Rick Perlstein's latest at The Nation (HERE) makes for some pretty brutal reading. The first part is worth sharing if you have well meaning family members like mine, who for a decade or so hectored me to cold-call various department chairs so that I could get a job where my children (only potentially existing at the time) would have grandparents nearby.*
After recounting friend after friend debasing themselves in all sorts of ways in often futile attempts to get meaningful employment and/or tenure, Perlstein turns to the superstars he knows.
I think of one academic couple I know, of whom I am very fond, and whose contributions to teaching and scholarship and left-wing activism are exemplary. I don’t begrudge them their gorgeous home with the expansive deck overlooking mountains and ocean; I don’t begrudge one of them for letting slip—we all have moments of hubris—that they make $400,000 between them. I don’t begrudge another such couple the fancy catered dinner parties they’re able to throw in their fancy home, because, hell, I was the guest of honor at one of those dinner parties. In fact, I’ve been the guest of honor, as a visiting independent scholar, at fancy dinners at all sorts of fancy universities, and am invariably fond of my hosts, for the most part decent, dedicated people: 1960s veterans, mainly, who’ve done their best to keep their values intact.
But here’s their problem—a tragic flaw. They’re hardly aware that they’re aristocrats, and that they oversee an army of intellectual serfs.
Is the flaw really anything approximating a tragic one? Is the dereliction of those at the top (and those of us not at the top but with tenure protection) even really "structural" in the sense of Lance's post on complicity (HERE)? I don't know and would be interested in what people think. Maybe whatever personality traits make it the case that you are going to succeed in this kind of climate also tend to make you uniquely unsuited to do anything helpful once you are there. Perlstein himself describes how Kafkaesque the tenure process is and what this might do to one's soul. I'm sure that delivering the same paper dozens of times a year as an invited speaker does weird things too. Perhaps this is a structural facet along the lines of the manner in which anyone willing to do what politicians have to do to win elections in the United States now is a priori completely unsuited for public office. I don't know. . .