On Indifference and Outrage

Those high-brow fellows over at Commentary magazine recently published a fine essay on the art world’s self-inflected irrelevance, and we recommend it to all our culture vulture readers who still take an interest in such things. We’ve already fulminated a few times on these pages about pretty much the same unhappy point, though, and what most struck us was an opening anecdote that nicely illustrates an even bigger problem with what people are now indifferent to and what still offends them.
The author, who seems such a reasonable thinker that we are pleasantly surprised to note he is somehow the Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art at Williams College, recalls showing one of his classes the grainy black-and-white film documentation of a 1971 performance art piece by the late Chris Burden, which involved having a friend shoot him in the arm with .22-calibre rifle at close range. We can still recall how the alleged artwork provoked a wide range of reactions even at such a late date in modernity as 1971, but the 21st Century students who watched were mostly interested in the legal ramifications and tried hard to it put into the context that savvy art students now understand their professors expect, but were otherwise indifferent. The professor seems somewhat surprised at such a dispassionate reaction to the spectacle of a man being shot in the arm at close range by .22-calibre rifle, but we are not. As the professor notes in the rest of his essay, even by the time Burns got around to it this sort of shock-the-squares stuff had already been going in the art world since approximately the end of World War I, and that Burns had to top it by having himself famously crucified atop a Volkswagen Beetle, and that subsequent attempts at giving offense have required ever more over-the-top outrages, so by now indifference to such efforts is both the sophisticated and sensible reaction.
What strikes us as odd, and went unmentioned by the professor, is that these same 21st Century students are the ones who require “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and protection from “micro-aggressions” and outright censorship of Ovid or Mark Twain or The Bible or that vaguely Republican commencement speaker or any other vestige of pre-World War I Western Civilization that might call into question the comforting consensus of academic opinion. Such strangely differing standards of what should be met with indifference and what should be met with offense are by no means confined to the academy, or to those corners of the world only culture vultures still take an interest in, but also define the broader public’s approach to politics.
Thus The New York Times is outraged by the four traffic tickets that Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio has received over the past 20 years, but seemingly indifferent to the four brave Americans who were killed in an American consulate in Libya that failed to receive requested security from Democratic presidential contender and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following her ill-fated war against Libya. Thus the civil rights establishment is aroused to hash-tagging “black lives matter” and rioting in the streets when a black man is killed by police in even the most justifiable circumstances, yet indifferent to the vastly greater number of black men killed by other black men, and further indifferent when that horrible number inevitably increases after the hash-tagging and rioting inevitably hamper law enforcement efforts in poor black neighborhoods. Thus it is that polite opinion holds the insane profligacy of the Greek government is not only to be tolerated but forever to be subsidized, while a corporation that prefers not to pay its minimum wage employees any more than they produce is considered outrageously greedy. Thus it is that the mass executions of homosexuals in the Islamic world is met with sincere attempts to understand context and generally with indifference, while some Baptist confectioner’s reluctance to bake a gay wedding cake is met with widespread outrage.
A couple of years after Burden’s performance art piece provoked widespread outrage the public was so shocked by executive lawlessness that President Richard Nixon was forced to resign, with the second article of impeachment being that he had dared raise the possibility of using the Internal Revenue Service to harass his political opponents, but these days the president flouts immigration law with powers that even he had previously stated he does not constitutionally possess, and the stories about how the IRS actually did harass his political enemies and then engage in a Nixonian but up-to-date cover-up continue to trickle out, yet it is met with indifference. Perhaps it’s the same process of the public becoming inured to indifference by endless repetition, but that can’t explain why there’s still plenty of outrage left for far less inconsequential matters.
We continue to read about those high-brow culture vulture issues even in this age of art’s irrelevance, and to follow all those silly academic quarrels going on within the “safe spaces” from “micro-aggressions,” even as we recognize that by now they are of far less importance than the first four dead Americans from a failed foreign policy and the overlooked black lives that are taken while the police are under indictment and the eventual global consequences of the profligacy of the Greeks and just about everyone and the horrible fate of homosexuals in the Islamic world and the injustice being done to traditionalist confectioners in the name of homosexual rights, because we think they also matter. A society that can no longer recognize the difference between art and some nihilistic nutcase inviting a friend to shoot him in the arm, or prefers the comforting consensus of contemporary academic opinion to the challenging truths of of Ovid and Mark Twain and The Bible and that vaguely Republican commencement speaker or any of the rest of pre-World War I western civilization, is unlikely to choose wisely about what should be met with indifference and what should be met with outrage.

