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The Utter Arrogance of the Left



To the editors.

While reading Mr. Lipsitz's article last week on the controversy surrounding core curriculum reforms in the nation's universities ["Comment: What Counts as Culture?" August 10], a few points occurred to me, concerning not so much the content of those dreary Western Civ survey courses, but rather where the real controversy should be debated.

Basically, the move to add non-white male Eurocentric works of literature to the core curriculums is not a bad idea at all. However, Mr. Lipsitz does not mention that the argument at Stanford was met not only with articles in the Wall Street Journal, but with marches by leftist students at that school led by the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson chanting that Western Civilization as such was not worth studying, and that works by Plato had no relevance to Hispanic and black students. Leaving aside the obvious racism of such remarks, the move to add such authors as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Chinua Achebe was not undertaken simply as an expansion of the curriculum, but as an attempt to destroy its basic premise.

However, there is a deeper issue here. Mr. Lipsitz darkly charges that the "Neoconservatives" (more on that later) are making a coordinated effort to narrow the focus of the universities' exploration of human difference. And how are the brutes doing this? Are storm troopers dragging teaching assistants out of their cubicles to be shot? Have death squads been garroting the progressive professors? No, the truth is much more diabolical--the fiends are publishing books! Yes, hard though it is to believe, the jackbooted fascists are proposing alternative ideas! And even worse, people are entertaining them!

It must be admitted that Marxists do respect the power of ideas. This is why they generally use every means at their disposal to make sure that no ideas except their own are allowed currency. In the late Soviet Empire, this was rather simple. Stalin not only shot everyone who had the wrong ideas, but also everyone who might at some future time have the wrong idea. In the Western democracies, however, things are less easy. It usually becomes necessary to completely debase the language to make alternative concepts unpronounceable.

Mr. Lipsitz's effort in this project is his reformulation of all brands of anticollectivist thought into one single human trait: avarice. This is the single and overriding motivation of everyone who disagrees with the party line. Nobody ever opposed socialism because they saw the misery it plunged Eastern Europe into. No one supports capitalism because it creates wealth from thought and brings the benefits of human labor and ingenuity to the widest possible distribution. Nope, they only resist the tide of history because they're greedy. How then to explain the success of Reagan, Bush, Thatcher, Walesa, Havel, Yeltsin and Kohl? According to Lipsitz, the neoconservatives have x-rayed the puny mind of the proles and found the perfect combination of hatred and envy to brainwash the cretins.

It is in this formulation that the utter arrogance of the left is revealed. The "great unwashed" has no mind of its own; it only is fit to obey orders and get back to work. No working man or woman can be trusted to arrive at their own conclusion--they must be guided, or failing that, eliminated. They cannot define their own best interest. It must be chosen for them. What rot. What unmitigated fascism.

Unfortunately for the left, history and progress leave them increasingly in the dust. Those pernicious technologies that so frighten Lipsitz--the satellite, the microchip--have brought true power to the individual person. It was camcorders that brought down Leninism. Thanks to the coordinated effort of the capitalists, every suburban shopping mall has a bookstore, something that was not true in the fifties. These stores sell books of the Left and the Right, free for anyone to buy. That tool of the oppressor, the computer, allows every man to be his own publisher, whatever his opinion about the government. Funny, isn't it, how the avarice of the "neoconservatives" has ended up bringing unprecedented choice to the hands of the worker?

The opening up of the debate over core curricula to opinions from outside the radical mafia is a healthy thing. The subsidization of alternative anti-Marxist writing by capitalist foundations seems a mannered and entirely appropriate way of informing public opinion (you know, First Amendment and all that). The idea that debate is being crushed by the Olin Foundation is simply silly. ("Uh-oh! Another Deconstructionist has been sighted at U of C!" "Quick! Scramble the Learjet and call Allan Bloom!") Considering the heavy representation of Leftists in the college faculties, this is simply balance, galling as it might be to Mr. Lipsitz.

Michael P. Walsh

N. Sheridan

PS: The intellectual tradition of Conservatism is a rich and varied one, ranging from Radical Libertarianism to almost reactionary Religious Fundamentalists. Like Leftism, it contains visionaries, rogues, scholars and short-order cooks. For an academic like Lipsitz to so disdain the entire group by lumping us all into the pot "Neoconservative" is not only insulting, but counterproductive to his own cause. One should not believe one's own propaganda if one hopes to triumph. For the record, Ronald Reagan is not a "Neoconservative," a position that might be defined as a repentant liberal. He is if anything, of the New Right, a rather less intellectual stance, but tougher. Stay well and stay free.

George Lipsitz replies:

I am pleased that my article provoked such energetic responses from Thomas F. Mitchell, Jordan Kassof, and Michael P. Walsh. All three understand very well that ideas matter, that questions of culture are also questions of politics, and that all of us must participate in serious and sustained dialogue about educational issues. Yet in different ways, all three letters demonstrate why it is essential to develop new approaches to these issues. Faced with shifting paradigms in an era of cultural confusion, they resort to paternalistic and authoritarian affirmations of certainty. They respond to the opportunities for an expanded and open dialogue by merely reciting the rules of the game, even though no one else may have agreed to play on their terms.

