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Thirty years later, Politics may have found its moment. Its central contention — of a polarizing dialectic “between the self-contained (mostly left-wing) culture of the academy and the static (and right-wing) political culture that dominates America today” — has only gained in plausibility. As the academy becomes an obsession in electoral politics, we should pay attention.
In the decades since Politics was published, Bromwich has become one of the English language’s most excoriating and eloquent writers on politics; his articles on the post-9/11 policies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations will have a permanent place in the record of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — especially of their cultural fallout in the United States. Uniting his political writing and his cultural criticism is an essentially libertarian distrust of institutional and group power. “Against the bureaucrats of sexual, racial, ethnic, and religious purity, who invoke with such misleading intent the language of community,” he writes in Politics, “a resistance that amounts to hatred may be the sanest feeling to cherish.”
In recent years, Bromwich, who is a professor of English at Yale, has returned to some of the topics that preoccupied him in the early ’90s. In his column at The Nation, in the London Review of Books, and in our pages, Bromwich has expanded and refined the critique of academic manners he began in 1992. To mark Politics’ 30th anniversary, I spoke with Bromwich about conservative attacks on critical race theory, changing classroom mores, the consequences of social media for scholars, and the difference between Reagan and Trump.
The Review Interview
If we’d been talking about Politics by Other Means in 2012, when I was a graduate student and the book was 20 years old, not 30, I would have found it dated or alarmist. It wouldn’t have seemed to line up with my experiences in college or in grad school. But reading it in 2022, the book seems to describe our present in an astonishing number of its particulars.
Other people have dated this latest acceleration, or confirmation, of earlier tendencies much the way you do — in 2013 or so, the beginning of Obama’s second term. I don’t know what political occurrences I would associate it with. Partly it comes from the growing to maturity and authority, and the assumption of administrative power, by people who came up through the campus left in the ’80s and ’90s, and who are now acquiescing to a social tendency — a wave of opinion and emotion. We’ve been riding several waves. A name offered by JoAnn Wypijewski for such a coercive tendency is “moral panic.”
I want to get to those tendencies. But first I want to ask about the threat from the right. Your treatment of right-wing attacks on the university in Politics by Other Means involves close readings of the rhetoric of George Will and of William Bennett. Will is still around, but he doesn’t enjoy the cultural centrality he did then, a prominence illustrated by an old Seinfeld episode where Kramer says he considers George Will attractive — he likes his scrubbed, clean-cut look. Elaine demurs, but she concedes that Will is smart. Kramer, in what’s supposed to be a sign of his perversity, says, “No, I don’t find him particularly smart.”
I happened to read a recent novel by Christopher Beha called The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. It’s a witty book, and there is a portrait of somebody I take to be roughly George Will — with all his contradictions and with that kind of weirdness. Yeah, that’s not at center stage anymore. At the time, Will and Bennett — the latter was a heavily ideological supporter of Reagan policies and a Great Books advocate in a way I thought propagandistic and crude — both politicized the discussion of higher education. Cultural conservatism was doing very well already, but they fancied themselves great and defiant spirits.
But if you think about higher education’s enemies on the right today — they’re trying to pass bills prohibiting critical race theory, they’re attacking tenure, suppressing faculty speech in Florida, in Mississippi, and so on. Higher education should be so lucky to have enemies like Will and Bennett.
The anti-intellectual bent of the Republican state legislatures that are introducing these censorship bills — basically, they have lost their minds. They have lost the measure of what education is for. The Republican Party, when it gave itself to Donald Trump, did something the full effects of which we haven’t yet seen.
There’s a passage about Reagan in Politics by Other Means that struck me. You write: “It would be a mistake to regard President Reagan’s great work, the education of a whole society down to his level, as having affected the minds and habits of just one class or political side. Outwardly hostile to everything he stood for, the academic culture of the left did not fail to extract every possible comfort from his message.” Would you venture an analogous claim regarding Trump?
