Saturday, August 18, 2012

Conformity and the Establishment

Success in academia requires some intelligence, some diligence, some organizational skills, but more than anything else it requires both a desire and an ability to conform.

Academic success is about giving others what they deem to be important: demonstrating that you can follow the rules and give the expected answers, whether the questions are presented by ETS, college admissions departments, college professors, or tenure boards.

Richard Feynman had an IQ of “only”125 (low only by the standards of genius physicists) but one explanation for his less-than-stellar score is that he found the test itself to be stupid. For instance, one section of the test presented a series of pictures out of sequence; the person taking the test w assupposed to put the pictures in the “correct” order. Feynman pointed out that based upon the information given, these was no one a priori “correct” order. One could, with a bit of creativity, imagine some logical sequence of events that would present the pictures in any possible order (or at least in multiple orders). This question did not test logic or creativity, but rather your ability to see the same particular sequence that most other people saw. In other words, this question rewarded averageness. Conformity to the norm was rewarded with a higher score, a novel and original interpretation, or a questioning of the meaning and pertinence of the question itself, was punished as a “wrong” answer.

This situation is typical: returning the “right” answer—i.e. the answer that is deemed to be correct according to the current orthodoxy—rather than the true answer, is rewarded in academia.

Both Newton and Einstein were average students (sometimes good, sometimes not so good). In part because they were, as students, already questioning the information that they were receiving. Newton’s student notebooks are still extant, and they demonstrate that he was already reformulating what he was being taught.

Feynman said: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” But this process of recreation takes time and effort. The very best students put all of their time and effort into giving their teachers what they want; they do not “waste” time with original thought, and they are not troubled by being asked to regurgitate theories and ideas that seem wrong or incomplete.

Questioning whether or not professors are asking the right questions is usually not a recipe for success in academia, and as academia has grown more homogeneous, dissent has become more and more discouraged.

So today’s academic super-stars are primarily super-stars of conformity: they conform to the ideals, and ideas, to the thoughts and visions and desires of those already in power in academia.

If you are introduced to a stranger and told only that he is a college professor you will knows with near-certainty what his political affiliation is, (broadly) what his religious views are, what his philosophical views are. If he knows or cares about physics you can be reasonably sure that he believes in string theory and extra hidden dimensions and supersymmetry; if he knows or cares about biology you can be reasonably certain that he considers neo-Darwinism to be correct and doesn’t know or doesn’t care or is dismissive of Motoo Kimura’s neutral molecular evolution, or Eric Davidson’s non-neo-Darwinist biochemically based theory of the genetic toolkit, or Donald Williamson’s whole-genome evolution theory; if he knows or cares about linguistics you can be reasonably sure that he is a Chomskian; if he has anything to do with either liberal arts or social sciences you can be almost certian that he will see everything through the tripartite lens of race, class and gender.

Since at least the days of the scholastics, academia has never been as homogeneous—or a tedious--as it is today. Academics are increasingly what Harold Rosenberg referred to already in 1948 (in Commentary magazine) as “A herd of independent minds.”

But there is a problem; conformity in the abstract—as opposed to in practice—is not one of the ideals that academics are supposed to conform to. A student who proclaimed loudly that he desired only to conform would never be an academic super-star. Conversely, rebellion—in the abstract—is one of the ideals that an academic is expected to conform to. The Herd must have something to rebel against.

It is clear that this rebellion must not be actual rebellion against, say, one’s professors, or the curricula, or the affirmative action hiring and acceptance policies of one’s own university. Such a thing would be entirely unacceptable (and probably racist) and would lead—depending upon one’s position and influence--to disciplinary hearings, suspension, public censure, shaming, and at a minimum a cessation of invitations to all the best cocktail parties.

Such a fate is, it goes without saying, unendurable for any self-respecting member of the Herd, and so something safe and inaccessible—something entirely incapable of either defending itself or harming the careers of those who attack it—must be created, so that it can be safely “rebelled” against.

Bruce Bawer, in his book “While Europe Slept” describes a phenomenon that I also personally encountered in West Berlin in the late 1980s. Bawer mentions that his West German friends were constantly complaining about the U.S., upon whose protection West Berlin depended, but never said a bad word about the DDR, even though its horrible wall, guarded by nests of machine guns, loomed over the makeshift graves of East Germans who had tried but failed, in desperation, to escape communism and flee to the West.

Bawer postulates that his friends had created a “safe” enemy precisely because the real enemy was so dangerous. I don’t know, and do not pretend to understand people’s true psychological motivations, but I suspect that Bawer is correct.

And so academics and their intellectual progeny--journalists, Democrat politicians, members of the cultural elite—have created a fictitious enemy (a safe enemy) against which they can rebel, and so demonstrate to their peers their conformity to the eidolon of “rebellion” without facing any adverse consequences.

