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Roger’s Rules

The Boston Phone Book, “Harvard,” and Sarah Palin

September 5th, 2008 - 7:58 am

In the early 1960s, Bill Buckley famously observed that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University. It is perhaps worth pointing out that Bill, a Yale man, was not singling out the Harvard faculty for special opprobrium. Harvard was merely a synecdoche [a reader suggests that "metonymy" would be more accurate--maybe he is right]. It was the smug, “progressive” liberal consensus that our elite academic institutions inculcated, even back then, that Bill objected to, not Harvard per se. What are the lineaments of that consensus? In God and Man at Yale (1951), Bill said that, for him, “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world,” and he went on to observe that “the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” The liberal consensus–the liberal “orthodoxy” as Bill sometimes put it–is on the side of atheism and collectivism. It takes its emotional weather from Rousseau, its economics from Marx, its theology from Nietzsche, its sexual etiquette from some radical disciples of Freud.

Other semantic markers: “Harvard” is suspicious of patriotism, disdainful of small-town values and entertainments, enthusiastic about big government programs and transnational initiatives like the World Court and the EU. It is “homeopathic” at one remove: that is, it harbors a sentimental affection for the Third World, “traditional” medicine, native tribes (“native” anything, really, except “nativism” and “natality”) but only so long as it is filtered through the scrim of Western affluence and “progressive” values. (By the way, I keep putting the word “progressive” in scare quotes because progress suggests a movement forward towards a desirable goal whereas “progressive” in the Harvard sense embraces the rhetoric of progress while advocating policies that stymie it.)

One other point about the Boston phone book-Harvard faculty dichotomy: in preferring the first two thousand names from the Boston phone book, Bill was not thereby repudiating high culture, intellectual seriousness, or moral refinement. It’s only from the eyrie of the “Harvard” Weltanschauung that a largish random sampling of citizens is found culturally deficient. And this leads me to a crucial point about “Harvard” and the “progressive” consensus it represents: it is sophisticated about everything except its own naïveté. It champions cultural relativism–absolutely. It is suspicious when someone shows up peddling “the truth,” especially about moral matters; but it embraces its perspective on the world as inarguable. According to the gospel of “Harvard,” all right-thinking (i.e., left-leaning) people agree with the various positions set forth in the catechism of liberalism. To champion the various dogmas set forth in that catechism, says “Harvard,” is simply to exhibit one’s contact with reality. To dissent from them is to exhibit one’s ignorance, bad faith, or malevolence. Nice work if you can get it!

If you can get it? The amazing thing is that there is nothing easier. The liberal consensus has tenure. I mean, it is thoroughly institutionalized, and not only in academia. It has metastasized throughout elite culture. It’s what you are likely to uphold if you were graduated from an Ivy League college, went to law school, or work for The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, etc. It explains the little frisson Chris Matthews felt travelling up his leg as Obama spoke last winter. It also explains the incredulous, spluttering rage that Sarah Palin has provoked in purlieus of liberal self-satisfaction. I call it “Palin Hysteria Syndrome.” Just this morning, for example, I received this email from an acquaintance (I preserve the original orthography and diction: he is a careful writer as a rule, but clearly his emotion got the better of him here):

i read you blog posting on Sarah Palin. Quite a suprise. Never would I have thought you suceptible to trailer trash. More suprising were the comments about Palin’s “executive experience” and being governor of the country’s “largest state.” Once upon a time, those were the sort of sphistries against which you waged glorious battle. The strange bedfellows induced by politics are not integrity and compromise.

“Trailer trash,” eh? Clearly, as Victor Davis Hanson put it yesterday, “Team Obama, the mainstream media, and the entire American intelligentsia” are acting “as if they were collectively hit by a cruise missile aimed from Middle America.” “Cruise missile” is good: it suggests the unexpectedness and deadly accuracy of the blow. But I like to think that Boston phone book–or maybe it’s the Juneau phone book–is finally getting some of its own back. Bill Buckley would be pleased.

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