Skip the Icons and Gurus, Thanks

I’m reading Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts. John Holbo at the Valve sent it because they’re doing one of those Valve events on it in a few weeks. It is, to put it succinctly, very good. (That Alan Wolfe review is all the more irritating once one actually reads the book. It’s irritating independently of the quality of the book reviewed, because of certain qualities intrinsic to the review, but it’s also even more irritating because of the quality of the book.)

I thought I would share a bit with you, because it strikes me as being right on the money, and well worth saying. Pages 120-1. He’s been describing political affiliations among students – liberal, conservative, libertarian, and so on.

‘Another bunch, further off to the left, finds figures like Noam Chomsky so persuasive when it comes to American wickedness at home and abroad – not capriciously, either, for that wickedness is often real enough – that they become utterly indiscriminate about “dissent,” valuing even its most counterproductive forms. While I admire these students for informing themselves about the history of Central America and East Timor, I watch with dismay as they embrace the conclusion that practically any form of “resistance” to US world hegemony is worth their support, and the conviction that if the US takes up arms in a cause, any cause, the real cause is probably unuacknowledged and nefarious. This conviction has been borne out quite frequently in the past, and will undoubtedly be borne out again, but it is not axiomatic, and it disturbs me to find young people identifying with “the left” in such a way as to suspend their critical judgment about leftists who do take it as axiomatic. The wholly uncritical Chomsky fans seem to me to have abdicated some of the tasks of critical thinking in precisely the same way that the wholly uncritical Bush worshippers have done, and I wish the campus left, especially, could be a domain without gurus and icons – a domain of ideas, where every citizen is obligated to scrutinize every idea on its merits.’

Exactly. The conviction may be right, but it’s not axiomatic, and convictions need to be scrutinized on their merits, not assumed to be axiomatic. That’s important, and it’s why the cult of Chomsky gets increasingly on my nerves. And I too wish the campus left could be a domain without gurus and icons; gurus and icons are just the things not to have, just the things that impede careful thinking. Careful thinking, as Michael is indicating there, is not dispensable, not some sort of effete frill or ruffle, but pretty much the first thing that needs doing. Activism isn’t much help if it passionately and commitedly does the wrong thing.

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