Learning to Think for Ourselves

by Michael Roth, President, Wesleyan University, HuffingtonPost.com, 11/12/2013

Over the last year there has been a steady stream of articles about the “crisis in the humanities,” fostering a sense that students are stampeding from liberal education toward more vocationally oriented studies. In fact, the decline in humanities enrollments, as some have pointed out, is wildly overstated, and much of that decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the press is filled with tales about parents riding herd on their offspring lest they be attracted to literature or history rather than to courses that teach them to develop new apps for the next, smarter phone.

America has long been ambivalent about learning for its own sake, at times investing heavily in free inquiry and lifelong learning, and at other times worrying that we need more specialized training to be economically competitive. A century ago these worries were intense, and then, as now, pundits talked about a flight from the humanities toward the hard sciences.

Liberal education was a core American value in the first half of the 20th century, but a value under enormous pressure from demographic expansion and the development of more consistent public schooling. The increase in the population considering postsecondary education was dramatic. In 1910 only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; by 1940 it was 50 percent. For the great majority of those who went on to college, that education would be primarily vocational, whether in agriculture, business, or the mechanical arts. But even vocationally oriented programs usually included a liberal curriculum — a curriculum that would provide an educational base on which one could continue to learn — rather than just skills for the next job. Still, there were some then (as now) who worried that the lower classes were getting “too much education.”

Within the academy, between the World Wars, the sciences assumed greater and greater importance. Discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology did not seem to depend on the moral, political, or cultural education of the researchers — specialization seemed to trump broad humanistic learning. These discoveries had a powerful impact on industry, the military, and health care; they created jobs! Specialized scientific research at universities produced tangible results, and its methodologies — especially rigorous experimentation — could be exported to transform private industry and the public sphere. Science was seen to be racing into the future, and some questioned whether the traditional ideas of liberal learning were merely archaic vestiges of a mode of education that should be left behind.

In reaction to this ascendancy of the sciences, many literature departments reimagined themselves as realms of value and heightened subjectivity, as opposed to so-called value-free, objective work. These “new humanists” of the 1920s portrayed the study of literature as an antidote to the spiritual vacuum left by hyperspecialization. They saw the study of literature as leading to a greater appreciation of cultural significance and a personal search for meaning, and these notions quickly spilled over into other areas of humanistic study. Historians and philosophers emphasized the synthetic dimensions of their endeavors, pointing out how they were able to bring ideas and facts together to help students create meaning. And arts instruction was reimagined as part of the development of a student’s ability to explore great works that expressed the highest values of a civilization. Artists were brought to campuses to inspire students rather than to teach them the nuances of their craft. During this interwar period a liberal education surely included the sciences, but many educators insisted that it not be reduced to them. The critical development of values and meaning was a core function of education.

Thus, despite the pressures of social change and of the compelling results of specialized scientific research, there remained strong support for the notion that liberal education and learning for its own sake were essential for an educated citizenry. And rather than restrict a nonvocational education to established elites, many saw this broad teaching as a vehicle for ensuring commonality in a country of immigrants. Free inquiry would model basic democratic values, and young people would be socialized to American civil society by learning to think for themselves.

By the 1930s, an era in which ideological indoctrination and fanaticism were recognized as antithetical to American civil society, liberal education was acclaimed as key to the development of free citizens. Totalitarian regimes embraced technological development, but they could not tolerate the free discussion that led to a critical appraisal of civic values. Here is the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, speaking to undergraduates just two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany:

To my mind, one of the most important aspects of a college education is that it provides a vigorous stimulus to independent thinking…. The desire to know more about the different sides of a question, a craving to understand something of the opinions of other peoples and other times mark the educated man. Education should not put the mind in a straitjacket of conventional formulas but should provide it with the nourishment on which it may unceasingly expand and grow. Think for yourselves! Absorb knowledge wherever possible and listen to the opinions of those more experienced than yourself, but don’t let any one do your thinking for you.

This was the 1930s version of liberal learning, and in it you can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of autonomy and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance.

In the interwar period the emphasis on science did not, in fact, lead to a rejection of broad humanistic education. Science was a facet of this education. Today, we must not let our embrace of STEM fields undermine our well-founded faith in the capacity of the humanities to help us resist “the straitjackets of conventional formulas.” Our independence, our freedom, has depended on not letting anyone else do our thinking for us. And that has demanded learning for its own sake; it has demanded a liberal education. It still does.

Cross-posted from Inside Higher Education. The op-ed draws on Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which will be published by Yale University Press in the spring.

Michael Roth

President, Wesleyan University

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-roth/learning-t

Status quo or change?

Ideas we need to talk about – e-letter of September 19, 2013 from ProgressiveValues.org by Phyllis Stenerson

Changes in America and the world over the past decade have been stunning. The magnitude and consequences are almost too much to comprehend causing most people to tune out. America is at a trajectory moment, facing multiple crises and incomparable opportunity.

Change must come from the grassroots up. What each of us does or does not do in the coming months will make a difference in ways we can’t know now, can barely imagine. The choice is stark – do nothing and allow the disastrous status quo to continue or be a part of the grassroots movement for long term, systemic change for the common good.

Our American democracy is dangling by the slimmest of threads. Now when wise leadership is most needed, we’re immersed in a political quagmire. Those elected and sworn to represent we citizens in Congress are, with a few valuable exceptions, failing miserably. Unprecedented power is being wielded by unelected operatives to serve their own agendas. We, the people, the 99%, must seize the power granted to us in the Constitution.

What makes this hinge of history tragically significant is that this time the facts indicate the future of humanity is at stake. Virtually everything and everybody are impacted. Environmental threats, perpetual war, persistent racism and economic injustice are among the crises stealing the future from our children. Major change is overdue and essential.

Another point of difference from other times is that we have access to unlimited information and ways to connect with other people that can quite literally change the world. You won’t hear about it from the main stream media, but all around the globe countless people are immersed in making change for the common good. The excitement is palpable.

My wakeup call came when the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq. I had to find out how this horrific act could be possible. Although I have been deeply involved in politics for many years, I realized my knowledge was sadly limited so I immersed myself in self-education and the progressive movement. It has been fascinating!

The Big Picture is made up of countless components, each one needing assessment, and most likely change. Underlying and surrounding all facets of public policy and society are the intangibles, the ideas that shape our understanding of the world and our place in it – worldview.

Worldview is the focus of this work. Worldview is our moral truth and intellectual truth – faith and reason – our philosophy of life. Religion and spirituality play an oversized role in politics today. The epidemic of anti-intellectualism must be reversed. Information and ideas that have been pumped into the public consciousness over the years must be peer reviewed by we, the people.

How do we know right or wrong? True or false? Smart or stupid?

The mainstream media rarely has the time, interest or context to communicate these ideas. Opinion is often skewed to favor corporate sponsors. The culture wars and religion wars are real, awesomely complex and key to influencing public opinion and making change.

Selected information and commentary have been posted on my website to help speed up the learning curve for others. No one could possibly understand the depth and scope of cultural factors impacting our politics and culture without purposeful learning. What is needed now is to take a deep, broad look at the Big Picture and how each issue is impacted by worldview. Countless citizens are doing exemplary work on specific issues such as climate change, gun control, health care and many more. Fewer of us are inclined to study the history and philosophy at the core of the American experience.

I want others who like to study civics and the humanities to connect with one another and collaboratively ignite a national conversation. Public dialogue about the big picture and radical (root) ideas is essential to understand and communicate why and how we must change the world.

I think people will be drawn into this conversation if we frame it not as getting involved in politics, but as participating in democracy.

Ideas we need to talk about include the nexus of religion and politics, the moral values of climate change and income inequality, how special interests have shaped worldviews in our country over the past 40 year and much more. To help find focus in this enormous concept, I am trying to connect as directly as possible public thought and opinion with federal government policy, particularly as relates to the future of our grandchildren. Dialogue about ideas embedded within the Big Picture is applicable to any particular area of interest or expertise.

There is already a lot happening in this arena to build upon. There is a critical need for organizations with resources and expertise to provide leadership and coordination. That is something I cannot do and am longing for others to step up and make it work. My work is available for use by all. Please let me know what’s happening – Phyllis@progressivevalues.org. Thank you.

We must move forward in the days ahead with audacious faith. The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Recent relevant articles

Before You Give up on Democracy, Read This! by Frances Moore Lappé, September 18, 2013, The Huffington Post

The End Game for Democracy  by Bill Moyers, billmoyers.com August 23, 2013

The Rise of the New New Left by Peter Beinart, The Daily Beast, September 12, 2013

American Intellectuals’ Widespread Failure to Stand Up to Billionaires and Authoritarian Power By Robert Jensen, AlterNet, July 5, 2013

Humanity Imperiled — The Path to Disaster by Noam Chomsky, Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com, Huffington Post, June 4, 2013

* * * * * * *

Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American… America is the only idealistic nation in the world.
Woodrow Wilson

What the people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise. Barbara Jordan

The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

When you place a high value on truth, you have to think for yourself.
Dr. Cornel West

No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.
Isaac Asimov

Time doesn’t change things. People change things.
Andy Warhol

Policy is driven by more than politics, however. It is equally driven by ideas.
Malcolm Gladwell

http://p0.vresp.com/ZDU6MS Link to e-letter online


Why We Must Reclaim The Bible From Fundamentalists

by John Shelby Spong, Retired American Bishop of the Episcopal Church, HuffingtonPost.com, 10/13/2011

Excerpt

The contrast between the way the Bible is understood in the academic world and the way it is viewed in our churches is striking…issues and insights, commonplace among the scholars, are viewed as highly controversial and even as “heresy” in the churches. The result has been that the majority of people who have remained in the church have become more and more rigid and fundamentalist, while those who have left have become more and more dismissive of everything, good or bad, about Christianity… there are other ways to view Christianity.

In the world of Christian scholarship, for example, to read the Bible literally is regarded as absurd. To call the words of the Bible “the Word of God” is more than naïve…There are some biblical facts that cannot and should not be ignored, if Christians really value truth… Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue. I am tired of seeing the Bible being used, as it has been throughout history, to legitimize slavery and segregation, to subdue women, to punish homosexuals, to justify war and to oppose family planning and birth control. That is a travesty which must be challenged and changed…

Full text

The contrast between the way the Bible is understood in the academic world and the way it is viewed in our churches is striking. I know because in my life as a priest and a bishop I have both served typical congregations and been privileged to study and to teach in some of the best known Christian academic centers in the world. In academia I discovered that issues and insights, commonplace among the scholars, are viewed as highly controversial and even as “heresy” in the churches. The result has been that the majority of people who have remained in the church have become more and more rigid and fundamentalist, while those who have left have become more and more dismissive of everything, good or bad, about Christianity. We also now have a crop of writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchen, who have totally demolished the fundamentalist approach to God with their clever and penetrating books, yet they are seemingly unaware that there are other ways to view Christianity.

In the world of Christian scholarship, for example, to read the Bible literally is regarded as absurd. To call the words of the Bible “the Word of God” is more than naïve. No modern person can still believe that a star can wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it, that God actually dictated the Ten Commandments — all three versions, no less — or that a multitude can be fed with five loaves and two fish. No modern person understanding genetics and reproduction can believe that virgins conceive, nor can those who understand what death does to the human body in a matter of just minutes still view the resurrection as the resuscitation of a deceased body after three days. Biblical scholars know that the accounts of the crucifixion read in Christian churches on Good Friday are not eye witness reports, but developed interpretations of Jesus’ death based on a series of Old Testament texts selected to convince fellow Jews that Jesus “fulfilled the scriptures” and thus really was the “messiah.” These issues and many others are assumed in the world of biblical scholars, but are viewed by many church-goers, together with the vast majority of television evangelists and radio preachers, as attacks on divine revelation that must be resisted in order to save Christianity. They thus, knowingly or unknowingly, join in a conspiracy of silence, ignoring truth when they feel they can and viewing biblical scholars, strangely enough, as the church’s ultimate enemy. At the same time secular critics attack what Christian scholars know is nonsensical about both the Bible and Christianity and act as if they have discovered something new.

There are some biblical facts that cannot and should not be ignored, if Christians really value truth. For example, the time separating when Moses lived (ca. 1250 BCE) from when the stories of Moses were written in the Bible (ca. 950 BCE) is about 300 years, representing 15 generations of oral transmission. Can anyone knowing this continue to be a literal believer? The gospels were written 40 -70 years after the crucifixion, which means that most of what we read about Jesus in the Bible was handed down orally for two to three generations before one word of it achieved written form. The gospels were also first written in Greek, a language which neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke or wrote! How can anyone claim “inerrancy” for such material? Other facts well-known in the academy, but seemingly unknown outside by either believers or critics, are that scholars can find no evidence that miracles were associated with the memory of Jesus before the 8th decade of the Christian era, that there is no mention of the virgin birth anywhere before the 9th decade and that the narratives of the ascension and Pentecost did not appear until the 10th decade. The New Testament does not agree on such basic issues as the identity of the twelve disciples or the details of Easter. Why has none of this been made available in churches or been discovered by those who pose as the church’s secular critics?

The New Testament also introduces us to a group of characters who are far more likely to be literary creations than they are to be literal. Was Judas Iscariot a figure of history? I do not think so. There is no mention of him in any source before the 8th decade. Paul, writing between 51 and 64 CE, appears never to have heard of the tradition that one of the twelve was a traitor. In addition to that, every detail of the New Testament portrait of Judas can be located in other traitor stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. If a major figure like Judas is not real then what about such lesser characters as Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman by the well, Lazarus, miraculously raised from the dead four days after being buried, or even the “Beloved Disciple?” All of them, I now believe, were created to illustrate a theme.

It was fascinating for me in writing this book to explore the scriptures from these perspectives by journeying through the entire biblical landscape from Genesis to Revelation. That enabled me with both integrity and conviction to challenge the literal assumptions of the past and to open the biblical story to new levels of understanding that I believe are profoundly real. Who would have thought, for instance, that Hosea’s domestic life would illumine his understanding of the love of God; or that Amos, a keeper of sycamore trees in the village of Tekoa, would be the one to redefine God as justice? The book of Jonah is seen as a readable mythological tale, deliberately designed to hook its audience emotionally in order to break them out of the bondage of prejudice. The book of Job explores the universal theme of why innocent people suffer. There is great stuff in the Bible that needs to be opened in new ways.

Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue. I am tired of seeing the Bible being used, as it has been throughout history, to legitimize slavery and segregation, to subdue women, to punish homosexuals, to justify war and to oppose family planning and birth control. That is a travesty which must be challenged and changed.

I wrote “Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World” to do precisely that.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-shelby-spong/why-i-wrote-re-claiming-t_b_1007399.html

The Humanist Vocation

By DAVID BROOKS, New York Times, June 20, 2013

Excerpt

A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors…many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise..The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul…This was the most inward and elemental part of a person…care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage…the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region. The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission…So now the humanities are in crisis. Rescuers are stepping forth. On Thursday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report called “The Heart of the Matter,” making the case for the humanities and social sciences…It focuses not only on the external goods the humanities can produce (creative thinking, good writing), but also the internal transformation (spiritual depth, personal integrity…

Full text

A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors. Even over the last decade alone, the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third.

Most people give an economic explanation for this decline. Accounting majors get jobs. Lit majors don’t. And there’s obviously some truth to this. But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were bound to seem less consequential and more boring.

So now the humanities are in crisis. Rescuers are stepping forth. On Thursday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report called “The Heart of the Matter,” making the case for the humanities and social sciences. (I was a member of this large commission, though I certainly can’t take any credit for the result.)

The report is important, and you should read it. It focuses not only on the external goods the humanities can produce (creative thinking, good writing), but also the internal transformation (spiritual depth, personal integrity). It does lack some missionary zeal that hit me powerfully as a college freshman when the humanities were in better shape.

One of the great history teachers in those days was a University of Chicago professor named Karl Weintraub. He poured his soul into transforming his students’ lives, but, even then, he sometimes wondered if they were really listening. Late in life, he wrote a note to my classmate Carol Quillen, who now helps carry on this legacy as president of Davidson College.

Teaching Western Civ, Weintraub wrote, “seems to confront me all too often with moments when I feel like screaming suddenly: ‘Oh, God, my dear student, why CANNOT you see that this matter is a real, real matter, often a matter of the very being, for the person, for the historical men and women you are looking at — or are supposed to be looking at!’

