It is with great sadness that we note the passing of our friend Michael S. Joyce, who died February 24 at sixty-three. Most readers of The New Criterion will have glimpsed one or more of the many obituaries that appeared in the weeks following Mike’s death. The New York Times managed to scramble some important facts, but even our Paper of Record could not obscure the definitive contribution that Mike Joyce made to American social policy and intellectual life. As head of the John M. Olin Foundation from 1979 to the mid-1980s, and then as head of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation until his retirement in 2000, Mike did an enormous amount to change the terms of debate on an extraordinarily wide range of cultural and social issues.
At Bradley, one of Mike’s many initiatives was supporting the nascent school choice movement. As Peter Collier noted in an obituary for FrontPage.com, Mike’s support
made Milwaukee the seedbed of the school choice movement and gave black kids the opportunity to escape failing and violent public schools. Bradley’s emancipation proclamation put a finger in the eye of the left-wing racists whose policies are designed to keep blacks on the liberal plantation. Mike understood very well that the school choice movement had taken aim at the unholy alliance between the Democrats and the National Education Association, America’s most disgraceful union since Dave Beck’s Teamsters, and black hustlers like Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, all of whom collaborated for their own cynical reasons to keep black kids in bondage.
The recent consolidation of the school choice program in Milwaukee—a model for the nation—is in large part the fruit of Mike’s prescient interventions in the 1980s and 1990s.
At the center of Mike’s genius was understanding the power of ideas. Many men of the world—especially, perhaps, those of a conservative disposition—are wont to underestimate the transformative power of ideas. They are interested in action, not ideas. But Mike understood that the economic and political decisions that shape our world are not made in a vacuum. They are informed by a vision of the way the world should be, a vision deeply colored by moral, social, religious, and aesthetic ideas that only seem distant from the calculus of policy makers. To change the world, Mike knew, one had to change the culture. Of course, this was not something that could be accomplished overnight or all at once. It was the work of a generation or two and could only be accomplished piecemeal. In this sense, as Collier noted, Mike “was a Tocquevillian who believed that the genius of America was in its coming together in voluntary associations to create its future.” His support for scores—maybe hundreds—of individuals and institutions helped fire the revolution that wrested the intellectual initiative from liberals and made, as Senator Moynihan wistfully observed, conservatives the “party of ideas.”
For more than two decades, Mike left his fingerprints on almost every mainstream conservative cultural initiative in America. One area of particular interest to him was the world of intellectual and cultural debate—the world represented, for example, by The New Criterion. Mike not only helped support The New Criterion, he helped to create it. Without Mike Joyce, The New Criterion would never have existed. He was there in 1981 when the magazine was but the twinkling in the eye of our founding publisher, Samuel Lipman. How utopian it seemed then to dream about a cultural review that was serious but sprightly, conservative but culturally sophisticated, intelligent but unacademic. It was another part of Mike’s genius to be able to bring the utopian down to earth, to make the possible seem necessary. Mike several times told us that The New Criterion was one of the institutions he was proudest of—how proud we were to elicit that pride! We shall miss Mike Joyce. Requiescat in pace. As The New Criterion approaches its twenty-fifth season, we have had many occasions to contemplate Mike’s life and work. If we had to name a theme for the months and years ahead, we might offer the signal that Nelson ordered to be hoisted just before he was cut down by a French sharpshooter at the Battle of Trafalgar: “Engage the enemy more closely.” Mike would have liked that.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 8, on page 1
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