Is the commander-in-chief really president of the University of America?
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
If you are confused by the first nine months of the Obama administration, take solace that there is at least a pattern. The president, you see, thinks America is a university and that he is our campus president. Keep that in mind, and almost everything else makes sense.
Obama went to Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard without much of a break, taught at the University of Chicago, and then surrounded himself with academics, first in his stint at community organizing and then when he went into politics. It shows. In his limited experience, those who went to Yale or Harvard are special people, and the Ivy League environment has been replicated in the culture of the White House.
Note how baffled the administration is by sinking polls, tea parties, town halls, and, in general, “them” — the vast middle class, which, as we learned during the campaign, clings to guns and Bibles, and which has now been written off as blinkered, racist, and xenophobic. The earlier characterization of rural Pennsylvania has been expanded to include all of Middle America.
For many in the academic community who have not worked with their hands, run businesses, or ventured far off campus, Middle America is an exotic place inhabited by aborigines who bowl, don’t eat arugula, and need to be reminded to inflate their tires. They are an emotional lot, of some value on campus for their ability to “fix” broken things like pipes and windows, but otherwise wisely ignored. Professor Chu, Obama’s energy secretary, summed up the sense of academic disdain that permeates this administration with his recent sniffing about the childish polloi: “The American people . . . just like your teenage kids, aren’t acting in a way that they should act.” Earlier, remember, Dr. Chu had scoffed from his perch that California farms were environmentally unsound and would soon disappear altogether, “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”
It is the role of the university, from a proper distance, to help them, by making sophisticated, selfless decisions on healthcare and the environment that the unwashed cannot grasp are really in their own interest — deluded as they are by Wal-Mart consumerism, Elmer Gantry evangelicalism, and Sarah Palin momism. The tragic burden of an academic is to help the oppressed, but blind, majority.
In the world of the university, a Van Jones — fake name, fake accent, fake underclass pedigree, fake almost everything — is a dime a dozen. Ward Churchill fabricated everything from his degree to his ancestry, and was given tenure, high pay, and awards for his beads, buckskin, and Native American–like locks. The “authentic” outbursts of Van Jones about white polluters and white mass-murderers are standard campus fare. In universities, such over-the-top rhetoric and pseudo-Marxist histrionics are simply career moves, used to scare timid academics and win release time, faculty-adjudicated grants, or exemption from normal tenure scrutiny. Skip Gates’s fussy little theatrical fit at a Middle American was not his first and will not be his last.
Obama did not vet Jones before hiring him because he saw nothing unusual (much less offensive) about him, in the way that Bill Ayers likewise was typical, not an aberration, on a campus. Just as there are few conservatives, so too there are felt to be few who should be considered radicals in universities. Instead everyone is considered properly left, and even fringe expressions are considered normal calibrations within a shared spectrum. The proper question is not “Why are there so many extremists in the administration?” but rather “What’s so extreme?”
Some people are surprised that the administration is hardly transparent and, in fact, downright intolerant of dissent. Critics are slurred as racists and Nazis — usually without the fingerprints of those who orchestrated the smear campaign from higher up. The NEA seems to want to dish out federal money to “artists” on the basis of liberal obsequiousness. The president tells the nation that his wonderful programs are met with distortion and right-wing lies, and that the time for talking is over — no more partisan, divisive bickering in endless debate.
That reluctance to engage in truly diverse argumentation again reveals the influence of the academic world on Team Obama. We can have an Eric Holder–type “conversation” (a good campusese word), but only if held on the basis of the attorney general’s one-way notion of racial redress.
On most campuses, referenda in the academic senate (“votes of conscience”) on gay marriage or the war in Iraq are as lopsided as Saddam’s old plebiscites. Speech codes curb free expression. Groupthink is the norm. Dissent on tenure decisions, questioning of diversity, or skepticism about the devolution in the definition of sexual harassment — all that can be met with defamation. The wolf cry of “racist” is a standard careerist gambit. Given the exalted liberal ends, why quibble over the means?
Some wonder where Obama got the idea that constant exposure results in persuasion. But that too comes from the talk-is-everything mindset of a university president. Faculties are swamped with memos from deans, provosts, and presidents, reiterating their own “commitment to diversity,” reminding how they would not “tolerate hate speech,” and in general blathering about the “campus community.” University administrators instruct faculty on everything from getting a flu shot, to covering up when coughing, to how to make a syllabus and avoid incorrect words.
