Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"The last and most obstinate

of the impediments in the way of forceful political dissent is what Walter Karp understood to be the "corrupting consolation of cynicism." Karp employed the phrase to describe the attitude of mind adopted by a generation of American intellectuals responding to the Wilson administration's harsh suppression of unlicensed speech during and after World War I. Finding themselves suffocated by a climate of opinion in which dissent was disloyalty and disloyalty a crime, a good many independent-minded and once outspoken citizens acquired the habit of looking at the national political scene from the point of view of spectators at a tenement fire or a train wreck. As compensation for their loss of a public voice, they retired to a library or a lawn party and there contended themselves with private and literary expressions of anger and disgust. Language served as an end in itself, the imagination a vehicle for escaping reality rather than a means of grasping or apprehending it.
The attitude is one that I've encountered often enough in myself to recognize in other people - not only among the card-carrying members of the country's various intellectual guilds but also among the well-to-do gentry content to leave the business of government to the hired help. Our schools teach marketing instead of history, and the prosperity of the last thirty years has encouraged a disdain for politics on the part of people who imagine that liberty is an asset inherited at birth - together with the grandfather clock and the house on the lake - rather than the product of hard and constant labor. The universities don't take the trouble to correct the mistake. When traveling to Darmouth or Stanford or the University of Michigan, I expect to meet people who can afford to say what they think. I find instead a faculty preoccupied with the great questions of tenure and publication. Everybody is studying the art of writing grant proposals or the forms of courteous address appropriate to the magnificence of the department chairman. The freedom of expression proves to be contingent on the circumstance - permissible in some company, not in other....
 -Lapham, Lewis. Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy. Penguin Books. 2004. 120-121.

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