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.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Pilgrim's Egress

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.

The editor's intro to the series was perhaps not entirely respectful, but that is the nature of student journalism. I am always surprised when faculty or administrators get bent out of shape about distortions, or outright untruths, in student newspapers. It is supposed to be fun, folks. On that note, if you want to see the (ridiculous) picture of me they used on the cover, here is the pdf.

Anyway, for the next three days, I will reproduce the series, "Pilgrim's Egress", here on the blog.

Installment #1:

A Pilgrim's Egress
Confessions of a Conservative Forrest Gump

By Michael Munger

When at the first I took my pen in hand
Thus for to write, I did not understand
That I at all should make a little book
In such a mode; nay, I had undertook
To make another; which, when almost done,
Before I was aware, I this begun...

The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan

I started grad school a Maoist. My office mate and I read Mao’s “Little Red Book,” just to piss people off. We also had a wall-sized Soviet flag, right where everyone could see it. This was 1980, and the Soviet Union was real. I wasn’t, but it was.

Being a radical socialist was darned fun, and we got lots of attention, in a juvenile “stick their pigtails in the inkwell” way. But to live in that fairyland you have to suppress your reason and senses. So, after about four months, my office mate and I separately, and quietly, became conservatives.

I can’t understand why so many people in academics get stuck at “Step 1: Socialist Utopian Nutjob.” Arrested intellectual development should signal failure, but we give them endowed chairs and call such people “theorists.” Literary theorists, social theorists, theoretical theorists, theorists of the practice of theoretical theory.

Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises said this really cool thing in Epistemological Problems of Economics. He said:

Scarcely anyone interests himself in social problems without being led to do so by the desire to see reforms enacted. In almost all cases, before anyone begins to study the science, he has already decided on definite reforms that he wants to put through. Only a few have the strength to accept the knowledge that these reforms are impracticable and to draw all the inferences from it. Most men endure the sacrifice of the intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams. They cannot bear that their utopias should run aground on the unalterable necessities of human existence. What they yearn for is another reality different from the one given in this world...They wish to be free of a universe of whose order they do not approve.

And that’s what socialist “theory” is: an alternative universe, a happy place where laws of economics (resources are scarce, producing things takes work, governments cannot create value), and possibly even physics (all roads should be downhill, because in my mind that would be better), don’t apply.

Between my Maoism in 1980 and my current position (I chair Duke’s Political Science Department), I encountered hell’s own menagerie of academic fauna, with freakish adaptations to local conditions. In the course of 12 years (1985-1997), I taught at Dartmouth, University of Texas-Austin, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and then started at Duke. My libertarian-conservative views are as strange to most academics as if I were a cannibal or a Zoroastrian dastur. Worse, actually, since those guys would at least be considered multicultural and romantically primitive.

Still, Duke is the least “politically correct” place I’ve ever been. Regardless of the private political views of administrators, the main thing they want is to improve the intellectual and academic atmosphere at Duke. (Okay, with the exception of Larry Moneta, but he was hired to suck the allegresse out of his surroundings, so you can’t count him).

Those of you who have been nowhere else have no idea how precious, and how rare, the intellectual freedom of Duke is (Yes, I know, some of you don’t think so. Shut up and listen). It’s the sort of place I’ve always wanted to be. I’m done traveling, I’m out. Duke is my Pilgrim’s Egress: “before I was aware, I this begun.”

The “pilgrim” I’ve often felt like? Forrest Gump. Simply by virtue of being in the picture, usually far in the background, I’ve watched the American academy transformed. Where the left was once outré, it is now tiredly and firmly entrenched inside. Because of this hegemony, many faculty on the left have softened into baccate self-caricatures, unable to tolerate dissent, and unwilling to think hard enough to justify their own positions.

Ironically, the flaccid left now exemplifies many of the qualities it (rightly) despised in the hidebound “conservative” administrations that the then-radicals, now-faculty fought against in their salad days. This tendency toward corruption and loss of purpose may be inevitable (hell, watch the porky House Republicans chomp into a good roads bill!), but it is interesting. In the next few issues of New Sense, I am going to describe three incidents, none of which are all that important historically, but each of which reveal something about this transformation. And, if it matters, I happen to have been there.

