Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Criticism

Religion is part of the Great Conversation, and there is something peculiar about the argument that, like politics, it is not a fit topic for the dinner table. Why not the dinner table? We eat too quickly anyway (my family, together last Sunday for the first time in ages, devoured the labour of an entire afternoon in about eight minutes flat), and, speaking for myself, I'm not terribly interested in what my dinner-mates have to say about sports or last night's episode of Dancing with the Stars. But I do care what they think about the origins of the cosmos and, more particularly, how the place ought to be run now that it's here.


Having made her faith a very public matter, Governor Sarah Palin has, rather predictably, recoiled in the past weeks when some of its weirder aspects have come to light, and she has objected rather indignantly that it's terribly rude of voters to ask questions about religion. But dinner table etiquette is categorically not binding when choosing candidates for public office, let alone for that public office. Politicians cannot simultaneously claim that their faith is important to them, informs their worldview, and underscores their moral and ethical decision-making, only to turn around and insist that it's a private matter and exempt from public scrutiny and criticism the moment there's the merest breath of concern voiced about it. Either their faith helps them make choices — choices that affect other peoples' lives — or they are religious hypocrites. Either way, it's on the table just as surely as the salt and pepper shakers are.


I teach at a nominally religious institution, but, in hiring me, that institution is prohibited by law from asking questions concerning my views on religion. I see the point: that there ought not to be religious discrimination in hiring practices. The problem arises when the constitutional principle that there be no religious tests for office is extended to mean that a candidate's religious views are immune from ordinary public scrutiny. This position fails to make the crucial distinction between denying someone the legal right to hold office because of his or her religion, and a citizen making a private decision to vote for or against a candidate for the same reason. The first would be an example of the state exercising religious discrimination, which it positively must not do; the other is an example of a citizen exercising religious freedom, including the freedom to differ with others on matters of faith. If Barack Obama claimed to be without faith, would Sarah Palin urge religious voters to give the matter no consideration? Please.


This distinction is a crucial one, but seldom made. Personally, if I were ever asked, I would without hesitation wave my constitutional right to be exempt from questions of religion in a job interview. Religions invariably address themselves to matters of morality, ethics, and epistemology — although I am weary of the claim, sometimes made, that they are the sole authority on such matters — and these realms of human inquiry happen to be absolutely central to teaching.


I realize that some of my postmodernist colleagues believe that it is straightforwardly authoritarian to suggest to students that there are such things as "right", "wrong", and "truth". (The next time a postmodernist tells me this, I intend to poke him in the eye, and then explain that, from my subjective point of view, a poke in the eye is neither mean nor painful.) But activist or advocacy-based teaching is not the goal, and no professor worth having will ever claim to know the truth for certain (teachers, said Pythagoras, need not be wise, only lovers of wisdom.) What the infusion of the eternal questions of moral, ethical, and epistemic philosophy into the more specific concerns of any field does do, however, is situate our discipline, and the teaching of it, within the compass of the Great Conversation - the Conversation about how we should live.


Politic life, too, is part of that conversation. Politicians routinely are asked questions about their economic policies, standpoint on social issues, perspectives on foreign relations, and even about such piffle as their favorite sports team. (In our recent election, an individual who calls himself a journalist wasted his five seconds with the Prime Minister by asking him what type of vegetable he'd choose to be.) So it seems not merely absurd but actually rather insidious that some people consider religion a matter about which politicians cannot be interrogated, even when politicians themselves choose to raise the issue in the first place.


The soon-to-be President-elect Barack Obama, I think, has a good deal to answer for in his former choice of church and pastor. And as for Sarah Palin, well, I do not think we will hear much from or about her after November 4th, except in the inevitable and no doubt increasingly tedious Saturday Night Live sketches. But if anyone ever gets the chance, they should feel at liberty to ask her what a person who believes that the world is 6,000 years old is doing making decisions about the allocation of government resources into education.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Excellence

In my last blog I suggested that academic infighting has its wellspring in a petty meanness that is the consequence of picking at other peoples' unimportant flaws. I proposed an alternative standard: that people should be content, not with being the best, but with doing their best, and that others should respect those who do. I believe that this would do much to promote happiness in everyday interpersonal affairs. Clearly, however, it should not be applied to (for example) brain surgeons, from whom we can reasonably demand excellence by objective rather than relative standards. And it ought not to be applied to political leaders, either, and especially to those who aspire to the highest office.