— Bud Norman

Academia Nuts

A friend of ours is fond of citing the fact that Kansas has the third least-educated legislature in the country, and he always sounds rather embarrassed for the state when doing so. We can’t confirm that this actually is a fact, but even if it is true that our legislature’s level of educational attainment is closer to Abraham Lincoln’s than Barack Obama’s we are not bothered. William F. Buckley famously stated he’d “rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston phonebook than to the faculty of Harvard University,” and these days we’ll go even further to say that we’d vote for a randomly selected high school dropout over many of the highly credential academics we keep encountering in the news.
Almost every day brings some further news corroborating our opinion that academia has more or less gone crazy. Last week we were grousing about that British professor who wants parents who read bedtime stories to their children to feel bad about, and just yesterday we were ridiculing that Harvard professor who thinks that Christians don’t care about poverty, and on any given day we can make fun of the “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and “micro-aggressions” and other assaults on free speech and common sense that are fixtures of the modern campus, but today it’s the latest ravings of Boston University’s Saida Gundy.
The newly installed assistant professor of sociology and African-Amercan studies had already made the news with a series of profanely worded and randomly capitalized “tweets” that called white males a “problem population” and asserted “white masculinity is THE problem for America’s colleges,” among other similarly bigoted opinions. The statements were enough to prompt a reprimand from the university’s president and force Gundy to issue a statement of regret “that my personal passion about these issues led me to speak about them indelicately” because “I deprived them of the nuance and complexity that such subjects always deserve.” One might hope that her white male students will get a more nuanced and complex explanation of why they’re awful people just by virtue of their race and sex, but a subsequent internet rant suggests that the assistant professor’s personal passions are more likely to prevail.
It all began when a Facebook page linked to an article criticizing an actress’ Academy Award acceptance speech calling on blacks and homosexuals to support the cause of equal pay for women, and a woman who identified herself as white and a rape victim posted her disagreements, adding in usual Facebook post fashion that “I LITERALLY cry and lose sleep over this.” The post so offended Gundy that she responded in her own clumsy style that “‘I literally cry’ … While we literally die,” and added a link with the suggestion “try this article. A white woman explaining this issue to other white women … who manages NOT to cry while doing it!” This prompted a reply of “No really. I got it. You can take your claws out, thanks.” This provoked such passion in Gundy that nuance and complexity and standard English once again were lost, as she hit the capital letters key to respond “THIS IS THE SH*T I AM TALKING ABOUT. WHY DO YOU GET TO PLAY THE VICTIM EVERY TIME PEOPLE OF COLOR AND OUR ALLIES WANT TO POINT OUT RACISM. my CLAWS?? Do you see how you just took an issue that WASNT about you, MADE it about you, and NOW want to play the victim when I take the time to explain to you some sh*t that is literally $82,000 below my pay grade? And then you promote your #whitegirltears like that’s some badge you get to wear … YOU BENEFIT FROM RACISM. WE’RE EXPLAINING THAT TO YOU and you’re vilifying my act of intellectual altruism by saying I stuck my “claws into you?” This was enough for her target to post that she would “exit” the conversation, but Gundy added a final taunt to “go cry somewhere, since that’s what you do.” After another brief rant, complete with the random capitalizations and the mistaken use of “prospective” rather and perspective, she signed off with “My name is ‘Sai,’ but you can call me Dr. Gundy.”
Being foul-mouthed, illiterate, childish, insensitive, and arrogant, not to mention so conspicuously lacking in nuance and complexity, usually wouldn’t cause a professor any grief, but the fact Gundy’s passion was unleashed on a woman who identified herself as a rape victim might prove problematic. The posts have been removed from the Facebook page, although they were caught on “screen shots” by several offended readers who have passed them along to the university’s administration, and at this point Gundy isn’t saying anything about it, and so far neither has the university. Our guess is that those lucky Boston University students who are paying $46,644 in tuition for a lucrative degree in African-American studies will get plenty of Gundy for their money.
Should she find herself out of a job, Gundy could move to Kansas run for the state legislature in any of a few carefully gerrymandered districts we have out here. Her doctorate would raise that average level of education in the legislature, but we don’t think her presence would make it any smarter.

