y office in the English department at Northwestern University is in University Hall, an American gothic joke of a building whose architect might have been inspired by Charles Addams, if the building weren’t much older than the cartoonist. Yet I have grown enamored of this absurd pile of limestone, where for the past twelve years I have had an office and done most of my teaching. Located on the second floor, my office overlooks what is known on campus as “the rock.” The rock is a boulder, roughly seven feet high, perhaps six feet in diameter, and a marker and meeting place for undergraduates. Fraternity and sorority pledge classes regularly paint the rock, students set up tables near it to sell T-shirts or yearbooks or campus magazines or to collect for charities. From ten minutes before the hour until the hour is struck, there is fairly heavy traffic near the rock, with students passing on their way to classes or back to their apartments, dormitories, fraternities, and sororities.
Fancying myself old Mr. Chips(tein), sometimes I stand at the window of my office and gaze down upon the students as they congregate around the rock or on the steps of University Hall. I note especially students who have been in my classes, many of whose names, only a year or two later, I have quite forgotten or will soon forget. As I watch them pass, I wonder what plots life has in store for the two upper-middle-class girls from a suburb outside Minneapolis who are in Ralph Lauren duds, or for the punkily dressed theater major who was such an atrocious speller, or for the Chinese pre-med student who did so well in my course in advanced prose composition. I wonder, too, about the future of the students who are members of the campus political organization that is known as InCAR (standing for International Committee Against Racism), who frequent the purlieus of the rock perhaps more than anyone else and are always there on heavy political business: to collect funds for striking coal miners in the north of England, to aid the guerrillas in El Salvador, to crush the guerrillas in Nicaragua, to beseech the university to divest from South Africa, to halt a showing of the film Birth of a Nation, and more, always much more. Like the village idiot hired by the shtetl in which he lived to await by the village gates the coming of the messiah, the students of InCAR appear never to be out of work.
No one would ever accuse the InCAR kids of having flair. Say what you like against the 60’s—and I would say a very great deal against them—the students who took part in the tumult of those years at least appeared hugely to enjoy the Dionysian fringe benefits that went along with their ostensibly Apollonian goals. The pleasure of the 60’s, after all, was in doing exactly what one pleased while appearing at the same time to be doing good. This alluring combination has left many students of the current generation with what I think of as “60’s envy,” or regret at missing a whacking idealistic good time. But the students in InCAR in no way suggest those of the 60’s. In their regression they jump all the way back to the 1930’s, without the excuse of not knowing for certain what Stalin was doing in Russia during those years.
The students who belong to InCAR manage to achieve a grayness, a grimness, a joylessness that almost seems studied. There is a dimness about their dress, a bleakness about their response to the pleasant surroundings in which they live—Northwestern’s is a lush campus set along the shore of Lake Michigan in Evanston, Illinois—that does not seem altogether natural. Whatever the season, winter seems to be in their faces as they stand near the rock, blaring the word through bullhorns or passing out leaflets for one or another of their causes—leaflets written in a tone and style that resemble not so much political argument as a ransom note. A local joke on campus asks, “How many members of InCAR does it take to change a light bulb?” “None,” the answer is, “They don’t change it—they smash it.”
For the students who have joined it—and, undergraduate and graduate students together, they appear to number fewer than thirty—InCAR obviously gives something of the pleasure in collectivity that a fraternity or sorority provides, though much intensified. Among other pleasures, it gives that of being in total and permanent opposition on a campus whose student body is otherwise middle and upper-middle class in tone and feeling. Unlike a fraternity or sorority, InCAR gives its members a complete outlook on life: a way of understanding the world and a language to help explain it. There is also the sense of a “movement,” for InCAR is not restricted to Northwestern University but claims an international membership in the thousands, ranging, or so it says, from coal miners in Kent in England to farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley in California. It is an offshoot—the impolite word is “front”—of the Communist Progressive Labor party, which has been in existence for fifteen years.
But only in the past five or so years has InCAR been a felt presence at Northwestern. A few of its members have wandered into my classes during this time. They tend to be very earnest, rather more passionate than the general run of Northwestern student, sometimes bright but never brilliant. The passion and the brightness, when they exist, come from the infusions of ideology that InCAR has given them. But what they gain on the straightaway they lose on the curve: that same ideology makes InCAR students leaden and mechanistic in their response to literature and ideas. They have minds so coarse no feelings can violate them. They have no notion that what seem to them hot new ideas are clichés pickled in the brine and blood of more than five decades. They write classroom papers with titles like “Sister Carrie as a Commodity” and “Joseph Conrad, Counter-Revolutionary.” They will respond to a point made by a classmate by accusing him of being “imprisoned in bourgeois ideology,” using the phrase as if it were quite as fresh and penetrating as an aphorism discovered in the middle of Proust.
As a writing major at NU, last year I took a course in American poetry which was taught by a certain Prof. X who claimed that Whitman was inherently racist and sexist in his naive representation of democracy, William Carlos Williams was racist in his depiction of individuals content within their socioeconomic positions, and that Dickinson, Frost, and other later New England writers were guilty of adhering to an ultimately “bourgeois” attitude of individualism combined with some sort of belief in religion, an after-life, and a sense of higher purpose: a belief which X considered “the opiate of the masses. . . .” X’s message to aspiring writers was implicit; as writers, our goal should be to search out and criticize each and every fault in our culture. Any desire to affirm any aspect of that culture, we should stifle with our “critical intellects.”
Although these views would seem to be congruent with Prof. Foley’s, I cannot be certain that she is Prof. X, for there have been other professors in the English department in which I teach who might also be pleased to claim the same views. I do not say that such views are dominant at Northwestern, or in the American university at large, but they do nowadays crop up with a fair frequency, and not in English departments alone. I recall three years ago taking two young men, graduating seniors who had been through two of my courses, to lunch, in the middle of which they unfurled a number of straightforwardly Marxist notions about American foreign policy. “Do you guys show slides with these clichés?” I inquired. I also asked where they had acquired such views. It turned out that they had just completed a course in American diplomatic history whose bottom, middle, top, and every other line was that all American foreign policy was a cover for the imperialist ventures of American business interests abroad. These were bright fellows, each of them with a fine sense of humor; one was headed for a career in journalism, the other for the foreign service; and I was disheartened to think that, as they were leaving my university, they were lugging such crude notions along with them.