I consider myself an adherent of Walt Whitman's admonishment that we should stand up for the stupid and the crazy, and so I will begin by observing that Sarah Palin has the virtue, at least, of not being a lawyer. She would probably make a good president of the local PTA, or a competent call-center manager, or a kindly elementary school librarian. And she's probably a hoot come bingo night down at the Legion — especially after a round or two — and I have no doubt that she's the kind of self-sacrificing mother who spends a lot of time carting her kids around in a mini-van, and who will be there in a flash to bail them out when their first minor run-ins with the law begin to occur.


Don't misunderstand me, I have no ontological bias against local PTA presidents, call-centre managers, or elementary school librarians — they come in all shapes and sizes. But on the whole, I wouldn't pick one at random to be the leader of the free world. In fairness, I wouldn't pick many university professors for the job, either, and given the choice I can think of a few I'd like even less than Gov. Palin. At least she doesn't prefer the other side in the war on terror.


But imagine, gentle readers, that person, positioned quite literally a heartbeat away from the same office once occupied by Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Picture the woman who said "in the great history of American rulings, there have been rulings" standing in the shadows of the men who wrote the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. It's like Jessica Simpson being appointed Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge when Stephen Hawking gives it up.


But this column isn't really about Sarah Palin. The case against her was complete within a week or so of her being chosen as McCain's vice-presidential nominee, and many prominent conservative commentators have admitted that placing her on the ticket was a serious blunder for their party. My concern is about what Palin represents - a vulgar anti-intellectualism that has become a central feature of North American politics. It is not altogether new (Richard Hofstadter was writing about it half a century ago) but Palin, I think, represents something different in kind. Not mediocrity (she has yet to attain that) but the actual glamorization of wilful underachievement, and the expression of an utter contempt for those who aspire to critical thought and reflection. "You can't blink," she has told more than one interviewer, as if the unwillingness to assess the consequences of one's actions is not merely a requirement for higher office - but the only requirement for it.


In a recent interview, Republican strategist Bay Buchanan defended Palin, stating, and I quote, "You don't appeal to American voters by speaking with your mind." In other words, my American friends, a major Republican Party strategist believes that you're too stupid to think about the issues. Sarah Palin begins by telling you the same thing, and with every sentence she reassures you that it's okay, because she's too stupid to think about the issues, too. And the party faithful cheer until they are hoarse.


It's those people who are the problem. Palin is fond of talking about Hockey Moms and "Joe Six Pack", but those people don't actually vote, and in part because the Sarah Palins of the world don't, actually, speak to them or for them. But the party faithful do vote, and they are the ones who bear ultimate responsibility for the dreary state of contemporary North American politics; they are the ones best positioned to demand more from their candidates, but they are too busy waving their signs and stupidly applauding every twitch and grunt of their party's pick to actually do it.


In 1914, when the rank-and-file of the British Expeditionary Force were told that they were to depart for Belgium, they declared at once their readiness to smite the Belgian foe for King and Country, only to discover that they were being deployed to defend Belgium. But what mattered was that they met the minimal criteria for infantry: they were willing to point their guns whichever way their commanders told them to, and so, too, will the legions of the party faithful — the ones with the buttons, badges, hats, and signs — point their banners whichever way the party wills, and for whatever vicious and vile candidate the party puts forth. People who will roar like lions for the fully scripted platitudes that emerge from the mouths of politicians at stage-managed party rallies are either complete cynics, willing to prostitute themselves for their party's victory, or just plain dumb as stumps. Either way democracy is better off without them.


