Politics (national)

The credit hour causes many of higher education's problems, report finds

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The credit hour wasn't supposed to measure learning, for good reason, according to a new report, which recommends how to revise or even drop the standard without leading to abuse.

Review of Howard Ball, "At Liberty to Die: The Battle for Death with Dignity in America"

Of the many strange things in Gulliver’s Travels that make it hard to believe anyone ever considered it a children’s book, the most disturbing must be the Struldbruggs, living in the far eastern kingdom of Luggnagg, not covered by Google Maps at the present time.

Gulliver’s hosts among the Luggnaggian aristocracy tell him that a baby is born among them, every so often, with a red dot on the forehead -- the sign that he or she is a Struldbrugg, meaning an immortal. Our narrator is suitably amazed. The Struldbruggs, he thinks, have won the cosmic lottery. Being “born exempt from that universal Calamity of human Nature,” they “have their Minds free and disengaged, without the Weight and Depression of Spirits caused by the continual Apprehension of Death.”

The traveler has no trouble imagining the life he might lead as an immortal, given the chance. First of all, Gulliver tells his audience at dinner, he would spend a couple of hundred years accumulating the largest fortune in the land. He’d also be sure to master all of the arts and sciences, presumably in his spare time. And then, with all of that out of the way, Gulliver could lead the life of a philanthropic sage, dispensing riches and wisdom to generation after generation. (A psychoanalytic writer somewhere uses the expression “fantasies of the empowered self,” which just about covers it.)

But then the Lubnaggians bring him back to reality by explaining that eternal life is not the same thing as eternal youth. The Struldbruggs “commonly acted like Mortals, till about thirty Years old,” one of Gulliver’s hosts explains, “after which by degrees they grew melancholy and dejected, increasing in both till they came to four-score." The expression “midlife crisis” is not quite the one we want here, but close enough.

From the age of eighty on, “they had not only all the Follies and Infirmities of other old Men, but many more which arose from the dreadful Prospect of never dying.” Forget the mellow ripening of wisdom: Struldbruggs “were not only Opinionative, Peevish, Covetous, Morose, Vain, Talkative, but incapable of Friendship, and dead to all natural Affection.”

It gets worse. Their hair and teeth fall out. “The Diseases they were subject to still continuing without increasing or diminishing,” Gulliver tells us. “In talking they forgot the common Appellation of Things, and the Names of Persons, even of those who are their nearest Friends and Relations. For the same Reason they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their Memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a Sentence to the end; and by this Defect they are deprived of the only entertainment whereof they might otherwise be capable.”

It is a vision of hell. Either that, or a prophecy of things to come, assuming the trends of the last few decades continue. Between 1900 and 2000, the average life expectancy in the United States rose from 49 to 77 years; between 1997 and 2007, it grew by 1.4 years. This is not immortality, but it beats dying before you reach 50. The span of active life has extended as well. The boundary markers of what counts as old age keep moving out.

From a naïve, Gulliverian perspective, it is all to the good. But there’s no way to quantify changes in the quality of life. We live longer, but it's taking longer to die as well. Two-thirds of deaths among people over the age of 65 in the United States are caused by three chronic conditions: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. The “life” of someone in a persistent vegetative state (in which damage to the cerebral cortex is so severe and irreversible that cognitive functions are gone for good) can be prolonged indefinitely, if not forever.

More horrific to imagine is the twilight state of being almost vegetative, but not quite, with some spark of consciousness flickering in and out -- a condition of Struldbruggian helplessness and decay. “I grew heartily ashamed of the pleasing Visions I had formed,” says Gulliver, “and thought no Tyrant could invent a Death into which I would not run with Pleasure from such a Life.”

Howard Ball’s book At Liberty to Die: The Battle for Death With Dignity in America (New York University Press) is a work of advocacy, as the subtitle indicates. The reader will find not the slightest trace of Swiftian irony in it. Ball, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont, is very straightforward about expressing bitterness -- directing it at forces that would deny “strong-willed, competent, and dying adults who want to die with dignity when faced with a terminal illness” their right to do so.  

The forces in question fall under three broad headings. One is the religious right, which Ball sees as being led, on this issue at least, by the Roman Catholic Church. Another is the Republican Party leadership, particularly in Congress, which he treats as consciously “politicizing the right-to-die issue” in a cynical manner, as exemplified by the memo of a G.O.P. operative on “the political advantage to Republicans [of] intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo.” (For anyone lucky enough to have forgotten: In 1998, after Terri Shiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state for eight years, her husband sought to have her feeding tube removed, setting off numerous rounds of litigation, as well as several pieces of legislation that included bills in the US Congress. The feeding tube was taken out and then reattached twice before being finally removed in 2005, after which Schiavo died. The website of the University of Miami's ethics program has a detailed timeline of the Schiavo case.)

The third force Ball identifies is that proverbial 800-pound gorilla known as the Supreme Court of the United States. Its rulings in Washington v. Glucksburg and Vacco v. Quill in 1997 denied the existence of anything like a constitutionally protected right to physician-assisted death (PAD). States can outlaw PAD -- or permit it, as Montana, Oregon, and Washington do at present. In the epigraph to his final chapter, Ball quotes a Colorado activist named Barbara Coombs Lee: “We think the citizens of all fifty states deserve death with dignity.” But the Supreme Court of the United States will not be making that a priority any time soon.

“The central thesis of the book,” states Ball, “is that the liberty found in the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth and Fourteenth ‘Due Process’ Amendments extends... [to] the terminally ill person's right to choose to die with dignity -- with the passive assistance of a physician -- rather than live in great pain or live a quality-less life.” The typical mode of “passive assistance” would be “to give painkilling medications to a terminally ill patient, with the possibility that the treatment will indirectly hasten the patient’s death.”

Ball notes that a Pew Research Center Survey from 2005 showed that an impressive 84 percent level of respondents “approved of patients being able to decide whether or not to be kept alive through medical treatment or choosing to die with dignity.”

Now, for whatever it’s worth, that solid majority of 84 percent includes this columnist. If the time for it ever comes, I’d want my doctor to supersize me on the morphine drip without breaking any laws. Throughout Ball's narrative of the successes and setbacks of the death-with-dignity cause, I cheered at each step forward, and felt appalled all over again while reading the chapter he calls “Terri Schiavo’s Tragic Odyssey,” although it did seem like the more suitable adjective would be “grotesque.” Tragedy implies at least some level of dignity.

The author also introduced me to a blackly humorous expression, “death tourist,” which refers to a person "visiting" a state to take advantage of physician-assisted suicide being legal there.