“I hear these answers and statements that sound like mere words, mere verbal formulations to me, but that do not have the sense of pain or joy or accomplishment or worry about them that they ought to have if they were TRULY informed by the live problems and situations of the human beings back there for whom these matters were real. The way these disembodied words come forth can make me cry, and the failure of the speaker to probe for the open wounds and such behind the text makes me increasingly furious.

“If I do not come to feel any of the love which Pericles feels for his city, how can I understand the Funeral Oration? If I cannot fathom anything of the power of the drive derived from thinking that he has a special mission, what can I understand of Socrates? … How can one grasp anything about the problem of the Galatian community without sensing in one’s bones the problem of worrying about God’s acceptance?

“Sometimes when I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know.”

Teachers like that were zealous for the humanities. A few years in that company leaves a lifelong mark.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/opinion/brooks-the-humanist-vocation.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130621&_r=0

Humanities

American Intellectuals’ Widespread Failure to Stand Up to Billionaires and Authoritarian Power

Who’s Afraid of Zinn’s Radical History? by Sonia Murrow and Robert Cohen, The Nation, August 7, 2013, posted on CommonDreams.org

Report Argues U.S. Is Neglecting, Undervaluing Education in the Humanities - CONVERSATION — PBS News Hour, June 19, 2013 Excerpt A new report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences panel warns that the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in the liberal arts and social sciences… languages, history, philosophy and … Continue reading →

The humanities are just as important as STEM classes By Danielle Allen, Washington Post, February 14, 2013 …we don’t need to become a nation of technocrats. Let’s not forget that you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and that reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history. You also can’t excel at citizenship if you can’t read, write or speak well, or understand the complexity of the world and think historically. History helps us understand the features of our worlds that are changeable and that require either reform, because they are damaging, or protection, because they are valuable but vulnerable…The Common Core standards recognize that literacy, the humanities and history are as important as math, science and technical subjects in preparing students for jobs and college. They will also improve our ability to prepare students for citizenship. They should, in other words, help us achieve not only college and work readiness but also participatory readiness. Continue reading →
Conservatives’ Reality Problem by Timothy B. Lee, Contributor, Forbes, November 9, 2012…two decades ago, conservatives liked to argue that the ivory tower had put academics out of touch with reality, and that conservatism had reason and science on its side. The recent collapse of communism seemed to confirm this view. Today the tables have turned. While academia certainly still has pockets of out-of-touch leftists, there has been a much more dramatic decline in intellectual standards on the political right…years of conservatives demonizing pointy-headed academics, including scientists. On subjects like evolution, global warming, the biology of human conception, and even macroeconomics, conservatives have been increasingly bold about rejecting the consensus of scientific experts in favor of ideologically self-serving pronouncements.…George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a good example of the kind of damage that can be done when elected officials choose ideology over expertise. Bush didn’t just ignore the many experts who warned that invading Iraq was a bad idea. The ideologues were so convinced the war would go well that they massively underestimated the amount of preparation that would be required for the occupation to go reasonably smoothly. As a result, the aftermath of the war was much more chaotic than it would have been if experienced experts had been more involved in the planning process. Many more people died and much more property was destroyed than would have occurred with proper planning.

I think global warming is a more complex issue than some people on the left acknowledge. But rather than accepting the basic scientific reality of climate change and making the case that the costs of action outweigh the benefits, many conservatives have taken the cruder tack of simply attacking the entire enterprise of mainstream climate science as a hoax.

.…Economists across the political spectrum agree that the government ought to take action counteract major aggregate demand shortfalls…But rather than engaging this debate, a growing number of conservatives have rejected the mainstream economic framework altogether…

The world is messy and complicated, and understanding it often requires years of study and a willingness to consider evidence objectively regardless of where it comes from. Yet the conservative movement has increasingly become a hostile place for people who think for themselves, no matter how deeply they understand their subjects.

While many aspects of public policy are the subject of genuine ideological disagreements, there are also many issues where experts really do know things the rest of the public does not. A party that systematically favors ideologically convenient arguments and marginalizes dissenting voices will inevitably make costly mistakes…We should all hope the conservative movement develops a greater respect for expertise in the meantime. Continue reading →

The Perversion of Scholarship by Chris Hedges, TruthDig, posted on Common Dreams.org, July 30, 2012…Scholarship, inquiry, self-criticism, moral autonomy and a search for artistic and esoteric forms of expression—in short, the world of ethics, creativity and ideas—“Knowledge,” as C. Wright Mills wrote in “The Power Elite,” “is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth, and also, of course, as an ornament in conversation.”…Corporate culture, which now dominates higher education, shares the predatory culture of the military. These cultures are about subsuming the self into the herd. They are about the acquiring of technical, vocational skills to serve the system. And with the increasing budget cuts, and more craven obsequiousness to corporate donors, it will only get worse. These forces of conformity are hostile to the humanities that teach students to question assumptions and structures that prod them to seek a life of meaning and an ethical code that challenges the blind, utilitarian obedience to power and profit that corporations and the military instill.Continue reading →
Tentacles of rage: the Republican propaganda mill, a brief history by Lewis H. Lapham, Harpers Magazine v.309, n.1852, September 1, 2004…1964…[when] the Republican Party [nominated] Senator Barry Goldwater as its candidate in that year’s presidential election…The “basic American consensus” at the time was firmly liberal in character and feeling, assured of a clear majority in both chambers of Congress as well as a sympathetic audience in the print and broadcast press. Even the National Association of Manufacturers was still aligned with the generous impulse of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, accepting of the proposition, as were the churches and the universities, that government must do for people what people cannot do for themselves

And yet, seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly at the rostrum of the San Francisco Cow Palace in a roar of triumphant applause, here was a cowboy-hatted herald of enlightened selfishness threatening to sack the federal city of good intentions, declaring the American government the enemy of the American people.…

The star-spangled oratory didn’t draw much of a crowd on the autumn campaign trail. The electorate in 1964 wasn’t interested in the threat of an apocalyptic future or the comforts of an imaginary past, and Goldwater’s reactionary vision in the desert faded into the sunset of the November election won by Lyndon Johnson with 61 percent of the popular vote.…the basic American consensus has shifted over the last thirty years from a liberal to a conservative biasplaced Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980 and provides the current Bush Administration with the platform…affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal–government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answerHow did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?

…the numbing of America’s political senses didn’t happen by mistake…the re-education program undertaken in the early 1970s by a cadre of ultraconservative and self-mythologizing millionaires bent on rescuing the country from the hideous grasp of Satanic liberalism. To a small group of Democratic activists meeting in New York City in late February, Stein had brought thirty-eight charts diagramming the organizational structure of the Republican “Message Machine,” an octopus-like network of open and hidden microphones that he described as “perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system.”…-fifty funding agencies of different dimensions and varying degrees of ideological fervor, nominally philanthropic but zealous in their common hatred of the liberal enemy, disbursing the collective sum of roughly $3 billion over a period of thirty years for the fabrication of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”…Continue reading →

Turning a Blind Eye by Chris Hedges Truthdig | Op-Ed, July 9, 2012 -Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification.

It leaves us blind. And this is what has occurred. We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us.

The psychoanalyst John Steiner calls this phenomenon “turning a blind eye.” He notes that often we have access to adequate knowledge but because it is unpleasant and disconcerting we choose unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, to ignore it.…We too, Steiner wrote, turn a blind eye to the dangers that confront us, despite the plethora of evidence that if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships to each other and the natural world, catastrophe is assured…

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide. They cannot see…

Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think…

The vital importance of thought, Arendt wrote, is apparent only “in times of transition when men no longer rely on the stability of the world and their role in it, and when the question concerning the general conditions of human life, which as such are properly coeval with the appearance of man on earth, gain an uncommon poignancy.” We never need our thinkers and artists more than in times of crisis, as Arendt reminds us, for they provide the subversive narratives that allow us to chart a new course, one that can assure our survival…

And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind. Continue reading →

 

Report Argues U.S. Is Neglecting, Undervaluing Education in the Humanities

CONVERSATION – PBS News Hour, June 19, 2013

Excerpt

A new report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences panel warns that the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in the liberal arts and social sciences… languages, history, philosophy and more, a call for new commitments to the humanities in higher education…much focus has been on the need for the U.S. to nurture more graduates who specialize in science, technology, math, and engineering. It also comes amid lower funding for research in the humanities and a drop in interest in civics courses…by focusing on one part of the problem, we have forgotten that actually the problem requires a balanced solution

JOHN LITHGOW (actor):  “I have always felt that studying the humanities and the arts at the college level just put me into the habit of learning that’s really defined my life in all sorts of ways. And it’s extremely difficult to quantify exactly what the humanities does for you…The study of humanities is not being attacked. It’s not a terrible political football, which is always a great danger, because people have different belief systems. But it is being simply neglected. There is an imbalance. And my feeling has always been that these two sides of the brain have to work together.

RICHARD BRODHEAD (president of Duke University): Well, I actually think the burden really falls on educators to educate people about the meaning and value of education..when people end up being able to lead successful and creative lives, it is typically because they had a very broad range of skills that they were able to use in versatile and opportunistic ways as life unfolded. So you shouldn’t prepare yourself too narrowly. You think you’re being prudent, but it’s like penny-wise and pound-foolish. Better to develop more parts of yourself, more different skills and abilities, to be prepared for the chances of life… The first thing we need is for people who know and care about the value of literacy, the value of understanding foreign countries, the value of leading the kind of rich spiritual life you can get through the acquaintance with philosophy and literature and things of that sort, we need people to remind the public of the value of those things. I don’t find this a hard case to make when you speak to people…it’s been a while since anybody has tried to wake people up to how much they already do know and care about these things…”

Full text

SUMMARY

A new report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences panel warns that the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in the liberal arts and social sciences. Jeffrey Brown talks with two members of the panel: actor and writer John Lithgow and Richard Brodhead, co-chair of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Transcript

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: languages, history, philosophy and more, a call for new commitments to the humanities in higher education.

A report to that effect was issued today by a congressionally-mandated panel of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It comes at a time when much focus has been on the need for the U.S. to nurture more graduates who specialize in science, technology, math, and engineering. It also comes amid lower funding for research in the humanities and a drop in interest in civics courses.

Two members of the panel join us now, co-chair Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University, and actor and writer John Lithgow.

Thank you and welcome to both of you.

JOHN LITHGOW, Actor: Nice to be here.

RICHARD BRODHEAD, President, Duke University: My pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Brodhead, is there a critique here, implicit or not, at least, that we as a country have gone too far in the direction of the so-called STEM?

RICHARD BRODHEAD: I don’t think it’s so much that we have gone too far, because many could argue we still haven’t gone far enough. The performance of students in our school systems in STEM subjects is not yet the wonder of the world.

It’s that, by focusing on one part of the problem, we have forgotten that actually the problem requires a balanced solution. We have great scientists. We have — the National Academy of Engineering is on our commission. The person who authored the report that the whole concept of STEM came out of, Norm Augustine, was on our commission.

And they say it was never their view that STEM alone made for an educated person, let alone even an educated scientist.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing I want to — how do you define or measure the problem? Do you put in the personal terms for you?

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, very much so in my case.

I studied humanities all the way through college. At a certain point, I made a misstep and became an actor, although I was never cut out to be an academic. But I have always felt that studying the humanities and the arts at the college level just put me into the habit of learning that’s really defined my life in all sorts of ways.

And it’s extremely difficult to quantify exactly what the humanities does for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s one of the problems here, right?

JOHN LITHGOW: It’s certainly problem. And it tends to be neglected.

The study of humanities is not being attacked. It’s not a terrible political football, which is always a great danger, because people have different belief systems. But it is being simply neglected. There is an imbalance. And my feeling has always been that these two sides of the brain have to work together.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I have the experience — and I know you do everyday, and I will bet you do, too — of talking to college students at campus.

RICHARD BRODHEAD: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re — and I also happen to be a parent myself, so I know …

RICHARD BRODHEAD: I’m one, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: … the huge costs of college …

RICHARD BRODHEAD: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … the dim job prospects in this economy, which we report on all the time.

How do you look parents and teachers in the eye and say, you must have someplace for the humanities as well, while there’s a focus on jobs, practical matters?

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Well, I actually think the burden really falls on educators to educate people about the meaning and value of education.

I’m not sure we have done a good enough job making that case as well as we could.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re blaming yourself and others in the …

RICHARD BRODHEAD: I think educators to some extent play a role in it.

We need to remind the world that what makes a person successful are not the things that get you a job the day you graduate. I know almost no one at 40 or 50 who is doing the thing they did the day after they got out of college.

And when people end up being able to lead successful and creative lives, it is typically because they had a very broad range of skills that they were able to use in versatile and opportunistic ways as life unfolded. So you shouldn’t prepare yourself too narrowly. You think you’re being prudent, but it’s like penny-wise and pound-foolish. Better to develop more parts of yourself, more different skills and abilities, to be prepared for the chances of life.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that’s still a hard case to make for many people.

JOHN LITHGOW: Yes, especially in a time of economic hardship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Huge debt that people come out of college with.

JOHN LITHGOW: Yes. Yes.

All of these things are addressed, incidentally, in the report itself. Sort of super-pragmatism kicks in, and you — it’s easy to lose track of the value of this. And by the same token, people who do study humanities, they need a balanced education, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: When — you use the word invest a number of times in this report.

RICHARD BRODHEAD: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But invest what? Because you don’t put — I don’t think you put dollar amounts on all this. Invest time? Invest money, fiscal …

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Care.

JEFFREY BROWN: Care.

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Love. Love. I think love is a good investment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Why not pull dollar amounts on it?

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Oh, there will need to be dollars to accomplish some of what we talk about.

But, first of all, work in the humanities is much more inexpensive than work in many other disciplines, especially scientific research. And, second of all, I don’t think money is the first thing we need. The first thing we need is for people who know and care about the value of literacy, the value of understanding foreign countries, the value of leading the kind of rich spiritual life you can get through the acquaintance with philosophy and literature and things of that sort, we need people to remind the public of the value of those things.

I don’t find this a hard case to make when you speak to people. They just — there – it’s been a while since anybody has tried to wake people up to how much they already do know and care about these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when you try to make it concrete — you’re coming to this process from the outside. Is there a specific example that you have found from your talks or that came up in the report that you would say, here’s something we could do specifically to help this?

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, Karl Eikenberry is a member of our commission, former ambassador of Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And general.

JOHN LITHGOW: And one of the final segments of the report is all about this global world we live in and how essential it is for us to have a good sense of other cultures, foreign languages. The study of foreign languages has diminished in importance.

RICHARD BRODHEAD: That’s right.

JOHN LITHGOW: People simply making the assumption, well, English is a more — is the common denominator language of the world, so why bother? This is very wrong headed.

This is very wrong-headed.

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Our group has been amazing. We all do different things for a living, and we have all taught each other how we understand this issue and we have all learned from each other how they see it.

But the day Karl Eikenberry looked at us and said, if you have been a general, you know that weapons are the least effective weapon in your security arsenal. If you don’t know anything about cultures, if you don’t know anything about histories, foreign languages, you’re going to find yourself in places where all the weapons in the world can’t solve the problems you went there to solve. And that just seems to me a plea for the humanities.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your final takeaway from this process, having been part of it?

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, it’s been fascinating for me.

I’m certainly not an academic. I’m a member of a small contingent of this 50-plus commission who are in the performing arts, Yo-Yo Ma, Emmylou Harris, George Lucas, who’s done stuff for us. It’s — I sort of contribute my own experience from the creative side and how my own history of the humanities — I mean, I’m one of those odd actors who studied the humanities straight through before making the decision to become an actor, but how completely it’s just sort of informed the rest of my life.

Acting is a very curious profession. But there are an awful lot of people on the commission who are not humanists, but who were when they went to school.

RICHARD BRODHEAD: All right.

It’s a point I make to parents, which is, I can rattle off a list of people who were English majors you didn’t know were English majors, Mitt Romney, Hank Paulson. The world is full of people whose original training was not in what they go on to do later on.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We are going to continue that part of the discussion online about your own personal experiences.

JOHN LITHGOW: Great.

But, for now, Richard Brodhead and John Lithgow, thank you very much.

JOHN LITHGOW: Great to be here, Jeff.

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, also online, you can weigh in. Has a humanities education been useful in your life? Tell us on our NewsHour Facebook page.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/jan-june13/humanities_06-19.html

Video – https://www.myworldnews.com/Channel/680-pbs-newshour/Story/95449-john-lithgow-on-the-importance-of-a-humanities-education

The humanities are just as important as STEM classes

By Danielle Allen, Washington Post, February 14, 2013

Danielle Allen is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Her forthcoming book, co-edited with Rob Reich, is “Education, Justice, and Democracy.”

