An Appeal to Conservative Scholars, and Its Outcome

By Donald Lazere

I sent out the following “Appeal” last February. I received no response from ACTA and a form rejection from the Center for the American University. NAS posted it on its home page, where it received two evasive responses. George Leef, head of the Pope Center, answered with a review of my book.

I wrote a response to Leef, who has been a cordial correspondent and who says he will post it.

An Appeal to the Officials and Associates of the Center for the American University, National Association of Scholars, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and John William Pope Center for Higher Education 

The mission statement on the home page for Minding the Campus (the online journal of Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University) declares, “We hope to foster a new climate of opinion that favors civil and honest engagement of all sides, offering an engaged debate for readers concerned with the state of the modern university.” NAS’s home page similarly defines its goal as, “to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in America’s colleges and universities.”  ACTA’s founding mission was to “support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.” The Pope Center is dedicated to “pursuing excellence in higher education,” which includes “increas[ing] the diversity of ideas taught, debated, and discussed on campus.”

Among the aims of my book Why Higher Education SHOULD Have a Leftist Bias, recently published by Palgrave-Macmillan, is to appeal for exactly such “civil and honest engagement” and affirmation of common ground between scholars on the intellectual left and right, based on application of the following:

GROUND RULES FOR POLEMICISTS

Do unto your own as you do unto others. Apply the same standards to yourself and your allies that you do to your opponents, in all of the following ways.

  1. Identify your own ideological viewpoint and how it might bias your arguments. Having done so, show that you approach opponents’ actions and writings with an open mind, not with malice aforethought. Concede the other side’s valid arguments–preferably toward the beginning of your critique, not tacked on grudgingly at the end or in inconspicuous subordinate clauses. Acknowledge points on which you agree at least partially and might be able to cooperate.
  2. Summarize the other side’s case fully and fairly, in an account that they would accept, prior to refuting it. Present it through its most reputable spokespeople and strongest formulations (not through the most outlandish statements of its lunatic fringe), using direct quotes and footnoted sources, not your own, undocumented paraphrases. Allow the most generous interpretation of their statements rather than putting the worst light on them; help them make their arguments stronger when possible.
  3. When quoting selected phrases from the other side’s texts, accurately summarize the context and tone of the longer passages and full texts in which they appear.
  4. When you are repeating a second-hand account of events, say so–do not leave the implication that you were there and are certain of its accuracy. Cite your source and take account of its author’s possible biases, especially if the author is your ally.
  5. In any account that you use to illustrate the opponents’ misbehavior, grant that there may be another side to the story and take pains to find out what it is. If opponents claim they have been misrepresented, give them their say and the benefit of the doubt.
  6. Be willing to acknowledge misconduct, errors, and fallacious arguments by your own allies, and try scrupulously to establish an accurate proportion and sense of reciprocity between them and those you criticize in your opponents. Do not play up the other side’s forms of power while denying or downplaying your own side’s.   Do not weigh an ideal, theoretical model of your side’s beliefs against the most corrupt actual practices on the other side.
  7. Respond forthrightly to opponents’ criticisms of your own or your side’s previous arguments, without evading key points. Admit it when they make criticisms you cannot refute.
  8. Do not substitute ridicule or name-calling for reasoned argument and substantive evidence.

 

You might reply that these admonitions are not applicable to your organizations because you do not define yourselves as being on “one side,” but as politically non-partisan and non-ideological–not even conservative–with your aim being only “engagement of all sides.” If this were true, one would expect to see regular contributions by academic leftists in your journals and websites. Are there? Moreover, the long history of your organizations’ direct or indirect affiliations with Republican Party officials like William J. Bennett and Lynne Cheney, Republican-aligned action groups, foundations, think tanks, and corporations (often with financial investments in subjects under study) is public knowledge, as surveyed in my book. A more pointed question here is the extent of your affiliation with the Republican “attack machine,” whose history I also trace, which originated in the Nixon administration and whose goal has been, as Grover Norquist bluntly put it, “to crush the structures of the left.” My intent here is not to rekindle old antagonisms but only to raise questions that this history unavoidably raises but that you have rarely been willing to answer forthrightly. The burden of proof would seem to be on you to demonstrate that you operate free from external influence by your high-placed Republican allies and foundation sponsors, rather than being PR agencies or lobbies in the manner brazenly expressed by William Baroody, former president of American Enterprise Institute: “I make no bones about marketing. . . . We hire ghost writers for scholars to produce op-ed articles. . . .” Or by one-time Heritage Foundation vice president Burton Pines: “We’re not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time. Our role is to provide conservative public policymakers with arguments to bolster our side.” (Both quoted in Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media? 82-83.) The recent founding of Heritage Action as an open advocacy branch of Heritage seems rather redundant in light of the original’s avowed advocacy role.

I know of several scholars affiliated with these foundations and think tanks who have high intellectual and political integrity, but I am always puzzled about why they continue to compromise themselves remaining in, or accepting as allies, institutions whose executives “make no bones” about their partisan control from above. (Norman Ornstein is refreshingly frank in saying he has remained at AEI precisely because executives there have granted him dispensation to be a token autonomous scholar and liberal.) Whatever forms of bias you may find among academic leftists, none that I have ever known in fields of liberal education has had ghost writers for op-eds or been ordered by a university employer to cater her or his scholarship to bolster one party or special interest.

So I propose that one way for your officials or contributors to demonstrate their good faith would be to engage in an informal, “civil debate” or dialogue, in your Website or publications (or in person at a conference), adhering to my Ground Rules, both in general and in reference to the case studies of conservative bias marshaled in my book, especially Chapter 7, “Conservative Scholarship: Seeing the Object As It Really Isn’t.”

