"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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In the fall of 2001, I spoke at a large public university in the eastern United States, which will remain nameless to protect the innocent. It was one of more than 30 colleges I had visited during the school year and, as usual, my invitation had come from a small group of campus conservatives who also put together a small dinner for me at a local restaurant.
Among those invited to the dinner was a silver-haired history professor, who served as the faculty sponsor of the club inviting me. This man represented a dying breed of faculty conservatives who had become tenured in an era when hiring committees were not yet applying a litmus test to exclude those whose political views were not suitably left. The transformation that followed was succinctly described by the distinguished intellectual historian John P. Diggins at an annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Costa Mesa, Calif., a decade ago. Diggins told the assembled academics: “When my generation of liberals was in control of university faculties in the ’60s, we opened the doors to the hiring of radicals in the name of diversity. We thought you would do the same. But you didn’t. You closed the doors behind you.”
Diggins’ observation provides the template for what has happened to American universities in the last 30 years. The liberal academy of the 1950s and 1960s, whose ideals were shaped by Charles Eliot and Matthew Arnold and whose mission was “the disinterested pursuit of knowledge,” is no more. Leftists tenured after the 1960s first transformed these institutions into political battlegrounds and then redefined them as “agencies of social change.” In the process, they first defeated and then excluded peers whom they perceived as obstacles to their politicized academic agendas.
Some years ago a distinguished member of this radical generation, Richard Rorty, summarized its achievement in the following words: “The power base of the left in America is now in the universities, since the trade unions have largely been killed off. The universities have done a lot of good work by setting up, for example, African-American studies programs, women’s studies programs, gay and lesbian studies programs. They have created power bases for these movements.” Rorty is a professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia and one of the nation’s most honored intellectual figures. He is also an editor of the democratic socialist magazine Dissent and a moderate in the ranks of the left. That such an intellectual should celebrate the conversion of academic institutions into political “power bases” speaks volumes about the tragedy that has befallen the university.
On the occasions of my campus visits, I am always curious to discover the local circumstances that conspire to create a situation so otherwise inexplicable in an open society. How, in particular, does an institution that publicly promotes itself as “liberal” and “inclusive,” as dedicated to “diversity” and the “free exchange of ideas,” devolve into such a dim political monolith? The conservative history professor who had come to dinner was obviously a senior member of his academic department. Of course, he could not have been a junior member, since the hiring doors had been closed nearly a quarter of a century earlier. So I asked how conservatives were treated by faculty colleagues.
“Well, they haven’t allowed me to sit on a search committee since 1985,” he replied. He was referring to the committees that interview prospective candidates to fill faculty openings. “In 1985,” he continued, “I was the chair of the search committee and of course we hired a Marxist.” He said “of course,” because for conservatives, diversity of viewpoints makes perfect sense.
The professor went on: “This year we had an opening for a scholar of Asian history. We had several candidates but obviously the most qualified one was from Stanford. Yet he didn’t get the job. So I went to the chair of the search committee and asked him what had happened. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you’re absolutely right. He was far and away the most qualified candidate and we had a terrific interview. But then we went to lunch, and he let out that he was for school vouchers.’”
In other words, if one has a politically incorrect view on K-12 school vouchers, one must be politically incorrect on the Ming dynasty too. This is almost a dictionary description of the totalitarian mentality. But there is more than dogmatism at work in the calculation. The attitude also reflects the priorities of an entrenched oligarchy, which fears to include those it cannot count on to maintain its control.
A focus on control is normal for bureaucrats in any institution. But in an institution like the university, whose very structures are elitist, there are few natural limits to such political agendas. Outside the hard sciences and the practical professions, what is the penalty for bad ideas? There is none. Once a discredited dogma like Marxism is legitimated through the hiring process, there is no institutional obstacle to its expansion and entrenchment as a “scholarly” discipline. And when academics are imbued with a sense of social mission that requires ideological cohesion, the result is an intellectual monolith. How monolithic?
Last spring I organized college students to investigate the voter-registration records of university professors at more than a dozen institutions of higher learning. I had them target the social sciences. The students used primary registration to determine party affiliation, although admittedly, it’s not always an exact match (someone may switch party registration to vote in a particularly heated primary, for example). Here is a representative sample:
At the University of Colorado at Boulder, 192 professors were surveyed. They were drawn from the English, history, political science, journalism, African studies, women’s studies, and sociology departments. On the primary rolls were 117 Democrats, five Republicans, three Greens, 20 who were unaffiliated, and 47 who could not be located.
In short, at a public university in a Republican state 94 percent of the liberal arts faculty whose party registrations could be established were Democrats and only 4 percent percent were Republicans. Out of 85 professors of English who registered to vote, none were Republicans. Out of 39 professors of history, one was. Out of 28 political scientists, two were.