I. Dartmouth College, Hanover NH, 1986: Attack of the Conservative Thugs

You have to realize that at the end of 1985 there was this utter certainty about South Africa: everyone was opposed to apartheid. (Yep, me too, I was against it. Still am.) But this was a protest without a disagreement. There were no pro-apartheid protesters, no “PW Botha is our guy!” posters, not even any undercover apartheid sympathizers scrawling furtive grafitti.

Nonetheless, in early fall 1985 some terminally indignant Dartmouth students from excellent families built a “South African shantytown” to illustrate through fellowship the hardship of living in a township. One might think all those ships would pass in the night, or the next afternoon at the latest, but the shantytown remained on the Green, Dartmouth’s central quad, for months. The students evolved from indignation into sanctimony, as their faculty handlers constantly congratulated them on their courageous loitering in the face of no opposition whatsoever.

October, November...the shanties were looking ratty and this was getting boring. Sure, it was fun to sit outside in the afternoon in October, and maybe even indignantly sleep out in early November. But by the middle of November they had had enough. No one was staying in the shanties anymore, and the wind blew through the empty pile of broken boards and sheets of plywood.

The Dean of the College, Edward Shanahan, finally ordered the shanties removed by November 21. Since the Green was Hanover property, not Dartmouth’s, the town’s zoning ordinances should have been enforced. What would have happened if a real homeless person, not well-fed and without a warm dorm room to shelter in, had tried to build a shanty and actually live in it, anywhere in Hanover? That shanty would have been torn down immediately, as the town’s laws clearly required.

But Dartmouth President David McLaughlin had by this time become the Head-Weasel-In-Charge, rather than a President. He bravely countermanded the Dean’s order, facing down the grand total of exactly zero people who favored apartheid, or objected to the shantytown on substantive protest grounds. As The New York Times quoted it, President McLaughlin said, ‘’The expression of the students is not inconsistent with the expressed concerns of the college with regard to apartheid.’’ He went on to say that the shacks could stay as long as they promoted ‘’honest dialogue’’ about South Africa’s racial policies and the school’s investments.

Joy! Celebrations! A great victory over the evil Dean! For several nights, a few students slept in the shanties, in $600 arctic sleeping bags, going out now and then to stand around the (also patently illegal) open fires in barrels. It’s amazing no one got frostbite. Remember, it’s -10 F, it’s windy, and Coach K is not coming by with pizzas to help you keep warm. And Dartmouth doesn’t play UNC, so you aren’t going to get those tickets anyway.

Fast forward six weeks, to early January and the start of winter quarter. It was black dark by 4:30 pm, and night temperatures fell well below freezing. The snow was three feet deep, except in the paths shoveled and blown out by the town workers. Winter Carnival, Dartmouth’s signature party weekend, was approaching, and there was a trash pile in the middle of the Green. No one was occupying the shanties by this time.

And then, Monday, January 20, 1986 was MLK day. This was pretty great, because it was the first MLK day. (I differ with a lot of conservatives, I guess, because I favor MLK day, perhaps from growing up in an apartheid system myself, in rural central Florida in the 1950s and 1960s). On this first celebration of that holiday there was a lot of excitement. Lots of us got little candles, and carried them in a long procession across the Green, in front of Baker Library, and then around Webster Hall (yes, THAT Webster. A lot of the fake cutesy stuff at Dartmouth isn’t fake).

I walked back past the Green about midnight, after having cocktails with friends. It was impossibly cold. The shanties stood out on the snow, and the air felt like solid crystal, as if the brittle starlight would break if you walked out of the shadows. Okay, I had had a LOT of cocktails, scotch mixed with a big glass. Feeling like a rake, I made my stumbling progress home.

And woke up in bedlam. On the morning of Tuesday, January 21, 1986, the sunny Green looked like a kicked hornets’ nest, if hornets could fly at five below zero. I was approached, breathlessly, by a wormy student I knew from class. This guy’s boxers were in a permanent clove hitch about the virtues of free speech, at least for everyone he agreed with. But on this Tuesday, worm-boy couldn’t have been happier if his dad had replaced his new Volvo with a Ferrari. He bleated joyfully that there had been an “attack” by “conservatives.” I tried to find another student friend who worked on the Dartmouth Review, the conservative newspaper that spawned the “Review” movement on college campuses. (Duke Review: RIP, old friend).

