All posts by Stefan Kanfer

Stefan Kanfer, former book review editor and senior editor for Time magazine, writes widely for City Journal on political, social, and cultural topics. He is the author of more than a dozen books, among them The Last Empire, the story of the De Beers diamond company; Stardust Lost, about the Yiddish Theater in America; biographies of Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Humphrey Bogart; plus novels and thrillers.

Need a Commencement Speech? Try This One—It’s Free!

This is a generation that faces new challenges. You are not millennials, not Gen Xers, you are quite literally in a class by yourselves—the class of 2017. All around us we see changes we never expected, changes that demand acceptance—or “resistance.” There are economic and political alterations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East. They are accompanied by revolutions in communication, in science, in art. Thanks to the education you’ve received over the last four years, you’re well-equipped to handle these challenges. Good luck. Not that you’ll need it.

Oops. That was from a pre-millennial commencement speech. As you can see, it was a hit with school officials and alumni and the graduates could recite every word, even to this day.  Here’s this year’s speech:

I am a recognizable name. My achievements will be duplicated by few, if any, of you.

This is not a matter of arrogance or superiority. My IQ is no larger than yours, my background no more illustrious. It’s just that I had to make my own way in college and in life. Believe it or not, we had to read books that upset us. If you had to do that today, it would be called lit boot camp. Your courses outdid themselves with political correctness on steroids, identifying the emotional triggers in the classics and dismissing them as harmful and irrelevant. And who could blame them? Reading books without “trigger warnings ” might upset fragile sensibilities, never acknowledged by the unwary professors in my time.

When I attended this institution, we were exposed to a barrage  of philosphical, political and sociological ideas. Some were agreeable, some were challenging, some were repulsive. But they were all vital components of the undergraduate experience. In those vanished days we were so naïve. You, on the other hand, are well versed in White Privilege, Cultural Appropriation, and Safe Spaces.

In my time, there were no holes pre-cut in the knees and thighs of our jeans—we had to cut them open ourselves, with little guidance from elders, and there were no safe rooms. There were no unsubstantiated accusations of date rape, no charges of “fascism” from people whose parents were not even alive when the Third Reich was in the ascendant. (That Reich, by the way, found many early supporters in the German universities.) I can’t believe we missed out on all the fun you millennials were having.

In the day, my generation was thought of as the real game-changer. You know–teach-ins, speakouts, loud protests.  But these were modest indeed by your standards.  Maybe it started when you were invited to “Rate My Professors,” as if they were a new reality show.  When my generation invited people to speak, people of all shades in the spectrum of ideas came, addressing us with discretion and dignity. We returned the favor. If we challenged them it was with courtesy, and they departed without incident. Sound familiar? Of course not. During your college years, when those with unpopular ideas were invited to speak, vehement objections were heard—and the speakers were quickly “disinvited.” On the rare occasions when they did appear, they were intimidated or even injured.

Talk about fascism: Could Jason Riley, a black conservative and a star of the Wall St. Journal, be peacefully heard at colleges and universities? Nein.  Could Professor Charles Murray  be listened to quietly by people who hadn’t read  his books and had no idea what he wrote? Nein. Bestselling author Heather Mac Donald? Nein. Would provocateurs like Milo Yiannoppoulos  and Ann Coulter be tolerated?  Nein nein, nein.

And that’s looking at the glass as half full. Looking at as half empty notes that you have turned Amendment Number One into Enemy Number One. Look around you. Almost everyone speaks in the same tone, expresses the identical views. To violate this conformity is to invite outrage, ostracisim, violence. You have been called snowflakes. This is unfair to such flakes everywhere. For they have character—no two are alike.

Your college president knows this and will do nothing about it. He is busy with something else. Nobody knows what. College, once a place for the exchange of ideas, a spacious home for the liberal arts, has become at best a serious joke, at worst a national scandal. You’re not entirely to blame for your post high-chair tantrums; no one ever dared to say “no” to you. No one helped you get the hang of a  a pluralistic marketplace of ideas, least of all a timorous faculty ever fearful that they might say something that might lose them tenure.

I don’t envy you folks. Out there is a world full of people who do not look to authorities for a list of approved Halloween costumes or novels without any offensive  words.  You’ll have to make your own way among employees with different ideas, and among employers who don’t set aside safe spaces. For those of you wounded by opinions you haven’t even heard yet, good luck. You’ll need it.

 

Harvard Discovers a New Marginalized Minority Group

Harvard University has just made another of its weathervane decisions, based on the prevailing academic winds. This time out, the English Department has announced that the new curriculum will focus on authors who have been “marginalized for historical reasons.” The decision was made, according to James Simpson, Chairman of said department, in response to a “very reflective” letter sent by a student. It stated that Harvard’s standard curriculum short-changed certain minorities and that this injustice should be corrected by the creation of a diversity course. Since the contents of the letter were not made public, green students (and their parents) could only wonder.

