Last week the UVA Arrow, an alternative student weekly paper here at the University of Virginia, published the following interview (with me!), which I am proud, or at least willing, to bring to your attention.
We caught up with Professor Ceaser at his office, legendary for its disorganization, just as he was returning from teaching his Intro to American Politics class. Inviting us in, he scurried around to remove some papers and books from the chairs, so that we could find a place to sit. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we turned on the ipad recorder. Below is the transcription of the interview, with a few excerpts and edits, all subsequently approved by Professor Ceaser.
Arrow Staff: Some of the graduate students you work with have been talking a lot since last week about your new acquisition—and we’ll be getting to that in a minute. But we wanted to ask you first about what it is like to be a conservative–you have that reputation with the students, you know–working in a university environment.
Ceaser: Well, I have never tried to bring my political views into the classroom, and before I did much writing in the popular press, and especially before the internet existed, few students knew anything about my political inclinations. Some of the students used to ask the teaching assistants about my political leanings, but I instructed them to refrain from answering, advising them, if need be, to resort to their pedagogical prerogative of turning the question back on the students, asking, “Well, what do you think?”
All that, as you know, has changed. Students nowadays do a quick google search and then immediately “out” you on facebook. So I have learned to live with the reputation. As Denny Greene said, it is what it is. Still, I make the same effort as before to be as impartial as I can.
Arrow Staff: And what about your colleagues and other professors? What is your relationship, as a conservative, with them?
Ceaser: That’s a different story, of course. A few years ago, I published an article with Professor Robert Maranto, a well-known political scientist at the University of Arkansas, in which we surveyed the situation of conservative academics in the social sciences. (Ed. Note: The article to which Professor Ceaser is referring here can be found in the book The Politically Correct University, AEI Press, 2009 ). Our conclusions about the limited number of conservatives—the CRD or “conservative representational deficit,” as we called it– come as no surprise.
But we really focused more of our attention on how this situation affected the lives of these conservative academics, who were often subjected to marginalization and penalized in their professional advancement. We noted three groups. The first was comprised of those who became pretty bitter and frustrated, and ended by either suffering in silence, carrying psychological scars one can only imagine, or else bailing out and leaving the academy. A second group consisted of those who while complaining of their status in fact, upon probing—in truth, you really didn’t have to delve very deeply—were found to be quite content. These were personalities who loved to provoke and who found a curious pleasure in being counted as—and counting themselves as—outsiders. Some would even playfully invoke the postmodern label as “others” to describe themselves. Finally, a third group was made up of those who, whether from disposition or calculation, elected to keep a lower profile and avoid confrontation. These were the careerists.
I have always counted myself among this last group, though more, I hope, from disposition than from any utilitarian motive! It’s a matter, so to speak, of getting along by going along, which has always earned me pretty good personal relations with my colleagues. Still, I confess to having a certain admiration for those in the second group–for their sheer pluck and displays of resistance.
Arrow Staff: And you’ve never been tempted?
Ceaser: Uncanny that you should ask. Because it brings me, by a circuitous route, to the acquisition you referenced at the beginning.
I have a confession to make, which goes all the way back to an American studies conference I attended in Europe in 1992, held in the city of Tampere, Finland. I was a Fulbright scholar that year in Basel, which led to an invitation to speak about on the first Gulf War, in which the Americans had expelled Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. My talk, which failed to attribute the war to American imperialist aims or explain it by the slogan of “blood for oil,” was not very well received by this group. American studies was a discipline devoted to anti-American studies, and none were more convinced in this attitude than the few American who were present. They were bent on dong their little Euro-dance, better to establish their street creds with their hosts.
At the conference dinner, held at Näsinneula (the space needle) in Tempere, I barely spoke a word. During dessert, over cloudberry pudding, the group got around to bantering about the cars they owned (or wished to own). Some made a plea for the Volvo or Saab—we were, after all, in Scandinavia—others swore by BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. A couple of Americans, reaching for subtlety, talked up the merits of the Peugeot. Finally, one European, kindly sensitive to my exclusion, tried to draw me into the conversation: “And you, Professor Ceaser?” Without hesitating, I blurted out “Cadillac,”—not even “a Cadillac,” just Cadillac–and then added, as if to twist the dagger, “El Dorado.” This boorish act brought incomprehensible gazes from one pair of eyes to another, freezing the conversation and putting a quick end to the spirit of playful bonhomie. I lowered my own gaze to my cloudberry pudding…
Arrow Staff: Was it true?
