Sunday, July 04, 2004

Pilgrim's Egress II

Again, New Sense, the student magazine published at (but not by) Duke, was kind enough to publish a serialized version of some chapters from a book I'm working on. This is the second installment

A Pilgrim’s Egress (Part 2)
Confessions of a Conservative Forrest Gump

By Michael C. Munger
( © Michael Munger 2003; all rights reserved. No reproduction or quotation without express written authorization)

August 1986. I’m 27, two years out of grad school. We’re balancing Wheat Thins and cheese cubes on plastic plates, holding our plastic glasses filled with Chardonnay. Our faces fill with unbalanced plastic smiles. The “New Faculty: Welcome to Texas!” party had started half an hour ago, but it was quiet as a tomb. What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Then the Dean, a grouchy guy in a nice suit, walked out to an open space among the fifty or so newcomers. Incredibly, he took a plastic fork and ting-ting-tinged it against his plastic cup, making no sound and spilling wine. But in the silence he soon had our attention.

“Now, I want you all to listen to me, because this is important.” He smiled, as if about to say something clever. “I don’t want to hear about ‘teaching, how much teaching’ you are all doing. You are here to do research.” Big smile now; avuncular, in a Slobodan Milosevic way. “This is a simple business: you will be judged on how much research you produce. You have to teach, you all have to teach, but I don’t want to hear anything about it. You have to teach well enough that I don’t get any complaints. But…” (here his voice rose: louder, higher) “…you will be judged solely on your research records, when it comes to salary, retention, and promotion decisions!” His voice echoed. “Are there any questions?”

There weren’t any. He had been pretty clear. Psychotic, but clear. I expected him to shriek, “If you doint eat yer meat, ya canna have any pudding! How ken ya have any pudding, if yer woint eat yer meat?” Welcome to Texas! Everything’s bigger here, even the grouchiness of the people in suits who run universities.

Pilgrim’s Egress Part II: Everything’s Bigger in Texas

In the last issue, I described the infamous “attack of the conservatives” on the anti-apartheid shanties on the Green at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH. If you missed that introduction, you can find it on the NEW SENSE website:

This month, I turn to my experience at my first “real” (meaning tenure-track, the opposite of real) job, at the University of Texas in Austin. UT couldn’t have been more different than Dartmouth, in every way. Dartmouth was small, private, and students were the boss. UT was public, it was huge, and professors thought students were the crap on their shoes. (sorry: I’ll stop writing in verse, right now).

Folks tell you “everything’s bigger in Texas!”, but you would have to see the UT campus to believe it. The overall undergraduate population hovers between 45,000 and 46,000, with another 10,000 or so graduate students. The UT website trumpets that “UT is the nation’s largest university.”

Then, if you go to the Texas Memorial Museum on campus, the entryway signs trumpet the statue of the “Texas Pterosaur,” the “largest flying creature ever discovered on earth!” It is common for a Texan to tell you, proudly: “We’re bigger than France!” What is the deal? Why does everyone in Texas talk so big?

The answer is uncomplicated: Texans assume, plausibly, that outsiders (particularly Yankee academic outsiders) will look down on them. So the natives bluster, and brag, and look out of the corner of their eyes to see if the professors are impressed. The profs are not impressed, of course, for an equally uncomplicated reason. Most faculty, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, are politically Leftist. Now, Leftists love “The People,” as an abstraction. But Leftists often hate dealing with persons personally.

The idea of engaging with a nonacademic, someone unaware of Foucault’s genius, is very upsetting. Professors love the working class, as a big lumpen proletariat in need of assistance, by force if necessary, but professors find the idea of actually working appalling. Stands to reason: if you spend your time caterwauling about how deadening working must be, you have to believe that workers are the walking dead.

It took me about a week, New Hampshire transplant that I was, to take the Texan’s side on this point. My wife and I never lived in the enclave north of the University, choosing instead to live south of the river. Colleagues would ask us, “How can you live with…Texans?”, and then laugh as if they had said something clever. For academics, Austin was a Chekhov play. They lived impossibly far from Moscow, but desperately aped the manners of the Muscovite (okay, Cambridge, New Haven, or Palo Alto) elite. All they could do is dream, read their books, and study the job openings newsletters.

The condescension toward Texan students was remarkable. “I can’t believe how conservative everyone is. Do they not have any good teachers in the high schools?” The goals of my colleagues often had little to do with traditional education. Many “teachers” at UT confronted students with their “hypocrisies,” rather than trying to lecture. In my department, Government, several professors openly tried to confront and embarrass conservatives. The hubris of my colleagues was breathtaking, because they were satisfied with nothing less than complete conversion. It wasn’t enough to think Pinochet was bad. The last lesson had to be learnt: you had to love, really love, dapper Danny Ortega.