It goes without saying that the neglected writers would have to be members of overlooked or ignored groups. But which groups? Women? Yet there is the anti-slavery novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who with a meager gift but an indomitable will helped raise the consciousness of a generation. Indeed, upon meeting the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, President Abraham Lincoln is said to have declared, with only a hint of jocularity, “So this is the lady who started the Civil War.” And Stowe’s sisterhood is widely recognized and praised—Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, et. al.

Would the neglected writer be African-American? But here is Frederick Douglass, born into slavery, turned into a fiery abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights, widely published memoirist, commemorated on a U.S. Postage stamp. And Douglass was followed by such literary icons as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Dubois and scores of others.

Would he or she be Native American? But here is Vine Deloria Jr.’s bestselling Custer Died for Your Sins. This forthright declaration, enumerating the ways in which the white man spoke to the tribes with forked tongue, was published way back in 1969 before any of the Crimson undergraduates (and many of their parents) were born. And there are other books on the shelf by authors of similar background, among them novelist Louise Erdrich, poet Simon Ortiz, and Harvard’s own Winona LaDuke.

How about Asian authors? But there is Maxine Hong Kingston (China Men), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) and dozens of their brilliant colleagues. None of the above have been ignored in college curricula.

What about those in the LGBT category? Well, Woolf’s Orlando addressed the switch of sexual identities early on; and since the trials of Oscar Wilde, there have been writers as flamboyant as Truman Capote, as intellectual as Edmund White, as self-confessional as W.H. Auden. Indeed, many colleges offer majors in Gay Studies.

Still, somehow, somewhere, there had to be a literary vein untapped. And suddenly, for those looking closely, it all became clear. The Harvard English department must have unearthed the obscure volume The Stuffed Owl, compiled by the British writer Windham Lewis. Subtitled “An Anthology of Bad Verse,” the 1930 anthology includes execrable rhymes, incoherent thoughts and outright doggerel from famous and obscure versifiers. William Wordsworth made the cut; so did the English Poet Laureate Colley Cibber. But the lodestar of the collection is Julia Moore, otherwise known as the Sweet Singer of Michigan. A quatrain in praise of a colleague:

Lord Byron was an Englishman
A poet I believe
His first words in old England
Was poorly received

She crafted this one too:

While eating dinner, this dear little child,
Was choked on a piece of beef.
The doctors came, tried their skill a while,
But none could give relief.

Surely Ms. Moore deserves the attention of freshmen and sophomores. A bard from across the pond, the 19th-century aristocrat, the Earl of Lytton, should have equal time:

She sat with her guitar on her knee,
But she was not singing a note,
For someone had drawn (ah, who could it be?)
A knife across her throat.

Thus, the Harvard English Department is about to provide a unique service, ceding class hours to that hitherto neglected minority—the untalented, the maladroit, the inept who have been left behind in the Academic sweepstakes.  One of Cambridge Mass. favorite aphorisms: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Manifestly, having provided the former for three centuries, Harvard is now offering the latter.

The Great Depression in Comic-Book Format

As revisionist histories go, The Forgotten Man went—straight to the NY Times bestsellers list in 2009. The book stayed there for months, even though it differed from the received wisdom of academia, and the lockstep opinion of the mainstream media. Indeed, Amity Shlaes’s pellucid chronicle of the Great Depression became successful because it rejected the oft-quoted line in the film The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The author, previously a Wall St. Journal editorialist and currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, vigorously swept away the myths and half-truths that followed the Great Depression. Unlike most narratives of that period, hers refused to view President Herbert Hoover as arch-villain, and his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt as a superhero.

Not that Shlaes let Hoover off the hook. She demonstrated with innumerable facts and statistics that the 31st president believed in the federal government’s ability to fix all economic woes. Thus he signed the Smoot-Hawley bill, imposing heavy duties on imported goods. Instead of making America self-sufficient, it wrecked international trade and jump-started the depression. However, as Shlaes illustrated, it was the 32nd president who made that depression a great one.

Like Hoover, FDR distrusted the free market’s ability to right itself. For all the talk about the country’s lower- and middle-class “Forgotten Man,” he pushed farm subsidies that persist to this day, swelling the coffers of agribusiness and raising food prices for the very people he promised to aid. Additionally, Roosevelt sided with labor unions at virtually every turn. Major companies, forced to grant an ever-increasing percentage of their profits to wages and benefits, cut back on hiring. Contrary to biased accounts of the period, the breadlines actually grew longer in the 1930’s as unemployment increased. It stayed well above double figures for the decade. Nor were these FDR’s only liabilities. He was so determined to have his way that he threatened (and failed) to “pack” the Supreme Court with more than the nine judges who kept finding fault with his New Deal policies. So why did Roosevelt win the presidency four times, and why is he regarded with such awe 12 presidents later?

