National Review, “Arts and Manners” column, 11 July 1956:
“The incitement to the lowbrow’s rebellion against the ‘mass media’ was one Elvis Presley, a pimply and thoroughly nasty young man who rotates his abdominal muscles on TV screens with the abandon of an old strip-teaser and the elegance of a waterfront slattern. He also sings. And one has to hear this pathetic wail of vulgarity to believe it. At any rate, Mr. Presley is at the moment the hottest thing on TV.”
Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West, 2018:
Rock and roll is the primitive drumbeat hooked up to killer amps…. Nowhere is the romantic mixture of pantheism, primitivism, and the primacy of inner feelings than in rock’s appeal to inner authority and authenticity…. It is no accident that drugs and rock and roll are so linked in the popular imagination. Both promise to take us out of the realm of daily concerns and rational priorities…. Nor is it coincidence that rock appeals most directly to adolescents…. It is when glandular desires are most powerful and our faculties of reason are the most susceptible to all manner of seduction..
And thus we come (at last) to the third and least original of Jonah Goldberg’s themes in his book, Suicide of the West. In previous posts, I have described and critiqued his first two themes: that capitalism is unnatural and that it is particularly vulnerable to corruption. In this, my final post (promise!) about Goldberg’s book, I will address his final theme, ingratitude:
We are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle. Our schools and universities, to the extent that they teach the Western tradition at all, do so from a perspective of resentful hostility toward our accomplishments. (p. 16)
Uh oh. He’s going after the university, or as we call it in my house, “Daddy’s paycheck!” I’d better spring into action! Honey? Where’s my super suit?
Goldberg on Inequality
Before we launch into Goldberg’s critique of higher education, we need slight detour into his views of equality. The mark of the reactionary right, pace Corey Robin, is their embrace of inequality. Goldberg is no exception, when he writes that”Aristocrats are natural” (p. 167, emphasis in original). In a free society, the cream will rise to the top and win and those who don’t work hard enough, or aren’t smart enough, or aren’t strong enough will always be hewers or wood and carriers of water:
If elites are inevitable in every society and organization, it becomes silly to fret over the existence of elites. This is particularly true in free societies, where people are permitted to pursue happiness as they define it…. To fret about political, social or economic inequality in a free society is to fret bout the problem of freedom itself, for in the presence of freedom there will always be inequality of some kind. (p. 169)
Goldberg’s argument here is that capitalism, which he has declared completely unnatural results in equals freedom (equally unnatural) and freedom equals inequality–which he then declares completely natural. How such an unnatural social order gives rise to the natural ordering of human value he never quite explains. Nor does he seem aware that his argument mirrors that of Jean Jacques Rouseau who argued that only in the artificiality of civilization does human inequality emerge. Since Goldberg sets Rouseau up as kind of an antithesis to Locke, I should probably note that Rouseau thought that inequality was bad and Goldberg thinks it good.
There is no room in Goldberg’s “free society” for structural barriers to success. Capitalism erodes all such barriers. Take nepotism which is “wholly natural” and limiting it is what capitalist civilization does, indeed, “nepotism is a good illustration of the eternal struggle between civilization and human nature (p. 54–5). So says Jonah Goldberg, son of Lucianne Goldberg in a book blurbed by John Podhoretz, son of Norman Pothoretz. Both, of course along with Bill Kristol, son of Irving Kristol and Midge Decter, write for the National Review, founded by Bill Buckley, Jr. son of rich oilman Bill Buckley, Sr. which he edited with his brother-in-law, Brent Bozell, Jr. and sister Patricia. Brent Jr. and Patricia son, of course, is Brent Bozell III who runs a number of right wing activist groups. Henry Regnery, the publisher of Bill Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, has a nephew who bankrolled Richard Spencer. That is the meritocracy in action, folks. Poor? Well, you should have had Sam Walton as your dad, lazy ass. Hungry? You really should have thought of that before you became peasants! These are the people who champion the meritocracy.