These findings confirm an earlier study by Vince Carroll, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, who found that “of the 190 professors affiliated with a political party, 184 were Democrats.” Carroll could not find a single Republican in the English, psychology, journalism or philosophy departments; nor were there any in such enclaves of freedom as women’s studies, ethnic studies, or gay and lesbian studies (cited in the Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 2002).
How Republican is Colorado? Its governor, two senators, and four out of six congressional representatives are Republican. There are 200,000 more registered Republicans in Colorado than there are Democrats. But at the state-funded University of Colorado, Republicans are a fringe group.
At Brown University in Providence, R.I., 94.7 percent of the professors whose political affiliations showed up in primary registrations last year were Democrats; only 5.3 percent were Republicans. Only three Republicans could be found on the Brown liberal arts faculty. Zero in the English department, zero in the history department, zero in the political science department, zero in the Africana studies department, and zero in the sociology department.
At the University of New Mexico, of 158 social science professors surveyed, six were Republicans: two in economics; one each in sociology, English, women’s studies and African-American studies; and zero in political science, history and journalism.
At the University of California at Santa Barbara, 135 professors were surveyed in the departments of African-American studies, English, women’s studies, history, communications, and political science. Of these, 75 were Democrats, one was a Republican, one was Green, and 58 did not vote in the primary. In other words, 97 percent of the professors were Democrats, 1.5 percent were Greens, and 1.5 percent were Republicans. Only one Republican professor could be found in all those departments.
At the University of California at Berkeley, of the 195 professors whose affiliations showed up, 85 percent were Democrats, 8 percent were Republicans, 4 percent were Greens, and 3 percent were American Independent, Peace and Freedom, or Reform party voters. Out of 54 professors in the history department, only one Republican could be found. And there were absolutely no Republicans in the sociology, English, women’s studies, African-American studies or journalism departments.
At the University of California at Los Angeles, of the 157 professors whose political affiliations showed up, 93 percent were Democrats; only 6.5 percent were Republicans.
At the University of North Carolina, the Daily Tar Heel conducted its own survey of eight departments and found that, of the professors registered with a major political party, 91 percent were Democrats while only 9 percent were Republicans.
In an ideological universe in which university administrators claim that “diversity” is their priority, these facts are striking. How can students get a good education if they’re being told only half the story? The answer is, they can’t.
Many contemporary academics see themselves not primarily as educators but as agents of an “adversary culture” at war with the world outside the university. But the university was not created and is not funded to compete with other institutions. It is designed to train citizens, employees and the leaders of those institutions, and to endow them with the appropriate knowledge and skills. Because of its strategic function as an educator of elites, however, the university can be effectively used to subvert other institutions in the way that Antonio Gramsci proposed.
The structural support for ideological conformity is intensified by the introduction of overt political agendas. These agendas were originally imported into the university by radicals acting as the self-conscious disciples of Gramsci, an Italian Marxist. As an innovative Stalinist in the 1930s, Gramsci pondered the historic inability of Communist parties to mobilize workers to seize the means of production and overthrow the capitalist ruling class. Gramsci’s new idea was to focus radicals’ attention on the means of intellectual production as a new lever of social change. He urged radicals to acquire “cultural hegemony,” by which he meant to capture the institutions that produced society’s governing ideas. This would be the key to controlling and transforming the society itself.
To illustrate how ingrained this attitude has become, and how casually it is deployed to justify the suppression of conservative ideas, let me cite an e-mail I received from a professor at Emory University. The professor was responding to an article I had written about the abuse of conservative students by administrators at Vanderbilt University, and the exclusion of conservatives from the Vanderbilt faculty. He was not especially radical, yet he did not have so much as a twinge of conscience at the picture I drew of a faculty cleansed of conservative opinions. “Why do I and other academics have little shame here?” he asked rhetorically, then answered the question: “We are not the only game in the marketplace of ideas. We are competing with journalism, entertainment, churches, political lobbyists, and well-funded conservative think tanks.”
There is an organic connection, for example, between the political bias of the university and the political bias of the press. It was not until journalists became routinely trained in university schools of journalism that the mainstream media began to mirror the perspectives of the adversary culture. Universities have become a power base of the political left, and the Emory professor’s argument only makes sense, really, from the vantage of someone so alienated from his own society as to want to subvert it. His suggestion that universities somehow “balance” the conservative think tanks of the wealthy is patently absurd. “Well-funded” conservative think tanks may stand in intellectual opposition to subversive agendas, but what wealthy think tank can compete with Harvard, its centuries of tradition, its hundreds of faculty members, its government subsidies, and its $18 billion tax-free endowment?
The present academic monolith is an offense to the spirit of free inquiry. The hiring practices that have led to the present situation are discriminatory and illegal. They violate the Constitution, which prevents hiring and firing on the basis of political ideas, and patronage laws that bar state institutions from servicing a particular political party. Yet university administrators have not shown any inclination to address this problem or to reform the practices that perpetuate it. Nor have self-identified “liberal” professors who are themselves the source of the problem. If there is to be reform, it will have to come from other quarters.
David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.More David Horowitz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)