by Kenneth Minogue
Encounter Books, 2010, 384 pp., $25.95
Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology
by Kenneth Minogue
ISI Books, 2008 (1985), 400 pp., $18
On the evening of September 16, 2001, a host of students thronged Battell Chapel in New Haven, Connecticut where Richard H. Brodhead, then Dean of Yale College, presided over a panel discussion occasioned by the massacre that had taken place at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the previous Tuesday. “It was our thought”, Brodhead told the Yale Daily News, “that we might try to bring some academic intelligence to bear on these events and their meaning.”
To the surprise of many, however, and to the dismay of some, none of the panelists denounced the perpetrators, none explored the religious motives of those responsible, and none seemed to regard the attack as an act of war meriting swift retaliation. At least some of the panelists seemed to think that the United States was at fault, and they were as one in urging their listeners to put aside anger and attempt to understand the events of 9/11 from the perspective of those in Pakistan and the Palestinian territories who had responded to the news of their occurrence by dancing in the streets. As Strobe Talbott, former Deputy Secretary of State and then director of Yale’s Center for the Study of Globalization, later put it in a revised version of his remarks,
Underlying the long-term challenge of the post-September 11th era is much more than Islamic defiance of the Great Satan. . . . We must distinguish between, on the one hand, the assassins and those who mastermind and abet their operations and, on the other hand, their constituencies—those millions who feel so victimized by the modern world that they want us to be victims, too; those who see Osama bin Laden as a combination avenging angel and Robin Hood. . . . Disease, overcrowding, undernourishment, political repression, and alienation breed despair, anger, and hatred. These are the raw materials of what we are up against.
For “reactive, defensive warfare” Talbott had little use. What he wanted was “a proactive prolonged offensive against the ugly, intractable realities that terrorists exploit and from which they derive popular support, foot soldiers, and political cover.” To that end he called for a new, internationalized “war on poverty.” By the time he published these words, Talbott was aware that the “foot soldiers” responsible for 9/11 had themselves never known “disease, overcrowding”, and “undernourishment”, and that they couched their appeal to their fellow Muslims solely in religious terms.1 But he was not inclined to let facts get in the way of his identification of what he took to be the “root causes” of the event.
Three years after putting together the 9/11 panel at Yale, Richard Brodhead became President of Duke University. He was in charge on March 14, 2006 when, not long after midnight, local police picked up a semi-comatose African-American stripper, who worked on the side as a prostitute, and took her for treatment to the Durham Access Center. There, a nurse, noting the inebriated young woman’s incoherence, broke with established protocol and offered her an opportunity to escape commitment to a detoxification center by asking whether she had been raped. In time it would become clear that nothing of the sort had happened, that the stripper had been hired by a member of the Duke men’s lacrosse team to perform for the team at an off-campus party, that she had arrived in no state to dance, that she had departed unharmed by any of those present, and that to avoid the rigors of rehab she was perfectly ready to lie. But this did not fully become evident until long after an ambitious District Attorney in the midst of a re-election campaign in a city with a substantial black electorate had initiated a concerted attempt to frame three young athletes who were actually guilty of, at worst, poor taste and bad judgment.
There is much that is shocking about this incident: the conduct of the prosecutor, the role played by the African-American community and its leaders in Durham, the demagogic response of the local and national media, and the story’s treatment in the New York Times. But nothing is more remarkable than the comportment of Brodhead and the self-styled progressives on the Duke faculty, who lent the prosecutorial conspiracy a much-needed helping hand.
In the immediate aftermath of the party, a group of radical students and their off-campus supporters demonstrated outside the domicile of a number of the lacrosse team’s members, banging pots and bearing signs reading, “You Can’t Rape and Run”, “It’s Sunday, Time to Confess” and even “Castrate.” Soon thereafter, a group printed a “wanted poster” with the names and photographs of all but four members of the team and pinned it up all over the Duke campus. In response, 88 members of the faculty banded together to buy, with departmental funds, a full-page advertisement in the undergraduate newspaper that spoke of “the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism.” The ad went on to assert that “the disaster didn’t begin on March 13th and won’t end with what the police say or the court decides.” It fully endorsed what the radical students and their supporters had done.
Seven months later, after it had become evident that the Durham district attorney had no case, an intrepid chemistry professor emerged to denounce the 88. “The faculty who publicly savaged the character and reputations of specific men’s lacrosse players last spring should be ashamed of themselves”, he wrote. “They should be tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy. Their comments were despicable.” In the interim no one on the faculty had publicly spoken a word of criticism about what the 88 had done, and when the chemistry professor finally spoke up, no one lent him support.
