November 23, 2018

Rhodes House, Oxford

Rhodes House, Oxford

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Released last Saturday, this year’s list of American Rhodes Scholars is a remarkable document. For, judging by the moral values evidenced in it, we’d hardly know that these rather accomplished young people are Americans. Consider these representative sentences from the biographical notes:

When she discovered the low life expectancy of wheelchair users in developing countries due to infection from pressure sores, she created Loop, a cost-effective inflatable wheelchair seat cushion made out of bike inner tubes.

Nicolette’s translation, and original interpretation, of Euripides’ Supplicants elevated the perspective of the maternal community in the tragedy, countering centuries of neglect by scholars.

Jin seeks to build a career as an advocate for immigrant communities, and to provoke our governments to take immigrants’ rights and health seriously.

Very active politically, she has managed a state house campaign, been an organizer with the UAW, serves as president of the College Democrats, and is a volunteer clinic escort at Mississippi’s last abortion clinic. She has also protested alongside Native Americans in the Dakotas against a proposed pipeline across their land.

Hadeel is a committed activist who has advanced educational opportunities for immigrant and refugee women in communities across the globe.

Through her work as an archaeologist and researcher, Rhea uncovers buried histories by elevating the narratives of everyday people, particularly women and people of color. She pays particular attention to Islamic heritage, challenging the fallacies and biases that often motivate popular perceptions of the Middle East.

Elena’s work and research has focused on combating gender-based violence in refugee camps and conflict zones. She believes in shifting power from institutions to the women directly impacted by the instability created by forced migration to more effectively address gender inequity.

And on and on they drone, these displays of virtue, more tedious than church. There’s little in this document that represents a desire to help Americans. On the other hand, we read sentence after sentence about doing good for foreigners, immigrants, women, people of color—all the usual victims.

Although some of these endeavors are surely sincere and well-meaning, the document gives the impression of a charade—the game you’re expected to play to get ahead. Nor is that surprising, because there’s a strange and distinctly American assumption that moral character determines intellectual merit. But as I demonstrated recently in my article on the 2,400 smug law professors who signed a letter opposing Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, this is a fallacy; behind it there lurks sheer prejudice, ready to manipulate you to someone else’s end.

“Anyone who values the life of the mind must be concerned for its future.”

The moral grandstanding I’ve quoted derives, of course, from the professors by whom these young scholars were miseducated. Academe is overwhelmingly liberal, and as Jonathan Haidt has shown in his fine work, liberals tend to have a narrower conception of morality than conservatives do. Liberals, as the word itself indicates, mainly value liberty, as well as egalitarianism and pity for others. Conservatives value these things too, but not as much as liberals do, and they care more about order, loyalty, and tradition than liberals do. For many liberals, the conservative virtues, though essential to the state, are synonymous with oppression. As conservatives know only too well, liberals generally don’t understand conservatism, though the converse isn’t true. While he himself is a centrist liberal, Haidt has the intellectual honesty to emphasize that the conservative conceptional of morality is superior to that of liberals.

What Haidt doesn’t tell us is that liberalism’s characteristic excessive pity derives from Christianity. Like the concept of original sin (whose truth one can reasonably accept in a figurative sense), the immense value that Christianity assigned to pity was arguably an improvement on the comparatively shallow Jewish religion, whose facile optimism is quite incompatible with the terrible God of the Tanakh. And yet, many a virtue proves to be rather mixed in the long run, and it’s a grave problem for our secular era that, since Christianity doesn’t sufficiently direct and thereby constrain people’s moral sentiments, moral universalism is increasingly averse to the national good.

Hence, then, the decadent, self-destructive American academy, where, as in the progressive media, it’s the apex of virtue to feel endless pity for the world outside America, and endless contempt for America itself. This is not only a political disaster; it makes cultural life hell. Take for example Christopher Lebron’s review-essay in this month’s Atlantic, “The Personal Cost of Black Success.” Lebron, a black philosophy professor at Johns Hopkins, writes of two memoirs by the black writers Kiese Laymon and Casey Gerald:

Both books take on the important work of exposing the damage done to America, especially its black population, by the failure to confront the myths, half-truths, and lies at the foundation of the success stories that the nation worships.

If this sounds like a thousand other articles in The Atlantic, that’s because Jeffrey Goldberg’s magazine peddles such cant incessantly. For Lebron, there’s hardly any legitimate success in America. “Mostly,” he writes, “the American Memoir [which has long been considered a testament to the nation’s historical greatness] is a lie.”

Like many bores in academic philosophy, Lebron excels at unintentional comedy:

Struggling early on with a heavy body—physically coping with the social weight of being young, black, and poor in America—Laymon went on to finish college at Oberlin, and after teaching at Vassar, he became a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi.

It would be difficult to match the absurdity of this. Lebron’s article weeps with pity, but this sentence betrays his fundamental insincerity. Are we really to believe that Laymon’s “heavy body” is attributable to “being young, black, and poor in America”? If the man was so poor, how did he manage to get fat to begin with? One is reminded of the American feminist, whom one may fairly ask: “If you’re so oppressed, why is this constant talk about your oppression such a lucrative industry?”

