Blogs > Cliopatria > Playthings or Blasting Caps?

Mar 5, 2005 5:27 pm

Playthings or Blasting Caps?

I have an odd affection for Ward Churchill.  I've never met this embattled fellow professor.  I doubt I ever will.  I doubt even more that he has any affection for me, odd or otherwise.

I'm a military historian.  Sure, I could tell you that one of my specialties is the ethics of war, and that my current research deals with such trendy, left-leaning subjects as counterhegemonic resistance or the influence of war upon race formation in the United States.  It sounds very cool, very fellow traveler.  But then you read my c.v., and it says that I wrote part of the standard military history textbook at West Point, and that I've interned at RAND Corporation, lectured at the Army War College, and participated in a conference sponsored by the Marine Corps University.  It sort of blows the image.  If the "technocrats" of the Twin Towers were "little Eichmanns," as Churchill puts it in his now notorious essay, I'm a little Himmler.

It gets worse.  Look deeper into the c.v. and you'll find that I've written 25,000-word magazine biographies of, among others, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and--shudder!--Nathan Bedford Forrest.  I suppose you could desperately imagine that these are searing exposes of four white racists, but I'm afraid not.  They were critical enough to irritate a few Sons of Confederate Veterans, but most readers would characterize them as respectful; even, in the case of Lee and Jackson, admiring.

Of course, I wrote them years ago, before I presumably drank the kool-aid and became a tenured radical.  Let's face it, if you're an ideologue of the right, and you really need to see me as one of Churchill's defenders, you'll find a way to do it.

So let me make it easy for you.

I love Ward Churchill.

There!  I said it, and I feel better.  And so do you, if you're a warrior of the far right.  You've got your proof.  Now you can feed it to your readers, who will chortle over it with you.  They won't think, as I would think, that you're playing them for fools, feeding them quotes out of context or hiding in plain sight the equation of engagement with agreement.

It's all good, because I love you too, David Horowitz.

I love you guys because you help me think.  There's really nothing like a radical perspective to make you reconsider basic premises, and for someone in my business, for whom ideas are playthings, this is all great fun.  I realize that for you ideas aren't playthings, but blasting caps, and you have a point.  Ideas indeed have real world consequences.  The ideas expressed in Ward Churchill's "roosting chickens" essay have angered many.  The ideas expressed in the statement of principles of The Project for the New American Century have killed, to date, some 1,500 American service personnel as well as 16,000 to 18,000 Iraqi civilians, directly or by opening the door to a bloody insurgency.  They may also have opened the door to democracy in the Middle East.  I'll believe that when I see it, but your point is made.  Ideas are powerful.  I can see why they scare you.

But while I appreciate your concern that an idea may fall into the wrong mind, I have to say that I'm an adult, and I would also appreciate the common courtesy of your letting me think for myself.  My students, incidentally, feel the same way.  I brainwashed them.  Sue me.

A challenge to those on the right:  bring it on.  Savage me all you want.  Trust me, a military historian can't get enough of your scorn.  In the academy it's like a badge of honor.  It gets me in the club.  People stop thinking that I'm probably a CIA plant.  Of course, I've never been much for clubs, so . . .

A challenge to those on the left:  don't try to play me the way the far right plays its own supporters, goading them with sound bites and crude propaganda.  I've seen you do it, too.  Knock it off.  Sure, I'm a registered Democrat, but don't take that for granted.  Don't think, for instance, that because I find FrontPage magazine lopsided and unfair that I will not detach the substance of its argument from its tendentious presentation--just as I've been doing with Churchill.  If eighty percent of university faculty members are really politically left of center--and that squares with my own observations, at least within the humanities--then how come?  Is there a political gate-keeping within the academy?  I've seen no overt evidence of it, but it's plausible that choices made according to other criteria have the consequence, unintended but perhaps congenial, of keeping a lid on conservative voices.  I mean, it seems to me that you can accomplish quite a lot of political gate-keeping just by denigrating the fields most likely to attract conservatives as being "traditional," "old-fashioned," and "overrepresented" (without checking too closely to see if this is in fact the case).

So let me repeat:  I love you, Ward Churchill.  I love you too, David Horowitz.  You tortured, angry, lovely men--you guys invigorate my life.  Churchill helps me figure out what would happen if Tom Barnett got to implement the national security plan outlined in The Pentagon's New Map.  (Hint:  ka-boom!!)  Horowitz helps me figure out what would happen if I asked my colleagues, here and elsewhere, why so few academics in the humanities are Republicans?  (Hint:  Hollow jokes about how it's because academics are smart.  Yeah, so smart the other guys control all three branches of government.)

Recall the famous slogan in the "war room" of the 1992 Clinton campaign:  It's the economy, stupid.  Well, for people in the academy it's the ideas, stupid.  We like ideas.  We need ideas.  We play with ideas, the bigger, the bolder, the better.  Sure, they're not just playthings, they're blasting caps; and now and again we lose a finger (or, who knows, even tenure).  But we can never have enough of them.

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Mark Grimsley - 3/6/2005

At last week's annual meeting of the Society for Military History, I asked a number of people about this business of the lack of political diversity within the academy. I got a number of thoughtful responses. Everyone found plausible the estimate of 80 percent liberals in the academy, though among academic military historians they estimated that percentage at only 60 percent, and among military historians in public history or the armed services, I think one may safely say the percentage is much lower.

I heard no one argue that academic gate-keeping blocks conservatives by means of denying them jobs or tenure on overt political grounds. As I indicated in my post, this is more plausibly the result of undervaluing fields of scholarship which tend to interest conservatives. Another way to look at it is that in the past 25 years or so the scholarship most valued in the humanities poses very pointed questions about why some groups have been denied access to the levers of political and economic power. These questions, and the conceptual frameworks and methodologies required to answer them, are apt to be most congenial to those whose personal views are left of center; and if you're not left of center when you embark on the intellectual journey sign-posted by these questions, the journey will almost surely make you one--though over the long haul you could wind up a neo-conservative.

One military historian, himself a conservative, argued that few young Republicans would self-select into a profession that virtually mandates that you will spend the next six to ten years of your life in poverty. There are few bohemian conservatives. This was said with tongue only partly in cheek. Personally I think it's one of the better hypotheses, because nearly everyone agreed that students who apply for graduate--not just those who get accepted, but the pool of applicants--tend to be politically liberal.

Military historians from beyond the United States, by the way, regard our ideas about "left wing" and "right wing" with bemusement. As far as they're concerned, the American political spectrum runs the gamut from A to B.

Military historians have so far been the only ones I've met who take the question of political diversity with any seriousness. I suspect that's partly because for them it has direct real world consequences --they tend to get pretty badly stereotyped, both intellectually and politically--but mostly because their identification with the academy is relatively weak. Many spend a lot of time and energy among people outside the academy, and on the whole I would say that in that respect that are truly cosmopolitian in the sense of spending time in both "blue" and "red" camps, to use the current blue state/red state taxonomy. By contrast, most mainstream academics I encounter seem to be bi-coastal in orientation; they may teach in a Red State, but on their internal map it's still Flyover Country.

I would go further. Maybe it's just the individuals I've approached, but whenever I've asked raised this question among "mainstream" academics, the question gets dismissed with a joke. Even worse, I have once or twice gotten the kind of silence that in academe unmistakably conveys the message, You have just transgressed a professional norm.

The academy is a profession. Like other professions it has three main attributes [per E. M. Carr-Saunders, a pioneered the study of professions]: 1) a body of expertise deemed important enough to society that it's given wide latitude in choosing and training its membership; 2) an acceptance of social responsibility by which the profession contracts with society that it will produce good, competent experts and that these experts will perform conscientiously; and 3) corporateness; i.e., adherence to a set of informal norms, customs and values that signal one's commitment to the profession. (A classic example, albeit stereotyped and perhaps dated, is that physicians take Wednesday afternoons off to go golfing.)