“Politically Correct”: The Real Story

Without reprieve, adjudged to death,
For want of well pronouncing shibboleth.

—John Milton, “Samson Agonistes”

You have to realize that the idea of political correctness, as opposed to its archenemy, political incorrectness, lies behind the bland smile of many otherwise decent liberals. There really is a right, and a wrong, view. Right is what they believe; wrong is anything else. If they are tolerant, it is the same kind of patronizing tolerance that keeps them from correcting one of their yowling whelps in a restaurant. They give the child time to work on his issues, and he’ll come to the right conclusion on his own. But don’t be confused—the tolerance the politically correct Left shows is not the kind of respect that implies, or even allows, an exchange of views. They are right, and you are wrong, and only an idiot would disagree. (You are the idiot, by the way.)

This is the sort of utter certainty, and contempt for alternative viewpoints, that explains the current popularity of desipient demagogues like Michael Moore. It’s all so obvious. Either you agree with the Left, or you’re a selfish pig or an idiot, and probably both. The correct views, the correct clothing, even the correct facial expressions, are deducible from the basic truths that all smart (i.e., liberal) people share. (Check out Eric Adler’s hilarious observations about the “women’s studies nod”; Adler, 2001).

As for so many other topics, the best insights I have seen on this subject come from Nobel laureate economist F.A. Hayek, in this case from his 1973 book Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Hayek’s claim is that intellectuals have convinced themselves that:

…human institutions will serve human purposes only if
they have been deliberately designed for these purposes,
often also that the fact that an institution exists is evidence
of its having been created for a purpose, and always that
we should so redesign society and its institutions so that all
our actions will be wholly guided by known purposes. To
most people these propositions seem almost self-evident and to
constitute an attitude alone worthy of a thinking being. (pp.
8-9, V. 1, emphasis mine).

What are they so sure of? What view of the Left has come “to constitute an attitude alone worthy of a thinking being”? It is that markets and independent thought may, at best, be a necessary evil. Real freedom requires planning and control. A famous statement of this view is Mannheim’s:

At the highest stage freedom can only exist when it is
secured by planning. It cannot consist in restricting the
powers of the planner, but in a conception of planning
which guarantees the existence of essential forms of freedom
through the plan itself. For every restriction imposed by
limited authorities would destroy the unity of the plan, so
that society would regress to the former stage of competition
and mutual control. (p. 378; quoted in Caldwell, 1997).

The very idea of “political correctness,” then, is the product of two certainties that intertwine in the minds of the intellectual Left. (The nonintellectual Left has only one certainty: the rest of us should shut up, or go to jail. This is exactly the same certainty as the nonintellectual Right, by the way.) The first certainty is the moral superiority of planned economies, and education systems, with equality of income and the absence of opportunity for social differentiation through effort or excellence.

The second is the inevitability of historical “progress” toward this goal, as societies evolve and improve. Together, these two certainties constitute a dynamic teleology, with both moral and historical force. To be politically correct, then, is not simply to pay lip service to current fads of speech or fashion, such as what name to call a minority group to avoid insulting its most sensitive members. Political correctness is the sense that there is a right side in history, and people on the other side are evil, delaying progress and misleading the gullible masses.

Now, I have raised, superficially, a number of difficult questions, and haven’t answered any of them. The status of planning, the socialist calculation debate, and the causes of history are not things I have definitive answers on. And that’s the point. I’m confused, not sure about how the good society should be structured, open to alternative points of view. I am just the sort of person that is not politically correct, because I ask questions and insist that the answers be based on the rules of logic and empirical evidence, rather than on a faith in a secular religion with a naïve socialist eschatology.

That’s why the first time I heard someone use the phrase “politically correct,” I burst out laughing. I was standing at a water fountain, and a colleague who didn’t know me very well (he would never have suspected me of the heresy of uncertainty) stopped to chat. He mentioned Jesse Jackson (who was running for President, and to whose campaign he had contributed) was giving a speech that night.

I assumed he would be excited about the speech, glued to the TV, since he had been chattering about the Reverend for weeks. (At this time, Jesse Jackson had not yet become an egregious and embarrassing self-caricature, running a “pay me or I’ll call you racist!” protection racket). “Oh, no,” said my colleague. “I really don’t like to listen to him. He doesn’t have many concrete policy proposals.”

