Faculty Lounge, USA

Since the general election last November, the normal every-day self-righteousness you expect to see on college and university campuses has turned into a popularity contest the likes of which no one has suffered through since junior high. (And I’m told by the users of anti-social media that the self-righteousness is even worse than I know. This I can believe.)

Witness the recent “Statement of Confession and Commitment,” reported on by that nerve center of Hire Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education. The statement acknowledges “a contentious election and post-election season marked by fear, polarization, and violence.” Those who have signed the statement “join [their] voices with those who are most vulnerable”—that is, the victims of racism, misogyny, nativism, and economic disparity.

There’s a group missing from that list of the most vulnerable, but more of that anon.

“The fear of deportation is real,” the Statement declares. “The anxiety of being assaulted is real. The fear of being forgotten or mistreated is real. Many people of color, women, and other marginalized groups feel increasingly alienated.”

The consequence of this is that “a large portion of our communities is weeping.”

Weeping, eh?

I’ll be the first to admit that this topic deserves better treatment than I’m able (or patient enough) to give it, but here’s a start: buy Kleenex.

Meantime, understand if you can that another “portion of our communities” (“our”? “communities”?), smaller apparently, is grinning, and the reason is that the people in them see the normal every-day self-righteousness not as a popularity contest but as another example of how utterly unhinged the Left has become.

(Keeping up with the Right is a tough job, but it must be done.)

Mind you, these grinning observers might deplore the mistreatment of vulnerable people too. And they should. They might even go one better than The Statement and include among the “most vulnerable” those who fear being vacuumed out of the womb (the fear of being vacuumed is real). And, again, they should. For these grinning observers might on the one hand sympathize with, say, their Muslim colleagues and friends and on the other hand abhor that sanctioned violence perpetrated against those who are truly the “most vulnerable.”

But there’s a difference between the grinners and the contestants in the popularity contest: the grinners can’t manage to stir themselves up into the same froth of self-righteousness that plays so well right now among the highly-credentialed.

Or, to speak for myself, I can’t manage to do it. And remember: I’m on record dissenting from the peckerwood sonofabitch who won the general election. (I’m also on record dissenting from his hawkish opponent, the shrike who was so self-assured, dyspeptic, and oily that she couldn’t even beat a peckerwood sonofabitch.)

But if you are a professor of, say, British and American literature, what do you do, surrounded as you are by so many people who are outraged that you’re not outraged? What do you do among all the self-appointed custodians of the social order who are worked up into auguries of frustrate bitchery because all you can do is smile?

As a member of this smiling minority I can say that, as a matter of first business, I thank the relevant gods that my classrooms still have doors. For a few hours each day I can shut out the self-righteousness. And, once the door is shut, I can remind myself that there is real work to be done.

Such as reckoning with a Trappist monk, who says:

In practice, expensive fun always admits of a doubt, which blossoms out into another full-blown need, which then calls for a still more credible and more costly refinement of satisfaction, which again fails you. The end of the cycle is despair.

Such as reminding young people starved for guidance of what Raphael tells Adam:

In loving thou dost well, in passion not,
Wherein true Love consists not; Love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious, is the scale
By which to heav’nly Love thou may’st ascend.

Such as putting before these same morally orphaned trustees the sage of Burlington, Iowa:

We classify ourselves into vocations, each of which either wields some particular tool, or sells it, or repairs it, or sharpens it, or dispenses advice on how to do so; by such division of labors we avoid responsibility for the misuse of any tool save our own. But there is one vocation—philosophy—which knows that all men, by what they think about and wish for, in effect wield all tools. It knows that men thus determine, by their manner of thinking and wishing, whether it is worth while to wield any.

Here’s some advice from someone who’s been in this racket a long time and who has learned to take the long view, even in times “presided over” by peckerwood sonsabitches: Concern yourself with the governing metaphor of the pilgrimage, with Freud, with Hopeful Monsters, with the year 1859, with case endings, with the first ecumenical council, with social contracts, with social trinitarianism, with the mystery of the topsoil. But stop acting as if your country needs you right now. It doesn’t. Or, if it does, it doesn’t need you in self-righteous turbo mode. And it manifestly doesn’t want everyday life turned into an eternal day in the eighth grade.

And one more thing: this isn’t the “age of Trump” or anyone else.

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and co-editor of Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (FPR Books, 2018). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Simon Templar would be proud. In any of his incarnations.

    Breathe in; breathe out.

