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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

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Battering Rams in Wisconsin

This is America, where a citizen is free to express opinions and participate in politics without fear of retribution. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, but the ideal seems to be slipping away. The diminution of fresh speech is not just a matter of the increasingly confined parameters of polite opinion, enforced by boycotts and restricted career opportunities and the howling of mobs, or even the usual heavy hand of government, such as the harassment of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service or the politicized prosecutions by the Department of Justice or the extra regulatory scrutiny applied to those businesses donating to the wrong candidates. It has now come to the point that armed agents of the government have been invading homes, seizing property, and bullying ordinary citizens into silence for no reason other than their political beliefs.
If this sounds like the most far-fetched sort of paranoid right-wing fantasy, we’d urge you to read David French’s chilling article, headlined “Wisconsin’s Shame: ‘I Thought it Was a Home Invasion,'” at The National Review. Although there had already been scattered reports about the outrageous “John Doe Investigation” that a renegade prosecutor and a rubber-stamping judge had launched against various groups that supported Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to reform the state’s collective bargaining laws regarding public sector unions, a fishing expedition which was eventually halted by a higher court that rightly considered it a clear attempt to intimidate the prosecutor’s political opponents into silence, only now are those targeted in the investigation coming forward with stories about doors being broken down with battering rams, computers being confiscated, children being terrified, neighbors being scandalized, and dozens of heavily armed police officers shouting warnings that no lawyers were to be contacted and no was to be told. The descriptions evoke Nazi-era Germany or the Soviet bloc, but it happened in Wisconsin, the birthplace of the “progressive movement.”
One can hope that it was a rare occurrence, now ended by the prevailing cooler heads of a higher court according to constitutional design, but one can only hope. There’s no way to be sure that other similarly terrified citizens are still staying silent as warned, and that an indifferent press is happy to leave it to the likes of a high-brow and relatively little-read right-wing publication such as The National Review to report on such inconsequential news if they ever come forward. Given the gleeful ostracizing of anyone who dissents from the consensus of progressive opinion regarding same-sex marriage or global warming, the hateful lies of the lynch mobs that are roused by racial hustlers and Rolling Stone fabulists and the “community outreach teams” of the Justice Department, the presidential rhetoric that warns any critics their dissent “needs to stop,” the increasingly apparent realization that no one at the Internal Revenue Service or the Justice Department or any of those regulatory agencies will ever suffer any consequences for their misdeeds, the indifference of the press, and the sheer seething hatred toward anything conservative we hear from all the liberal media and all the liberals we know, a hatred that seems to have overwhelmed whatever love they once had for freedom and the rule of law, we are no longer surprised to hear even the stories that evoke Nazi Germany and the Soviet bloc.
Please pass along that chilling story about what happened in Wisconsin, because we expect that most of the mass media will regard it as local and of little consequence and not nearly so important as anything slightly embarrassing they might come up with about Gov. Scott Walker. At the risk of a battering ram at the door, we’ll say it’s a matter of the greatest consequence. This is America, after all, where a citizen should be free to express an opinion and participate in the political process without fear of retribution.

— Bud Norman