When Universities Are the Enemy

Revolutions are started by intellectuals who, once in power, very quickly seek to silence intellectuals. J.D. Vance, a senate candidate in Ohio, recently gave the closing remarks[1] at a conference for an organization called National Conservatism, whose website defines national conservatism as:

“a movement…of public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.[2]

The wordplay used here, and espoused by Vance and other speakers at the conference, including Peter Thiel, seems crafted to avoid just calling themselves nationalists or conservatives because of the fraught associations of the former term with fascism and the latter term with the neoliberal GOP of the Bushes. The organization seems to be making an end run for control of the Republican party—rather than, say, trying to debate with Democrats or to serve as a third-party option—along the lines of a project called American Compass launched by senators Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio and others in the wake of the first administration of Trump[3]. In short, these are venues for people not named Trump who want to run for president in 2024 or beyond.

Vance’s speech could be roughly titled “Universities are the Enemy,” and in it he demarcates just the latest example of the will to power flowing through state-orchestrated anti-intellectualism. Twentieth century examples range from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (which installed a communist regime that morphed into the Soviet Union) to communist revolution in Nicaragua (which overthrew a Western-backed dictator and installed brief communist government, only to regress into dictatorship). The archetypical philosopher dictator, Mao Zedong, came to power in a communist revolution that evolved into a totalitarian dictatorship characterized by a state-sponsored program aiming to erase history and kill, silence or defame anyone possessing education beyond rudimentary literacy.

The American revolution in the 18th century had a very different context (distant overlords, distinct economic drivers) but was also driven by intellectuals who wanted, in part, to shake off British fustiness at the social, religious and political level. Enlightenment in the wake of the American revolution produced Self Reliance, Walden and Moby Dick, yet was contemporaneous with another century of human slavery—which is to say, this enlightenment was punctuated at best.

The social convulsions of America in the post-war years were taking place at the same time as—and perhaps in part because of—a substantial increase in the number of people attending university[4]. The (large L) Liberal shift in American politics during the 1960’s was taking place contemporaneous with enormous public investment in science and technology, notably the Apollo space program during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Environmental Protection Agency during the Nixon administration[5]. More recently—and more anecdotally—I remember the various caricatures of George W. Bush as an ignoramus and how this had become a sort of litmus test: were you the kind of person who wanted to be able to chat over the fence in your backyard with the POTUS about the Texas Rangers bullpen issues and was glad he was a man of faith or were you the kind of person who thought it was a good thing that the leader of the free world was well read and internationally minded. And erudite. And deliberative. As if these were necessary trade-offs.

It’s easy to see Bush as response to Clinton (restoring dignity to the office), Obama as response to Bush (replacing folksiness with rhetorical brilliance), Trump as response to Obama (replacing condescension with straight talk) and Biden as response to Trump (out with the maelstrom, in with stasis), and yet these caricatures take place within the backdrop of an overarching trend towards skepticism of expertise. The internet has made information universally[6] available: this is great for winning arguments with blowhard friends about say what percentage of eggs in the United States are consumed within McDonald’s McMuffins (5) or what year Michael Jordan was drafted (’84) but it also has effectively taught a generation that there is no need to master anything. There is no need to believe anyone is an expert in a given subject or that a type of knowledge exists beyond what can be gleaned from the first page of Google[7].

It is in this context of societal skepticism about expertise amidst widespread access to information of unknowable veracity that J. D. Vance has become the latest intellectual to demonize intellectuals as a vehicle to grab power, under the veil of a revolution for the working class. Vance shot to fame around 2015-2016 when his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was a best seller: a jacket cover level description of Vance’s life is that he grew up in Ohio and Kentucky in a family teetering around the edges of poverty and was raised by his grandparents because his mother had a long term substance problem. After a stint in the Marines, Vance went to Ohio State and then Yale law school, followed by work in venture capital. The word round the media campfire in 2016 was that to understand the America that had elected Trump, one should read Vance’s book, which I did at the time, in large part because I grew up in Ohio myself (in vastly more comfortable and secure circumstances than Vance) and because I was curious to know an insider’s account of how the opioid epidemic affected families. I recently re-read my assessment[8] of that book written when I read it in 2016: the main takeaway for me at the time, which I found still resonant today, was that if Vance’s description of the rural Midwest surprised you, then you weren’t paying attention. It was a similar—admittedly uncomfortably glib—response that I had to many friends and colleagues when Donald Trump was elected president. If millions of people responding to what he was saying surprises you, then you probably don’t know the country you live in.

