Brain drain: The hazards of grad school politics

Sam Smith, 2009

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 disaster.”

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 the battles.”

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 disinterested.

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 charge.

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 curriculum.

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 the Constitution.

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; only data.

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 to reality.

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 meaning.

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 past.”

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.

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