Notable & Quotable: Think Tanks

Notable & Quotable from Friday’s WSJ, from remarks by Christopher DeMuth, former president of the American Enterprise Institute (1986-2008), on accepting the Bradley Prize, April 6:

Think tanks have risen to prominence and influence at a time when two much older institutions—the ones they are closest to—have been in decline. Universities and colleges have succumbed to demands to embrace orthodoxy and suppress open inquiry and dissent. Government and politics have succumbed to demands to regiment every aspect of society and commerce and ameliorate every difficulty of private life. . . .

In universities, armies of diversity deans, teacher-sensitivity trainers, and student-contentment counsellors are displacing faculty—whose tenured positions are supposed to carry responsibility for upholding academic standards. In government, fleets of specialized agencies are displacing elected legislators—whose constitutional positions are supposed to carry responsibility for deliberation and collective choice.

Bureaucracies are useful and necessary, but not when they are pursuing their own agendas, free of direction from a recognized authority or establishment. They have gained autonomy in what Robert Nisbet called the twilight of authority.
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The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today

George Will in Our National Scourge of Misinformation writes that “Social media create the expectation that reality will perfectly follow our preferences.”

In 2005, Lynne Truss, in her book Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door, presciently said we were slouching into “an age of social autism” with a “Universal Eff-off Reflex.” Long before progress, understood as streaming, brought us binge watching, she foresaw people entertaining themselves into inanition with portable technologies that enable “limitless self-absorption,” making people solipsistic and unmannerly. Truss foresaw an age of “hair-trigger sensitivity” and “lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence.” This was twelve years before some Wellesley College professors said, last month, that inviting controversial, a.k.a. conservative, speakers to campus injures students by forcing them to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.”

In the latest issue of The American Interest, the Hudson Institute’s Carolyn Stewart, revisiting Truss’s book, wonders, “What is it about social media that compels us to throw off the gloves?” Stewart notes that, as Truss anticipated, people “have taken an expectation that previously applied to the private sphere — control over our environment — and are increasingly applying it to the public sphere.” Social media’s “self-affirming feedback loop” encourages “expectations for a custom-made reality” and indignation about anything “that deviates from our preferences.

The consequences of what Stewart calls “our growing intolerance of an unedited reality” are enumerated in Tom Nichols’s new book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Our devices and social media are, he says, producing people who confuse “internet grazing” with research and this faux research with higher education, defined by a wit as “those magical seven years between high school and your first warehouse job.” Years when students demand to run institutions that the students insist should treat them as fragile children…

The “spreading epidemic of misinformation,” nowadays known as “alternative facts,” gives rise to a corollary to Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”): “Misinformation pushes aside knowledge.” Everyone with a smartphone has in his or her pocket, Nichols says, more information “than ever existed in the entire Library of Alexandria,” which can produce a self-deluding veneer of erudition.

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Why enact a costly regulation to do what the market was doing for free?

Holman Jenkins in Friday’s WSJ:

Democrats deserve a large share of the credit for the rescue of the failing U.S. economy of the 1970s by throwing out a host of perverse regulatory policies, not that they embrace or even acknowledge this legacy today—which is the problem.

Airline deregulation was born in Ted Kennedy’s administrative practice subcommittee. His aide, Stephen Breyer, now a Supreme Court justice, recalled a working-class Boston constituent asking why the senator was focused on airline issues when this voter could never afford to fly. “That is why,” said Kennedy.

The Democratic Party once had a brain where regulation was concerned, understanding that the ultimate purpose was a net public good, not an in-gathering of power to Washington for the benefit of lobbyists and influence peddlers.

It was not yet today’s Democratic Party of Chuck Schumer, who isn’t stupid and yet is associated with no body of policy thought or analysis. If he even has anybody on his staff deputized to think about the results of policy, it probably is the lowliest intern.

A wrecking ball of a president was the Trump electorate’s answer to this problem. It’s hard even now to say they were wrong. If he delivers nothing in the next four years, it is alarming to suspect that this likely would still be a better result than we would have gotten under Hillary Clinton.