As a member of the choir, I liked Ball's preaching, but it felt like the sermon was missing an index card or two. As mentioned earlier, the book’s “central thesis” is supposed to be that the due-process guarantees in Constitution extend to the right to death with dignity. And so the reader has every reason to expect a sustained and careful argument for why that legal standard applies. None is forthcoming. The due-process clauses did come up when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in 1997, but it rejected them as inapplicable. This would seem to be the point in the story where that central thesis would come out swinging. The author would show, clearly and sharply, why the Court was wrong to do so. He doesn't. It is puzzling.

Again, it sounds very categorical when Ball cites that Pew survey from 2005 showing 84 percent agreement that individuals had a right to choose an exit strategy if medical care were not giving them a life they felt worth living. But the same survey results show that when asked whether they believed it should be legal for doctors to "assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide," only 44 percent favored it, while 48 percent were opposed. With the matter phrased differently -- surveyors asking if it should be legal for doctors to "give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives" -- support went up to 51 percent, while 40 percent remained opposed. This reveals considerably more ambivalence than the 84 percent figure would suggest.

The notion that a slippery slope will lead from death with dignity to mass programs of euthanasia clearly exasperates Ball, and he can hardly be faulted on that score. A portion of the adult population is prepared to believe that any given social change will cause the second coming of the Third Reich, this time on American soil. (Those who do not forget the History Channel are condemned to repeat fairly dumb analogies.) But the slippery-slope argument will more likely be refuted in practice than through argument. Whether or not the law recognizes it, the right to make decisions about one’s own mortality or quality of life will exist any time someone claims it. One of the medical profession’s worst-kept secrets for some time now is that plenty of physicians will oblige a suffering patient with the means to end their struggle. (As Ball notes, this came up in the Supreme Court discussions 15 years ago.)

And the demand is bound to grow, as more and more of us live long enough to see -- like Gulliver -- that there are worse fates than death. Brilliant legal minds should apply themselves to figuring out how to make an ironclad case for the right a decent departure from this mortal coil. At Liberty to Die is useful as a survey of some obstacles standing in the way. But in the meantime, people will find ways around those obstacles, even if it means taking a one-way, cross-continental trip to the Pacific Northwest. There are worse ways to go.

Presidential race brings scrutiny for candidates on higher education

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Romney gets scrutiny for praise of for-profit college led by campaign donor. Biden angers faculty by suggesting their salaries force tuition up. Gingrich attacks fluency in French.

Essay: Educated illegal immigrants are a net financial gain for U.S.

Ronald Reagan once said, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” The current flap over Gov. Rick Perry’s defense of in-state tuition for students whose parents are in the United States illegally drives us to take off the lid and take a peek. 

And what we see is that illegal-immigrant students pay back more than they take.

Daniel Griswold, an immigration expert at Cato Institute, wrote to me recently in response to my inquiry, “In 1997, the National Research Council published a major study on immigration. It found that an immigrant with a college education is a huge net plus for the United States.”

Griswold reports this finding of the NRC study: “Immigrants and their descendants represent a net fiscal gain for the United States. The typical immigrant and all of his or her descendants represent a positive $80,000 fiscal gain to the government. An immigrant with more than a high school education (plus descendants) represents a $198,000 fiscal gain, one with a high school diploma a $51,000 gain, and one with less than a high school education a $13,000 loss.”

Some will counter that college slots for illegal immigrants should be given instead to poor U.S.-born students. But most of these students cannot afford college. Tuition, for example, at Texas’ universities will average this year about $8,500, and the College Board projects that the average student’s living expenses will be $17,820 -- for a total of $26,320.  Multiplying this figure by five — now the Texas standard for number of years to graduation -- totals $131,600.

But total costs will be higher than this. In Texas between 1999 and 2010, average tuition and related fees at the state’s 10 largest universities rose by 120 percent.  Tuition and fee increases of 10 percent a year will raise the figure of $131,600 to $160,591 in five years.

Let us look at immigrant subsidies, using Texas A&M University as a representative example. In-state tuition there is $8,418, out-of-state tuition $23,808 -- a yearly subsidy to illegal immigrants of $15,390. The total for five years is $76,950, plus a 10 percent annual increase in tuition -- for a grand total subsidy of $93,957. Subtracting $93,957 from the $198,000 fiscal gain that the NRC study documented leaves a net gain of $104,043.

Presently, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reports that Texas colleges and universities currently enroll slightly more than 1.5 million students. Hispanic enrollment numbers are up this year by 4.5 percent -- a very small increase in a state where 40 percent of all residents are Hispanic. 

The number of illegal immigrants enrolled in public four-year colleges and universities in Texas totals 4,000, while the number in community colleges totals 12,000 -- still a very small percentage in a state that is 40 percent Hispanic. The in-state tuition subsidy in community colleges to illegal immigrants is about $2,000 a year.  At Lone Star Community College, where I teach, in-state tuition is $1,744, out-of-state tuition $3,844.

This is part of a larger problem and pattern. An October study by the American Enterprise institute entitled “Cheap for Whom?” finds: “Average taxpayers provide more in subsidies to elite public and private schools than to the less competitive schools where their own children are likely being educated."

The dirty little secret that universities and state and federal legislators don’t want the public to know is that these universities and legislators are de facto agents of class warfare. Note the shocking disparity between the rich and the poor that AEI reports: “Among not-for-profit institutions, the amount of taxpayer subsidies hovers between $1,000 and $2,000 per student per year until we turn to the most selective institutions.... Among these already well-endowed institutions, the taxpayer subsidy jumps substantially to more than $13,000 per student per year.”

It is class warfare. AEI argues, “If the country is to retain its competitive edge, it must reverse the current policies that result in providing the lowest levels of taxpayer support to the institutions that enroll the highest percentage of low-income, nontraditional, and minority students -- the fastest-growing segments of the population.”

And this should include illegal-immigrant students, who are residents of the state and pay sales and property taxes. They will pay back more than they take.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph. D is a senior fellow at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research center in Washington.

Iowa caucuses provide teaching and researching opportunities

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The state's political caucuses are presidential candidates' first opportunity to show their stuff. Iowa's professors, students and researchers also get a chance to dissect the caucuses for the rest of the nation.

Welcome to the Occupation

“Bill O’Reilly has connected the dots to identify me as being behind the occupation,” said Frances Fox Piven. “I’m sorry to say that’s not true.”

