of reading and information gathering, broad interest in the social world -- that studies have shown relate to heightened levels of political participation.
It was not always this way. In the years after World War II, when patriotic sentiment was strong, academics paid extensive attention to the ways in which the undergraduate curriculum could promote appreciation of the ideas, values and experiences that constituted the shared cultural heritage of the country, a movement symbolized by Harvard’s famous report, "General Education in a Free Society." Many institutions established requirements in American history and Western political and social thought. A new emphasis on international studies reflected the country’s emergence as a global power. Outside the curriculum, there was a heightened focus on the ways in which student government could be a vehicle for teaching undergraduates the ways of democratic decision making.
During the 1960s, however, attention to active citizenship fell victim to the anti-governmental impulses inspired by the war in Vietnam. By the end of that decade, academe was far more concerned with promoting the kind of intellectual independence associated with dissent than with helping students understand the workings of democracy. In curricular terms, not much has changed since the 1960s. Indeed, the emphases of recent years on multiculturalism and world history have rendered special attention to a shared American culture or to American history passé or even objectionable from the perspective of many academics.
It would be unfair to blame academe entirely for the disengagement of young people from our political life. Many factors have been involved, not least the many unappealing qualities of contemporary political practice. But higher education, by abandoning attention to preparation for citizenship, has been an enabler of this pattern. In recent years, however, a growing number of educators have expressed concern about our continuing inattention to this matter. Individuals such as Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, and academic organizations including the Association of American Colleges and Universities have argued that we need to revitalize our traditional concern for citizenship education. Organizations such as Campus Compact and indeed the whole service learning movement are promoting civic engagement among college students, although these efforts are typically focused on community service rather than electoral politics.
The students who have responded so enthusiastically to Senator Obama’s campaign are making it clear that they are ready for renewed attention to our democratic institutions by our colleges and universities. It is inevitable, whatever the final outcome of the election, that the heightened interest in politics shown by young people will translate into a heightened receptivity to programming by colleges and universities focused on these matters. Higher education should seize this opportunity.
Not everyone will welcome renewed efforts by colleges and universities to promote political participation. Some, mainly outside academe, worry that higher education’s tendency toward liberal politics is already turning many college classes into indoctrination sessions; those who harbor such worries will not readily trust our campuses to avoid partisanship. Others, mainly inside academe, worry that an explicit focus on strengthening democracy will quickly devolve into nationalistic boosterism.
But recent work by thoughtful academics, most notably through the Political Engagement Project, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, have shown that collegiate programs focused on active citizenship can heighten political awareness and foster greater understanding and participation without greatly affecting the political inclinations of participating students or abandoning an appropriately critical perspective on our country’s policies. Boks’s study outlines a number of ways -- through required course work, extra curricular activities, sponsored events and speakers, and presidential leadership -- that colleges and universities can responsibly promote thoughtful political participation.
Individual institutions should craft their own responses to this moment of opportunity. Institutional characteristics such as scale, complexity, mission, location and educational philosophy will suggest the most fruitful approach to citizenship education in particular contexts. The first requirement of progress, therefore, must be engagement of the campus community -- faculty and staff -- in thinking about how citizenship education can most effectively be pursued. But local approaches will need to address some shared objectives.
The first of these is understanding. It is hard to imagine how an institution can claim to prepare its students for active citizenship if they are allowed to graduate with no knowledge of American history or of our political and economic institutions. The widespread absence of requirements in these areas is an embarrassment to higher education. A second challenge is motivation. Campus plans should seek ways to foster an abiding sense of the value and importance of civic engagement. In this area we have much to build on, given the inspiring surge in social activism among many young people. A final challenge is skill. We need to help students develop the capacity to use the vehicles available to citizens to influence the political process effectively. And we need to think about how to use the entire institution -- both the curriculum and the extra-curriculum -- to meet these challenges.
These will not be easy discussions. They will compel us to think about things we have found difficult, such as requiring students to study certain subjects and treating extra curricular life in a systemic way as part of the educational process. But if we can’t find ways to address these issues, we should perhaps abandon the pretense that our mission includes the preparation of citizens. I hope we will not do that. The country needs us to respond differently. It is time for academia to reassert our historic role in preserving and strengthening our democracy by helping our students appreciate what it is about and how it works. The young people turning out in droves to vote in the 2008 primaries are calling us to pay attention to this issue.