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Example is the school of mankind

About Edmund Burke’s famous quote – “Example is the school of mankind, and he will learn at no other.” – Jonah Goldberg writes:

What he meant by this is that sometimes you can’t be told something, you have to see it or experience it for yourself. I could write a dozen different columns on this quote (actually, I think I have). This insight dovetails with my conviction that reality is conservative. Wisdom is the accumulation of insights into how the world actually works — as opposed to how we would like it to work.

Venezuela was the richest country in South America a decade ago. Then it followed policies based on how some people wanted the world to work. Now it’s the poorest country in South America and people are fighting over bread and toilet paper. If Venezuela makes it through this mess, a lot of people will likely have learned some things from example that they’d probably never have learned from a textbook.

Politics is like the weather; it doesn’t care what you think about it. It simply is. And at least in this sense, I was right when I said that democracy gives the illusion of control.

In 2006, I wrote in the Corner about the Left’s belief, as expressed by Simon Rosenberg, that we were entering an era of “new politics.” Conservatism was over. A new era of modern, expert-driven political management was upon us. To his credit, Rosenberg didn’t say that politics was over, just that this was some new era where the old playbook didn’t apply. But it’s sort of the same thing. The idea that politics will go away if we elect the right person is a form of utopianism that plagues the Left — and, alas, the Right.

Barack Obama entered office thinking the exact same thing (So did LBJ. So did JFK. So did FDR. So did Woodrow Wilson). As I’ve written 8 trillion times, Obama really believed that he was a post-ideological president who only cared about “what works.” This progressive understanding of pragmatism is a kind of exquisite confirmation bias. We’re not ideological, we just want to do the smartest, best thing (which just happens to line up with our undisclosed and unacknowledged ideological biases).

The problem? Politics doesn’t vanish just because you want it to. Wilson was convinced that the wisdom of the Treaty of Versailles was akin to scientific fact. It wasn’t, but let’s say that it was. His view didn’t erase the political necessity of selling it to Congress.

During the election, lots of people told me that a businessman would cut through all the politics by running the government like a business. Jared Kushner is apparently heading up the latest version of this incredibly hackneyed and ancient idea. The simple problem is that government isn’t a business (never mind that Donald Trump is not a typical businessman). The incentive structure of politics is entirely different than the incentive structure for a businessman. A CEO can walk into a meeting and explain to his employees that if they don’t hit their widget sales quota, no one will get their bonus. Politics doesn’t work like that.

Moreover, people who say “Who cares about politics” or “Politics are irrelevant” are like people who go sailing in a hurricane on the assumption that weather shouldn’t matter.

 

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Controlling the narrative vs. free speech

Last Friday’s WSJ had a piece entitled The ‘Postmodern’ Intellectual Roots of Today’s Campus Mobs, in which Crispin Sartwell writes, “If reality is nothing but a ‘narrative,’ then of course it’s important to control what people say.”

We are witnessing the second great era of speech repression in academia, the first coming during the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early ’90s. One force behind the new wave is a theory of truth, or a picture of reality, developed the first time around. This theory, which we might call “linguistic constructivism,” holds that we don’t merely describe or represent the world in language; language creates the world and ourselves. A favorite slogan of our moment, “Words have power,” reflects that view…

That words have such power suggests that we can create a better world by renarrating. But it also implies that we need to get control of what people say and write and hear and read. If words make reality, then they are central to racial oppression, for example. Changing the words we use about race could change consciousness and ameliorate racism. Many feminists and critical race theorists have taken up this kind of linguistic constructionism, and it often seems to young people, including my students, to be a common-sense truth.

That is a remarkable development, for this sort of postmodernism was greeted as radical and bizarre when it arrived. Here is one reason to question it: After the ’60s civil-rights movement, white Americans by and large learned not to use racist language. We became convinced that racism was to a significant extent a matter of using the wrong terms. We edited these terms out of our public discourse and even out of our consciousness. Then we more or less came to believe that we were no longer racists.

But in many ways, the structure of racist oppression persisted or even in some cases intensified, as in mass incarceration. Fixing the language, by formal and informal social sanctions on one another, turned out to be much easier than addressing material conditions of segregation or poverty. A position like Rorty’s, however, permits no criterion of truth outside the language, no appeal to the “material conditions” beyond our descriptions.