I wish I could say that the other party is much better (think of Bill "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" or Hillary "I landed in Bosnia under sniper fire" Clinton and tell me that that's true), or even that circumstances were much better in my own country. Over the years, I have had students who are otherwise elegant writers, engaging speakers, and the most cautious and careful thinkers, but who are involved in the kinds of party politics that make most cults seem open-minded by comparison. My heart shrivels slightly when I think of them cheering and even growing teary-eyed when some nitwit promises them "change, for a better tomorrow" or "hope, for our children - and for our children's children". If they uncritically swallowed or spewed Kool-Aid of this kind in my class, they'd get an "F". In modern politics, they can aspire to high office.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mediocrity

A few minutes after my first-ever public talk as a graduate student (I was in the fifth or sixth month of my MA program), I overheard a senior doctoral candidate say, "that guy was pretty second-rate." I'm not particularly thick-skinned, but this bit of nastiness actually had the opposite of its intended effect. It gave me an immediate and enormous boost in my self-esteem, because I had been operating under the impression that I was third-rate at best. When I consider the historians who have occupied the first tier of my profession, say, for example, Will Durant, Barbara Tuchman, and Paul Fussell (and think about how those Olympians transcended all the silliness about "popular versus scholarly history"), it occurs to me that to be ranked second is to be elevated to stratospheric heights.

Academics sometimes flatter themselves that life in the ivory tower is exceptionally cut-throat — though no one admits to doing any actually cutting themselves — and there's even a famous quotation, attributed to Henry Kissinger, that seeks to account for the alleged vindictiveness of academic debate ("because there is so little at stake.") Having worked for nearly a decade in the private sector, my own perspective is that academic infighting is exceptional neither in volume nor in venom. If you really want to see the knives come out, try commission sales for a major retailer, volunteer as a referee for the local pee-wee sports team, or plan a church social with the ladies auxiliary (as a boy I sat patiently through one such planning session, and I can confirm that there is no gossip like small town gossip.)

It may be that office politics —of which academic mendaciousness is just a slightly more verbose variety — is part of the human condition, a residue of an evolutionary heritage that has taught us to stake out territory and defend it from outsiders. Biologically speaking, we're all about two hairs from being chimpanzees, after all, and it's a wonder we aren't pelting each other with bananas at this very moment. Unfortunately, those who attempt to defend or isolate themselves from the pettiness of it all can sometimes make themselves bigger targets. In my case, my own blundering efforts to stay above the fray in graduate school led to misunderstandings that I regret to this day.

On occasion, I've had colleagues who have successfully avoided the maliciousness of office politics, but such people are rare as rock stars. Looking back, it occurs to me that the two people I have in mind had certain common attributes. They liked themselves and took pleasure in their work; they neither claimed to be exceptional nor begrudged those who actually were, and they were therefore immune to the occasional barbs that were hurled their way. I don't mean to suggest that they were complacent (far from it), only that they saw no profit in the unkind estimation of others. In fact, both of them took great pleasure in meeting people who could do things that they could not, when a more typically human response is to resent others for their talents and successes. (As Gore Vidal is supposed to have said: it's not enough that I succeed - my friends must fail.)

As I approached my dissertation defense, the single most common piece of advice I was offered was this: whatever you do, never concede a point. Backed into corner, fight your way out, or try to make it look as though the corner is where you intended to be. I had been operating under the na├»ve assumption that the point of scholarship was to advance the frontiers of knowledge, however incrementally, and that errors should not merely be conceded but that one should be grateful for the fact that had been exposed. But so much of corporate life today — and I included academe here — considers admissions of error and genuine professions of modesty to be a sign not just of failure but of actual moral weakness.

A far better ethic was proposed by Socrates. Recall his famous dialogue with Meno, the Athenian yuppie who claimed to know the definition of virtue, and who was aghast that the great Socrates did not. What we remember today is not Meno's blustering assertion that he knew it all, but Socrates' avowal that uncertainty is the beginning of wisdom.

Consider, readers, how much harm has been caused by the incessant demand of self-help books and television's pseudo-therapists that we "be the best", when the real goal should be to do our best. "I don't accept mediocrity!" bellows a contestant on The Apprentice (which makes one wonder why he's on the show in the first place.) But why not? Shakespeare wrote that some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. All indications are that it is the same with mediocrity.