Behind the Comedy of the Soul Experts

As we approach the trial of the year perhaps it would behoove us to remember another trial of a similar tone and nature: Timothy McVeigh. For now, however, I point you in the direction of the ultimate contrarian’s take. Gore Vidal begins

Toward the end of the last century but one, Richard Wagner made a visit to the southern Italian town of Ravello, where he was shown the gardens of the thousand-year-old Villa Rufolo. “Maestro,” asked the head gardener, “do not these fantastic gardens ’neath yonder azure sky that blends in such perfect harmony with yonder azure sea closely resemble those fabled gardens of Klingsor where you have set so much of your latest interminable opera, Parsifal? Is not this vision of loveliness your inspiration for Klingsor?” Wagner muttered something in German. “He say,” said a nearby translator, “‘How about that?’”

There was to be only one story: one man of incredible innate evil wanted to destroy innocent lives for no reason other than a spontaneous joy in evildoing. From the beginning, it was ordained that McVeigh was to have no coherent motive for what he had done other than a Shakespearean motiveless malignity. Iago is now back in town, with a bomb, not a handkerchief.

“I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote, ‘Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.’” Then McVeigh was sentenced to death by the government.

George Wallace, A Look Back

George Corley Wallace Jr. was born on August 25, 1919, in Clio, Alabama. I hope that your ears, like mine dear reader, have immediately perked up. Clio, after all, is the Greek muse of history. What I would give for such an auspicious beginning! After receiving a law degree from the University of Alabama and serving in the Air Force, Wallace was appointed assistant attorney general. In 1946, he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives from Barbour County. In his early career Wallace was a racial moderate and a populist considered “soft” on segregation. In 1948 when Thurmond bolted the Democratic Party, to begin running as a ‘Dixiecrat,’ Wallace remained loyal to the party.


In 1958, Wallace ran for governor but lost a runoff to Attorney General John Patterson. The latter ran with Ku Klux Klan support while the former attacked the Klan, was supported by Alabama’s Jewish community and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). What a world we would live in if Wallace had won with a coalition like that at his back. After the election, it was reported (an anecdote that Wallace aggressively denied) that he remarked, “John Patterson out-nigguhed me. And boys, I’m not goin’ to be out-nigguhed again.” Running successfully for governor in 1962 Wallace took a firm segregationist stance. His catapult to fame and the worshippers of Clio came through his fiery inaugural address. His reputation was bolstered by his brief, though dramatic, confrontation with the U.S. Department of Justice at the University of Alabama. There he stood in “the schoolhouse door” on June 11, 1963, temporarily preventing the enrollment of two African American students before he stood aside.

His most striking (sticking?) feature, however, is that whether you approve of him or not he is there. Like the Washington Monument he stands astride the movements of the nation, and like the Washington Monument no one can stand on his shoulders. He is broken, perhaps rightfully so, and now represents another age. A darker age where racial politics were less hidden and arguably less successful. One where braver men travelled but these men were also conflicted. They were made from two quarries, divided by the Civil War, and their legacy has cracked.

Orwell, when he spoke of Dickens, summarized that he was “an institution that there is no getting away from.” George Wallace is a similar figure, and the forces he represents are equally inescapable. 

When approaching a figure like George Wallace is there anything more to him than simply ‘why should I care?’ There is nothing redeeming about his bigoted and inexplicable views on race relations. His life, its productive years at any rate, were cut short by a bullet but he did not die. His life as a tragedy, a coming of age saga or a ‘battle against the odds’ founders on the rock of who he was. A white male with classically racist assumptions and outlook is excluded from the possibility of becoming a cliche-ridden morality play. I’m not sure if that is a point for or against being a racist. Regardless, he violates the first rule of all cliched summaries of his life. Simply put, ‘be politically digestible.’

I love parallel constructions, don’t you dear reader? Tacitus was never fond of them, to his detriment. Here is mine. What his racism does not violate is his political acumen, or the wide-ranging effects he had on the United States. His ideas found homes, and not only the racist ones, in some familiar places. In conservatives and liberals–Democrats and Republicans–the question we should ask is what is there that has been stolen, and especially who has stolen it.

If Kipling “is in the peculiar position of being a byword for fifty words,” as Orwell quips, then Wallace has become the byword for fifty-one: tack onto Kipling’s adjectives ‘Southern.’ It is best to broaden your horizons, dear reader, and realize that–like Kipling–Wallace is a byword for at least that much. What is impossible to escape is that George Wallace, filled with all his twinkling caricatures of the world, is a delicious contradiction. His world, the one he saw and that I will not enter, was completely fantastic. Incredible. Even, if you’ll allow me this excursion, inedible. But in spite of that his efforts somehow seem more solid and infinitely more memorable than the centuries of manhours produced by the country’s legion of civil servants. He is the perennial target of so much ire and inchoate screeds, yet he somehow remains more permanent–more ‘here’–than the titillating and tilting white knights who promise to vanquish his memory.

