by Mark English
Academics and other intellectuals have always played a role in public life, and one of their most important roles has been to speak out and to engage – through newspapers and the electronic media, for example – with a wider audience. But, over the last half-century or more, I think there has been a subtle shift in emphasis. In the past in many Western countries intellectuals played a more significant and broader social role than is typically the case today. Generally speaking, learned people were more highly regarded and widely taken notice of in the days before mass higher education, and they were often valued for their general learning, and not just as subject specialists or experts.
A television program from May 1960 – an episode of the panel discussion series Fighting Words! featured in the archives of Canada’s CBC – could be seen to illustrate to some extent how things have changed.1 One short program doesn’t provide a basis to generalize but the composition of the panel is particularly interesting. (Two philosophers.)
The program happens also to be very topical, focusing, after a brief discussion of the importance (or otherwise) of charm and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, on the ethics of espionage (including governments spying on their own citizens) and war. It was recorded at a particularly dangerous point in the Cold War, three weeks after an American U-2 spy plane disappeared while in Soviet airspace. Current frictions between Russia and NATO have disturbing echoes of those times.
At any rate, the panel consists of an actress, a newspaper editor, and the philosophers.
George Grant was a prominent political and religious philosopher and Max Black was a respected logician. The actress is Toby Robins and the newspaper editor is Michael Barkway.
I have come across Max Black’s writings from time to time and I admire his clarity, his pragmatism and his restrained and unpretentious intellectualism. He trained originally as a mathematician, later focusing on logic. Black has little or nothing in common with the other philosopher (Grant) and seems to relate rather better to the newspaper editor. This may have as much to do with general cultural background as with intellectual or ideological matters, however. Though Barkway was a clergyman’s son from Yorkshire and Black was born in Azerbaijan to Russian-Jewish parents, Black’s parents emigrated when Max was still an infant, ending up in England where he was raised and educated. Both Black and Barkway were graduates of Cambridge University.
Barkway lights a cigarette for Black after Black’s initial cigar has mercifully (it seemed to produce an inordinate amount of smoke) run its course. The only non-smoker was Robins: even the host was smoking.
Grant was clearly a more emotional and politically engaged thinker than Black, and his take on the nature of philosophy is also very different. He was a Canadian nationalist and ‘Red Tory’. His deep religious (Christian-Platonist) and metaphysical (Hegelian) commitments informed both his politics and his view of the nature of philosophy. He doesn’t mention metaphysics and only makes a brief allusion to religion in the program, but his strong moral views are clearly evident. He was particularly scornful of the view that charm has any importance, and downright savage about Peter Pan. He clashes strongly with Robins who loves the character. Something is going on here under the surface, and panel members know it. Grant is revealing something deep about himself and his view of the world. Black tries to do a bit of amateur psychologizing but his point is lost in the flow of talk.
Michael Barkway didn’t express a view on Peter Pan but, like Grant, did have reservations about charm, seeing it as merely superficial. Ironically, however, he clearly fancied himself as a charmer. His attempt to charm the actress Toby Robins (“You must often have heard it said, ‘All this and brains too.’”) was cringeworthy – and spectacularly unsuccessful.
Robins, though her political views were naïve, comes across as a very open, warm and intelligent person. She saved the program from greyness. That’s what she was there for, of course.
“Toby, very nice having you, dear,” says the host Nathan Cohen at the end of the program. Not nearly as bad as Barkway’s remark, but patronizing nonetheless.
All that sexism and all that smoke: this was truly another world. Or was it?
Socially things have changed, but the political games haven’t, it seems.
As I noted previously, references were made in the program to an international incident and its aftermath which was then playing out involving the downing of an American U-2 spy plane in Soviet territory. An elaborate denial and explanation which the American administration put out had been exposed as a complete fiction by the Soviets when they revealed that they had captured the pilot alive. This incident was a turning-point in the Cold War, leading to increased tensions.
