Altruism, Communism, Education, cont'd

Fri Sep 18 14:25:51 1998
Subject: He's combative, but he means well

Dear Mr. Geib:

Like so many others, I tripped across your web page while looking for something largely unrelated to your site. You quoted Gore Vidal at length in his essay on Suetonius, one of his better works. Having lived so close to it for so long, Vidal's perspective on the personal nature of power is quite illuminating. While killing time shackled to this computer, I thought I'd see what the internet had to say about Vidal. Your choice of quotes intrigued me and I moved in for a closer look.

Poking about your site I was impressed. The selections are erudite without being pretentious, most of the time. That's better than I manage. However I am a bit confused regarding your perspectives towards leftism and modern scholarship. Admittedly I haven't gone over your entire site from top to bottom due to its hideous size, but I have checked out a good portion. I hope I'm not repeating old arguments you've had or misinterpreting your ideas, but please allow me to defend what you attacked.

George Will's commencement speech to my alma mater, William and Mary, was embarrassing. Rudely, it was a monument to Will's self-inflicted blindness. Using your own technique of quoting to illustrate my point, a reporter once asked Henry Kissinger's brother why he had no German accent while Henry did, even though the entire family emigrated at the same time. His brother replied, "Because Henry doesn't listen." George sounds the same after all these years because he doesn't either. Attacking the straw man of the Campus Radical requires less philosophical and moral courage than it takes to decry murder. Yes, there goes Mighty George, beating the drum of Virtue against those dirty slovenly hippies dancing under the banner of Free Love.

Are modern academics often frivolous and pursue topics of such irrelevancy as to peel the paint off of my car? Of course. But, as Mister Will chooses to forget, it was always thus. Universities are hotbeds of little but pedantry. His choice of venue was especially amusing, as William and Mary is one of the most conservative schools in America. (I graduated the year after Will's address.) But I digress.

So what, in essence, is the forty-foot bee jammed up his bonnet? He decries the idea that academics argue there are no universal truths, that it all depends upon the perspective of the viewer. Now, please forgive my ignorance, but wasn't that more than slightly akin to Kant's ideas? The perspective of the viewer is inescapable. It appears that Mister Will finds such an idea a threat.

Why would such an old theory throw him into such a fit? Because it is dangerous to his ideology. A great many conservatives, including Will, get all aflutter at the prospect of anyone questioning the underlying structures of the world. The dismissal of communism as a silly and frivolous ideology that promotes murder means the loss of an important point of view that dares one to look outside one's own world and see how the world could be different. If you start asking questions and doubting authorities, than people like Will lose their privileged positions of telling you what you can and can't do.

This is admittedly reductionistic and not wholly fair, but it's also more than a bit true. French philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida take it to bizarre extremes that I find more low comedy than philosophy, but the essence of what they say is what irks Will so very badly, and a question I wish to pose to you as well:

"Who says you're right?"

This is the question that so many diehard defenders of the Western Canon hate. Plato is brilliant. I adore his work. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't view him as something more than a man. You know that. Postmodernism takes that and applies it. Foucault wrote about the definition of madness and the ways such ideas shifted through time, tied to the society around it. Does that sound ludicrous? Why?

The backlash against the expansion of the curriculum I find just as dangerous and wrongheaded as the attempts to explode it. The ancient Greeks are a great start, but they can't tell you everything. The literature commonly rejected by the old orders of the academy has value. The only problem is determining what is truly fit to read and what is not. And guess how we get there? By failing, again and again. But Allan Bloom and his cohorts fear change. Not just because it is often wrongheaded (I admit) but because it imperils them and their authority. The great scholars I have met and have read stood out because they were unafraid. They were secure enough to risk it all on newfangled notions.

Educational conservatives threaten to render education as moth-ridden and moribund as radicals threaten to make it irrelevant. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting your opinions, and as I look back, I see I'm reacting almost exclusively to Will and Bloom. I'll move on.

Your opinions on communism I think should be tempered by the history of its beginning. Remember when Marx wrote, and where he wrote. It was the time of the birth of heavy industry. Workers conditions were appalling. Wealthy owners held thousands of lives in their palms and squoze. Poverty and hunger grew while the world sank deeper and deeper into the pockets of the captains of industry. Why is it wrong for a man to say that such things must change? I would not call it muzzy-headed idealism to call for a strike back against the oppression of the capitalist, when the capitalist does all he can to keep you down. The term "starvation wage" was not a euphemism, Mr. Geib.

