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15 April 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Speak no evil
As Harvard President Lawrence Summers has learned, public figures are being pressured to keep schtum.

by George Blecher

Security was tight at the Harvard Club of New York last week, and before Harvard President Lawrence Summers could start his speech or journalists take out their pens, the President of the Club announced: 'This is a private gathering. All working press - Harvard grads or otherwise - should be advised that President Summers' remarks are completely off the record.'

So this article isn't about what Larry Summers did or didn't say, or how it pertained to the controversy over remarks he made in January 2005 at a conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) on 'Women in the Sciences'. Those remarks, and the furore that they unleashed, which led to a vote of no-confidence by the Harvard faculty, have been covered extensively in the press, and most lucidly in these web pages by Norman Levitt (see Hypothesis as thought-crime).

But perhaps it wouldn't violate the Harvard Club's rules of privacy to report a remark overheard from a Harvard alum as the lecture ended: 'Well, what he said was fine, but I didn't hear him actually apologise.'

Actually he did, months before, and often. An open letter dated 19 January 2005, on the website www.president.harvard.edu, contained the following mea culpa: 'I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.' Whether or not the twisted logic of the sentence reflects Summers' lack of 'people skills', its contrite tone and eagerness to smooth over ruffled feathers are typical of the prevailing mood in contemporary American discourse. To invoke any controversy at all, especially one that involves ideas or principles, puts public figures in immediate jeopardy.

Item: US President George W Bush's first order of business in his second term was to be a re-examination of social security, something that pretty much everybody agrees needs to be done, though any move to change the current system is bound to be politically risky. After the president's hopelessly vague speeches about private investment accounts were met with something less than enthusiasm, Republicans who had supported the principle clammed up, and Democrats folded their arms in self-satisfied silence. No alternative ideas, no debate, not even any relevant commentary was put forth: the issue was just too hot to handle.

Item: The recent controversy in Florida over the removal of a feeding tube from a brain-dead woman revolved more around legal jurisdiction than underlying principles. When the polls indicated that the public disliked the intervention of Congress, which had passed an eleventh-hour bill to try to move the case from state to federal court, politicians on all parts of the spectrum went mum. Yet the Terri Schiavo case potentially could have given rise to fruitful debate. Questions ranging from a more precise definition of 'a persistent vegetative state' to the guardianship of an incapacitated person to perhaps the central issue - the limits of what can and should be legislated - were begging to be addressed in a public forum. No forum has emerged.

Parties exchange positions like boys trading baseball cards
Could the explanation for this timorousness on the part of public figures be simply that they're worried about getting re-elected or re-appointed, and since they know that anything they say may be held against them, they choose to say as little as possible? Certainly that's a major factor, but there are probably more subtle reasons as well.

My impression is that much of the population has come to feel that ideas themselves are elitist. Actually, this is nothing new in American politics, where there's always been an inbred suspicion of intellectual matters, but that suspicion seems to be running particularly high these days. The devaluation of education, the intensity of our materialism, the pace of our lives, the substitution of belief or faith or intuition for analysis - all these work against abstract thinking. Indeed, there is something almost quaint, old-fashioned, about ideas, as if they were a by-product of a more leisurely era. Who has time to think anymore? Now that our lives are largely centred around work, ambition, and acquisition, ideas and debate are self-indulgent and frivolous.

But underneath this cavalier attitude, the discussion of ideas seems to be feared by the general public - or at least politicians believe that it is. If the possibility exists, for example, that there may be genetic or social differences between the sexes - the theory that Lawrence Summers advanced with great tentativeness at the NBER meeting, saying that he hoped it was wrong - then to many people this can only mean the end of equal rights. If the present system of social security is re-examined, it will inevitably lead to a reduction of benefits and a miserable old age for anyone under 55. Instead of regarding ideas as malleable and provisional, starting points for debate rather than foregone conclusions, the prevailing ethos seems to regard them as harbingers of doom. Conventional wisdoms - everything from the sanctity of the free market to the right to bear semi-automatic weapons - become enshrined as verities, and any peep of protest is nipped in the bud with religious ferocity.

One of the effects of the lack of public discourse is something that we've been seeing for years in the USA - the blurring of political lines. Though the ideological underpinnings of the two major parties are pretty clear if one reads the literature, either politicians haven't read it or for the sake of expediency ignore it. Instead, parties exchange positions like boys trading baseball cards. Limited governmental spending, fiscal restraint, balancing the budget - once the standard of the Republican party - are now identified with Clintonian Democrats. The effort to remove the Schiavo case to the federal courts, a clear challenge to states' rights, would normally have been associated with Democratic thinking - except that it was the Republicans who sponsored the bill. This doesn't necessarily mean that the two parties are interchangeable, only that neither party takes its own principles seriously enough to be consistent with them. The voters are left perplexed, annoyed, unclear what their party stands for.

In terms of winning elections, however, silence may be the best tactic. According to recent polls, one of the candidates in next autumn's New York City mayoral elections is gaining in popularity without having made one campaign speech or issuing one position paper on any issue. Rather than filling her mouth with her foot, as Larry Summers did, this candidate has wisely decided to keep it shut.

George Blecher is based in New York, and reports for a number of European publications about American politics and culture.


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