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Versus

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So, everybody is ranting today.  It’s always interesting to see what gets this sort of thing going.

But right now, I want to take a look at the end of John’s post, which asks why intellectuals all bash their own country, and why the Pope apologized for the Crusades.

I think I would buy a book that tried to trace the history of what is usually called the Adversary Culture, but as far as I know there isn’t one–Paul Hollander’s book of that name traces mostly modern Leftism of various sorts–and the more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that the issue isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface.

In a way, the Adversary Culture has been with us since the beginning of Western Civilization.  It was the ob of the philosopher–we’d call him an “intellectual” now–to point out the imperfections and wrongdoing of the polis and individual citizens within it, in the hopes that they would learn from the criticism and change.

This is a signature attribute of Western societies, in spite of the appearance of stray individuals in other civilizations that tried to do the same.  In the West, there has, from the begining, been the idea that good and learned men ought to tell rich and powerful ones where they were going wrong, and try to bring the general populace down from mob-rule highs of one sort or the other.

Of course, philosophers in classical culture didn’t just write and speak about what they saw wrong in their societies, they conciously attempted to live in a way that ran counter to what they saw as wrong in those same societies.

Philosophers weren’t rich and powerful men.   They didn’t “come from money” or seek high office or special favors.  They fulfilled the ordinary duties of citizenship.   Socrates was a soldier before he was a philosopher.  

But it’s not quite the case that the earliest example of the philosophers quite fits the present Adversary  Culture.   For one thing, Socrates,  Plato and Aristotle had no trouble seeing  Greek ideals and values as the best that could exist, they only thought the actual Greek polis didn’t live up to them.  They didn’t talk about how wonderful Persian society was and how awful the Greeks had been to defeat its armies. There were often individual things they like about other cultures, and they were all in favor of learning about those cultures and adopting whatever looked like good ideas, but that was ornamentation, mostly.  Their core allegiance was Greek, first and foremost and always.

“Honor the gods, love your woman, defend your country,” Hector is made to say in the latest screen adapation of the Iliad.  It would serve as a pretty good personal motto for most men of classical Greece.

The Adversary Culture that we know now has other attributes, and stranger ones.  The most obvious of these is the tendency of some people in it to see “adversarial” as necessitating a rejection of Western Civilization, at least as a matter of rhetorical policy.

I say rhetorical policy, because it’s been pointed out by dozens of people (including Hanson, Heath and Thornton, whose book I referred to last time) that the biggest West-bashers we’ve got not only choose to live here and not there–Western culture might e racist and oppressive, but Edward Said never made a move to go back to live in Egypt–but use peculiarly and demonstrably Western methods to make their points.

So.  Let me make a suggestion.  The behavior of people like  Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal–and their less erudite, intelligent and accomplished brethren, like Ward Churchill–is not a rejection of the West, per se, but an attempt to establish as a general principle that the West has no right to pass judgment on them.

I do not, by the way, think that this explains all the silliness out there.  Some of it is definitely caused by a woefully adequate acquantance with the literature, art, philosophy, politics and history of the world up to now.   Nobody who actually knows anything about the Middle Ages, or the Crusades, would think for a moment about apologizing to the Muslims for them.  In that particular constellation of conflicts, the West was at least as much sinned against as sinning, and maybe more so.

And the behavior of the Arabs, and the conditions in Arab societies, were nowhere near as enlightened and tolerant as they’re being made out to be.  Not by a long shot.

For Pope Benedict, though, I think the issue is compounded by a deep sense of personal unease.  He’s historically ignorant, yes, but he’s also a child of his time, the grown man who was once a member of the Hitler Youth.   He may understand, intellectually, that he was too young to be responsible for that decision, but what we understand intellectually isn’t always what we feel emotionally.  Benedict is a complicated and conflicted man, and I don’t know if he’ll ever find a way to resolve those conflits in this life. 