Vance is an excellent speaker: he uttered not a single ‘um’ in a 30 min lecture, spoke in complete sentences, was composed and compelling. He is also clearly working on developing the sound bites and conveying the faux enraged tone that seem to be prerequisites for media attention in the modern era, although Vance seems to have to work at it. My sense is that if you had the guy over dinner and drinks, in addition to be sharp, engaging, and prone to awkward attempts at good natured humor, he would be an honest interlocutor…for instance in his initial, now repudiated[9], identification of Trump as “reprehensible”, observing in 2016 that, "Trump’s actual policy proposals, such as they are, range from immoral to absurd."[10] Thus for the purposes of this discussion, I seek not to take Vance at his word: the issue is not Vance or anything he actually says in his lecture, because it’s all provocation and grandstanding. He knows exactly what he’s doing. And while there is plenty reprehensible in the current political discourse, I won’t fault him here for bringing a gun to a gun fight. The real question at hand is what is the state of our country when saying—to a room of well educated, wealthy individuals—that universities are the enemy is widely viewed not just by that room, but also by a substantial portion of the population, as a valid claim? What is the state of the nation when many of its citizen can agree with the statement that more education is a problem?

The conflation of vocal online academics or anyone with extreme left-wing ideology with the mission and character of modern academia is the disingenuous core of Vance’s argument and that of many who aim to construe academia as part of what divides or hinders this country in 2022. As an Ivy Leaguer, Vance grants himself license to attack his own tribe and in doing so, establish his credibility (same as he did labeling himself a hillbilly to attack—or more like, eulogize—hillbillies [because his memoire, though compelling, was short on new thinking about how to solve the problems that impact destitute communities in Appalachia and elsewhere in the United States {as a US Senate candidate, judging by his National Conservatism lecture, he has as yet made little progress in the new ideas area, beyond honing red meat one liners and non-sequiturs like: “The fundamental lie of American feminism…is that it is liberating” or “You can either care about your family or work in a cubicle at Goldman Sacks…shipping your countrymen’s jobs off to a country that hates them” or “The universities claim that as long as we are trailblazing on equity diversity and inclusion, it doesn’t matter if normal people get screwed”[11]}]). It’s a slick move, making anyone educated in the audience feel absolved and anyone uneducated feel heard.

What Vance is pedaling—whether he’s stopped long enough to think about it—is the same formula used by revolutionaries and fascists[12] throughout history: grab power by telling the population they are being screwed by elites. And what is the greater emblem of elitism than the colleges and universities, with their old buildings, professors paid to think and talk about things, and, as Vance puts it, to pursue their two goals: “…[providing] for the dissemination of knowledge and truth and…[training] young minds to think in innovative and thoughtful ways about the problems we will experience [in the future]…and to apply first principles to solve those problems”?

The Jordan Petersons of the world, residing in academic psychology, arts, or humanities departments, are likely beset by near constant surveillance by thought police in a manner that directly affects their ability to do their jobs, which entail dissecting, criticizing and seeking to understand the basic tenets of human interaction in areas like identity, history, culture and language, which all happen to be inextricably linked—indeed, these tenets form the ether in which these questions can exist—with the issues of gender, equity, race and catch all-inclusiveness that currently dominate political debate in the United States. Yet, if politics is downstream from culture, as Andrew Breitbart is alleged to have quipped, then small c conservative-leaning professors and their non-academic, culturally-engaged fellow travelers, have the progressive trajectory of academic institutions to thank for their talking points and raison d'être as public intellectuals (in a charitable use of the term[13]). So it kinda seems to balance out. And as far as the situation for academics in math, science, engineering, and medicine, a social trajectory of the institution in which they work can only serve to provide the fodder for the beer chats and blog posts side of things—it really does not (yet) have substantive impact on how they train students and create knowledge[14]. Every private company has a mission statement and many, like universities, virtue signal. There is no reason why as an employee of such a company, the company’s values should influence my ability to do my job. I may choose to consider the merits of another point of view, including my employer’s, or I may choose to ignore it and collect my paycheck and mind my own business.