At the outset, to be sure, President Brodhead had issued a tepid statement reminding everyone that someone suspected of a crime must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but in the same statement he denounced the conduct of the team members. Later, under pressure from NAACP leaders in North Carolina, from the African-American Mayor of Durham and from the 88 themselves, Brodhead and others within the administration continued—in both public statements and off-the-record remarks to alumni and the press—to vilify the characters of the members of the lacrosse team. In this spirit, Brodhead cancelled the lacrosse season, made a scapegoat of the coach by forcing him to resign, and appointed a variety of committees charged with investigating the team and proposing ways in which to counter the racism and sexism putatively rampant at Duke.
All of this suggested to anyone who was paying attention that Brodhead believed what he carefully refrained from openly saying: that the charges lodged against the team and its members were true. Indeed, as late as April 2007—on the eve of an announcement by the Attorney General of the State of North Carolina that charges would be dropped and that the three young men accused were innocent on all counts—two senior administrators at Duke gave an interview to Newsday in which they maligned the three boys indicted, falsely implied that their coach had condoned bad behavior on their part, and proudly asserted that Duke would never express regret regarding its handling of the matter. When pressed to apologize, one of the two explained, he always answered, “For what?”
Guiding Brodhead and the other Duke administrators throughout was Robert K. Steel, chairman of the Duke Board of Trustees and former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs. In September 2006, Steel reportedly responded in a dismissive fashion to an alumnus who complained about Duke’s treatment of the students and the coach, saying, “Even though it is not fair, people have to be sacrificed for the good of the organization.” This took place after a faculty investigative committee chaired by a courageous and scrupulously honest African-American law professor had exonerated the lacrosse coach of any wrongdoing. The committee’s report chided the lacrosse players for rowdiness and occasional drunkenness, but noted that in most regards they had conducted themselves publicly and privately in an admirable fashion.
The following summer, when the three young men falsely accused and their former coach filed lawsuits against Duke, Steel (by then Undersecretary of the Treasury for Domestic Finance and now Deputy Mayor of New York) oversaw Duke’s settlement of the suits out of court for an undisclosed sum said to have run into eight figures. The prosecutor was eventually disbarred, convicted of prosecutorial misconduct and briefly imprisoned. Yet no one on the Duke faculty or in the Duke administration was fired; no one at Duke was punished for professional misconduct or even admonished. In September 2007, the Brodhead administration apologized for its treatment of the lacrosse players, but to this day only one member of the group of 88 has publicly acknowledged fault or even error. One history professor drafted an apology, ran it past an undergraduate, then balked, realizing that, if she broke ranks, her “voice” would not, as she put it in an inadvertently revealing comment, “count for much in my world.”2
In his challenging new book The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, Kenneth Minogue mentions neither of these incidents. His focus is Europe and England in particular. Nonetheless, what he has to say about the present discontents and their origins better illuminates what happened at Yale after 9/11 and at Duke than anything else published to date.
Minogue is a former newspaper columnist and an emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics. In the course of the past half-century he has observed closely and written much. He is best known for his books The Liberal Mind (1963), Nationalism (1967), The Concept of a University (1973) and Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology (1985), which was re-issued two years ago with a foreword by Martyn Thompson, a new introduction by the author, and critical essays by Stephen Erickson and Paul Gottfried. Like these earlier books, Minogue’s latest contribution is an historically grounded, theoretically sophisticated exploration of a contemporary phenomenon that we think we understand but in fact do not. Like Alien Powers, it is an extended rumination—an essay in the sense in which Montaigne used the word—on the manner in which liberal democracies nourish within themselves political movements and intellectual propensities averse to liberal democratic norms.
In both books, Minogue suggests that we are confused, and to dispel that confusion he provides us with a sketch of the choices that, in constructing our lives and self-understanding, we actually face. In both books we are encouraged to embrace what he calls “individualism”—which turns out to be a more nuanced concept than the mere word would suggest. In Alien Powers, Minogue examines the communist and fascist alternatives, first exploring the common presumption underpinning the totalitarian temptation in all of its forms—the claim that in modern liberal societies “our lives are” somehow “orchestrated by a hidden system” of “alien domination” and “dehumanizing oppression”—and then “‘demystifying’ the ‘demystifiers’” by exposing the manner in which “the ambition to perfect the world” is a species of pretentiousness which rewards its adherents by generating in them “the exhilarating self-affirmation of belonging to an elite of the enlightened” who have “seen through the false consciousness by which others are bewitched.” In The Servile Mind, he considers what we in America call progressivism, which operates on a similar premise but is chary of violent revolution and prefers piecemeal yet still radical reform.
