Advice to Academics: Consider Suicide
In my column yesterday, March 28, 2007, I discussed my correspondence with Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, a readable but intellectually flawed academic magazine. I (rather clumsily) accused the Scholar (and of course, Mr. Wilson) of lacking "balance," a criticism the editor deflected skillfully and quickly. What I really meant was that the Scholar lacked depth, that it presented -- in the main -- a shallow, academic view of reality.
If the unexamined life is not worth living, then many of the Scholar's contributors might follow Albert Camus' advice and consider suicide.
Most novels about academic life -- Richard Russo's Straight Man is an excellent one -- are satirical views of the professorial life. They portray the academic world as relentlessly petty, constantly inward looking, rigidly conformist, and invariably obsessed with sex involving undergraduates or other faculty members. The much-ballyhooed "commitment to scholarship" often turns out to look suspiciously like a fascination with collecting the intellectual version of pet rocks. It's not a pretty scene.
However, most academics seem to regard the satirical novels, most of them written by academics, as somehow a badge of honor. "Of course our critics condemn us. After all, we're scholars, custodians of the icons of mankind's past." In my experience, they really think the following: "Yes, those novels are right on target. Of all men and women, we are among the most miserable."
Early in my academic career, I heard the situation described in these words: "A faculty is a gaggle of humanity held together only by a common concern about the parking problem."
Most academics claim to be politically liberal. I believe that means they know what acceptable to affirm on their particular campus -- and what's not. It's not a hard-earned philosophical commitment; it's a survival tactic.
Right now, it's NOT acceptable at colleges and universities to say anything supportive of George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, (former) Senators Rick Santorum and George Allen, (former) Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, (any living) neoconservatives -- especially Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle, Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and a host of other people. In the case of someone like Ann Coulter, who used what academics call the "F-word," part of a growing list of terms one speaks at one's peril, such people truly are beyond the pale.
In the case of the Iraq War, if you're an academic in good standing, you should view it as America's version of the attack on the Warsaw Ghetto. You should use the words "BUSH LIED TO US" with regularity. You should see the constant bombings in Iraq by Islamo- fascists as somehow the fault of the U.S. You should say occasionally that "you support the troops" -- without ever actually doing so. You should not know personally ANYONE who has ever served in Iraq (or Afghanistan). To the best of your ability, you should "understand" why al Qaida wants to kill Americans (including you).
What prevails at many colleges and universities, not to mention academic publications, is what sociologist David Riesman (in The Lonely Crowd) called "other-directedness." It's a word that means conformity, which basically refers to going along to get along.
What results is a situation where only a minority -- at some institutions, a very SMALL minority -- of college people can have serious discussions about complex issues. When there are many things you aren't allowed to discuss, scholarship and analysis become a case of "recite after me, George Bush is evil, the violence in Iraq is America's fault, things were better under Saddam, etc, etc."
In my long piece about corresponding with editor Wilson, I quoted a passage borrowed by super-historian Niall Ferguson from an Italian journalist. It dealt with mass murder in Romania, not so much different in some ways from the homicidal behavior we see in the Middle East. It read as follows:
"Hordes of Jews pursued by soldiers and maddened civilians armed with knives and crowbars fled along the streets; groups of policemen smashed in house doors with their rifle butts; windows opened suddenly and screaming disheveled women in night gowns appeared with their arms raised in the air; some threw themselves from windows and their faces hit the asphalt with a dull thud. Squads of soldiers hurled hand grenades through the little windows level with the street into cellars where many people had vainly sought shelter . . . Where the slaughter had been heaviest the feet slipped in blood . . ." and on and on.)
What do the academics (not all, but the type I've been pillorying) say we should do in response to such situations in our own time? In general, they say -- or at least think -- we should ignore them. If we're having an especially bad day, we should blame them on George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the Halliburton Corporation.
At all costs, we must avoid saying something like the following: "This is horrible, and we must stop it!" However, stopping fanatics busily killing men, women, and children requires more than signing a petition, or holding a campus rally, or singing "Give peace a chance." It requires taking up arms and physically resisting the killers. That's not exactly the academic "style."
After all, how did Americans at colleges and universities respond to the massacres in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur? I don't remember a lot of cocktail parties being canceled, or departmental meetings being rescheduled, or graduations being delayed. Life went on as usual. If a tree falls in the forest and CNN doesn't record it, did a tree -- or a Rwandan -- really fall? Pretty much the same thing happened in Europe when six million Jews disappeared, although Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and The American Scholar still stood.
What do I want editor Wilson and The American Scholar to do? I want them to grab the horrors of our time by the throat. I want them to rub their readers' noses in those depravities and force their readers to do something. I want them (Gulp!) to urge college students to join the military. I don't want them to chant "Stop the Killing!" I want them to take up arms and bring it to an end.
In one piece in the Scholar, there was a discussion of 18th century French mathematician Pierre Louis-Maupertuis. He's the one satirized by Voltaire as "Dr. Pangloss," the man who insisted "We live in the best of all possible worlds." In fact, there's a fairly serious academic argument about whether our world is "optimal," something we see suggested in the popular bumper sticker that says, "Shit happens!"
In other words, do we live in a world that's the best it could be, given the circumstances (including evolution and human nature). Dr. Freud refused to join peace movements because he believed war is part of the nature of humanity, that bad things do happen to good people, and there's basically nothing we can do about them.
I don't believe that's true (much as I respect Dr. Freud's work). I prefer the view of Father Keller and the Christophers, who used to say: "It's better to light one little candle than to curse the darkness." Sometimes that "candle" may come in the form of a hand grenade or a Stealth Bomber.
When people are being tortured and murdered, it is our obligation -- and I include editor Wilson and all those who write for his publication -- to prevent those homicides. In most cases, that will involve physical resistance. If we don't do that, we are in fact accessories to the murders.
I submit that George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, those betes noire of the academic world, understand these simple points. I would bet editor Wilson also does, at least in some part of his being, although it's certainly not in his professional interest to say so. "If not now, when? If not us, who?"