I found my guy, but he was scared. It turned out that the “conservatives” had been mostly from the staff of the DR. They had gotten together and decided that if the Dean couldn’t clean up the Green, they would. The group decided to call itself the “Dartmouth Committee to Beautify the Green Before Winter Carnival.” (Yes, the DCBGBWC.) They rented a truck, borrowed sledgehammers, and went to the shantytown to knock it down. Their “plan” was to donate the wood to a firewood cooperative, though it’s hard to say how poor people were supposed to burn nail-studded plywood sheets in wood stoves.

The attackers had run giggling (I have this on good authority) up to the shanties, full of adrenaline and beer, and tentatively whomped on one of the shacks with an eight pound hammer. Remember, the shanties had been unoccupied for a while, and it never occurred to these goofballs to ask if anyone was home. Two people were, in fact, in one of the shanties, apparently filled with renewed fervor by the observance of MLK day. Let me confess here a certain sympathy for the residents. As if freezing your butt off isn’t bad enough, imagine having unidentified people run up without warning, at two in the morning, and whomp the plywood right over your head. That’s kind of loud.

The residents had run shrieking into the night, summoning the police (I would have done that, too). The DR troops stood there with stupid grins on their faces, wondering what would happen next. The answer was, “nothing good.” The university community gathered together for a good old-fashioned ass-kicking, kangaroo court style.

In my mind, the shanties were obviously a protest, and it is important to remember that the University had bent over backwards, overriding town ordinances to allow the protest to continue. But it seems equally obvious that the sledgehammerers were also protesting. Civil disobedience by students was at that time tolerated to the point of being actively sponsored by the University: “Why don’t you put your beer down, and come to the protest? We’ll sing songs, roast marshmallows, and you can all say bad words without getting into trouble!”

So, one might expect that administrators would let the students off easy. No, no, no. It was as if there had been a murder. It is clear why the indignation-spent shantyites, and their faculty shills, were thrilled to have an actual counter-protest. Since all that they had had to fight against for months now was boredom, this was great.

But how could the administration, the putative grown-ups in this situation, not see that the two protests had the same legal status? In both cases, laws were broken in the course of registering a protest by students currently enrolled at Dartmouth. Remember, the President had earlier said that the reason the shanties could stay was that the view expressed was “not inconsistent” with the College’s own view. Really, Bunkie? Is that the standard? All speech, and protests, are protected, provided professors agree? Does that mean that protestors who don’t have faculty support get different treatment?

Yes, that’s exactly what was meant. The show trial that followed would have taught Pol Pot some things about techniques of public humilation. One of the attackers, who happened to be black, was vilified in floridly racist language, and physically threatened. For all the attackers, the “charge” was some vague thing (worshipping false sledgehammers? corrupting shanties?), but the punishments were specific and harsh. On February 10, three attackers were “suspended indefinitely” (if you are keeping score at home, that’s a lot like “expelled”); the other nine were also suspended, for either two or three terms. And of course, all were told “This is going to go down on your permanent record.” I’ve never known what that means, but it can’t be good.

The hearings were so grossly staged and mismanaged that even President McLaughlin grew two tiny little juevos, and on March 5 called for a retrial. Or maybe it was his lawyer, the “special counsel” who advised the administration that the suspendees’ pending lawsuits were slam dunks, because the faculty in charge of the hearings had ignored such time-honored conventions as evidence and actual appearance of witnesses. The sentences were reduced in the second hearing, then later reduced again, so that the worst punishments amounted to about six months suspension, and most students received no suspensions at all. Of course, the effect of the permanent record thing probably scarred them for life.

There are two persistent rumors that I want to lay to rest, because both are absurdly false. At no time did anyone set fire to the shanties, with or without occupants. The “attack” with sledgehammers consisted of three or four half-hearted blows, by which time the yells of the unexpected occupants had flummoxed the attackers. The second rumor is that the attack had been planned to coincide with the MLK day observance. I asked about this one myself, because I was incredulous: it couldn’t be coincidence. But the DR kids told me, and I fully believe them, that they had specifically waited until after midnight, so that it was Tuesday January 21, and therefore technically no longer MLK day, before carrying out their covert mission.