I was amazed. “Why are you supporting him, if you don’t think he is a good candidate?” I asked.

He was surprised I didn’t understand. He spoke slowly, as to a child. “Well, given how corrupt and unjust the American democratic system is, the choices we make don’t matter anyway. So, you might as well be politically correct.” What he meant was that you should pick the candidate who most visibly serves the agenda of the Left, purely as a symbol (in this case, by having black skin). Since there is no substance, or meaning, to democratic politics (he assured me Foucault proved this, by asserting it), we should all make symbolic choices that serve the good. To do otherwise, and most particularly if you actually believed in one of the candidates, was to be duped by shadowy people who “control” the process. In short, the sign of his depth and cleverness was precisely the superficiality of his choice criterion.

The Left’s use of “politically correct” as a pass phrase didn’t last long, though of course the underlying certainty about truth persists. Before long, in fact, the abbreviation to “PC” had become an even more powerful shibboleth for the political Right. If you said that you that favored hiring a person who happened to be a woman, or African-American, you might be accused of “caving in to the PC movement,” even if you genuinely thought that the candidate was simply the best person for the job.

Interestingly, supporting a minority candidate you happen to admire won’t get you any credit on the Left, either. PC-ers don’t think that there are, or should be, standards. There are only symbols and politics. So, while the use of “politically correct” has changed dramatically, the meaning hasn’t changed at all. If there are no objective standards of morality, no means to judge right and wrong, then conformity with a political doctrine is the only metric. Thus, the Left has aligned itself with a long tradition of intellectual indignities, starting in many ways with Rousseau, and passing along through many other people who spoke excellent French. That perspective can be summarized simply: No one can tell what is good or bad. Except me.

I am a Red-Baiter

“Red-baiting” is a political tactic, one that rabble-rousers on the right used in the 1940s, the 1950s, and in some ways have never stopped using. It is reprehensible, because it plays on the fears and patriotism of otherwise good people. And, for the person called a “Red,” the result in the 1950s could be devastating: loss of job, denial of future employment, even physical threats.

It is tempting to think that that was then, and this now, and things have changed. Still, people on the Left really do still have some legitimate fears. (Two words: Ann Coulter.) We no longer think of a backlash against Leftists as “red-baiting,” of course, since there are no more Marxists outside of English and Literature departments (and people who ought to be in those departments, but don’t know it). Without a worldwide movement and the sinister muscle of the Soviet Union, it is hard to say why people get so worked up when someone on the Left expresses their views.

But they do: questions about U.S. foreign policy, whether in Latin America, Africa, or more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, bring angry reactions. Instead of addressing the issues, demagogues on the Right question the patriotism of dissenters. This is illogical (disagreeing with U.S. policy hardly implies you support the policies of our enemies), but it is rhetorically useful.

Questioning patriotism puts the dissenter on the defensive, turning the “debate” from policy to dissenters’ attitudes. “My son plays baseball! I pick up trash on the jogging trail! I drive a Volvo, but it has American-made floor mats! I love America!”

Here’s the thing: you might think people who fear intellectual repression wouldn’t practice it. You would be wrong. One tactic of the academic Left (I won’t talk about the academic Right, or unicorns, or Santa Claus) is to transform a question about policy into an accusation about attitude. For example, you label as “racist” anyone who disagrees with your views. Since “racist” is such a powerful accusation, and since racism actually is a real and present force in American society, it is a knockout blow, ending a debate. After you have been called racist a few times, you stop arguing and just smile when someone says something stupid.

But the cruelest tool of the academic establishment dates from the 1980s. It is “red-baiting-baiting.” If someone argues with you, you call them a red-baiter. The irony is that being “red” at a university is a sign of sophistication, and people hardly try to hide it. Most of the time, at dinners or meetings, I am the only conservative. What would happen if I called a faculty member an extreme Leftist in such a setting? As far as I can tell, that person would get an endowed chair and go on to write prose so chuckleheaded that it wins the “Turgid N. Opaque” award year after year.

In the spring of 1989, there had been complaints from students about government department professors being “too liberal.” The real problem was more like “too lazy.” Profs spent class literally shouting at students about how ignorant they were. (Knowing you are ignorant, and going to college to remedy it, ought to mean the student wants to be taught, not mocked, but irony is dead) The profs would yell, “Hey, you, orange shirt in the fourth. row. Do you know that the government of El Salvador is a fascist puppet of the U.S. imperialist plutocracy?”