Excerpt

…we don’t need to become a nation of technocrats. Let’s not forget that you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and that reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history. You also can’t excel at citizenship if you can’t read, write or speak well, or understand the complexity of the world and think historically. History helps us understand the features of our worlds that are changeable and that require either reform, because they are damaging, or protection, because they are valuable but vulnerable…The Common Core standards recognize that literacy, the humanities and history are as important as math, science and technical subjects in preparing students for jobs and college. They will also improve our ability to prepare students for citizenship. They should, in other words, help us achieve not only college and work readiness but also participatory readiness.

Full text

In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that the Education Department would launch another competition to spur educational reform in the states.

Four years ago, the Race to the Top program drove changes in state policy on charter schools, teacher tenure, and standards and accountability. Now the administration proposes a competition to “redesign America’s high schools.” Rewards will go to schools that develop more classes “that focus on science, technology, engineering and math — the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future,” the president said.

We need all those classes in the STEM fields, as they are called, and as a nation we must do a better job of preparing our young people in these fields. But we don’t need to become a nation of technocrats.

Let’s not forget that you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and that reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history.

You also can’t excel at citizenship if you can’t read, write or speak well, or understand the complexity of the world and think historically. History helps us understand the features of our worlds that are changeable and that require either reform, because they are damaging, or protection, because they are valuable but vulnerable.

Duke University President Richard Brodhead likes to point out that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute; and Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, all studied the humanities. Dempsey and Varmus have degrees in English. Although Jobs dropped out, he initially attended Reed College, famous for its strong emphasis on the humanities.

U.S. high schools absolutely need to innovate. But our students also need to achieve at far higher levels in the fields of the humanities, not merely in the STEM fields.

Better than a challenge to states to enhance their STEM education would be a challenge to states to build curricular and pedagogic innovations that will allow them to succeed at meeting the new Common Core State Standards.

An initiative of the National Governors Association, the standards seek to clarify the knowledge and skills students need for success in the workforce and in college. There are two sets of standards: one for mathematics and one for English language arts and literacy in history/­social studies, science and technical subjects.

No Child Left Behind left it to states to set their own standards. But because the Common Core standards are being implemented by 45 states and the District, we will soon have an opportunity at last to compare the quality of education throughout the country.

The Common Core standards recognize that literacy, the humanities and history are as important as math, science and technical subjects in preparing students for jobs and college. They will also improve our ability to prepare students for citizenship. They should, in other words, help us achieve not only college and work readiness but also participatory readiness.

States are going to have a hard time rising to the level of the new standards. So we could use another competition to excite innovation — but let’s have a competition to spur states’ efforts to find ways of teaching successfully to the Common Core standards. This would entail fostering innovation and improvement for instruction in language arts and historical and civic literacy, as well as in STEM fields. We can do both. Surely we citizens should be that ambitious.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-humanities-are-just-as-important-as-stem-classes/2013/02/14/dea1889c-761e-11e2-aa12-e6cf1d31106b_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

The Perversion of Scholarship by Chris Hedges

TruthDig, posted on Common Dreams.org, July 30, 2012

Excerpt

…Scholarship, inquiry, self-criticism, moral autonomy and a search for artistic and esoteric forms of expression—in short, the world of ethics, creativity and ideas“Knowledge,” as C. Wright Mills wrote in “The Power Elite,” “is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth, and also, of course, as an ornament in conversation.”…Corporate culture, which now dominates higher education, shares the predatory culture of the military. These cultures are about subsuming the self into the herd. They are about the acquiring of technical, vocational skills to serve the system. And with the increasing budget cuts, and more craven obsequiousness to corporate donors, it will only get worse. These forces of conformity are hostile to the humanities that teach students to question assumptions and structures that prod them to seek a life of meaning and an ethical code that challenges the blind, utilitarian obedience to power and profit that corporations and the military instill….

Full text

Fraternities, sororities and football, along with other outsized athletic programs, have decimated most major American universities. Scholarship, inquiry, self-criticism, moral autonomy and a search for artistic and esoteric forms of expression—in short, the world of ethics, creativity and ideas—are shouted down by the drunken chants of fans in huge stadiums, the pathetic demands of rich alumni for national championships, and the elitism, racism and rigid definition of gender roles of Greek organizations. These hypermasculine systems perpetuate a culture of conformity and intolerance.  They have inverted the traditional values of scholarship to turn four years of college into a mindless quest for collective euphoria and athletic dominance.

There is probably no more inhospitable place to be an intellectual, or a person of color or a member of the LGBT community, than on the campuses of the Big Ten Conference colleges, although the poison of this bizarre American obsession has infected innumerable schools. These environments are distinctly corporate. To get ahead one must get along. The student is implicitly told his or her self-worth and fulfillment are found in crowds, in mass emotions, rather than individual transcendence. Those who do not pay deference to the celebration of force, wealth and power become freaks. It is a war on knowledge in the name of knowledge.

“Knowledge,” as C. Wright Mills wrote in “The Power Elite,” “is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth, and also, of course, as an ornament in conversation.”

There are few university presidents or faculty members willing to fight back. Most presidents are overcompensated fundraisers licking the boots of every millionaire who arrives on campus. They are like court eunuchs. They cater to the demands of the hedge fund managers and financial speculators on their trustee boards, half of whom should be in jail, and most of whom revel in this collective self-worship. And they do not cross the football coach, who not only earns more than they do but has much more power on the campus.

One of the last great university presidents was James O. Freedman ofDartmouth. His integrity and courage were matched by his deep and abiding love of learning. He arrived inHanover,N.H., determined to do battle withDartmouth’s entrenched culture of elitism, white male entitlement, fraternities and football. He did not have an easy tenure. The Dartmouth Review published a cover article that depicted Freedman, who was Jewish, as Hitler and wrote that he was orchestrating the “final solution” to traditional conservatism atDartmouth.

Freedman had told the college in his inaugural address:

We must strengthen our attraction for those singular students whose greatest pleasures may come not from the camaraderie of classmates but from the lonely acts of writing poetry or mastering the cello or solving mathematical riddles or translating Catullus. We must make Dartmoutha hospitable environment for students who march “to a different drummer”—for those creative loners and daring dreamers whose commitment to the intellectual and artistic life is so compelling that they appreciate, as Prospero reminded Shakespeare’s audiences, that for certain persons a library is “dukedom large enough.”

But Freedman’s imprint, once he departed, faded. Fraternity and football culture reasserted itself at Dartmouth. A former Dartmouthfraternity member, Andrew Lohse, who is profiled in an April article in Rolling Stone, was ostracized not only by the students but the university administration for his public exposure of hazing and abuse.

“I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beer poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks … among other abuses,” he wrote in the magazine. He accused Dartmouth’s 17 fraternities, 11 sororities and three coed houses, to which roughly half of the student body belongs, of perpetuating a culture of “pervasive hazing, substance abuse and sexual assault,” as well as an “intoxicating nihilism” that dominates campus social life. “One of the things I’ve learned atDartmouth—one thing that sets a psychological precedent for manyDartmouth men—is that good people can do awful things to one another for absolutely no reason,” he said. “Fraternity life is at the core of the college’s human and cultural dysfunctions.”

Harassment and physical violence by athletic teams and Greek organizations on American campuses is real. They use these threats to keep critics cowed and their entitlement secure. Any attack mounted against football programs or Greek organizations becomes an attack against the group identity that gives followers their sense of prestige and empowerment. And all those who question or criticize these organizations are treated as the enemy. When the Rev. William Sloan Coffin led the fight to shut down fraternities atWilliamsCollege, someone fired a shot through the window of his house. Vicky Triponey,PennState’s vice president for student affairs, became a nonperson when she attempted to discipline half a dozen football players who had been involved in a brawl in which several students were injured and one was beaten unconscious. Football coach Joe Paterno acidly referred to her in a radio interview as “that lady in Old Main” (the central administration building) who couldn’t possibly know how to handle students because “she didn’t have kids.” The coach angrily told Triponey that his players would not cooperate with any investigation because they would not “rat” on each other. Penn State President Graham Spanier asked her pointedly if she really embraced “thePennState way.” Triponey received threatening phone calls. She was denounced on student message boards. Her house was vandalized. A “for sale” sign was put up in her front yard. She was no longer invited to university events, fellow faculty and administrative staff avoided her, and people turned their backs on her in the supermarket. Spanier successfully pressured her to resign in 2007. Her husband found work at theUniversity ofSouth Carolina’s medical school inCharleston, and the couple moved.

Hazing, comradeship and complicity in sexual abuse, including rape, make up the glue that holds campus sports teams and fraternity houses together. The National Study of Student Hazing reports that 73 percent of U.S.fraternities and sororities haze. Since 1970, at least one student has died each year from hazing. Eighty-two percent of these deaths have resulted from alcohol poisoning. Hazing weeds out those with enough self-esteem and independence to stand up to the hierarchy. It ensures conformity and obedience. These groups are, in essence, self-selected. Those who have the fortitude and courage to oppose their own public humiliation and the public humiliation perpetuated with each new cycle of recruits or pledges leave. Those who remain conform. Athletic recruiting parties, like fraternity parties, at schools across the country are plagued by gang rapes and sexual assaults. And these crimes, known by all in the fraternity or on the team, are met, in locker rooms and Greek houses, with the culture of silence, mocking the stated missions of schools they a.

Bernard Lefkowitz captured the sickness of this culture in his book “Our Guys.” Lefkowitz wrote about a group of high school athletes in Glen Ridge, N.J., who in 1989 lured a 17-year-old developmentally disabled girl to a basement. The boys sexually abused her with a broomstick and a baseball bat. And when the assault became public, the town rallied, as atPennState, not around the victim, but “our guys.” Athletic prowess was, as we saw atPennState, glorified above human decency, compassion, respect and the law. But this is true at most schools. As long as athletes perform they are untouchable.

The root of the problem is the culture of big-time athletics and Greek life. And it will not be addressed through NCAA sanctions or the removal of Joe Paterno’s statue atPennState. It will end only when fraternities, sororities and football—along with other professional sports programs masquerading as college athletics—are banished from colleges and universities. These athletes, in the end, also are used. They are unpaid performers, brought to the campus solely for their athletic prowess, who make millions for their schools and their coaches. If you have a son or daughter—especially a daughter—who wants to get an education, look for a school that has banished these organizations.

The corporate world sees football players, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters as prime recruits. They have been conditioned to join the team, to surrender moral autonomy, to accept and carry out acts of personal humiliation, to treat with contempt those who oppose them or who are different, to define their life by an infantile narcissism centered on greed and self-promotion and to remain silent about crimes they witness or take part in. It is the very ethic of corporations.

The ruling elite sees in Greek organizations and football programs the training ground for the amoral class of speculators, bankers and corporatists who pillage the country. Henry “Hank” Paulson, who as secretary of the treasury orchestrated a government payout of more than $12.9 billion to save AIG and Goldman Sachs (where he had been the chairman and chief executive officer), was a member of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon and an offensive lineman at Dartmouth. The billionaire hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel, who chairsDartmouth’s board of trustees, was, as Rolling Stone points out, in Psi Upsilon. Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of GE, was a Phi Delt atDartmouth, as were other trustees including Morgan Stanley senior adviser R. Bradford Evans, billionaire oilman Trevor Rees-Jones and venture capitalist William W. Helman IV. And that is justDartmouth.

Hazing is also integral to the military, where suicide—including the recent suicide of a Chinese-American soldier, Pvt. Danny Chen, inAfghanistan—is often the result. It is almost impossible to escape your tormentors in the military. Suicide becomes for many the only exit. Chen, who was the sole Asian-American in his unit, endured sandbags being tied to his arms by fellow soldiers. Rocks and water bottles were thrown at him. He was forced to speak Chinese instead of English. And he was taunted with the slurs “gook,” “slant,” “chink” and “egg roll.” Eight soldiers are being court-martialed in his death. A huge percentage of the suicides in the military happen because of hazing. Most of these cases are never investigated. The bodies are just shipped home.

Corporate culture, which now dominates higher education, shares the predatory culture of the military. These cultures are about subsuming the self into the herd. They are about the acquiring of technical, vocational skills to serve the system. And with the increasing budget cuts, and more craven obsequiousness to corporate donors, it will only get worse. These forces of conformity are hostile to the humanities that teach students to question assumptions and structures that prod them to seek a life of meaning and an ethical code that challenges the blind, utilitarian obedience to power and profit that corporations and the military instill. We will, I fear, continue to turn out the intellectually stunted and maimed, those who know school football records but no philosophy, drama, art, music, theology, literature or history. The goal of an education is not, in the end, to tell students what to think but to teach them how to think.

College and university administrators defund libraries, close foreign language and classics departments and invest staggering sums in gargantuan sports arenas and athletic programs. And the only time the student body protests or riots is when, as atPennState, something unpleasant happens to the beloved football coach. Pity the student who goes there to learn. The faculty and administration will not help them; they are complicit or intimidated.

William Carlos Williams, author of the poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” knew there was more to life than careers, personal empowerment, the quest for prestige, the roar of the crowd and networking. But many find this out too late. And those attending schools likePennState will probably never find out at all. Williams wrote:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there
.

© 2012 TruthDig.com

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/07/30-4

 

Tentacles of rage: the Republican propaganda mill, a brief history by Lewis H. Lapham

Harpers Magazine v.309, n.1852, September 1, 2004

Excerpt

…1964…[when] the Republican Party [nominated] Senator Barry Goldwater as its candidate in that year’s presidential election…The “basic American consensus” at the time was firmly liberal in character and feeling, assured of a clear majority in both chambers of Congress as well as a sympathetic audience in the print and broadcast press. Even the National Association of Manufacturers was still aligned with the generous impulse of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, accepting of the proposition, as were the churches and the universities, that government must do for people what people cannot do for themselves

And yet, seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly at the rostrum of the San Francisco Cow Palace in a roar of triumphant applause, here was a cowboy-hatted herald of enlightened selfishness threatening to sack the federal city of good intentions, declaring the American government the enemy of the American people….

The star-spangled oratory didn’t draw much of a crowd on the autumn campaign trail. The electorate in 1964 wasn’t interested in the threat of an apocalyptic future or the comforts of an imaginary past, and Goldwater’s reactionary vision in the desert faded into the sunset of the November election won by Lyndon Johnson with 61 percent of the popular vote….the basic American consensus has shifted over the last thirty years from a liberal to a conservative biasplaced Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980 and provides the current Bush Administration with the platform…affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal–government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answerHow did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?