Most of the discussion was focused on moral questions concerning war and spying, questions made all the more pertinent by these escalating geopolitical tensions and the perceived dangers of a major nuclear conflict. The main specific question being addressed concerned the morality of espionage. Was it an “unpleasant necessity”?
George Grant gave a very clear and grounded response, saying that moral concepts can and should be applied to the state and its actions. He continued, however, pointing out that a different or lower level of morality applies to the state, and to relations between states, than that which applies to individual persons and their actions and relations. The first and most vital duties of the state involve the maintenance order and security, and espionage was necessary to achieve these ends.
Justice came next. Barkway was very keen to make a space not just for justice but also for the imperatives of “social responsibility”. And Max Black expressed reservations about Grant’s emphasis on social order, an emphasis which might be seen to justify a state spying on its own citizens.
Max Black also differed from Grant in claiming that it was an error of logic to apply moral concepts to the state – or anything other than individual persons. The state was just a system (he compared it to plumbing) which individuals use for their own purposes. Only individuals can be held to account, morally speaking. He had a point, I think.
The discussion was frustratingly cursory at times but, given the context, reasonably serious and sophisticated. It certainly brought out the differences between those who see geopolitics basically in pragmatic terms (in terms of realpolitik) and those who seek to apply conventional moral standards or strong political principles to state actions.
To round off this commentary let me return briefly to those opening remarks in which I suggested that the general public might have been rather more trusting of its scholars, and respectful of learning in general, in the past than at present. Such subtle societal changes are difficult to specify in a clear and objective way – and all too easy to make facile judgments about. So I just want to deal briefly with one aspect of this change.
It seems to me that one of the main things that has eroded respect and trust is the narrowing of political views within the humanities. At least in this old moth-eaten TV show we have a balance of views: one rather grumpy academic conservative set against the other more liberal academic. (Black, by the way, was actively involved in the anti-Vietnam War protests at Cornell some ten years later.) But of course, this is just an isolated and relatively trivial instance. The real question is whether there was at the time a diverse range of views amongst academics. My knowledge of academic history is limited, but from what I know I think it safe to say that in most places and at most times for the last 200 years or so Western universities were less ideologically homogeneous than they are today. (Obvious exceptions that spring to mind are German institutions under the Nazis and French institutions immediately after the post-World War 2 purges (the épuration).)
Polarizing political issues came to the fore, of course, through the 1960s, and the new generation of intellectuals who came of age at that time generally tended to the left. The process continued, arguably feeding on itself. Over time radical-left politics became the established norm in certain areas of the humanities.
Megan McArdle puts a personal spin on this issue and highlights the problem in her usual stylish and hard-hitting way. She recounts her experience as a student of the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania (perhaps out of loyalty to her alma mater, she doesn’t mention the university by name in her piece).2
She draws on research by her colleague, Virginia Postrel, who writes: “Conservatives can safely study ancient history but not modern American history, economics but not sociology. Literature, largely a politics-free zone until the 1980s, has become hostile territory.”
“This resonates with me, and not just for ideological reasons.
“The politicization of the humanities was well under way when I was an English major in the early 1990s, and my education suffered as a result. This wasn’t because I was so oppressed as a conservative, but because in roughly half my classes, there was no easier route to an A than to argue that some long-dead author was a sexist pig, racist cretin or homophobic jerk. Being, like so many college students, not overfond of unnecessary labor, I’m afraid I all too frequently slithered along the easy path to the 4.0.”
“Every time I write about bias against conservatives in academia,” she complains, “I can count on a few professors writing me to politely suggest that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Sometimes they aren’t so polite, either. How would I know what goes on in their hiring meetings, their faculty gatherings, their tenure reviews? They’re right there, and they can attest firsthand that there ain’t no bias, no sir!”
“But none of them can explain why, if that bias doesn’t exist, so many of their conservative and libertarian colleagues feel compelled to hide in the closet. Deep in the closet, behind that plastic zip bag of old winter coats in mothballs, and sealed, with many layers of packing tape, in a box marked ‘Betamax Tapes: Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon 1981-1987’.”