Saturday, April 30, 2005

Column on Choosing to be Peculiar, even Dumb

The Right to be Dumb?or Peculiar

Tibor R. Machan

Suppose I decided to each at a vegetarian restaurant morning, noon and
evening, 7 days a week, on and on, without a break. Just lettuce, nothing
else. Just image it, I know it is dumb?or peculiar?but there is nothing
very difficult about imagining it, even noticing it here and there. Many
people are, indeed, dumb or peculiar, at least in some aspects of their
lives, and Supersize Me, the movie that bashes McDonald?s because there
are quite a few such people who go there to eat virtually all the time,
day after day, night after night, makes a great deal of this.

Of course, there are other people who do similar things that we all know
about, like those who go to Las Vegas and sit by a slot machine day and
night and that?s their vacation. Maybe they are just enjoying themselves,
although when you walk by and see their faces, that?s not what comes to
you mind. They seem fixated on the one arm bandit, pretty zonked out.

And there are kids who spend nearly all their days skateboarding, no
matter how often they fall, no matter how many bruises they get. And there
are mountain climbers who spend all their spare time climbing those
mountains, endlessly, climbing and climbing, no matter how many others
fall to their deaths, no matter how dangerous it is to do such a thing.
And how about those demolition derby enthusiasts? Or folks who do nothing
but play bridge all weekend, or lie out on the sun and soak it up and risk
skin cancer?

But the likes of Michael Moore and Rob Reiner?and even some at
prestigious universities?just will not get it. Some people aren?t very
sensible or conventional. But of course, the people making a federal case
of the McDonald?s enthusiasm will not accept this as fact. They need an
American villain, some typically American institution, like big business,
so they can then denounce not the stupid or peculiar people who are
overeating of their own free will but the McDonald?s big business people
who are, you guessed it, coercing them all to come and eat there. (Of
course, if you deny free will for the customers, you must also for the

In fact this is all bunk. I love McDonald?s French fries?every six months
or so I indulge myself in a large portion and then look forward to, with
anticipation, when I plan to do it again, six months or so later. Do I
indulge myself every day? No way. Would I like doing so if I didn?t have
to pay for it in various adverse side effects? Sure I would. But I don?t.
I like not being dumb or even very peculiar.

Am I smart or conventional about everything like I am about resisting the
temptation to gorge myself on McDonald?s French fries? No, I am not. If
you knew me better, you could probably spot a character flaw and
peculiarity or two that would show that I, too, hover near cave into some
things odd, even self-destructive, in my life. But all of it is not
irresistible?I could also do otherwise, if I choose to do so?and, indeed,
now and then I decide to drop one of my habits for good.

What is truly contemptible about the Michael Moore types is how they
assume that people have no will of their own and it is only because big
businesses advertise fat foods that they eat fat foods. Millions of
people, of course, who are exposed to the very same ads do not choose to
make McDonald?s their breakfast, lunch, and dining establishment day in
and day out. How come? They don?t choose to?they have other things they
want to do besides gorge themselves on fast food. (And in some cases
wanting to gorge oneself on fast food may not be such a terrible thing.)

It is interesting, by the way, that after the last presidential campaign
it was always the Right Wing that was charged with focusing on so called
moral values. That is entirely wrong?the Michael Moore types on the
Left?his buddies Rob Reiner, Al Franken, et al?are all moralists and
worse. They not only preach the morality of temperance when it comes to
fast foods and such. They, very much like those ladies who spawned
Prohibition about a century ago, want their morality shoved down
everyone?s throat. They aren?t happy with advocating, propagandizing,
imploring, warning and such, no. They are wannabe tyrants. Just look what
they did about smoking, getting it prohibited at private restaurants and

It?s one thing to urge people not to be dumb or carry on indulging
themselves perhaps unwisely, imprudently. It?s entirely another to coerce
them to act as you would want them to act.

Column on Death and Dying

Death & Dying

Tibor R. Machan

My friend David L. Norton?whose book Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of
Ethical Individualism (Princeton UP, 1976), should have been far more
famous than any that John Rawls and other celebrities in the discipline of
philosophy had written?wrote beautifully and wisely about aging. He gave
credit for the germ of his idea to the famous psychologist, Erik Erickson,
but David developed the idea in far more philosophical terms than Erickson
had. It had to do with how one?s perspective on one?s life undergoes
certain critical though very natural and potentially enhancing stages in
virtue of human nature itself.