There are several points in Vance’s lecture that warrant unpacking, but that as a politician (a label Vance now holds and about which he repeatedly feigned nonplus) he unsurprisingly chose to leave neatly packed within a soundbite. Regarding what Critical Race Theory, the current bane of the Right in American, does: “Right now, there are millions of American children learning about the fundamental evil of American slavery and America’s racist past…why are students learning about America’s racist past 180 years ago instead of the actions of Apple, employing slaves in China.” In this false dichotomy—packaged as a bromide assailing allegedly left leaning big tech companies—hides an interesting critique of capitalism and democracy as they are practiced by both parties in the United States. Another good point worth unpacking is when Vance observes, rhetorically: “CRT says it’s better to put a black person on the board of a fortune 500 country rather than to invest in black communities, or for that matter, white communities.” Also an unnecessary choice perhaps, but an interesting polemic, if Vance would care to honestly engage with policy related to underserved communities in this country[15].

Vance ends with a polemic regarding the current state of employment and challenges for the middle class:

“If you are a lower class person in our country and you want to live a better life, very often the story you are told is you have to go to a college or university…[reflecting on a conversation with a constituent/donor] A donor said to me, what’s the alternative to college? I don’t want my kid to become an HVAC specialist. But if that’s your attitude, we are going to continue to empower colleges and universities that make it impossible for conservative ideas to carry the day.”

The HVAC question is a good question and Vance’s answer is a non-answer, because he knows full well that’s where his argument falls apart. Instead, he ends with what a few years ago may have seemed like an edgy or revanchist plea to consider the wisdom of “The great prophet and statesman, Richard Milhouse Nixon.” In 2022, Vance’s use of Nixon’s quote—“The professors are the enemy”—just serves to renew interest in Nixon as greater than the one-dimensional Watergate caricature he had become for 4 decades and in doing so, to highlight the inevitable connection between megalomaniacal behavior and the need to silence intellectuals. What Vance is channeling is not new for America, it has been going on for decades and predates this country[16]. He is just a current, eloquent ambassador of a timeless strategy to wield power by debasing knowledge.

Tom Vondriska, 02/16/2022

[1] https://youtu.be/0FR65Cifnhw

[2] https://nationalconservatism.org/about/; Note: Wikipedia defines national conservatism as “a nationalist variant of conservatism that concentrates on upholding national and cultural identity.”

[3] https://americancompass.org; The inaugural essay by Cotton is an informed appeal to fiscal conservatism, military strength and protectionism; that by Rubio is an exercise in vapid non-sequiturs that anyone thinking of voting for him in a future presidential race, or Parent Teacher Association race, should read.

[4] From 1940 to 1991, the percentage of white males with a college education went from ~7% to 25%; for white females the numbers were ~4% to 18%, whereas for non-white males and females (there were minor differences between the sexes) the values were 2% to 15% (120 Years of American Education; Snyder, TD. 1993; Dept. Education, USA). In 2020, 38% of Americans have 4 or more years of college education (Erin Duffin; statistica.com).

[5] In addition to signing legislation to create the EPA and OSHA, Nixon presided over the Clean Air Act and the start of the War on Cancer, was in favor of greater social security benefits and not averse to taxing the wealthy, and opened China to the West, all factors that have led some, including David Remnick and Eduardo Porter, to call Nixon our last (small ‘l’) liberal president.

[6] This of course is not actually true. The algorithms that effectively dictate what the internet is for western users craft a narrative with less overt state control than in Russia and certainly China, but the commercial control is no less draconian.

[7] A lot has been written about how the web has changed the function of the human mind. A good friend often reminds me—I can’t yet bring myself to agree with him—that this may not be all bad: less brain power spent remembering things could be deployed to solve problems and for creative pursuits.

[8] My reflections on Vance’s book when I read it in 2016:

J.D. Vance’s tale of growing up poor in the mid-west should be read, but not for the reasons you have been told.

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. HarperCollins, 2016

A book about the challenges of growing up poor in middle America could not be more timely in 2016. A book about the challenges of a family of hillbillies, beset by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the epidemic of opiate abuse that attempts to connect these factors to the current political events in America was sure to be a bestseller.

The plot is simple and Vance gives it away in the introduction, so no spoilers here: he was born into poor white trash in Kentucky and grew up in Ohio, beating the odds to graduate from Yale Law School and land a job in Silicon Valley (after a detour in Iraq…not as a tourist). The book fills in the details, heavy on substance abuse, broken families, endemic cultural handicaps and the transformative ability of love from one person (or maybe two) to enable a kid to beat the odds and avoid unemployment, early marriage, crime, drugs and a cycle of bad decisions. Vance’s is a moving tale, and he recounts with palpable humility the indispensable role of his family, particularly his grandmother (‘Mamaw’), in helping him escape the dismal statistics of the American Rust belt.