A difference that never fails to astonish me between undergraduate education now and then—“then” being roughly thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago—is that now university teachers who have strong political views feel no need to suppress them in the name of fairness or disinterestedness or a higher allegiance to the subject being taught. I may have been a political näif when young, but thinking back upon my own undergraduate education I cannot recall the political opinions of any of my teachers. The reason I cannot, I suspect, is that they kept their politics to themselves. Their politics were nobody’s business but their own, and, while they were in the classroom or lecture hall, not even their own.
Colleagues do not make judgments about a fellow teacher’s teaching. Instead, under the new dispensation, students do.Academic freedom, which earlier generations of professors had struggled to obtain, was about the right to hold any political views one wished outside the classroom. One of the most common meanings of academic freedom, in the words of Edward Shils, “refers to the freedom of university—and college—teachers to enjoy the freedom of speech and action that other citizens are constitutionally, legally, and conventionally empowered to exercise.” But that meaning has in recent decades been extended to include the right to teach one’s political views as part of the subject matter of one’s courses. Not only is it considered a right, but, in many quarters it is thought a fine thing. Thus university academic departments nowadays seek out feminists, Marxists, and others in whom the political impulse runs stronger than any other, to teach their bias—and to do so in the name of intellectual diversity. If a strong English-department chairman were today to learn about the teaching of Prof. X, quoted above, and tried to tell him or her to knock it off in the name of a higher seriousness, that chairman would no doubt be accused of interfering with Prof. X’s academic freedom.
In the old days one can imagine a strong English-department chairman, in the approved English-professor manner, taking Prof. X aside to say, “Look here, X, do be a good fellow and forget that rot about the bourgeois attitudes of the New England writers I understand you are teaching. Publish it if you like—that is your business. But our business, as teachers, is sticking to the text.” If Prof. X were tenured, the request would be a friendly one; if he were not yet tenured, the request would no doubt be more insistent. Today, however, our chairman would be accused, at a minimum, of McCarthyism, fascism, and troglo-dyticism. The American Association of University Professors might be called in. An article might appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Litigation might be set in motion. But, not to worry, no chairman is likely to suggest that Prof. X knock it off. It just isn’t done.
It isn’t done—not at least at large universities mindful of their prestige—because a college teacher’s classroom has become his castle, and he is free to do there as he pleases. Colleagues do not make judgments about a fellow teacher’s teaching. Instead, under the new dispensation, students do. Students always have done so, of course, but whereas earlier they did so informally, now, through something called evaluation forms, they do so formally. On the final days of a class, with perhaps ten or twenty minutes remaining, a professor passes out evaluation forms on which students remark on the strengths and deficiencies of his course. In cases where a professor is coming up for tenure, these evaluations are considered by his colleagues with some care. Tenured faculty, in these instances, do not directly judge the teacher; they judge the students’ judgments, which is not quite the same thing.
Not that judging teaching is easy. As everyone who has been to college knows, a popular teacher can be inefficient and a dull teacher can sometimes leave a lasting impress. What seems exciting in one’s youth, ten years later seems facile, if not silly. Teaching, especially teaching the large, so-called soft subjects in the humanities, where mastery of specific problems is not the chief business at hand, but asking the right questions is, is a subtle art. Student evaluations of one’s own teaching do not help. These evaluations can capture real delinquency, citing a professor’s many absences or his obvious unpreparedness. But beyond that, in the realm where useful distinctions might be made, they leave everything to be desired. Evaluations of my own teaching tend to be quite positive, and my teaching is almost always held to be—most ambiguous of words—“interesting.” But how much gets through, how long it will remain, I haven’t the least idea, and my guess is that neither does any other teacher. The most touching student evaluation I have ever received noted: “I did well in his course because I would have been ashamed not to do well for him.” But of the content of what I teach, and of the quality of thought that goes into this content—nothing. Undergraduate students can hardly be expected to be fit to judge this, and by and large they do not.
Barbara Foley, too, is thought to be an “interesting” teacher, some say an “exciting” teacher, some say the best teacher they have had at Northwestern. A small percentage of students—perhaps 10 percent—say that they are put off by what they term her “ideology.” About this ideology she is apparently, as they say today, “up front.” She makes clear her political point of view and then teaches it. A bit of a Jenny One-Note, Prof. Foley teaches courses that feature the political; their titles have included “Race and Racial Attitudes in American Literature,” “The Radical Tradition in American Literature,” “Proletarian Writers of the 1930’s,” and “The American Dream: Myth or Reality?” (anyone out there who cares to bet that the dream is a reality, please get in touch with me immediately). These courses, I have gathered from talking to students who have taken them and have since graduated, offer strong Marxistical readings of American books, with occasional eye-opening insights such as that, one of my former students recalls, Mark Twain was a “liberal racist.” You don’t have to believe Prof. Foley, you don’t have to swallow her line to do well in her courses, but it is, evidently, no easy chore to buck her directly. Still, the vast majority of her students, according to student evaluations, walk away satisfied customers.
In the scuttlebutt way one picks up on these things, one hears occasional murmurs of reaction against the heavy dosage of politics in Prof. Foley’s political teaching. A student who adored Emily Dickinson was greatly unsettled by Prof. Foley’s announcement that Emily Dickinson had rendered herself permanently minor by ignoring the political subject in her work. In another case, a young black student, who had been in two of my courses, dropped in one morning to ask if I thought that he, an undergraduate, was intellectually prepared to take a graduate-level course taught by Barbara Foley. I replied that I thought if he took special pains he was indeed up to it. “There’s only one thing I worry about, then,” he said. When I asked what that was, he replied, “The word is out that Prof. Foley gives almost all black students A’s. I really wouldn’t want to get an A that way.” Was this true? Was Barbara Foley practicing in her own classroom the redistributive justice she longed for in the world? Short of checking all her students’ grades for the six years she has taught at Northwestern, there is no way of knowing. It is interesting, though, that this is the word among black students.
Something that no one in the English department at Northwestern has had the ill manners to talk about is whether Prof. Foley uses her classroom to recruit members for InCAR. In a brief profile in the Daily Northwestern of an undergraduate InCAR member named Becki Huntman, the walls of whose rooms are festooned with pictures of Lenin, Stalin, Malcolm X, and Friedrich Engels, Miss Huntman is quoted as saying that she first learned of InCAR and Communist ideology during her sophomore year in a “Marxism in Literature” course taught by Prof. Foley. “It was the first class,” Miss Huntman added, “where things made sense.” I asked a former student of mine, who had taken one of Barbara Foley’s courses, if the subject of InCAR ever came up in class. She replied that sometimes, toward the close of a class, Prof. Foley would pass out an announcement of an InCAR meeting, where, she would say, some of the things that had been discussed in class would be talked about in greater detail. Often, too, my former student said, InCAR members would be waiting at the beginning of a class outside the door with petitions to sign or leaflets to hand out. Once, when my former student called on Prof. Foley to discuss a forthcoming classroom paper, she found her extremely helpful, but on the way out Prof. Foley attempted to sell her the current issue of the Progressive Labor party newspaper. “Did you buy it?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Was Prof. Foley angry that you didn’t?” “Not at all,” she said. “I guess she figured it was worth a try.”