One of the points David stressed is that a person with a good outlook on
life will gradually come to terms with the fact that he or she will die
and, while never abandoning the quest for living and, indeed, for
thriving, such a person will not protest or concoct fantasies in order to
manage the fact of impending death. I actually spoke with David by phone
about a week before he died of cancer and he appeared to me to have been
exemplary in how he dealt with his own imminent death.

As I have been getting older, several family members and friends have
died and, of course, I have been spending a tad more time on reflecting on
my own death than I used to. But I do remember when way back in my 30s I
probably had the experience that readied me best for my own eventual

It was when a tiny kitten I had wanted to become our household pet
suddenly developed some ailment and before anything could be done it
expired while I held it in my left hand. The kitten was suddenly no longer
there, only a dead kitten carcass, no real kitten at all. I noticed,
though, that all was very peaceful with this dead kitten, very
uncomplicated. I believe it was then that I realized that provided there
isn?t going to be too much unbearable pain or suffering, provided those
close to me don?t go ballistic about it all, I should be managing death
quite well, thank you. Because by all I can figure and have gotten used
to, have accepted in my bones by now, that after I die there will be
nothing for me to think, to remember, to consider, to argue, to feel, to
do?it will be the end of my life and, of course, of me.

Sure, there will be some remaining signs that I had been around, but that
will not matter to me at all, only to those who care about what I have
done, what I have meant to them. It is, in fact, for those who care for
me, who will have loved me, that my death will be a problem, not for me.
And about this I may be able to do something, if I give them the most I
can while I am still around, if I care for them and love them, too. I
might, also, be able to help them acknowledge that my being gone is not
what should be focused upon but that I had lived with sufficient dignity
and joy that my life can be deemed nearly all that it could be. And that,
I believe, ought to make them feel better, at least a little after I have

Of course, it is one of the fascinating as well as scary things about
one?s life that few things can be fully, accurately anticipated, apart
from the next several moments?or perhaps a bit more?of one?s future. Yet
one point David, following Erickson, stressed is that this, too, is
something that one must accept and embrace and then it will not be an
obstacle to living properly and fruitfully.

This goes contrary to what I learned was a main point in Martin
Heidegger?s philosophy. When I used to teach Existentialism, I studied
quite extensively his views on death and they were nothing if not morbid
and scary. Heidegger, who despite his serious flirtation with (and one
time enthusiastic endorsement of) Nazism, remains a prominent 20th century
philosopher?still embraced by some influential philosophers who should
know better?believed that we humans are unique in, among other ways,
having to cope with the persistent dread of death. (There is some evidence
now that some other animals have to cope with it to some measure, too, but
not at the philosophical level where they can dwell upon the potentially
awesome fact of it.) There are others in the history of human thought who
have made similar points.

I, however, liked what I understood to be the ancient philosopher
Epicurious?s attitude, who taught that all that fretting about one?s death
is pretty useless and is merely going to contribute to making one?s life
more unhappy than it has to be. This left a big impression on me, so much
so that I turned into someone always a bit puzzled when my own children
find bringing up, as a concern with practical matters would require this,
the inevitable subject of my demise too uncomfortable. I keep wanting to
impress upon them that it will just be something that is best to be
sensibly prepared for, so why not simply come to terms with it?

But I guess that?s easy for me to say?I will not be around to experience
the loss.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Column on Bill Gates and Public Education

Bill Gates Didn?t Go Far Enough

Tibor R. Machan

From his address at the nation?s governors? conference, I give you Bill
Gates: "American high schools are obsolete," he said, adding, "By
obsolete, I don't just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed and
underfunded.... By obsolete, I mean that our high schools?even when they
are working exactly as designed?cannot teach our kids what they need to
know today.?