Elegy is a reasonably well paced (if a little heavy at times on the dreary details) and honest, if wide-eyed book and there are some moments where, perhaps unbeknownst to the author, he reveals some basic insights about the sometimes opaque handicaps faced by poor Americans: first among these that he's unable—because of a life of insecurity and chaos—to enjoy and capitalize on the benefits of a normal existence when they are presented to him. This may be the true legacy of poverty in this country is that it teaches children and adults to reject those things that will indeed lead to success and independence. Vance also adeptly lays out how a family making >$100K/year can struggle to pay bills because of a litany of stereotypically bad financial decisions.

Another moment of touching honesty is when Vance talks about the love of country and the United States as a god…and thus the perceived loss of America’s preeminence as the loss of a religion. This insight is particularly prescient of the Trump phenomenon and Vance is now being mooted as prophet as a result. Indeed, in some places the book reads like a long confessional, guided by some armchair Christian judicial philosophy.

And the press certainly didn’t miss the chance to capitalize on Vance’s story and its timing. “Tiger Mom” and Yale Professor Amy Chua, former PayPal boss and current Silicon Valley Trump surrogate Peter Thiel and executive editor of the National Review Reihan Salam (all of whom—can you believe it!—just happen to be thanked along with other members of Vance’s rolodex in the acknowledgements) all write glowing advance reviews of the memoir. That's not to say that Vince is not an interesting person or that his story is not an inspiring one: but clearly this is the moment for members of the intellectual class to sidle back toward the POTUS elect while still chatting over the fence with the neighbor with head held high (See: you didn’t understand middle America and he did. So there.).

At the end, Vance tries to offer some social policy prescription to deal with the inequalities commensurate with the cycle of poor parenting, drug use and the breakdown of the family, with predictable lack of success. If he has a prescription, it is unfortunately one of more clannishness: we hillbillies, we need to stick together and look out for each other. ‘Wake the hell up’ he says.

This book should be read, but not for the reasons you have been told. The tale is ordinary, mundane. If it shocks you, it won’t change you. The reason to read it is for its banality, to then reflect on the fact that this banality was such a culture shock to the people who review books for the Economist and the New York Times. Vance comes across, not as a rube who has stumbled into town and finds the local Chinese restaurant an amazing cultural experience, but rather just as an average American white guy who thinks his life experience is unappreciated and holds the answers to the world’s problems. That this book is getting attention is the true indictment of our age.

[9] From his National Conservatism lecture: ‘I didn’t quite get Donald Trump in the beginning, I didn’t understand where he was coming from…but now I do.”

[10] USA Today; retrieved from Wikipedia

[11] Nota bene: Being pissed off or confused or feeling discriminated against is not the same as being screwed.

[12] I am calling Vance neither a revolutionary nor a fascist. He, and the national conservative movement he is currently aligning himself with, don’t want revolution. They want power. And as for fascism…who can say what is in the heart of a budding fascist and at what point he is self-aware enough to recognize that his vision requires the subjugation of others. Regardless, I don’t think Vance is there.

[13] My intent here is not condescension or sarcasm. It is rare that, notwithstanding the gross number of one’s Twitter followers, the desire to impact society through speech or writing is ever realized. Most people just shout into the void or yammer over beers with mates at the pub. As Christopher Hitchens—undeniably a public intellectual—once observed (Prospect, 2008) about public intellectuals, this is a strange, infrequent job description (he put in this camp folks like Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, William Buckley and George Orwell): a position where your professional existence is defined and supported by your ability to opine on the existence of others based on some unassailable acumen. Someone who “makes his or her living through the battle of ideas.” But Hitchens said this in the early years of social media and as an archetype of first-person cultural criticism: it’s unclear how Hitch would have assessed the cultural relevance of Joe Rogan.

[14] This is not to say that issues addressed by JEDI—justice equity diversity and inclusion—committees and initiatives do not affect teaching. One recent example of interesting debate on this topic appeared in the pages of the New England Journal (Brett and Goodman. N Engl J Med 2021; 385:2497-2499) regarding the disclosure and consideration of race in the presentation of a case and the treatment of a patient.

[15] Rogan recently mused, in his podcast (February 9, 2022) with Josh Dubin about issues related to mass incarceration of blacks in America, to paraphrase: why not invest billions in rebuilding American cities the way we did the cities we destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Everyone wins: politicians, private companies, tax payers and the citizens of those cities. The cynic would say that Joe doesn’t understand how politics and business work, and maybe that’s the point.

[16] Socrates, after all, was forced to drink hemlock when the Athenians had heard enough.