In both cases, the strength of Minogue’s analysis derives from his presentation of the individualist alternative. He contends that western Europe and its surviving colonial outposts in the Antipodes and in North America represent the exception in world history. Here he follows the argument Michael Oakeshott advanced in his masterpiece On Human Conduct (1975). In part because of the example set by Socrates, in part because western Christendom distinguished religious from civil authority, in part because of the Reformation and its espousal of the priesthood of all believers, in part because of the need to accommodate rival Christian sects, and in part because of the skepticism concerning metaphysics advocated by the Enlightenment, the newly emerged European state of the early modern period resembled what Oakeshott called “a civil association”, a polity limited in its scope and designed to open up a protected space within which citizens could freely pursue self-chosen projects. This Oakeshott contrasted with the more familiar “enterprise association” in which the community and its members are, at least in principle, united by their dedication to a single common end. It is to this achievement, and to the ethos to which it gave rise, that Minogue traces the peculiar dynamism of the West.
Minogue is a classical liberal of sorts, but he is in no way doctrinaire. He has more in common with the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, the Adam Smith who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville than he has with John Stuart Mill. His focus is mores and manners, and he denies that individualism, as he and his more sagacious forbears have understood it, presupposes selfishness. Individuals in the modern West are not isolated atoms; they are embedded in a social nexus. They have parents, siblings, spouses, friends, professional associates and fellow citizens, and to them all—as they learn in the process of growing up within a family, attending school and making their way in the world—they have obligations. They may be devoted to interest, and each may be concerned first and foremost with his own projects, but the interest they pursue is not material self-interest in the narrow sense. It is more nearly akin to what Tocqueville called “self-interest well understood.” Its horizon is long term; it knowingly encompasses the interests of others—first and foremost, those who are near and dear. And the divers projects that these individuals embrace nearly always require cooperation and nearly always comprehend the interests of others. Theirs is, to be sure, a fiercely competitive society, but competition of this sort generally presupposes freely chosen cooperation as well.
Minogue owes an enormous debt to Montesquieu. He has mastered what The Spirit of Laws says concerning modern monarchy and its ethos of honor, and he has reconfigured this notion with an eye to our democratic age. Minogue’s individual is concerned with reputation, which, as he understands it, is closely bound up with his character. Because he has been reared within a family, disciplined in school and shaped by the competitive and cooperative world within which he pursues his self-chosen projects, he is no less constrained by the demands of self-respect, and he is thereby induced to take initiative and assume responsibility for the welfare of others.
It is this understanding of interest, in terms of the duties one owes oneself, that constitutes what Minogue calls “the moral life.” And the moral life is threatened by “the democratic project.” In the name of rights, this project promotes a liberation from traditional social norms, and then, in self-contradictory fashion, it seeks to legislate what had long been understood as the dictates of good manners. In doing so, it aims at transforming the civil association into an enterprise association by dictating to everyone the one true, politically correct mode of conduct.
Minogue is a treasure. He remembers a world that we have largely forgotten. It was a world largely constituted by what he calls “desire”—desire chastened by deliberation, restrained by prudence, constrained by self-respect and rendered noble by a concern for the welfare of others. Since the 1960s, thanks to “the democratic project”, we have lived to an ever increasing extent in a world constituted by what he calls “impulse”, passion liberated from restraints and constraints, unchastened and utterly irresponsible. Without reflection, we have embraced the slogan that the personal is political and the political personal, and we have unwittingly confused what is politically necessary with what is morally right. We have politicized morality, moralized politics, abandoned prudence and sobriety in the political sphere, jettisoned human decency in private affairs, poisoned public life with private concerns, and demanded that the state extend its tentacles ever further into the private sphere.
In consequence, we are, like Strobe Talbott, inclined in the international arena to succumb to utopian fantasies and to embrace a global war against poverty that can no more be won than was Lyndon Baines Johnson’s war against poverty in the United States—and that even if it were won would have little or nothing to do with staunching terrorism. In the domestic sphere we are apt to dispense with forms and formalities, to prefer cheap moral posturing to the burden of sober consideration, and to criminalize political judgment and turn criminal investigations into morality plays. In our impulsiveness, we are easily manipulated by ambitious ideologues intent on reconfiguring the world in which we live, and we are prepared to entertain as scientific truth lies that defy common sense. Then, finally, when we awaken from our delusions, we find that we have become pawns in the hands of organization men ready to accommodate would-be tyrants and perfectly comfortable with the assertion: “Even though it is not fair, people have to be sacrificed for the good of the organization.”
1Talbott, Foreign Policy (November/December 2001).
2Stuart Taylor, Jr. and K.C. Johnson, Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007).