For Rorty, truth is nothing but a story we will all come to accept together—a progressive story in which inequalities of race, sex and sexuality are being steadily ameliorated. The positions articulated by opponents of this narrative are false by definition, false from the outset, known to be false before they are even examined. It is then well within the values of academia—devoted to the truth—to silence those views.

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Inverting, not dismantling, the hierarchies of power

Long but great article “On Political Correctness” in The American Scholar.

Let us eschew the familiar examples: the disinvited speakers, the Title IX tribunals, the safe zones stocked with Play-Doh, the crusades against banh mi. The flesh-eating bacterium of political correctness, which feeds preferentially on brain tissue, and which has become endemic on elite college campuses, reveals its true virulence not in the sorts of high-profile outbreaks that reach the national consciousness, but in the myriad of ordinary cases—the everyday business-as-usual at institutions around the country—that are rarely even talked about.

A clarification, before I continue (since deliberate misconstrual is itself a tactic of the phenomenon in question). By political correctness, I do not mean the term as it has come to be employed on the right—that is, the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets. I mean its older, intramural denotation: the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.

When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, “Because I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here.”

So this is how I’ve come to understand the situation. Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.

I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.

Dogma, and the enforcement of dogma, makes for ideological consensus. Students seldom disagree with one another anymore in class, I’ve been told about school after school. The reason, at least at Whitman, said one of the students I talked to there, is mainly that they really don’t have any disagreements. Another added that when they take up an issue in class, it isn’t, let’s talk about issue X, but rather, let’s talk about why such-and-such position is the correct one to have on issue X. When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps. But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.

That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger.

Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.

Which brings us to another thing that comes with dogma: heresy. Heresy means those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation—if necessary, by censorship. It makes a perfect, dreary sense that there are speech codes, or the desire for speech codes, at selective private colleges. The irony is that conservatives don’t actually care if progressives disapprove of them, with the result that political correctness generally amounts to internecine warfare on the left: radical feminists excoriating other radical feminists for saying “vagina” instead of “front hole,” students denouncing the director of Boys Don’t Cry as a transphobic “cis white bitch” (as recently happened at Reed College), and so forth.

But the most effective form of censorship, of course, is self-censorship—which, in the intimate environment of a residential college, young adults are very quick to learn. One of the students at Whitman mentioned that he’s careful, when questioning consensus beliefs, to phrase his opinion in terms of “Explain to me why I’m wrong.” Other students— at Bard College, at the Claremont Colleges—have explained that any challenge to the hegemony of identity politics will get you branded as a racist (as in, “Don’t talk to that guy, he’s a racist”). Campus protesters, their frequent rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, are not the ones being silenced: they are, after all, not being silent. They are in the middle of the quad, speaking their minds. The ones being silenced are the ones like my students at Scripps, like the students at Whitman, like many students, no doubt, at many places, who are keeping their mouths shut. “The religion of humanity,” as David Bromwich recently wrote, “may turn out to be as dangerous as all the other religions.”

The assumption on selective campuses is not only that we are in full possession of the truth, but that we are in full possession of virtue. We don’t just know the good with perfect wisdom, we embody it with perfect innocence. But regimes of virtue tend to eat their children. Think of Salem. They tend to turn upon themselves, since everybody wants to be the holiest. Think of the French Revolution.

Progressive faculty and students at selective private colleges will often say that they want to dismantle the hierarchies of power that persist in society at large. Their actions often suggest that in fact they would like to invert them.

Political correctness and rational discourse are incompatible ideals. Forget “civility,” the quality that college deans and presidents inevitably put forth as that which needs to “balance” free expression. The call for civility is nothing more than a management tool for nervous bureaucrats, a way of splitting every difference and puréeing them into a pablum of deanly mush. Free expression is an absolute; to balance it is to destroy it.