…the numbing of America’s political senses didn’t happen by mistake…the re-education program undertaken in the early 1970s by a cadre of ultraconservative and self-mythologizing millionaires bent on rescuing the country from the hideous grasp of Satanic liberalism. To a small group of Democratic activists meeting in New York City in late February, Stein had brought thirty-eight charts diagramming the organizational structure of the Republican “Message Machine,” an octopus-like network of open and hidden microphones that he described as “perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system.”…-fifty funding agencies of different dimensions and varying degrees of ideological fervor, nominally philanthropic but zealous in their common hatred of the liberal enemy, disbursing the collective sum of roughly $3 billion over a period of thirty years for the fabrication of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”…

Full text

When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever got so far? —Richard Hofstadter

In company with nearly every other historian and political journalist east of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1964, the late Richard Hofstadter saw the Republican Party’s naming of Senator Barry Goldwater as its candidate in that year’s presidential election as an event comparable to the arrival of the Mongol hordes at the gates of thirteenth-century Vienna. The “basic American consensus” at the time was firmly liberal in character and feeling, assured of a clear majority in both chambers of Congress as well as a sympathetic audience in the print and broadcast press. Even the National Association of Manufacturers was still aligned with the generous impulse of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, accepting of the proposition, as were the churches and the universities, that government must do for people what people cannot do for themselves.*
* With regard to the designation “liberal,” the economist John K. Galbraith said in 1964, “Almost everyone now so describes himself.” Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, observed in 1950 that “In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” He went on to say that “there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation,” merely “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
And yet, seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly at the rostrum of the San Francisco Cow Palace in a roar of triumphant applause, here was a cowboy-hatted herald of enlightened selfishness threatening to sack the federal city of good intentions, declaring the American government the enemy of the American people, properly understood not as the guarantor of the country’s freedoms but as a syndicate of quasi-communist bureaucrats poisoning the wells of commercial enterprise with “centralized planning, red tape, rules without responsibility, and regimentation without recourse.” A band played “America the Beautiful,” and in a high noon glare of klieg light the convention delegates beheld a militant captain of capitalist jihad (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”) known to favor the doctrines of forward deterrence and preemptive strike (“Let’s lob a nuclear bomb into the men’s room at the Kremlin”), believing that poverty was proof of bad character (“lazy, dole-happy people who want to feed on the fruits of somebody else’s labor”), that the Democratic Party and the network news programs were under the direction of Marxist ballet dancers, that Mammon was another name for God.
The star-spangled oratory didn’t draw much of a crowd on the autumn campaign trail. The electorate in 1964 wasn’t interested in the threat of an apocalyptic future or the comforts of an imaginary past, and Goldwater’s reactionary vision in the desert faded into the sunset of the November election won by Lyndon Johnson with 61 percent of the popular vote, the suburban sheriffs on their palomino ponies withdrawing to Scottsdale and Pasadena in the orderly and inoffensive manner of the Great Khan’s horsemen retiring from the plains of medieval Europe.
$2 BILLION ASSETS CONSERVATIVE FOUNDATIONS (200I ASSETS)
(in $ Millions)
The Bradley Foundation          584
Smith Richardson Foundation         494
Scaife Family (Four Foundations)       478.4
Earhart Foundation    84
John M. Olin Foundation   71
Koch Family (Three Foundations)  68
Castle Rock (Coors) Foundation   50
JM Foundation     25
Philip M. McKenna Foundation   17.4

Departed but not disbanded. As the basic American consensus has shifted over the last thirty years from a liberal to a conservative bias, so also the senator from Arizona has come to he seen as a prophet in the western wilderness, apostle of the rich man’s dream of heaven that placed Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980 and provides the current Bush Administration with the platform on which the candidate was trundled into New York City this August with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the heavy law enforcement, and the paper elephants.* The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal—government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maid-en’s prayer—and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that Hofstadter didn’t stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?
* The rightward movement of the country’s social and political center of gravity isn’t a matter of opinion or conjecture. Whether compiled by Ralph Nader or by journalists of a conservative persuasion (most recently John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in a book entitled The Right Nation) the numbers tell the same unambiguous story—one in five Americans willing to accept identity as a liberal, one in three preferring the term “conservative”; the American public content with lower levels of government spending and higher levels of economic inequality than those pertaining in any of the Western European democracies; the United States unique among the world’s developed nations in its unwillingness to provide its citizens with a decent education or fully funded health care; 40 million Americans paid less than $10 an hour, 66 percent of the population earning less than $45,000 a year; 2 million people in prison, the majority of them black and Latino; the country’s largest and most profitable corporations relieved of the obligation to pay an income tax; no politician permitted to stand for public office without first professing an ardent faith in God.
About the workings of the right-wing propaganda mills in Washington and New York I knew enough to know that the numbing of America’s political senses didn’t happen by mistake, but it wasn’t until I met Rob Stein, formerly a senior adviser to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, that I came to fully appreciate the nature and the extent of the re-education program undertaken in the early 1970s by a cadre of ultraconservative and self-mythologizing millionaires bent on rescuing the country from the hideous grasp of Satanic liberalism. To a small group of Democratic activists meeting in New York City in late February, Stein had brought thirty-eight charts diagramming the organizational structure of the Republican “Message Machine,” an octopus-like network of open and hidden microphones that he described as “perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system.”
It was an impressive presentation, in large part because Stein didn’t refer to anybody as a villain, never mentioned the word “conspiracy.” A lawyer who also managed a private equity investment fund—i.e., a man unintimidated by spread sheets and indifferent to the seductions of the pious left—Stein didn’t begrudge the manufacturers of corporatist agitprop the successful distribution of their product in the national markets for the portentous catch-phrase and the camera-ready slogan. Having devoted several months to his search through the available documents, he was content to let the facts speak for themselves—fifty funding agencies of different dimensions and varying degrees of ideological fervor, nominally philanthropic but zealous in their common hatred of the liberal enemy, disbursing the collective sum of roughly $3 billion over a period of thirty years for the fabrication of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
The effort had taken many forms—the publication of expensively purchased and cleverly promoted tracts (Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations), a steady flow of newsletters from more than 100 captive printing presses (among them those at The Heritage Foundation, Accuracy in the Media, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture), generous distributions of academic programs and visiting professorships (to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford universities), the passing along of sound-bite slanders (to Bill O’Reilly and Matt Drudge), the formulation of newspaper op-ed pieces (for the San Antonio Light and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as well as for the Sacramento Bee and the Washington Times). The prolonged siege of words had proved so successful in its result that on nearly every question of foreign or domestic policy in this year’s presidential campaign, the frame and terms of the debate might as well have been assembled in Taiwan by Chinese child labor working from patterns furnished by the authors of ExxonMobil’s annual report.
No small task and no mean feat, and as I watched Stein’s diagrams take detailed form on a computer screen (the directorates of the Leadership Institute and Capital Research Center all but identical with that of The Philanthropy Roundtable, Richard Mellon Scaife’s money dispatched to the Federalist Society as well as to The American Spectator), I was surprised to see so many familiar names—publications to which I’d contributed articles, individuals with whom I was acquainted—and I understood that Stein’s story was one that I could corroborate, not with supplementary charts or footnotes but on the evidence of my own memory and observation.
The provenience of the Message Machine Stein traced to the recognition on the part of the country’s corporate gentry in the late 1960s that they lacked the intellectual means to comprehend, much less quell or combat, the social and political turmoil then engulfing the whole of American society, and if I had missed Goldwater’s foretelling of an apocalyptic future in the Cow Palace, I remembered my own encounter with the fear and trembling of what was still known as “The Establishment,” four years later and 100 miles to the north at the July encampment of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club. Over a period of three weeks every summer, the 600-odd members of the club, most of them expensive ornaments of the American haute bourgeoisie, invite an equal number of similarly fortunate guests to spend as many days as their corporate calendars permit within a grove of handsome redwood trees, there to listen to the birdsong, interest one another in various business opportunities, exchange misgivings about the restlessness of the deutschmark and the yen.
In the summer of 1968 the misgivings were indistinguishable from panic. Martin Luther King had been assassinated; so had Robert Kennedy, and everywhere that anybody looked the country’s institutional infrastructure, also its laws, customs, best-loved truths, and fairy tales, seemed to be collapsing into anarchy and chaos—black people rioting in the streets of Los Angeles and Detroit, American soldiers killing their officers in Vietnam, longhaired hippies stoned on drugs or drowned in the bathtubs of Bel Air, shorthaired feminists playing with explosives instead of dolls, the Scottsdale and Pasadena sheriffs’ posses preparing their palomino ponies to stand firm in the face of an urban mob.
Historians revisiting in tranquility the alarums and excursions of the Age of Aquarius know that Revolution Now was neither imminent nor likely—the economy was too prosperous, the violent gestures of rebellion contained within too small a demographic, mostly rich kids who could afford the flowers and the go-go hoots—hut in the hearts of the corporate chieftains wandering among the redwood trees in the Bohemian Grove in July 1968, the fear was palpable and genuine. The croquet lawn seemed to be sliding away beneath their feet, and although they knew they were in trouble, they didn’t know why. Ideas apparently mattered, and words were maybe more important than they had guessed; unfortunately, they didn’t have any. The American property-holding classes tend to be embarrassingly ill at ease with concepts that don’t translate promptly into money, and the beacons of conservative light shining through the liberal fog of the late 1960s didn’t come up to the number of clubs in Arnold Palmer’s golf bag. The company of the commercial faithful gathered on the banks of California’s Russian River could look for succor to Goldwater’s autobiography, The Conscience of a Conservative, to William F. Buckley’s editorials in National Review, to the novels of Ayn Rand. Otherwise they were as helpless as unarmed sheepherders surrounded by a Comanche war party on the old Oklahoma frontier before the coining of the railroad and the six-gun.
The hope of their salvation found its voice in a 5,000-word manifesto written by Lewis Powell, a Richmond corporation lawyer, and circulated in August 1971 by the United States Chamber of Commerce under the heading Confidential Memorandum; Attack on the American Free Enterprise System. Soon to be appointed to the Supreme Court, lawyer Powell was a man well-known and much respected by the country’s business community; within the legal profession he was regarded as a prophet. His heavy word of warning fell upon the legions of reaction with the force of Holy Scripture: “Survival of what we call the free enterprise system,” he said, “lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
The venture capital for the task at hand was provided by a small sewing circle of rich philanthropists—Richard Mellon Scaife in Pittsburgh, Lynde and Harry Bradley in Milwaukee, John Olin in New York City, the Smith Richardson family in North Carolina, Joseph Coors in Denver, David and Charles Koch in Wichita—who entertained visions of an America restored to the safety of its mythological past—small towns like those seen in prints by Currier and Ives, cheerful factory workers whistling while they worked, politicians as wise as Abraham Lincoln and as brave as Teddy Roosevelt, benevolent millionaires presenting Christmas turkeys to deserving elevator operators, the sins of the flesh deported to Mexico or France. Suspicious of any fact that they hadn’t known before the age of six, the wealthy saviors of the Republic also possessed large reserves of paranoia, and if the world was going rapidly to rot (as any fool could plainly see) the fault was to be found in everything and anything tainted with a stamp of liberal origin—the news media and the universities, income taxes, Warren Beatty, transfer payments to the undeserving poor, restraints of trade, Jane Fonda, low interest rates, civil liberties for unappreciative minorities, movies made in Poland, public schools.*
*The various philanthropic foundations under the control of the six families possess assets estimated in 2001 at $1.7 billion. Harry Bradley was an early and enthusiastic member of the John Birch Society; Koch Industries in the winter of 2000 agreed to pay $30 million (the largest civil fine ever imposed on a private American company under any federal environmental law) to settle claims related to 300 oil spills from its pipelines in six states.
Although small in comparison with the sums distributed by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the money was ideologically sound, and it was put to work leveraging additional contributions (from corporations as well as from other like-minded foundations), acquiring radio stations, newspapers, and journals of opinion, bankrolling intellectual sweatshops for the making of political and socioeconomic theory. Joseph Coors established The Heritage Foundation with an initial gift of $250,000 in 1973, the sum augmented over the next few years with $900,000 from Richard Scaife; the American Enterprise Institute was revived and fortified in the late seventies with $6 million from the Howard Pew Freedom Trust; the Cato Institute was set up by the Koch family in 1977 with a gift of $500,000. If in 1971 the friends of American free enterprise could turn for comfort to no more than seven not very competent sources of inspiration, by the end of the decade they could look to eight additional installations committed to “joint effort” and “united action.” The senior officers of the Fortune 500 companies meanwhile organized the Business Roundtable, providing it by 1979 with a rich endowment for the hiring of resident scholars loyal in their opposition to the tax and antitrust laws.
The quickening construction of Santa’s work-shops outside the walls of government and the academy resulted in the increased production of pamphlets, histories, monographs, and background briefings intended to bring about the ruin of the liberal idea in all of its institutionalized forms—the demonization of the liberal press, the disparagement of liberal sentiment, the destruction of liberal education—and by the time Ronald Reagan arrived in triumph at the White House in 1980 the assembly lines were operating at full capacity. Well in advance of inauguration day the Christmas elves had churned out so much paper that had they been told to do so, they could have shredded it into tickertape and welcomed the new cowboy-hatted herald of enlightened selfishness with a parade like none other ever before seen by man or beast. Unshredded, the paper was the stuff of dreams from which was made Mandate for Leadership, the “bible” presented by The Heritage Foundation to Mr. Reagan in the first days of his presidency with the thought that he might want to follow its architectural design for an America free at last from “the tyranny of the Left,” rescued from the dungeons of “liberal fascism,” once again a theme park built by nonunion labor along the lines of Walt Disney’s gardens of synthetic Eden.
Signs of the newly minted intellectual dispensation began showing up in the offices of Harper’s Magazine in 1973, the manuscripts invariably taking the form of critiques of one or another of the absurdities then making an appearance before the Washington congressional committees or touring the New York literary scene with Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer. Over a period of several years the magazine published articles and essays by authors later to become well-known apologists for the conservative creed, among them George Gilder, Michael Novak, William Tucker, and Philip Terzian; if their writing in the early seventies was remarkable both for its clarity and wit, it was because they chose topics of opportunity that were easy to find and hard to miss.
* Paul Weyrich, the first director of The Heritage Foundation, and often described by his admirers as “the Lenin of social conservatism,” seldom was at a loss for a military analogy: “If your enemy has weapons systems working and is killing you with them, you’d better have weapons systems of your own.”
The liberal consensus hadn’t survived the loss of the Vietnam War. The subsequently sharp reduction of the country’s moral and economic resources was made grimly apparent by the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the price of Arab oil, and it came to be understood that Roosevelt’s New Deal was no longer on offer. Acting on generous impulse and sustained by the presumption of limitless wealth, the American people had enacted legislation reflecting their best hopes for racial equality and social justice (a.k.a. Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”), but any further efforts at transformation clearly were going to cost a great deal more money than the voters were prepared to spend. Also a good deal more thought than the country’s liberal-minded intelligentsia
were willing to attempt or eager to provide. The universities chose to amuse themselves with the crossword puzzles of French literary theory, and in the New York media salons the standard-bearers of America’s political conscience were content to rest upon what they took to be their laurels, getting by with the striking of noble poses (as friends of the earth or the Dalai Lama) and the expression of worthy emotions (on behalf of persecuted fur-seals and oppressed women). The energies once contained within the nucleus of a potent idea escaped into the excitements of the style incorporated under the rubrics of Radical Chic, and the messengers bringing the good news of conservative reaction moved their gospel-singing tent show into an all but deserted public square.
NATIONAL “THINK TANKS” (200I BUDGETS)
(in $ Millions)
The Heritage Foundation   33
American Enterprise Institute   25
Hoover Institution    25
Cato Institute     17.6
Hudson Institute     7.8
Manhattan Institute     7.2
Citizens for a Sound Economy    5.4
Reason Foundation     4.9
National Center for Policy Analysis   4.7
Competitive Enterprise Institute   3.2
Free Congress Foundation    2.7
Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis   2.5

Their chief talents were those of the pedant and the critic, not those of the creative imagination, but they well understood the art of merchandising and the science of cross-promotion, and in the middle 1970s anybody wishing to appreciate the character and purpose of the emerging conservative putsch could find no better informant than Irving Kristol, then a leading columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the author of well-received books (On the Democratic Idea in America and Two Cheers for Capitalism), trusted counselor and adjunct sage at the annual meetings of the Business Roundtable. Asa youth in the late 1930s, at a time when literary name and reputation accrued to the accounts of the soidisant revolutionary left, Kristol had proclaimed himself a disciple of Leon Trotsky, but then the times changed, the winds of fortune shifting from east to west, and after a stint as a CIA asset in the 1950s, he had carried his pens and papers into winter quarters on the comfortably upholstered bourgeois right.
On first meeting the gentleman at a literary dinner in New York’s Century Club, I remember that I was as much taken by the ease and grace of his manner as I was impressed by his obvious intelligence. A man blessed with a sense of humor, his temperament and tone of mind more nearly resembling that of a sophisticated dealer in art and antiques than that of an academic scold, he praised Harper’s Magazine for its publication of Tom Wolfe’s satirical pieces, also for the prominence that it had given to the essays of Senator Daniel Patrick Monahan, and I was flattered by his inclination to regard me as an editor-of-promise who might be recruited to the conservative cause, presumably as an agent in place behind enemy lines. The American system of free enterprise, he said, was being attacked by the very people whom it most enriched i.e., by the pampered children of privilege disturbing the peace of the Ivy League universities, doing lines of cocaine in Manhattan discotheques, making decadent movies in Hollywood—and the time had come to put an end to their dangerous and self-indulgent nonsense. Nobody under the age of thirty knew what anything cost, and even the senior faculty at Princeton had forgotten that it was none other than the great Winston Churchill who had said, “Cultured people are merely the glittering scum which floats upon the deep river of production.”
In the course of our introductory conversation Kristol not only referred me to other old masters whom I might wish to reread (among them Plutarch, Gibbon, and Edmund Burke); he also explained something of his technique as an intellectual entrepreneur. Despite the warning cries raised by a few prescient millionaires far from the fashionable strongholds of the effeminate east, the full membership of the American oligarchy still wasn’t alive to the threat of cultural insurrection, and in order to awaken the management to a proper sense of its dire peril, Kristol had been traveling the circuit of the country’s corporate boardrooms, soliciting contributions given in memory of Friedrich von Hayek, encouraging the automobile companies to withdraw their advertising budgets from any media outlet that declined to echo their social and political prejudices.
“Why empower your enemies?” he said. “Why throw pearls to swine?
Although I didn’t accept Kristol’s invitation to what he called the “intellectual counter-revolution,” I often ran across him during the next few years at various symposia addressed to the collapse of the nation’s moral values, and I never failed to enjoy his company or his conversation. Among all the propagandists pointing out the conservative path to glory, Kristol seemed to me the brightest and the best, and I don’t wonder that he eventually became one of the four or five principal shop stewards overseeing the labors of the Republican message machine.
It was at Kristol’s suggestion that I met a number of the fund-raising people associated with the conservative program of political correctness, among them Michael Joyce, executive director in the late seventies of the Olin Foundation. We once traveled together on a plane returning to New York from a conference that Joyce had organized for a college in Michigan, and somewhere over eastern Ohio he asked whether I might want to edit a new journal of cultural opinion meant to rebut and confound the ravings of The New York Review of Books. The proposition wasn’t one in which I was interested, but the terms of the offer an annual salary of $200,000, to be paid for life even in the event of my resignation or early retirement—spoke to the seriousness of the rightist intent to corner and control the national market in ideas.
* Henry Ford II expressed a similar thought on resigning as a trustee of the Ford Foundation in late 1976. Giving vent to his confusion, annoyance, and dismay, he took the trouble to write a letter to the staff of the foundation reminding them that they were associated with “a creature of capitalism.” Conceding that the word might seem “shocking” to many of the people employed in the vineyards of philanthropy, Mr. Ford proceeded to his defense of the old ways and old order:

“I’m not playing the role of the hard-headed tycoon who thinks all philanthropoids are Socialists and all university professors are Communists. I’m just suggesting to the trustees and the staff that the system that makes the foundation possible very probably is worth preserving.”
The work went more smoothly as soon as the Reagan Administration had settled itself in Washington around the fountains and reflecting pools of federal patronage. Another nine right-thinking foundations established offices within a short distance of Capitol Hill or the Hay-Adams hotel (most prominent among them the Federalist Society and the Center for Individual Rights); more corporations sent more money; prices improved for ideological piecework (as much as $I00,000 a year for some of the brand-name scholars at Heritage and AEI), and eager converts to the various sects of the conservative faith were as thick upon the ground as maple leaves in autumn. By the end of Reagan’s second term the propaganda mills were spending $I00 million a year on the manufacture and sale of their product, invigorated by the sense that once again it was morning in America and redoubling their efforts to transform their large store of irritable mental gestures into brightly packaged policy objectives—tort reform, school vouchers, less government, lower taxes, elimination of the labor unions, bigger military budgets, higher interest rates, reduced environmental regulation, privatization of social security, down-sized Medicaid and Medicare, more prisons, better surveillance, stricter law enforcement.
If production increased at a more handsome pace than might have been dreamed of by Richard Scaife or hoped for by Irving Kristol, it was because the project had been blessed by Almighty God. The Christian right had come into the corporate fold in the late I970s. Abandoning the alliance formed with the conscience of the liberal left during the Great Depression (the years of sorrow and travail when money was not yet another name for Jesus), the merchants of spiritual salvation had come to see that their interests coincided with those of the insurance companies and the banks. The American equestrian classes were welcome to believe that slack-jawed dope addicts had fomented the cultural insurrection of the I960s; Jerry Falwell knew that it bad been the work of Satan, Satan himself and not one of his students at the University of California, who had loosed a plague of guitarists upon the land, tempted the news media to the broadcast of continuous footage from Sodom and Gomorrah, impregnated the schools with indecent interpretations of the Bible, which then gave birth to the monster of multiculturalism that devoured the arts of learning. Together with Paul Weyrich at The Heritage Foundation, Falwell sponsored the formation of the Moral Majority in I979, at about the same time and in much the same spirit that Pat Robertson, the Christian televangelist, sent his congregation a fundraising letter saying that feminists encourage women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Before Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term the city of God signed a nonaggression pact with the temple of Mammon, their combined forces waging what came to be known as “The Culture War.”
* The proposed journal appeared in 1982 as The New Criterion, promoted as a “staunch defender” of high culture, “an articulate scourge of artistic mediocrity and intellectual mendacity wherever they are found.” Joyce later took over direction of the Bradley Foundation, where he proved to he as deft as Weyrich and Kristol at what the movement conservatives liked to call the wondrous alchemy of turning intellect into influence.

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The Cold War against the Russians was fading into safe and nostalgic memory, and the tellers of the great American fairy tale (the one about the precious paradise ever in need of an invincible defense) found themselves in pressing need of other antagonists to take the place of the grim and harmless ogre in the northern snow.
The Japanese couldn’t play the part because they were lending the United States too much money; the Colombian drug lords were too few and too well connected in Miami; Manuel Noriega failed the audition; the Arab oil cartel was broke; and the Chinese were busy making shirts for Ralph Lauren.
In the absence of enemies abroad, the protectors of the American dream at home began looking for domestic signs of moral weakness rather than foreign shows of military strength; instead of examining the dossiers of distant tyrants, they searched the local newspapers for flaws in the American character, and the surveillance satellites over Leipzig and Sevastopol were reassigned stations over metropolitan Detroit and the Hollywood studios filming Dynasty and Dallas. Within a matter of months the conservative committees of public safety rounded up as suspects a motley crowd of specific individuals and general categories of subversive behavior and opinion—black male adolescents as well as elderly female Buddhists, the New York Times, multiculturalists of all descriptions, the I960s, welfare mothers, homosexuals, drug criminals, illegal immigrants, performance artists. Some enemies of the state were easier to identify than others, but in all instances the reactionary tellers of the tale relied on images seen in dreams or Arnold Schwarzenegger movies rather than on the lessons of their own experience.
For a few years I continued to attend convocations sponsored by the steadily proliferating agencies of the messianic right, but although the discussions were held in increasingly opulent settings—the hotel accommodations more luxurious, better food, views of the mountains as well as the sea—by 1985 I could no longer stomach either the sanctimony or the cant. With the coming to power of the Reagan Administration most of the people on the podium or the tennis court were safely enclosed within the perimeters of orthodox opinion and government largesse, and yet they persisted in casting themselves as rebels against “the system,” revolutionary idealists being hunted down like dogs by a vicious and still active liberal prosecution. The pose was as ludicrous as it was false. The leftist impulse had been dead for ten years, ever since the right-wing Democrats in Congress had sold out the liberal portfolio of President Jimmy Carter and revised the campaign-finance laws to suit the convenience of their corporate patrons. Nor did the news media present an obstacle. By 1985 the Wall Street Journal had become the newspaper of record most widely read by the people who made the decisions about the country’s economic policy; the leading editorialists in the New York Times (A. M. Rosenthal, William Safire) as well as in the Washington Post (George Will, Richard Harwood, Meg Greenfield) ably defended the interests of the status quo; the vast bulk of the nation’s radio talk shows (reaching roughly 80 percent of the audience) reflected a conservative bias, as did all but one or two of the television talk shows permitted to engage political topics on PBS. In the pages of the smaller journals of opinion (National Review, Commentary, The American Spectator, The National Interest, The New Criterion, The Public Interest, Policy Review, etc.) the intellectual décor, much of it paid for by the Olin and Scaife foundations, was matched to the late-Victorian tastes of Rudyard Kipling and J. P. Morgan. The voices of conscience that attracted the biggest crowds on the nation’s lecture circuit were those that spoke for one or another of the parties of the right, and together with the chorus of religious broadcasts and pamphlets (among them Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and the publications under the direction of Jerry Falwell and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon), they enveloped the country in an all but continuous din of stereophonic, right-wing sound.
The facts seldom intruded upon the meditations of the company seated poolside at the conferences and symposia convened to bemoan America’s fall from grace, and I found it increasingly depressing to listen to prerecorded truths dribble from the mouths of writers once willing to risk the chance of thinking for themselves. Having exchanged intellectual curiosity for ideological certainty, they had forfeited their powers of observation as well as their senses of humor; no longer courageous enough to concede the possibility of error or enjoy the play of the imagination, they took an interest only in those ideas that could be made to bear the weight of solemn doctrine, and they cried up the horrors of the culture war because their employers needed an alibi for the disappearances of the country’s civil liberties and a screen behind which to hide the privatization (a.k.a. the theft) of its common property—the broadcast spectrum as well as the timber, the water, and the air, the reserves of knowledge together with the mineral deposits and the laws. Sell the suckers on the notion that their “values” are at risk (abortionists escaping the nets of the Massachusetts state police, pornographers and cosmetic surgeons busily at work in Los Angeles, farm families everywhere in the Middle West becoming chattels of the welfare state) and maybe they won’t notice that their pockets have been picked.
So many saviors of the republic were raising the alarm of culture war in the middle eighties that I now can’t remember whether it was Bob Bartley writing in the Wall Street Journal or William Bennett speaking from his podium at the National Endowment for the Humanities who said that at Yale University the students were wallowing in the joys of sex, drugs, and Karl Marx, disporting themselves on the New Haven green in the reckless manner of nymphs and satyrs on a Grecian urn. I do remember that at one of the high-end policy institutes in Manhattan I heard the tale told by Norman Podhoretz, then the editor at Commentary, the author of several contentious books (Making It and Why We Were in Vietnam), and a rabid propagandist for all things antiliberal. What he had to say about Yale was absurd, which I happened to know because that same season I was teaching a seminar at the college. More than half the number of that year’s graduating seniors had applied for work at the First Boston Corporation, and most of the students whom I’d had the chance to meet were so busy finding their way around the Monopoly board of the standard American success (figuring the angles of approach to business school, adding to the network of contacts in their Filofaxes) that they didn’t have the time to waste on sexual digressions either literal or figurative. When I attempted to explain the circumstance to Podhoretz, he wouldn’t hear of it. Not only was I misinformed, I was a liberal and therefore both a liar and a fool. He hadn’t been in New Haven in twenty years, but he’d read William F. Buckley’s book (God and Man at Yale, published in 1951), and he knew (because the judgment had been confirmed by something he’d been told by Donald Kagan in 1978) that the college was a sinkhole of depraved sophism. He knew it for a fact, knew it in the same way that Jerry Falwell knew that it was Satan who taught Barbra Streisand how to sing.
If Kristol was the most engaging of the agents provocateur whom I’d encountered on the conservative lecture circuit in the 1980s, Podhoretz was the dreariest—an apparatchik in the old Soviet sense of the word who believed everything he wished to prove and could prove everything he wished to believe, bringing his patrons whichever words might serve or please, anxious to secure a place near or at the boot of power. Unfortunately it was Podhoretz, not Kristol, who exemplified the character and tone of mind that edged the American conservative consensus ever further to the right during the decade of the 1990s.
The networks of reactionary opinion once again increased their rates of production, several additional foundations recruited to the cause, numerous activist organizations coming on line, together with new and improved media outlets (most notably Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Weekly Standard) broadcasting the gospels according to saints Warren Harding and William McKinley. By 1994 the Conservative Political Action Conference was attracting as many as 4,000 people, half of them college students, to its annual weekend in Arlington, Virginia, there to listen to the heroes of the hour (G. Gordon Liddy, Ralph Reed, Oliver North) speak from stages wrapped in American flags. Americans for Tax Reform under the direction of Grover Norquist declared its intention to shrink the federal government to a size small enough “to drown,” like one of the long-lost hippies in Bel Air, “in a bathtub.”
STUDENTS AND SCHOLARS (200I ESTIMATES)
(in $ Millions)
George Mason University    7
Harvard University     6
Intercollegiate Studies Institute 5.8
University of Chicago    5
Yale University    5
Washington University    4
Stanford University    3
Institute for Humane Studies   2.9
National Association of Scholars  1.2
Although as comfortably at home on Capitol Hill as in the lobbies of the corporate law firms on K Street, and despite their having learned to suck like newborn lambs at the teats of government patronage (Kristol’s son, William, serving as public-relations director to Vice President Dan Quayle; Podhoretz’s son-in-law, Elliot Abrams, a highly placed official within the Reagan Administration subsequently indicted for criminal misconduct), the apologists for the conservative cause continued to pose as embattled revolutionaries at odds with the “Tyranny of the Left.” The pretense guaranteed a steady flow of money from their corporate sponsors, and the unexpected election of Bill Clinton in 1992 offered them yet another chance to stab the corpse of the liberal Goliath. The smearing of the new president’s name and reputation began as soon as he committed the crime of entering the White House. The American Spectator, a monthly journal financed by Richard Scaife, sent its scouts west into Arkansas to look for traces of Clinton’s semen on the pine trees and the bar stools. It wasn’t long before Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr undertook his obsessive inspection of the president’s bank records, soul, and penis. Summoning witnesses with the fury of a suburban Savonarola, Starr set forth on an exploration of the Ozark Mountains, questioning the natives about wooden Indians and painted women. For four years he camped in the wilderness, and even after he was allowed to examine Monica Lewinsky’s lingerie drawer, his search for the weapon of mass destruction proved as futile as the one more recently conducted in Iraq.
Although unable to match Starr’s prim self-righteousness, Newt Gingrich, the Republican congressman from Georgia elected speaker of the House in 1995, presented himself as another champion of virtue (a self-proclaimed “Teacher of the Rules of Civilization”) willing to lead the American people out of the desolation of a liberal wasteland. Like Starr and Podhoretz (also like the newscasters who now decorate the right-wing television studios), Gingrich had a talent for bearing grudges. During his sixteen years in Congress he had acquired a reputation (not undeserved) for being nasty, brutish, and short, eventually coming to stand as the shared and shining symbol of resentment that bound together the several parties of the disaffected right—the Catholic conservatives with the Jewish neoconservatives, the libertarians with the authoritarians, the evangelical nationalists with the paranoid monetarists, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition with the friends of the Ku Klux Klan. Within a few months of his elevation to the speaker’s chair, Gingrich bestowed on his fellow-plaintiffs his Contract with America, a plan for rooting out the last vestiges
of liberal heresy in the mind of government. As mean-spirited in its particulars as the Mandate for Leadership handed to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the contract didn’t become law, but it has since provided the terms of enlightened selfishness that shape and inspire the policies of the current Bush Administration.
During the course of the 1990s I did my best to keep up with the various lines of grievance developing within the several sects of the conservative remonstrance, but although I probably read as many as 2,000 presumably holy texts (Peggy Noonan’s newspaper editorials and David Gelernter’s magazine articles as well as the soliloquies of Rush Limbaugh and the sermons of Robert Bork), I never learned how to make sense of the weird and too numerous inward contradictions.
EIGHT INFLUENTIAL BOOKS AND THE FOUNDATIONS WHO SPONSORED THEM
• Free to Choose, Milton Friedman — Scaife Foundation Olin Foundation
• The Naked Public Square, Richard John Neuhaus — Lilly Endowment Bradley Foundation Olin Foundation
• The Dream and the Nightmare, Myron Magnet — Scaife Foundation
• Losing Ground, Charles Murray — Olin Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation
• The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington — Bradley Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation
• Illiberal Education, Dinesh D’Souza — Olin Foundation
• Politics, Markets &America’s Schools, John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe — Olin Foundation
• The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky — Bradley Foundation
How does one reconcile the demand for small government with the desire for an imperial army, apply the phrases “personal initiative” and “self-reliance” to corporation presidents utterly dependent on the federal subsidies to the banking, communications, and weapons industries, square the talk of “civility” with the strong-arm methods of Kenneth Starr and Tom DeLay, match the warmhearted currencies of “conservative compassion” with the cold cruelty of “the unfettered free market,” know that human life must be saved from abortionists in Boston but not from cruise missiles in Baghdad? In the glut of paper I could find no unifying or fundamental principle except a certain belief that money was good for rich people and bad for poor people. It was the only point on which all the authorities agreed, and no matter where the words were coming from (a report on federal housing, an essay on the payment of Social Security, articles on the sorrow of the slums or the wonder of the U.S. Navy) the authors invariably found the same abiding lesson in the tale—money ennobles rich people, making them strong as well as wise; money corrupts poor people, making them stupid as well as weak.
But if a set of coherent ideas was hard to find in all the sermons from the mount, what was not hard to find was the common tendency to believe in some form of transcendent truth. A religious as opposed to a secular way of thinking. Good versus Evil, right or wrong, saved or damned, with us or against us, and no light-minded trifling with doubt or ambiguity. Or, more plainly and as a young disciple of Ludwig Von Mises had said, long ago in the 1980s in one of the hospitality tents set up to welcome the conservative awakening to a conference on a beach at Hilton Head, “Our people deal in absolutes.”
Just so, and more’s the pity. In place of intelligence, which might tempt them to consort with wicked or insulting questions for which they don’t already possess the answers, the parties of the right substitute ideology, which, although sometimes archaic and bizarre, is always virtuous.
Virtuous, but not necessarily the best means available to the running of a railroad or a war. The debacle in Iraq, like the deliberate impoverishment of the American middle class, bears witness to the shoddiness of the intellectual infrastructure on which a once democratic republic has come to stand. Morality deemed more precious than liberty; faith-based policies and initiatives ordained superior to common sense.
As long ago as 1964 even William F. Buckley understood that the thunder on the conservative right amounted to little else except the sound and fury of middle-aged infants banging silver spoons, demanding to know why they didn’t have more—more toys, more time, more soup; when Buckley was asked that year what the country could expect if it so happened that Goldwater was elected president, he said, “That might be a serious problem.” So it has proved, if not under the baton of the senator from Arizona then under the direction of his ideologically correct heirs and assigns. An opinion poll taken in 1964 showed 62 percent of the respondents trusting the government to do the right thing; by 1994 the number had dwindled to 19 percent. The measure can be taken as a tribute to the success of the Republican propaganda mill that for the last forty years has been grinding out the news that all government is bad, and that the word “public,” in all its uses and declensions (public service, citizenship, public health, community, public park, commonwealth, public school, etc.), connotes inefficiency and waste.
The dumbing down of the public discourse follows as the day the night, and so it comes as no surprise that both candidates in this year’s presidential election present themselves as embodiments of what they call “values” rather than as the proponents of an idea. Handsome images consistent with those seen in Norman Rockwell’s paintings or the prints of Currier and Ives, suitable for mounting on the walls of the American Enterprise Institute, or in one of the manor houses owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, maybe somewhere behind a library sofa or over the fireplace in a dining room, but certainly in a gilded frame.

