Sunday, May 16, 2004

A Marxist laments

Kenneth Mostern was employed as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee for six years. He recently resigned and has written a lengthy article explaining his surprising decision.

He puts the issue this way: "Academics have, compared to most workers, a substantial amount of freedom to make their own schedules and a significant amount of time off. Academics are mostly doing what they want to be doing ... Thus the question: why are academics so miserable? Why has my resignation produced the most profound joy?"

To understand his answer you need to know some background to the situation. Kenneth Mostern is a white Jewish male Marxist who chose to work in the field of African American Studies. He is, in other words, a radical left liberal: he wants to be a creation of his own will and reason, and so has rebelled against any inborn or inherited forms of self-definition (such as being white, or Jewish, or male). He himself admits that:

I am also a symbol of what for some, however unconsciously, African American Studies is imagined to be a revolt against: a white, Jewish, male marxist.

It was the very dominance of radical liberalism within his English department, though, which created problems for Mr Mostern.

In part, this was because the logic of liberalism leads on to a denial of the existence of any objective forms of truth. If the assertion of individual reason is the highest good, then it will be thought offensive to assert an objective truth which transcends (and places limits on) individual reason.

If, however, there is not permitted to be any measure of objective truth, then what grounds are there to discuss or evaluate academic work? And, if there are no such grounds, then on what principles do academic departments operate?

According to Mr Mostern one answer to these questions is that "Because no one is talking about substance, only alliances, and because alienation is general, a vacuum exists at the center of institutional power which is not filled by talent or argument, but by those who feel most comfortable or justified taking advantage of it."

Mr Mostern, most surprisingly for a Marxist, found himself yearning for "a conservative program with a coherent sense of its intellectual mission in relation to the national community" as this might have turned the department into "a place of vigorous engagement." Instead, the department continued to be "the independent source of my most extreme alienation."

Mr Mostern's response was to reject the notion of "ambivalence" about truth, and instead assert the idea of "commitment". In effect, Mr Mostern shifted to some degree from the liberal ideal of the free-floating, self-creating autonomous individual, in order to accept certain forms of conservative connectedness.

He himself lists three such forms of connectedness in response to his original question of why his resignation produced such profound joy.

The first is marital love. His marriage had previously been under intense strain because both he and his wife had put their careers ahead of their relationship (they lived in different cities). He now feels confident to assert the value of marriage as being something that is "nonarbitrary", in other words, that has a real objective value.

He declares that "Commitment is the choice to act in practical terms on the premise that you want to be with someone, that you believe in something as true. As an academic I was ambivalent, not committed, and nearly lost my marriage. This did not make me happy. And it is not idiosyncratic."

The second form of connectedness is to local community and the particular tradition it embodies. He asks the reasonable question of how in a place where he had no "community of familiarity" he could know "what one's work is, let alone accomplish it."

And finally, he asserts the value of what he chooses to call "congregation." He admits that having rejected his Jewish faith, he hoped that the department would become a kind of substitute secular congregation. It didn't fulfill this role, though, as academics were people who could not even "address each other as seekers, without fear."

Mr Mostern, it must be said, has not broken very thoroughly from his Marxism. His article is interesting, though, as an example of the stresses created when people try to follow liberalism consistently, and how even a minimal form of conservatism can serve as a liberating alternative.

(First published at Conservative Central 17/05/03)

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