Indeed, this is part of the theme of a book I edited, Education in a Free
Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000) and it was the substance of my
essay in 1972, ?The Schools Ain?t What They Used to be...and Never Was,?
in Reason magazine and reprinted in The Libertarian Alternative
(Nelson-Hall, 1974). Actually, I went much farther than Mr. Gates, whose
concern is mostly with how well the schools supply men and women in the
technological sector with a properly trained work force. In contrast, the
concern I (and quite a few others who share my views on this topic), have
is with how well education serves those who are being educated, be they
hard science, humanities, or social science students. Gates merely laments
that "Training the work force of tomorrow with the high schools of today
is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old
mainframe. ... Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the
needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st
century, we will keep limiting?even ruining?the lives of millions of
Americans every year."

As a matter of historical fact, our public education system was designed
two centuries ago, in large part, to honor a racist public policy. This
was well researched and reported in the late E. G. West?s book, Education
and the State (Institute for Economic Affairs, 1965). Private schools were
doing just fine, providing what markets provide in exceptionally efficient
and, indeed, wise ways: a highly diverse approach to teaching students,
not the statist and mainly one-size-fits-all approach, but they also did
something very benign and decent?in their diverse and decentralized way
they extended their services to all races and religions. But the
politicians at the time couldn?t stomach this, so they decided to impose a
public education system that would be appropriately racist and
discriminatory, to fall in line with the prevailing mainstream public
philosophy of racism.

The result is what we see now, a defunct public education system, defunct
not because of some recent mistakes, as Mr. Gates contends, but because of
a fundamental flaw in it, its association with government.

Most of us who have gone through the various stages of American public
education may not realize this but we have been part of a massive
collectivized system, not unlike one the Soviet Union would have
championed and from which, in time, it choked to death. Elsewhere public
education remains partly functional only because it tends to be highly
elitists and does not aim, as it does in America, to accommodate the
egalitarian pedagogical philosophy of providing everyone with schooling,
nearly to the level of a guaranteed college degree.

The bottom line is that education, like all other productive, creative
services in society, is better off decentralized, privatized. Sure some
will have to seek out special help, but so do some as they seek to satisfy
their clothing, housing, or nutritional needs. Nonetheless, once we
abandon the fantasy that everyone needs to be subjected to the same
schooling and everyone needs to have is property taxed so as to support
this contorted system, the sort of hopes Mr. Gates, and others, with
different but equally legitimate agendas for young people, are voicing
will no longer have to go unsatisfied. There will be plenty of schools
responding to the varied needs to American students and the opportunities
that face them in all the disciplines of education. There will, in short,
be entrepreneurship in education, as there is in the software industry.

No doubt, this approach is going to be dismissed with total disdain by
some?first, by the people who are wedded in their thinking to how
government is the solution to all human problems, and, second, by those
who are currently mindlessly employed by the state educational systems
across the country and care not a whit for proper schooling but mostly for
their continued steady employment, not unlike those who have worked for
defunct and misguided?and indeed more or less unjust?institutions
throughout human history. But they really aren?t the best source of wisdom
about what young human beings need in the way of an educational
alternative to what we have now, an evidently bankrupt one.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Column on Nuclear Option, etc.

Let?s Keep Them Quarreling

Tibor R. Machan

A few columns ago I lamented how American politics has gone nuts and I
had quite a lot of reaction to this. One was an invitation to talk to talk
show host John Batchelor of WABC-AM 77, New York City, a no holds barred
supporter of President George W. Bush and his Republican allies in the
Congress. He conducted a prerecorded interview with me and immediately
jumped to the topic of the Republican inspired ?nuclear option? in the US
Senate, one whereby a threatened filibuster to block Bush?s judicial
nominees by Democrats would be squashed by a rarely used parliamentary

Frankly, I am no expert on this and turned the discussion to something
else?namely, what my column was actually about. (I don?t know if the
segment was actually used, but never mind that.) After the mention of the
nuclear option, I decided to research and consider it in some detail and
have come to the conclusion that the Republicans and Democrats are pretty
much alike?they will resort to whatever play they can to get their way and
neither has the moral high ground.

Once again, this particular battle is about getting President Bush?s
judicial nominees before the full Senate and the Republicans?with the
support of Mr. Batchelor?are all upset that the Democrats will not simply
yield. One thing they are complaining about is that the Democrats refuse
to play by the rules of democracy?in particular, by majority rule. And
this is where things get pretty silly again.