— Bud Norman

Don’t Know Much About History

The most unsurprising news of the day was a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that America’s schools are doing a poor job of teaching history and civics. They’ve quantified the problem with some truly appalling numbers on the students who are even considered proficient in these subjects by today’s lax standards, and we thank them for the service, but they’re not telling us anything we haven’t already noticed from our daily encounters with our fellow citizens.
Most Americans rarely talk about the issues of the day, in our experience, but when the talk does stray beyond sports and gossip and other reality shows we are routinely struck by how very impassioned the opinions are, how little information seems to be backing them up, and how quickly even the most adamantly opinionated will retreat from the basic sorts of questions that a well-educated citizen would ask before reaching even tentative conclusions. Here in Kansas you’ll a lot of grousing about the state budget these days, for instance, but we’ve yet to hear any of it from someone who can make a remotely close guess about how much is being spent or where it’s going or how it compares to other states, and they seem strangely proud of their ignorance about the economic arguments advanced by their opponents, or about economics at all. When the conversation occasionally veers into some historical perspective, we are invariably flabbergasted to find how very little people about even the recent past, and how much of what they think they know is provably wrong.
We’d like to attribute this to our unfortunate luck in our conversational encounters, but we find the same lack of information understanding throughout the broader public debate. Journalists report that a massive influx of unskilled labor won’t depress wages for unskilled laborers, as if the law of supply and demand has somehow been repealed, the president can’t reproach Christians for the Crusades, as if they hadn’t been preceded by hundreds of years of steadily enriching Islamic imperialism, academics ascribe to the conventional wisdom that the financial crisis of ’08 was caused by deregulation and the financial industry’s greed, as if regulations hadn’t required banks to make risky loans that an enlightened self-interest would have otherwise declined, and almost everyone seems willing to ascribe the most dastardly motives for anyone who disagrees with those conclusions they’ve reached without any information. It’s a sorry state of discourse in America, which likely has much to do with the sorry state of affairs.
The narcissism of the the age is probably partly responsible, as so many of the people we talk seem to have acquired such healthy self-esteem from their public schooling that they have little use for anything that happened before their blessed arrival or might happen after their tragic departure, but we mostly blame the schools. According to a woman at the National Center for Policy Analysis “the curriculum rarely engages students,” which seems obvious, but she cites a study by the University of Central Florida which found “74 percent of middle school students report that they dislike social studies class due to the emphasis on reading from the textbook, rote-memorization, and note-taking,” which is not so convincing. We wouldn’t expect a bunch of ill-educated and snot-nosed middle school students to understand that reading from textbooks and committing essential facts to memory and taking notes are all unavoidable tasks when acquiring an education, although we had hoped that people working for places with highfalutin names like the National Center for Policy Analysis and the University of Central Florida would know that, but we can hardly blame the youngsters for thinking that what’s in their textbooks and the facts they’re expected to memorize and the notes they taking down from the current generation of civics and history teachers are not worth the effort.
So far as we can glean from the tirades about social justice that we overhear in the local hipster dives and the jokes on the Daily Show and the lines on the president’s teleprompter, what history is being taught in the schools these days is a relentlessly depressing tale of oppression and exploitation and environmental rapine by some nebulous white capitalist Christian patriarchal power structure. We’re all for a warts-and-all telling of America’s and western civilization’s history, but this warts-only approach is conspicuously lacking in the sort of heroism that made us want to read on and remember the main points and take notes, and even an ill-educated and snot-nosed middle school student will intuitively understand that it does little to explain the world of opportunities that they’ll eventually inhabit, and even those inclined to believe in their eternal status as victims of cruel world they never made will note that this version of history offers them no viable solutions. The civics classes similarly dispiriting, and so lacking in the vigorous competition of our society’s great ideas that those who graduate on to college are given “trigger warnings” about the potentially upsetting notions that once fueled the great advances of America and the West and offered “safe spaces” full of stuffed dolls and puppy videos to escape from the trauma of confronting a truly diverse and complex world.
The woman at the National Center for Policy Analysis recommends getting more students involved in competitive debate, and at an earlier age, and that helpful suggestion is admirably backed by the group’s financial support for such programs, but even that once-stubborn redoubt of genuinely rigorous education has lately succumbed to all that race-class-gender nonsense. Our only advice is to get more children into private schools like the one a young friend of ours attends, where they teach hard math, and classical history with the warts as well as the parts about freedom and the rule of law and the accumulation of knowledge, and how to think through a problem by beginning with all the relevant knowable information, and plenty of reading from textbooks and memorizing key facts and taking notes and all the rest of those unavoidable tasks of acquiring an education. They’re telling an engaging story at that school, and our young friend seems to think it’s well worth the effort to learn it, and we can’t see why that sort of thing wouldn’t work at any other school.

