- Two French Uber executives were arrested in Paris in late June, charged with running an illegal taxi service. A few days earlier, protests by French taxi drivers had rocked Paris. At issue is Uberpop, an app that matches riders with drivers who don’t have professional licenses or insurance. The French government says it violates a number of laws regulating taxi service. Uber insists that this facet of its business is part of an informal “sharing economy,” not a taxi company.
This French kerfuffle is but one skirmish in a global conflict. During the modern era, the nation state has been the most powerful force in society. This has been especially true in France, which invented the modern bureaucratic, administrative state during the Napoleonic era. It is a conceit of Silicon Valley that technology now allows us to vault over all limits, including those imposed by the state, ushering in a utopia of freely cooperating individuals. Thus the feel-good notion of a “sharing economy.”
The trial of the Uber executives is scheduled for late September, unusually soon in a country where investigations often drag on for years. This suggests that the French government is eager to demonstrate its ability to exercise control over multi-national corporations doing business there. I’ll be interested to see the outcome, given my skepticism of a techno-capitalist future that promises freedom from politics.
- After the release of the videos documenting the barbaric mentality of Planned Parenthood executives and their perhaps illegal practices, I received a clipping from a reader. It was an obituary in the Virginian Review that speaks of a very different practice and mentality. “The remains of John Anthony Diehl were laid to rest at St. John’s Catholic Church cemetery in Sweet Springs, W. Va. Saturday, Aug. 15. John died in his mother’s womb at five months. He is survived by his parents, William and Mary; and seven siblings, Kevin, Jarod, Alaina, Sydney, Emily, Joseph and Vincent, all of Durham, N.C.” May John Anthony rest in peace.
- William Deresiewicz is at it again, criticizing the ambition-driven culture of contemporary higher education. The occasion was “The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold its soul to the market” (Harper’s, September 2015). He’s certainly right. Higher education is increasingly a launching pad for careers, not a place for wonder and contemplation. Deresiewicz blames the right, as usual. Truth, beauty, and goodness have been undermined by a neoliberalism that he also calls Reaganism and Thatcherism, “an ideology that reduces all values to money.”
Given the left’s total domination of higher education, it is obtuse to blame its current spiritual emptiness on Reaganism or Thatcherism. Over the last fifty years, higher education has demoralized itself—and done so in the service of progressive ideologies, not conservative ones. Deresiewicz is right that neoliberalism now dominates. But that’s in large part because the postmodern left has become a self-consciously anti-traditional movement.
- Deresiewicz ends with a call for low- or no-cost higher education, citing President Obama’s plan to make community colleges free. I’m sympathetic, and would like to renew my call for a tax on outsized endowments to finance that plan. A modest tax on the principal of the fifty largest endowments would provide nearly $10 billion per year in revenue. Wealth is extremely concentrated in the fifty most richly endowed schools. An endowment tax is something Deresiewicz should endorse.
- Yale students are calling for the university to change the name of Calhoun College, one of the dozen residential colleges modeled on the Oxford and Cambridge system. It’s named after John C. Calhoun, an 1804 Yale graduate who went on to play a central role in national debates about slavery, state sovereignty, and the powers of the federal government. The petition calling for Calhoun’s name to be removed intones, “The monumental task of eliminating the vestiges of racism must include all monuments and symbols dedicated to people and institutions that fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy.”
Eliminate racism and even the “the vestiges of racism.” That sounds morally uplifting, but in truth it’s an Agent Orange way of thinking. In our world, populated as it is by fallen men and women, to eliminate injustices and the vestiges of injustice requires us to eliminate pretty much everything human beings have done.
- It’s an irony that John C. Calhoun is being targeted at Yale. He was the original American multiculturalist. As a political thinker, he fixed on the dangers of majority rule, which, if unchecked, threatens to steamroll minorities. He recognized that political unity in a pluralistic society requires more than one-man, one-vote. Weaker regions and interests need to be empowered so that the brute power of the majority does not overwhelm them. What’s needed to preserve diversity, he argued, is for some constituencies to carry more weight than others. His was a version of constitutional affirmative action.
To a certain degree, we already did that in our state-based system of representation in the Senate. In its own way, Yale takes this approach in its curriculum. What are gender studies, LGBT studies, and post-colonial studies if not Calhoun’s idea of minority empowerment applied to higher education? Lani Guinier’s nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Clinton administration was defeated when opponents made a big deal of the anti-majoritarian ideas promoted in some of her publications, ideas of the sort one finds in Calhoun.
We too easily dismiss Calhoun as an apologist for slavery. He certainly thought blacks inferior and wished to defend the South’s “distinctive way of life,” which meant defending the institution of slavery. Precisely these commitments, however, led him to grasp the threat modern democracy poses to cultural diversity. He was a practicing politician, and he applied his severely logical mind to the challenge of thinking about how a democratic regime can be structured to promote minority rights—in his case, the rights of Southern states—without destroying the basic principle of majority rule. We can judge his political theory a failure in this regard. But it is by no means irrelevant to our own time. The commissioners of the European Union would do well to read Calhoun. They’re facing a version of the problem our nation faced in its early decades (minus the radical evil of slavery): How can genuine regional differences endure as a centralized power grows?
- The Yale petitioners note, “Seeing the world through other people’s eyes is a necessary condition for social progress.” I’d have said it’s a necessary condition for the development of a humane mind. It was for this reason that Richard Weaver studied the antebellum South. “It is good for everyone,” Weaver wrote, “to ally himself at one time with the defeated and to look at the ‘progress’ of history through the eyes of those who were left behind.” It helps prevent us from unwittingly acquiescing to “the pragmatic verdict of the world.” I would add the moralistic verdict as well.
