As a manager in nonprofit world, I have to read The Chronicle Review, a sub-section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Many of the articles are fascinating and the writing is frequently excellent. Reading some pieces makes me grind my teeth; I remind myself that every social milieu requires consensual hallucinations that appear ludicrous from outside. However, the December 2, 2011 issue contains an article entitled Sympathy for Eichmann? which so offends against reality and good sense as to demand an active response.
The author of this egregious piece of airy nonsense is Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University; responding in the Chronicle Review would be pointless, as I do not share the required consensual hallucination.
Marc Bousquet is responding to an article by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, an article I have not read. Bousquet’s summary and quotes make it read as the usual drivel – Bousquet characterizes it as
It [The article] neatly targets the magazine’s readership—the morally-conflicted members of the professional-managerial class and educators (inhabiting the upper and lower half of the top income quintile, respectively), which is to say, “us.”
Quite a neat dismissal, that paragraph. Further, the fire is from the left; as ruthlessly brilliant a skewering administered by an academic with an intellectual stiletto lying ready to his hand as it’s been my pleasure to read when not preceded by pace Professor So-and-so. And – had our Hero not smartly retreated from addressing the active reality of the pepper-spraying at UC Davis – a deserved fusillade from the serious left1.
Our Hero retreated into a hallucination that touches reality at only two points: The name of the policeman – Lt. John Pike – and that pepper spray was, indeed, used on college students.
For context, from The P/Oed Patriot (I cannot follow linkage any further back, and I accept any corrections on my sourcing with gratitude), note that the protesters were told they were to be sprayed. The protesters agreed. They were, duly, sprayed.
At this point, we leave the realm of what happened, and enter the fantasies of 1) the entitled, indulged dramatists, who claimed they were “tortured” (and giggled about it: see video here), and claimed that four needed hospitalization (I really want to read the medical reports. Then I want to know if they needed anything more than distilled water and a smack for hysterics), 2) the press, which loves pictures and a narrative more than life itself, and 3) the pundits of The Atlantic and – angels and ministers of grace preserve us – Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English at Santa Clara University.
The flavor of his commentary can be summed up thus:
We get the point, as far it goes: Most victims of police brutality recover, but the policeman remains a brute. The ruling class doesn’t do its own dirty work; it pays the weakest of us very well to be its police (and university administrators, corporate lawyers, etc).
The associate professor condemns Lt. Pike as one who “remains a brute”, though, generally speaking, police lieutenants do not wield pepper spray. Pepper spray is administered by someone lower ranking. However, knowing that cameras were everywhere, that the students are the children of presumed societal privilege (I remind the readers that the root of that word means “private law”), the cosseted and indulged wielders of a peculiar position of extended adolescence that presumes their innocence and righteousness against all other societal claims, and conscious of real world consequences, Lieutenant Pike took the pepper spray in hand and administered it, rather than leaving someone of lesser status – and presumably deeper brutishness – holding the can.
In contrast, the protesters, who consented to being sprayed (despite their howls, tears, and writhing) suffered no real world consequences. Grade point averages will not drop, nor will class standing. Their friends and teachers and parents will not punish them; their future employers will not think worse of them, nor hesitate to hire them. They will receive sympathy, support, and – quite possibly – financial remuneration. Indeed, aside from some discomfort, they are now heroes of the revolution.
That the students and Occupy-wherever-but-conspicuously-college-campuses are not serious should, by now, be obvious to any observer.
Somehow, though, our Hero, Marc Bousquet, sails by this simple difference, oblivious.
He writes – correctly, if blithely:
It makes us feel better about our own complicities: I serve the system in some ways too but I’d never do what that guy does!
Addressing Bousquet’s own class and kind, this brief paragraph has virtue. Truly, it does. No one who honestly believes that he has sold his soul to an inimical, diabolically indifferent ruling class has any business pretending he is not complicit. The duty of the honest leftist to bring the collaborator into confrontation with his compromised position cannot be gainsaid. However, our Hero, Bousquet, in the process of excoriating his fellows for their comfortable moral abdication, forgets to notice the point I raised a few paragraphs back.
Bousquet, in full cry, writes:
It produces smug condescension. We have a few moral scars ourselves, but overall we feel glad that we’re not morally deformed on Pike’s scale. We feel wise to have exchanged a degree of possible monetary rewards for affective compensation instead. The framing material is one step away from the consumable irony of The Colbert Report, which has a vast, enthusiastic viewership among those whose ideology it purportedly skewers. Like Colbert’s material, Madrigal’s frame makes it pretty easy to consume the piece in ways all too close to the one he claims to critique. [Emphasis mine.]
Some years ago, I read a piece in the Weekly Standard which remarked that an author – I believe a European – had failed to grasp the depth of American irony. I flinched. Presently, I do not fault anyone for missing the depth of American irony; our finest academics, employing terms like “consumable irony” employ a depth of self-referential irony that defeats a casual reader. Or, more bluntly: The man who declines to place a subordinate in a situation likely to result in (at best) communal calumny and at worst, dismissal, career, social and financial ruin by performing his assigned duty of dispersing disorderly persons as humanely as possible (batons to the head are not treated with distilled water, a sharp slap, and some sympathy) by taking responsibility into his own hands, is morally deformed.
Our Hero, in paroxysms of moral superiority, declaims:
Of course, many of us having made many better choices than Pike doesn’t make us perfect. Far from it. We have accepted a whole lot of Eichmann in our own lives. We could choose a lot more democracy than at present—particularly in our workplaces and schools.
The lesson of Lt. Pike is not that he’s the victim of a lousy policy (“just the end point” of a system of which he “is a casualty too,” as Madrigal says). The lesson is that even within a flawed system he could and should have chosen better. So can we all.
I leave to the reader who is the Eichmann in this piece. It could have been an honest – if openly leftist – attack on the moral comforts afforded by accommodation and moral relativism. Bousquet could have dropped his own moral superciliousness, and acknowledged the fundamental difference between the serious moral choice of Lt. Pike and indulged, entitled, over-grown adolescent dramatists. That Bousquet did not – cannot – even begin to address the difference, falling back on hackneyed clichés (the policeman as brute and agent for the ruling class), rather than taking note of the Lieutenant’s co-option as a two-dimensional backdrop to the play-acting-at-revolution initiation of the next generation of the Universitariat [forgive my neologism] speaks to his own, fundamental, frivolity.
1 Yes, there is such a thing. They should worry you, because they can think, and they mean what they say. Usually, in my experience, they are South Americans and their numbers dwindle; I am not sure that we are not poorer for it, as it means all that we have left to sharpen our arguments against and test our own seriousness with are the intellectually vacuous moral cowards of American college leftists. Without a serious opponent, one is rapidly reduced to posturing.