Ceaser: Well, if you mean … I had a Honda. But I could not, somehow, resist the gesture, which was, so to speak, involuntary. And while I cannot deny the fact of my evasion, I confess to having felt strangely liberated …
Arrow Staff: And you think that this….
Ceaser: Listen, if you have studied some French literature, especially some of the works of Andre Gide, you may have heard about something called the acte gratuit, an act that springs forth and makes a person aware of who or what he is, even before he knows it himself. Acting defines essence, or something like that. Well, this was such a moment for me.
Anyhow, about five years ago, I thought I might act on this impulse, but couldn’t summon the courage. I bought a 1997 Mercedes instead, a beautiful car. I took people around in it and showed it off; but the truth was I really didn’t like it that much. Its elegance was too real and understated, so much so that, at least in the interior, it didn’t “look” elegant. What I wanted, what almost every American wants, is the glitz, that touch of bad class. I wanted the faux wooden panel and the artificially induced smell of pure leather. The Mercedes would never indulge me. Check out your Tocqueville! [Ed. Ceaser had no difficulty at this point immediately uncovering a copy of Democracy in America from beneath the rubble on his desk and finding the passage he sought.]
“When I arrived for the first time in New York by the part of the Atlantic Ocean called the East River, I was surprised to notice, along the river bank, at some distance from the city, a certain number of small palaces of white marble, several of which were of a classical architecture; the next day, able to consider more closely the one that had particularly attracted my attention, I found that its walls were of white-washed brick and its columns of painted wood. It was the same for all the buildings that I had admired the day before.”
Arrow Staff: Anything else about your dissatisfaction?
Ceaser: One more thing, yes. Most of the students here know about my attachment to the Constitution and to The Federalist Papers, to the point where I have chosen as a license plate, Fed 49, which refers to the essay that calls for veneration for the Constitution. I want the plate to be a lesson to all those on the road, above all to those more spirited and aggressive drivers who tailgate. But it always bothered me–I suspect it must have bothered others–that the plate was not on an American car.
When the Mercedes died a couple weeks ago, another opportunity presented itself. After thinking Lexus for a while, the old urge surfaced. I saw a 2007 Cadillac STS on Craigslist—2007, just so we are clear, was a couple of years before the bail out–and I got to thinking, could I really? Do I dare?
Arrow Staff: So you went out and made an offer?
Ceaser: Not so fast! One doesn’t take a step like that lightly. I broached the matter with my wife. She sensibly feigned approval, only reminding me of the problem of parking a larger vehicle in a residence without a garage. After discreetly checking with the neighbors, she reported the next day that there were some concerns–not that anyone, of course, wanted to interfere with my right of private choice. Still, the car would be on the street….I had received not dissimilar signals in 2008, when I was about to attach a McCain-Palin bumper sticker, and then again last year when I steadfastly resisted neighborhood pressure to put up the “save McIntire Park” signs, a step that seemed to me to cross the threshold from negative to positive intrusionism. [Ed. This refers to a local issue, going on for twenty years, relating to the building of a parkway in Charlottesville.] Since “communitarianism” is an aspect of conservatism to which I am slightly sensitive, I could not dismiss these sentiments out of hand. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, should not be disregarded. Still, these interferences were bringing out libertarian emotions, like Don’t Tread on Me.
Sorry to go on so long. But I also thought that I should vet the idea with my daughter—a UVA graduate with a major in English and film—who is an arbiter of taste…I mean she lives in Brooklyn and is a well-known writer on travel for The New York Post. She met the suggestion of a Cadillac with consternation. After briefly e-quarreling, we made up. I withdrew my intemperate remark about being a euro snob, and she pretended to approve, asking for “pix” (pictures) and inquiring if it had heated seats, a fact I am sure would not be held against a BMW.
Arrow Staff: You mean no one encouraged you?
Ceaser: I wouldn’t say that. One of my sons, who is in business in Richmond, informed me that this model Cadillac was the envy of all real estate agents; and upon learning the color—“radiant bronze”–a former student, and a famous professor now in his own right, let me know that the car earned me the status of “a middle manager at a local bank.” I took great heart from that comment.
Arrow Staff: And the provocation?
Ceaser: Search any faculty parking lot, at least at a university that has pretentions, and you will look in vain for a Cadillac. So yes, the car will—it already has—brought me the anticipated pleasure of leaving my colleagues shocked and stupefied.
Arrow Staff: Thank you Professor Ceaser for taking the time to speak with us.
[Editors note: At this point, Professor Ceaser checked his cell phone to see what time it was and looked up: “Want to see the car? It’s right out back in the lot.”]