Something else that no one at Northwestern talks about is Barbara Foley’s exact relationship with InCAR. The group is made up of students, but she is a professor. During the student tumult of the late 60’s and early 70’s there was many a professor who was in entire sympathy with groups such as Students for a Democratic Society, but were there any professors, above the level of graduate-student instructors, who were also members of student organizations? Such groups have generally had faculty advisers, but Prof. Foley’s role in InCAR goes far beyond the advisory. If there is an InCAR picket, she is on the line; she puts in her time with the bullhorn; she works the rock. There is nothing of the standard dilettante, BMW-owning, Marxoid, let-the-kids-do-all-the-dirty-work contemporary radical university professor about Barbara Foley. The movement is neither an amusement nor an avocation for her. It is of her blood and bone; she is wedded to it; it is her life. Not many people at Northwestern seem to want to talk about this, either.
In fact, Barbara Foley probably would never have been a subject of more than ordinary interest—her type, after all, is scarcely original—but for an incident that took place on the Northwestern campus on the evening of April 13, 1985, an incident that has come to be known locally as the Calero Event. On that night Adolfo Calero, then the commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces (FDN), the largest group of contras, as the guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua are known, was to speak at Northwestern under the auspices of two university organizations, the Conservative Council and the International Policy Forum. The Reagan administration’s campaign to increase American support for the contras was already well under way, and one assumes that Adolfo Calero was to speak at Northwestern, as he would at other universities, to make the case for this policy.
One has to assume this, for in fact Calero never got to speak. His talk was scheduled for 7:00 P.M. and was open to the university community and to the public free of charge. Well before the talk, however, protesters from at least five different left-wing organizations—four from around the city of Chicago and InCAR from Northwestern—ranged themselves around Harris Hall, the place of the scheduled talk, some carrying pickets and shouting and chanting against Calero and the contras. In the room in Harris Hall in which the Calero talk was to be given—a room that accommodates roughly 300 people—some ten or fifteen minutes before Adolfo Calero was to appear, Barbara Foley walked up to the podium and began to speak. (The day before, she had discussed the forthcoming Calero talk in her English class and urged her students to attend.) She identified herself as a member of the International Committee Against Racism, and then announced, in the words of an ad-hoc panel document,1 that “this was the first fascist rally on campus in some time, she suspected more were being planned and they should be stopped.” She said that “Adolfo Calero was a monster who would be attempting to speak about freedom, democracy, and liberty. By that he meant the right to reappropriate his Nicaraguan business holdings”; that “Calero had the blood of thousands on his hands and no respect for the rights to life and free speech of the people he helped slaughter with the CIA’s help”; that “He had no right to speak that night” and—the following are Prof. Foley’s words—“We are not going to let him speak,” and he “should feel lucky to get out of [Harris Hall] alive.” She went on in this vein for two or three minutes. Other people followed her to the podium to offer their opinions.
When Adolfo Calero arrived there was a great deal of chanting and shouting in opposition to his presence. His talk was delayed some ten or fifteen minutes. Before he could begin someone—not Barbara Foley—rushed to the stage and threw a red liquid at him. This liquid had been variously described as paint and as animal blood. At this point, with a good deal of shouting in the hall, Adolfo Calero, his suit coat bespattered with the red liquid, was led from the hall by security men and did not speak that evening. Barbara Foley acknowledges joining in the chanting during the tumult. A witness claims that she also shouted that “the only way to get anything done would be to kill him [Calero],” though she and another witness, a graduate student who is also a member of InCAR, deny that she said this. In any case, what is apparently technically known as “a shout-down”—though the throwing of the red liquid went well beyond shouting—was successful. It was not a memorable night for “dialogue” at Northwestern University.
The Calero Event took place on a Saturday evening. The following Monday a photograph of the bespattered Adolfo Calero along with an account of the incidents surrounding the event appeared in the Daily Northwestern. The account quoted Barbara Foley as having said, “He has no right to speak here tonight and we are not going to let him. He should feel lucky to get out alive.” (This quotation would come up again and again.) The account also mentioned that protesters later gathered outside the apartment at which Calero was staying, threatening violence, and had to be removed by police. Prof. Foley claimed that InCAR was not responsible for what had happened but that she did not regret that it happened. (She would never express regret, let alone offer apology, throughout the months that followed; nor has she done so since. But more about this presently.) She was also quoted as saying, “I think it’s terrific that people saw the fascists.”
Soon thereafter Arnold Weber, in his first year as president of Northwestern University, issued a strong but quite general statement about the impermissibility of any person or group invading the rights of students or faculty by disrupting regularly scheduled university events. Weber had previously been president of the University of Colorado and still earlier had worked for George Shultz at the Office of Management and Budget, but, apart from having a reputation as a strong and capable administrator, his general views or politics were not known. But a stronger and more specific statement came from the university provost, a man named W. Raymond Mack, a sociologist by training and, by all accounts, a liberal in politics. As a liberal should, Mack was said to be outraged by this violation of free speech and academic freedom, and, by way of a press release, he let it be known that he intended to propose that Barbara Foley be suspended for two academic quarters, and suspended without pay. Provost Mack also felt that the tenure procedure on Prof. Foley, which was to begin the following autumn, ought to be delayed for a full year.
Like Provost Mack, the majority of the faculty at Northwestern’s College of Arts and Sciences are also generally liberal in their political views, with a sprinkling of Marxists and conservatives popping up here and there in various departments. But if most members of the faculty were outraged by the incidents connected with the Calero Event, they managed to keep it to themselves. When the autumn 1985 term began, such organizing efforts as were in evidence were on behalf of Barbara Foley. InCAR was firing up the Xerox machine with handouts headed “Foley Tenure Case Shows Need to Shed Liberal Illusions,” pointing out that Northwestern University was clearly going the way of Nazi Germany. A group of faculty members in the English department wrote a lecture to Provost Mack on the subject of “due process” that ran as a full-page ad in the Daily Northwestern, signed by more than eighty members of the faculty. One would hear a good deal about “due process” in the days ahead. Except from the InCAR students, one would not hear much more about fascism and Nazi Germany. Liberals at a place like Northwestern are not so crude; they prefer instead to talk about “McCarthyism.” One would also hear a great many sentences that began, “Of course I find Barbara Foley’s views abhorrent, but. . . .” But, yet, still, and however. “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onward,” wrote George Orwell, “is that they have wanted to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian.”