Laymon’s website boasts a collection of quotations from fulsome reviews of his book, the hilariously titled Heavy: An American Memoir. For instance:

Dear white people, please read this memoir. Dear America, please read this book. Kiese Laymon is a star in the American literary firmament, with a voice that is courageous, honest, loving, and singularly beautiful. ‘Heavy’ is at once a paean to the Deep South, a condemnation of our fat-averse culture, and a brilliantly rendered memoir of growing up black, and bookish, and entangled in a family that is as challenging as it is grounding. —Martha Anne Toll, NPR

And again:

‘Heavy’ is one of the most important and intense books of the year because of the unyielding, profoundly original and utterly heartbreaking way it addresses and undermines expectations for what exactly it’s like to possess and make use of a male black body in America…. [The] book thunders as an indictment of hope, a condemnation of anyone ever looking forward. —Nathan Deuel, Los Angeles Times

This derivative tripe about Laymon’s “male black body” comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a close reading of these empty, sentimental words reveals the truth about Laymon: He is a vulgar hack, a shameless prostitute who is exploiting both his own neurotic character—including his struggles with obesity—and a masochistic, post-Christian culture that cannot get enough of self-pity and cheap victimization. Notice that, for Deuel, it’s an excellent thing that Laymon’s book is “an indictment of hope, a condemnation of anyone ever looking forward.” Ever! Ah, “dear white people,” behold the poor “male black body”! It’s a wonder the brothers don’t all just shoot themselves—instead of each other.

These voguish comments—teeming with positive adjectives that take no effort to write—are the hallmarks of lazy writers. Never so common, they signify the ongoing decline of our intellectual discourse. Like the majority of professors today, the literary set is largely deficient in judgment and taste. Indeed, one has only to talk to such persons to discover what little reading they have, and how stale and predictable are their opinions, in politics especially.

About Gerald’s There Will Be No Miracles Here Lebron writes:

A stellar young man on the superfast track (applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, joining programs to prepare underrepresented minorities for corporate careers, giving speeches), he was saluted and supported at every turn, and expected to spout the story that white people can’t hear often enough about resilience born of hardship. He had become “a liar, if only by omission,” he reflects, hiding what he’d really seen on his journey, “how sad the whole thing is”—and how totally at odds with that vaunted American Memoir. “If you know the right people, they can help you do anything, be anybody, rules and hard work be damned—as long as they like you,” Gerald has learned in the hallowed halls, while “down in my forgotten world,” bootstraps and belts are supposed to count, and welts not to show.

Gerald is rightly suspicious of “white people [who] can’t hear often enough about resilience born of hardship.” After all, they’re often insincere—their apparent virtue masking insidious egoism—and patronizing. And my own experiences having taught me that knowing the right people—and, moreover, sucking up to them—is often the greatest determinant of success, I think he’s also right to be cynical about the “vaunted American Memoir.”

Still, there are profound problems with this passage. His parents had drug and mental health problems, so Gerald’s early life was a hard one. And yet, he went from a rough neighborhood to Yale and Harvard. He cofounded a business, MBAs Across America, of which he’s CEO. His memoir was named a best book of the year by The New York Times. And, crowning himself as an intellectual lightweight, he’s given a TED Talk. In short, Gerald is highly successful and highly regarded. In response, he’d probably say, “But the trouble is that most people aren’t nearly so fortunate.” Yet, as he showed on Wednesday when he appeared on MSNBC, Gerald has very naive expectations regarding America. Yes, our politicians and universities need to do much more to advance the national good. But for Gerald, as for so many leftists, every unsuccessful person is a victim of “a rigged system.” In his high school, he tells us, there were more visits from drug-sniffing dogs than from SAT tutors. How people’s own bad behavior led to that state of affairs, he doesn’t mention. (Presumably, Gerald is a proponent of the standard leftist fallacy: Poverty causes crime.) For all that, “bootstraps and belts are supposed to count” for everyone. Nor do we have infinite resources with which to aid the poor.

Gerald actually believes that a world is possible in which everyone goes to elite universities—nobody has to be “left behind.” Not finding the utopia his Ivy League miseducation taught him to expect, he thinks the “American dream is a distraction from the American machine.” Here “American machine” means something like brutal exploitation. There are honorable perspectives on both the right and the left from which one can (somewhat) agree with Gerald, but nevertheless, his vision remains unrealistic. “The American machine,” he fails to realize, results from selfish human nature itself. Further, there are limits to amelioration. A socialist who hopes to see “a beautiful and dangerous revolution,” Gerald is precisely the sort of person who, if given a lot of power, would make things a lot worse.

Though Gerald and Laymon each come from a difficult background, they’re nonetheless more successful than most people. Meanwhile, their stories are about how bad they’ve had it, America being such an awful place. There are some important truths that these sorts of writers never express: namely, that poverty and hardship are natural, universal conditions; that virtually all nations are founded on conquest; that slavery existed on every continent; and that, whatever may be said against it in a moral sense, America compares pretty well to all other nations historically. To be sure, anybody who wants to can revoke his citizenship at any time and pursue a better life elsewhere. Of course, one may not have the means to do so, but neither is one entitled to them.

“How sad the whole thing is,” Gerald laments. It’s interesting that few writers now write that sort of sentence about life itself. It’s usually America, or white men, or the West, or some other fashionable subject that occasions despair and moral indignation. This is superficial, as well as unoriginal, and anyone who values the life of the mind must be concerned for its future, now that identity politics is becoming the intellectual and aesthetic criterion.


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