Richard M. Freeland
Richard Freeland is the Jane and William Mosakowski Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at Clark University and president emeritus of Northeastern University.
An auto worker in Detroit during the 1940s and ‘50s, Martin Glaberman later became a professor emeritus in interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State University, in part on the strength of his book Wartime Strikes: The Struggles Against the No-Strike Pledge in the UAW during World War Two. He had also gained some pedagogical experience teaching Das Kapital in small Marxist groups that crystallized around the Caribbean historian and political thinker C.L.R. James. It was through an interest in James that I first got to know Glaberman during the final dozen years of his life. (He died in late 2001.) But it did not take long to become very fond of Glaberman himself, who was a living embodiment of the phrase “gruff but lovable.”
One day, we were talking about C.L. R. James’s problems with American immigration officials during the 1950s. (Being even a staunchly anti-Stalinist radical was enough to make life difficult then. James ended up imprisoned on Ellis Island for a while, as if that were not laying the irony on a little thick.) As a digression, Marty told me about getting his own surveillance file from the local police. Detroit had a “red squad” until at least the 1970s, as did many other cities. In some cases, police departments spent more resources gathering political intelligence than keeping track of organized crime.
The portion of his red-squad file Glaberman saw mentioned that a group called the Third World Liberation Army met in his basement during the late 1960s to receive paramilitary training. Marty said he was surprised to read this. For one thing, it was the first he’d heard of the Third World Liberation Army. And, possibly more to the point, the house he lived in during the late 1960s did not have a basement.
Marty told the story with amusement, and I listened in the same spirit. When people in authority make themselves ridiculous, you can’t help responding accordingly. But the joking mood also had an element of retroactive nervousness to it. The delusions or fabrications of the undercover agent could well have led to real consequences. It was easy to picture Marty being beaten to a pulp by some overzealous SWAT team member who demanded to know where the (nonexistent) arms cache was kept.
That discussion came back to mind a couple of weeks ago when I read the 43 pages of documents that the American Civil Liberties Union recently obtained from the Maryland State Police concerning surveillance of pacifist and anti-death penalty activists between 2005 and 2006. The material is startling and disconcerting -- if not quite filled with the excitement of paramilitary maneuvers in an imaginary basement.
As it happens, two of the individuals named in those documents are people I know. The record shows that they did knowingly assemble with others to incite public opinion against the death penalty through such means as distributing leaflets, circulating petitions, and holding vigils and nonviolent protests. “The group discussed soliciting donations for signs, flyers, and other administrative expenses,” we learn from one top-secret report. “A table will be set up at the Sunday Takoma Park Farmer’s Market to promote the events and their cause. No other pertinent intelligence information was obtained.”
All this sensitive and alarming information was gathered by a woman in her early 20s who identified herself as “Lucy.” When not attending public meetings -- cleverly disguised as somebody who gave a damn -- the agent was busy monitoring the group’s listserv. Her reports mention that she "set up a covert email account" for this purpose.
I will say this much for her: Lucy took good notes. In fact, if you want to see what it looks like when a bunch of citizens take seriously “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (as it says somewhere) -- well, the surveillance logs of the Maryland State Police would be a good place to start.
Such activity was once regarded as evidence of a healthy constitutional democracy -- perhaps even its prerequisite. Thanks to the efforts of Lucy and her colleagues, we now know better. Democracy means you have nothing to complain about, so shut up already.
Actually, my two friends are not shutting up at all. Each wrote an excellent article in the wake of the revelations (available here and here). They, along with others named in the surveillance reports, will also be taking suitable steps. So far, they are being discreet about what that might entail, but one hopes it involves suing the hell out of everybody responsible.
