0bama’s intellectual shallowness

Instapundit:

DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY: Obama: “Texas has always been a pretty Republican state, for, you know, historic reasons.”

Apparently, when Obama taught Constitutional Law he never got around to teaching the Texas White (Democratic) Primary cases. Or talking about which side was which in the Civil War . . . .

Updated to make clear to people who don’t click the link that it was the Texas Democrats who excluded black voters (and Mexican-Americans) from their primaries (and then dodged further with the Jaybird Democratic Association when the courts struck down the White Primaries). This is a major set of cases under state action, and I’m surprised that Obama is unfamiliar with this history. I wonder what he covered in his Constitutional Law classes?

Remember, guys, this clown was sold to us as an “intellectual” unlike the “stupid” Bush. His followers even claimed he was a constitutional law professor at U. of Chicago, when in fact he was a mere adjunct lecturer and never had regular faculty status. (This is not surprising in light of an essentially nonexistent scholarly publication list.) The blogprof has more on 0bama’s academic (non)career, and Doug Ross claims to have gotten off-the-record comments from a senior law prof at U. of Chicago that put 0bama’s time there in an unflattering light to say the least.

But I leave the last word to Powerline:

Barack Obama is a creature of the modern university and therefore an amazingly shallow man. I have written about his historical howlers in the New York Post column “Anti-terror oops,” in the Weekly Standard column “The Kennedy-Khrushchev conference for dummies,” and in the Power Line post “Obama veers into the Daily Ditch.”

Obama’s historical ignorance could be a full time beat for somebody who does this work for a living, and it tells us something truly important about Barack Obama. His ignorance is as broad as it is deep. Not that you couldn’t deduce that on your own from his performance on the job.

Yesterday he was at it again, in his peevish interview with the feisty local broadcast reporter from Texas. Why are you so unpopular in Texas? the reporter asked. Obama being Obama, he was unable to laugh off the question and say he’d do better next time around. Obama responded: “Texas has always been a pretty Republican state, for, you know, historic reasons.”

Has the guy ever heard of LBJ? You know, the fellow who first brought us socialized medicine? Has he ever read a single volume of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of LBJ? It’s hard to miss the extent to which the Democratic Party dominated Texas politics for the duration of LBJ’s (long) political career.

Obama majored in political science at Columbia. Did he miss the fact that Texas was part of the solidly Democratic South — the slaveholding, segregated, Jim Crow South — more or less from statehood in 1845 until Nixon’s 1972 landslide?

Did Obama skip class the day he might have learned that in the the postbellum South, including Texas, the Republican Party was virtually nonexistent? Apparently so. Or maybe he was just deploying his skills as a bs artist to deflect a question that could not be reconciled with his self-worship.

JOHN adds: I’ve concluded that Obama isn’t a smart person. He just plays one on television.

Ouch.

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On being a closeted conservative in academia

Insty linked to two great posts by Megan McArdle on liberal bias in academia. The first, which she got lots of vigorous reactions (and hate mail) too, points out the laughably lopsided distribution of liberals vs. conservatives in academia (we’re talking 200/1 ratios in some disciplines). The second gives a rundown of all the lame excuses proffered by apologists, which she facetiously compares to “oh, women are happier in the kitchen and blacks don’t want responsibility” rationalizations for gender and racial discrimination.

Academia is probably the quintessential New Class career path, and in my day job I get to deal with a great many academics, mostly in the hard sciences. I can testify that even in the hard sciences — where politics is rarely an issue in tenure decisions — there is very strong peer pressure. Let me quote an Email I got:

I was at [a major university in the Midwest] at the time of 0bama’s candidacy and quickly learned to keep my political opinions to myself. I was prepared to like 0bama (potentially the first black president and all) but quickly realized he was going to be at best a crooked hack politician in the Chicago mold, and at worst a radical the likes of which the USA hadn’t seen. Typically I was the only person in the room who did not think 0bama was the second coming of JC [well, he does resemble Jimmy Carter, no? — Ed.], and I lost count how many times I heard remarks to the effect that any opposition to his candidacy could only be motivated by racism. I ended up moving to a red state where at least I could open my mouth with impunity — and even here I am one of only two conservatives in my department and generally avoid the subject of politics. Note my field is [a basic science], not English literature or sociology.