Usually the frequency of such communiqués spikes when administrators are looking for a job elsewhere and want to establish a fresh paper trail so that their potential new employers can be reminded of their ongoing progressive credentials.
Obama has simply emulated the worldview and style of a college administrator. So he thinks that reframing the same old empty banalities with new rhetorical flourishes and signs of fresh commitment and empathy will automatically result in new faculty converts. There is no there there in healthcare reform, but opponents can be either bullied, shamed, or mesmerized into thinking there is.
Czars are a university favorite. Among the frequent topics of the daily university executive communiqués are the formulaic “My team now includes . . . ,” “I have just appointed . . . ,” “Under my direction . . . ” (that first-person overload is, of course, another Obama characteristic), followed by announcement of a new “special” appointment: “special assistant to the president for diversity,” “acting assistant provost for community affairs and external relations,” “associate dean for curriculum enhancement and development.”
Most of these tasks are either unnecessary or amply covered by existing faculty, department chairs, and deans. Czars, however, proliferated on campuses for fairly obvious reasons. First, they are spotlights illuminating the university administration’s commitment to a particular fashionable cause by the showy creation of a high-profile, highly remunerative new job. When loud protests meet the university’s inability to create a new department or fund a trendy but costly special program, administrators often take their loudest critics and make them czars — satisfying the “base” without substantial policy changes.
Second, czars are a way to circumvent the usual workings of the university, especially faculty committees in which there is an outside chance of some marginalized conservative voting against putting “Race, Class, and Gender in the Latina Cinema” into the general-education curriculum.
Special assistants for and associates of something or other are not vetted. Czars create an alternative university administration that can create special billets, hire adjuncts (with de facto security), and obtain budgeting without faculty oversight. The special assistant or associate rarely is hired through a normal search process open to the campus community, but rather is simply selected and promoted by administrative fiat.
One of the most disturbing characteristics of the new administration is a particular sort of whining or petulance. Dissatisfaction arises over even favorable press coverage — as we saw last weekend, when Obama serially trashed the obsequious media that he had hogged all day.
Feelings of being underappreciated by the public for all one’s self-sacrificial efforts are common university traits. We’ve seen in the past a certain love/hate relationship of Professor Obama with wealthy people — at first a Tony Rezko, but now refined and evolved much higher to those on Wall Street that the administration in schizophrenic fashion both damns and worships.
Michelle Obama during the campaign summed up best her husband’s wounded-fawn sense of sacrifice when she said, “Barack is one of the smartest people you will ever encounter who will deign to enter this messy thing called politics.”
Academic culture also promotes this idea that highly educated professionals deigned to give up their best years for arduous academic work and chose to be above the messy rat race. Although supposedly far better educated, smarter (or rather the “smartest”), and more morally sound than lawyers, CEOs, and doctors, academics gripe that they, unfairly, are far worse paid. And they lack the status that should accrue to those who teach the nation’s youth, correct their papers, and labor over lesson plans. Obama reminded us ad nauseam of all the lucre he passed up on Wall Street in order to return to the noble pursuit of organizing and teaching in Chicago.
In short, campus people have had the bar raised on themselves at every avenue. Suggest to an academic that university pay is not bad for ninth months’ work, often consisting of an actual six to nine hours a week in class, and you will be considered guilty of heresy if not defamation.
University administrators worship private money, and then among themselves scoff at the capitalism that created it. Campus elites, looking at a benefactor, are fascinated how someone — no brighter than they are — made so much money, even as they are repelled by a system that allows those other than themselves to have pulled it off. No wonder that Obama seems enchanted by a Warren Buffett, even as he trashes the very landscape that created Berkshire Hathaway’s riches. No president has raised more money from Wall Street or has given it more protection from accountability — while at the same time demagoguing it as selfish and greedy.
Many of the former Professor Obama’s problems so far hinge on his administration’s inability to judge public opinion, its own self-righteous sense of self, its non-stop sermonizing, and its suspicion of sincere dissent. In other words, the United States is now a campus, we are the students, and Obama is our university president.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson