I’m in New Brunswick, NJ, for the Imagining America national conference. I’ll speak tomorrow. My assigned theme is “difficult dialogues.” The other panelists will discuss a large, Ford-funded initiative by that name that seeks to “promote pluralism and academic freedom on campus.”
When I think about “difficult dialogues” in relation to the arts and humanities, the dialogue that strikes me as the most difficult and most necessary of all is a conversation between academics–who tend to be liberal or radical–and the 62 million Americans who voted for George W. Bush last November. I plan to argue that:
1. Academics are overwhelmingly liberal, especially in the arts and humanities. (I’ll cite some data to this effect.)
2. The gulf in attitudes between academics and the median US voters is causing tangible problems for intellectual culture and academia.
3. We can take some constructive steps to improve the situation.
I’ve covered several of those points on this blog before. However, I haven’t previously considered the following explanation for the gulf in attitudes between academics and median American voters. In global perspective, it is the US electorate, not the American professoriate, that is out of the mainstream. American professors are cosmopolitan, and thus share more with foreign peers and colleagues than with the ideological outliers back home.
Indeed, on a one-dimensional ideological scale from left to right, the median American voter is quite far to the right compared to the world’s population, and the median American academic is closer to the global middle. But this one-dimensional scale conceals all kinds of complexities. There are ways in which American voters-?populist, anti-authoritarian, libertarian, multiculturalist, and rights-oriented?-can be more “radical” than Europeans. There are certainly homegrown traditions of radicalism that are concealed if one applies the international definition of the “left.”
Besides, even if it’s true that American academics are centrists in the global dialogue and outliers only in our own country, that’s still a problem. Our country is where we live, earn our salaries, find our students, and?-in many cases?-hold citizenship. The gap may not be out fault, but it is our problem, because no one else is going to solve it for us.
I believe that a solution lies in an idea that Harry Boyte is developing. Boyte wants us to see ourselves as “culture makers” in a democratic society. Many Americans consider mass culture to be coarse, commercial, celebrity-driven, and violent. It’s very slick and doesn’t provide openings for ordinary people to create anything for a public audience. Culture also feels dangerously uncontrollable. You can’t shield yourself or your children from the vulgar aspects of mass culture without also insulating yourself from the news and public life. Hollywood and the music industry occasionally respond to targeted protest campaigns, but they don’t seem in general to care about people’s thoughtful and deliberative opinions about quality.
Democratic action through the state probably can’t make much difference. The First Amendment rightly protects media companies, even if they create coarse and violent material. But there is great potential for partnerships between lay citizens and professional “culture-makers” who want to create alternatives that are more responsible, ethical, and serious. Academics, along with clergypeople, entertainers, journalists, and other professionals in the knowledge and communications business, can exercise powerful leverage.
I don’t imagine that there is consensus about what’s wrong with pop culture. For some people, it’s the pervasive anti-gay prejudice; for others, it’s the increasingly tolerant representation of homosexuality. But we don’t need consensus; we just need more chances to reason together about what culture should mean and to create things–not in one big, homogeneous group, but in diverse and sometimes overlapping communities. Universities should be at the heart of this work.