Advertisements

An Unduly Hard Month of May in the Current Age of Reason

This month of May has already taken a deadly toll on the intellectual life of America, in ways both figurative and literal. Aside from all the daily dumbing-down of the United States that you’ll note in the headlines and talk radio chatter, we’ve also lost some of the very best minds from the previous better era of high culture and academia.
Earlier this month we penned a heartfelt farewell to Tom Wolfe, who was the greatest American writer of the past half-century in our opinion, and now we find ourselves respectfully noting the past week’s deaths of both Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis, who in our opinion were the two most formidable thinkers of their time in their essential academic fields
Neither Pipes nor Lewis were ever nearly as household-name famous as any of the Kardashians or the latest rap star or that lawyer for a porno performer who’s lately been on the cable channels causing all sorts of problems for the President of the United States, but in the long run we expect they’ll prove far more consequential.
Pipes, who died on May 17 at the age of 94, was a Harvard professor of Russian and Soviet history. That sounds pretty boring by current pop culture standards, and that Harvard professorship will immediately raise suspicions among the current version of conservative talk radio chatter, but his scholarly analysis of the Cold War, which was a hot topic at the time, played a key role in bringing that conflict to a for-now successful conclusion for what’s left of Western Civilization and classically liberal democracy.
Despite his Harvard professorship and the academic fashions of his moment, which politely agreed that international communism was an historical inevitability, Pipes daringly predicted that the Soviet model’s fundamental flaws doomed it to failure that a robust challenge from a more culturally and economically vibrant and militarily stronger West could more quickly bring about. President Ronald Reagan had already reached the same conclusion, but he still drew on the depth of Pipes’ analysis as he pursued that agenda, and he was quite effective in noting to the press and public opinion that his policies had the imprimatur of a some fancy-assed Harvard professor who scholarship was unchallenged even by his critics. Both Pipes and Reagan suffered the derision of the left, which was probably harder on the academic Pipes, but for now they seem vindicated by history.
Lewis, who died Saturday at the ripe old age of 101, was a longtime professor of Middle Eastern studies at the equally fancy-pants Princeton University. That sounds pretty boring to the popular culture and suspicious to the talk radio chatter, too, but he also did Western Civilization a huge favor by defying academic fashions about the great global civilizational clash that was unleashed at the end the Cold War.
Lewis was born into a middle-class Jewish American family around the same time T.E. Lawrence, who had majored in was was then called “Orientalism” at an elite British University, was leading an Arab revolt to help Britain’s efforts in World War I. By the time Lewis was pursuing his higher education in the same discipline it was called Middle Eastern studies, but he went at it with the same diligence and cultural confidence as “Lawrence of Arabia.” He mastered Hebrew far beyond what his Bar Mitzvah reading required, became equally fluent in Farsi and Arabic, modestly joked that he could “make the noises” of another 11 languages, and dug deeply into all of the cultures those languages represented and reported his finding in pristine English prose.
Although he inevitably found plenty of good and bad in all the cultures he surveyed, as well as the intrusive and all-too-human culture he came from, Lewis never shied from the necessary judgments needed to make sense of it all. He frequently defied the academic fashions of his time by opining that fundamental differences between the Islamic and more or less Judeo-Christian cultures made a “conflict of civilizations” inevitably in an increasingly small world, and that in the long run the world would be better off the more culturally and economically and military stronger West prevailed.
Despite his undisputed scholarship and Ivy League credentials, in the 1990’s Lewis was challenged as the premier Middle Eastern scholar by Columbia professor Edward Said, whose surprisingly best-selling book “Orientalism” charged that the academic field was still tainted by a Occidental bias against the poor victims of the West’s rapacious colonialism. The debate was still raging when some suicidal Islamist terrorists crashed hijacked airplanes into the Wold Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field way back in ’01, and for a while there the debate between Lewis and Said was a hot topic. Both sides have since had considerable influence on subsequent events, for better and worth, but for now Lewis has been more influential, and we expect that in the long he will be vindicated.
For now, though, one month’s loss of the likes of the clear-eyed likes of Wolfe and Pipes and Lewis gives some worry, ¬†especially when the rest of the news and talk radio chatter is so alarmingly divorced from the sort of fact-based and dispassionately objective analysis these men once provided.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Our Least Favorite TV Show

Donald Trump’s new reality show is even more annoying than the last one, which you could at least turn off. This time around he’s on all the channels, all the time, and even if you turn off the television altogether and try to escape into the serious news on the internet he’s all over all that as well.
The show is apparently quite popular, judging by the record-setting audience for a way-too-early Republican presidential debate and Trump’s sizable plurality in this silly season of political polling, and it’s not all surprising. Trump’s campaign has all the elements of a hit reality show, with a rude and insulting and self-absorbed main character, plenty of gaudy bling to be vicariously enjoyed, and of course constant conflict. Just like those “Real Housewives” of various places and that “Snooky” person from “Jersey Shore” or the assorted Kardashians and their transgendered celebrity neighbors and the well-toned deviants trying to be the “Survivor” in some hellish jungle or remote island, the more outrageously Trump behaves the greater his popularity becomes. Even his latest celebrity tiff, with Fox News’ appropriately pretty journalist Megyn Kelly, provoked by her tough-but-fair questions during the debates, and followed in the next day’s episode by Trump telling some friendlier journalist that “she had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” seems to have helped his ratings.
This would be just another mildly depressing example of America’s cultural decline, but Trump’s new act is presidential politics, and what makes for a hit reality show is not what is needed to properly govern a great nation. Trump’s most avid admirers believe otherwise, and argue that confrontational trash-talking and a certain boorish forcefulness and nihilistic disregard for any and all conventions will get all those Wall Street conspirators and head-chopping Islamists and job-stealing Chinese and Mexicans in line the same way that all those other reality show stars imposed their will on their weaker co-stars. They’re unable to name any successful leader of a great nation who has acted according to this theory, while we’re able to reel off a number of leaders of failed states who did so, but at this point people are enjoying the show to much to pause for such considerations.
One fellow we know who’s reasonable enough that he’ll eventually make that pause, but in the meantime he’s saying how much he likes that Trump is willing to bluntly express his opinions. We noted that Trump is now bluntly stating many opinions are very different than the ones he was bluntly stating just a year or so, and would likely be bluntly stating a whole new set of opinions should he ever find himself in a position that forced him to confront reality, but the fellow still seemed to relish the bluntness. Another friend already isn’t likely to support Trump, but insists that a record audience for a Republican debate and the rest of the media attention can only help the party. We argue that having so many people cheering for a reality show star’s gratuitous insults and preening braggadocio and utter lack of real solutions to America’s many dire problems, and seeing the very distinguished lot of successful Governors and distinguished Senators who make up the rest of the field being reduced to co-star status, is not likely to enhance the GOP’s image. All of Trump’s apologists mention his willingness to “fight” the media and the party’s leadership, as if sending out schoolyard taunts via “Tweets” and growling like one of those professional wrestlers were akin to actual fighting, but if they were to take stock of the rest of Trump’s co-stars they’d notice that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took on the public sector unions, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has repeatedly defied his party leadership in a quixotic battle against Obamacare and deficit spending, and pretty much all of them are also pushing back against media bias without resorting to vulgarity.
We take some hope in the fact that it’s still way too early for presidential politics and this is the silly season of polling, and thus far most reality show stars have eventually returned to a well-earned obscurity, but we very eager for Trump to be cancelled.

— Bud Norman