So, the attackers were guilty of being idiots. The symbolism of sledgehammers in the night, right after the first MLK day observance, and with people actually in the shanties, reveals a political ineptness so deep it wouldn’t be seen again until Newt Gingrich thought he could win favor by shutting down the government. Also: DCBGBWC is a lame acronym. They should have bought a vowel, or something.

Here’s the deal: no university can say that some protests are sanctioned, or even endlessly subsidized, while other points of view are punished, just because the administration happens to agree with one view and not the other. Either protests are allowed on the Green, or they aren’t. This was a protest, this was the Green. The DR students should have been reprimanded for vandalism. The person who actually swung the hammer should have been charged with the mildest type of assault, and that should have been the end of it. I’m not even sure about the assault part, because I really believe the “attackers” didn’t know there were occupants, since the shanties had usually been empty for more than a month.

Of course, the opposite happened. The University administration reacted like a pig in a pool of Indirect Cost Recovery. In fact, across the country, the attack by “conservatives” galvanized the shanty movement. Soon, there were shanties on every flat space on college campuses. The good news is that more than a few colleges did divest, and as we all know universities divesting directly caused the collapse of apartheid, F.W. de Klerk’s release of Nelson Mandela, and his allowing the African National Congress to hold meetings in South Africa in 1990.

Not. Divesting was fine, because it meant that U.S. colleges and the firms they invest in were not morally complicit in apartheid. But the actual cause of the collapse of Botha, de Klerk, and the South African “boys in the hoods” was economic sanctions, imposed by the (wait for it!) Reagan Administration. The divestment movement may have been a feel-good thing (though it seemed to me more like a feel-bored thing), but its actual impact was negligible. Apartheid was terrible, but that horror didn’t justify, or really have anything to do with, the desire of a small minority of American university faculty and their student allies to repress anyone who raised questions about the “movement.”

A couple of brief postscripts:

1. On March 13, 1986, a group of 17 Dartmouth students were convicted of having resisted the final removal of the shanties, effected on February 11 with hydraulic hammers (the plywood floor was under ice, inches deep in places). One of those students pled guilty to intentional physical assualt on a police officer. No administrative actions or punishments of any kind were handed down by Dartmouth.

2. On October 16, 2000, the Manchester Union Leader did a “where are they now?” article on the three ring-leaders, DR editors Frank Reichel, Deborah Stone, and Theresa Polenz. (Admit, you thought all three key figures were men, didn’t you! Are you more surprised that women swing sledgehammers, or that women can be conservative?). According to the MUL, Reichel noted, with hindsight: “It could have been done in a more politically palatable manner—it could have been done a little softer—but that’s not the way the Review has operated...It was not meant as a violent act; it was not meant as an aggressive act against any one person; it was not meant as a political act; it was meant to preserve the green....If there’s trash in the public street, you can pick it up.”

Next Installment: “Pilgrim’s Egress, Part II: Everything’s Bigger in Texas


D’Souza, Dinesh, “Shanty Raids at Dartmouth: How a College Prank Became an Ideological War,” Policy Review. Hoover Institution. 1986.

Hart, Jeffrey, “Freedman and the Review: A History,” Department of English, Dartmouth College

“Head of Dartmouth says that Shanties are a Proper Protest,” The New York Times, November 24, 1985, Late City Final Edition, Section I-67.

“On 20th anniversary, Dartmouth Review alumni look back,” The Union Leader (Manchester NH), October 16, 2000.

Wald, Matthew, “At Dartmouth, the Right Borrows the Protest Mantle of the Left,” The New York Times, A-14, Feb. 13, 1986.