We were talking, by phone, about the continuing protest on Wall Street -- what it meant, how it was developing, and where things might go next. Piven, a professor of sociology and political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, had gone downtown to join the protests a couple of times. Now in its fourth week and endorsed by several unions (most recently, the Communication Workers of America), Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has spun off hundreds of similar demonstrations around the country, including one outside the Federal Reserve building in Chicago.

We had a lot to discuss. But at some point, I was duty-bound to ask about the craziness. Or rather, it might be better to say, about the latest craziness. Over the past few years, Piven has emerged as Public Enemy Number One for the U.S. right wing, which believes that an article in The Nation 45 years ago that she wrote with her late husband Richard Cloward laid the groundwork for Obama’s plans to turn the U.S. into a somewhat larger version of North Korea, or something.

The whole thing makes about as much sense as one of those diagrams Glenn Beck used to put up on his chalkboard. Which is, as they say, no accident. It was the former Fox News celebrity who made Piven the focus of rage by attacking her repeatedly on his program.

“It was going on for almost a year before I knew about it,” she told me. “My students pointed it out to me on YouTube. I paid attention for a while but stopped. It’s boring.”

Well, apart from the death threats. She says they’ve started coming in again over the past week, since another Fox talking head played a clip of her remarks in support of Occupy Wall Street. It seems as if death threats would be anything but boring. But Piven sounded unfazed, if a bit weary of the subject. What really gets her going, by contrast, is talking about the dynamics and possibilities of the occupation movement. (More on that later.)

Other scholars I’ve contacted discuss the Occupy Wall Street movement as analysts, not advocates. They’ve been spared Piven’s drama. But insofar as they consider OWS to be a response to actual economic and social problems -- rather than the work of dirty hippies and commie sympathizers -- they may yet risk serving as fodder for somebody’s boosted Nielsen ratings.

David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Irvine, has offered a running commentary on the occupations through his blog Politics Outside, and discussed the movement’s relationship to the Tea Party in an op-ed for The Washington Post. He is an associate editor of the University of Minnesota Press series Social Movements, Protest, and Contention and has chaired the American Sociological Association’s Section on Collective Behavior and Social Movements. We discussed Occupy Wall Street (and its spin-offs) via e-mail.

“The people who've assembled in Zuccotti Park” near Wall Street, he said, “have a wide range of reasons for being there; some of them explicitly say that they are not political. But the growth of the campaign, the emulative efforts across the country, and the kinds of responses it’s generating, are all a function of this political moment, which is characterized by an economic (and political) crisis where their interests are woefully underrepresented.”

I asked Meyer to imagine that he’d received a proposal for a book on the movement for the Minnesota series. What would he want it to cover?

“One interesting project,” he said, “would be to trace the origins and politics of the different Occupy efforts around the country, which will vary depending upon who gets involved in the efforts. I'm sure they're different, in terms of style and issues and militancy.” The author would need to situate the movement in the context of “a decades-long increase in economic inequality, supporting -- and being supported by -- decreased regulation of business and dramatically increasing costs of political campaigns. It would note the 2008 collapse, the election of the first black president, the Tea Party mobilization, and the shift of balance in governance dramatically to the right. The Occupy movement is an attempt at redress, and it needs to be seen that way.”

Comparisons between OWS and the Tea Party are inevitable, if hardly inarguable. My impression as a supporter of the occupations (albeit one averse to sleeping bags) is that the young protesters have been inspired by the Arab Spring in a way that the older conservatives in the Tea Party haven't been -- and that the occupation movement has been more spontaneous, and considerably less well-funded, than the Tea Party.

“I make a lot less of the international dimension than you suggest,” Meyer replied. “I completely believe that Tahrir Square was inspirational to some of the Occupiers, but there were plenty of other inspirational events around the world that didn't provoke a comparable response in the U.S. (think, for example, about the revolutions of 1989, plus Tiananmen Square). It was the current context that made that inspiration viable. And, I suspect, if it wasn't Egypt it would have been something else in these circumstances.”

And the force of circumstances makes the occupation movement and the Tea Party resemble each other more than either would care to think. “That's not to suggest they're the same or symmetrical,” Meyer said. “….To oversimplify, they were both angry about the Wall Street bailouts: Tea Partiers were angry that government was giving out money; Occupiers were angry that it was going to the extremely rich. They're also both marching through the trajectory of protest movements in America, generating responses from mainstream politics that end up defining them.”

For all its journalistic convenience, the term “populism” is less a political label than an incitement to endless debate -- not to mention the cause for some heavy theoretical lifting, of late. That the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike are called populist shows how fluid it can be as a category. In both cases, the movement identifies itself as an effort to mobilize “the people” against “the elite.” Rhetorical similarities notwithstanding, they articulate their grievances in very different ways -- in part because each has its own understanding of the composition (not to say complexion) of “the people.”

In the 1990s, Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, offered an analysis of the common ideological denominator among variants of American populism. Each had inherited elements of a 19th-century conception of political and social conflict as a struggle between the many people who produced wealth (farmers, craftsmen, industrial workers, entrepreneurs) and the smaller group of exploiters who manipulated it (speculators, bankers, monopolists, bureaucrats). This “producerist” ethos could manifest itself in otherwise contrasting versions of populism, depending on how immigrants and racial minorities were regarded – whether as producers (in left populism) or exploiters (for the right variant).

The OWSers have identified themselves as defending 99 percent of the population against the speculation and corruption of the top 1 percent. But Tea Party rhetoric has been much more overtly producerist, it seems to me, than the Occupy Wall Street movement has been. I wrote to Kazin to ask what he thought.

“You're right,” he replied; “the TPers employ producerist rhetoric far more than have the OWSers, although if labor keeps promoting the latter, that could change.… From what I've seen and read, OWS discourse is populist in the majoritarian sense (99% vs. 1%) and in the focus on high finance, which has been a villain since Jefferson's day. The old figure of the pot-bellied, top-hatted banker (sometimes straight from the Monopoly game) has staged a comeback, from protest signs to a recent New Yorker cover.”

Kazin’s latest book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (Knopf), appeared shortly before the occupation began. Its subtitle might be taken by the movement as an encouraging word. But he is concerned that the protesters have used only half of producerist symbolism.The porcine plutocrat in spats makes for an easily recognizable image, but it's not enough.

“The antithesis,” Kazin pointed out, “in the form of the moral worker/wage-earner/producer, isn't much present, in part because most demonstrators have never seen themselves that way and in part because it's become associated with the Palin-esque right."