Now, the choices for answers to these questions were “yes” or “no.” Neither one was much help in terms of learning. Still, even these surly and unhelpful rantings should have been protected under the umbrella of academic freedom, at least in any one classroom. If some West Texas kid from Burkburnett or Floydada comes to Austin, and doesn’t get to see “fahreatin’ liberals,” he ought to get his money back. Our job is to take people out of their comfort zone. Further, there was no evidence, at any time, that political views affected grades. And there had been no complaint about a single incident that clearly crossed a line of propriety, just general discontent.

Notice that I said “…in any one classroom.” What I meant was that if academic freedom protects the liberals, it protects the conservatives. Academic freedom means specific protection from job-related reprisals (firings, salary cuts, or denials of raises or promotions) from the administration. It cannot possibly mean that you are protected from other faculty expressing their own, possibly opposing, views. The person who said this best, in my experience, is Barry Saunders of the Raleigh News and Observer: “Freedom of speech means you can say what you want, but then you still got to take the ass-whuppin’ for being wrong, if you are.”

Remember, academic administrators today are disproportionately (on the order of 10-1, or more) liberal. Bleating about being oppressed, within the university, for expressing liberal views is absurd. But there was, at Texas, one complicating factor. You absolutely had to avoid complaints about your teaching. If students complained about a faculty member being too liberal, or anything else, that faculty member needed to make some changes.

So, the department decided to take strong action. In other words, it formed a committee. It apparently wasn’t taking the problem all that seriously, though, because the chairman asked me to be on the committee. As a third-year junior person, I had little knowledge and even less power. But it was my first committee assignment, and I was determined to do my best.

Our agenda was simple: how to deal with the complaints that a few students had leveled, verbally, alleging no single incident or valid cause, against two of the instructors in the Government Department. The answer seemed pretty easy to me. We needed to say that these were not real complaints. There was no action that justified interference with the classroom teaching of these faculty.

When it came time for the meeting, though, I was shocked. The committee chair said that there was good news. The department had done a great job of dealing with the complaints of previous years. There had been, in fact, no complaints at all.

This seemed facile. After all, there had been complaints, just not actionable ones. I said I wanted the department to take a stand, not sweep the problem under the table. In retrospect, I was obnoxious, and probably wrong. The distinction between “no complaints,” and “some complaints, but nothing important or specific,” was not exactly at the Watergate level of cover-ups. Still, I could not have predicted what happened next.

The head of the committee was furious. “What sort of complaints?”

I knew the answer to that: “Some of the students have complained that the instructors are ‘too liberal’, and that they make the students uncomfortable. Now, I think…”

He interrupted me: “Have there been complaints that you are too conservative?”

I later realized that he thought he was threatening me, but I wasn’t clever enough to understand. This should show you, though, that the very idea that professors might be afraid for being liberal, inside the administration, is far-fetched. Most department chairs, and mid- and upper-level administrators, lean Left. The others lean so far Left that they have toppled entirely. But what I said next, in my ignorance, made things worse. “Suppose there have been complaints, about me, about being too conservative. Then there still have been complaints, and our committee needs to address them.”

He got very quiet then. He asked me what the complaints were, though we had discussed them in the hallway. Then he asked me, quite formally, what classes and professors the complaints had been addressed to. I played along, and named the courses and the instructors. Then he closed his notebook, looked at the other two committee members, who had not said a word, and announced that the meeting was now over.

This seemed like a funny way to run things, but okay. I went home. When I came in the next morning, I walked by the open door of one of the complained-about professors. The person howled, “SO! YOU DON’T LIKE MY CLASS! WHY DIDN’T YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO COME TO ME YOURSELF?”

I actually was so dumb I didn’t know what the person meant. “No, I don’t have a problem with your class. What do you…”


What the committee chair had done was to scuttle down the stairs to the main office, and say that I, Michael Munger, was complaining about the class. I tried to explain, but the instructor I had “ratted” on was beyond wanting to hear explanation. This person had thought we were at least casual friends, and here I had complained about the person’s class, in a “secret” meeting, without even letting the instructor know first.

I went back into the hallway and heard a booming voice. “Doing a little red-baiting, are you Munger?” The speaker was a friend, a guy way on the left side of the political world, but a perfectly decent and thoughtful fellow. We had been over to each others’ houses and went to lunch at least twice a week. I tried to explain to him what had happened, but he had already made up his mind. “Munger, this is why we can’t have conservatives in the department. When it comes down to it, you people can’t help yourselves. You have to play the commie card!” I could see that he was laughing at me, and was half-joking.