My sense is that most academics identify with the profession before they identify with a set of political beliefs, whether left wing, right wing, or centrist. Therefore they act much more quickly and energetically to enforce professional orthodoxy than they would a notional political orthodoxy. One could argue, I suppose, that to have leftist, liberal, or at least moderate political views has in fact become one of the corporate values of the academy, at least within the humanities. But my immediate point is that "political diversity" is not yet a form of diversity which the academic corporate culture takes seriously. Until it does, many academics, including those whose personal political preferences are conservative, are apt to respond to questions about political diversity with the Refusal to Engage, which in my experience is the most characteristic way by which academics enforce the corporate norms of the profession.

Mark Grimsley - 3/6/2005

You're welcome!

I have to admit, I'm still at the point in my blogging development where I enjoy praise and am discomfited by criticism--although it helps when that criticism is so overblown as to describe me as a "fraud
and traitor"
--usually in my darker moments I merely feel like a fraud. But I suspect that until I start getting critiqued from both flanks of the political spectrum, and in somewhat more measured terms, I really will not be sure that I'm accomplishing anything.

In my ever-lengthening experience on this planet, you can't step out of line even a little without someone who believes in that line, for whatever reason, trying to push you back. The more important the line, and the more vigor with which you cross it, then the more important and vigorous are the ones who materialize to enforce the line.

That's one reason, I imagine, why some of the more effective people in public life seem actively to enjoy criticism; e.g., Donald Rumsfeld. He sees it as a measure of effectiveness. It's a sentiment which has its points, although a) sometimes you attract criticism precisely because you're not effective, and b) you can "cheat," so to speak, by deliberately copping an attitude. "I offend, therefore I'm effective" is not valid; it's just a cheap and easy game.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/5/2005

Since Mr. Proyect isn't a department chair, or even teaching faculty, Mr. Lederer, it's not entirely clear what quod you think you've demonstrandarum.

John H. Lederer - 3/5/2005

quod erat demonstrandum

Sherman Jay Dorn - 3/5/2005

I've been wrestling with minutiae on a chapter this afternoon after spending the morning on a task that was supposed to take under 2 hours (however enjoyable it really was), and I really needed this breath of fresh air.

Jonathan Goodwin - 3/5/2005

I think a Dada intellectual might vote for Santorum, particularly because of what he's lent his name to.

Louis N Proyect - 3/5/2005

I keep hearing about how the fact that 80 percent of Duke professors vote Democrat supports the conclusion that the left is entrenched in the university. You can only draw this conclusion by using the term "left" in a bastardized Orwellian sense. The other Sunday I watched the ineffable Hilary Clinton sitting side by side with John McCain on Meet the Press defending the occupation of Iraq. She has also urged teenagers to step up church attendance in the hope that fewer illegitimate babies will be born. Not surprisingly, McCain told Russert that Clinton would make a fine presidential candidate in 2008--or was it the other way around? Not much difference, I guess.

Centrism has hegemony in the university, not leftism. Professors at my own institution surely vote Democrat, but so what? There are only a handful that represent the dialectical opposite of Robert KC Johnson. For every fellow traveler of Frontpage Magazine in the university, there's one Nicholas DeGenova. They balance each other out. But mostly what you get is a centrist glob that is ideologically indistinguishable from Hilary Clinton or Arlen Spector. If a U. of Pennsylvania professor votes for Arlen Spector and a Columbia professor votes for Hilary Clinton, what is the real difference? As Bill Clinton said, the Democrats are all Eisenhower Republicans nowadays.

Now there is a noticable lack of ultrarightists in the academy. I think there are 2 basic reasons for this.

One, if you really love the dog-eat-dog American capitalist system, why would you spend 10 years getting a PhD in Political Science so that you would have to compete with 150 other people to get an adjunct position paying $20,000 per year in East Jesus, Nebraska? You might as well go to medical, business or law school and nail down the earning potential that goes with the territory.

The other reason you see fewer rightwing Republicans in the academy is that there is a radical disjunction between voting for people like Rick Santorum and pursuing the life of the mind. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings here, but the Republican Party is rapidly turning into a pole of attraction for every know-nothing element in American society. From creationism to global warming denial, the Republican Party makes a home to people who prefer shibboleths to science. Frankly, if I were a department chair and I saw a tenure track professor walking around with a Rick Santorum for President button, I'd make a mental note to myself about this guy's prospects.

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