But there are also other issues besides ignorance of other cultures, and of any relevant history, but one of the most important is the simple fact that we haeve a set of ideals to live up to, and that we say we live up to , and that we are therefore more blameworthy when we don’t live up them than that guy down the road who didn’t have them to begin with.

Okay, that paragraph should be shot, but with any luck you’ll know what I mean.

And, you know, that still doesn’t explain the Chomskys.  

But I think this does:  I think people of a natural intellectual bent–and there are lots of them–do very badly in the ordinary high schools of North America.  They’re never the  Cool Kids.  They don’t usually have much talent for sports.  Everything that confers status in adolescent society is stuff they’re no good at and can’t do.

And then they emerge from school only to find that society is a lot more like high school than they’d ever imagined.  Sports stars, rap singers, and other self-consciously “cool” people still get the biggest rewards.  What bookish people do is still looked down on and laughed at and not paid very well.

And the more truly democratic the country, the more this paradigm pertains.  In Europe, the anti-democratic forces determine who gets to be a filmmaker, and who gets to be a successful filmmake.  In the  US, it’s please the public–learn to be  Popular–or die.

Put this reality together with a particlar kind of psychological temperament–the kind that needs someone to look down on in order to feel “up,” which is also the kind with an insecurity complex the size of Lake Superior–and you’ve got a hard core knot of people who are going almost crazy trying to get through the day in New Haven or Palo Alto.  

They can’t even trust their own institutions, because those institutions consistently pay people in the hard sciences more money and give them more resources than anybody else.  And the reason for that, it turns out, is the same thing that’s making them crazy otherwise–because more students sign up for those classes, because those fields are more Popular.

I don’t know if it’s possible to fix this.  There are some temperaments that will never be well suited to a democratic society.

I do know it’s possible not to hold that particular group of people up as Intellectuals, as if they defined the breed, and pretend that the rest of the Intellectuals, the real Intellectuals if you will, don’t exist.

Of course, Hanson, Heath and Thorndike think the real reason these ideas are the rage of academia isn’t that the professors hold them, but that the professors know that that’s the kind of thing they have to say if they’re going to get promoted, so maybe I’m overanalyzing this.

Written by janeh

May 23rd, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Responses to 'Versus'

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  1. I’m glad my rant provided a starting point for Jane’s very interesting post.

    I’m off color today and not up to a good ananlysis
    but the end of her post seems circular.

    “Of course, Hanson, Heath and Thorndike think the real reason these ideas are the rage of academia isn’t that the professors hold them, but that the professors know that that’s the kind of thing they have to say if they’re going to get promoted,”

    Why do they get promoted? Why does the NY Times think that Chomsky is worth reporting on? Have the forgotten that CHomsky spent years defending Pol Pot?

    “I do know it’s possible not to hold that particular group of people up as Intellectuals, as if they defined the breed, and pretend that the rest of the Intellectuals, the real Intellectuals if you will, don’t exist.”

    Yes of course its possible not to hold that group up as intellectuals. But wht does the mass media give them so much publicity instead of laughing at them?

    Go back to Plato. I think one of his dialogues shows Socrates getting a slave to prove a theorem of geometry. If I recall correctly, the point was that slaves can think, they were not just animals.

    But Plato didn’t draw the conclusion that slavery was wrong. Perhaps because he knew that if some people were to have time to sit around talking all day, other people had to spend time spreading manure in the fields.

    I’m vrry much aware that the existence of the Internet and this blog require a lot of people to spend time maintaining computer systems and electric power systems and that if I want food from the supermarket, someone has to drive trucks to deliver the food.

    I’ve noticed that Chomsky never moved to Cambodia and I’ve noticed the anti-globalism people flying all over the world in jumbo jets and relying on TV stations to get their “message” across.

    Doesn’t anyone remember where things come from?

    Oh dear, I seem to have done another RANT.