The existence of Trump is an alibi for a multitude of sins in reaction against Trump. People who describe themselves as anti-Trump, as administering some sort of antidote or countermeasure, permit themselves to go to any extreme. He has the extraordinary power not only to drive people crazy among his followers, such as the crowd that almost overtook the Capitol on January 6, but to drive his opponents crazy — an almost sorcerer-like power to make people lose their sense of reality and proportion. Reagan, by comparison, was broadly speaking a normal personality in American politics.
I’d like to ask about “moralism,” a word you use sometimes in the book, and a word that might characterize some of the self-righteous countermeasures you’re referring to. The anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz has written in our pages about the “moral hyperthermia” of the academy at present. You write, similarly, of “raising the temperature morally” — you’re referring to campus activism around certain kinds of speech or expression. Do you feel there’s new pressure in recent years?
Oh, I know it. Committees are being set up in departments and professional schools in many universities, including mine, to monitor and organize collective self-criticism on the amount of teaching about race we are doing, or the amount of teaching about ethnic identity. Have curricular goals or quotas been imposed? Not yet, but we’re early in the process.
The consensus on what constitutes good speech, speech that lends itself to the hygiene of the culture, has become too sure of itself. This means that lots of things aren’t going to be discussed openly, and students worry about how they’ll be misrepresented or wrongly characterized for what they say. They feel that they have to be very careful.
This shows up in some absurd exaggerations of politeness that you can see in classroom behavior over the last few years. Let’s say I’m teaching Rousseau in a freshman honors course. Students feel pretty free to disagree with Rousseau. They feel a little less free, and that’s not a new thing, to disagree with their teacher, but a few of them do. They never disagree with each other. It’s bad manners to disagree with each other. An elaborate new decorum has crept in. A colleague of mine in political science saw the perfect example: A student said, “I want to piggyback on what Raymond just said, and add …” But what he was adding was the exact opposite of what Raymond just said. So, if you’re saying the opposite, you still have to say it in the grammar of agreement.
The one about wanting to debate?
That’s the one. There was this incredibly vituperative response on social media, mostly from faculty members. There were two claims, basically. One was that what the author was describing couldn’t be real. The other was that the classroom is not the place for debate — that that’s not what education is about.
That’s pathetic. The claim that what she’s describing doesn’t meet anyone else’s experience is just disingenuous. It’s a lie.
The other claim — that it’s not what education is about — confuses debate with acrimonious wrangling or general bad temper.
Of course, one shouldn’t exaggerate what it was like before. I’ve taught for 44 years now, and it was never the case that you had a lot of vigorous and contesting claims being made by students on two different sides mediated by the professor. But energetic disagreement was not unusual in classrooms.
The consensus on what constitutes good speech … has become too sure of itself.
What’s changed since 1992, both within the academy and outside of it, with respect to free speech as a principle and a value?
The weakening commitment to the principle is the biggest loss. It was much less common then to hear people argue that free speech was always relative and always a privilege, and that in order to make it available to everyone, we must restrict the power of speech that is possessed by some. That argument emerged into full view in Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance,” which became his contribution to the book A Critique of Pure Tolerance.
Marcuse says there that the ideal of unrestricted free speech forgets that there are people who don’t have access or ability, and that society uses free speech for overall purposes of repression. Therefore, if you can get a vanguard of people, academic or otherwise, enforcing their idea of pure speech, they can set an example that serves as a paradigm for a future good society. I think this notion underlies the attitudes of a great many administrators, and many professors now in the humanities, and an increasing number in the social sciences. The idea is that we can be a laboratory for a good society. We’re setting an example of what not free speech, but good speech, is about. And why would anyone want to boast of anything except good speech? This attitude has become normal in the academy to an extent I would not have predicted in 1990 or even in 2000.
In an essay for us about the status of expertise during the Covid pandemic, you refer to what you call “immodest institutional authority,” which might have some relationship to the conviction on the part of academics that they represent a kind of moral vanguard. There’s a related phrase in Politics by Other Means: “bureaucratized narcissism.”