I found the ad-hoc panel impressive in its competence. As befits professors, its members had done their homework. Relevant documents had been exchanged between contending parties; the ground rules and procedures were clearly laid out. The chairwoman made plain that if there were any demonstrations or disruptions, she would clear the auditorium. The hearing was conducted with a certain gravity of spirit that was entirely appropriate to the business at hand. The business at hand was serious business—a young woman’s career could ride on the outcome.
Before responding to the specific charges, Barbara Foley made a general opening statement. The political speech is a form with which she is at ease. To make a longish speech short, she said that subjecting her to these charges at all was farcical, and the charges showed that the administration at Northwestern University, in its accusations against her, was really aligned with the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America. (I have to admit that this connection had not occurred to me.) After this statement, Barbara Foley’s lawyer began calling witnesses. The first among them was a graduate student on whose dissertation committee Barbara Foley sat. A small and extremely tidy young woman, she shocked—at least she shocked me—with the quiet violence of her views. To her it was perfectly obvious that Adolfo Calero, being evil, had no right to speak, and she had no qualms either about the red liquid that was thrown at him. Others of Prof. Foley’s students, graduate and undergraduate, agreed that Calero had been treated as he deserved and that shouting him down was a perfectly appropriate response to such a man. Allowing such witnesses to speak on Barbara Foley’s behalf seemed to me a very foolish tack for her lawyer to take; the best defense can surely never be a bad offense.
As a university teacher, I am not sure I should wish to be judged by what my students thought they had learned from me. But in Barbara Foley’s case, there was no question that her students had got it right; their views, at any rate, were perfectly congruent with her own on the subjects of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and political discussion: to those deemed enemies, none is permitted. While Prof. Foley was not being judged by the ad-hoc panel as a teacher, the sad show her students put on could not have helped her cause. The open hearing, too, made it impossible for Barbara Foley to express the least contrition for what she had done, assuming that she felt any or even wished to fake some. The best that could be got from her with her InCAR crowd in the audience was that—I am quoting again from the UFRPTDAP document cited earlier—“although she did not agree with a judgment that condemns her behavior, she would live within the limits prescribed and would not repeat the prescribed conduct. She acknowledged that were she to repeat it, she would do so knowingly and at full risk.”
At the intermission of the first session of the ad-hoc panel hearing, I ran into a friend who is also a member of the English department at Northwestern. He looked very glum, not to say downright depressed. He told me that he was soon likely to lose the allegiance of some of his best graduate students, who were adamantly in Barbara Foley’s camp. “After what I have just heard in that room,” he said, referring to the ad-hoc panel proceedings, “there is no way I can ever hope to support Barbara.” As things turned out, he, along with the majority of the faculty, would find a way.
It was not until January of 1986 that the UFRPTDAP ad-hoc panel delivered its report and recommendation on the Foley case. The report has a somewhat pompous tone, possibly owing to the panel members’ repeated insistence on the scrupulosity of their procedures and bases for judgment. As for the judgment itself, it went crushingly against Barbara Foley, sustaining eight of the administration’s eleven charges against her. I quote from the summary of the panel’s findings on the charges:
The ad-hoc panel finds that Professor Foley’s conduct on the evening of April 13, 1985, was violative of the speaker’s rights to speak and be heard and of the audience’s right to hear, and consequently constitutes “grave professional misconduct” as charged. We believe that the conduct was violative of academic freedom, a widely accepted principle essential to the central purpose of a university. We believe that the charges sustained describe conduct which is inimical to an atmosphere of open inquiry, antithetical to the principles of free speech, and unacceptable in a university community.
That Barbara Foley was up for tenure the same year in which she was in effect tried for violations of academic freedom was a circumstance not without its ironies—for tenure, at its inception, was meant to protect the academic freedom of university teachers. Far from being the job-security arrangement it has since become, tenure began as a means of ensuring the rights of professors or citizens outside the university. Thus a university teacher might vote or speak or even organize on behalf of, say, labor unions and, with tenure, need not fear the retaliation of anti-labor men on his school’s board of trustees. Academic freedom also ensured that a teacher would be able to pursue lines of scholarly or scientific inquiry that his colleagues or even the community might think odd or heretical. But academic freedom always carried certain responsibilities. Most obviously, it never included the freedom to abrogate someone else’s freedom. It never included the freedom to turn the classroom into a political pulpit or guerrilla theater. It never included using the job of teacher to propagandize for political or religious conversions. The guardians of academic freedom were to be, precisely, its beneficiaries, the professors themselves, who might be expected to guard it jealously, at least if they knew what was good for their own interests.
Nowadays tenure is awarded, traditionally, after a young professor has been at an institution for two three-year terms, and on three bases: scholarship, teaching, and academic citizenship. The emphases laid on teaching and scholarship can differ from institution to institution. At some smaller colleges a teacher’s publishing record may be of negligible import next to his performance in the classroom. At larger universities, especially those concerned about their prestige as research institutions, no publication, or insufficient publication, means no tenure. Although one hears the phrase less frequently now than formerly, “publish or perish” is still very much the rule at most larger universities.
The third basis for tenure, academic citizenship, is one that always has to be considered but is only in exceptional cases emphasized. It is a judgment, at least in part, of character; it is also a judgment about willingness to conform to the rules, explicit and implicit, that govern institutions of higher learning. If a young teacher shows himself irresponsible in his committee assignments, if he misses classes owing to drunkenness, if he seduces his young students, if he shows no regard for the fundamental beliefs of the institution, he could, theoretically, be faulted on academic citizenship and hence denied tenure. (With tenure, it occurs to me to add, the same teacher could today do any of the things mentioned in the previous sentence and probably keep his job.) Owing either to the widened tolerance for human misbehavior or to the lapse in standards of deportment on the part of professors, the category of academic citizenship is invoked in tenure decisions only in exceptional cases. Would Barbara Foley’s be such a case?
Although I have been teaching in the English department at Northwestern University since 1974, I continue to do so, largely by choice, without tenure. Since only members of the department who already have tenure are permitted to vote on tenure decisions, I did not attend the meeting at which the decision about Barbara Foley’s tenure was made. On the other hand, had I been at that meeting, I should have been bound by confidentiality not to speak about it. What I know about this meeting, therefore, I know from things that have leaked out and from surmise. It quickly leaked out, for example, that the English department’s vote was ten to five (with one member abstaining) in favor of recommending Prof. Foley for tenure. As such recommendations go, this was not a strong one; it is more usual for a candidate for tenure to get a unanimous recommendation, or one with only one or two votes of dissent.