I’m the sort of person who doesn’t give a rat’s backside what anybody thinks of him. Even so, it got to me at times and was a factor in deciding where to live next. I can only imagine how this would affect a person more sensitive to peer pressure — probably “adapt or leave”.

Earlier, Insty reproduced an Email he got from a “conservative in the closet” in academia, with some reminiscences of his own added. (Thankfully, Insty works in an unusually supportive environment. He does point, whimsically, to his usefulness to the university administration as a “token” libertarian — and I am not 100% sure he is joking.) An excerpt from the Email:

I have used this comparison [with being in the closet about one’s sexual orientation] myself, it is apt, and it doesn’t just apply to students. You hide yourself in plain sight. You make comments that are carefully crafted to allow you to make small talk, and which will allow your colleagues to think you’re in agreement with them, but which nevertheless satisfy your own sense of integrity. You never lie. You just make comments and allow them to draw their own conclusions. A classic example is the way I’ll make comments about politics, saying things like “I don’t trust politicians, period.” My liberal colleagues will nod and agree. We’re all in agreement, they believe. It gets easy after a while. You make comments about Marxist ideology that are really rather neutral, such as how you see similarities between Marx’s views, and something else. You leave it unstated that in fact you think this is appalling, while they nod and smile at the continuing relevance of Marxism in today’s society. Everyone is happy. I don’t feel quite so happy when someone says something about “stupid fucking conservatives” (I’m quoting exact words here), but I just nod, and say “ugh-huh”.

I’ve just been watching the first series of Mad Men, and I’m struck by the gay guy Salvatore Romano, and how similar his behavior is to me, only I’m hiding my politics, not my sexuality. There are also the classic moments, whereby fellow believers in academia carefully try to work out if you are one of “us”. I remember one guy who heard me comment on how some architecture reminded me of something I read in The Fountainhead, which was enough to alert him. Later we went out for a drink. I remember the nervous moment (for both of us) where he finally came out and asked me, “so what are your political / economic beliefs?” I chickened out, tempered, and said, “well, perhaps more to the center than most academics” and countered, “what are yours?” Reassured, he was willing to admit to conservative leanings. Then I was willing to admit it too. Then at last we could talk about our true feelings, with it clearly and openly stated that (of course) none of this was ever, ever, ever, to go beyond our own private conversations. (I also learned to never ever, in future, mention Rand within hearing of any academics, in case I accidently revealed myself again.) In another case, the vital clue was our shared interest in science fiction, and over the weeks there followed careful probing concerning which authors we liked, until we eventually discretely revealed ourselves. Now he lends me books saying “don’t let any of your colleagues see you with this.”

When (if) I get tenure, I toy with the idea of coming out of the closet. I don’t think I will though. Perhaps my job will be more secure, but I have to live and work with these people for years to come. I prefer to work in a friendly environment. I don’t want to be the token conservative, and I don’t want to be the one who speaks at meetings while everyone else rolls their eyes and exchanges meaningful glances.

Needless to say, don’t under any circumstances use my real name if you choose to refer to my email. Thanks!

Aside from the “closet” metaphor (make sure to check out this blog, BTW), this behavior reminds me of the submarine warfare tactic known as “silent running“. Make no unnecessary sound, and run the electric engines of the sub at an RPM rate calculated to be minimally detectible by passive sonar.

Megan makes the case that a combination of discrimination, peer pressure, and self-selection is at work. I can second the latter: my guess is that most conservatives would consider “studies” fields to be wastes of time for all considered, and Erin O’Connor of Critical Mass is an example of a tenured literature professor who eventually left academia in disgust. But this should be much less of an issue in hard sciences fields (except, obviously, for environmental science and climate studies).

