At the end of the day, the best and most deeply committed collectivists ought to be advocates of a small and limited government. Why? Because the state isn’t the only collective; it’s just the most obvious one. State collectivism received a devastating critique in James R. Otteson’s recent book (reviewed here), and I want to supplement Otteson’s case: In addition to the solitary individual staring down the centralized bureaucracy, we can think about the collections of individuals in civil society who are greater than the sum of their parts.
Future students of our age may well treat Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and James R. Otteson’s The End of Socialism as bookends on an era. Hayek raises the specter of state collectivism in his classic work from 1944. In this new book, Otteson charts socialism’s end, in both senses of that word: the goals it fails to realize as well as its inevitable collapse.
Here’s my story: I’m sick of narratives. My story, vision, dream—whatever—speaks against the so-called “grand narratives” that populate our rhetorical landscape like so many garden gnomes or pink flamingos. It’s not just that they’re awkward and unpleasant. They distract us from what should be the focus of our attention: the facts. Appealing to a narrative makes the speaker sound lofty in his ideals; it makes a politician’s policy decisions seem inevitable—but that’s just not the case. Call me a narrative skeptic.
Ronald Dworkin’s posthumously published Religion without God could instead have been called Law without Religion.
The book is founded in a great hope: that religious believers can be persuaded that they have more in common with atheists than they may think, and vice versa. Dworkin believes that “the zealots have great political power in America now” and that “militant atheism” is “politically inert” (though it is, he adds, “a great commercial success”!).
A while ago, I commented on Jim Ceaser’s “Four Heads and One Heart.” Ceaser believes that the four competing intellectual traditions (the heads) that comprise the modern American conservative movement are united by a common loathing of liberalism (the heart). That piece still shapes my thinking, and I still recommend it. But I want to add to Ceaser’s theory by proposing that there’s an intellectual attitude that all four heads share; there’s something on which they all agree.
In a recent piece for the Pope Center, I suggest that the real value of tenure is financial: tenure’s not about academic freedom; it’s about financial security. Both at the Pope Center and at the Phi Beta Cons blog at National Review, anonymous conservative academics have said that, au contraire, tenure is the only bulwark between conservative academics and a complete takeover of the university system by the left. We can put it another way (and still maintain the language of warfare): tenure protects the few conservative academics who stealthily outmaneuver their colleagues in the ideological turf wars on college campuses, and abolishing tenure will remove the last scrap of body armor they have left. If tenure goes, then out go the conservatives.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman created a stir when he offered the following comments: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century… . Our one-party democracy is worse.”
I am reluctant to offer criteria for what it takes to be “a reasonably enlightened group of people,” but if Western academic legal theory and political philosophy stand in for what Friedman’s group believes, then we ought to be cautious in our optimism, to say the least. After all, their position is at times murky, and at times at odds with the American constitutional order. On pressing issues, Chinese academics assiduously studying American court cases, published journal articles, academic books, etc. may find an endorsement of China’s policies, not a repudiation of them. Far from “speaking truth to power,” Western academics may simply have nothing to say.
“There was a palpable silence in the class,” a professor writes, “as I talked about the 620,000 people who died, the 4 million slaves who were liberated, the President (in my opinion, our best President) who gave his life for this cause” (134). He continues:
They were really feeling it now, as was I. My voice nearly cracked. M, L, L, and A were moved almost to tears; M actually had to excuse herself from the room to take a breath in the lobby. As she was leaving, P said, “This makes me so sad that they had to go through this.” Then B added, “But thank God they did.” Silent nodding throughout the room. … After something of a moment of silence, we launched into a discussion of Chesnut’s diary. I was stunned by their reaction: they loved it! … I think Chesnut’s diary satisfied some of the curiosity they had about the ‘other’ perspective on slavery, but still, they were struck by the sympathy she had for the slaves she witnessed at auction … . I was struck, over and over, about how active and imaginative their readings were: seizing on suggestive moments in the text—was she unhappy, depressed, longing for liaisons with other men, antislavery, fully on board with secession?—to offer informed (and sometimes quite provocative) readings of Chestnut’s “inner life.” I was also struck by how much sympathy the women in the class—especially the black women—had for Chesnut” (134–135).
“‘Jack,’ E asked. ‘Are we the best class you ever had?’” The professor’s written response: “They are shaping up to be” (132). His comments are all the more moving because, by this point in Earl Shorris’s The Art of Freedom, you know that the professor is working with a ragtag collection of bright and ambitious, but downtrodden, inner city adults—not clever undergraduates at an elite institution.
Robert C. Koons, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has written a piece titled “Dark Satanic Mills of Mis-Education: Some Proposals for Reform” in Humanitas. The problems at Behemoth State University (here Koons self-consciously borrows from Russell Kirk) did not begin, Koons writes, “with Sputnik or the G. I. Bill.”
Instead, Koons—with help from Irving Babbitt and C. S. Lewis—identifies two principal foes, neither one a twentieth century progressive: Francis Bacon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He writes,
We can best understand the modern university by seeing it as built on the synthesis of these two tendencies, Baconian and Rousseauan. We now justify the hard sciences almost entirely in pragmatic and utilitarian terms, as the incubators of technology, not as observatories from which to behold and contemplate the music of the spheres. In contrast, many in the humanities, as well as most in the new fields of “communications” and “education,” have abandoned the hard road of fact to become the playgrounds of “values.” Since all value is the arbitrary projection and construction of liberated egos, there is no true hierarchy of value to be learned and internalized and to structure the course of learning into a true curriculum.
This work is a continuing development of Koons’s earlier reflections on what he calls the uncurriculum that dominates the landscape of research—and many would-be research—universities. Basically, an uncurriculum is the system of distributive requirements that universities demand from students, for the benefit of the professors, under the guise of giving students choices. The result: Professors get to teach whatever they want to teach that furthers their research interests, and students are required to take those classes, independent from their interests or how such classes could help or develop them.
James W. Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has an excellent essay called “Four Heads and One Heart: The Modern Conservative Movement,” in his recently published Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice. I read it for this year’s Miller Summer Institute, sponsored by the Jack Miller Center, in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy.
It’s an eye-opening piece: Ceaser helped me understand both the unity and the disunity of the right, its agreements and its squabbles. First, the agreement: It’s found in conservatism’s one heart, a heart that hates liberalism. A common “antipathy to liberalism” unites conservatives, not shared intellectual principles.