He is contemporaneous with the great explosion of racial prejudice that brackets the turbulent times of the Baby Boomers, Southern extremism and a sigh of the deep middle-class reaction to the excesses of the 60s. Perhaps he is synonymous. There is no sense arguing that he was an intentional force for progress. He was not simply standing astride history yelling stop, he was unloading round after round into her side with an old Remington. Yet I have the equal determination to explore the possibility that such caricature, however accurate, does not capture Wallace in his totality. It certainly does not capture the attraction many had towards him. Unluckily for me, historians and laypersons who worship alongside me at the altar to Clio, the greatest portion of Wallace’s ‘sins’–for he has sinned against the current narrative of America, a mortal sin–have been accepted by generation with only the vaguest sense of who he was. The glass over the history books is impenetrable. He has been divested of the best sort of facts–troubling ones.

Again, there is no denying that Wallace’s world is one that few want and even fewer would admit wanting. I fall, luckily, in neither camp. His appeal was narrow. It was narrow because he was an agent for a set of ideals that had only enough vitality to propel him to national fame, which is still an altogether different thing than national importance. His siren song, however, cannot be easily dismissed as an anachronism. Much less an apocalyptic tremor of dying, white middle-class America. Important parts of his platform were not only impressive to Southern sectionalists, they also appealed to Northerners, Midwesterners and beyond. Much has been made of his racism, but little of his populist rhetoric that has remained and thrived the political landscape.

Where he shined was as a part of the opposition. In fact, he challenged the system where the current permanent and pensioned opposition only dreams about. Before Occupy Wall Street–equipped with the ‘fruits’ of the same institutions they labored against and ‘bequeathed’ with the same assumptions they aimed to explode–was Wallace. Before the Tea Party–equipped with the ‘fruits’ of the same institutions they labored againt and ‘bequeathed’ with the same assumptions they aimed to explode–was Wallace. Despite the former’s best intention even the most exuberant opposition of our time lack the world view, even a false one, as complete as George Wallace’s. Boldly inaccurate? Undoubtedly. Inexcusable to our sensibilities? Yes, of course. But ultimately his thinking reflected the presence of responsibility completely lacking in both the ‘Tea Party’ and ‘Occupy’ movements. It is why his modifications to the American consensus, as it were, still strut from party headquarters to party headquarters.

For those looking to read a little bit about this man I’d suggest Black, Earl, and Merle Black. 2002. The Rise of Southern Republicans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Also Bartley, Numan. 1969. The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South during the 1950s. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. Do not forget Frady, Marshall. 1996. Wallace. New York, NY: Random House. Finally, Frederick, Jeff. 2007. Stand Up for Alabama: Governor George Wallace. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Windsor Ruling

The point of departure for my reflection today is a quote from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson is a little obscure in our time, and perhaps rightfully so. His best book, by far, was Winesburg, Ohio. His other writings, with a few exceptions, are pitiful companions in comparison. If there’s anything we cannot stand, except amongst our friends, it is failure. It is not enough to simply succeed.

I’ll quote the passage in full.

That in the beginning when the world was young there was a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelsssness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people cam along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the tuths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of thee people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

The sad reality is that our country’s moral, law-abiding citizens left the streets and the ballot boxes to the mob. Neither straight nor queer citizens felt it their duty to advocate their position persuasively. Ultimately, the country decided that the enforcement of the law against mob rule and intractable evangelical movements was none of their business. The Supreme Court would ‘get the job done.’

The court was asked to step into the gap–that is, something neither our absent President nor the equally inconspicious represenatatives of the American body politic felt called upon to be. The Supreme Court, in a curious mix of coincidence and design, were given the opportunity to do what should have been done a long time ago. In no small way, my hat goes off to them. The majority, and the equally prominent minority dissent, performed up the standards that the nation holds them to.

Now if only the nation would itself to those same standards! For what strikes me the most about the decision is the impressive futility and needles embitterment of all parties concerned. Going into the decision they all seemed to know very well that nothing was being achieved under the auspices that something was being done. The Court bailed them out, literally and figuratively. The court also bailed out the country as a whole because America has failed. But that the Supreme Court had to, finally, step in and decide the issue is an unpleasant situation. “I tremble,” Thomas Jefferson remarked, “when I think God is just.”