Related—Learning Economics

For one thing, Shlaes dispassionately observes, the former Secretary of the Navy and governor of New York State was a natural leader. He broadcast, in every sense, an aura of confidence in the midst of a flailing economy and the imminent disintegration of Western Europe. “Where Hoover had been brusque,” the author points out, “Roosevelt inspired.” His advisers were astonished at the power of FDR’s “fireside chats” heard in every city and village via radio. “Roosevelt was inventing a new kind of public speaking. Shouting and superlatives were not so necessary now that there was a microphone.”

But there was “one additional, and very powerful, bonus” for Roosevelt in 1940. Even his GOP opponent, Wendell Willkie, acknowledged that it hardly mattered that one in ten men were still jobless, because a war “would hand Roosevelt the thing he had always lacked—a chance, quite literally, to provide jobs for the unemployed. Roosevelt hadn’t known what do to do with the extra people in 1938, but now he did; he would make them into soldiers.”

The Forgotten Man laid out its case with admirable clarity. Even FDR’s most fervent apologists could appreciate its narrative drive, vigorous prose and brief, relevant citations. Yet Shlaes and her publishers obviously felt that the clothbound and paperback versions were out of step with today’s young literary consumers. Accordingly, they now offer a third edition—a rendering in the style of a graphic novel, illustrated by Paul Riuoche and “adapted” (read simplified) by Chuck Dixon.

This time out, Willkie turns from candidate to narrator, telling the story of the Great Depression from the liberal Republican point of view. Riuoche is a master of cartoon portraiture, and an indelible cast of characters pass in review, ranging from Presidents Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt to Oliver Wendell Holmes and Father Divine. Moreover he opens up the narrative with imaginative long shots and close-ups in the style of a documentary film.

But to what end? Fans of illustrated fiction a la Will Eisner & Co. have made the Graphic Edition of The Forgotten Man an Amazon bestseller. Yet these readers are unlikely to move on to the writing that inspired the pictures—or to most other scrupulous examinations of 1930’s America. This adult comic book is, at best, a brisk paraphrase of a nuanced and closely reasoned argument. Complete with sketches and mini-bios of the principal players, it recalls the Cliff Notes and Classic Comics versions of Les Miserables—entertaining, vivid, but not the real thing. Alas, in a post-print age, it may be a harbinger of all the non-fiction, non-books to come.

Coarse Courses Cause Critical Cries

Enthusiastically aided by Academia, the late 20th century saw such English Lit stalwarts as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the Lake Poets dismissed as passé. In their place came the likes of Alice Walker, Rigoberta Menchu and Amy Tan, some talented, others fraudulent, but all with impeccable credentials: they were neither dead nor white nor male.

Continue reading Coarse Courses Cause Critical Cries

Occupying the Time Machine

In 1895, H. G. Wells concocted an imaginary time machine
that hurled people into the future and back to the past.  Since then, that device
has been re-invented by sci-fi writers, film makers and scientists.  They
needn’t have bothered.  The time machine has already been in existence for more
than four hundred years. It’s called New York City.

Glimpses of the future can be seen in the blueprints of every
new skyscraper in every reconstructed neighborhood.  As for the latest instance
of ancient history, Exhibit A–the recent occupying of the onetime New School
for Social Research (now just the New School) located in Greenwich Village.

Continue reading Occupying the Time Machine

What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

The influential website Campusbooks displays a roster of “Popular Classics Textbooks” in fiction. The list offers an aperture into the minds of University English departments:

  1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  4. The Rum Diary by Hunter S.Thompson
  5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  8. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  10.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  11.  Maus by Art Spiegelman
  12.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  13.  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R.Tolkien
  14. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Continue reading What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

Greatly Exaggerated Death of the Novel

Thomas C. Foster’s book is three years old, but it still holds the gold medal for Turnoff Title of the New Millennium: How to Read Novels Like a Professor. The author, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, attempts to sanitize his work with the subtitle, A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. But the damage is done. His title conjures up too many blackboard demands: “In Remembrance of Things Past is Marcel Proust saying farewell to high society, or suggesting that social milieus are a kaleidoscope of change? Discuss.”; “In Moby-Dick, the vessel that rescues Ishmael is called the Rachel. What is the significance of that Biblical name?” etc., etc., ad infinitum.