When in 2000 Al Gore won more votes in the presidential election than
George W. Bush, yet Bush became president, the Republicans, if I recall
right, kept stressing how this is not a democracy but a republic.
Republicans tend also to be the ones who still welcome the electoral
college, which is clearly a restraint on pure majorities in the
presidential election process. Furthermore, it is Democrats who keep
complaining about how the apportionment of senators is anti-democratic.
And, yes, it is, but Republicans in general tend not to see much wrong
with this because, again, they understand this country to be a republic,
not a democracy.

Except, it seems, now, when the majority did elect George W. Bush and so
supposedly his nominees have the support of that majority. This time
Republicans are bellyaching about the Senate being unable to implement
majority rule because there are rules, namely, the filibuster, that can be
used to restrain the majority.

The nuclear option, so called, is, of course, perfectly constitutional
and if the Republicans deploy it, then it will be the Democrats who will
be complaining about not making it possible for them to engage in the full
measure of the advise and consent process. Batchelor himself said in the
interview with me?as well as during some other segments of his Tuesday
night program?that, after all, the framers only meant to have the Senate
give their ?advice and consent? in the case of presidential nominations,
not to block them.

Of course, if the consent of the Senate is needed and there are various
constitutionally sanctioned measures that may be deployed to forestall a
majority of the Senate giving its consent, that?s tough. Such is the US
Constitution. Not, certainly, fully democratic, fully majoritarian. If the
Senate is authorized to exercise its power by refusing to consent to a
nomination or even if through legitimate Constitutional measures the
consent-giving is somehow blocked, that, too, is just how it is. Live with
it, one might say.

The point of my column was that American politics seems to lack nearly
any measure of civility?of simply working with the rules and arguing the
issues. This fracas about the judicial nominations supports the point?once
again instead of engaging in the civilize process of following the rules
wherever they lead, each side is calling the other nasty names, impugning
to it vicious motives.

But perhaps in the meanwhile we can benefit from something akin to a
gridlock, a condition when the citizenry is able to carry on with its
tasks while the politicians are dickering in Washington, DC.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Liberty—My Own Universalist Journey

When in 1962 I left the US Air Force at Andrews AFB to move out West to begin my stint at the Claremont Colleges, I took a side trip to visit New York City and seek an “audience with Ayn Rand.” First I called Nathaniel Branden and explained that, because of this journey, I may be gone for good from the East Coast and I didn’t wish to miss the chance to meet Miss Rand. He called her and secured a 30 minute meeting for me at the Empire State Building where she had her offices at the time. When I met her I was impressed with how generous and warm this woman was. We spoke easily and I still remember a particular exchange between us.

I had mentioned to Miss Rand that I, too, hail from a communist country. I said that this may account for why I was so responsive to her books, especially, of course, We The Living. She replied, without the slightest tone of chiding or disapproval but with a slight rebuke. “The ideas and ideals in my books are universal and do not speak only to those with certain experiences,” I recall her telling me.

I soon began to appreciate her point and I still think about it now when there are quite a few people who wish to locate Rand’s thinking within a particular tradition of, say, Russian philosophy. I believe that she would not have accepted this, although of course that doesn’t show these commentators are wrong. Still, it is important to begin one’s understanding of a thinker with how he or she understands herself. Rand, in particular, thought that she fit among those in the tradition of philosophy started with the ancient Greeks, especially Socrates and Aristotle, who believed that it is reason that’s to be the arbiter of truth and reason doesn’t function in parochial ways—it seeks universal understanding.

In retrospect I now appreciate that in my own case, as well, there had been a development from the particular to the universal when it comes to my understanding of human political, individual liberty. I was raised, as a young person, in a system of politics that was supposed to be aspiring to become communist. (There was no communism anywhere I history, of course, only systems whose rulers supposedly aspired to guide them toward communism.) Stalin was, in those days, a frequent visitor to Budapest where his puppet leader Rakosi ruled with an iron fist from 1948 on. As a student at the Bartok Bela Uti elementary school, along with thousands of others from around the city—youths and adults—I was required to attend the mass gatherings at the Hero’s Plaza where everyone had to listen to propaganda speeches and repeatedly shout in unison, “Our Dear Father, Stalin.” If we didn’t show and shout, we would be docked a grade.