It also transpired that, during the tenure vote, discussions of Prof. Foley’s politics were ruled out of order. Whether she was pushing a clear and hard political line in her classes, whether it was appropriate for a member of the faculty to be a major figure in a radical student organization, whether the teaching of literature was a proper occasion for attacking what Prof. Foley deemed the rampant racism and brutalities of capitalism in American life—all this, apparently, was proscribed from discussion, lest politics be thought to determine a decision that ought to be made exclusively on grounds of scholarship and pedagogy. As for Prof. Foley’s behavior during the Calero Event, this, too, was apparently ruled out of bounds for discussion.
If one is not permitted to talk about the politics of so thoroughly political a woman as Barbara Foley, and forbidden to talk not only about her political views but (much more important) about her on-campus political activities, not much is left to talk about. There were the students’ evaluations of her teaching, and these, as mentioned earlier, were vastly approving. There was her scholarship, as a teacher’s publishing record is now conventionally called, and here she had clearly published in sufficient quantity to guard against her perishing: along with a fairly thick sheaf of reviews and articles in academic journals, she had a book on the documentary novel about to appear from Cornell Uni-veristy Press. Was Prof. Foley’s academic citizenship discussed? I do not know, though afterward, in defense of the English department’s decision, its chairman would say that he knew no better citizen of the English department than Barbara Foley. By this he meant that she was a willing and helpful member of department committees, attended meetings and other departmental events, was reliable in performing intramural house- and record-keeping functions. There is no reason to doubt his word on this, but his remains an astonishingly narrow view of academic citizenship. The vote, to repeat, was ten to five in favor of recommending tenure.
To plunge a bit further into the forest of surmise, what was in the minds of the ten faculty members who voted in favor of recommending Barbara Foley for tenure? None is a Marxist, though some have been known to mutter the cliché that “Marxism remains an indispensable tool of literary analysis.” (Odd that the best literary critics have, without much difficulty, been able to dispense with it.) Some may have felt themselves crippled by the ground rules of the discussion. Almost all of them have said to me, singly, at one time or another, that “I find Barbara’s views abhorrent, but . . . still . . . yet . . . however. . . .” But some find her abhorrent views useful for giving students a wide diversity of opinion. Still, some like her personally and say that in private she can be a charming woman. Yet some feel they have no right to claim that their own views are superior to the next person’s, though I have never encountered anyone who finds his own views abhorrent. However, some feel that to censure even views and actions they find abhorrent is to be guilty of, yes, McCarthyism.
The reliable Marxist gang is also there: Christopher Caudwell, Lucien Goldmann, Georg Lukács, and Louis Althusser. When either Marx or Lenin is quoted, he is given scriptural authority.It is, of course, also possible that many members of the Northwestern English department were greatly impressed by Prof. Foley’s scholarship, so greatly impressed that denying tenure to so considerable a scholar would have seemed grievously wrong (especially since there are now members of the English department who were given tenure before they even published a book). “Scholarship, scholarship, scholarship,” said the chairman of the English department on another occasion in defending his department’s decision on tenure, “that is what wins tenure at a place like Northwestern.”
I fear that “scholarship” has in academic circles become one of those words that no longer means what it once did; “research” is another. Where scholarship once stood for the kind of work done by people like E. H. Gombrich, Arnaldo Momi-gliano, and Frances A. Yates, it now merely means published work. In this rather less impressive conception of scholarship, Prof. Foley had committed her share, and I decided to have a closer look at it (which, I believe, is called “research”).
Reading Prof. Foley’s book, Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction,2 I recalled that one of her graduate students, while defending her conduct during the Calero Event, remarked that she admired Prof. Foley’s expertise in “social awareness literature” and added that Prof. Foley was at the forefront of “the theoretical debate that is shaping literature.” There is something in what this graduate student said. In her book Prof. Foley sets out to demonstrate that she is very much au courant with the new literary theory but is not about to let it swamp the larger questions of social awareness that, when one gets right down to it, no one has posed with greater clarity, penetration, and wisdom than Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Part of the difficulty with Telling the Truth is that one does not get right down to it very quickly. Its first 103 pages are given over to the new literary theory gradually becoming regnant in English graduate studies. Devotees of this theory will find many old friends cited in her pages: Foucault, Bakhtin, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan. The reliable Marxist gang is also there: Christopher Caudwell, Lucien Goldmann, Georg Lukács, and Louis Althusser. When either Marx or Lenin is quoted, he is given scriptural authority. The highest new jargonese is everywhere employed. The prose is consequently very dense. Few actual works of literature are cited in this first part of the book. Instead something called “the text” is continually mentioned; also such barbed-wire words as “intertextuality” and “extra-textuality.” Nonprofessionals will find it all very hard, almost impenetrable, going. Reading the first part of Prof. Foley’s book I was reminded of Robert Frost’s remark that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down; perhaps the best way to describe the new critical theory is to say that it is like playing ping-pong without the ball.
But the real purpose of the dense theoretical discussion of the first part of Telling the Truth is to make the point that the new literary theory cannot finally supplant that old indispensable tool of literary analysis, standard Marxism. In the second part of her book Prof. Foley puts a ball in play and discusses actual works in the genre she rather loosely defines as the documentary novel. “Contextualization,” “hypostatization,” “re-concretization of the referent,” “fictionality”—the lyrics may be different but the melody is the traditional Marxist one. For, as long as we are telling the truth, the only documentary fiction Prof. Foley appears to approve is that which confronts the class struggle and the alienation she believes is the inevitable result of capitalism as part of an “oppositional program.” Or, to put it in the not uncharacteristic prose style of Telling the Truth: “Though some writers manage to make use of modernist defamiliarization as a powerful tool in the critique of reification, most accede to the thoroughgoing fetishization of social relations that characterizes what Lukács called the ‘problem of commodities’ in the early 20th century.”
That, patently, is not entertainment, but is it scholarship? Evidently, to judge by English-studies standards of the day, and by the subsequent career of Prof. Foley’s tenure recommendation, it is indeed. Once such a recommendation leaves an academic department, its approval is far from certain. Not many years back the recommendation for tenure of an extremely popular teacher of philosophy was shot down at the level of the dean’s office, presumably because the teacher’s published work was felt by the dean not to have enough intellectual weight. But the recommendation for Prof. Foley sailed on through—from the university’s ad-hoc tenure committee, thence to the College of Arts and Sciences Promotion and Tenure Committee, and thence to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences—everywhere endorsed, and reputed to have been strongly endorsed. It was reported that where usually somewhere between eight and twelve outside readers are called in for judgment upon a tenure decision, in Prof. Foley’s instance there were between thirty-five and thirty-eight outside readers, and these endorsed her tenure overwhelmingly (a fact that by itself says a great deal about the fallen standards of English studies in recent years). Case, one would have thought, closed.
Not quite, as it turned out. On May 21, 1986, Barbara Foley received a letter from the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences whose first sentence read: “I must inform you that the Provost did not approve the recommendation to promote you to the rank of associate professor with tenure.” The brief letter went on to say that she would be given a final year of employment as an assistant professor. Attached was a copy of Provost W. Raymond Mack’s letter rejecting the appointment. In his letter the provost cited the fact that Prof. Foley “failed to receive a majority vote from her tenured colleagues in the department of English who had recommended her retention.” (There are twenty-one members of the department with tenure, and five had missed the meeting.) But, obviously, a more significant item for the provost—and, clearly, for President Arnold Weber for whom he was also speaking—was Barbara Foley’s behavior during the Calero Event:
Professor Foley’s record includes the fact that the administration of Northwestern University last year charged her with grave professional misconduct, in that she violated widely accepted principles of academic freedom and responsibility including those stated in the Northwestern University Faculty Handbook (p. 1). She asked for, and received, an open hearing on these charges before an ad-hoc panel of the elected faculty appeals committee.
The provost then quoted from the summary section of the ad-hoc panel’s report, and ended by saying that he agreed with that summary. “I support the finding of the university faculty panel that her conduct is ‘unacceptable in a university community.’ I therefore have decided against offering her further appointment as a member of the Northwestern University faculty.”
The faculty reaction to the administration’s rejection of tenure for Barbara Foley was much stronger than its reaction to the Calero Event. The coolest reaction was perhaps Prof. Foley’s own. Despite the cliché nature of her revolutionary rhetoric, she is no fool and far from being an unsavvy politician. She immediately sent around Xerox copies of the letter from the dean to her and the provost’s letter to the dean, and she was quoted the following day in the university newspaper as saying that rejection of her tenure was “clearly a political attack that revealed nakedly the actual nature of power relations in the university,” adding that the administration, not the faculty, is assuming control of “the academic business of the university.”
Most professors at Northwestern tend to be essentially in business for themselves. They teach, they publish, they apply for grants, they go to their mailboxes ever hopeful that they will have a job offer from Stanford or Michigan, or—O my God, can it be?—Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Not much in the life of the university community outside their own interests arouses them. But the Foley case did. Of course they almost all found her views “abhorrent,” but still, yet, and however she was one of them, a professor, and the administration was still the administration, a historic enemy. A new issue, then, had arisen, and it went by the name of faculty governance. True, there was nothing illegal about the provost’s action. The provost of the university is supposed to review all tenure decisions and under an active provost these reviews are never perfunctory. Still, in overruling the findings of the various faculty committees in the Foley case, wasn’t the administration undercutting the faculty’s own power? After putting the faculty through the entire rigmarole of tenure review for Barbara Foley, then rejecting its findings, wasn’t the administration acting in bad faith?
Although it was near the end of term, with papers to grade and examinations to give, a flurry of meetings was called. A group of graduate students organized themselves into the Graduate Committee in Support of Barbara Foley. The graduate students and the faculty in the English department met to vote on a resolution first “demanding,” then (in quieter language) “urging” the president of the university to reverse the provost’s decision in the Foley case. Voted on solely by the English faculty in secret ballot, the resolution passed 17 to 2. (Whose was the other dissenting vote, I wondered.) Letters with lengthy lists of signatories explaining faculty governance were sent off to the metropolitan Chicago press in answer to editorials congratulating the administration for taking a strong stand on academic freedom in the Foley case. To add an Orwellian touch of doublethink, small posters began to appear on the walls of university buildings and in classrooms: “Support Diversity of Opinion, Back Foley!” and “Retain Civil Liberties, Keep Foley!”
Just before final-examination week, on May 28, a rally in support of Barbara Foley was held at what was described in a hand-out as the “Mandela/ Crown Center.” (The true name of the place is Rebecca Crown Center, the location of the university’s administration offices, donated by the Henry Crown family.) It was, literally, a banner day. A podium was set up before a pink banner with black lettering carrying InCAR’s initials. “Support Foley” banners were rife. A student carried a banner reading, “Fire Mack, Support Foley!” Four or five people came up to me with various petitions to sign. A faculty member wanted me to sign a petition urging the president to understand he was undermining faculty governance. She let me know—here was an original thought—that she found Barbara Foley’s views abhorrent, but a larger issue was at stake. I told her that I didn’t find Barbara Foley’s views abhorrent, merely crude and preposterous; what I found abhorrent was what she had done and her refusal to offer anything approaching an apology for it.
Meanwhile, everyone except those doing the talking was growing logy with boredom. Nearly two hours had passed. What we were all waiting for, of course, was for Barbara Foley to speak. At last she came to the microphone. There were perhaps a hundred and fifty people gathered. She was greeted by strong applause. For the most part, she spoke in pure clichés: about the administration’s political motives in rejecting her for tenure, about its desecration of the principle of faculty governance, about the splendid work of InCAR around the country, about the evil of the contras whom she accused of torturing women and cutting off their breasts. Toward the close of her speech, she said, “When I got up on the stage in Harris 107, I had no idea all this would happen, but I have no regrets,” and then she added, though I did not catch her exact words, that her only regret was that there hadn’t been other faculty members with her on that night.
“You have to admit,” Prof. Foley’s friends say, “that Barbara has guts.” I admit it. She also has a goofy kind of integrity. She calls herself a Marxist-Leninist, but the truth is that she is a poor Leninist indeed. A real Leninist would have apologized at some point—and I myself have little doubt that an apology would have made it very difficult for the provost to do what he did without seeming heartless—and then, in good Leninist fashion, would have gone on with whatever he thought would further the interests of the revolution. It may be that Barbara Foley cannot apologize even to the point of allowing that perhaps she went a bit far on the night of the Calero Event, lest she lose face among the students she has been revving up with her rhetoric over the past several years. My own suspicion is that she feels she has nothing for which to apologize. She is not in the least a phony. I think she is a real revolutionary, at least psychologically, and that, now headed toward forty years of age, she is probably in for the duration. As I walked away from the rally, I recalled that it was not her beloved Marx but Nietzsche who said that every idea has its autobiography, and I wondered what it was in Barbara Foley’s own autobiography that had put the dark and fiery idea of revolution in her head, probably never to be dislodged within her lifetime.
There was to be one more meeting on the Foley case before, so to speak, school was out. With what I am quite certain was unconscious symbolism, the meeting of the College of Arts and Sciences faculty was held in Harris Hall in the same room where Adolfo Calero had been attacked and denied his right to speak. After the reading of various documents by the chairman of the Committee on Promotion and Tenure, the first speaker, a youngish man with a Russian accent, announced that Prof. Foley had outraged any serious conception anyone could possibly hold of the responsibilities of academic citizenship. His accent, which told that he had firsthand experience of totalitarianism and thus cherished freedom all the more, seemed to make little impression on his fellow teachers; another professor quickly rose to say that there was no way to gauge citizenship in a university. Another professor, a teacher of political science, spoke strongly against Prof. Foley’s violation of free speech, and said that by this act she had disqualified herself as a member in good standing of the academic community. A few others rose to say that they did not have enough facts to make a careful judgment on the case.
But the reigning feeling in the room was overwhelmingly, if not pro-Foley, at least anti-administration. Much of the behavior I have come to think of as virtucratic was on display: people rising to speak chiefly to show that their hearts were in the right place. Not everyone apparently found Prof. Foley’s views and actions abhorrent. A man in what I took to be a Swiss-German accent spoke against the conlras, and ended by asserting that what Prof. Foley had done was courageous and correct. A left-wing sociologist chipped in with, “I’m sympathetic to speech acts against Mr. Calero.” An economist who had served on the Council of Economic Advisers under Jimmy Carter allowed that he found Prof. Foley’s views abhorrent, but felt she nevertheless deserved another chance; if she were to do something similar in the future, she should then be stripped of her tenure. A man in a page-boy hairdo and a mustache who looked like a minor character in Shakespeare (“poor Yorick,” perhaps) reminded the meeting that Barbara Foley had not been found guilty of a shout-down but of “inciting to a shout-down,” though the force of his distinction, of which he seemed rather proud, was lost on the audience. Another sociologist said that he wanted to hear nothing further about Prof. Foley’s moral conduct, for surely everyone knew that “the morals of professors are lower than that of a snake.” This remark was met with snickering laughter—a roomful of professors took it sitting down. Finally, a resolution was offered to the effect that the Promotion and Tenure Committee write a strong letter to the administration protesting its rejection of Barbara Foley’s tenure as a violation of the principle of faculty governance. It passed by a vast majority.
1 I was not at Harris Hall on the night of April 13. My account of the events of that evening derives solely from a document entitled “Decision, Ad Hoc Panel of UFRPTDAP, Northwestern University, In the Matter of Professor Barbara Foley.” Both Prof. Foley’s lawyer and the lawyer for the provost of Northwestern agreed to and signed a “Stipulation of Facts” about that evening. It is from the ad-hoc panel’s presentation of those agreed-upon facts that I have drawn.
2 Cornell University Press, 273 pp., $24.95.
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A Case of Academic Freedom
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An idea whose time will come.
When President Donald Trump first floated the idea of creating an entirely new branch of the United States armed forces dedicated to space-based operations in March, the response from lay political observers was limited to bemused snickering. That mockery and amusement have not abated in the intervening months. Thursday’s announcement by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, that the administration plans to establish a sixth armed forces branch by 2020, occasioned only more displays of cynicism, but it shouldn’t have. This is deadly serious stuff. The expansion and consolidation of America’s capacities to defend its interests outside the atmosphere is inevitable and desirable.
Though you would not know it from those who spent the day chuckling to themselves over the prospect of an American space command, the militarization of this strategically vital region is decades old. Thousands of both civilian and military communications and navigations satellites operate in earth orbit, to say nothing of the occasional human. It’s impossible to say how many weapons are already stationed in orbit because many of these platforms are “dual use,” meaning that they could be transformed into kill vehicles at a moment’s notice.
American military planners have been preoccupied with the preservation of critical U.S. communications infrastructure in space since at least 2007, when China stunned observers by launching a missile that intercepted and destroyed a satellite, creating thousands of pieces of debris hurtling around the earth at speeds faster than any bullet.
America’s chief strategic competitors—Russia and China—and rogue actors like Iran and North Korea are all committed to developing the capability to target America’s command-and-control infrastructure, a lot of which is space-based. Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified in 2017 that both Moscow and Beijing are “considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine” and are developing the requisite anti-satellite technology—despite their false public commitments to the “nonweaponization of space and ‘no first placement’ of weapons in space.”
Those who oppose the creation of a space branch object on a variety of grounds, some of them merit more attention than others. The contention that a sixth military branch is a redundant waste of taxpayer money, for example, is a more salient than cynical claims that Trump is interested only in a glory project.
“I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions,” Sec. Mattis wrote in October of last year. That’s a perfectly sound argument against excessive bureaucratization and profligacy, but it is silent on the necessity of a space command. Both the Pentagon and the National Security Council are behind the creation of a “U.S. Space Command” in lieu of the congressional action required to establish a new branch of the armed forces dedicated to space-based operations.
As for bureaucratic sprawl, in 2015, the diffusion of space-related experts and capabilities across the armed services led the Air Force to create a single space advisor to coordinate those capabilities for the Defense Department. But that patch did not resolve the problems and, in 2017, Congress’s General Accountability Office recommended investigating the creation of a single branch dedicated to space for the purposes of consolidation.
It is true that the existing branches maintain capabilities that extend into space, which would superficially make a Space Force seem redundant. But American air power was once the province of the U.S. Army and Navy, and bureaucratic elements within these two branches opposed the creation of a U.S. Air Force in 1947. The importance of air power in World War II and the likelihood that aircraft would be a critical feature of future warfighting convinced policymakers that a unified command of operations was critical to effective warfighting. Moreover, both Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman believed that creating a separate branch for airpower ensured that Congress would be less likely to underfund the vital enterprise.
The final argument against the militarization of space is a rehash of themes from the Cold War. Low earth orbit, like the seafloor and the Antarctic, is part of the “global commons,” and should not be militarized on principle. This was the Soviet position, and Moscow’s fellow travelers in the West regularly echoed it. But the argument is simply not compelling.
The Soviets insisted that the militarization of space was provocative and undesirable, but mostly because they lacked the capability to weaponize space. The Soviets regularly argued that any technology it could not match was a first-strike weapon. That’s why they argued vigorously against deploying missile interceptors but voiced fewer objections to ground-based laser technology. As for the “global commons,” that’s just what we call the places where humans do not operate for extended periods of time and where resource extraction is cost prohibitive. The more viable the exploration of these hostile environments becomes, the less “common” we will eventually consider them.