And you posit that Western reform efforts owe more to Bentham and company than to Marx? Hardly. Without the threat of violence from an organized mob, do you seriously expect me to believe these reforms would have passed? Change came and conditions improved because the people at the top were afraid, not because they were beneficent.

(The crisis for me as a leftist comes when you look around and see that your "side" has just as many, if not more, knuckleheads than the opposition. Some politicians and capitalists were honestly good folk who wanted to make life better, and a lot of rabble-rousers were total scumbags I wouldn't let in my apartment. But does that make it any less right to fight for the rights and well-being of the lowest of society? No.)

Communism in and of itself is valuable in providing a counterpoint to our most cherished ideas of How The World Should Be. It fulfills the single most important role anyone can gain from an education. It shows people things don't have to be the way they are. Marx himself is a valuable window into the excesses of capitalism and a reminder that the people on the other end of those economics equations are real living beings with hopes and dreams and anger. It deserves consideration and a place in that Western Canon.

A point I like to make in defense of the left-leaning side of things is this: "Capitalism is a good idea in theory, but it doesn't survive in practice." And it didn't. We don't live in a capitalist economy, we live in a mixed one. Why? Because it's better for everybody.

On a testy side note, you explained your "libertarian leanings" as a distaste for taxes. Hey, dude, I have yet to meet a lefty who likes paying 'em either. But we see the taxes as a necessary thing to maintain the peace. Me, I like roads and fire departments and the like. The libertarian solutions to such problems require such a degree of self-delusion and blind faith in the goodness and wisdom of corporate America as to leave me stunned. Besides, how could anyone who went to a state-sponsored school (such as your UCLA) seriously hold libertarian feelings?

My last point of uneasiness at your site came with your "Desert Storm" area. Saddam Hussein was and remains a slab of human sewage. But there was something distastefully jingoistic about your treatment of the affair. The morality of the war was hazy, and I can see reasons to fight it. On the other hand, I object to the use of the United States Army as the enforcement arm of Exxon and my friends catching shrapnel to satisfy some jerk in the Pentagon that the "Vietnam Syndrome" is over.

I guess my objection is to the seeming glee you show in portraying Saddam's defeat. It is unseemly, to be kind. Thousands of people died, many innocent civilians who don't give a rat's ass about Kuwait or Hussein or the United States, and no matter how you try to pretty it up, that single fact makes the affair a tragedy. There's no glory or honor in slaughter, and nothing was made better by the war. Kuwait is still a backwater feudal republic, Saddam is still killing and oppressing, and the U.S. is still ready to bomb the living crap out of anyone who threatens to hurt our industries. Argh.

To change direction, most of your site was great. The simple combination of art and writing works well. Struggling to get by most of the time, find a decent job, a woman, a houseplant that survives the month, I forget to reflect on the higher things in life. Returning to Cicero and Keats and all my other old drinking buddies deepens my appreciation of life. Stopping to think and reconsider the world from time to time enriches the whole thing. I dug out my old copy of Suetonius and started in on it yesterday.

Have I made a hash of your ideas and attacked you from a half-baked perspective? I'd like to think not. My side of the political fence at its worst is filled with nitwits and harebrained schemes, but at its best takes the widest possible view of the world and tries to take in all of its glories, gaining something at every opportunity. I enjoy the classics of the western world but try not to stop there.

Yes, I'm one politicized bastard, but I can't help it. When I find someone intelligent who believes in very different things from me, I love to debate. The hope is that I will never retreat into blind dogmatism. That way lies madness.

And as for that poem mentioning how (excuse the paraphrase, but I'm not going to go back and check) "...the dying janitor who wants to see his wife's breasts one last time is the greatest poet in the world..." Well said. Lust backed by art creates the finest works. I miss such things in the everyday commercial world. "Huh huh. Boobies."

Although I always had the paralyzing sensation that deep down even Byron didn't believe Byron...


Brian Reem

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       Dear Lascivious,

       Having returned from happy hours, I am a bit drunk. A more thorough reply to your questions will have to wait.

       I would cursorily say this:

-- left-wing academics like Foucault, Derrida, etc. -- which Will finds so deservedly noisome -- have arguments which are so inane they don't ultimately upset me very much. Many would claim that there is no such thing as truth but only a cultural relativism, and that surely is pretty stupid. But it is a sort of intellectual masturbation - a tempest in a teacup which has no real place in the world I and most other people live in. After having thought about it some, such arguments are so thin they hardly deserve refutation and are hardly worthy of consideration by anyone who actually has a stake in the real world. Many professors today embarrass themselves without the help of George Will, a man whose conservatism often rankles against mine. There is something a bit stuffy, uptight, and contrarian about the man, even as his intellect is formidable. Ditto with Gore Vidal. I can learn from both, but can truly admire neither. They are creatures born to wage war by pen. That is so tiresome, in the end.

