Back when JFK was getting ready
to invade Cuba, the New Republic got wind of the CIA's training
of Cuban exiles.
Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger
was shown an advance copy of the article, which he promptly passed
to Kennedy, who in turn asked (successfully) that TNR not print
it. The New York Times also withheld a story on the pending invasion,
which Schlesinger would later praise as a "patriotic act"
although he admitted wondering whether if the "press had
behaved irresponsibly, it would not have spared the country a
Schlesinger was a prototype for
that modern phenomenon, the meddlesome Harvard prof seeking manly
vigor by helping presidents damage this country. Henry Kissinger
and McGeorge Bundy would soon follow. Later, the staff and management
of the Harvard Business School would assist at the collapse of
the Russian economy even as their colleagues at the Kennedy School
were teaching scores of American politicians how to repeal 60
years of social progress.
It certainly hasn't all been Harvard's
fault. As LBJ once told an aide, the CIA was filled with boys
from Princeton and Yale whose daddies wouldn't let them into
the brokerage firm.
The American intelligentsia has
repeatedly let the country down. Consider that exemplar for generations
of law school students: Oliver Wendell Holmes. Prospective litigants
have all learned Holmes' immortal warning that "the most
stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in
falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."
Fewer, I suspect, have also learned that these words were uttered
in defense of the contemptible Espionage Act and that Holmes
himself was among those upholding Eugene Debs' sentence of ten
years in prison for saying such things as "the master class
has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought
As early as the turn of the last
century, Julian Benda noted, there had been a shift among intellectuals
from being a "check on the realism of the people to acting
as stimulators of political passions." He described these
new intellectuals as being most interested in the possession
of concrete advantages and material values, while holding up
to scorn the pursuit of the spiritual, the non-practical or the
It is true that many intellectuals
and grad school graduates took a strong stand against the Vietnam
War. But that was a long time ago and today there is nothing
even remotely close to that era when the Kissingers and Bundys
were matched by others including, in 1970, 1000 lawyers joining
an anti-war protest.
In The Twentieth Century: A People's
History, Howard Zinn describes a response by some of the intelligentsia
stunningly at odds with what we are currently observing: The
poet Robert Lowell, invited to a White House function, refused
to come. Arthur Miller, also invited, sent a telegram to the
White House: "When the guns boom, the arts die." Singer
Eartha Kitt was invited to a luncheon on the White House lawn
and shocked all those present by speaking out, in the presence
of the President's wife, against the war. . . In Hollywood, local
artists erected a 60-foot Tower of Protest on Sunset Boulevard.
At the National Book Award ceremonies in New York, fifty authors
and publishers walked out on a speech by Vice President.
These, remember, were protests against
a far more liberal president than we have today - a man who had
already shepherded through Congress the most progressive social
changes since the New Deal.
Things really started to collapse
with the Democratic conservative Clinton administration, typified
by a major group of intelligentsia coming to his defense over
the Monica Lewinsky affair. It's just lucky we didn't have to
rely upon this craven crowd when we were fighting George Wallace,
Strom Thurmond, Carmine DeSapio and Richard Daley. They probably
would have lectured us all about party unity.
You had Toni Morrison claiming that
"the president is, being stolen from us" and Jane Smiley
virtually applauding the president for demonstrating in his relationship
with Monica a "desire to make a connection with another
person something I trust." And there was a multinational
manifesto issued by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Desmond
Tutu, William Styron, Lauren Becall, Jacques Derrida, Sophia
Loren, Carlos Fuentes, Vanessa Redgrave and the ever-faithful
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Obama's campaign brought this crowd
alive again and, as with Clinton, one hears little talk of economic
or social issues. It is all about the new savior.
Who needed to worry about foreclosures as long as Obama was in
But beyond the weaknesses of the
Democratic Party being turned into an elite, conservative club
are some serious intellectual problems. A growing number of those
in charge have been educated in graduate schools that train their
students in a particular and limited perspective on life: whether
it be law, business or economics. The number those trained in
history, arts, anthropolgy or the classics who have also risen
to the politics top is miniscule.
The favored skills have their virtue
but only within a larger context, something recognized by twenty
percent of the Harvard Business School graduates who have signed
a pledge "to serve the greater good," a move presumably
driven by a sense that the goal was not intrinsic to the school's
These schools are an elite form
of vocational training. Vocational training is useful when applied
to the vocation for which one is trained. They can be helpful
in other fields as well, like running a government, but only
in conjunction with other values and skills.
Apply the law excessively and you
can come up with endless good sounding excuses for violating
Apply the lessons of business school
excessively and you happily bail out many of the biggest banks
but hardly any homeowners in the depths of foreclosure purgatory.
Apply the lessons of economics excessively
and you can declare the recession ending even as more Americans
are losing their jobs.
Among the other biases is an undue
faith in expertise and status, reflected in the hierarchal approach
to the stimulus bill and so-called education reforms. There is
little indication emanating from the Obama administration that
it appreciates or respects the vast pool of competent politicians
and bureaucrats at every level of our society. There is even
an implicit disrespect reflected in how much control is concentrated
at such a high altitude. Among the effects: a constituency of
state and local officials who are somewhat or quite annoyed at
Obama instead of being enthusiastic participants in his programs.
You also can drive the soul out
of politics, which helps to explain why we can have such a huge
recovery program with hardly any good stories of how it has helped
real people. In grad school politics, anecdotes don't count;
As this soulless, heartless politics
takes control, the distance between the politician and the voter
grows, even - as is now becoming painfully evident - to the point
of nasty distrust and anger.