Continue reading Greatly Exaggerated Death of the Novel

Seeing Ghosts in Class

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just added a new nail to the coffin of American Academia. Lax admission policies, politically correct texts, underpaid assistants who do the teaching in place of the big name professors busy on their next books, incompetent management, to name just a few liabilities, are wrecking the once-proud reputation of many U.S. colleges and universities.
As if these were not enough, the Chronicle highlights another scandal in Academia. Using the nom de fraud Ed Dante, the author of “The Shadow Scholar” reveals himself as a man who “makes a good living” ghostwriting papers for a “custom essay company.” In plain English, this means coming up with papers on a variety of subjects, which are then peddled to lackluster students. Those students then attach their names to the essays, get good grades, and move on jobs in the private or public sectors.
Dante says he has “written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology and Ph.D. in sociology.” He has also contributed papers for courses in history, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, maritime security, marketing and ethics (!). In the midst of a deep recession, he burbles, “business is booming. At busy times, during midterms and finals, my company’s staff of roughly 50 people writers is not large enough to satisfy the thousands of students who will pay for our work and claim it as their own.”

Continue reading Seeing Ghosts in Class

The Attack on Legacies

In every Marx Bros. movie, there occurs a moment when Harpo works himself up to a frenzy, hyperventilating, jumping up and down and crossing his eyes. These interludes never fail to beguile the viewer, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
I was reminded of these Harpovian shenanigans when I came across Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admission (Richard D. Kahlenberg, Editor, Century Foundation , 304 pps). This a collection of essays expressing outrage at a practice, common to many first-, second- and third-tier colleges. These institutions have for decades (centuries in some cases) allowed underperforming high school students to be admitted to the freshman class because one of their parents was a graduate.
Manifestly this was unfair. Students with higher grades had been turned away because they didn’t have the advantage of a father or mother with an Ivy or Big Ten sheepskin. Yet the institutions of higher learning offered no apology for their autocratic ways; instead they presented a rationale. It was called Follow the Money. A prosperous parent was likely to make a generous donation to the place that allowed Junior to enter the hallowed halls, even though he failed geometry and had English SAT scores that placed him in the bottom third of his class. And since every school is always bemoaning its increasing debt, rising professorial salaries and benefits, and other fiscal responsibilities, what was wrong with welcoming a few “legacies” in order to pad the bottom line?

Continue reading The Attack on Legacies

Is This Book Invisible?

By Stefan Kanfer

In full-page newspaper ads, the Kindle displays the first page of an e-book. Its opening is famous: “I am an invisible man.” Or is it famous anymore? How many high school seniors—or for that matter college undergraduates—can identify Ralph Ellison’s novel? True, the author was an African-American, but he was a male African-American, hence of lesser importance than, say, Maya Angelou or Alice Walker in the PC world of American education. Say the words “invisible man,” to most students, and odds are that they’ll speak of H. G. Wells’s fantasy, or even more likely, that perennial TV favorite, The Invisible Man, a 1933 movie starring Claude Rains in the title role. Or its cinematic sequels, The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Invisible Woman, (1940), Invisible Agent (1942), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) or Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992).

This ignorance is part of a general myth, aided by programs like “Mad Men” and such twisted accounts as Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. According to these shows and books, the 1950’s was a decade of American rapacity, sexism, war-mongering, profiteering and mindlessness. In fact, that decade saw a flowering of literary talents that has not been equaled since. J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, John Updike published important books in the 1950’s, and in 1952 Ellison put himself on the map with his own Invisible Man, a powerful narrative delivered by a black man who calls himself invisible because he walks unnoticed through the white world.

Continue reading Is This Book Invisible?

School Daze: The Best Novels About The Campus

“I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behavior.”

– Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, 1928

Those were the days. A novelist could teach for a year or two and emerge with enough satire to fill a library. Alas, the Academy has grown more ludicrous and exaggerated with each succeeding generation and is now almost beyond parody. Today, all a smart writer has to do, in Emily Dickinson’s memorable phrase, is tell the truth but tell it slant.

This melancholy observation was brought to mind by Roger Rosenblatt’s comic tale Beet, the story of a professor who fatuously assumes that college is a place for colloquy and intellectual adventure. Instead, he finds an arena rife with faculty politics and political correctness, with courses like Little People of Color and Postcolonial Women’s Sports. The administration is even worse than the staff: eyeing the Internet, the chairman of the board of trustees demands, “Why couldn’t we run the whole college online? From one building? From a Quonset hut! From a lean-to, for Chrissake! An outhouse!”

Funny stuff. But the fact is that colleges are falling all over themselves to hustle dollars from the Net. Google has more than six million references to courses you can take without bothering to enter a classroom. As for PC, the very real Occidental College offers The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie?; Oberlin has a seminar called She Works Hard for the Money: Women, Work and the Persistence of Inequality; and UCLA makes much of Queer Musicology, exploring the ways in which “sexual differences and complex gender identities in music and among musicians have incited productive consternation” during the 1990s. I could cite hundreds more.

Continue reading School Daze: The Best Novels About The Campus