This factious enemy is the “Establishment,” what Victor Davis Hanson calls the “They.” This “Establishment” must not be confused with the actual establishment, that is, the sum total of all the important institutions and individuals that wield real power in the U.S. This distinction is crucial, because the actual establishment is now overwhelmingly either leftist, leftish, or at least tolerant or quietly supportive of the Left, and predominantly partisan and of and for the Democrat party.

And the power of this true establishment is not limited to academia; it has metastasized from the Ivys into all the upper reaches of society.

If once power was overwhelmingly concentrated among WASPs, and in the “military-industrial-complex,” both institutions traditionally associated primarily (though not exclusively) with the Republican Party, it is now concentrated overwhelmingly in the Democrat Party.

Ivy League schools (all of them), almost all major universities, most of the richest neighborhoods, almost all major media, almost all college professors, almost all grammar school and high school teachers, almost all who create the contents of popular culture, many--such as Sanford Weill, Robert Rubin, John Corzine, George Soros--of the leaders of the richest banks and investment firms and hedge-funds, the most important lobbyists, Silicon Valley billionaires, Hollywood, Washington D.C.—all are overwhelmingly Democrat. Then of course there are all the public sector unions, almost all government workers, all private sector unions (the leadership, if not the rank-and-file), almost anyone who depends upon the ever-expanding largess of an ever-expanding government—this is the establishment.

The Democrat party has become not just the party of government, but the party of the status quo, the party of power, the party (despite the countervailing mythology) of wealth and status (if you don’t believe me try saying a good word about Mitt Romney or—heaven forbid—Sarah Palin, at any party in the Hamptons, or in Brentwood, or any other posh gathering place of the illuminati).

The Republican WASP establishment is nearly extinct, but lives on in the minds of the current occupants of the curule chairs as a spectral straw-man; ever burning but never consumed.

The old Republican WASPs never waved the confederate flag or burned crosses; for the most part the Republican WASP establishment supported the civil rights movement, at least in theory. (For example Republicans overwhelmingly supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Robert Byrd and other southern Democrats attempted a filibuster.) But the WASPs were guilty of hypocrisy: from their lilly-white well-educated New England enclaves they looked down with supercilious disdain upon southern redneck Klansmen, but themselves would never deign to admit blacks or Jews into their country clubs, schools, or secret societies. Somehow the sins of the old southern Democrats have been transferred in the popular mythology of the Democrat establishment to the northern Republican WASPs. But the old WASP hypocrisy resembles nothing so much as the hypocrisy of present-day rich white suburban liberals; locked safely into all-white gated communities, religiously reading the New York Times, and self-righteously pulling the lever for Barack Obama--secure in the knowledge that thy are committing a brave and revolutionary act. (I know one rich white suburban liberal whose house is at least ten miles away in every direction from the nearest actual black person, who proudly displays a hardback copy (probably unread) of “Dreams from my Father” on her dinning room table as totemic proof of her moral superiority.)

There is no question that more academic careers have been utterly destroyed by political correctness than were ever in any way negatively affected by McCarthyism. And yet to speak out against a senator who has been dead for more than half a century, and a movement that has been extinct for even longer, is considered both brave and timely by all right-thinking academicians. To speak out against political correctness, however, is at best extremely rude, and more likely a hate-crime. It simply is not done. All Herd members know this and conform to this rule.

This represents a remarkable transformation of society over roughly the span of my lifetime.

In 1963 Dr. Timothy Leary was fired from Harvard. In 1970 (the year I was born) he was sent to prison. (He then escaped, lived as a fugitive, was recaptured and finally pardoned by Jerry Brown—but that is a story for another day.)

Whatever you think of Timothy Leary and his ideas, he was at least true to his beliefs, and he paid a price for his radicalism.

In 2011 Harvard fired economics professor Dr. Subramaniam Swamy for writing an essay that displeased the Herd. Among other things he said this:

It is rubbish to say that terrorists who mastermind the attacks are poor. Osama bin laden for example is a billionaire. Islamic terrorists are patronised by those states that have grown rich from oil revenues. In Britain, the terrorists arrested so far for the bombings are all well-to-do persons. Nor are terrorists uneducated. Most of terrorist leaders are doctors, chartered accountants, MBAs and teachers. For example, in the failed Times Square New York episode, the Islamic terrorist Shahzad studied and got an MBA from a reputed US university. He was from a highly placed family in Pakistan. He certainly faced no discrimination and oppression in his own country. The gang of nine persons who hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001 and flew them into the World Trade Towers in New York and other targets were certainly not discriminated or oppressed in the United States. Hence it is utter rubbish to say that terror is the outcome of the poverty terrorists face.

Today, one is more shocked that Niall Ferguson is allowed to teach at Harvard than that Elizabeth Warren is. And of course neither Warren nor any other tenured Harvard “radical” has paid, or ever will pay, any price for her “radicalism” (or her mendacity).

Elizabeth Warren is the establishment. Barack Obama is the establishment. A vote for Barack Obama is a vote for the establishment, a vote for conformity, a vote to keep those already in power, in power.

Let’s at least be honest about the situation.

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