Judged as anything but a symptom of Patriot Act sensibilities at their most deranged, the Maryland surveillance case seems puzzling. It involved using surreptitious means to gather information about activities that were as public as they could possibly be. The meetings were open to anyone who wanted to attend. You could read material about what the groups were doing online. Not one word in the reports suggests any potential for violence, vandalism, foul language, or the involuntary exposure of the public to works of performance art transgressing bourgeois norms. The Maryland State Police appear to have wasted quite a bit of the taxpayers' money.
But a classic article from The American Journal of Sociology -- first published in 1974, not so long after my friend Marty was being surveilled in Detroit -- suggests that there may be a method to the madness.
In “Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant,” Gary T. Marx (now professor emeritus of sociology at MIT) analyzed dozens of examples of police infiltration of dissident groups. A number of such operations had been revealed in the early 1970s, whether through raids on FBI offices by radicals who hauled off documents or testimony by former undercover agents who went public with their experiences. Marx could also draw on the record of earlier generations of surveillance of left-wing and labor organizations, whether by the government or by private agencies.
It is a rich paper, defying quick summary. But when I reread it last week, the yellow highlighter found some passages that seemed like comments on the news from Maryland.
For one thing, the sociologist may well describe “Lucy” -- no small trick, given that she hadn’t been born when the article was written.
“When regular police are used as agents,” writes Marx, “it is often those who have recently joined the force, sometimes having purposely not undergone academy training. Their youthfulness not only makes their access easier, but it also makes them less recognizable as police officers and eliminates the need for elaborate cover stories.... With increased emphasis on college-educated police and programs to facilitate going to school while serving on the force, this seems a natural arrangement.”
Earlier generations of activists had created tight, hierarchical organizations. A spy could penetrate such a group with a reasonable chance of learning things about it not available to outsiders. But by the 1960s, undercover agents were facing a new phenomenon. The protest organizations coming to the fore then consisted, writes Gary Marx, “not of highly centralized, formally organized, tightly knit groups of experienced revolutionaries;” they were instead “decentralized, with fluid leadership and task assignments, shifting memberships, and an emphasis on participation. Members were generally not carefully screened, and requirements for activism were minimal.”
On the one hand, they tended to be naive about infiltration and surveillance. On the other hand, Marx writes, “Most groups had nothing to hide.” More than 30 years later, the description and evaluation still seem apt. Certainly they apply to the groups infiltrated by the Maryland State Police. So why would agents monitor such groups? It is tempting to answer, “Because they can.” But sociological analysis suggests another reason. Gary Marx notes the principle that “the amount of deviance ‘found’ in a society bears some relationship to the number of officials whose job it is to find it. Thus, as facilities for dealing with the crime of ‘witchcraft’ in early America increased, so did the number of ‘witches’ discovered.” (See also Marty Glaberman’s basement.)
When surveillance becomes a field of professional competence, those so certified must find something to infiltrate -- even if it’s just a group handing out literature at the Farmers Market.
As David Horowitz would be quick to remind you, academics tend to skew to the left in their political outlook relative to the general population. I am no exception. Like so many of my colleagues, I have followed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign with interest and excitement. South Carolina had an early primary this year, and nearly all of the major candidates came to speak at Clemson University, where I teach. Obama spoke outdoors, on a chilly and gray afternoon, but the energy he shared with that crowd of teachers, staff, and students made the event the most compelling political spectacle I’ve witnessed personally. The sight of an integrated crowd cheering a black presidential candidate not far from a campus building named in honor of Benjamin Tillman, an ardent segregationist, made politics seem exciting again.
Remembering this sense of exhilaration I sensed in seeing a new field of political possibilities makes the sense of betrayal I feel today even more powerful. By choosing Joe Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama has insulted academics -- students and teachers alike -- a constituency that was significant in bringing him the nomination of his party. Especially in a year that has seen two prominent political careers hamstrung by sex scandals, and in an era where choosing vice presidential candidates seems to be foremost an exercise in avoiding skeletons in the closet, it’s surprising that Biden’s record of plagiarism did not disqualify him from Obama’s consideration.
Joe Biden, you will remember, ran for president in 1988. He delivered a speech that presented the thoughts of British Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock is if they were his own, and was slow to explain or apologize for this transgression. The ensuing scrutiny of Biden’s record revealed that he had also plagiarized in law school, failing a course for doing so. Shortly after these revelations, he dropped out of the race.
