Right Scholarship

A blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism

Month: August, 2012

Strategies for conservative academics

I couldn’t help but leave a comment on Inside Higher Ed regarding the article “A Call to Conservatives” by Robert Maranto and Matthew Woessner. The authors display a refreshingly positive attitude and suggest a reasonable survival strategy for conservatives in academia, but I can’t help feeling that it amounts to deception (and that it’s somewhat akin to the Straussian emulation of religious or traditionalist conservatism).

They call for conservatives to “‘infiltrate'” academia (the scare-quotes are theirs) by hiding their views until they are well-established. I can’t imagine a secret conservative’s colleagues being impressed by such infiltration, once it’s been revealed. They also suggest that conservatives should strive to enter fields that are “relatively tolerant of dissent.” This suggests that most people are set in their views by the time they declare their major in undergrad, and that they would choose a field susceptible to infiltration rather than something they are genuinely interested in. Still, I appreciate the good intentions of the authors and their willingness to write about the problem.

The Straussian deception: Part I

I came to right thinking and Right Scholarship through a long process of reading, thinking and observing, but the real impetus for my conversion was my deep dissatisfaction with the liberal worldview as manifested in the mainstream Canadian society of the 1990s. I felt that our culture was rootless, trivial, and geared towards eliminating the antagonisms, strivings, and sufferings upon which great cultural achievements have been built. This was being done in the name of tolerance and the recognition of cultural “difference.” Canada had become the world-centre of a pernicious cultural relativism that threatened to envelop the world and create a new ice-age of peaceable dullness. What was needed to stem the tide of endless compromise was a return to absolute values. We needed to regain our ability to distinguish between good and evil, good and bad, and truth and untruth.

Countless others, of course, have had similar feelings, and experienced similar conversions. In my case, it led me to Catholicism. Some others have embraced, instead, the neoconservative worldview, which was born in the United States in the 1950s. The differences between the two, although not immediately apparent, are stark. Any blurring of these differences could lead unwitting right-thinking people into adopting ideas that may have disastrous, and ultimately evil, consequences.

The German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss is the source from which most neoconservative ideas have flowed. The nature of Strauss’s teaching has become a matter of heated debate, due in large part to the alleged neoconservative architecture of the Bush Jr. regime, but I will skip that debate and state what I consider to be the essence of Strauss’s teaching. Strauss believed that philosophers (like himself) could only be assured of their own safety in non-progressive and non-revolutionary regimes. Therefore, he believed it was necessary for philosophers to perpetuate the myths or ‘noble lies’ that allow for social cohesion–particularly those of nationalism and religion. Shadia Drury’s now-classic book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss is the best guide available for those interested in the roots of neoconservatism, even though Drury’s polemical style leads her to commit some serious academic sins.

In the 1980s, those who were becoming concerned with the politicization of the university found a champion in Allan Bloom, a Straussian disciple whose surprise bestseller The Closing of the American Mind (1987) offered an eloquent and damning evaluation of the state of higher learning in the US. What many didn’t realize is that Bloom did not see the formation of a new, more open academic culture as a solution to this problem. As a follower of Strauss, he secretly sought to lay the foundations of a new educational model that would limit the cultural horizon of America’s youth. Students in the humanities and social sciences would receive cultural knowledge in the form of stereotyped representations of the past calculated to inspire cultural cohesion. Nationalism, religiosity and militarism–the things our decadent liberal societies thirst for–would be fueled, at least in part, by the universities. Students displaying exceptional philosophical intelligence, however, could be introduced into the Straussian club, and told the secret truth that nationalism, religiosity and militarism are merely social vitamins that keep society from falling into decay. The good life is the philosophical life of comfort and contemplation, and philosophers (or in other words, select professors) can only live this way by becoming sophisticated parasites supported by a stable society with a thoroughly unphilosophical populace.

To be continued . . .

Right Thinkers #1: G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton

A major figure in early twentieth-century British literature, G.K. Chesterton originated an often-imitated style of Christian/Catholic apologetics. He and his friend and literary compatriot Hilaire Belloc were known together as “the Chesterbelloc,” and they promoted a radically anti-modern worldview in a time when modernity seemed triumphant, even creating an outline for a new economic system based on Catholic social teaching, called Distributism.

Chesterton argued for the existence of “orthodoxy,” or a set of unchanging and eternal values embodied in Christianity. He opposed the conservatism of Edmund Burke, since the values Chesterton adhered to were supposedly valid in all times and places, while Burke’s conservatism was linked to an organic, evolutionary conception of value (Chesterton 179). The conflict between the orthodoxy of Chesterton and the traditionalism of Burke points to two important and unreconciled streams in rightist thinking and Right Scholarship.

Quick fact: G.K. Chesterton’s second cousin was A.K. Chesterton, the British fascist and founder of the National Front party in England. A.K.’s book, The New Unhappy Lords, takes its title from a poem by G.K.

Further reading: The conclusion of Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World (1910), which is, IMHO, Chesterton in a nutshell. Warning: may cause tears of indignation and/or an interest in Distributism.

Chesterton, G.K. What’s Wrong with the World. 1910. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994.

The irrelevance of ‘relevance’

One purpose of this blog is to help fight left-wing dominance in academia, but another purpose is to push for for inclusive academic discourse, so that scholars of all political persuasions, including ‘apolitical’ scholars, can engage in productive debate and collaboration. One of the patron intellectual saints of Right Scholarship is Julien Benda, who in his famous 1927 work, The Treason of the Intellectuals, attacked certain French intellectuals for descending into the realm of partisan right-wing politics. While I don’t believe that intellectualism and politics can ever be separated, I do believe the former should never serve the latter.

Unfortunately, current academic trends are moving away from everything that Benda stood for. We live in an age of “knowledge mobilization” where knowledge must prove itself socially relevant and useful as a means of bettering the world. See, for example, this section of the SSHRC site on “Connecting with Society.” Already, however, it’s becoming clear that this strategy is only making academia less relevant. Ideas trumpeted as being so ‘innovative’ even three or four years ago now seem dated. The problem is, academics have never been adept at instigating political change, even if they have sometimes been exceptionally adept at slavishly following political trends.

In trying to be ‘relevant,’ academics can easily commit intellectual treason by working against what has always been the purpose of academia: to add to the store of human knowledge. Are we really to believe that the scholarship of the past was irrelevant? Even if the much-derided ‘ivory tower’ once existed, good scholarship of all varieties has never been irrelevant. It has always developed our collective human intelligence, allowing later scholars and thinkers to add new meaning to, or draw new connections between, ideas that may have once seemed only of interest to specialists. We know that the most apparently abstract or arcane knowledge can become relevant when historical circumstances change. Aiming for ‘relevance’ is a short-term goal, and serves only the needs and desires of those benefitting from the historical moment.

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