The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
9.3 (Summer 2009)
academe in crisis
The Antinomian Academy: A Response
John R. Harris
Whenever we publish an essay in these pages whose contents travel along a fairly clear political vector, I like to extend to thinkers traveling in the other direction a chance to justify their opposed calculations. My offers seldom draw any response at all, though I have received one or two gracious refusals. Professor Sugrue’s foregoing remarks plainly advocate a kind of cultural conservatism, The Center for Literate Values is just as transparently invested in preserving worthy elements of the past, and my own essay in this issue obviously aligns me among those who suspect progress of being nine-tenths illusion in most cases. An adversarial position, then, would be vigorously progressive and left-of-center. Scholars who occupy this terrain consistently register one of two responses to Praesidium, neither of which leads to the kind of publishable rebuttal I invite: they massively reject every page we produce and everything associated with us, as if our hands were red with the blood of innocent millions; or else (far less often) they advance those polite refusals to which I referred, hinting that they dare not run the professional risk of linking their name with an organ likely to be viewed by their masters as preemptively wicked. The former, of course, correspond closely to the Class of ’68, the latter to that of ’89. In neither case does the Left do justice to the values of freedom, candor, and rationality which it claims to champion.
So I shall try to say a few words for that side of the aisle myself. More accurately (since I would soon be writing a parody if I attempted a rhetorical reconstruction of arguments I find mostly void of merit), I will criticize my own side, an endeavor I can undertake with honesty and even fervor.
I find that the Academic Left hates the Right particularly for three reasons: the practice of Christianity, the operation of the capitalist marketplace, and the social subordination of women to men. All three grounds of loathing (for the reaction is quite visceral, despite the formidable education common in those who express it) impute a degree of hypocrisy to the Right—and they do so correctly, in my opinion. Mainstream American life is morbidly, perhaps terminally hypocritical. That life itself is so rarely appears to occur to these critics—but it might more often, I think, if those they criticize would admit to being hypocrites rather than pose as scintillating paragons.
Christianity: I am a Christian, which means that I believe in a supreme reality, scarcely discernible in our present misty sleepwalk, where utter goodness reigns. Such belief is supposed to change one’s life. Yet I must say that the people who have most deeply wounded me as I shuffle through my mortal coil have been loudly self-advertising Christians. I could mention the director of a private elementary school who told me placatory lies rather than address issues as my young son was bullied by an abusive teacher—then instructed the security guard that none of my family was to be allowed in the building upon my transferring the child to another school. (At the time, I was teaching Spanish to the whole small school almost gratis, and would have continued doing so after my son’s departure because I had pledged my word.) Or I might mention a certain coach who is giving us much grief at the moment as he conducts a private war against all parents not pliant to his absolute, arbitrary will. He announces himself a Christian at every gathering of any size and refuses to utter “damn” or “hell”, yet other four-letter words are entirely within bounds, and his sarcasm and broken promises are well known to young and old.
Phony or flawed Christians are not an indictment of Christianity—yet many academics were launched upon their life of defensive introversion by encounters with pseudo-pious fanaticism which inspired in them a reflexive, permanent mistrust of lofty claims. The reaction, as I have said, is distinctly visceral; yet such seething indignation, if overstated, is not entirely misplaced. Christianity does not run deeply enough in our daily practice for us truly to be the believers we so vocally call ourselves before the world.
Capitalism: radio blabberers are fond of calling ours the greatest nation in the history of the world—a claim which can hardly be justified by our output of composers, painters, or novelists. Yet such anemic creatures are universally derided in these quarters as a sign of the effeminate illness presently gnawing away at our once-robust bones. We were best when we were making the most money, and we made the most money when we were grinding out cars, dishwashers, and TVs. Any thoughtful person can see how a student of the arts would be repulsed by such advocacy—and the value system implied by this assembly-line superiority is, in fact, subversive to traditional Christian values. The past is instantly irrelevant, the less-than-new is immediately junk, neighborhoods are constantly bulldozed in favor of malls and highways, families are steadily sacrificed to careerist mobility, children are bred to have ravenous appetites for more and better…. Inasmuch as the Left deplores the anthill-without-a-center which is our reigning urban sprawl, it is hardly rejecting the classical notion of civitas or the Christian imperative to be a responsible neighbor given to moments of calm, quiet self-examination.
To be sure, our classical and Christian heritage is tossed out—baby with bath water—by the time the Antinomian Academy finishes its work of resistance against the tradition that the market-driven Right claims to represent. That this representation is a fraud never draws serious comment in the Halls of Ivy, where responses are once again visceral and childish. The disaffected sons and daughters of doctors, elite bureaucrats, and commercial franchisers who flood graduate schools in the arts identify Plato and Saint Augustine with parents and relatives who wanted them to kill their souls at a desk. Part of their revenge is to weave a witty argument wherein the Great Books have pimped for the power structure, rather as Plato is supposed to have been raped by the tyrant Dionysius. A shame. Witty caricature turns out to be a much weaker defense than the redemption of right reason would have been.
