Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m Ready for My Close-Up

Much of politics, I’ve come to see, is either melodrama or wishful hoping, and much of the time, the melodrama or the wishful hoping is a pardonable sin. Not all of the time. Lenin really was an evil man, and the world would have been better off had he slipped on some grease at the Finland Station and been struck by an oncoming train. It might have been better for his eternal soul, too, for all we know.

But in 1892, the United States was not going to hell one way or to hell another way depending on whether Grover Cleveland won back the White House from Benjamin Harrison, though that was how people talked, according to Carl Sandburg, remembering the election from his youth. Bill Clinton was a swine of a man, but he also had a fortunate lethargy, and let the nation slide happily along its moral decline, with a mostly humming economy. When somebody predicts a new Eden, an age of Aquarius, look for the men in white coats, or for a bevy of breathless groupies called “journalists.” It is not going to happen, and anyone who believes it is going to happen is either mad or possessed of more bone in the cranial cavity than Nature normally has intended. When somebody predicts hell on earth, shrug and walk away, scale back the hyperbole, and think of Grover Cleveland. Think of Nebuchadnezzar too, and Titus razing Jerusalem to the ground; but first think of Grover Cleveland.

What does this have to do with higher education? Now that I am a full year away from the worst period of my professional life, when I suffered months of slander at the hands of an army of true believers in the great god Politics, I have come to ask myself what place political action has on a college campus. It is not an easy question.

Suppose I am right, that much of political action is melodrama or wishful hoping: something cut loose from reality. It need not be so, but let us grant the point for the sake of argument. Then we would find that a campus where political action was prominent would find itself somewhat deranged, divorced from the real. And insofar as young people are necessarily limited in their knowledge of the world and of human nature, especially now when so few of them have been grounded in history or literature, most of what they do politically will resemble Macbeth’s “poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” It will be unreal, in service of the unreal. Most, we hope, will learn better, but some will continue in a career of melodrama to trouble the weary world withal.

The louder you shout, the less you hear. The less you hear, the less you learn, and the less you learn, the louder you shout. It is a vicious cycle. I almost wrote, “a vicious Cyclops,” whose single eye gives him very little perspective on things. The best we can say about Mr. Polyphemus, if he should blunder into politics, is that he will do a great favor for the politician who helps him glut his lower passions. He will eat that politician last.

Yet I know from observation that the political can be the object of intense and intelligent debate, without lapsing into unreality, even on a college campus. It can be done. The inimitable Robert P. George, at Princeton, does it all the time, even in tandem with his friend (and fellow Christian), Cornel West, with whom he usually disagrees. But to get it done, I think that certain rules must be in place, the principal one being simply this: since a college is an intellectual and not a political arena, public political action by way of demonstrations or rallies should be regarded as at best in very bad taste, and at worst a betrayal of the soul of the school.

That is because people do not think when they are in mid-melodrama. See the faces contorted with wrath. Hear the chanted slogans, over and over, mere words that smother the logos of things. Watch as people either wander into the current and are lost, or shy away from it in fear. Demonstrations are not exercises of freedom. They are attempts to control those who support them and smother those who do not. Colleges that regularly hold political demonstrations, particularly if those are supported by the brute power of the administration, are in danger of ceasing to be colleges at all. If you fear that an expression of an unpopular opinion will result in your being made a target of widespread hatred, publicly and demonstrably expressed, well, you will probably keep your mouth shut. And that is precisely the aim. The result is that the college ceases to be oriented toward truth, and becomes a tool, in the cause of power.

That explains something else about political demonstrations, something I have found hard to put my finger on. It is the fiery joy that the offended take, when a putative offense gives them something to demonstrate about. Spenser’s figure of Envy wept because he had no cause to weep. Those who crave the political melodrama seek out the occasion of scenes. They are like a ham off Broadway, scanning the audience for some stray critic of the legitimate stage, as he flings his arm across his breast and bellows, “Then fall Caesar,” collapsing in high style. If the politically offended lose a minute of sleep, it is because they are conjuring up visions of play-acting, heroes and heroines all, John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn, Nora Desmond descending the staircase. Human failings, sure. But not really compatible with higher education, which requires the patient, often dispassionate, sometimes disappointing, always chastening search for the truth.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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