Here, I take Kazin to mean that her salt-of-the-earth, just-folks manner has enabled Palin to take on the role of spokesperson for the hard-working American. Be that as it may, "producerist" morality is just about the last set of values embodied in her career; she is as purely a creature of consumerism and celebrity culture as any figure in American politics. But the right's positioning of itself as the voice of the silent majority has been effective enough to make populist language sound almost intrinsically conservative.

And this is a problem for Occupy Wall Street, "as it has been for the left since World War II," said Kazin. "In a sense, the evocation of 99% is a sign of discursive weakness: it calls up a unified ‘people’ that everyone knows doesn't and can never exist.”

It may be that more nuanced ideas about the economy and social structure will emerge -- or already have. Keeping track of the movement even a week ago was much easier than it is now. Type the single word “occupy” into Google News and the results include reports from Boston, Atlanta, San Jose, Des Moines, and Austin. But speedy dissemination is one thing and sustained momentum, or real impact, something else altogether.

After reading his first post on OWS at Orgtheory -- a group blog on the study of movements, networks, and organizations -- I wrote Brayden King to get a better sense of how the movement looked to someone who studies group structures and processes. King is assistant professor of management and organization at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

For a movement to have be “potentially transformative,” he explained, it needed to meet three basic conditions. One is “movement capacity, such as resources and organization,” while another is “public attention, usually transmitted through the news media.” The third element is a vulnerable target. (It is not difficult to see how each might tend to reinforce the others.)

“The OWS faces prime conditions,” King explained, “because they have great capacity for action due to all of the people they've mobilized and their masterful ability to coordinate large-scale protest. The public is paying attention, allies and foes alike. And their targets are extremely vulnerable to attack given the poor reputation of politicians and financial institutions.”

But the three conditions do not, in themselves, generate either structure or strategy.

“If I were researching the OWS,” King wrote, “I'd want to be a fly on the wall and observe their strategic decision-making and see how they arrive at decisions about which targets to go after, what specific goals they're going to pursue, etc.” Calling the occupations “well-positioned to be tactically successful,” King said that “once they've collectively decided to do something, they will be carry it out because of the enormous resource capacity and organization they've created.” That leaves open an enormous question, though: “How do you arrive at strategic decisions when there is no hierarchy and when you're trying to keep together a broad coalition of diverse groups?”

The problem he poses is an old one, and difficult to solve through strictly procedural means:

It also leaves open the question of what the intended effect of the movement ought to be.

One possibility is that OWS might, like the Tea Party, emerge as a factor in electoral politics. The protesters “could become the barb in the side of the Democratic Party and force them to move further left in their policy agenda,” said King. “They could reawaken an interest in labor issues. They could put pressure on Democrats to become tougher on financial regulation and loosen the grip that the elite financial network has on Democratic economic policy making.…” That would mean settling on particular campaigns or pieces of legislation to support or oppose, “as the Tea Partiers did when they aggressively attacked Obama's health care program and galvanized Republicans to resist those reforms.”

Legislation and campaigning have not been the focus of OWS thus far. Another possibility is that it might have an impact over the much longer term. The protesters "may instead decide to never pursue a specific policy agenda,” King said. “Instead, they may be content to serve as a base for the mobilization of the left and as a platform for solidarity-building. The long-term benefits of this kind of mobilization could be great, especially if it eventually fosters a coherent philosophical vision of the future, but the short-term benefits might be muted. Without a clear set of targets and goals, the OWS might not be able to generate the same political influence that the Tea Party did.”

The movement's sudden growth and present course probably reflect the fact that the pull of electoralism is at its weakest just now. And simply at the level of logical consistency, being anti-Wall Street and pro-Obama is not really feasible. As a candidate in 2008, he received more money from the financial sector than John McCain did. The list of people in the administration with strong ties to Goldman Sachs is not short. But lesser-evilism will be on the rise soon enough.

Decisions about the next step for the movement will need to be made. And it's a matter of time before OWS's short-term maneuvers are influenced less by ideological debate than by meteorological necessity. But with a whole generation of people facing the prospect of long-term joblessness, it's not hard to picture things on Wall Street becoming very rowdy indeed in, say, March.

“This isn’t going to be over very quickly,” according to Frances Fox Piven. “Picking Wall Street was brilliant, and it was absolutely right to conceive the action as an occupation, not the usual protest. It’s reinventing the demonstration. With a protest, the target just has to sit it out, knowing that you won’t be there tomorrow. The young people who are involved in this are going at it with some tenacity.”

The most interesting part of the conversation came when Piven began to discuss what she called the “very acute moral sensibility” of the movement. This choice of terms bothered me a little. Too much sentimentality pervades our political discourse, whether of the left or right. Acute moral sensibility counts for less, in social conflict, than a feel for strategy and tactics.

But Piven went on to cut right through these reservations. “The central moral issue of American political economy now is inequality,” she said. It had been growing before the economic downturn, and the past few years have driven awareness of it home.The people involved in the occupations “are trying to find different ways to expose what extreme inequality is doing to us," she continued. "They’ve reached out to all sorts of allies. They’ve been reaching out to labor unions and the unions have responded with support. When was the last time that happened?"

With the occupations movement, something has changed. "As you know," Piven said, "a lot of politics on the left for many years has been about identity as ‘us and them.’ Realizing and recognizing our differences was necessary, but it also caused a lot of damage. With Occupy Wall Street, there's no identity politics in it at all. It’s all kinds of people -- old, young, very diverse, very open. Nothing the demonstrators have said is offensive to potentially allies. And I don’t think that’s just a tactic. It’s a new mood or feeling, it's deeply solidaristic.”

By contrast, the hostility directed at Piven -- the hostile messages, the cyberstalking, people following her around with cameras – sounds much less important to her. It’s a sideshow. She’ll keep participating in the occupations, and speaking in support of them.

As for her detractors, she imagines they, too, will carry on. "They attend my lectures and write everything down,” she said. “Then they publish distorted quotations on their blogs. It’s what they do.”

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Inner Checks and Political Balances

In January 2002, on his way back from an academic conference, a young journalist named David W. Miller was killed by an intoxicated driver, along with the two people who were giving him a ride home from the airport. As often happens, the drunk was unhurt. Now he's in prison -- where, with any luck, he will serve every single day of his sentence. There are old and very reasonable arguments for why justice cannot, by definition, be a matter of revenge. But I am happy to ignore them, in this case -- for David was my colleague, and someone I respected enormously, and he was just about to take off a couple of months of paternity leave following the birth of his second child. It does not seem possible that the man who killed him could suffer enough.