Reducing John C. Calhoun to late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century concerns about racism, as the Yale petitioners do, entails seeing him through their eyes, not the eyes of others. It also reflects a priggish moralism. Instead of condemning him, Yale students today, black, white, and brown, would do well to try to see the world through Calhoun’s eyes.
- As long as Yale students are focused on sensitive racial issues, I suggest they initiate a careful investigation into the sources of Yale’s extremely large endowment. All funds donated by slaveholders and descendants of slaveholders, as well as New England ship owners who transported slaves, and their descendants, should be identified. The original amounts should be assumed to have grown a modest 3 percent per annum since the date of the donation. The resulting sum should be deducted immediately from the Yale endowment and set aside for the purpose of providing restitution to African Americans. That’s a good way to eliminate a vestige of racism.
- Erasing the past is part of the progressive project, which invariably considers the past an impediment to realizing the full promise of the future. Here’s mid-century painter Barnett Newman’s explanation for discarding the Western tradition: “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of western European painting. Instead of making ‘cathedrals’ out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.” Sweep away the past to make room for . . . me.
- I came across the Newman quote in Michael Lewis’s fine essay, “How Art Became Irrelevant” (Commentary, July/August 2015). In it he makes a particularly pungent observation about contemporary museum architecture. “The making of a great building was once akin to making a fine musical instrument; today that task more nearly resembles the making of a successful billboard.” Frank Gehry’s buildings shout, “Look at . . . me.”
- Yale again. Each residential college is headed by a “master.” Ah, but that’s a loaded term, worries Pierson College Master Stephen Davis. The word is “deeply problematic,” given its association with, ahem, racial and gender hierarchies. So Master Davis wishes to drop his honorific title. Students are to refer to him as “doctor” or “professor” or “head of college.”
Actually, the term “master” has long been a synonym for teacher. This usage goes back to the medieval universities. Masters were those who had mastered a discipline, not other people, which is to say masters are those who have attained a master’s degree. It’s this usage, sustained at Oxford and Cambridge, that was put in place in Yale during an early twentieth-century period of intense Anglophilia.
- There’s a term for Doctor Stephen Davis’s announcement that he’ll no longer be called Master: moral preening.
- Update on the opt-out: New York state education officials report that 20 percent of New York public school students who were supposed to take federally mandated standardized tests didn’t show up. That’s four times as many kids opting out as last year. The surge stems from a combination of parents suspicious of new Common Core requirements and parents frustrated with the teach-to-the-test mentality that invariably overtakes school districts when state and federal funding is tied to test results.
The opt-out movement reflects a general trend of distrust of social institutions dominated by technocrats. Over the last generation, public education has become significantly less locally controlled. It is now in the hands of “professional educators.” In New York, activist parents organized resistance. The movement has been genuinely grassroots, unlike the progressive “activism” subsidized by the Ford Foundation or Gates Foundation. Elaine Coleman of Yonkers said, “We’re hoping we’ll double the number” of kids opting out next year. I hope they succeed.
- In Muskogee, Oklahoma, there’s a Save Yourself Survival and Tactical Gear store. Only in America, but it gets better. The storeowner put up a sign in his window asserting his right to maintain a “Muslim free establishment.” A social media outcry ensued that included death threats against the owner. A local group formed to stand guard at the store. While on self-appointed duty, one of the guys accidentally shot himself. There’s something at once horrifying and heartwarming about the whole episode. Like America.
- From August 7 to 9, First Things held its first Intellectual Retreat. The retreat began with a lecture by Robert Wilken on Friday evening. On Saturday, the more than seventy attendees participated in seminar discussions of assigned readings on the topic of freedom. I made some remarks about renewing a culture of freedom after dinner on Saturday night, remarks that form the basis of this month’s Public Square. The Intellectual Retreat ended with a lecture on freedom and musical form by Northeast Catholic College President George Harne and a performance by a trio of musicians from the Manhattan String Orchestra, directed by Alexis Kende.
I’m very grateful to the many people who helped make the Intellectual Retreat a success, especially George Harne and his colleagues from Northeast Catholic College, Brian FitzGerald, Neil Gillis, and John Klucinec. They did a superb job selecting the readings and guiding the seminar discussions.
- This summer we also ran our first essay contest for undergraduate and graduate students. The winner was Jimmy Myers, a graduate of Covenant College now studying at Duke Divinity School. He analyzed Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, arguing that the famous line “Beauty will save the world” points us toward the paradoxical beauty of the crucified Christ. Ben Woodfinden, a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, penned the second-place essay showing that the signature feature of modern secularism is its moralism, not rationalism, and that this moralism depends on implicit Christian presuppositions.
Congratulations to the winners, and many thanks to all the students who submitted essays.
- I’d like to welcome Alexi Sargeant as our new Junior Fellow. He’s a recent graduate of Yale, where he majored in English and theater. Bianca Czaderna continues with us in her second year as a Junior Fellow, now serving as Assistant Editor. We’re fortunate to have them both.
- Jodi Kristjanson and her dad, Mark Kristjanson, would like to host a ROFTERS group. They live in Winnipeg, Manitoba. To join the group, please get in touch with Jodi (Jodi.firstname.lastname@example.org).
While We’re At It sources: Obituary: thevirginianreview.com, August 19, 2015. Deresiewicz on college: harpers.org, September 2015. Renaming Calhoun: college.usatoday.com, July 9, 2015. No more “master” nice guy: yaledailynews.com, August 14, 2015. Opting-out: nytimes.com, August 13, 2015.