Then we have “gender issues”: probably no single source of personal trauma has sent as many mauled psyches into grad school in search of safe refuge as sexual disorientation. I believe our society has a profound and ever-deepening problem here. Most men want to be true men—i.e., independent and self-sustaining—while women, whatever they may say in their feminist morphos, very seldom care to link their future with that of a stay-at-home ne’er-do-well. (Many professional women have confessed to me that they refuse to date a man who earns significantly less than they.) Yet as our society has cut away its agrarian roots and equated a “living” ever more with “selling”, lucrative jobs have a) grown increasingly as practicable to female talents as to male ones, and b) involved to an ever greater degree skills such as “fast-talking” and “pep-rallying” which manly men view with disdain. Men have lost respect for themselves, and women have lost respect for men. (Few men of my acquaintance have any admiration at all for Donald Trump—only for his money.) Intelligent men often decline to be “intellectual”, since to do so is (among other things) to resign any realistic chance at securing a permanent mate. Intellectual females, on the contrary, leap at the chance to enter the Ivory Tower and escape the “air-head gold-digger” paradigm which prevails elsewhere; yet they soon grow embittered, as well, at their shrunken social horizons. Into this unhappy brew may be stirred the incurable male intellectual who dreads the vulgar competition of the “hard sell” but feels no instinctive draw to oily wrenches or power saws. Some indeterminate hundreds or thousands of his cohort end up as thoroughly confused recruits for “gay culture” simply because they belong nowhere else.
I have written lengthily of the salutary possibilities within a marriage of technology and agrarianism. A High-Tech Agrarianism would allow a man maintaining a suburban residence on a half-acre lot to grow most of his family’s food in that primeval fashion which appeals to most men: i.e., to be beholden to no one, to face no daily sycophancy at the office, to live above the vagaries of market place and corporate buy-outs. It would allow women, simultaneously, a more direct shot at those more socially interactive jobs within the pulsating city which they seem to find specially rewarding. One would think that a Left-leaning intellectual would embrace this vision as the common man’s true Declaration of Independence: not a Marxian confiscation of private property by the public sector, but a frontiersman’s preservation of whatever food-bearing ground he can cover from the tyrannical intrusion of “elected” royalty.
Yet the Antinomian Academy has again missed its opportunity to raise meaningful objections against prevailing practice and contented itself with an infantile épatissement of its bourgeois parents, precisely in spoiled-child fashion. First sex without marriage, then pregnancy terminated at will, then heterosexual promiscuity, then an artificial cultivation of homosexuality… I have watched this plangent pageant strut by throughout my life, and I can only wonder what display will bring up the rear. Adult-child couples? Human-beast pairs?
That the academic Left essentially represents a childishly impulsive reaction against the grating incongruities of American life is strongly indicated by the kinds of non-American alternative it salutes. Islam invites at least as much hypocrisy as Christianity: scripturally mandated punishments are far more numerous and severe. Many Islamic nations are also market-driven in the overt materialist fashion garishly observable in Third World societies lunging into modernity on the coattails of oil. Women have fewer rights, and often suffer through more genuine brutality, in fundamentalist Islamic countries than anywhere else in the world. Yet an exotic “orientalism” has mesmerized the frustrated academic for the exclusive reason that it creates a mystery, an Otherness—that there is not here (n’importe où hors des États Unis). Religious practice seems so quaintly primitive to the young intellectual in these venues that it acquires an Edenic simplicity, like the nature-worship of Native Americans. The young grad student knows nothing of Dubai, but fancies that quotidian trade à l’arabe finds camels bringing loads of dates to the bazaar over endless dunes. As for women… how possibly to explain academic feminism’s indifference to the horrors of clitorectomy or of the Taliban’s decapitation of “rebellious” wives without having recourse to some secret admiration in our best-educated females for men who are not invertebrates?
So I must end up agreeing with Professor Sugrue that the hatred of all codes and rules in the academy (antinomia) is an infantile reaction to poorly identified stresses, full of resentment so anguishing that its victims often cannot tolerate the physical presence of their “abusers” or countenance a verbal exchange with them. One would expect very much the same response from a girl whose father has sexually assaulted her—and those of us who have wondered at these dramas for years can attest to the abundance of words like “rape” and “patriarchal” when tensions run especially high. Where I would disagree with Professor Sugrue and others of a truly minute academic Right (and this is no great disagreement, to be sure) is in their apparent tendency to consider the girl utterly ill bred and hallucinatory. The father may not be the monster he is accused of being… but the family remains far from functional. After all, a man’s children are in some measure a judgment upon him.
To our children, literature and the arts have become a refuge wherefrom they can spit vituperation at the mainstream because that mainstream is crass, dull, acquisitive, self-interested, and ruthless. Who can dial through the fare available nightly on cable TV and say that we have created a remunerative cultural stage for ingenious, spiritual people to play to appreciative audiences—and what creative genres, honestly, hold out the promise of a livelihood other than electronic ones? We have bestowed an official blessing upon this post-cultural pit of ordure because it is ever new, flashy, and profitable. Having done so, we should not feign outrage when that endangered plant, Taste—as twisted and sickly, perhaps, as an unlikely seedling triumphantly emerging from a pile of stones—buds and blossoms into gaudy flowers of protest.