If I’d gotten a dollar for every time I heard somebody refer to academics as “the most self-centered people on the planet” I’d be rich now. And there is indeed a rub, if not necessarily the rub. Like any highly competitive creative field, it self-selects for egomaniacs — and perhaps to the benefit of all concerned. (To give an example outside academia: where would Apple or Microsoft be today if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates were modest, self-effacing people?) Now whenever you put a lot of people of (real or perceived) high talent together, one gets not only the backbiting everybody in academia knows (I’ve seen academic knife-fights to the death over completely apolitical scholarly disputes in physics or chemistry), but also a kind of “esprit de corps”, a feeling of group superiority over other mere mortals. At best, this gets sublimated into an admirable sense of “noblesse oblige”. At worst, one gets what Robert Nozick incisively described as (via Clive):

Intellectuals feel they are the most valuable people, the ones with the highest merit, and that society should reward people in accordance with their value and merit. But a capitalist society does not satisfy the principle of distribution “to each according to his merit or value.” Apart from the gifts, inheritances, and gambling winnings that occur in a free society, the market distributes to those who satisfy the perceived market-expressed demands of others, and how much it so distributes depends on how much is demanded and how great the alternative supply is. Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.

It is my hypothesis that, more generally, the vast majority of academia subconsciously identifies as members of the New Class (by whatever name they may call “our kind of people”) before everything else, and will naturally tend to favor policies that reflect New Class sensitivities and interests. Big-government philosophies, and especially redistributive “social justice” programs run by bureaucratic elites, have a natural appeal to them.

And academics can rent-seek with the best of them. I have seen liberal academics be apologetic about receiving defense-related funding, but applying for and accepting it nevertheless. Or people who receive research funding for the liberal pet cause du jour while, out of earshot and with a couple in them, admitting to be skeptical about it. I have heard more than one academic tell me flat out that (s)he thinks Al Gore is a huckster, but if his AGW doom talk can scare people into weaning themselves off fossil fuels before they run out then it will have served a useful purpose. And of course, easy availability of funding for research in… is a useful benefit. (With all due respect, but “pia fraus” and “taqqiya” belong in religions, not science.)

Ideally, an academic should seek the truth wherever it can be found, without fear or favor. In the real world, academics are humans and no human foibles are alien to them. One of the most sobering things  I learned in my 4.5 decades on this mortal coil is that in some “real world” matters, farmers and small businessmen without any formal education can exercise more sound judgment than most professors.

ADDENDUM: I should have pointed out the degree to which already existing tendencies are exacerbated by the whole “postmodern” fad. To state that personal perspective may create observer bias, or that it may be worthwhile to look at historical or political events through different eyes, is one thing. To deny the very existence of objective truth (even as a platonic ideal) is another: if there is only the “struggle between competing narratives” (how people who believe in this radically subjectivist notion can take pride in being “reality-based” is a miracle of psychology), then the search for truth (by however imperfect means) degenerates into a sophistry contest. Which is how many conservatives increasingly look upon humanities and “soft subjects” academia (actually, various unprintable versions of “mutual gratification society” are more commonly heard) — and which, in turn, increases the mutual aversion. There is a definite “feedback loop” going on here…

The strange case of UIUC adjunct Kenneth Howell

Fox News has an article on the controversy involved in the “not firing firing” of UIUC (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) adjunct professor Kenneth Howell for private Emails expressing what some read as approval of Catholic doctrine on same-sex relationships. The case is less black and white than either side lets on, but disturbing nevertheless. A few impromptu remarks on this drama playing out at what is, interestingly, the birthplace of the first widely available web browser (Mosaic, which later became Netscape).

Dr. Howell is an interesting character. An ordained Presbyterian minister by background, he converted to Catholicism and moved to UIUC to become involved with the Catholic student center, of which he eventually became the director. He simultaneous started teaching as  an adjunct associate professor on Catholic doctrine at UIUC, and by all accounts was popular with the students and well-liked by them. He was given an award for teaching excellence.