Mitchell fears that my analysis of the cultural crisis in colleges overlooks the insights that he has gleaned from years of secondary-school teaching. He misreads my argument if he believes that I think universities are the only sites where cultural meanings are created. To the contrary, I believe that everyone does some intellectual work because everyone thinks. Furthermore, everyone has to make sense out of the world by interpreting images and icons. Yet while I would never want to exclude Mitchell's experiences and perceptions from a discussion of what people do or should know, I feel that he lets his own subjective experiences set standards for everyone else. He derides people for what they do not know, without trying to find out what it is that they do know and why they know it. He expects others to learn material that he has decided to be important, but allows himself to remain within the limits of his own immediate historical and social experiences. Subjectivity is a vital and essential part of learning, but it needs to be tempered with comparison to the experiences and beliefs of others.

Kassof raises relevant issues when he insists that cultural comparisons demand value judgments, but he assumes what he should be proving by presenting his own values as objective and universal. His pursuit of "objectivity" is as extreme as Mitchell's validation of subjectivity; both produce their own kinds of distortion. It may well be that the kinds of individualism and libertarianism Kassof champions are best for all people at all times, but we cannot conclude this before we investigate how, when, and why those beliefs came into existence and what interests they have served. What seems like "objective" truth to Kassof may seem like a subjective construct to someone who does not share his culture and his history. We cannot make claims about what is true for everybody until we hear from everybody, or at least from as many people and cultures as possible.

Kassof responds to my call for historical, sociological, and anthropological study of culture by asserting that it is individuals rather than societies that produce art. Starting with an appeal for objectivity, he now moves to a world that is completely subjective, created by individuals on their own. My view is that individuals do create art, but they do so within historically specific social, economic, and political contexts. No society is so powerful that it determines completely what an individual will create, but no individual artist is so detached from society that he or she is immune to the conventions of representation that connote meaning in any given context. Otherwise, why would all the autonomous and free individuals in post-Renaissance Europe come to the decision to use tonal harmony in music, while all the autonomous and free individuals in Africa and Asia developed different harmonic and rhythmic systems?

Walsh evidences little interest in principled discussion or reasoned argument. Unable or unwilling to respond to the arguments in my article on the educational crisis provoked by neoconservative power, he prefers to answer arguments that I did not make and do not believe. He does not acknowledge his own subjectivity as Mitchell does, nor does he try to affirm objective moral standards in the manner of Kassof. Instead, he demonizes his enemies, evaluating the world in terms of simple binary oppositions.

Walsh assumes that my opposition to corporate and neoconservative control over American universities means that I must support Stalinist "socialist" tyrannies in Europe. But his trusting optimism about the benign intentions of those in power, his support for policies that restrict access to higher education, and his portrayal of neoconservative absolutists as pluralists give Walsh more in common with the dislodged party bureaucrats in Eastern Europe than with the genuinely heroic rebels whose moral capital he so facilely appropriates for himself.

For all his certainty about the superiority of his own side, Walsh is never willing to compare neoconservative claims with their record. Because Walsh favors expanding the curriculum, he assumes that neoconservative foundations do as well, despite their actions to the contrary. He impugns the motives of those like myself who charge that neoconservatives have succeeded by appealing to greed and racism, but chooses not to discuss the dismal neoconservative record on education, health care, housing, and civil rights. Walsh never addresses the crisis engendered in universities by neoconservative tax cuts for the rich, diversion of student aid from grants to loans, or squandering of scarce educational resources to serve the indirect research and development needs of private corporations. These policies have severely restricted access to secondary education for less privileged populations. They have encouraged the redeployment of scarce resources within universities away from inquiries into social problems, and they have imperiled the funding base and the entire future of American universities.

Walsh claims that a commitment to "simple balance" lies behind the massive amounts of money funneled to neoconservative academics--the $1.4 million that the John M. Olin Foundation gave to Harvard academic Samuel Huntington to further his arguments that the U.S. suffers from too much democracy or the $3.6 million that same foundation gave to Allan Bloom to advance his argument that "a very great narrowness is not incompatible with the health of an individual or a people, whereas with great openness it is hard to avoid decomposition." I find myself somewhat more suspicious of their intentions than is Walsh, although his trusting innocence should warm the hearts of those in power everywhere.

In a period of extraordinarily rapid social change and cultural confusion we should not underestimate the appeal of arguments based solely on the authority of individual experience, transcendent truth, or counter-subversive self-righteousness. They provide the security of certainty in an anxiety-ridden age, and they provide abstract and idealistic solutions to problems decidedly of social and material origin. But they betray the aims and interests of higher education. They may ease anxieties for the moment, but they do little to prepare us for the difficult choices to be made in the future. Any curriculum that obscures prevailing power relations, that provides answers in advance of inquiry, or that hides the interconnectedness of human experience does no service to students or society, however much comfort it might bring to its adherents in the short run.

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