Alongside these forced marches and the so called education we received—which was blatant indoctrination in most cases apart from the science and technology courses—I had also begun to become aware that my mother was a bit of a tyrant. I lived with her then and with her second family. My father, in turn, whom she divorced the year I was born, in 1939, had been an avid supporter of Hitler in his capacity as a radio commentator, and had left for the West as soon as the Russians conquered Budapest. Both my parents, despite considerably different styles of life and parenting, had been fanatic about athletics and I was promptly subjected to a regime of relentless indoctrination at home into such sports as fencing and rowing.

As those who know me a bit might imagine, this didn’t quite fit my own budding life plan, which tended to involve reading a lot of books—fiction and non-fiction. I had devoured, by age 9, nearly all the novels of the American western novelist Zane Grey, read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and about two dozen or more works by the creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner. As Mason once put it, 'You never can tell about these conservative Easterners, Paul. They all of them have a streak in them of wanting to be Wild West. I'll bet if someone would give that fellow a twin-holstered rapid-draw gun belt with a couple of guns in it, he'd stand up in front of a mirror, practise a fast draw and take fiendish delight in the process' (from The Case of the Amorous Aunt, 1963). This was certainly true about me, although I doubt Mason was referring to Easterners from as far East as Budapest. (Actually, Gardner had been an attorney in California with mostly Chinese clients in the early 20th century.)

Instead of warming up to sports, which at any rate I had been involved in entirely as a matter of my parent’s fantasy and imposition regarding my future, I would read these and many other books, mostly late at night, under my bed covers and with the aid of a flashlight. It was then that slowly but surely I began to be aware that I was not free to do what I thought suited me best, not just in the sense of being thwarted as most kids are when they try to indulge themselves but in the more serious sense of having one’s basic inclinations and aspirations forcibly, even brutally, suppressed.

The two sources of forcible suppression were political and familial but it took quite a while for me to realize that such suppression wasn’t only contrary to my life and hopes but amounted to the major threat from others directed at all people everywhere in history and around the globe. Those initial novels I had been eagerly devouring brought home to me this message forcefully but mostly only implicitly and I mainly identified with that message in a personal way, simply baffled why I wasn’t understood by my parents, why I was being shoved in directions that were so alien to what I wanted, albeit only vaguely.

One thing that is enlightening about all this, however, is that I never felt guilty for not wanting to go along with the plans for me concocted either by the Hungarian state or even my parents. Indeed, as to the former, when I was about 12 or 13 and was taking a class in what was euphemistically called “constitutional government,” I recall a leceture about the Marxian principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Listening to the rationalization for this odd idea I recall raising my hand and asking: “Suppose my classmate here and I started the week with five Forints each, and he bought himself some wood and nails and then built a table, while I bought some good Hungarian wine and ended the week smashed. Would my friend be required by the state to share the proceeds he would likely obtain from selling what he had built?”

By my best recollection this exchange immediately landed me expelled from the academically oriented high school and into a technical school, on the grounds that I was a reactionary, bourgeois student who should not be allowed to advance to other than a technical higher education. That would have been that expect for that fact that not long after this episode my father in the West had decided to stop trying to get me out of Hungary through official channels and sent in a professional smuggler—what Time Magazine in 1981 called a “flesh peddler”—to fetch me. When I, along with several adults and with the superb guidance of this professional, had been smuggled out successfully, I joined my father’s family in Munich. (The smuggler, by the way, was reported to have been shot dead at a later date as he was trying to rescue his girlfriend from Hungary—so much for the comparative quality of labors of love and labors for profit.) My father and his second wife both worked at Radio Free Europe where, in fact, there had been quite a few former fascists in the various Eastern European sections (not unusual back in those days when the American government tried to use all sorts of talent to do battle with the Soviets.)