But he was also half-serious. The academic Left needs to see itself as being outré, oppressed, the “Other” in the society in which it lives. If the Left thought of itself as conventional, and established, two things would happen. First, they would actually be responsible for the problems and inadequacies of American university education, rather than the rebels trying to make things better against overwhelming odds. Second, they would be overcome by unhappiness on a grand scale. Many people on the Left require a sense of “otherness” to be able to survive psychologically. Intellectual laziness and moral bankruptcy are not very attractive. Better to be beaten down and discriminated against by “the man.”

I had to give up, and I did. I apologized to the two instructors whom I had “wronged.” (And, if I had done what they had been told I did, it would have been wrong.) The committee chair was a different matter. The amazing thing was that, by the time I talked to him again, he had convinced himself that his made-up account was true. He took me to lunch and tried to have a fatherly talk, saying that I needed to curb my ideological extremism.

I was in no position to argue. I was, however, in a position to leave, and did. In August of 1990, I left for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, taking a pay cut of nearly ten percent just to escape.

Concluding Remarks

In 1988, my colleagues were loudly in love with Jesse Jackson all spring and summer. In the final campaign they became Michael Dukakis worshippers. Mikey D didn’t do very well, especially after the famous “bobble-head in a tank” incident. The day after the election (I was pretty happy, because I had voted for the winner, George H. W. Bush), I came into the department whistling. Okay, I was singing: “Happy days are here again….”

One of my colleagues, standing at the water fountain, yelled out: “Oh, screw you!” Fair enough, I deserved that. In fact, the person was smiling, so this was just the sort of friendly “my team lost, so bite me!” reaction I expected and would have given back if the situation had been reversed. But as I got closer, I saw that the smile was a rictus of hate.

“I don’t know anyone else who voted for idiot Bush. How does that make you feel, to be the only one? Doesn’t that make you wonder if you have it all wrong?”

This seemed odd, to say the least. Bush had won the Electoral College by 426-111, a pretty handy victory. The popular vote was closer, of course, but Bush had still won by nearly seven million votes. That is, out of 89 million votes, Bush got 48 million. Furthermore, in Texas itself, 56 percent of the voters had gone for Bush. That’s nearly three million people, in Texas alone, that my colleague had never met, or apparently even heard of.

The great mass of people, who worked at jobs, paid taxes, sent their kids to school, and made political choices based on their own best judgement, were completely unknown to my colleague. And this person was proud of that, considering it a badge of honor not to know any of the people who worked and paid our salaries.

How can one love “The People” and yet hate everybody? The answer can be found in one of my favorite jokes. A firebreathing liberal is standing on a streetcorner soapbox, regaling the crowd about how their lives will be better after the Revolution. “Come the Revolution, things will be better! Come the Revolution, there will be no property, and you will have everything you want! Come the Revolution, YOU WILL ALL EAT MILK AND HONEY, THREE TIMES A DAY!”

In the back, a timid fellow said something, but the speaker couldn’t hear it. The speaker roared, “WHAT? What did you say?”

The timid guy raised his voice. “I said, what if I don’t like milk and honey?”

The speaker is outraged, and glares at the questioner. “Oh, my friend, that’s easy. Come the Revolution, you WILL like milk and honey!”

The academic Left, as a religious community, doesn’t like people at all. They have rarely spoken to, or met, anyone who doesn’t fully share their views. The series of educational and employment choices that lead to a career in the humanities or social sciences nearly guarantee a kind of isolation and groupthink that is self-perpetuating.

I guess it comes down to one particular claim about truth. Reasonable people can disagree about the best form of government, and the nature of the good society. If you really don’t know anyone who disagrees with you, you shouldn’t take that as a sign that you are right. It means you should get out more. And try to find a place that serves something besides just milk and honey. You might like it.

Coming Next NEW SENSE:
“Pilgrim’s Egress, Part III: The Clotting of the American Mind”


Adler, Eric. 2001. “What Fresh Hell is This?” Women’s Quarterly. Spring.

Caldwell, Bruce. 1997. “Hayek and Socialism.” Journal of Economic Literature. 35: 1856-1890.

Hayek, F. A. 1973. Law, Legislation, and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1940. Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction: Studies in Modern Social Structure. London: Kegan Paul.

Texas State Historical Association, “Handbook of Texas Online,” accessed December 16, 2003.

U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Redistricting Data (P.L. 94-171) Summary File and 1990 Census. Table 2: Counties Ranked by Population: 2000. Internet Release date: April 2, 2001, accessed December 15, 2003.

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