Goldberg leaves the door open to the idea that black people are just not as smart as white people: “I am agnostic about the issue of racial differences” (p. 28) because he believes we all should be treated as individuals. If, under conditions of personal freedom, black folks just can’t compete with white people and end up at the bottom of the economic ladder, well, that is just nature taking its course:
When large numbers of free people make choices, expecting the aggregate results of those choices to be perfectly representative by gender (or race or ethnicity) is not only ridiculous but also sexist (or racist) because it assumes a uniformity of talent, interest, and drive for whole categories of people. (p. 214)
Whereas, seeing endemic poverty among a certain race of people when you believe the society is “free” can be taken as evidence of their natural inferiority and is definitely not racist. And that is the kind of argument that gets your book blurbed by Charles “Crossburner” Murray.
Not to worry though, it turns out Goldberg doesn’t really believe in a natural order of elites. Only those elites who agree with Goldberg deserve their elite status. Others, like college professors, deserve no such thing.
The Eternal Return of Conservative Attacks on Higher Education
This is the least original of Goldberg’s book since the right-wing attack on American universities is at least as old as the university system itself. Goldberg admits that there is a “rich tradition of this kind of writing” (p. 413) and lists a few books noting that there are “many, many more” (p. 414). Like most of his book, this claim is under-researched so let me add to his list just a bit. Here are just a few of books published by conservatives attacking American education since World War II:
- Field, A. N. 1941. Why Colleges Breed Communists. Hawthorne: Christian Book Club of America.
- Buckley, William F. 1951. God and Man at Yale; the Superstitions of Academic Freedom. Chicago: Regnery.
- Hobbs, Albert Hoyt. 1951. The Claims of Sociology: A Critique of Textbooks. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co.
- — — — . 1953. Social Problems and Scientism. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co.
- Shafer, Paul W, and John Howland Snow. 1953. The Turning of the Tides. New York: Long House.
- Dodd, Bella V. 1954. School of Darkness. New York: P.J. Kenedy.
- Root, E. Merrill. 1955. Collectivism on the Campus; the Battle for the Mind in American Colleges. New York: Devin-Adair Co.
- Wittmer, Felix. 1956. Conquest of the American Mind, Comments on Collectivism in Education. Boston: Meador Pub. Co.
- Rudd, Augustin G. 1957. Bending the Twig; the Revolution in Education and Its Effect on Our Children. Chicago: Heritage Foundation.
- Iversen, Robert W. 1959. The Communists & the Schools. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
- Veritas Foundation, New York. 1964. The Great Deceit; Social Pseudo-Sciences: A Veritas Foundation Staff Study. West Sayville, N.Y.
- Steinbacher, John A. 1971. The Child Seducers. Fullerton: Educator Publications.
- Bloom, Allan. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Kimball, Roger. 1990. Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. New York: Harper and Row.
- D’Souza, Dinesh. 1992. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Vintage Books.
- Whitaker, Robert W., and Joe Sobran. 2004. Why Johnny Can’t Think: America’s Professor-Priesthood. North Augusta: Kudzu Media.
These are just the books mind you and only some of those. Pick up National Review or The Freeman or Modern Age or any other conservative periodical and you’ll find a steady drumbeat of articles attacking the notion of “academic freedom” and warning of leftists overthrowing the government by brainwashing students. The books all take the exact same position as Goldberg: our universities used to teach wholesome ideas but now they are teaching anti-American, anti-Western ideas (atheism, communism, leftism, multiculturalism) and, if we don’t stop them our society will surely be destroyed. Conservatives have been singing this song for nearly three-quarters of a century. Goldberg writes about the “tenured radicals” (p. 215) in our universities. He borrows that phrase from Roger Kimball’s book published three decades ago. Kimball, of course merely echoed the themes of Wittmer, or Root, or Buckley from three decades before that. There is nothing new in anything Goldberg says that has not been said by conservative critics of higher education for decades.