Full text

When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever got so far?–Richard Hofstadter

In company with nearly every other historian and political journalist east of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1964, the late Richard Hofstadter saw the Republican Party’s naming of Senator Barry Goldwater as its candidate in that year’s presidential election as an event comparable to the arrival of the Mongol hordes at the gates of thirteenth-century Vienna. The “basic American consensus” at the time was firmly liberal in character and feeling, assured of a clear majority in both chambers of Congress as well as a sympathetic audience in the print and broadcast press. Even the National Association of Manufacturers was still aligned with the generous impulse of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, accepting of the proposition, as were the churches and the universities, that government must do for people what people cannot do for themselves. *

And yet, seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly at the rostrum of the San Francisco Cow Palace in a roar of triumphant applause, here was a cowboy-hatted herald of enlightened selfishness threatening to sack the federal city of good intentions, declaring the American government the enemy of the American people, properly understood not as the guarantor of the country’s freedoms but as a syndicate of quasi-communist bureaucrats poisoning the wells of commercial enterprise with “centralized planning, red tape, rules without responsibility, and regimentation without recourse.” A band played “America the Beautiful,” and in a high noon glare of klieg light the convention delegates beheld a militant captain of capitalist jihad (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”) known to favor the doctrines of forward deterrence and preemptive strike (“Let’s lob a nuclear bomb into the men’s room at the Kremlin”), believing that poverty was proof of bad character (“lazy, dole-happy people who want to feed on the fruits of somebody else’s labor”), that the Democratic Party and the network news programs were under the direction of Marxist ballet dancers, that Mammon was another name for God.

The star-spangled oratory didn’t draw much of a crowd on the autumn campaign trail. The electorate in 1964 wasn’t interested in the threat of an apocalyptic future or the comforts of an imaginary past, and Goldwater’s reactionary vision in the desert faded into the sunset of the November election won by Lyndon Johnson with 61 percent of the popular vote, the suburban sheriffs on their palomino ponies withdrawing to Scottsdale and Pasadena in the orderly and inoffensive manner of the Great Khan’s horsemen retiring from the plains of medieval Europe.

Departed but not disbanded. As the basic American consensus has shifted over the last thirty years from a liberal to a conservative bias, so also the senator from Arizona has come to be seen as a prophet in the western wilderness, apostle of the rich man’s dream of heaven that placed Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980 and provides the current Bush Administration with the platform on which the candidate was trundled into New York City this August with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the heavy law enforcement, and the paper elephants. * The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal–government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden’s prayer–and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that Hofstadter didn’t stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?

About the workings of the right-wing propaganda mills in Washington and New York I knew enough to know that the numbing of America’s political senses didn’t happen by mistake, but it wasn’t until I met Rob Stein, formerly a senior adviser to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, that I came to fully appreciate the nature and the extent of the re-education program undertaken in the early 1970s by a cadre of ultraconservative and self-mythologizing millionaires bent on rescuing the country from the hideous grasp of Satanic liberalism. To a small group of Democratic activists meeting in New York City in late February, Stein had brought thirty-eight charts diagramming the organizational structure of the Republican “Message Machine,” an octopus-like network of open and hidden microphones that he described as “perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system.”

It was an impressive presentation, in large part because Stein didn’t refer to anybody as a villain, never mentioned the word “conspiracy.” A lawyer who also managed a private equity investment fund–i.e., a man unintimidated by spread sheets and indifferent to the seductions of the pious left–Stein didn’t begrudge the manufacturers of corporatist agitprop the successful distribution of their product in the national markets for the portentous catch-phrase and the camera-ready slogan. Having devoted several months to his search through the available documents, he was content to let the facts speak for themselves–fifty funding agencies of different dimensions and varying degrees of ideological fervor, nominally philanthropic but zealous in their common hatred of the liberal enemy, disbursing the collective sum of roughly $3 billion over a period of thirty years for the fabrication of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

The effort had taken many forms–the publication of expensively purchased and cleverly promoted tracts (Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations), a steady flow of newsletters from more than 100 captive printing presses (among them those at The Heritage Foundation, Accuracy in the Media, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture), generous distributions of academic programs and visiting professorships (to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford universities), the passing along of sound-bite slanders (to Bill O’Reilly and Matt Drudge), the formulation of newspaper op-ed pieces (for the San Antonio Light and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as well as for the Sacramento Bee and the Washington Times). The prolonged siege of words had proved so successful in its result that on nearly every question of foreign or domestic policy in this year’s presidential campaign, the frame and terms of the debate might as well have been assembled in Taiwan by Chinese child labor working from patterns furnished by the authors of ExxonMobil’s annual report.

No small task and no mean feat, and as I watched Stein’s diagrams take detailed form on a computer screen (the directorates of the Leadership Institute and Capital Research Center all but identical with that of The Philanthropy Roundtable, Richard Mellon Scaife’s money …

Full text

When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever got so far? —Richard Hofstadter

In company with nearly every other historian and political journalist east of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1964, the late Richard Hofstadter saw the Republican Party’s naming of Senator Barry Goldwater as its candidate in that year’s presidential election as an event comparable to the arrival of the Mongol hordes at the gates of thirteenth-century Vienna. The “basic American consensus” at the time was firmly liberal in character and feeling, assured of a clear majority in both chambers of Congress as well as a sympathetic audience in the print and broadcast press. Even the National Association of Manufacturers was still aligned with the generous impulse of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, accepting of the proposition, as were the churches and the universities, that government must do for people what people cannot do for themselves.*
* With regard to the designation “liberal,” the economist John K. Galbraith said in 1964, “Almost everyone now so describes himself.” Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, observed in 1950 that “In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” He went on to say that “there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation,” merely “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
And yet, seemingly out of nowhere and suddenly at the rostrum of the San Francisco Cow Palace in a roar of triumphant applause, here was a cowboy-hatted herald of enlightened selfishness threatening to sack the federal city of good intentions, declaring the American government the enemy of the American people, properly understood not as the guarantor of the country’s freedoms but as a syndicate of quasi-communist bureaucrats poisoning the wells of commercial enterprise with “centralized planning, red tape, rules without responsibility, and regimentation without recourse.” A band played “America the Beautiful,” and in a high noon glare of klieg light the convention delegates beheld a militant captain of capitalist jihad (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”) known to favor the doctrines of forward deterrence and preemptive strike (“Let’s lob a nuclear bomb into the men’s room at the Kremlin”), believing that poverty was proof of bad character (“lazy, dole-happy people who want to feed on the fruits of somebody else’s labor”), that the Democratic Party and the network news programs were under the direction of Marxist ballet dancers, that Mammon was another name for God.
The star-spangled oratory didn’t draw much of a crowd on the autumn campaign trail. The electorate in 1964 wasn’t interested in the threat of an apocalyptic future or the comforts of an imaginary past, and Goldwater’s reactionary vision in the desert faded into the sunset of the November election won by Lyndon Johnson with 61 percent of the popular vote, the suburban sheriffs on their palomino ponies withdrawing to Scottsdale and Pasadena in the orderly and inoffensive manner of the Great Khan’s horsemen retiring from the plains of medieval Europe.
$2 BILLION ASSETS CONSERVATIVE FOUNDATIONS (200I ASSETS)
(in $ Millions)
The Bradley Foundation          584
Smith Richardson Foundation         494
Scaife Family (Four Foundations)       478.4
Earhart Foundation    84
John M. Olin Foundation   71
Koch Family (Three Foundations)  68
Castle Rock (Coors) Foundation   50
JM Foundation     25
Philip M. McKenna Foundation   17.4

Departed but not disbanded. As the basic American consensus has shifted over the last thirty years from a liberal to a conservative bias, so also the senator from Arizona has come to he seen as a prophet in the western wilderness, apostle of the rich man’s dream of heaven that placed Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980 and provides the current Bush Administration with the platform on which the candidate was trundled into New York City this August with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the heavy law enforcement, and the paper elephants.* The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal—government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maid-en’s prayer—and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that Hofstadter didn’t stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?
* The rightward movement of the country’s social and political center of gravity isn’t a matter of opinion or conjecture. Whether compiled by Ralph Nader or by journalists of a conservative persuasion (most recently John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in a book entitled The Right Nation) the numbers tell the same unambiguous story—one in five Americans willing to accept identity as a liberal, one in three preferring the term “conservative”; the American public content with lower levels of government spending and higher levels of economic inequality than those pertaining in any of the Western European democracies; the United States unique among the world’s developed nations in its unwillingness to provide its citizens with a decent education or fully funded health care; 40 million Americans paid less than $10 an hour, 66 percent of the population earning less than $45,000 a year; 2 million people in prison, the majority of them black and Latino; the country’s largest and most profitable corporations relieved of the obligation to pay an income tax; no politician permitted to stand for public office without first professing an ardent faith in God.
About the workings of the right-wing propaganda mills in Washington and New York I knew enough to know that the numbing of America’s political senses didn’t happen by mistake, but it wasn’t until I met Rob Stein, formerly a senior adviser to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, that I came to fully appreciate the nature and the extent of the re-education program undertaken in the early 1970s by a cadre of ultraconservative and self-mythologizing millionaires bent on rescuing the country from the hideous grasp of Satanic liberalism. To a small group of Democratic activists meeting in New York City in late February, Stein had brought thirty-eight charts diagramming the organizational structure of the Republican “Message Machine,” an octopus-like network of open and hidden microphones that he described as “perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system.”
It was an impressive presentation, in large part because Stein didn’t refer to anybody as a villain, never mentioned the word “conspiracy.” A lawyer who also managed a private equity investment fund—i.e., a man unintimidated by spread sheets and indifferent to the seductions of the pious left—Stein didn’t begrudge the manufacturers of corporatist agitprop the successful distribution of their product in the national markets for the portentous catch-phrase and the camera-ready slogan. Having devoted several months to his search through the available documents, he was content to let the facts speak for themselves—fifty funding agencies of different dimensions and varying degrees of ideological fervor, nominally philanthropic but zealous in their common hatred of the liberal enemy, disbursing the collective sum of roughly $3 billion over a period of thirty years for the fabrication of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
The effort had taken many forms—the publication of expensively purchased and cleverly promoted tracts (Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations), a steady flow of newsletters from more than 100 captive printing presses (among them those at The Heritage Foundation, Accuracy in the Media, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture), generous distributions of academic programs and visiting professorships (to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford universities), the passing along of sound-bite slanders (to Bill O’Reilly and Matt Drudge), the formulation of newspaper op-ed pieces (for the San Antonio Light and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as well as for the Sacramento Bee and the Washington Times). The prolonged siege of words had proved so successful in its result that on nearly every question of foreign or domestic policy in this year’s presidential campaign, the frame and terms of the debate might as well have been assembled in Taiwan by Chinese child labor working from patterns furnished by the authors of ExxonMobil’s annual report.
No small task and no mean feat, and as I watched Stein’s diagrams take detailed form on a computer screen (the directorates of the Leadership Institute and Capital Research Center all but identical with that of The Philanthropy Roundtable, Richard Mellon Scaife’s money dispatched to the Federalist Society as well as to The American Spectator), I was surprised to see so many familiar names—publications to which I’d contributed articles, individuals with whom I was acquainted—and I understood that Stein’s story was one that I could corroborate, not with supplementary charts or footnotes but on the evidence of my own memory and observation.
The provenience of the Message Machine Stein traced to the recognition on the part of the country’s corporate gentry in the late 1960s that they lacked the intellectual means to comprehend, much less quell or combat, the social and political turmoil then engulfing the whole of American society, and if I had missed Goldwater’s foretelling of an apocalyptic future in the Cow Palace, I remembered my own encounter with the fear and trembling of what was still known as “The Establishment,” four years later and 100 miles to the north at the July encampment of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club. Over a period of three weeks every summer, the 600-odd members of the club, most of them expensive ornaments of the American haute bourgeoisie, invite an equal number of similarly fortunate guests to spend as many days as their corporate calendars permit within a grove of handsome redwood trees, there to listen to the birdsong, interest one another in various business opportunities, exchange misgivings about the restlessness of the deutschmark and the yen.
In the summer of 1968 the misgivings were indistinguishable from panic. Martin Luther King had been assassinated; so had Robert Kennedy, and everywhere that anybody looked the country’s institutional infrastructure, also its laws, customs, best-loved truths, and fairy tales, seemed to be collapsing into anarchy and chaos—black people rioting in the streets of Los Angeles and Detroit, American soldiers killing their officers in Vietnam, longhaired hippies stoned on drugs or drowned in the bathtubs of Bel Air, shorthaired feminists playing with explosives instead of dolls, the Scottsdale and Pasadena sheriffs’ posses preparing their palomino ponies to stand firm in the face of an urban mob.
Historians revisiting in tranquility the alarums and excursions of the Age of Aquarius know that Revolution Now was neither imminent nor likely—the economy was too prosperous, the violent gestures of rebellion contained within too small a demographic, mostly rich kids who could afford the flowers and the go-go hoots—hut in the hearts of the corporate chieftains wandering among the redwood trees in the Bohemian Grove in July 1968, the fear was palpable and genuine. The croquet lawn seemed to be sliding away beneath their feet, and although they knew they were in trouble, they didn’t know why. Ideas apparently mattered, and words were maybe more important than they had guessed; unfortunately, they didn’t have any. The American property-holding classes tend to be embarrassingly ill at ease with concepts that don’t translate promptly into money, and the beacons of conservative light shining through the liberal fog of the late 1960s didn’t come up to the number of clubs in Arnold Palmer’s golf bag. The company of the commercial faithful gathered on the banks of California’s Russian River could look for succor to Goldwater’s autobiography, The Conscience of a Conservative, to William F. Buckley’s editorials in National Review, to the novels of Ayn Rand. Otherwise they were as helpless as unarmed sheepherders surrounded by a Comanche war party on the old Oklahoma frontier before the coining of the railroad and the six-gun.
The hope of their salvation found its voice in a 5,000-word manifesto written by Lewis Powell, a Richmond corporation lawyer, and circulated in August 1971 by the United States Chamber of Commerce under the heading Confidential Memorandum; Attack on the American Free Enterprise System. Soon to be appointed to the Supreme Court, lawyer Powell was a man well-known and much respected by the country’s business community; within the legal profession he was regarded as a prophet. His heavy word of warning fell upon the legions of reaction with the force of Holy Scripture: “Survival of what we call the free enterprise system,” he said, “lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
The venture capital for the task at hand was provided by a small sewing circle of rich philanthropists—Richard Mellon Scaife in Pittsburgh, Lynde and Harry Bradley in Milwaukee, John Olin in New York City, the Smith Richardson family in North Carolina, Joseph Coors in Denver, David and Charles Koch in Wichita—who entertained visions of an America restored to the safety of its mythological past—small towns like those seen in prints by Currier and Ives, cheerful factory workers whistling while they worked, politicians as wise as Abraham Lincoln and as brave as Teddy Roosevelt, benevolent millionaires presenting Christmas turkeys to deserving elevator operators, the sins of the flesh deported to Mexico or France. Suspicious of any fact that they hadn’t known before the age of six, the wealthy saviors of the Republic also possessed large reserves of paranoia, and if the world was going rapidly to rot (as any fool could plainly see) the fault was to be found in everything and anything tainted with a stamp of liberal origin—the news media and the universities, income taxes, Warren Beatty, transfer payments to the undeserving poor, restraints of trade, Jane Fonda, low interest rates, civil liberties for unappreciative minorities, movies made in Poland, public schools.*
*The various philanthropic foundations under the control of the six families possess assets estimated in 2001 at $1.7 billion. Harry Bradley was an early and enthusiastic member of the John Birch Society; Koch Industries in the winter of 2000 agreed to pay $30 million (the largest civil fine ever imposed on a private American company under any federal environmental law) to settle claims related to 300 oil spills from its pipelines in six states.
Although small in comparison with the sums distributed by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the money was ideologically sound, and it was put to work leveraging additional contributions (from corporations as well as from other like-minded foundations), acquiring radio stations, newspapers, and journals of opinion, bankrolling intellectual sweatshops for the making of political and socioeconomic theory. Joseph Coors established The Heritage Foundation with an initial gift of $250,000 in 1973, the sum augmented over the next few years with $900,000 from Richard Scaife; the American Enterprise Institute was revived and fortified in the late seventies with $6 million from the Howard Pew Freedom Trust; the Cato Institute was set up by the Koch family in 1977 with a gift of $500,000. If in 1971 the friends of American free enterprise could turn for comfort to no more than seven not very competent sources of inspiration, by the end of the decade they could look to eight additional installations committed to “joint effort” and “united action.” The senior officers of the Fortune 500 companies meanwhile organized the Business Roundtable, providing it by 1979 with a rich endowment for the hiring of resident scholars loyal in their opposition to the tax and antitrust laws.
The quickening construction of Santa’s work-shops outside the walls of government and the academy resulted in the increased production of pamphlets, histories, monographs, and background briefings intended to bring about the ruin of the liberal idea in all of its institutionalized forms—the demonization of the liberal press, the disparagement of liberal sentiment, the destruction of liberal education—and by the time Ronald Reagan arrived in triumph at the White House in 1980 the assembly lines were operating at full capacity. Well in advance of inauguration day the Christmas elves had churned out so much paper that had they been told to do so, they could have shredded it into tickertape and welcomed the new cowboy-hatted herald of enlightened selfishness with a parade like none other ever before seen by man or beast. Unshredded, the paper was the stuff of dreams from which was made Mandate for Leadership, the “bible” presented by The Heritage Foundation to Mr. Reagan in the first days of his presidency with the thought that he might want to follow its architectural design for an America free at last from “the tyranny of the Left,” rescued from the dungeons of “liberal fascism,” once again a theme park built by nonunion labor along the lines of Walt Disney’s gardens of synthetic Eden.
Signs of the newly minted intellectual dispensation began showing up in the offices of Harper’s Magazine in 1973, the manuscripts invariably taking the form of critiques of one or another of the absurdities then making an appearance before the Washington congressional committees or touring the New York literary scene with Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer. Over a period of several years the magazine published articles and essays by authors later to become well-known apologists for the conservative creed, among them George Gilder, Michael Novak, William Tucker, and Philip Terzian; if their writing in the early seventies was remarkable both for its clarity and wit, it was because they chose topics of opportunity that were easy to find and hard to miss.
* Paul Weyrich, the first director of The Heritage Foundation, and often described by his admirers as “the Lenin of social conservatism,” seldom was at a loss for a military analogy: “If your enemy has weapons systems working and is killing you with them, you’d better have weapons systems of your own.”
The liberal consensus hadn’t survived the loss of the Vietnam War. The subsequently sharp reduction of the country’s moral and economic resources was made grimly apparent by the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the price of Arab oil, and it came to be understood that Roosevelt’s New Deal was no longer on offer. Acting on generous impulse and sustained by the presumption of limitless wealth, the American people had enacted legislation reflecting their best hopes for racial equality and social justice (a.k.a. Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”), but any further efforts at transformation clearly were going to cost a great deal more money than the voters were prepared to spend. Also a good deal more thought than the country’s liberal-minded intelligentsia
were willing to attempt or eager to provide. The universities chose to amuse themselves with the crossword puzzles of French literary theory, and in the New York media salons the standard-bearers of America’s political conscience were content to rest upon what they took to be their laurels, getting by with the striking of noble poses (as friends of the earth or the Dalai Lama) and the expression of worthy emotions (on behalf of persecuted fur-seals and oppressed women). The energies once contained within the nucleus of a potent idea escaped into the excitements of the style incorporated under the rubrics of Radical Chic, and the messengers bringing the good news of conservative reaction moved their gospel-singing tent show into an all but deserted public square.
NATIONAL “THINK TANKS” (200I BUDGETS)
(in $ Millions)
The Heritage Foundation   33
American Enterprise Institute   25
Hoover Institution    25
Cato Institute     17.6
Hudson Institute     7.8
Manhattan Institute     7.2
Citizens for a Sound Economy    5.4
Reason Foundation     4.9
National Center for Policy Analysis   4.7
Competitive Enterprise Institute   3.2
Free Congress Foundation    2.7
Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis   2.5