I understand that the issue that confronted the court was not an easy one. Speaking from first principles. discrimination is a requirement of society. Without it our society, and all societies, would discontinue. The possibility of free association and group conglomeration would end. The question is not how to abolish discrimination, but how to keep it confined within the social sphere, where it is legitimate, and prevent its trespassing on the political and the personal sphere, where it is destructive. From the standpoint of the daily grind, there were two embittered political sides that were slowly waging a war of unsightly attrition at each other. It was a race to the bottom and once there those who had lived on the bottom–the worst of democracy’s excess–rose to prominence on the back of their experience there.

As Arendt summarized, “Liberals fail to understand that the nature of power is such that the power potential of the Union as a whole will suffer if the regional foundation on which this power rests are undermined… If the various sources from which power springs are dried up, the whole structure becomes impotent. And states’ rights in this country are among the most authentic sources of power… for the Republic as a whole.” I think we do. She nails it. In an effort to spread the truth of equality, this truth was lost. The court became a grotesque. Instead of allowing the United States to confront its demons it has dragged out the battle. A hollow, legalistic victory has won out over one of true change.

When the Supreme Court accepted the mantle and perogative of doing something the states themselves should have been attempting a long time ago, much less the people that inhabit them, it accepted a corrupted role. A role that I do not agree with. Social change is not a top down affair, but a bottom up one. In that vein I find the dissent proposed by Scalia to be especially worthy of mentioning. I’ll look at it in fuller detail at a latter time. For now, however, I want to throw some ashes on the majority opinion, the Americans who made it necessary and even myself–I certainly was not out there in the streets fighting for equal rights.

Accreditation and the Academy

There is no core curriculum for Harvard’s undergraduate program beyond Expository Writing. One can go through the whole experience without straying one iota from intellectual self-satisfaction. Students exit with wildly different preconceptions about themselves, and what they experienced. There is no ‘Harvard education’ beyond geographic coincidence. The original impetus for the creation of a university, the cultivation and trimming of student expectations, is all but gone. It brings up an interesting consideration. When a student walks into Harvard, what is happening: is a brand being purchased, or is an education being sought? It is my contention that most of the students who end up in Harvard are looking for the brand, and whether they actually acquire the education they need is an ancillary consideration. The process has become an elaborate accreditation process. Show up for four years, get your piece of paper from this elaborate structure, play the game.

It does bring up some considerations over whether there needs to be a financial response to this situation. The President hopes to incorporate over 150 billion in block aid to colleges. For those who don’t know, block aid is synonymous with “here’s a bunch of money, do with it as you will.” Yet in spite of a proliferation of degree holders, there is still a considerable room of doubt. Whether students today are better than those of earlier generations is far from clear. “Trained almost from the cradle to smash the SATs and any other examination that stands in their way, the privileged among them may take examinations better, but it is doubtful if their learning and intellectual understanding are any greater.” One can’t help, looking at recent graduates, whether we have finally reached Hegel’s wimpy end of history. No fights for anything but a cushy middle-manager spot.

“We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”

If there is any doubt that we have become Eliot’s Hollow Men take, for instance, the proliferation of obscure and pointless business classes across the nation. ‘Strategic Marketing,’ ‘International Aims and Means,’ and a whole host of equally pointless classes that purportedly teach groups of near-alcoholics how to become CEOs. Ah, okay! All the classes are going to become CEOs? There’s not going to be one middle-manager of dubious import and intellectual weight? Thank you, Academy, for allowing us the ability to introduce three products into a foreign market with a competing product of higher price, higher quality. Certainly I am not going to end up working for Esurance.

As has been mentioned at length in other posts, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the humanities either.

What, if anything, can be done? Kevin Carey has a few strong ideas.

To summarize, Matthew Yglesias:

People learn things all kinds of ways. I learn a lot from reading blogs and magazines. Hopefully people learn from reading me. I look things up on Wikipedia. I read books. I listen to lectures on iTunes. But federal funding is tied to a particular kind of learning in a particular set of institutions—college courses in accredited colleges. And who decides what an accredited college is? Why trade groups composed of accredited colleges do!

If the Academy is unwilling, or unable, to provide a good enough reason for its ever rising tuition rates then what else should we expect? A five-year bender for middle-managers sounds fun… But one has to wonder if the debt is really worth it.

Today I Noticed

“Skepticism” in a blog title only highlights a blog’s arbitrary, unskeptically held, assumptions.

Transgender, adjective. A word used to indicate the opposite. Ex., “I am transgender, so the last thing I’ll consider doing is transcend my gender.”