Fortunately, we already have a tried-and-tested rule for free expression, one specifically designed to foster rational discourse. It’s called the First Amendment, and First Amendment jurisprudence doesn’t recognize “offensive” speech or even hate speech as categories subject to legitimate restriction. For one thing, hate is not illegal, and neither is giving offense. For another, what’s hate to me may not be hate to you; what’s offensive to you may be my deeply held belief. The concepts are relative and subjective. When I gave a version of this essay as a talk at Bard, the first comment from the panel of student respondents came from a young Palestinian woman who argued that “conservative narratives” like Zionism should be censored, because “they require the otherization, if not the dehumanization, of another group of people.” It didn’t seem to have occurred to her that many Zionists would say the same about what they regard as the Palestinian position. Once you start to ban offensive speech, there is no logical place to stop—or rather, where you stop will be determined by the relative positions of competing groups within the community.

In other words, again, by power.

Selective private colleges are the training grounds of the liberal elite, and the training in question involves not only formal education for professional success, but also initiation into the folkways of the tribe.

Which means that fancy private colleges have a mission public institutions don’t. People arrive at public schools from a wide range of social locations, and they return to a range that is nearly as wide. The institutional mission is to get them through and into the job market, not to turn them into any particular kind of person. But selective private colleges (which also tend to be a lot smaller than public schools) are in the business of creating a community and, beyond that, a class. “However much diversity Yale’s freshman classes may have,” as one of my students once put it, “its senior classes have far less.”

And this, I believe, is one of the sources of the new revolt among students of color at elite private colleges and universities. The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar.

Selective private colleges need to decide what kind of places they want to be. Do they want to be socialization machines for the upper-middle class, ideological enforcers of progressive dogma? Or do they want to be educational institutions in the only sense that really matters: places of free, frank, and fearless inquiry? When we talk about political correctness and its many florid manifestations, so much in the news of late, we are talking not only about racial injustice and other forms of systemic oppression, or about the coddling of privileged youth, though both are certainly at play. We are also talking, or rather not talking, about the pathologies of the American class system. And those are also what we need to deal with.

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Proselytizing gets tiresome, no matter who is doing it

In Monastaries of the Mind, Victor Davis writes that “When everything is politicized, people retreat into mental mountaintops — dreams of the past and fantasies of the future.”

An increasing number of American don’t take all this [the perpetual proselytizing of the culture wars] seriously. And that’s not new.

In reaction to the growing globalization of the Roman Empire, elite corruption, the banality of bread-and-circuses, and the end of the agrarian Italian Republic, the Stoics opted out, choosing instead a reasoned detachment from contemporary life. Some, like the worldly court philosopher Seneca, seemed hypocritical; others, such as the later emperor Marcus Aurelius, lived a double life of imperial engagement and mental detachment.

Classical impassiveness established the foundations for the later monastic Christians, who in more dangerous times increasingly saw the world around them as incompatible with the world to come — and therefore they saw engagement as an impediment to their own Christian belief.

More and more Americans today are becoming Stoic dropouts. They are not illiberal, and certainly not reactionaries, racists, xenophobes, or homophobes. They’re simply exhausted by our frenzied culture.

They don’t like lectures from the privileged and the wealthy on the pitfalls of privilege and wealth. In response, they don’t hike out to monasteries, fall into fetal positions, or write Meditations. Instead, they have checked out mentally from American popular entertainment, sports, and the progressive cultural project in general

But aren’t sports at least still sacrosanct? Hardly.  In this age of pan-politicization, sports, like everything else, is not exempt from wealthy elites’ guilt-ridden obsessions with race, class, and gender agendas…

Earlier in the piece he had this to say about the reaction of some to their loss of power:

There is now something called the “Resistance,” which by its nomenclature poses that its opposition to Trump is reminiscent of European partisan resistance to Hitler: Affluent progressives are now on the barricades to stop another Holocaust? Cities now nullify federal law in the spirit of the Old Confederacy. A federal judge doesn’t enforce federal law because he says he does not like what the president and his associates said in the past, during the campaign. Op-ed writers overseas wait eagerly for the president’s assassination. At CNN, Fareed Zakaria, wrist-slapped for past plagiarism, melts down while screaming of Trump’s “bullsh**.” Madonna says she has “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.”  …

Bad filibusters are now good ones. Vowing to kill, hurt, or remove the president and first family is hip, when it used to be felonious. States’ rights and nullification are now Confederate-cool. Free speech is hate speech. Censorship is a mere trigger warning. Assimilation is cultural appropriation. … When we all wish to be victims, there are too few oppressors to go around.

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