To my chagrin, my father turned out to be several times the dictator compared with my mother. He had failed to go to the Olympics in is own prime because the games were cancelled during the Second World War. Prior to that he had won the European “pair oars without coxen” rowing championship. Subsequently he had firmly gotten it into his had that I would be his surrogate Olympian, probably the main reason for his rescuing me from communist Hungary. (The others may have been some measure of genuine fondness for a son and, also perhaps, that having a recent refuge from a communist country in the family would in time get him a free ocean voyage to the US by dint of an act of the US Congress in, I believe, 1952.)

As soon as I arrived in the West, I was subjected to a daily regime of merciless early morning exercises—a three mile run, tennis lessons, track and field after school and exhibition swimming for my father’s swimming classes. Seeing how this wasn’t at all my own idea, I was soon to become a very brooding, displeased kid, often beaten for my various “failures,” mostly consisting of my lack of enthusiasm for the athletic life to which I was being subjected.

In addition to this involuntary athletic servitude, I started to notice how anti-Semitic my father was, dissing Jews every chance he got, sometimes in the crudest form imaginable. He would claim, for example, that American Jewish bankers selected movie actors who looked Jewish to play heroic roles in Hollywood films they bank rolled so as to give Jews a good image around the world. He would give me a thrashing when I imprudently expressed praise for some Jew, such as a visiting jazz pianist at RFE.

Slowly but surely I began to form the notion that what I was experiencing and witnessing, both in my political and familiar histories, had significance beyond my own circumstances, although that is where they had their most immediate impact for me, of course. So to make a long story a bit shorter, once we had come to the USA, and I began to experience American culture via my high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania—two places I spent time during the first couple of months in my new country—I noticed that my circumstances were rather unusual. This was beginning to dawn on me even earlier, when while at an American high school in Munich, Germany, I had befriended a young man, Jimmy Loftus, who had a rather noticeably decent relationship with his own father. (I recall his walking with him once in front of me, with his father’s left armed draped around his shoulders, which made me choke up.)

One time Jimmy asked me to stay after school to play basketball and I told him I couldn’t because my father insists on my returning home after school; he replied, “Well just tell him you stayed to play a bit.” I told him I would get a thrashing if I did this, and he said, “Well, then hit him back.” That idea, I must report, turned into a paradigm breaker for me—I could not even fathom such a thing before Jimmy suggested it to me.

Once I had lived a bit in the US, however, I realized that kids where not taken to be their parents’ items of property, to do with as their whims or pleasures dictated. So following a particularly brutal altercation between him and me, I left my father’s house on my 18th birthday, never to return there.

My history with the Hungarian authorities, such as my “teachers” and commissars, as well as with my parents, highlighted for me the significance of a measure of human liberty within my own early life. But that’s not all. These elements of my personal history also alerted me to a problem people were having around me and indeed throughout human history and in many parts of the contemporary world. In time I would run across the works of Ayn Rand and other champions of human individual liberty and these would resonate with me most emphatically in light of my own budding understanding. But that wasn’t all.

For example, after reading Atlas Shrugged, while in the US Air Force at Andrews AFB, near Washington, DC, I had at first feared that my very positive response to the book was perhaps idiosyncratic, just as I had suggested to Rand when we met. So for entire weekends I and some fellow admirers of the work would sit in the main terminal cafeteria discussing Galt’s speech, checking it for possible mistakes, making sure it was basically sound, at least to the best of our abilities. Soon I began to take college courses at night, in philosophy, literature, political science, and so forth, in part to check out Rand’s ideas, to compare them to the prominent thinking that had come down to us from around the globe—I had already read some of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Montaigne, Plutarch, Cicero, and others, just as I was encountering Rand, so I realized that there were all these ideas about human affairs and the world at large circulating against which one can check new ones.

In time I would embark upon an academic career in philosophy in part because it just fit with my budding identity and in part because I thought it would be the best way not to become captive to my own very powerful particular and significant experiences. I believe now that I have done my checking thoroughly enough to come to the reasonable conclusions—not one with Platonic or Cartesian certainty but a certainly beyond a reasonable doubt—that Rand’ ideas are indeed sound at heart. And I decided in time, too, to devote myself to their better and better understanding, development and teaching.