Now, it would be sentimental overstatement for me to claim a deep friendship. But there was more to our collegiality than the usual blend of mutual tolerance and bland amicability required to make a workplace tolerable. That we could talk without yelling at one another seemed, at the time, like a tiny miracle of civilization. David had worked for the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review and was not exactly shamefaced about being a conservative -- while in my cubicle there was a portrait of Lenin. 

In fact, he looks down on me now, here in my study at home. I have sworn to take his picture down if, and only if, Henry Kissinger ends up on trial for crimes against humanity. (Frankly, I'm tired of looking at old V.I., but am still awaiting that necessary bit of evidence that bourgeois democracy is
capable of truth and reconciliation.)

David and I had the occasional, let's say, spirited conversation. Neither of us ever persuaded the  other of much. With hindsight, however, it's clear that knowing him was incredibly instructive -- and not just because he kept up with scholarship in the social sciences that were far from my own stomping grounds.

He was, as the saying goes, a "movement conservative," in touch with the ideas and arguments being cooked up in the right-wing think tanks. But he was as intellectually honest as anyone could be. Around the time we first met, he had just published an article on the famous "broken window syndrome" -- that basic doctrine of conservative social policy -- showing there was scarcely any solid research to back it up. And when he did argue for any given element of the right's agenda, it was
hard to escape the sense that he did so from the firm conviction that it would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

In short, talking with David meant facing a repeated obligation to think the unthinkable: that someone could be a conservative without suffering from either cognitive deficit or profound moral stupidity.

Of course, any person who spends very long on the left must come face to face, eventually, with the hard truth that a certain percentage of one's comrades are malevolent, cretinous, thoughtless, or palpably insane. This is troubling, but you get used to it. What proves much more disconcerting is
the realization that someone from the other side possesses real virtues -- and that they hold their views, not in spite of their better qualities, but in consequence of them.

All of this came back to mind upon reading a recent profile of Roger Scruton, the conservative British philosopher. In most respects, it is a typical newspaper piece on a thinker. That is, it avoids any effort to discuss his work (or even to describe it) and focuses instead on his personality, which on a generous estimate may be described as curmudgeonly.

There was one passage in particular that hit home. It's when Scruton says, "One of the great distinctions between the left and the right in the intellectual world is that left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken. After a while, if I can persuade them that I'm not evil, I find it a very useful thing. I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you
correct your views?"

Scruton is on to something. Of course, the point is very seriously blunted by the way he pretends that Manicheanism is a peculiarly leftist failing. In his heart of hearts, he must know better. Certainly the American right is very keen on the language of apocalyptic confrontation with absolute evil.And Scruton himself is not above a certain amount of nastiness, once the polemical fires are stoked.

That's just the way of the passions, though -- the tendency in our nature that must be controlled by "the inner check," to borrow a very old-fashioned conservative notion discussed by the political scientist Wesley McDonald, who teaches at Elizabethtown College. In his book Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, published last year by the University of Missouri Press, he explains that the inner check is that factor in the soul that can subdue the more vicious parts of one's nature -- in the interest of the common good, and of the higher human potentialities.

See also, "superego." But there is perhaps a value to the more frankly moralistic expression "inner check." The superego is what makes you neurotic. By contrast, the inner check is what makes it possible to say, as Scruton does, "I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?"

For an instructive display of the inner check in action (and a reminder of how much work it has cut out for it) you might check out a recent exchange concerning Unholy Alliance by David Horowitz.

According to its author, this is the book that provides the ballast of heavy thinking to back up "Discover the Network." And a good thing it does, for otherwise "Discover" might be regarded as a laughable exercise in guilt-by-association that makes the John Birch Society's None Dare Call it Conspiracy look like sober political analysis.

So it was interesting -- encouraging, even -- to see that Timothy Burke had written a long commentary on the book. The impression one gets from reading Burke's essays, over time, is that his ideas are measured without being equivocal. He tends to be scrupulous about defining where his arguments are coming from and where they are going. That precision is not the same as rigidity, however. He would probably be identified by most conservatives as a man of the left. But more than anything else, his writings call to mind a comment by Raymond Aron, who for decades was considered the anti-Sartre of French political and intellectual life. "The last word is never said, and one must not judge one's adversaries as if one's own cause were identified with absolute truth."

During a previous exchange, Horowitz had challenged Burke to grapple with Unholy Alliance, which demonstrates (says Horowitz} the linkage between radical Islamism and the American left. And Burke took up the gauntlet.

Burke begins by noting that "there is an intellectual history waiting to be written that plausibly connects the New Left with some of the forms of romantic anti-Western sentiment among some American (and European) activists and intellectuals that flourished between 1980 and the present."

He adds that such a book would do well to examine "a wider, more diffuse 20th Century history of connections between anti-Western ideas, texts and political commitments within Europe and the United States that would not be isolated in any simple way to 'the left' (indeed, would cross over at points to authors and thinkers typically regarded as conservative)."

Let's be clear on this: from the start, Burke more than half concedes a point that Horowitz takes as urgent: that there are indeed continuities between some parts of the Third World-ist left and modes of thought and politics that are, in the strictest sense, reactionary. But Burke thinks that the matter has to be faced with a certain degree of rigor and scholarship. Otherwise, why bother?

Burke argues that Horowitz has not offered even the most rudimentary approximation of the kind of analysis that he has promised. And yet Burke also makes an extremely (to my mind, astonishingly) generous estimate of Horowitz's potential to write something intelligent and serious.

In answer, Horowitz has issued a petulant, abusive, and interminable response that one suspects will turn into a chapter in his next autobiography.

At this point, it is hard not to think of the "inner check" -- the doctrine that there is (or should be) a small voice of constraint within the soul. "Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite," as Russell Kirk put it in The Conservative Mind (1953), "for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than by reason."

The inner check is not a part of the self -- but, rather, that internal force subduing the self, which would otherwise howl and rave, and demand that the world adore its every claim to glory. Reading Burke and Horowitz side by side, it's not hard to come to figure out which one really embodies that

Now, over the past couple of years, I've tried hard to honor the memory of David Miller, who, in the year before his death at the ridiculously young age of 35,  taught me so much by his example -- by his decency, his modesty, and his wry indulgence of what he must have seen as muddled leftist attitudes. For one thing, it's meant striving to understand things, from time to time, as he might; to consider the strongest, most coherent forms of conservative argument.

To that end, my reading diet now includes a certain amount of right-wing intellectual output -- journals like The Modern Age and The Claremont Review of Books, for example, and books by Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and Willmoore Kendall. It's not necessary to enjoy this stuff, or to agree with it.But it does seem important as part of the process of thinking outside one's familiar ruts.