Goldberg on Intellectual Elites
A couple of chapters after noting that every society has elites because freedom means the natural talent of some people makes them rise to the top, “elite” suddenly becomes a term of appropriation for Goldberg. Our “elite” colleges and universities are dangerous and destroying capitalism! Apparently, they aren’t the deserving elites, like Jonah and his friends. They are the undeserving elites.
Goldberg bases his argument on an argument by Joseph Schumpeter that capitalism creates a “market opportunity for intellectuals, lawyers, writers, bureaucrats, and other professionals who work with ideas to undermine and ridicule the existing system” (p. 113). They do it for the money but mostly to give themselves a buzz by thinking they are smarter than the rest of the little people: “Intellectuals surely have a financial motive in arguing for a system in which intellectuals would run things, but they also have a psychological one. That desire is often the most important one” (p. 114). Not that they need the money anyway since “they tend to come from the ranks of the bourgeois and the very wealthy themselves” (p. 115). The important thing that Goldberg wants his readers to believe is that intellectuals did not achieve their status through merit, they achieved it through a structural quirk of capitalism that allows them to express their ingratitude for the very system that allowed them to write at all.
There’s not a shred of empirical evidence for Goldberg’s (or Schumpeter’s) view of the class origins of intellectuals or writers of course. Goldberg cites this article by Deirdre McCloskey which is making specific claims about the Marxists of the thirties and forties and thus cannot really inform us about the twenty-first century without further documentation. But, at least he tried. The same cannot be said for most of the key arguments he makes about the professoriat. Here’s his complaint in a nutshell:
The rest of the melting pot-formula is breaking down in three ways. First, we are now taught that the government should give special preferences to some groups. Second, as a cultural imperative, we are increasingly told that we should judge people based upon the group they belong to. Assimilation is now considered a dirty word. And last, we are taught that there is no escaping from our group identity…..
As a broad generalization it is impossible to deny that our culture is shot through with an obsession with race, gender, and ethnic essentialness…. If you can’t see this you are a rare bird, given the current debate about the explosion of identity politics isn’t whether or not it exists but whether it is good or bad. For that reason I will not drown the reader with page after page of horrible or hilarious stories from American campuses and left-wing media outlets… (p. 211).
These passages are at best confused and at worst dishonest. Those on the left who write and argue about racism are in no way racial essentialists: they do not believe that race is a natural category. They are thoroughly constructionists since the entire point of the project is to discuss how we, ourselves, made race and need to unmake it. Race is a socially real category that has real social and material consequences for how we live our lives. Unless we talk about it, we cannot get rid of it. If Goldberg had read any of this literature he’d know this. But he’d rather not bother evidencing his claims “one could go on not just for pages but at book length documenting these bonfires of asininity at various elite universities” (p. 217, my emphasis). So Goldberg could document them if he wanted to, he just doesn’t want to. Trust him. The few examples he musters are decades-old. He holds up Stanley Fish (1994) and Lani Guinier (1995) as villains to be feared and Farber and Sherry’s (1998) antiquated critique of critical race theory as somehow representing the state of modern teaching. Strangely, Goldberg entitled this chapter “Tribalism Today” rather than “Recycled Examples From a Quarter Century Ago.”
When one seeks evidence that scholars who study race are “essentialist” Goldberg supplies……nothing. Actually, I wish he had supplied nothing, he actually quotes a random Tweet that caught his eye (p. 223) to prove the point. Similarly, Goldberg’s evidence-free assertions about the state of our campuses or his ancient examples are actually better than when he does attempt to document his claims. For example, he writes:
Women’s studies departments are not particularly popular, which is one reason women’s studies faculty members are eager to create or exploit controversies that make their disciplines relevant” (p. 217)
How unpopular are they? According to Goldberg they are so tremendously unpopular that Yale can only offer forty-one courses under the heading “Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies” which he claims is a “conservative estimate” (p. 220). Three pages. That’s how long it took for Goldberg to overturn his unevidenced assertion about the unpopularity of women’s studies with evidence that he, himself, provided.