In an Email responding to a query about this, he expounded the reasoning behind Catholic doctrine on same-sex relationships, specifically the “Natural law” argument. He, however, did not state this in a manner disassociating himself personally from this doctrine (“Catholic moralists defending this doctrine put forward the following arrgument:”[…] or something of the sort). As he himself is by all accounts a devout Catholic, it was understood by some as personally agreeing with them, which led to complaints against him and his annual contract not being renewed. (Technically he was not fired, but I am familiar enough with academia to know how appearances are kept there.)

Leaving aside Jewish (or my own) views on homosexuality, I am personally of two minds about the affair. On the one hand, every college lecturer would do well to remember the admonishment of Avtalyon in Pirkei Avot 1:11: “Scholars, heed your words. For you may be exiled to a place of evil waters [i.e., malicious elements who will distort your words to suit their purposes]. The disciples who come after you will then drink of these evil waters and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.” On the other hand, for every Dr. Howell there are dozens of lecturers and professors who vigorously advocate Marxism (a doctrine in whose name even more people have been killed than in the name of National Socialism), spout antisemitic and/or anti-American drivel from their bully pulpits,… with impunity. (OK, most of these enjoy the protection of tenure, unlike Dr. Howell.)

Meanwhile, as the Fox article explains, students have rallied to his defense, including from some rather… unexpected groups.

Thousands of supporters are rallying behind Dr. Kenneth Howell, the University of Illinois professor fired for expressing his Catholic beliefs, via a \”Save Dr. Ken\” Facebook group.”
“It’s turning into a whole movement for freedom of speech in the classroom,” said senior Tim Fox, a member of the group and former resident at the university’s Catholic student Newman Center.The “Save Dr. Ken” Facebook group includes alumni, current students and outside supporters who are familiar with Howell through his books or his appearances on EWTN, a Catholic television network. Howell is actively involved in the group and has written personal responses to some of his Facebook supporters.

“Save Dr. Ken” is actively working to take its protest beyond Facebook. Its home page offers detailed instructions on how to protest Howell’s dismissal, separately tailored to students, alumni and outside supporters. […]

Students are also organizing a mass boycott of all university religion courses unless Howell is reinstated by the fall, Melissa Silverberg, editor-in-chief of the university’s student newspaper, the Daily Illini, confirmed.

Howell is a popular professor; his students voted for him to receive an “Excellence in Teaching” award last fall, and now they are rallying for him.

[…] Students at the center are not the only ones protesting. The campus secularist group, Atheists, Agnostics & Freethinkers, has taken up Howell’s cause. Howell had worked with the group in the past, helping organize a public debate between an atheist and a Catholic on “Does the Christian God Exist?” last February. Its president wrote a letter to the university chancellor, Robert Easter, saying, “[Howell] has shown a commitment to the questioning of all ideas. His loss is a profound blow to the University of Illinois and its purpose… Who will next be silenced?”“Even people who disagree with what [Howell] taught think that his firing was wrong,” said Silverberg.

But not everyone is in Howell’s corner. Some students say they are not so sure he should be coming back.

“I wouldn’t necessarily get behind this protest,” said David Bettinardi, a senior. “Teachers can abuse their authority, and if a teacher talks about his personal beliefs in class, it becomes less education and more indoctrination. That’s true for a professor with any set of beliefs – atheist, Catholic, whatever.”

Other students said Howell’s dismissal was not just an issue of freedom of speech, but revealed a double standard at the university.

“Professor Howell didn’t mean to insult homosexuals; he was just stating the Catholic position,” said Mike Hamoy, a senior chemistry major who took Howell’s class in fall 2009. “I’ve had multiple professors who have mocked how much Catholic families reproduce or who have implied to the class that God is a joke. Why aren’t these professors fired for their open insults?”

The logic behind the double standards is very simple, Mike. If you agree with the Anointed and thus are a loyal member of the New Class, you can get away with nearly anything. But woe unto those who dare stray off the reservation, or who simply are “not one of us”…

Did Yale prof imply lots of fakes could do degree coursework just fine?

