Sunday, June 15, 2003

Tell Us Something We Don't Know

The Hill kindly informs us that thinks tanks have displaced academia as shapers of political policy and opinion.

What on earth did they think all those culture wars were all about?

For most of the 20th century, White House political aides and high-level bureaucrats — Harvard’s Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Henry Kissinger and McGeorge Bundy — would shuffle between the Ivy League and government service.

But over time, universities became highly specialized and removed from political reality. “Academia is so far behind the times, caught up in yesterday’s issues, so self-important and unbearable,” said Siegel.

Political correctness also limited universities’ ability to influence public policy, Siegel asserted.

“If you look at Roosevelt and Kennedy, they went to the universities,” said AEI’s Michael Horowitz. “In the 1960s and ’70s, the universities started becoming more and more marginal. Nature abhors a vacuum, and along came think tanks.”

That Siegel, BTW, is Fred Siegel, a fellow at the Democratic centrist Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), just in case you hadn't yet realized how far right the center has allowed itself to be pushed.

Even as thumbnail history, this explanation is topsy turvey. The purpose of those right wing think tanks proliferating through-out the eighties was to create a vacuum they could fill, and they did so via successive, loosely coordinated attacks aimed at convincing opinion leaders that American higher education was too left, too elitist, too disrespectful of Western Civilization, too multicultural, and too politically correct.

When the final wave of the invasion hit the beaches in the early nineties, Michael Berube, then a young assistant professor, shot back in the Village Voice; it remains one of the best discussions of what was actually going on behind the war cries of "political correctness," "speech codes," "multiculturalism," and "curriculum review."

Ten years later, as Bush began his presidency, Berube took another look at what had happened in the intervening years and came to some surprising conclusions. Both articles are well worth reading. In addition, Seeing The Forest has a lot of excellent analytic and activist posts about countering the influence of rightwing think tanks.

By the time of the Clinton presidency, the banishment of academics from public discourse in the media was almost complete. Oh sure, there were a few token academics, like Presidential Historians, Douglas Brinkley and Michael Bechloss, but such exceptions quickly learned the cardinal rule if you want to be asked back: never contradict the prevailing journalistic CW.

The habit of the networks and cable news outlets to sign "consultants" to contracts has further narrowed the range of who is seen and heard on the tube.

Nowhere was the absence of academic voices more noticeable than in the public discourse around the question of whether Clinton could, would, should be impeached. The only other group similarly ignored was the American public, who, in the eyes of the media, as Joan Didion wittily noticed, were viewed as unindicted co-conspirators of the President.

I got to thinking about all this while reading the Sean Wilentz Salon article about the media reaction to Sid Blumenthal's "The Clinton Wars."

Wilentz' subtitle gets right to the heart of the matter:

Even as journalists admit "The Clinton Wars" reveals the insanity of the right-wing crusade against the president, they're dismissing the book as "history."

Journalism used to be the first draft of history, but apparently, that's all in the past.

Wilentz had testified to Congress that their efforts to impeach Clinton would be viewed with harsh disapproval from the perspective of history.

My position was fairly mainstream among American historians. By the time I testified, nearly 500 had signed a letter I helped to write with the distinguished scholars Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and C. Vann Woodward, deploring the impeachment on historical and constitutional grounds. Soon thereafter, a group of more than 400 leading legal scholars, including Cass Sunstein and Laurence Tribe, issued a similar statement.

Not surprisingly, Republicans lambasted both the historians' letter and my testimony, as did journalists and pundits playing amateur historians inside the right-wing media echo chamber. A group of 90 writers -- only three of them historians, but with a heavy contingent from the right-wing think tanks plus partisan ideologues from the Reagan and first Bush administrations, such as C. Boyden Gray -- composed a counter-statement attacking the historians. But a wide range of editorial writers and columnists in the so-called "liberal media" also denounced the historians for being "gratuitous" "condescending" and "partisan."

Who do you remember seeing more of on network and cable news, C. Boyden Gray, or Sean Wilentz, or .... fill in any centrist/liberal academic name, even Stephen Ambrose's, who was then a media darling but had been one of those historians who signed that letter?

George Will called the historians "Clinton's lackeys," and save for NPR and PBS, there was almost no genuinely informed discussion of the constitutional or historical issues at stake in the determination of the Republicans to turn Clinton into Nixon, not until Chuck Ruff, White House Consul gave his brilliant testimony to Henry Hyde's impeachment committee.

How could so many journalists engage in so many endless discussions of impeachment and never think to do any actual reporting, other than leaks that came their way about the case against Clinton?

It certainly never seemed to occur to the likes of Sam Donaldson, or Cookie Roberts, or George Stephanopolous, before their regular Sunday morning dish, to inform themselves of anything beyond their own personal opinion. What didn't jibe with the CW was simply ignored, or lied about.

The historians' verdict was clear: The impeachment drive against President Clinton lacked constitutional and political legitimacy. The journalists' opinion was equally clear: The impeachment was legitimate, and the historians were really a fusty collection of liberal elitists who had no business sticking their noses into public affairs.

What would the right do without that word, "elitists." Invent it, I suppose.

Wilentz' conclusion is half hopeful. Historians are being proven right, and even some journalists feel compelled to admit that. Sort of.

Abraham Lincoln once remarked that none of us can escape history. That includes those who conceived, aided and abetted the unconstitutional impeachment of Bill Clinton.
History will condemn the rest of us if we do not now, at last, hold them accountable for what they did.

There's been a lot of good talk on the left side of the blogisphere about how all its intelligence and energy, on daily display, can be organized into effective action to achieve multiple goals, first among them, defeating Bush in 2004.

I'd like to propose that we add to that agenda, figuring out how to use the advantage the right keeps telling us we have in academic institutions to get a few or our own echos going in that media echo chamber. If that means expanding our ideas about what media is, and if it means getting our own speaker's bureau going, or pestering editors for space on the op/ed pages, or organizing forums that will at least get shown on C-Span, or getting campus teach-ins going on matters like tax policy, or handing out opeds at the local mall, whatever it takes...all thoughts, suggestions, ideas, welcome.

Carolyn Kay's got it right: Make Them Accountable!