Just as navies police sea lanes, the inevitable commercialization of space ensures that its militarization will follow. That isn’t something to fear or lament. It’s not only unavoidable; it’s a civilizational advance. Space Force may not be an idea whose time has come, but deterrence is based on supremacy and supremacy is the product of proactivity. God forbid there comes a day on which we need an integrated response to a state actor with capabilities in space, we will be glad that we didn’t wait for the crisis before resolving to do what is necessary.
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Victim of success.
Chicken Little has always been the press secretary of the environmental movement.
In the 1960’s there was good reason to think the sky was actually falling. The New Yorker published a cartoon showing a wife standing by a table set for lunch in the backyard of a brownstone. “Hurry darling,” she calls to her husband, “Your soup’s getting dirty.” In 1969, the Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire, not for the first time.
But in 1970, Earth Day was established. It was one of the most remarkable examples of grassroots activism in American history, involving fully 10 percent of the population. Late that year, Congress, at the behest of the Nixon Administration, established the Environmental Protection Agency. A series of acts requiring pollution controls and abatement followed, and the great American clean up began.
How has it worked out? As Investor’s Business Daily reports, the clean up has been a howling success. From 1990 to 2017, the six major air pollutants monitored by the EPA plunged by 73 percent from levels that were already well below 1970 levels. By comparison, during that time, the U.S. economy grew 262 percent and its population expanded by 60 percent. And by 1990, much progress had already been made. Banning lead in gasoline, where it was used as an antiknock agent, beginning in the 1980’s had already greatly reduced the level of atmospheric lead, reducing, in turn, the level found in blood. It is down 98 percent from 1980.
Water pollution has plunged as well, as sewage treatment plants came online. In 1970, Manhattan discharged the sewage of 1.5 million people into the surrounding waterways. Today, there is an annual swimming race around Manhattan. There is even talk of a beach for Manhattan Island, the only borough of New York City without one. This sort of improvement has been duplicated across the country. The Connecticut River, once a 400-mile sewer, is now safe for fishing and swimming along its entire length. Even the Cuyahoga is in much better shape, with riverside cafés looking out over blue water instead of rafts of sludge.
And yet this good news can be hard to find. Government agencies usually are not shy about tooting their own horns when they have success to report. But the pollution history on the EPA’s website is hard to find. And the websites of such organizations as the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, are still in full the-sky-is-falling mode. I suspect the reason for that has more to do with fundraising strategy than the actual state of the environment.
And even that bugbear of the environmentalist movement, the country’s output of CO2, has fallen 29 percent since it peaked in 2007. That’s thanks largely to the switchover from coal to natural gas as fracking has greatly increased the supply and, thus, lowered the price. Trumpeting that statistic, of course, would not advance the cause of what used to be called “global warming,” and is now called “climate change.”
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Podcast: Blood in the streets?
We decided to do our version of The Handmaid’s Tale and try to imagine the world in 2019 from two perspectives: One in which Democrats fail to win the House of Representatives in November and the other in which Democrats win handily. What will they do in each case? What will Republicans do? Give a listen.
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Declinism never changes.
In November 1995, COMMENTARY published a symposium called “The National Prospect” in which dozens of writers offered their view of America’s possible future. I just went and looked at my entry in that symposium, which I had not thought of in years, because of Laura Ingraham’s statement on TV last night that “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like … this is related to both illegal and legal immigration.”
What my symposium entry indicates is that views like hers have been percolating on the Right for decades. I thought you might find it interesting to read:
“This is not the country my father fought for,” a one-time colleague who grew up as an Army brat was telling me over lunch five years ago. He sang a threnody of national faults, and I could only hang my head in mute agreement—crime, multiculturalism, educational collapse, everything conservatives have worried over and fought against for twenty years or more.
He grew more and more excited. From multiculturalism, he began talking about the threat posed by immigrants, and from that threat to the threat posed by native-born blacks. As he was taken over by his passion and imagined me an ally in it, he began dropping words into his monologue that in his calmer moments he never would have used with me, words like “nigger” and “wetback” I had heard used only in rages and then only maybe twice before outside of a movie or TV show. And then, forgetting himself entirely, he allowed as how Jews were blocking the true story of our national decline.
It is not only inconvenient to hear words you might have spoken coming out of the mouth of a racist, nativist anti-Semite. It is also a reminder that ideas you hold dear may be used as weapons in a war you never intended to fight—a war in which those weapons may be turned against you just as my one-time colleague turned his assault on multiculturalism into an assault on Jews.
This is my warning as we consider the national prospect. Those who believe America is in a period of cultural decline are obviously correct; I am not at all sure how anyone of good will could argue otherwise.
And yet, and yet, and yet. It is one thing to worry over and battle against the dumbing-down of our schools; the assault on taste, standards, and truth posed by multiculturalism; the rise of repellent sexual egalitarianism; even the dangers of advanced consumerism are becoming increasingly worrisome.
But it is quite another thing to make the leap from that point to the notion that the nation itself is in parlous and irreversible decline. After all, nations are always in parlous moral health; nations are gatherings of people, and people are sinners. When the United States was putatively healthier, back in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, 12 percent of its population was living in de-facto or de-jure immiseration and the Wasp majority protected its position in the elite by means of explicit quotas and exclusions.
The declinists are both wrong and spiritually noxious. After all, the purpose of declaring the nation in decline is to root out the causes of the decline, extirpate them, and put the nation on the road to health. But, for some of them, the search for causes always leads to blacks, immigrants, and Jews. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Harvard’s own Quentin Compson finds himself suicidal over America’s conversion into the “land of the kike home of the wop.”
Blacks and Jews are ever the inevitable, juicy target—so inevitable that they still find a link in the fevered minds of the paleo-Right, even though all blacks and Jews have in common now is the way the paleo-Right links them.
What blacks, Jews, and immigrants always seem to lack in the eyes of declinists is some version of the American character—that which my one-time colleague believed his father to have fought for. The dark underbelly of the American political experiment is the very idea of an American character itself. It is, fundamentally, an un-American idea. It is the nature of America that there is no one American character. Demography is not destiny in America as it is everywhere else; where you come from is not who you are.
I can find no quarrel with the brief of particulars offered by the declinists. But their central idea gives heart and strength to people whose threnodies can sound like the song of the siren—and must, like the siren’s song, be resisted by all strong men.
–Nov. 1, 1995