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

Friday, July 02, 2004

Making Book on the Election

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. That’s what Mom said. But she didn’t say you couldn’t write a book.
If you check the non-fiction best-seller list on, you’ll find that fully 7 of the top 20 are attacks on George Bush and his administration. “Stupid White Men”, “Worse than Watergate”, “House of Bush, House of Saud”, “Bushwhacked”; this is not nice.
And worse is yet to come: Get ready for “Checkpoint,” in which Nicholson Baker has two characters spend 115 pages imagining elaborate assassination plots for the killing of George W. Bush. In between plots for killing, they give reasons why the killing is just, and perhaps even necessary to save the world. Knopf has “Checkpoint” timed for release just before the Republican National Convention, on August 24.
Then there are two genuinely phenomenal works of personal justification. Bill Clinton’s “My Life” is turgid and mawkish in places, but it is consistent in its “My side is good, the other side is evil” story of politics over the last fifteen years. Michael Moore’s movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11” shows no more logical or thematic consistency than Clinton’s book but it is playing to packed movie theaters, breaking the record for total ticket sales for a documentary in just one weekend of showings.
Let’s be fair. On that same best-seller list, there are also five hard-core conservative attacks on the left, including “Rewriting History”. This is an absolute screed, in which Dick Morris berates Hillary Clinton for everything imaginable. Maybe the good news is that people are reading books again. But such books! Fully 60% of the top 20 nonfiction best-sellers are vicious attack pieces, using dubious facts and strained arguments in service of extreme partisan positions. Is this a sign of the Apocalypse?
Hardly. There are two reasons to pay attention, though. First, the idea that books, or newspapers, should be objective and neutral is of recent vintage, dating from the Progressive Era. Before that, things were a little more open. In 1800, the Hartford Courant famously predicted that, if Jefferson won the 1800 election, “...murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” Several times since, including the 1920, 1932, and 1952 elections, “nonfiction” writings took on the aspect of pure partisan polemic.
The most recent wave of bile came from conservative ducts. In 1992 and 1993, the overall best-selling non-fiction books were by Rush Limbaugh, both of them over-the-rail, knife-clenched-in-teeth attacks on the Democrats. In 1996, Bob Dole chirped his way through the campaign like a baritone parrot: “Where’s the outrage? Where’s the outrage?” In the Clinton era, as now, opposition partisans just could not believe that their outrage wasn’t universally shared. “It’s just so obvious that _____ is an evil guy!”
And there is the second point: the big difference in 2004 is that the most effective partisan meat axes are being wielded by liberals. Why are these books, and Moore’s movie, so popular? I said mean-spirited attacks are always with this, but they are not always best-sellers. What is going on?
The troubling question is one we can’t answer: are these books cause, or effect? Is the media, and publishing industry, a microphone that directs public opinion, or simply a mirror that reflects it? Conservatives have been outraged that Baker’s “Checkpoint” is a partisan provocation, financed by Knopf publishers. But it seems just as likely that this version of “Kill George, Part I” is motivated by nothing more than hunger for profits. Given the public mood, fantasies about getting rid of the President through murder are going to sell books. Republicans shouldn’t blame the messenger. Or, in this case, the authors.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Bumped by Still Photos, and a Guy With No Mike

This morning I was scheduled to do an interview with CNN. The subject was the spate of new books, reaming President Bush a new one on such diverse subjects as the war, foreign policy, and assassination plots.

I prepared last night for three hours. The interview (with Carol Costello of CNN DAYBREAK) was to take place at 6:15 am.

That meant I had to get up at 4:30 and drive from Raleigh, and the two technicians from Duke's broadcast studio had to be there at 5:00, to set up, dial in the satellite downlink, and check the lighting. God knows when they had to get up, and they were just doing it to try to help me.

At 6:10 am, I was sitting there with my make-up on, ready to inform the world about pretty much any important, or unimportant, topic.

But there were delays. Saddam Hussein MIGHT walk into the courtroom in Baghdad. (SCREW HIM! WATCH ME! THE WORLD NEEDS TO SEE ME, RIGHT NOW!)

After 30 more minutes, the satellite slot CNN had reserved had expired, and I got bumped. The "story" that bumped me was a series of still pictures from their stock of Saddam Hussein (with beard, without beard, etc), and then a report from a guy near the courtroom. He didn't have a microphone, though, so all you could hear was some distant mumbling from the ambient mike in the courtroom. This went on for over a minute. I'm serious.

As I got up to leave, the tech guy in the Duke studio said, "I guess they figured nothing was better than your segment." Thanks, man. Bite me very much.