But now it's time to go another step. There is only one way to keep from reinforcing the worst impressions of the conservative movement. Henceforth, I will never read another word by David Horowitz.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

After the Deluge

By now, you may have have read and watched, and wept and yelled, quite enough on the topic of Hurrican Katrina and its aftermath -- and in that case, probably, can take no more. If so, please come back on Thursday, when Intellectual Affairs will begin its weekly coverage of new books.

My plan had been to devote today's column to Astra Taylor's Zizek!, due to be  be screened during the Toronto International Film Festival (September 8-17). It's a smart and wry film, and worthy of the attention -- but given the other images I've had to process over the last week, this does not seem like the moment. And Taylor herself agrees, so we'll count on revisiting Zizek!

But for now, a brief roundup of some recent, or otherwise pertinent, discussions of Katrina. This survey won't try to be exhaustive. If you've come across something brilliant, provocative, profoundly chowderheaded, etc. that ought to have been linked here -- well, please use the comments section to let the world know.

For a good selection of commentary from around the world, by all means start out with the digest   prepared by the staff of Open Democracy. And as ever, Alfredo Perez provides a running log of recent articles at Political Theory Daily Review, where for now the coverage of Katrina is linked in the middle column, "Town Square." No doubt more and more essays will be appear in the "Ivory Tower" section in the months ahead.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that our president is not a hard-reading man. The difficult of imagining him with a book is integral to the aura of wholesome folksiness, otherwise so difficult to project for a millionaire Yalie scion of the WASP establishment. No one can seriously doubt that he is telling the non-reality-based truth (as he sees it) in stating that it was impossible to anticipate the impact of Katrina.

And yet, and yet.... An astonishing account of the destruction of New Orleans by a hurricane appeared in National Geographic -- last October. We're not talking about some boring old memo, either! It's National Geographic, people, the magazine with the bright and vivid pictures. Surely someone in a position of responsibility might have shown him that?

He might also have benefitted from a look at Chris Mooney's article at the Web site of The American Prospect from late May. But that is probably pushing it.

"In a parliamentary democracy," as Henry Farrell wrote over the weekend, "George W. Bush would almost certainly either have resigned by now or be on the point of resigning." The point has not been lost even on the likes of David Brooks -- in normal circumstances, one of the G.O.P.'s reliably feisty attack poodles (to borrow the expression coined by James Wolcott.

Urging us to keep things in perspective, though, we have Niall Ferguson,  the most celebrated historian of (and in) that globalizing project known as the growth of Empire. On Sunday, he reminded us that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was pretty awful, too, and that the tendency back then was to attach moral significance to natural disaster. Now, a quarter millennium later, that temptation is being indulged again -- but by a motley crew of leftists, environmentalists, and those opposed to the Iraq war, all of them looking for scapegoats. (Also, the jihadists, who are glad to think of the boost in oil prices.)

It is difficult to take the measure of such chutzpah. Not so long ago, Ferguson was the most serious, and certainly the most prominent, contemporary champion of counterfactual history: that is, the use of the alternative scenarios as a took for thinking about the possible outcomes of events. ("What if Hitler had been killed in 1918?" etc.) The strongest claim for the value of counterfactual history is that it undercuts determinism -- which, in turn, makes us more aware of possibility, of decision-making, of individual responsibility.

Well, how's this for an exercise in the counterfactual rewriting of history? Suppose that most members of the National Guard were, you know, inside the national borders. Imagine that there were old copies of National Geographic on Air Force One. Daydream about accountability.

Of course, there are other ways of looking at the situation. For example, the case of New Orleans could be revisted from a strictly free-market perspective -- as proof of the failure that naturally follows from obliging the government to take on responsibilities better left to private initiative.

"So who should own the public levees?" asks Will Baude, of the Federalist Society at Yale Law School. "The standard analysis certainly labels them as the classic domain of the government, and if we can design an institution that can do an effective job, I am all for it. But I do think there are structural reasons to suppose that we might be able to come up with alternative, perhaps non-governmental, institutions that would do a better job of holding back le deluge�?

Worse even than the creeping socialism of public utilities is the moral rot that we have seen manifested in the streets, according to Robert Tracinski. "What Hurricane Katrina exposed," he writes, "was the psychological consequences of the welfare state.... People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don't sit around and complain that the government hasn't taken care of them. And they don't use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men."

Clearly not! The solution is obvious. Somebody needs to get the collected works of Ayn Rand down to New Orleans right away, preferably in a waterproof edition.

On the future of New Orleans, check out comments by Randall Parker at Parapundit, David Sucher at City Comforts and Nathaniel Robinson at Cliopatria.

It seems a matter of time before there is a large body of analysis concerning how race and class have been addressed (or ignored) in the wake of Katrina. But so far, not so good. An exception has been Rachel Sullivan's two-parter ( here and here ) followed by her quick list of some relevant information on social inequality. But things have been relatively quiet, so far, on the H-Net African-American Studies list.

Then again, my eyes are now rather blurry.... If you've come across anything having major consequences for how we should understand the past week -- or the future it has opened -- then please share that information in the space below.

UPDATE: How could I have overlooked the page of links at the History News Network? Well worth a look.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Piled Higher and Deeper

Rick Perlstein, a friend from the days of Lingua Franca, is now working on a book about Richard Nixon. Last year, he published a series of in-depth articles about the Republican Party and the American conservative movement. (Those are not quite the same thing, though that distinction only becomes salient from time to time.) In short, Perlstein has had occasion to think about honesty and dissimulation -- and about the broad, swampy territory in between, where politicians finesse the difference. As do artists and used-car salesmen....

It’s the job of historians to map that territory. But philosophers wander there, too. “What is truth?” as Nietzsche once asked. “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms. Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions.” Kind of a Cheneyo-Rumsfeldian ring to that thought. It comes from an essay called “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” which does, too, come to think of it.  

So anyway, about a week ago, Rick pointed out a recent discussion of how the Bush Administration is dealing with critics who accuse it of fudging the intelligence that suggested Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The link went to a comment by Joshua Micah Marshall, who is a liberal Democrat of the more temperate sort, not prone to hyperventilation. 

“Garden variety lying is knowing it’s Y and saying it’s X,” he wrote, giving Lyndon Johnson on the Gulf of Tonkin as an example. The present executive branch, he continued, shows “a much deeper indifference to factual information in itself.”

Rick posed an interesting question: “Isn't Josh Marshall here describing as the Administration's methodology exactly what that Princeton philosophy prof defines as ‘bullshit’?” That prof being, of course, Harry Frankfurt, whose short and best-selling treatise On Bullshit will probably cover everyone’s Christmas bonus at Princeton University Press this year. 