       I think it not a bad thing that a thinker or thought survive fifty or a hundred years. Time is a great way to show the mettle of an idea; and I dislike this parochial idea that what is new or about our time and persons is so worthy of the most study. If you look at our universities in the liberal arts most people want to study gender, class - how it looks to us, right now, through the lens of our era. Of course this provides for superficial learning, but it is a part of the narcissim of the times. We tend to think too well of the books by authors whom we know and like personally, too poorly of those by writers with whom we disagree and do not get along; and staying away from the trendiness of the here and now in education keeps me from reading many medicore books of the last decades. Mediocre books of the last century do not survive well the test of time. And a writer who has endured twenty and odd centuries without going out of print or memory has much to say in his or her favor.

       I can think of ten things better to contemplate than the struggle between educational conservatives and multiculturalists. I could engage in that polemic, or I could invest my limited life energy and attention on teaching the young people in my classroom to grow up to be thoughtful, intelligent young adults. I choose the latter. It takes almost all my energy and time.

-- I have no argument with many of the socialist thinkers -- Bentham, LaFollet, Jennings Bryan, etc. - in the past 100 years. However, I can find little value in social reform as effected by a mob or clique bent on using a mob. John Adams wanted a country ruled by laws; Edmund Burke desired a liberty, but a regulated liberty: mobs demanding change rarely bring about long-term stability or political health to a society. Through my beer buzz, I cannot think of one revolution brought about by mobs which brought more happiness than suffering. When the Jacobins take over from the Girondists, it is all downhill... the last 100 years is very instructive as to this. As Theodor Adorno stated, "Weak and fearful people feel strong when they hold hands while running." If I hate anything, I hate a mob. I see much of the mob in l'affaire Lewinsky where so many people run hither and thither hysterically decrying or supporting the President at the top of their lungs.

       Nobody in the United States has been working for starvation wages for many a decade. And there is a big difference between some socialist protesting for a union and a Marxist ideologue spouting mind-numbing jargon in favor of a radical upturning of the whole world and execution of "class enemies." This is what so often happens when people get carried away. I like sober, well-thought out plans of reasonable action which are tied to an achievable end. As such, all this about The Way it Should Be in the form of Utopia or Heaven seems to me remiss and dangerous in questions of power. Inquisitors, Commissars - that is the stuff they produce here on earth. Jean-Paul Sartre's once claimed: "If the Communists are wrong, there is no hope for the world."

-- I am not a libertarian. I pay my taxes and dislike the radical anti-government libertarian kooks rusticating out in rural Idaho. Government is not by nature evil and ipso facto the source of our problems today, as some claim. However, I have worked for enough government agencies to see how often they botch things and misuse other people's money to no end. I truly do think the government which governs the least governs best. That does not mean I am willing to cut taxes in a big way from where they are now. (In no way am I radical, unless it be for how we should change our K-12 public school system.) Of course we live in a "mixed economy"; I am hardly for turning the clock back to 1895, or even 1929 - even as I have approved and voted consistently for the rightward move in the last twenty years - a long-overdue compensation to the excesses of the welfare state and the bloated monster of the Great Society. A move towards the left will come eventually, and will be appropriate at that moment. I assure you I will vote for it. I perhaps even see it coming.

- I have lots of pity for some poor son-of-a-bitch Iraqi sitting in a ditch during the Gulf War being bombed night after night into the dust. However, I cannot but see the Gulf War as a shrewd geopolitical move by the United States against a strategic threat from Hussein. The predominant world power, we were going to fight Saddam sooner or later. So much of my formal education being in international relations, I am pretty cold-blooded when it comes to power politics on the world stage. Sure we killed Iraqis out in the desert like there was no end to them - I never, like some Americans did, viewed that war like a bloodless video game. But such is the nature of international relations; if the United States does not like the heat, it should get out of the kitchen. You fight a guy like Saddam sooner or later. It is no different on the streets. Such is life.

       I was not so much jingoistic in my adulation of America in that war as relieved that we got out of it with so little loss of American life. I was amazed the U.S. government could act so efficaciously after so many self-inflicted mistakes in the recent past. Kudos to George Bush. You say the war was a "tragedy." International affairs by definition is a tragedy. So it goes.