    Jane, thank you for this blog. I like your posts and I love the chance to lose my temper in public.

    jd

    23 May 09 at 5:58 pm

  2. More on the “adversary culture”. Keith Windschuttle has been channeling Jane for a long time now:

    http://www.sydneyline.com/Adversary%20Culture.htm

    Mique

    23 May 09 at 7:44 pm

  3. I’m finally getting around to reading something other than the occasional article on Windschuttle – I got one of his books from the library. His work is a lot easier to find if you remember he has a ‘c’ in his name!

    And I looked up Ward Churchill. Now, that’s a guy that makes you wonder about the common sense, never mind the intellectual morality, if that’s the term, of academia! He’s gone a step further than Grey Owl – he didn’t merely abandon his birth culture, but attacked it!

    I’m a bit at a loss to explain the success of some of these people. I find myself getting into a circular rut – they must be famous because enough of the people who buy newspapers and want to hear about them, and these people buy newspapers and talk about them because they’re famous and controversial. Some of them – Chomsky – might be examples of, what’s his name, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who became a bit rabid on the subject of Vitamin C – and he wasn’t a biochemist. Some people who are very famous for one thing are taken seriously about their enthusiasms outside their area of expertise. Look how many young actors and musicians are taken more or less seriously on everything from political theory to animal rights!

    Maybe the situation is partly a development of romanticism. Experts, especially logical, ‘traditional’ experts are wrong. Maybe it’s a short step from the ‘Noble Savage’ to ‘Western Society is EVIL’. I’ve hit the bit in Windschuttle where he claims that some of these writers say that the fascination of Europeans in the past few centuries with exotic locations for opera and fiction was support for violence and oppression of the people living in such places, which is frankly bizarre.

    Anyway, I’m just rambling. I’ve got no answers.

    cperkins

    24 May 09 at 6:05 am

  4. A minor point, but one I think worth mentioning: Socrates wasn’t “a soldier before he was a philosopher” in the way we would understand it today. Athens HAD no soldiers in the modern sense. Free adult males–at least citizens: I’m not sure about metics–were expected to keep arms and armor appropriate to their wealth, and when the state voted to go to war, the same people who voted in the assembly–farmer and philosopher, tiler and trader–were expected to go home and get their hoplite armor on, or be rowing in the biremes. For Socrates, soldiering–and he took part in at least two campaigns and battles–wasn’t something he gave up when he took up philosophy. It was something a citizen did, like jury duty or voting.

    [And in one notable instance, when their allies were complaining about Spartans commanding a mixed force, the Spartan commander had all his hoplites stand, then called on the professions, one by one as he named them to sit down. After a time, no one was standing but Spartans. Only for them was being a soldier part of their self-definition and not a civic duty.)

    But the broader point is well taken. If professors and film-makers run down the country and the civilization for reasons of professional advancement, that only pushes the motivation further back to the people who hire and promote them.

    Some insight might be provided by the timing. We’ve always had the odd traveler deeply impressed by somewhere he visited. The abolitionists saw the Constitution as a deeply flawed document, but they weren’t anti-American. Even some of the early socialists were deeply patriotic. You get the beginnings of a shift following WWI, when it’s clear the early communists not only feel that class trumps country, but that they have, if you will, a class home outside the United States, and the same logic soon applies to some racists, whether the “home” be Germany or Etheopia.
    But all this is fringe stuff until the 1960’s. In WWII, the universities had filled the ranks of the OSS. Samuel Elliot Morrison would write the official history of the Navy in the war. In Hollywood Capra would make propaganda films, and John Ford would be out filming in the combat zones, Most of the stars would at least pass through the services, and Jimmy Stewart would command a B-17 squadron flying combat missions against Germany,
    Would anyone like to contrast this with twenty years later? And keep in mind that many of the opponents were not just arguing that fighting in Vietnam was strategically unwise–the Joint Chiefs might have agreed with them–but that the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” was morally superior and was the side right-thinking people ought to be on. What was an eccentricity in Mark Twain–you should see his writings on the Moro Insurrection–was now the dominant position in American universities, and in our primary “dream factory.” The default position is the wrongness of America and the West. If we understood why there and then, we’d understand why today.