Their chief talents were those of the pedant and the critic, not those of the creative imagination, but they well understood the art of merchandising and the science of cross-promotion, and in the middle 1970s anybody wishing to appreciate the character and purpose of the emerging conservative putsch could find no better informant than Irving Kristol, then a leading columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the author of well-received books (On the Democratic Idea in America and Two Cheers for Capitalism), trusted counselor and adjunct sage at the annual meetings of the Business Roundtable. Asa youth in the late 1930s, at a time when literary name and reputation accrued to the accounts of the soidisant revolutionary left, Kristol had proclaimed himself a disciple of Leon Trotsky, but then the times changed, the winds of fortune shifting from east to west, and after a stint as a CIA asset in the 1950s, he had carried his pens and papers into winter quarters on the comfortably upholstered bourgeois right.
On first meeting the gentleman at a literary dinner in New York’s Century Club, I remember that I was as much taken by the ease and grace of his manner as I was impressed by his obvious intelligence. A man blessed with a sense of humor, his temperament and tone of mind more nearly resembling that of a sophisticated dealer in art and antiques than that of an academic scold, he praised Harper’s Magazine for its publication of Tom Wolfe’s satirical pieces, also for the prominence that it had given to the essays of Senator Daniel Patrick Monahan, and I was flattered by his inclination to regard me as an editor-of-promise who might be recruited to the conservative cause, presumably as an agent in place behind enemy lines. The American system of free enterprise, he said, was being attacked by the very people whom it most enriched i.e., by the pampered children of privilege disturbing the peace of the Ivy League universities, doing lines of cocaine in Manhattan discotheques, making decadent movies in Hollywood—and the time had come to put an end to their dangerous and self-indulgent nonsense. Nobody under the age of thirty knew what anything cost, and even the senior faculty at Princeton had forgotten that it was none other than the great Winston Churchill who had said, “Cultured people are merely the glittering scum which floats upon the deep river of production.”
In the course of our introductory conversation Kristol not only referred me to other old masters whom I might wish to reread (among them Plutarch, Gibbon, and Edmund Burke); he also explained something of his technique as an intellectual entrepreneur. Despite the warning cries raised by a few prescient millionaires far from the fashionable strongholds of the effeminate east, the full membership of the American oligarchy still wasn’t alive to the threat of cultural insurrection, and in order to awaken the management to a proper sense of its dire peril, Kristol had been traveling the circuit of the country’s corporate boardrooms, soliciting contributions given in memory of Friedrich von Hayek, encouraging the automobile companies to withdraw their advertising budgets from any media outlet that declined to echo their social and political prejudices.
“Why empower your enemies?” he said. “Why throw pearls to swine?
Although I didn’t accept Kristol’s invitation to what he called the “intellectual counter-revolution,” I often ran across him during the next few years at various symposia addressed to the collapse of the nation’s moral values, and I never failed to enjoy his company or his conversation. Among all the propagandists pointing out the conservative path to glory, Kristol seemed to me the brightest and the best, and I don’t wonder that he eventually became one of the four or five principal shop stewards overseeing the labors of the Republican message machine.
It was at Kristol’s suggestion that I met a number of the fund-raising people associated with the conservative program of political correctness, among them Michael Joyce, executive director in the late seventies of the Olin Foundation. We once traveled together on a plane returning to New York from a conference that Joyce had organized for a college in Michigan, and somewhere over eastern Ohio he asked whether I might want to edit a new journal of cultural opinion meant to rebut and confound the ravings of The New York Review of Books. The proposition wasn’t one in which I was interested, but the terms of the offer an annual salary of $200,000, to be paid for life even in the event of my resignation or early retirement—spoke to the seriousness of the rightist intent to corner and control the national market in ideas.
* Henry Ford II expressed a similar thought on resigning as a trustee of the Ford Foundation in late 1976. Giving vent to his confusion, annoyance, and dismay, he took the trouble to write a letter to the staff of the foundation reminding them that they were associated with “a creature of capitalism.” Conceding that the word might seem “shocking” to many of the people employed in the vineyards of philanthropy, Mr. Ford proceeded to his defense of the old ways and old order:

“I’m not playing the role of the hard-headed tycoon who thinks all philanthropoids are Socialists and all university professors are Communists. I’m just suggesting to the trustees and the staff that the system that makes the foundation possible very probably is worth preserving.”
The work went more smoothly as soon as the Reagan Administration had settled itself in Washington around the fountains and reflecting pools of federal patronage. Another nine right-thinking foundations established offices within a short distance of Capitol Hill or the Hay-Adams hotel (most prominent among them the Federalist Society and the Center for Individual Rights); more corporations sent more money; prices improved for ideological piecework (as much as $I00,000 a year for some of the brand-name scholars at Heritage and AEI), and eager converts to the various sects of the conservative faith were as thick upon the ground as maple leaves in autumn. By the end of Reagan’s second term the propaganda mills were spending $I00 million a year on the manufacture and sale of their product, invigorated by the sense that once again it was morning in America and redoubling their efforts to transform their large store of irritable mental gestures into brightly packaged policy objectives—tort reform, school vouchers, less government, lower taxes, elimination of the labor unions, bigger military budgets, higher interest rates, reduced environmental regulation, privatization of social security, down-sized Medicaid and Medicare, more prisons, better surveillance, stricter law enforcement.
If production increased at a more handsome pace than might have been dreamed of by Richard Scaife or hoped for by Irving Kristol, it was because the project had been blessed by Almighty God. The Christian right had come into the corporate fold in the late I970s. Abandoning the alliance formed with the conscience of the liberal left during the Great Depression (the years of sorrow and travail when money was not yet another name for Jesus), the merchants of spiritual salvation had come to see that their interests coincided with those of the insurance companies and the banks. The American equestrian classes were welcome to believe that slack-jawed dope addicts had fomented the cultural insurrection of the I960s; Jerry Falwell knew that it bad been the work of Satan, Satan himself and not one of his students at the University of California, who had loosed a plague of guitarists upon the land, tempted the news media to the broadcast of continuous footage from Sodom and Gomorrah, impregnated the schools with indecent interpretations of the Bible, which then gave birth to the monster of multiculturalism that devoured the arts of learning. Together with Paul Weyrich at The Heritage Foundation, Falwell sponsored the formation of the Moral Majority in I979, at about the same time and in much the same spirit that Pat Robertson, the Christian televangelist, sent his congregation a fundraising letter saying that feminists encourage women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Before Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term the city of God signed a nonaggression pact with the temple of Mammon, their combined forces waging what came to be known as “The Culture War.”
* The proposed journal appeared in 1982 as The New Criterion, promoted as a “staunch defender” of high culture, “an articulate scourge of artistic mediocrity and intellectual mendacity wherever they are found.” Joyce later took over direction of the Bradley Foundation, where he proved to he as deft as Weyrich and Kristol at what the movement conservatives liked to call the wondrous alchemy of turning intellect into influence.

