Notes & Comments December 2002
On “the adversary culture of the intellectuals” & Prof. Peter N. Kirstein.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that,
an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ’is country”
when the guns begin to shoot; …
—Rudyard Kipling, “Tommy” (1890)
We have been reminded of Kipling’s poem “Tommy” a good deal lately. Its most famous line—in which Kipling speaks of “makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep”—has a special relevance at a moment when anti-war animus is bubbling out of the universities and other protected redoubts of politically correct sentiment. Living in the aftermath of the 1960s and its culture of protest, most of us have long been inured to the spectacle of privileged adolescents attacking the institutions that guarantee their privileges. We have been inured as well to the spectacle of privileged men and women, middle-aged and older, behaving like those spoiled adolescents. It is only business as usual when a tenured professor rails against capitalism, “the corporations,” or the United States military, even though those institutions secure his livelihood and, ultimately, make his tenure possible.
There is, as we say, nothing new in this spectacle. By now, many of us have come to expect professors and indeed the cultural elite generally to act like spoiled adolescents. Often—not always, not everywhere, but frequently—there seems to be an inverse relationship between virtues like patriotism and common sense and the number of years spent at a university or similarly insulated cultural institution (a museum, say, or The New York Times, PBS, most major TV news networks …). To a large extent, it comes under the capacious category of what Lionel Trilling called “the adversary culture of the intellectuals”—which is to say that, like so much in life, it is disappointing but not surprising.
Well, not usually surprising. Every now and then, however, the animating virulence of this phenomenon shows itself naked, without premeditation, politesse, or the other emollients that civil exchange imposes. And when this happens the result remains no less surprising than disturbing. What we have in mind is a recent exchange between a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy and Peter N. Kirstein, a tenured professor of history at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. At the end of October, the unnamed cadet sent out an email to numerous academics soliciting their participation in a sort of symposium on the theme of “America’s Challenges in an Unstable World: Balancing Security with Liberty.” Here, in part, is what the cadet wrote:
Dear Sir or Ma’am,
The Air Force Academy is going to be having our annual Academy Assembly. This is a forum for mainly but not only Political Science majors, discussing very important issues dealing with politics. Right now we are in the planning stage for advertising and we would appreciate your help in the follow areas. Do you know of or have any methods or ways for interschool advertising and or communications? What would be the best way for us to advertise at your school whether it is sending you the fliers and you making copies or by perhaps putting an advertisement in your local publication? We would appreciate your input and the cost of what you recommend. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Standard-issue fare, no? We’re having a conference; we’d like to spread the word; do you have any suggestions? Here is what Professor Kirstein wrote in response:
You are a disgrace to this country and I am furious you would even think I would support you and your aggressive baby killing tactics of collateral damage. Help you recruit. Who, top guns to reign [sic] death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world? Are you serious sir? Resign your commission and serve your country with honour.
No war, no air force cowards who bomb countries without AAA, without possibility of retaliation. You are worse than the snipers. You are imperialists who are turning the whole damn world against us. September 11 can be blamed in part for what you and your cohorts have done to the Palestinians, the VC, the Serbs, a retreating army at Basra.
You are unworthy of my support.
Rather takes your breath away, doesn’t it?
If you have any doubts about the value of the Internet, consider this: no sooner had Professor Kirstein sent his reply than some public-spirited chap broadcast the exchange by email. It quickly made the rounds—we first heard of it early in November when a friend in Chicago sent us the exchange—and instantly sparked condign outrage. Saint Xavier was flooded with emails, letters, and telephone call from angry cadets, parents, and other concerned citizens. As of mid-November, the front page of the university’s web site carried a hand-wringing apology by Richard A. Yanikoski, the president, informing readers that Saint Xavier was reaching out “compassionately to the large number of men and women who somehow received copies of Professor Kirstein’s e-mail and thereby came to feel demeaned by his intemperate criticisms.” Earth to President Yanikoski: compassion is neither here nor there in this case; there is no “somehow” about how the large number of men and women got that email: it was quickly circulated by people who were outraged by Professor Kirstein’s diatribe; and those people were not “demeaned,” they were angry: there is a difference.
President Yanikoski seemed surprised that “by far the topic of greatest interest to most people has been the University’s response to Professor Kirstein.” Imagine that! The good news is that he has been “relieved of his teaching responsibilities for the current semester and reassigned to other duties” and that an administrative reprimand will be placed in his file. It’s a start. But a look at Professor Kirstein’s college webpage (http://www.sxu.edu/history/pkirstein) shows that it is unlikely to make much difference. Professor Kirstein publishes his own apology there, which begins:
Again I would like to apologize to all who are offended, burdened, distracted and hurt by my e-mail to an Air Force Academy cadet. My e-mail, while motivated from a pacifist perspective, was not professional in tone and totally at variance with my usual interaction with students and colleagues.
Of course it is good to know that the tone of Professor Kirstein’s missive is “totally at variance” with his usual interaction with students and colleagues. But what should we think of the fact that it was “motivated from [sic] a pacifist perspective”? What does that tells us about “the pacifist perspective”? And although many people were “offended,” and rightly offended, by Professor Kirstein’s email, where does being “burdened, distracted and hurt” come into the picture? It belongs in the heap of psychobabble with the President’s compassion.
Professor Kirstein’s web page lists his teaching interests, which include “Recent U.S. History,” “The Nuclear Age,” “Vietnam,” “Cold War,” and “National Security Policy.” Any bets as to the content of his courses on those subjects? His web page also carries an eleven-item list elaborating his “teaching philosophy.” The first item, in bold face, declares, “Teaching is a moral act.” Gosh. Professor Kirstein also goes on to tell us that he seeks to “teach peace, freedom, diversity, multiculturalism and challenge American unilateralism.” (How does one teach peace, freedom, etc.? Even if possible, is that what a professor of history is paid to do?) But this list also show that Professor Kirstein is a bit of a comedian: item three announces that he endeavors to “move beyond the ideological confines of academe.” In fact, as Professor Kirstein’s email demonstrates, he embodies the ideological confines of the academy.
Apologies are all well and good. But they are pointless without contrition, and genuine contrition requires a recognition of what one did wrong. Does Professor Kirstein understand what he did wrong? We wonder. In his gracious response to Professor Kirstein’s apology, Captain Jim Borders of the Air Force Academy noted that a situation that began with intemperate rhetoric had ended civilly. He was clearly pleased that almost all of the responses his cadets proposed to Professor Kirstein’s email were “marked by great maturity and professionalism.” The response that best encapsulated the opinion of the cadet wing, he said, came from a textbook they use:
It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.
Sage words, those. We wonder if Professor Kirstein understands them.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 4, on page 1
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