Some of this, in the case of Obama,
is due to ethnic prejudice and some to the manipulation of issues
like healthcare by the rotten right. But it is still surprising
that Obama of all people - who has yet to find an issue about
which he is reliably passionate and who uses the word 'bipartisan'
like teenagers use 'you know' - has stirred such frenzy.
Among the factors at work may be
that his very lack of conviction makes convincing argument difficult;
that at a time when so many are hurting so much, he seems so
distant and abstract; that he is able to present data but not
draw pictures, and that he lectures when he should just be talking
and scolds when he should be sharing.
Further, many of his well educated
liberal constituents have made it quite clear what they think
about the mass of unhappy America. If you read the liberal blogs
and comments of their readers, what comes through is not a desire
to reach this constituency but merely to hold it in contempt.
The numbers would suggest that is not good politics.
Obama is not alone. Congress and
the executive branch is increasingly filled with those who know
how to speak to a camera but not to an ordinary American.
Further, as our elites become better
educated, more of what passes for learning is vicarious, e.g.
learned from books rather than from experience. As Robert Louis
Stevenson said, books are all right in their way but they are
a pretty poor substitute for life.
In earlier times the learned either
had to retreat to monasteries or else have their abstract knowledge
constantly jostled by the daily demands of survival as well as
by the philistinism and practical knowledge of the non-literate
masses. Consider how different the daily life of a Jefferson
or a Frederick Douglass was in comparison with that of a Larry
Summers or Henry Louis Gates. In earlier times the privilege
of the insular world belonged to a few monks and scholars; today
it is just another commodity one can purchase.
Among the most dramatic changes
in Washington has been the disappearance of the practical person,
the individuals - whether pol, hack or advisor - who compensate
for deficiencies in formal learning with a superb understanding
of life. They were either masters of the pragmatic or of the
moral, but in either case served as the GPS of national politics.
In their place we find a town overflowing
with decadent dandies who, to quote a 19th journalist, have been
educated well beyond their intellects.
They keep busy creating fictions
about the nature of politics and the presidency that coincidentally
serve their own ambitions, until they become incapable of returning
The intelligentsia, like everything
else in America, has also become corporatized. This can be seen
at its worst on campuses and in publishing houses. Journalism
and academia have become so subordinated to the needs of their
controlling conglomerates that the vital ground between starvation
and surrender has become, economically at least, increasingly
difficult to hold.
The safest route is to cling to
approved symbols while shucking substance, to serve in a House
of Lords of the mind, robed and bewigged but naked of power and
This alteration in the relation
of the intellectual to the culture was instinctively grasped
by the DC elementary school student as she defined the difference
between art and graffiti as "Art is when you have permission
to do it." These are days when you not only need permission
for art, but also to think. And among the places you go for permission
are corporations and grad schools.
For much of my life I have hewed
to H. L. Mencken's dictum that the liberation of the human mind
has been best furthered by those "who heaved dead cats into
sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the
world, proving . . . that doubt, after all, was safe - that the
god in the sanctuary was a fraud." For much of my life this
strategy has worked. Even in the gathering gloom of the Reagan-Bush
years. But starting with the arrival of the Clinton administration
and its cultural as well as political authoritarianism, skepticism
began being blacklisted. Not only was belief to be unopposed
by doubt but the terms themselves were banned. In their place
was only loyalty or disloyalty.
Under current rules, truth belongs
to the one with the most microphones clamped to his podium and
the most bucks to buy them. In the end it has become a struggle
for the control of fact and memory not unlike that described
in 1984: "Who controls the past controls the future, ran
the Party slogan, "who controls the present controls the
All that is needed is an unending
series of victories over memory.
In such a time those with wrong
memories and wrong facts are considered mad, disparaged, and
dropped from the Blackberry. To hold power happily, one must
not be curious and one must not question fully accredited paradigms.
To think is to fail. . . .
America has frequently been blessed
by the bitter dissatisfaction of those still barred from tasting
the fruits of its ideals. It has been the pressure of the dispossessed,
rather than the virtue of those in power, that has repeatedly
saved this country's soul.
In this century, three such influences
have been those of immigrants, blacks, and women. Yet in each
case now, social and economic progress has inevitably produced
a dilution of passion for justice and change.
Thus we find ourselves with a women's
movement much louder in its support of Hillary Clinton than about
the plight of its sisters at the bottom of the economic pile.
We have conservative black economists decrying the moral debilitation
of affirmative action but few rising to the defense of those
suffering under the rampant incarceration of young black males.
We are also at the end of an succession of Jewish writers and
thinkers, raised on the immigrant experience, who created much
of the form of progressive 20th century America. Now Jewish writers
and thinkers tend to be too busy saving Israel to even notice
the American underclass.
Meanwhile, those truly at the bottom
-- such as black and white men without a college education or
new immigrant groups -- are rarely heard from or about except
in reports on crime and poverty.
The dirty secret of 20th century
social movements is that they have been successful enough to
create their own old boy and girl networks, powerful enough to
enter the Chevy Chase Club, and indifferent enough to ignore
those left behind.
Their elites have joined to form
the largest, most prosperous, and most narcissistic intelligentsia
in our history.
And as the best and brightest enjoy
their power, who will speak for those who, in Bill Mauldin's
phrase, remain fugitives from the law of averages? Not the best
and brightest because they have built an oligarchy that gets
its face from the united colors of Benetton but its economics
from the divided classes of Dickens.