Activism, noun. An appellation used to connotate the logical sequence of not doing anything.

Academic ‘freedom’ is a common, if odd, mispelling of academic conformity. “The Professor wanted to teach religion, but I believe in academic freedom.”

Today I Noticed

Today I noticed the true value of what I have been taught. No one needs the bravery to challenge the world’s ideas. No one needs the panche to challenge other people’s views. We all have that. What we do not have is the vitality to contest our own. Those assumptions, above all else, are sacred. Some bloggers need to understand this.

America Doesn’t Have a Story

If there is one narrative that unites the Western World it is that we do not have a narrative. ‘Educated’ people increasingly did not have knowledge about their own culture. Allan Bloom, “It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another; but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously…” Today, what do we take seriously? Not the ‘liberal arts,’ certainly not ‘politics’ and not even the sciences. Perhaps we take ‘fairness’ seriously, but as any parent can tell you the Fairness Doctrine is not a whole lot better than the egocentric peaens of an eight-yearold.

If writers like Robert Jenson (“How the World Lost Its Story”) are right, what does that mean for the identity politics of the 21st Century? The purpose of portraying your own identity as a victim presupposes the idea that there is a great oppressor out there who is willing to deny you your voice. But what story is holding the commanding heights? If there is a ‘in’ group, that is self-validated by its narrative, what is that narrative? The answer, it seems, is increasingly incoherent. There is no more universal history and, relatedly, there is nothing to be a victim of. The enemy of the 21st Century, if there is one, is the splintering of our attention. Facebook-Tumblr-Email-Facebook-TV-FACEBOOK! Fighting it is not very exciting. More importantly, reversing the trend would take actual effort.

Effort, as many commentators have noticed, is the last thing we have (after a basic understanding of the English language, a conception of American history, or the ability to put on a condom/solve anything requiring geometry). Women have, as it were, ‘won.’ The 21st Century world is their’s for the taking. Is it no surprise, then, that this wave of feminism’s authors are more concerned with their orgasms and managing Target excursions than fighting the ‘patriarchy’ (a word that reaches fewer and fewer students studying to become middle-managers, which is to say the vast majority of the student body)?

Feminism is the first, but certainly not the last, victim of ‘the Man’ losing his story. How far is Gaydom behind? If I wasn’t poor I would throw down for the answer ‘not far.’

The true issue seems to be that the splintering of the American mind, which is so closely related to its closing, has undercut the production value (as it were) of these various movements. Without a nice, dominant culture that is relatively ambivalent about being the contrast to every right action then where does that leave the cadres of professional activists? Well, it leaves them to build a culture that is not bound up in the increasingly hollow perception of a dominant, normative one.

As we all well know, we are the most elequoent on the subjects of ourselves and what we don’t like. How eleqouent could anyone be on the subject of ‘not-ourself’ and something we like? I doubt the results will be noteworthy.

I Can’t Wait For Our Generation of Middle-Managers

Francis Fukuyama fretted that the end of ‘history’ as envisioned by German Idealism, and Hegel in particular, was essentially ‘wimpy.’ We would Homer Simpson on a grand scale: educated, we can all operate a nuclear powerplant, but so clearly incomplete we resemble a 2-D idiot (if essentially kind and lovable) rather than an actual human being.

I always thought that was a bridge too far, as it were. Arnhem, his conclusion, would have to be captured, proven, by other writers. Or not at all. Who would think that he would be proven right by, of all things, our lifetimes?

You know there is a problem with our culture when The Weekly Standard and Slate are walking in lock-step. The arbiters of our culture have, in the immortal words of Kristol, “lost” and those who are still around are left to salvage plausibility from such sentences as “the aspirational paradigm of the new worker: creative, unconventional, flexible, nomadic, creating value, and endlessly travelling. In a post-Fordist work paradigm defined by immaterial labor, artists are the perfect entrepreneurs and incarnate the new faux bohemianization of the workplace.” Ah, of course, I was worried that we were talking about a pre-Fordist work paradigm! Dodged a bullet there. Or was it a missile of feces wrapped around the Virgin Mary that’s supposed to represent the white, over-caffinated, single-child’s conception of inner-city youth’s oppression? So much to groupthink about in graduate seminars.

Every successive year of duly and dully taught graduates seem in equal parts apathetic and ignorant. We’re all a bunch of ‘Business’ majors who do not yet realize that it’s an euphemism for ‘faceless middle-manager.’ There will be a man at our grave who intones, boldly and emptily, ‘he was a company man’ (or woman?).

Of course, at least we have WordPress where we will be endlessly congratulated on our posts: no matter how trite, contrived, precious and precocious the content is.