MASS MEDIA DISTRIBUTION
$300M CONSERVATIVE MESSAGE MACHINE
• TELEVISION
Pat Robertson’s 700 Club
Fox News Channel
MSNBC’s Scarborough Country
Oliver North’s War Stories
• RADIO
The Rush Limbaugh Show
The Cal Thomas Commentary
Radio America
• PUBLISHING
Eagle Publishing, Inc.
• NEWSPAPERS
The Washington Times
The Wall Street journal
• WEBSITES
Townhall.com
AnnCoulter.com
The Cold War against the Russians was fading into safe and nostalgic memory, and the tellers of the great American fairy tale (the one about the precious paradise ever in need of an invincible defense) found themselves in pressing need of other antagonists to take the place of the grim and harmless ogre in the northern snow.
The Japanese couldn’t play the part because they were lending the United States too much money; the Colombian drug lords were too few and too well connected in Miami; Manuel Noriega failed the audition; the Arab oil cartel was broke; and the Chinese were busy making shirts for Ralph Lauren.
In the absence of enemies abroad, the protectors of the American dream at home began looking for domestic signs of moral weakness rather than foreign shows of military strength; instead of examining the dossiers of distant tyrants, they searched the local newspapers for flaws in the American character, and the surveillance satellites over Leipzig and Sevastopol were reassigned stations over metropolitan Detroit and the Hollywood studios filming Dynasty and Dallas. Within a matter of months the conservative committees of public safety rounded up as suspects a motley crowd of specific individuals and general categories of subversive behavior and opinion—black male adolescents as well as elderly female Buddhists, the New York Times, multiculturalists of all descriptions, the I960s, welfare mothers, homosexuals, drug criminals, illegal immigrants, performance artists. Some enemies of the state were easier to identify than others, but in all instances the reactionary tellers of the tale relied on images seen in dreams or Arnold Schwarzenegger movies rather than on the lessons of their own experience.
For a few years I continued to attend convocations sponsored by the steadily proliferating agencies of the messianic right, but although the discussions were held in increasingly opulent settings—the hotel accommodations more luxurious, better food, views of the mountains as well as the sea—by 1985 I could no longer stomach either the sanctimony or the cant. With the coming to power of the Reagan Administration most of the people on the podium or the tennis court were safely enclosed within the perimeters of orthodox opinion and government largesse, and yet they persisted in casting themselves as rebels against “the system,” revolutionary idealists being hunted down like dogs by a vicious and still active liberal prosecution. The pose was as ludicrous as it was false. The leftist impulse had been dead for ten years, ever since the right-wing Democrats in Congress had sold out the liberal portfolio of President Jimmy Carter and revised the campaign-finance laws to suit the convenience of their corporate patrons. Nor did the news media present an obstacle. By 1985 the Wall Street Journal had become the newspaper of record most widely read by the people who made the decisions about the country’s economic policy; the leading editorialists in the New York Times (A. M. Rosenthal, William Safire) as well as in the Washington Post (George Will, Richard Harwood, Meg Greenfield) ably defended the interests of the status quo; the vast bulk of the nation’s radio talk shows (reaching roughly 80 percent of the audience) reflected a conservative bias, as did all but one or two of the television talk shows permitted to engage political topics on PBS. In the pages of the smaller journals of opinion (National Review, Commentary, The American Spectator, The National Interest, The New Criterion, The Public Interest, Policy Review, etc.) the intellectual décor, much of it paid for by the Olin and Scaife foundations, was matched to the late-Victorian tastes of Rudyard Kipling and J. P. Morgan. The voices of conscience that attracted the biggest crowds on the nation’s lecture circuit were those that spoke for one or another of the parties of the right, and together with the chorus of religious broadcasts and pamphlets (among them Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and the publications under the direction of Jerry Falwell and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon), they enveloped the country in an all but continuous din of stereophonic, right-wing sound.
The facts seldom intruded upon the meditations of the company seated poolside at the conferences and symposia convened to bemoan America’s fall from grace, and I found it increasingly depressing to listen to prerecorded truths dribble from the mouths of writers once willing to risk the chance of thinking for themselves. Having exchanged intellectual curiosity for ideological certainty, they had forfeited their powers of observation as well as their senses of humor; no longer courageous enough to concede the possibility of error or enjoy the play of the imagination, they took an interest only in those ideas that could be made to bear the weight of solemn doctrine, and they cried up the horrors of the culture war because their employers needed an alibi for the disappearances of the country’s civil liberties and a screen behind which to hide the privatization (a.k.a. the theft) of its common property—the broadcast spectrum as well as the timber, the water, and the air, the reserves of knowledge together with the mineral deposits and the laws. Sell the suckers on the notion that their “values” are at risk (abortionists escaping the nets of the Massachusetts state police, pornographers and cosmetic surgeons busily at work in Los Angeles, farm families everywhere in the Middle West becoming chattels of the welfare state) and maybe they won’t notice that their pockets have been picked.
So many saviors of the republic were raising the alarm of culture war in the middle eighties that I now can’t remember whether it was Bob Bartley writing in the Wall Street Journal or William Bennett speaking from his podium at the National Endowment for the Humanities who said that at Yale University the students were wallowing in the joys of sex, drugs, and Karl Marx, disporting themselves on the New Haven green in the reckless manner of nymphs and satyrs on a Grecian urn. I do remember that at one of the high-end policy institutes in Manhattan I heard the tale told by Norman Podhoretz, then the editor at Commentary, the author of several contentious books (Making It and Why We Were in Vietnam), and a rabid propagandist for all things antiliberal. What he had to say about Yale was absurd, which I happened to know because that same season I was teaching a seminar at the college. More than half the number of that year’s graduating seniors had applied for work at the First Boston Corporation, and most of the students whom I’d had the chance to meet were so busy finding their way around the Monopoly board of the standard American success (figuring the angles of approach to business school, adding to the network of contacts in their Filofaxes) that they didn’t have the time to waste on sexual digressions either literal or figurative. When I attempted to explain the circumstance to Podhoretz, he wouldn’t hear of it. Not only was I misinformed, I was a liberal and therefore both a liar and a fool. He hadn’t been in New Haven in twenty years, but he’d read William F. Buckley’s book (God and Man at Yale, published in 1951), and he knew (because the judgment had been confirmed by something he’d been told by Donald Kagan in 1978) that the college was a sinkhole of depraved sophism. He knew it for a fact, knew it in the same way that Jerry Falwell knew that it was Satan who taught Barbra Streisand how to sing.
If Kristol was the most engaging of the agents provocateur whom I’d encountered on the conservative lecture circuit in the 1980s, Podhoretz was the dreariest—an apparatchik in the old Soviet sense of the word who believed everything he wished to prove and could prove everything he wished to believe, bringing his patrons whichever words might serve or please, anxious to secure a place near or at the boot of power. Unfortunately it was Podhoretz, not Kristol, who exemplified the character and tone of mind that edged the American conservative consensus ever further to the right during the decade of the 1990s.
The networks of reactionary opinion once again increased their rates of production, several additional foundations recruited to the cause, numerous activist organizations coming on line, together with new and improved media outlets (most notably Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Weekly Standard) broadcasting the gospels according to saints Warren Harding and William McKinley. By 1994 the Conservative Political Action Conference was attracting as many as 4,000 people, half of them college students, to its annual weekend in Arlington, Virginia, there to listen to the heroes of the hour (G. Gordon Liddy, Ralph Reed, Oliver North) speak from stages wrapped in American flags. Americans for Tax Reform under the direction of Grover Norquist declared its intention to shrink the federal government to a size small enough “to drown,” like one of the long-lost hippies in Bel Air, “in a bathtub.”
STUDENTS AND SCHOLARS (200I ESTIMATES)
(in $ Millions)
George Mason University    7
Harvard University     6
Intercollegiate Studies Institute 5.8
University of Chicago    5
Yale University    5
Washington University    4
Stanford University    3
Institute for Humane Studies   2.9
National Association of Scholars  1.2
Although as comfortably at home on Capitol Hill as in the lobbies of the corporate law firms on K Street, and despite their having learned to suck like newborn lambs at the teats of government patronage (Kristol’s son, William, serving as public-relations director to Vice President Dan Quayle; Podhoretz’s son-in-law, Elliot Abrams, a highly placed official within the Reagan Administration subsequently indicted for criminal misconduct), the apologists for the conservative cause continued to pose as embattled revolutionaries at odds with the “Tyranny of the Left.” The pretense guaranteed a steady flow of money from their corporate sponsors, and the unexpected election of Bill Clinton in 1992 offered them yet another chance to stab the corpse of the liberal Goliath. The smearing of the new president’s name and reputation began as soon as he committed the crime of entering the White House. The American Spectator, a monthly journal financed by Richard Scaife, sent its scouts west into Arkansas to look for traces of Clinton’s semen on the pine trees and the bar stools. It wasn’t long before Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr undertook his obsessive inspection of the president’s bank records, soul, and penis. Summoning witnesses with the fury of a suburban Savonarola, Starr set forth on an exploration of the Ozark Mountains, questioning the natives about wooden Indians and painted women. For four years he camped in the wilderness, and even after he was allowed to examine Monica Lewinsky’s lingerie drawer, his search for the weapon of mass destruction proved as futile as the one more recently conducted in Iraq.
Although unable to match Starr’s prim self-righteousness, Newt Gingrich, the Republican congressman from Georgia elected speaker of the House in 1995, presented himself as another champion of virtue (a self-proclaimed “Teacher of the Rules of Civilization”) willing to lead the American people out of the desolation of a liberal wasteland. Like Starr and Podhoretz (also like the newscasters who now decorate the right-wing television studios), Gingrich had a talent for bearing grudges. During his sixteen years in Congress he had acquired a reputation (not undeserved) for being nasty, brutish, and short, eventually coming to stand as the shared and shining symbol of resentment that bound together the several parties of the disaffected right—the Catholic conservatives with the Jewish neoconservatives, the libertarians with the authoritarians, the evangelical nationalists with the paranoid monetarists, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition with the friends of the Ku Klux Klan. Within a few months of his elevation to the speaker’s chair, Gingrich bestowed on his fellow-plaintiffs his Contract with America, a plan for rooting out the last vestiges
of liberal heresy in the mind of government. As mean-spirited in its particulars as the Mandate for Leadership handed to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the contract didn’t become law, but it has since provided the terms of enlightened selfishness that shape and inspire the policies of the current Bush Administration.
During the course of the 1990s I did my best to keep up with the various lines of grievance developing within the several sects of the conservative remonstrance, but although I probably read as many as 2,000 presumably holy texts (Peggy Noonan’s newspaper editorials and David Gelernter’s magazine articles as well as the soliloquies of Rush Limbaugh and the sermons of Robert Bork), I never learned how to make sense of the weird and too numerous inward contradictions.
EIGHT INFLUENTIAL BOOKS AND THE FOUNDATIONS WHO SPONSORED THEM
• Free to Choose, Milton Friedman — Scaife Foundation Olin Foundation
• The Naked Public Square, Richard John Neuhaus — Lilly Endowment Bradley Foundation Olin Foundation
• The Dream and the Nightmare, Myron Magnet — Scaife Foundation
• Losing Ground, Charles Murray — Olin Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation
• The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington — Bradley Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation
• Illiberal Education, Dinesh D’Souza — Olin Foundation
• Politics, Markets &America’s Schools, John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe — Olin Foundation
• The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky — Bradley Foundation
How does one reconcile the demand for small government with the desire for an imperial army, apply the phrases “personal initiative” and “self-reliance” to corporation presidents utterly dependent on the federal subsidies to the banking, communications, and weapons industries, square the talk of “civility” with the strong-arm methods of Kenneth Starr and Tom DeLay, match the warmhearted currencies of “conservative compassion” with the cold cruelty of “the unfettered free market,” know that human life must be saved from abortionists in Boston but not from cruise missiles in Baghdad? In the glut of paper I could find no unifying or fundamental principle except a certain belief that money was good for rich people and bad for poor people. It was the only point on which all the authorities agreed, and no matter where the words were coming from (a report on federal housing, an essay on the payment of Social Security, articles on the sorrow of the slums or the wonder of the U.S. Navy) the authors invariably found the same abiding lesson in the tale—money ennobles rich people, making them strong as well as wise; money corrupts poor people, making them stupid as well as weak.
But if a set of coherent ideas was hard to find in all the sermons from the mount, what was not hard to find was the common tendency to believe in some form of transcendent truth. A religious as opposed to a secular way of thinking. Good versus Evil, right or wrong, saved or damned, with us or against us, and no light-minded trifling with doubt or ambiguity. Or, more plainly and as a young disciple of Ludwig Von Mises had said, long ago in the 1980s in one of the hospitality tents set up to welcome the conservative awakening to a conference on a beach at Hilton Head, “Our people deal in absolutes.”
Just so, and more’s the pity. In place of intelligence, which might tempt them to consort with wicked or insulting questions for which they don’t already possess the answers, the parties of the right substitute ideology, which, although sometimes archaic and bizarre, is always virtuous.
Virtuous, but not necessarily the best means available to the running of a railroad or a war. The debacle in Iraq, like the deliberate impoverishment of the American middle class, bears witness to the shoddiness of the intellectual infrastructure on which a once democratic republic has come to stand. Morality deemed more precious than liberty; faith-based policies and initiatives ordained superior to common sense.
As long ago as 1964 even William F. Buckley understood that the thunder on the conservative right amounted to little else except the sound and fury of middle-aged infants banging silver spoons, demanding to know why they didn’t have more—more toys, more time, more soup; when Buckley was asked that year what the country could expect if it so happened that Goldwater was elected president, he said, “That might be a serious problem.” So it has proved, if not under the baton of the senator from Arizona then under the direction of his ideologically correct heirs and assigns. An opinion poll taken in 1964 showed 62 percent of the respondents trusting the government to do the right thing; by 1994 the number had dwindled to 19 percent. The measure can be taken as a tribute to the success of the Republican propaganda mill that for the last forty years has been grinding out the news that all government is bad, and that the word “public,” in all its uses and declensions (public service, citizenship, public health, community, public park, commonwealth, public school, etc.), connotes inefficiency and waste.
The dumbing down of the public discourse follows as the day the night, and so it comes as no surprise that both candidates in this year’s presidential election present themselves as embodiments of what they call “values” rather than as the proponents of an idea. Handsome images consistent with those seen in Norman Rockwell’s paintings or the prints of Currier and Ives, suitable for mounting on the walls of the American Enterprise Institute, or in one of the manor houses owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, maybe somewhere behind a library sofa or over the fireplace in a dining room, but certainly in a gilded frame.
http://harpers.org/archive/2004/09/0080196

Turning a Blind Eye by Chris Hedges

Truthdig | Op-Ed, July 9, 2012

Excerpt

Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification.

It leaves us blind. And this is what has occurred. We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us.

The psychoanalyst John Steiner calls this phenomenon “turning a blind eye.” He notes that often we have access to adequate knowledge but because it is unpleasant and disconcerting we choose unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, to ignore it….We too, Steiner wrote, turn a blind eye to the dangers that confront us, despite the plethora of evidence that if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships to each other and the natural world, catastrophe is assured…

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide. They cannot see…

Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think…

The vital importance of thought, Arendt wrote, is apparent only “in times of transition when men no longer rely on the stability of the world and their role in it, and when the question concerning the general conditions of human life, which as such are properly coeval with the appearance of man on earth, gain an uncommon poignancy.” We never need our thinkers and artists more than in times of crisis, as Arendt reminds us, for they provide the subversive narratives that allow us to chart a new course, one that can assure our survival…

And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.

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Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification. They trust naively in the notion of linear progress and in assured national dominance. This is what nationalism is about—lies. And if a culture loses its ability for thought and expression, if it effectively silences dissident voices, if it retreats into what Sigmund Freud called “screen memories,” those reassuring mixtures of fact and fiction, it dies. It surrenders its internal mechanism for puncturing self-delusion. It makes war on beauty and truth. It abolishes the sacred. It turns education into vocational training. It leaves us blind. And this is what has occurred. We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us.

The psychoanalyst John Steiner calls this phenomenon “turning a blind eye.” He notes that often we have access to adequate knowledge but because it is unpleasant and disconcerting we choose unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, to ignore it. He uses the Oedipus story to make his point. He argued that Oedipus, Jocasta, Creon and the “blind” Tiresias grasped the truth, that Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother as prophesized, but they colluded to ignore it. We too, Steiner wrote, turn a blind eye to the dangers that confront us, despite the plethora of evidence that if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships to each other and the natural world, catastrophe is assured. Steiner describes a psychological truth that is deeply frightening.

I saw this collective capacity for self-delusion among the urban elites in Sarajevo and later Pristina during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. These educated elites steadfastly refused to believe that war was possible although acts of violence by competing armed bands had already begun to tear at the social fabric. At night you could hear gunfire. But they were the last to “know.” And we are equally self-deluded. The physical evidence of national decay—the crumbling infrastructures, the abandoned factories and other workplaces, the rows of gutted warehouses, the closure of libraries, schools, fire stations and post offices—that we physically see, is, in fact, unseen. The rapid and terrifying deterioration of the ecosystem, evidenced in soaring temperatures, droughts, floods, crop destruction, freak storms, melting ice caps and rising sea levels, are met blankly with Steiner’s “blind eye.”

Oedipus, at the end of Sophocles’ play, cuts out his eyes and with his daughter Antigone as a guide wanders the countryside. Once king, he becomes a stranger in a strange country. He dies, in Antigone’s words, “in a foreign land, but one he yearned for.”

William Shakespeare in “King Lear” plays on the same theme of sight and sightlessness. Those with eyes in “King Lear” are unable to see. Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out, finds in his blindness a revealed truth. “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes,” Gloucester says after he is blinded. “I stumbled when I saw.” When Lear banishes his only loyal daughter, Cordelia, whom he accuses of not loving him enough, he shouts: “Out of my sight!” To which Kent replies:

See better, Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.

The story of Lear, like the story of Oedipus, is about the attainment of this inner vision. It is about morality and intellect that are blinded by empiricism and sight. It is about understanding that the human imagination is, as William Blake saw, our manifestation of Eternity. “Love without imagination is eternal death.”

The Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard wrote: “The imagination is not a faculty for the creation of illusion; it is the faculty by which alone man apprehends reality. The ‘illusion’ turns out to be truth.” “Let faith oust fact,” Starbuck says in “Moby-Dick.”

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth,” Goddard warned. There are, as Shakespeare wrote, “things invisible to mortal sight.” But these things are not vocational or factual or empirical. They are not found in national myths of glory and power. They are not attained by force. They do not come through cognition or logical reasoning. They are intangible. They are the realities of beauty, grief, love, the search for meaning, the struggle to face our own mortality and the ability to face truth. And cultures that disregard these forces of imagination commit suicide. They cannot see.

“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,” Shakespeare wrote, “Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” Human imagination, the capacity to have vision, to build a life of meaning rather than utilitarianism, is as delicate as a flower. And if it is crushed, if a Shakespeare or a Sophocles is no longer deemed useful in the empirical world of business, careerism and corporate power, if universities think a Milton Friedman or a Friedrich Hayek is more important to its students than a Virginia Woolf or an Anton Chekhov, then we become barbarians. We assure our own extinction. Students who are denied the wisdom of the great oracles of human civilization—visionaries who urge us not to worship ourselves, not to kneel before the base human emotion of greed—cannot be educated. They cannot think.

To think, we must, as Epicurus understood, “live in hiding.” We must build walls to keep out the cant and noise of the crowd. We must retreat into a print-based culture where ideas are not deformed into sound bites and thought-terminating clichés. Thinking is, as Hannah Arendt wrote, “a soundless dialogue between me and myself.” But thinking, she wrote, always presupposes the human condition of plurality. It has no utilitarian function. It is not an end or an aim outside of itself. It is different from logical reasoning, which is focused on a finite and identifiable goal. Logical reason, acts of cognition, serve the efficiency of a system, including corporate power, which is usually morally neutral at best, and often evil. The inability to think, Arendt wrote, “is not a failing of the many who lack brain power but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded.”

Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.

The vital importance of thought, Arendt wrote, is apparent only “in times of transition when men no longer rely on the stability of the world and their role in it, and when the question concerning the general conditions of human life, which as such are properly coeval with the appearance of man on earth, gain an uncommon poignancy.” We never need our thinkers and artists more than in times of crisis, as Arendt reminds us, for they provide the subversive narratives that allow us to chart a new course, one that can assure our survival.

“What must I do to win salvation?” Dimitri asks Starov in “The Brothers Karamazov,” to which Starov answers: “Above all else, never lie to yourself.”

And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/10223-turning-a-blind-eye