    “This too, shall pass.”

  2. Is all self-righteousness a matter of vocality and volume, then? Or might a shut door and a grin make the cut as well?

    • It might, because any call-out about self-righteousness tends to bounce back to the caller-out. But you get to the point where you say, “You know what? I don’t give a damn.”

      Some things need to be said, and sometimes they can be said best by the “unaffiliated.” As one of those myself, I will say that the whining self-righteousness of the Left and the gloating self-righteousness of the Right are both annoying as hell. No better is that weird hybrid, the anti-Trump conservative who’s complained more about Trump in the past five months than he did about B.O. during his entire two administrations.

      Shut the door? Damn right.

  3. I feel very sorry for your female students and collegues. Anyone who would call Hillary Clinton a “greasy shrike” and who can’t be bothered to learn the difference between a blastocyst and a woman would be unbearable to work with.

    • Assuming, of course, that having anything but peaches and cream to say about Hillary Clinton means that you hate all women and any such statement is an attack on all of those women. Forget all the names Trump gets called on a daily basis (go to reddit if you really want to see), Hillary is special. 😀

      • Actually in my experience it’s a very safe bet that men who call HIllary Clinton names and oppose legal abortion really do hate women, or at least ones who aren’t cowardly, dimwitted doormats. You and the author would love to be Commanders in the Republic of Gilead.

    • Karen wrote:

      “So what do you think women should be allowed to do?”

      Run for president – but not kill babies.

  4. So a friend of mine was running a colloquium on soil and invited me to drop in as I’m so far outside of the academic environment and devote most of my attention to the Appalachians. These are not places where the kids are going to end up, for the most part. And amidst the catastrophe there are some encouraging things happening here and there that escape the attention of most academics. It was interesting, some of these kids are right, and they are smart.

    One of the things that stuck doing the reading prior to was the aptness of the analogy of the soil structure to community formation. I think both you, Professor, and Deneen have talked about the strip mining effect of our current education system, and I was thinking in this case it’s more of a chemical farming operation. No appreciation for the fine – invisible, nearly, without observation over time – the fine strands of affection and obligation that bind communities together. Dalton has touched on those things a couple of times, IIRC.

    So I didn’t go into it too much, I wanted to hear the kids talking, but I did say that alongside degraded landscapes we also have degraded communities. They are surrounded by them. I was thinking of a book called A Pattern Language – I didn’t say anything, I was thinking I’ll take this whole thing sideways if I keep talking. Which is kind of what I’m doing with this comment.

    Anyway, Karen, one of the problems I have with some of the talk about oppression and so on is that it seems to me it’s based upon individual expression – which is fine in measured amounts – to the detriment of community and interdependence – which, to me, is how the world is. Our individualism isn’t really possible without all – well, without oil. Lots of it, taken by force if necessary. And universities, like the rest of us, in total use a bunch of it. Oil and coal. All that travel and buildings and construction and servers and so on. And that’s all extracted with violence. Our wars are about energy and drugs. That’s about it. So these fine individuals are sitting on thrones built with oil and coal and the associated war and social and ecological degradation necessary to secure that fuel, and they want to free the oppressed.

    So I skipped a few steps in between the start and end: What I believe is that the antidote to what we have isn’t proclamations but some understanding of what makes a community work. A recognition of our interdependence, those durable patterns and forms of community that had developed over time and maybe can be recovered. They don’t necessarily need to be populated with misogynists. It’s important, I think, to be able to separate out the archaic prejudice of the individuals from the forms of community these people inhabited.

    I searched the internet – in 1859 Darwin published and John Brown acted. I keep expecting him to come again, John Brown. But then again I saw that Joshua Norton proclaimed himself emperor of the United States and shortly issued an edict abolishing the U.S. Congress. So maybe that’s the thing. Hard to extrapolate from that, but these Professors sometimes leave us with work to do.

  5. I was studying at Harvard during the last election; you’d have thought the entire country had descended into fascism. But I also have friends who were legitimately scared of what was going on. For me the most telling part of the Statement of Confession and Commitment was the lack of concrete suggestions to fix the problem; they are “confessing” (on our behalf as well, it seems) but not actually “committing” to anything specific (my full thoughts on the statement are at rightsideup.blog). I’m sure the authors had good intentions, but we don’t need to prop ourselves up by agreeing with vague concepts of reconciliation and compassion; we need to make less dramatic, more useful efforts to care about those around us.

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