    But then I’m generally inclined to blame the sixties.

    robert_piepenbrink

    24 May 09 at 7:57 am

  5. Hmmm. Maybe a major in Philosphy ought to include a term in the military. It might be…errr…enlightening.

    Lymaree

    24 May 09 at 1:25 pm

  6. Robert has a point about WW2. But there are other points. During the 30s, many universities had ROTC corps. Their members were called up and fought in WW2. Moreover, many universites ran accelerated courses for officer training.

    In the 60s and 70s many universities gave up ROTC. And many even banned campus recruiting by the military.

    I think the fact that the faculties of Harvard and Yale decided that defending the country that gave them free speech and freedom of the press wasn’t part of their job needs explaining.

    jd

    25 May 09 at 4:24 am

  7. Robert has a point about WW2. But there are other points. During the 30s, many universities had ROTC corps. Their members were called up and fought in WW2. Moreover, many universites ran accelerated courses for officer training.

    In the 60s and 70s many universities gave up ROTC. And many even banned campus recruiting by the military.

    I think the fact that the faculties of Harvard and Yale decided that defending the country that gave them free speech and freedom of the press wasn’t part of their job needs explaining.

    jd

    25 May 09 at 4:24 am

  8. I don’t know why my post cane out twice! Lymarre perhaps a term in the military might be required for all physically fit men and women BEFORE admission to university.

    jd

    25 May 09 at 4:26 am

  9. Back to conscription? I don’t think that would fly! And I’m not sure it would address the issue, either. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. If a group of people are convinced that military service in defense of your country is not a good idea, forcing them into it isn’t going to change their minds.

    I’d go for a high school program that leaves them with useful skills, a de-emphasis on the university as the be-all and end-all of life, and greater value on practical abilities and practical skills.

    Of course, I have no idea how to make society-wide changes along these lines!

    cperkins

    25 May 09 at 6:45 am

  10. Whether it’s considered to be back to conscription or not, it would not – or at least should not – be given a second thought by any government, except in extremis. I doubt if the professional military anywhere would recommend such a policy. For the most part, ie there have been exceptions, unwilling conscripts make lousy soldiers.

    The more I reflect upon the problems of modern day society, the more I agree with Cheryl that a large part of any answer will lie in somehow regaining the when an ordinary person could take pride in, and earn respect from, and everyone appreciated the simple dignity of, doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

    The idea that a person ought to aim for a professional career because they have the highest earning potential is as nonsensical as the idea that every back-yard ball player can aspire to the major leagues if only they practise hard enough. Parents should learn to accept that it is cruel abuse to push their children to achieve the parents’ ambitions. Think poor Bertie in Scotland Street!

    Mique

    25 May 09 at 8:26 am

  11. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8064449.stm

    “Still looking for the western feminists” – about feminists, Western democracies, and the rest of the world.

    For the record, I think I’m a feminist, but when they do those little charts showing the various versions of feminism, I’m in one of the categories in back, or in the ‘historical development’ section, sometimes called ‘liberal feminism’; the equal pay for work of equal value, give everyone a chance to try anything in the job market type.

    I never liked some of the other versions, but I don’t let that stop me from calling myself a feminist.

    cperkins

    25 May 09 at 9:23 am

  12. Ah, Clive James – one of my favourite people, and one of Australia’s better gifts to the British – the perfect antidote to the likes of Germaine Greer and John Pilger.

    I’ve been pushing his most recent book which deserves the widest possible readership. It’s called “Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of my Time” and its available from Amazon here:

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Cultural+Amnesia&x=0&y=0

    It’s one of the greatest collection of essays I can ever remember and I heartily recommend it.

    Mique

    25 May 09 at 10:31 am

  13. Not available in the local libraries yet, alas. I must keep an eye out for it.

    cperkins

    25 May 09 at 1:28 pm

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