I have some trouble wrapping my brain around this Insty item:

RUSSIAN SPY MAY LOSE HARVARD DEGREE, and James Joyner asks: “By all accounts, Bezrukov completed the program and earned the degree in the same way as any other student. A decade ago. So, what’s the problem? He lied about his name, of course, but so what? Presumably, he also used fake credentials to get into the program. Maybe he wouldn’t have been admitted based on his actual qualifications. But that seems trumped by the fact that he was obviously qualified to do the work since, um, he did the work.” I remember a professor telling me about a fake-student case at Yale; she’d done the work satisfactorily but was still booted. Explanation: “We turn down lots of people who could do the work satisfactorily if they got in. If we start letting them stay on that basis even if they’re frauds, we’ll have a lot more frauds show up.” But, you know, that’s Yale. The Harvard crowd seems to have more trouble figuring out how the incentives created by a policy will play out . . . .

Let me get this straight. Does this imply that Ivy League colleges actual standards for coursework (at least in the luftgescheften) are a lot more lenient than their admission standards?

I remember a day when getting into an elite university (at least in the sciences) meant you actually got a superior training as well… Why am I getting uncomfortably reminded of a real estate bubble?

VDH to 0bama: The USA is not a college and you are not a Dean

Victor Davis Hanson (a classics professor in his day job) comments on the disconnect between 0bama’s rhetoric and his actions, as well as the seemingly endless sequence of “that was yesterday” moments. He tries to make sense of them, and anybody who is familiar with (especially humanities) academe will wrily smile in recognition:

[N]either the press nor his chameleon followers quite explain what is going on. Instead, I think we, the American people, are seen by Obama as a sort of Ivy League campus, with him as an untouchable dean. So we get the multicultural bromides, the constant groupthink, and the reinvention of the self that we see so often among a professional class of administrator in universities (we used to get their memos daily and they read like an Obama teleprompted speech).  […T]he public does not grasp to what degree supposedly elite universities simply wa[i]ve their own rules when they find it convenient.

In academia, there are few consequences for much of anything; but in Obama’s case his legal career at Chicago seems inexplicable without publications (and even more surreal when Law Dean Kagan laments on tape her difficulties in recruiting him to the law school—but how would that be possible when a five- or six-book law professor from a Texas or UC Irvine would never get such an offer from a Chicago or Harvard?).

[…] On an elite university campus what you have constructed yourself into always matters more than what you have done. An accent mark here, a hyphenated name there is always worth a book or two. There is no bipartisanship or indeed any political opposition on campuses; if the Academic Senate weighs in on national issues to “voice concern,” the ensuing margin of vote is usually along the lines of Saddam’s old lopsided referenda.

In other words, Obama assumed as dean he would talk one way, do another, and was confident he could “contextualize” and “construct” a differing narrative—to anyone foolish enough who questioned the inconsistency. As we have seen with Climategate, or the Gore fraud, intent always trumps empiricism in contemporary intellectual circles. Obama simply cannot be held to the same standard we apply to most other politicians—given his heritage, noble intention, and landmark efforts to transform America into something far fairer.

Like so many academics, Obama becomes petulant when crossed, and like them as well, he “deigns” to know very little out of his field (from Cinco de Mayo to the liberation of Auschwitz), and only a little more in it. Obama voiced the two main gospels of the elite campus: support for redistributive mechanisms with other people’s wealth; and while abroad, a sort of affirmative action for less successful nations: those who are failing and criticized the U.S. under Bush proved insightful and worthy of outreach ( a Russia or Syria); but those who allied themselves with us (an Israel or Colombia) are now suspect.

[…] I think at some point Obama’s untruths, hypocrisies, and contradictions will, in their totality, finally remind the voter he is not a student.

After all, America is not a campus. It has real jobs that are not lifelong sinecures. Americans work summers. There are consequences when rhetoric does not match reality. Outside of Harvard or Columbia, debt has to be paid back and is not called stimulus. We worry about jobs lost, not those in theory created or saved. We don’t blame predecessors for our own ongoing failures. Those who try to kill us are enemies, whose particular grievances we don’t care much to know about. Diversity is lived rather than professed; temporizing is not seen as reflection, but weakness.

And something not true in not a mere competing narrative, but a flat-out lie.

Amen.