In February, The New York Times beat us by a day or so with its article on the book, which daintily avoided giving its title. But "Intellectual Affairs" first took a close look, not just at Frankfurt’s text -- noting that it remained essentially unchanged since its original publication as a scholarly paper in the 1980s -- but at the philosophical critique of it presented in G.A. Cohen’s essay “Deeper into Bullshit.” 

Since then, the call for papers for another volume of meditations on the theme of bull has appeared. Truly, we are living in a golden age.

The gist of Frankfurt’s argument, as you may recall, is that pitching BS is a very different form of activity from merely telling a lie. And Marshall’s comments do somewhat echo the philosopher’s point. Frankfurt would agree that “garden variety lying” is saying one thing when you know another to be true. The liar operates within a domain that acknowledges the difference between accuracy and untruth. The bullshitter, in Frankfurt’s analysis, does not. In a sense, then, the other feature of Marshall’s statement would seem to fit. Bullshit involves something like “indifference to factual information in itself.”

So does it follow, then, that in characterizing the Bush team’s state of mind three years ago, during the run-up to the war, we must choose between the options of incompetence, dishonesty, and bullshit?
Please understand that I frame it in such terms, not from any political motive, but purely in the interest of conceptual rigor. 

That said.... It seems to me that this range of terms is inadequate. One may agree that Bush et al. are profoundly indifferent to verifiable truth without concluding that the Frankfurt category necessarily applies.

Per G. A. Cohen’s analysis in “Deeper into Bullshit,” we must stress that Frankfurt’s model rests on a particular understanding of the consciousness of the liar. The mind of the bullshitter is defined by contrast to this state. For the liar, (1) the contrast between truth and untruth is clearly discerned, and (2) that difference would be grasped by the person to whom the liar speaks. But the liar’s intentionality also includes (3) some specific and lucidly grasped advantage over the listener made possible by the act of lying.

By contrast, the bullshitter is vague on (1) and radically unconcerned with (2). There is more work to be done on the elements of relationship and efficacy indicated by (3). We lack a carefully argued account of bullshit’s effect on the bullshitee.

There is, however, another possible state of consciousness not adequately described by Frankfurt’s paper. What might be called “the true believer” is someone possessing an intense concern with truth.

But it is a Higher Truth, which the listener may not (indeed, probably cannot) grasp. The true believer is speaking a truth that somehow exceeds the understanding of the person hearing it.

During the Moscow Trials of the late 1930s, Stalin’s attorney lodged numerous charges against the accused that were, by normal standards, absurd. In many cases, the “evidence” could be shown to be false. But so much worse for the facts, at least from the vantage point of the true believer. If you’ve ever known someone who got involved in EST or a multi-level marketing business, the same general principle applies. In each case, it is not quite accurate to say that the true believers are lying. Nor are they bullshitting, in the strictest sense, for they maintain a certain fidelity to the Higher Truth. 

Similarly, it did not matter three years ago whether or not any evidence existed to link Saddam and Osama. To anyone possessing the Higher Truth, it was obvious that Iraq must be a training ground for Al Qaeda. And guess what? It is now. So why argue about it?

On a less world-historical scale, I see something interesting and apropos in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. In the latest issue, David Horowitz makes clear that he is not a liar just because he told a national television audience something that he knew was not true. 

(This item was brought to my attention by a friend who teaches in a state undergoing one of Horowitz’s ideological rectification campaigns. My guess is that he’d rather not be thanked by name.)

Here’s the story so far: In February, while the Ward Churchill debate was heating up, Horowitz appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s program. It came up that Horowitz, like Churchill, had been invited to lecture at Hamilton College at some point. But he was not, he said, “a speaker paid by and invited by the faculty.” 

As we all know, university faculties are hotbeds of left-wing extremism. (Especially the business schools and engineering departments. And reports of how hotel-management students are forced to read speeches by Pol Pot are positively blood-curdling.) Anyway, whenever Horowitz appears on campus, it’s because some plucky youngsters invite him. He was at Hamilton because he had been asked by “the conservative kids.”

That came as a surprise to Maurice Isserman, a left-of-center historian who teaches at Hamilton College. When I saw him at a conference a few years ago, he seemed to have a little gray in his hair, and his last book, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington, was a biography of the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America. No doubt he’s been called all sorts of things over the years, but “conservative kid” is not one of them. And when Horowitz spoke at Hamilton a few years ago, it was as a guest lecturer in Isserman’s class on the 1960s. 

As Isserman put it in the September/October issue of Academe: “Contrary to the impression he gave on "The O’Reilly Factor," Horowitz was, in fact, an official guest of Hamilton College in fall 2002, invited by a faculty member, introduced at his talk by the dean of the faculty, and generously compensated for his time.”

I will leave to you the pleasure and edification of watching Horowitz explain himself in the latest issue of Academe. But in short, he could not tell the truth because that would have been a lie, so he had to say something untrue in order to speak a Higher Truth. 

My apologies for the pretzel-like twistiness of that paraphrase. It is all so much clearer in the original Newspeak: Thoughtcrime is doubleplus ungood.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Doing the Lord's Work

Two images of William Jennings Bryan have settled into the public memory, neither of them flattering. One is the fundamentalist mountebank familiar to viewers of Inherit the Wind, with its fictionalized rendering of the Scopes trial. In it, the character based on Bryan proclaims himself “more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” He is, in short, a crowd-pleasing creationist numbskull, and nothing more.

The other portrait of Bryan is less cinematic, but darker. The classic version of it appears in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948 and still selling around 10,000 copies each year, according to a forthcoming biography of the historian. Hofstadter sketches the career of Bryan as a populist leader during the economic depression of the 1890s, when he emerged as the Midwest’s fierce and eloquent scourge of the Eastern bankers and industrial monopolies.

Yet this left-leaning Bryan had, in Hofstadter’s account, no meaningful program for change. He was merely a vessel of rage. Incapable of statesmanship, only of high-flown oratory, he was a relic of the agrarian past –- and the prototype of the fascistic demagogues who were discovering their own voices, just as Bryan’s career was reaching its end.

Historians have been challenging these interpretations for decades -– beginning in earnest more than 40 years ago, with the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine, who is now a professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. It was Levine who pointed out that when Bryan denounced evolution, he tended to be thinking more of Nietzsche than of Darwin. And the Nietzsche he feared was not today’s poststructuralist playboy, but the herald of a new age of militaristic brutality.