The bottom line is this—with more to be gleaned from my memoir, The Man Without a Hobby, Adventures of a Gregarious Egoist (Hamilton Books, 2004): Individual liberty, in the tradition of John Locke, the Declaration of Independence and Ayn Rand, is a fundamental, universal human value for all human individuals (excepting only the crucially incapacitated who, however, themselves do best if the rest of us are free).

Column on Past Political Incorrectness

Being Politically Incorrect Before Its Time

Tibor R. Machan

A couple of days ago I mentioned to some friends my theory about
nostalgia: The past tends to look good to us because we remember it minus
one of its most important ingredients, the jitters we had back then about
the future. After all, when we do remember the past, we no longer have any
good reason to recall those jitters since we did survive, probably even
succeed, with the future that faced us back then. Minus those jitters,
that past does tend to look good in comparison to the present when we have
our current jitters about the new future we face.

I was reminded of this when I recently received a letter of invitation to
attend the 35th anniversary of the opening of the university where I had
my very own first full time teaching job in 1970, California State
University at Bakersfield. It was their and my own first year!

The late chair of the newly formed philosophy department had hired me, on
the recommendation of Professor John Hospers USC, and on the strength of
my budding academic record and promise. I was very pleased and gave I
believe my level best at CSUB. He had told me in no uncertain terms that I
would be renewed in 1972 if I did, as promised, earn my PhD by then and I
gained my degree in December 1971.

Sadly, however, he went back on his word. And I believe I know why: I was
doing politically incorrect things back then when the term had not yet
been introduced into the language.

A secretary in our dean?s office told me at the time of my termination
that my (then secret) files had contained a copy of a letter to the editor
I had written to (and that was published in) the local newspaper in
Bakersfield in which I was very critical of the United Nations for
extending coercive policies around the globe. Much more importantly,
however, I had received bad marks from him for giving a luncheon talk
during that academic year in which I was critical of public education as
such. This talk was then published in the budding Reason magazine and
later became a chapter in my first edited volume, The Libertarian
Alternative (1973), "The Schools Ain't What They Used To Be...and Never
Was." (The title is a quotation from Will Rogers.) My chair, allegedly
echoing our dean?s sentiments, had also chided me, utterly
unprofessionally, for my divorce from my then wife in 1971.

There was never any question at the time about my professional conduct
and, especially, my publications, which were beginning to mount by then.
Because records back then were still kept secret by the university
administration, I could never check for myself what mine contained. I was
merely not rehired and the small grievance I had filed got me nowhere. The
President of the university told me that having me dismissed would be good
for them and for me?and, perhaps, he was right. Still, the experience was
something of a shock, since I did exactly as was my professional
responsibility and yet it got me nothing, in light of factors about me
that should have had no bearing on my employment. It was, in fact, my own
first experience with the phenomenon of political incorrectness at the
academy, something that by now has become something of an epidemic for
people who articulated convictions, quite outside the classroom, that
didn?t please university administrators and colleagues.

I do not think I will accept the invitation, frankly, but not because I
hold grudges. To do so seems to me a colossal waste of energy and, in any
case, I am too lazy to hold on to anger, which really does require having
to keep recalling why one is mad anyway. But I am not sure I wish to
dredge up yet again, this coming May, the sad memory of my dismissal from
CSUB, especially since no one ever apologized to me for the disgraceful
treatment I received, despite my having gone on to become a well published
and respected academic philosopher.

Why then bother recalling the matter in public? Well, quite often people
lament the current atmosphere in the academy for the way academic freedom
is being violated left and right. But in some ways it used to be worse in
the past, when such violations could be hidden from view because of the
secret file policies of many universities. Not unless one had the good
fortune, as I did, to have a mole in the system could one ascertain just
why despite one?s unexceptionable academic records one got sacked. Today
there is much ado about the matter mainly because it is evident enough,
while in the past it existed but behind closed doors.

All in all, in this and other realms of life, many people think that the
present moment is much worse than all others in the past and this may well
be a huge, largely unchecked mistake. Every generation, of example,
laments how the current crop of young people is far worse than any in the
past. I believe this is a crock.

While there are variations in the quality of the lives we lead generation
after generation, the truth is probably that there isn?t all that much
novelty under the sun, not in how shabbily or how swell people are being
treated by one another.