The entire affair was a shabby and unfortunate business. Operatives from the competing Dukakis campaign secretly videotaped the offending speech, then leaked it to the press. When Dukakis found out, he fired his campaign manager, John Sasso, and replaced him with Susan Estrich, who turned out to be a much better legal scholar than campaign manager.
To a degree, appropriating Kinnock for a stump speech is an understandable offense. There is not the presumption of original and unique authorship in the words that come out of a politician’s mouth. Just ask Peggy Noonan. However, the phrasing of Biden’s speech, prefaced Kinnock’s sentiments with language that indicated that these were his thoughts. This incident suggests the same kind of troubling indifference to the truth that has been a hallmark of the current administration, but on its own, perhaps not worthy of ending a political career.
The incident in law school is more concerning, at least from the perspective of any educator. The kind of wholesale plagiarism Biden evidently committed, copying chunks of a law review article into a paper with his name on it, suggests an inclination toward the kind of malfeasance present in the Kinnock incident. In every class I teach, I spend time talking about citation, and why it is so important for scholarship. As part of this conversation, I emphasize that acknowledging sources is a condition of membership in the community of scholars: if scholars do not acknowledge sources, they do not belong in this community. By way of illustration, I have sometimes shared the Emory University report on the conduct of former history professor Michael Bellesiles, who undermined a provocative and compelling argument about gun ownership in early America with gross violations of scholarly norms for citation. The report demonstrated serious concerns about his scholarshop and led to his resignation. If Bellesiles had chosen a less contentious subject, he would not have had legions of NRA supporters going through his footnotes, and he might well still hold his tenured position at a prestigious university. However, he presented his research in sloppy and dishonest fashion, and he lost his job.
The point of sharing this report is to establish that citation is not a question of memorizing MLA, APA, or Chicago styles -- whimsical shibboleths involving italics and parentheses -- but that citation is the foundation of honest scholarship. In the sciences, an experiment’s repeatability is the benchmark of its truth; in the social sciences and the humanities, citations perform the same function by allowing a reader to recreate the steps through which a writer established his or her argument. If a professor violates these norms, as Bellesiles did, he can lose his job; if students violate the same norms, they can face expulsion (though it’s much harder to get kicked out of most universities for academic dishonesty than it perhaps should be).
Within the academy, plagiarism is a grievous offense, and one most scholars would agree ought to have consequences. I was sympathetic to Bellesiles’ argument, and actually sent him an e-mail message of support, before the extent of his malfeasance was evident. But I teach the Bellesiles case because it establishes that there are consequences that follow from academic dishonesty. Bellesiles cheated, and he lost his job because of it, and in spite of an argument that continues to make sense.
Joe Biden is not a historian. Joe Biden has several qualities that do make him a good pick for Obama’s VP. On Election Day, I will hold my nose and vote for Obama/Biden. I continue to believe Obama offers the United Sates the best chance of escaping from the disaster of the last eight years. A survey of third party candidates reveals that after the vainglorious spoilsport Ralph Nader, the choices get even more marginal at a quick pace. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will face enormous challenges over the next four years, and I don’t think I can afford to waste my vote on a gesture. But I wish Obama could have located someone with foreign policy experience who did not have Biden’s track record of intellectual dishonesty, because I’d hoped to be motivated to do more this fall than show up and pull a lever for Obama. After this VP choice, however, I feel that’s the most Obama can expect from a constituency he has indicated he takes for granted.
Biden’s dishonesty matters to me in two ways. It suggests something of Biden’s character, indeed, in a realm more relevant to doing his job than was John Edwards’s philandering to his. The other reason is selfish. Now that Barack Obama has deemed a plagiarist worthy of the vice-presidency, it becomes more difficult for me to make the case in the classroom that plagiarism matters. More broadly speaking, Obama’s choice has made it harder for me, and for my colleagues across the United States, to defend the principles that form the foundation of scholarship.
Jonathan Beecher Field
Jonathan Beecher Field is an assistant professor of English at Clemson University.