       Well, now you are making me lose my buzz - debating tires me, and these issues mean less and less to me every year, I am sorry to say (and check out the more personal sections of my website if you wish to know what truly interests me). Although we don't agree on certain seminal issues, I appreciate your civil, tactful tone. Such is appreciated, believe me; you would not believe so much e-mail I get which is neither civil or tactful. Or the other 90% which is little better than some teenager saying, "Cool site, dude!" It is so nice to see the Internet used for thoughtful conversation. Such a use is, in my experience, all too rare. And tone is everything in the context of our human species which all too often goes for the jugular by instinct. What a pleasure to read an intelligent e-mail for a change!

       Be well wherever you are, Mr. Lascivious (who I suspect writes me anonymous e-mail from work via lycosmail).

       Very Truly Yours,

       Rich Geib

P.S. Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C is playing on my CD player with Mitsuko Uchida playing. It is glorious! I leave you for it.

Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 08:46:21 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Knowing a hawk from a handsaw

Dear Mr. Geib:

First, I'd like to apologize for killing your buzz from Happy Hour. I hate when that happens. There I am, merrily gadding about on the crest of a wave of lager, when some knucklehead starts me thinking about interest rates and capital punishment and all of that sober stuff when all I really want to do is ascertain whether or not the redhead in the corner is "vibing" me or not. Whoops. I possess the gift of poor timing.

And I did sign the email, down at the bottom. Hopefully that part got through. My name is Brian Reem, I'm staring down my twenty-fifth birthday, and I currently labor as a drone for a piece of the Military Industrial Complex (a division of GodCorp) while searching for something meaningful to do. And yes, I wrote the last one (and this one too) while at work. I'm "stickin' it to the man." I'm also between major assignments and stuck in a storeroom with no one around anywhere. Solitude plus boredom equals verbosity. Ask any Russian novelist.

Your response to my critiques of Will and Bloom were heartening. The reason I never went to graduate school and confounded the expectations of almost everyone who knew me was my impatience with the onanistic behavior of the academy. Rather than slide from school to school discussing and dissecting life, I decided to try it instead. Being as worldly as a hamster, this led to some misadventures which read a lot better than they lived. Despite it all, I remain unable to face the self-important wanking required to move on in the scholarly world. Modern philosophy makes me itch.

I still disagree with your reading of Hussein and the conflict in Iraq, but such is life. "Realpolitik" isn't, and conflict is seldom inevitable. I know there are times when force is required, but my standard for what those times are is high. Clinton's recent "Monica Who?" attacks on "terrorist bases" I found dangerous. Okay, you hit a few places and kill a few folks you think are terrorists. (Given the US intelligence track record, I already find that proposition dubious.) But say your analysts were totally right. Great. Now you have whole peoples angry because you bombed them. If the UK bombed a site in Boston used to supply the IRA, we'd be cheesed, and rightfully so. Violence creates violence. They have to be stopped, but cruise missiles ain't gonna do it.

Perhaps this is opening up a can o' worms I should leave shut, but you hinted about many ideas regarding public education. I would most definitely like to hear what you have to say. The only ideas I have came from my own education and what I thought worked. My high school had an unusual program called "Humanities" I took senior year that introduced me to art and music history in addition to the beginnings of philosophy and of course, literature. It was extremely popular with the students and most satisfying. That kind of program I would argue belongs in every school. Reading the Crito and hearing Haydn for the first time opened up whole worlds for me. Giotto's painting of the Pieta still gives me chills; his rendition of Mary struck me powerfully after having been immersed in early medieval painting for months prior.

Regarding your comments on mob rule and communism and whatnot, I certainly would not argue in favor of the Committee for Public Safety. What I meant was that the moderate leftists gained a voice largely because they were a safe alternative to the howling ideologues and their cries for blood. Without the implied threat behind them, the moderates would have been sent home with a polite no thanks, and were, many times. Rather than risk the wrath of the mob, the entrenched powers could give in to the more reasonable demands of the moderates and hope to calm down the radicals, staving off violence to themselves and their possessions.

I liked that quote from (I think) Yeats, to never trust a man who never wrote a love poem. I know a few who haven't, and believe me, I don't. The divorcing of passion from intellect leads either to sterility or shouting. My brother teaches debate at a vo-tech school in New England. His mission is to teach his students how to bring those two together and effect change by words alone. He gets all goose-pimply talking about it, as do I.

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss things beyond getting a real job or trying to snag some sweet young thing. Although both quests dominate my life right now, I appreciate the ability to pause and focus on things of real importance, such as truth and beauty and all of that stuff that's making me think of Keats right now. Keats makes me think of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," which makes me think of my ex-girlfriend, which...-shudder-. Never mind.

Good luck with the students and the fight against ignorance.

Brian Reem

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