Still, old caricatures die hard. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to pick up Michael Kazin’s new book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) without imagining that its title contains a snarl and a sneer. Isn’t the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity and anti-elitist sentiment always just a disguise for base motives and cruel intentions? To call someone godly is now, almost by default, to accuse them of hypocrisy.

But Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, has a very different story to tell. Revisionist scholarship on Bryan -- the effort to dig beneath the stereotypes and excavate his deeper complexities -- has finally yielded a book that might persuade the general reader to rethink the political role played by “the Great Commoner.”

In an earlier study, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), Kazin described the emergence in the 19th century of an ideology he called “producerism” – a moral understanding of politics as the struggle between those who built the nation’s infrastructure and those who exploited it. (The farmer or the honest businessman was as much a producer as the industrial worker. Likewise, land speculators and liquor dealers were part of the exploitive class, as were bankers and monopolistic scoundrels.)

The producerist ethos remains a strong undercurrent of American politics today. Bryan was its most eloquent spokesman. He wedded it to a powerful (and by Kazin’s account utterly sincere) belief that politics was a matter of following the commandment to love thy neighbor. As a man of his era, Bryan could be obtuse about how to apply that principle: His attitude toward black Americans was paternalistic, on a good day, and he was indifferent, though not hostile, concerning the specific problems facing immigrants. But Kazin points out that there is no sign of nativist malice in Bryan’s public or private communications. Some of his followers indulged in conspiratorial mutterings against the Catholics or the Jews, but Bryan himself did not. At the same time -- canny politician that he was -- he never challenged the growing power of the Klan during the 1920s.

It’s an absorbing book, especially for its picture of Bryan’s following. (He received an incredible amount of mail from them, only about two percent of which, Kazin notes, has survived.) I contacted Kazin to ask a few questions by e-mail.  

Q: By today's standards, Bryan seems like a bundle of contradictions. He was both a fundamentalist Christian and the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He embodied a very 19th century notion of "character," but was also exceptionally shrewd about marketing his own personality. For many Americans, he was a beloved elder statesman -- despite losing his two presidential bids and otherwise spending very little time in elected office. How much of that contradictoriness is in Bryan himself, and how much in the eye of the beholder today?

A: Great question! The easiest part to answer is the first: for Bryan and many other reform-minded white Christians, there was no contradiction between their politics and their religion. The “revolution” being made by the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers was destroying the pious republic they knew, or wished to remember (slavery, of course, they forgot about). What Bryan called “applied Christianity” was the natural antidote to the poison of rampant capitalism. The rhetoric of Bellamy, the People’s Party, and the Knights of Labor was full of such notions -– as were the sermons and writings of many Social Gospelers, such as Washington Gladden and Charles Stelzle.

On the character-personality question – I think Warren Susman and many historians he influenced over-dichotomize these two concepts. No serious Christian could favor the latter over the former. Yet, the exigencies of the cultural marketplace and of celebrity culture in particular produced a fascination with the personal lives of the famous. So Bryan, who was as ego-obsessed as any politician, went with the flow, knowing his personality was boosting his political influence. Being a journalist himself, he understood the rules of the emerging game. Do you know Charles Ponce De Leon’s book about celebrity journalism in this period?

Q. Oddly enough, I do, actually. But let's talk about the people to whom Bryan appealed. From digging in the archives, you document that Bryan had a following a loyal following among professionals, and even successful businessmen, who saw themselves as part of the producing class threatened by the plutocratic elite. Was that surprising to discover? Normally you think of populism in that era as the politics of horny-handed toil.

A: As I argued in The Populist Persuasion, when “producerism” became a popular ideal in democratic politics, Americans from many classes were quite happy to embrace it. It thus became an essential contested concept. But among a broad cross-section of people, the critique of finance capital was always stronger in the South and West, where Bryan had his most consistent support, than in places like Philly and NYC.

As for the letters -— I enjoyed that part of the research the most, although it was frustrating as hell to find almost no letters that were written during the campaign of 1908 and only a small number from then until the 1920s. If only WJB or his wife had revealed, somewhere, the criteria they used when dumping all that correspondence! That, at least,would have been a consolation. Of course, if they had kept nearly all of it, I’d still be there in the Manuscript Room at the Library of Congress, tapping away.

Q: I get the impression that Bryan might well have become president if women had been able to vote in 1896 or 1900. How much of his appeal came from expressing the moral and cultural ideals associated with women's "civilizing" role? And how much of it was sex appeal of his rugged personality and magnetic stage presence? 

A: Ah, the counterfactuals! Bryan’s image as a “godly hero” certainly did appeal to many women, as did his eloquence and good looks (the latter, at least while he was in his 30s and early 40s). His support for prohibition and woman suffrage would have appealed to many women as well.

In 1896 and 1900, he carried most of the states where women then had the vote (in the Mountain West). Although that may have been because of his free silver and anti-big money stands, which is probably why most men in those states voted for him. On the other hand, his radical image could have limited his appeal to women elsewhere in the country. Women voters, before the 1960s, tended to vote for safe, conservative candidates.

Q: Another counterfactual.... What if Bryan had won? What sort of president would he have been? The man was great at making speeches; none better. But could he really have cut it as Chief Executive?

A: As president, he probably would have been a divisive figure, perhaps an American Hugo Chavez -— but without the benefit of oil revenues! If he tried to carry out the 1896 platform, there may have been a capital strike against him, which would have brought on another depression. If he hadn’t, the Populists and many left Democrats would have deserted him. The sad fact is that he hadn’t built a strong enough constituency to govern, much less to win the election in the first place.

Q: Finally, a question about the subjective dimension of working on this biography. Any moments of profound disillusionment? Rapt admiration? Sudden epiphany?

A: I wish I had time to pursue this important question at length -- perhaps I’ll write an essay about it someday. But briefly: I started reading all those fan letters and experienced an epiphany. Millions of ordinary people adored this guy and thought he was a prophet! And he was certainly fighting the good fight -– against Mark Hanna and his friends who were initiating the U.S. empire.

I also was impressed by his ability as a speech-writer as well as a performer. He could turn a phrase quite brilliantly. But after a year or so, I had to come to grips with his bigotry against black people and his general inability to overcome his mistrust of urban pols (although he didn’t share the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of some of his followers).

The problem was, in the America of a century ago, Bryan would not have been a hero to the white evangelical grassroots if he had been as clever and cosmopolitan a pol as FDR. So I ended up with a historian’s sense of perspective about the limits of the perceptions and achievements of the past. In recent speeches, E.J. Dionne muses that perhaps we should ask “What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?” I’m not sure that’s a useful question. 

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 


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