— Bud Norman

Safe Rooms in an Unsafe World

One of our longstanding literary ambitions has been to write a satirical novel about the modern university, something along the lines of Mary McCarthy’s “The Groves of Academe” or Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim” or Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” but it looks as if we’ll have to abandon the project. Academia¬†is now more ripe for ridicule than ever, but apparently to the point that it is beyond satire.
Such a humorless publication as The New York Times recently ran a rather straightforward story that the latest campus contretemps that the combined talents of Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and the usual gang of idiots at Mad Magazine could not have rendered anything more comical. Headlined “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” the story told how Brown University hosted a debate between the founder of a feminist web site called feministing.com and a female libertarian on the topic of the “culture of rape” that now reportedly pervades the American campus, and how members of the school’s Sexual Assault Task Force responded to this exchange of ideas. Worried that the libertarian’s perspective on the issue “could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” and might even be “damaging,” the Sexual Assault Task Force members created a “safe space” for traumatized listeners to retreat from the debate, complete with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Even if we had the imagination to concoct such absurd details, we would have rejected them as too obvious a burlesque of the infantilizing nature of modern higher education.
As The New York Times ruefully notes, such episodes are now common at America’s colleges and universities. Almost every day tells of a student being disciplined for merely questioning the veracity of that highly questionable “one if five women on campus are victims of sexual assault” claim, or professors being charged with “micro-aggressions” for patting the arm of a student angered by an opposing viewpoint, textbooks coming with “trigger warning” to alert the possibility of unapproved ideas, or women’s rights activists being barred from campus because they’re advocating the rights of women in the wrong cultures, or some other more mundane case of campus activists chasing dissenting views off campus. Institutions of higher learning once insisted on vigorous debate and an unflinching look at facts as necessary tools to the discovery of truth, but they’ve now determined they have all the truth they need and no longer anything as potentially traumatizing as debate and unwelcome facts. Little good is likely to come of it, and certainly less than one would expect for the tuition prices being charged today.
The same censorious instincts are found in the broader left, and¬†score the occasional victories against free speech, but they are unlikely to prevail outside the campus. Reality intrudes outside the campus, as well as what’s left of the First Amendment, and most people who haven’t undergone an expensive indoctrination at such elite institutions as Brown University find it very annoying. Nor will anyone who has been so carefully shielded from opposing opinions and unpleasant realities be likely to prevail in the rough-and-tumble of American politics. Worse yet for those who took refuge with the cookies and coloring books and videos of frolicking puppies, they’ll be up against conservative foes who spent their years of higher education being constantly bullied, ridiculed, and shouted down for their beliefs, not just by their professors and deans but also by all the movies and television shows and the rest of the popular culture. The right’s arguments will be honed and its spines stiffened by the college experience, if they get nothing else out of it except perhaps for a still-lucrative degree in math or science or engineering or one those other suspiciously “objective” disciplines.
Even those supposedly oppressed sub-cultures that the left presumes to speak for are unlikely to offer the same sort of refuge as the modern university. If those people retreating to the “safe rooms” of Brown University are planning on community organizing in America’s poor neighborhoods, they’ll find that there are no cookies or coloring books or videos of frolicking puppies, and plenty of uncomfortable facts that they’d rather not face.

— Bud Norman