It gets back to whether the university is an institution that ought to be associated with a certain way of acting and thinking about controversial subjects — trying to get at the truth by honest means. That was always the presumptive difference between the university and a popular culture that depends on the fast flow of opinions and isn’t concerned with a conscientious search for truth.
Liberty of thought and expression was an unembarrassed part of the morale of universities during the roughly 50 years after the Second World War. Alain Finkielkraut called this period “the second enlightenment.” It was a fundamentally hopeful attitude, and one I still find persuasive. But now there is a different idea of the distinguishing trait of the university: It should be socially improving, interested in creating a good society or a model of a good society. We’ve got to be like society, only better. But if universities are places of learning and research, they can contribute to social improvement, but it can’t be their preoccupation.
We’re seeing a defection from the earlier idea of the university as a separate kind of institution, and an absorption of new responsibilities, which the people in charge of universities are hardly conscious of now because it’s going into its second generation. We have a whole layer of therapeutic administrators, concerned with things like student life, speech habits, how we should talk to each other. Covid enforcement has made that therapeutic layer even more prominent. Talk about the increase in numbers of administrators doesn’t often enough pick out the group of people who are there to tell the students what kind of community they’re in, to tell them who they are.
That relates to what I take to be one of the major theses of the book, which revolves around key terms like conformity and nonconformity, tradition and culture. “Tradition,” or at least the liberal tradition that you identify with and endorse, is always negotiable: It allows for revision, for nonconformity, for dissidence. Whereas “culture,” which you opposed to tradition, is understood, in your view, as something quasi-biological, determinative, organic.
My thinking about this owes something to Michael Oakeshott, in his writings on what he calls liberal learning and on tradition. It seems to me that if you’re taught that you are the product of a culture defined by nation, race, region, religion — that you are rooted in that culture and the culture is what constitutes you — then it becomes a kind of treachery, a kind of treason against who you are, to want to pull yourself away from the culture you belong to by birth. Whereas tradition can be a matter of change and of innovation. Tradition gets bent to new purposes by people who are versed in what the wisdom of their predecessors may add up to, but who also, for reasons moral, political, or aesthetic, want to do something different.
The therapeutic identity doctrine is presented now to college students, including many first-generation college students, so strongly and on so many more fronts: by the administration in orientation week, by a good many teachers of subjects like anthropology and sociology and ethnic studies. Students are getting a heavy dose of that, and it may seem to solve some of the anxieties of being in a new situation — because a university is a new situation. For those of us who had the luck to grow up in families where there were books lying around, the transition to college may have seemed natural. It can be much less so to people who had less fortunate beginnings from a university point of view. The way the university is inducting them now is by means of talk about identity, belonging, community, etc. You can see how that might seem to ease the transition. But I think it has a great many disadvantages.
In a piece for Salmagundi a few years ago, you speculate that “the surveillance ethic of social media clearly plays a part” in students’ acquiescence to some kinds of groupthinking. What about the effects of social media on scholars?
I know of faculty, both here and at other universities, who are major personalities on Twitter. They tweet links to articles, and they tweet instant reactions, off the cuff, sometimes witty and sometimes not. And there is some demagoguing. On occasion, they are compelled by an inward or outward pressure to delete their tweets.
To me, this simply goes against the vocation of being a scholar. Let’s not be too high and mighty, but still — we are understood to be people who deliberate, who take some time to get at what we believe to be the truth. The whole ethic of snap reactions goes against that. In the long run, it’s going to reduce the prestige of professors. It makes us more like everyone else, which a lot of academics have wanted to be all along. That’s part of the problem — the idea that we should try to erase the distinctions that separate university life, academic life, from society.
The other side of this sort of populist impulse is an assertive insistence on one’s professional authority or expertise. They’ll say, Look, I’m here in the fray with everyone else fighting for what is right in the agora of Twitter. But also: My CV is very long. My h-index is very high.
Twitter practice by academics has been integrated into professional networking — it’s a way to do it very fast. In addition, it can have a great and very palpable censorial effect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.