But Goldberg counters, these elite professors are merely, “making a living from exploiting” natural disparities (p. 214) there is no problem other than those dastardly professors filling our children’s head with a bunch of nonsense. One can imagine Goldberg looking at the Woman’ March:
and saying, “That’s a lot of women’s studies majors! Damn that Yale University for those 41 classes!”
Goldberg assures us, without evidence, that “the same pattern holds at most elite colleges” (p. 220, my emphasis). There are almost five-thousand four-year colleges and universities in the United States. We need more than Goldberg’s bluster to prove anything about what is being taught there. Given what we know about conservatives’ false narrative about the leftist-caused free-speech “crisis” on campuses and their blindness to conservative attacks on academic freedom, we need more evidence than Goldberg has, or can, supply.
The National Review: Wrong in the 1950s, Wrong Today.
Goldberg likes to enroll Martin Luther King, Jr. as one who upheld “the principle of universal equality” (pp. 95, 145–6, 212, 228). Goldberg claims that today’s anti-racist activists unlike King “are seeking to overthrow the ideals that made this country so successful in the first place” (p. 224). This was not the case according to Goldberg’s own intellectual home the National Review. Here is their statement in 1965:
For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes — particularly the adolescents and the children — that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice.
Goldberg’s magazine opposed King at every turn and were firmly opposed to King’s agenda. And, since Goldberg believes that capitalism is the foundation of individual rights, he must oppose King who believed that civil rights was only the first step in an international social justice program that had a socialist order as its goal. National Review opposed King not because they failed to understand capitalism and civil rights but as a consequence of those beliefs. . National Review was an intellectual home for James J. Kilpatrick, perhaps the nations most outspoken segregationist writer (which Goldberg somehow failed to mention in his brief mention of Kilpatrick’s passing). Ernest van den Haag wrote over two-hundred articles for the National Review and testified in support of racial segregation in Federal court. These were not exceptions to the ideology Goldberg endorses. These were, like him, defenders of capitalism and individual rights and they found those beliefs perfectly in line with their racism. This was the case for nearly every conservative publication during the Civil Rights era.
Like Goldberg those writers believed that individualism and capitalism had largely solved America’s racial problems and the real problem was that lefty intellectuals and rabble-rousers were stirring up trouble. Here’s Nathaniel Weyl, a NR stalwart writing in 1960:
A positive approach to this century-old problem of the relation to American society would stress the value of individual liberty rather than equality… Enormous improvements in the Negro’s environment have occurred…. For at least a generation, the urban Negroes of both North and South have had access good schools, libraries, and free educational facilities of various sorts; they have been able to earn a living wage with leisure and mental work. (p. 320–1).
It is so easy to see how disconnected Weyl was from the actual lives of African Americans to take this position in 1960. How willfully ignorant he must have been. How blinded by his own ideology that he could ignore the reality that was being shouted at him by the civil rights movement. Goldberg is as wrong in 2018 as Weyl was in 1960. He has built a fantasy for himself. A fantasy that comes from reading only what he wants to read. By assuring himself that Trump’s racism is somehow the product of the “identity politics” of the left rather than the long, long line of overt and covert racism embraced by intellectual conservatives and every Republican President from Nixon to Trump. There is a reason Trump ran as a Republican. There is a reason that he beat every other Republican in the primaries. There is a reason his support remains strong in the Republican party. The reason is not, as Goldberg would have you believe, because Trump is somehow outside the tradition set by Buckley. It is rather that he is the fulfillment of that tradition.
“I hope readers see this as a serious book” (p. 342) Goldberg concludes. I do, but not in the way Goldberg thinks I should. I take it as another example in a long line of willful white ignorance about the reality of racism in the United States.
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