Palgrave Macmillan restricts long published or posted excerpts of my book, but you can access Chapter 7 in e-mail as a Word ms. attachment (write me at dlazere@igc.org), and I will briefly summarize it here. The chapter first develops the points I have made above, then surveys many instances in which your organizations and their allies have failed to practice what they preach about upholding high academic standards and safeguarding the free exchange of ideas on campus. Among my points:

  • Many of your “research reports” piling on accusations against the academic left have not followed scholarly protocols or been addressed to an academic audience, but have taken the form of public relations offensives distributed to journalistic media and politicians, many of whom are already unsympathetic to the academic world and willing to accept negative accounts of it without careful vetting.       The targeted individual scholars generally have no such PR apparatus or access to mass media for rebuttal.

 

  • While claiming to uphold the quest for objective truth (a quest I wholly endorse) and non-partisanship, your representatives constantly propagate statements that purport to be objectively true but that are in fact partisan opinions that should be open to challenge through “reasoned scholarship and civil debate.” For example, NAS’s Web page states that the organization “was founded in 1987, soon after Allan Bloom’s surprise best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind, alerted Americans to the ravages wrought by illiberal ideologies on campus.” Has NAS invited civil debate with, and extensively published, left academics who deny that their ideology has been illiberal or has wrought ravages? (In another book currently under submission, I argue at length against the excesses of some leftist advocates of academic multiculturalism, diversity, and postmodern anti-rationalism, although I avoid the rhetorical overkill of conservatives about the extent of their “ravages.”)   I also argue that Bloom’s book itself and its promotion were products of the Republican attack apparatus, mainly through the Olin Foundation, which funded both Bloom and NAS along with Roger Kimball–author of Tenured Radicals–whose rave review of The Closing in the New York Times helped propel it to best-sellerdom. (So much for the “liberal” Times’ vaunted vetting of reviewers for conflicts of interest.) The other most influential review of The Closing, in the Wall Street Journal, was written by William Kristol, whose father, Irving, had been Olin’s liaison with Bloom and was on the Journal’s editorial board. In his teaching role, Bloom guided students like Paul Wolfowitz into Republican policy circles, and he reveled in the praise of his book by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Yet for NAS and other conservative groups, Bloom was the very model of the disinterested, a-political scholar.

 

  • In stark contrast to your organizations’ invocations of civility or Arnoldian “disinterestedness” and dedication to “seeing the object as it really is,” in the cause of chastizing academic leftists who abuse such principles, your and your allies’ publications over the years have themselves maliciously misrepresented the ideas and statements of academic leftists, and have refused to correct such misrepresentations when called on them. I cite examples from, among others, Lynne Cheney, William J. Bennett, Peter Wood, John Ellis, Roger Kimball, Cynthia Ozick, and David Gelernter. In one notorious example, Noam Chomsky once criticized a prejudiced allegation against Palestinean Arabs in an op-ed by a New York Times editor, through a parody fabricating a similar statement about Jews and Israel by an anti-semite, which he said would never be published in the Times. A whole chain of conservative journalists and scholars (including Alan Dershowitz in a scholarly book) circulated an account depicting Chomsky’s parody as his own beliefs and evidence that he is an anti-semite, while unquestioningly citing previous misrepresentations as their source. Did any of your organizations protest this intellectual groupthink on the right?

 

  • I suggest in conclusion that your organizations should forthrightly acknowledge your Republican and corporate alliances, then bend over backward to show that you are willing to criticize these and other conservative forces, especially in their debasement of public discourse and malicious assault on the public sector, including education–with the same high dudgeon you show in stigmatizing the left.   (At the risk of being accused of a double standard here, many of us academic and journalistic leftists are not, I think, subject to the same suggestion in relation to the Democrats, since we expressly position ourselves to their left, advocating a multi-party system in America, and thus spend an inordinate amount of energy bashing mainstream Democrats like Obama and the Clintons.)

Some of you will undoubtedly jump at this opportunity to play “gotcha” in spotting my abuses of my own ground rules here or in the chapter. Fair enough. I welcome corrections and refutations so long as they are “civil and honest.”   Please do, however, spare us the usual tu quoque and fighting-fire-with-fire recitation of abuses on the academic left as excuses for those on the right, which does not jibe with the claim to higher scholarly and ethical ground in your mission statements. Two wrongs do not make a right.

My chapter concludes with a comment on Lynne Cheney’s appeal, in Telling the Truth, to humanistic “truths that pass beyond time and circumstance.” I submit that high among those truths is that the certitude of one’s own party being the exclusive guardian of truth and virtue constitutes hubris, the pride that goeth before a fall. Ought not Judeo-Christian humility and charity compel us all to admit, as the non-believer Albert Camus said in the tradition of secular-humanistic skepticism, that “there is a solidarity of all men in error and aberration”? And cannot we all at the very least agree that this solidarity should oblige us to apply the same critical scrutiny to ourselves and our allies that we do to our opponents?

Collegially,

Donald Lazere

Professor Emeritus of English

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

5 thoughts on “An Appeal to Conservative Scholars, and Its Outcome

  1. What is more than a little ironic is that the ground rules that you have proposed are, in essence, a list of some of the most fundamental principles of argument–the core of what every composition teacher tries to convey to freshman writers about what distinguishes considered and credible argument from all of the much more common kinds of persuasion.

    • More to the point, those ground rules are precisely what are required to build an intellectually compelling narrative, as opposed to one that is merely rhetorically driven. Anything less is red-meat politicizing: entertainment for one’s allies but nothing to convince an intelligent neutral party, much less instill doubt in an opponent.

      The near absence of such well-founded polemic is the reason positions are taken on emotive, not intellectual grounds, and adhered to out of notions of solidarity more than anything else.

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