It’s hard not to think of the printing of two million copies of Harper Lee’s “new book” as a capitalist macroaggression against America. Many readers consider it a sequel, although it’s really a rough and in some ways misbegotten draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, the work that stands as the one and only account of heroic virtue shared by all Americans. When I go to my college classes, I (fake) struggle to find a piece of cultural literacy that all of us in the classroom share. The result is always the same.
This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life.
So you think those things are unrelated?
—Peggy and Don, Mad Men (“The Forecast”)
Now that Mad Men is over, we begin by remembering that it was a deeply political show. The lives of particular people were intertwined with the big events that moved the whole country—elections, assassinations, riots, and the noble national achievement that was the landing on the Moon (then thought to be the first giant step for mankind in the conquest of space). The show engaged in good old-fashioned American self-criticism, displaying the contradiction between our principles and our residual racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, classism, fundamentalism, and homophobia. It also celebrated the genuine meritocracy based on productivity that is American capitalism. Skill and talent were shown triumphing over especially WASPish prejudice, stupidity, and cruelty, even as there was an awareness of the relational costs of our individualistic and self-inventive understanding of freedom.
So this is really interesting: The Court, according to John McGinnis, doesn’t really deliberate about the law when it comes to high-profile cases. It functions instead as a “cognitive elite”— the aristocratic part of a mixed regime. It’s job, I guess, is to supply wisdom and virtue to counter popular and legislative ignorance and expediency. First off: I don’t know about the virtue part; after all, they were trained to be lawyers and not philosopher-kings. And if what they were doing were “cognitive” in the sense of listening to reason, why do they so often divide 5-4 on the high-profile cases? All reasonable men and women should assent to the truth. when they hear it.
This site features an excellent Liberty Forum discussion this month on the future of legal education. If Ken Randall is right about a “blue ocean for law schools” (and he probably is), it looks like a lot of them will be traveling online, providing a needed service for those who only want a ticket to take the bar. As the profession gets more entrepreneurial, the argument for taking this route gets stronger.
What to think of Scott Walker? I’m not necessarily against the Governor’s proposed budget cuts for Wisconsin’s higher education system. Certainly it is good to hold colleges and universities more accountable than they currently are, so they’ll be more effective. And yes, there surely are faculty everywhere, and probably in Wisconsin, who could be “teaching more classes and doing more work.” And it’s true that the tradition of “shared governance” in American higher education has impeded administrations “from directly running things.” (See Joe Knippenberg’s excellent recent posts about this.) Administrations increasingly think of the out-of-touch faculty as a force that has…
In the days since Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns passed away, the former’s angry disputes with his fellow Straussians have received a lot of commentary. There are those who say it was all quite childish. And you know, a lot of it was, precisely because the differences so often seemed small or, when examined closely, not really differences at all. Still, some of the differences are real enough to merit our close attention.
On the more general issue of which student of Strauss is more faithful to the true and complete teaching of Leo Strauss, the most obvious response is that the capable students of any great teacher always grab on to part of what he (or she) taught and confuse it with the whole. Marx and Hegel. Alexandre Kojève and Hegel. Maybe even Aristotle and Plato.
In his lucid and compressed account of the argument of Damon Root’s new book Overruled, the excellent libertarian judicial scholar Ilya Somin has done us the service of presenting in a pithy and powerful way the libertarian vision of the proper place of the Supreme Court in our constitutional system. The key conflict these days is between libertarians and (social) conservatives, and the key interpretive choice is between “originalism” and deference to legislatures.
The thoughtful and meticulous analysis by our friend Joseph Knippenberg got me thinking about civic engagement. Well, that’s not quite true. I was already thinking about it while trying get a book done on the technocratic threat to higher education (which is greater than the politically correct threat to higher education, although the two are not unrelated).
There is an expert-driven trend in higher education–facilitated by foundations, the American Political Science Association, professors of political science and professors of education–to transform the teaching of political science through civic engagement. The literature on this is full of jargon and otherwise depressingly low in its cognitive pay grade. The consensus seems to be the need for a third way of studying politics. One approach, allegedly rigorously scientific, is the nonpartisan detachment of the behaviorist. Another is the textual approach of political philosophers, who talk about what Plato said Socrates said while hanging out in the marketplace but never actually take students to such a public forum. The third way is for students to learn through actually participating in political life.
It seems like everyone–but especially conservatives–is talking about Peter Thiel these days. One sees his name all over. The traditionalist conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute has made the venture capitalist and PayPal cofounder this year’s speaker defending Western civilization. I met Peter (and sat cozily beside him for two days) at a theology conference sponsored by First Things, where he shared his quite singular interpretation of Genesis. Last December, I went to a Straussian conference on Burke and Strauss, funded, of course, by Peter Thiel.
I (and 60,00 or so others) recently got an email from Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard, who began by saying that he often disagrees with Thiel; he thinks his praise of the innovative benefits of monopolies, for instance, applies “only in the narrowest cases.” Still, “right or wrong, or somewhere in between,” Peter’s writing is always “interesting,” and he is “one of our more important public intellectuals.” Thiel’s big claim, that “the collapse of technological progress over the last 40 years is the root of our cultural, political, and economic malaise,” is worth arguing about.
You know, it really is.
Jim Parsons was pretty apologetic the other day, upon winning his fourth Emmy for playing Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. “There’s no accounting for taste,” he said, acknowledging that the other nominees in his category, actors from sophisticated shows on premium channels (such as William C. Macy on Shameless), were much more accomplished performers.
Undoubtedly true. Yet despite its mediocre acting and laugh track, in some ways, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory soars as a show about science. On it, scientists are portrayed and ranked as human types. Their real claims for knowledge and excellence are examined and largely vindicated. They all err in thinking their scientific knowledge more comprehensive than it really is, but they perform real work that genuinely contributes to scientific and technological progress. And the main characters, even Sheldon, seem to be good people full of personal and relational promise. They aren’t frauds like politicians and priests, lightweight windbags like humanists, or manipulative tyrants obsessing about how to gain rational control over their fellow human beings.