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John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This is the text of a keynote address delivered at Columbia College Class Day on May 15, 2012, in New York City.
President Bollinger, Provost Coatsworth, Vice President Dirks, Dean Valentini, members of the class of 2012 and their parents, honored guests.
I realize that many among you are disappointed that I am not the president of the United States. I want you to know that I share your disappointment.
There was a time when I harbored ambitions of becoming president—to fulfill the dream shared by so many young Americans—so that I might leave my mark on history, bring peace where there was war, free the unjustly imprisoned, outmaneuver the leaders of other great nations, bask in the admiration and affection of my fellow citizens, and have my pick of college and university commencement venues.
But then came a moment of profound disillusionment, a day of reckoning that changed the course of my life. It was sometime in the spring of 1975, late at night, and I was seated in the basement lounge of Carman Hall, studying for my second round of final exams as a Columbia College freshman. I was wrestling with a book—The Marx–Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker—but to be more precise I was wrestling with a particular text within the anthology: Part I of The German Ideology, which Karl Marx apparently wrote alone, without the help of his collaborator Friedrich Engels.
At eighteen years of age, with the Cold War still very much in play, I was certainly aware of Marx’s significance in history and contemporary politics. I also knew from Joseph Rothschild, my wonderful, cheerfully intimidating Contemporary Civilization professor from the previous semester, that I had better pay close attention to texts written by Germans. Rothschild was a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and he understood quite viscerally the power of words written in German, even German translated into English. So I was trying, really trying to understand, but The German Ideology, Part I, was more than I had bargained for. For those of you who have read it, I don’t have to explain that this wasn’t one of Marx’s greatest hits. All those references to Young Hegelians, Old Hegelians (there didn’t seem to be any middle-aged Hegelians)—I had to keep referring back to Tucker’s introduction to reassure myself that this really was the best way to understand the development of Marx’s “ materialist conception of history.” Not even published until 1932, this text, Tucker explained, was, and I quote, “particularly valuable and important to the student of Marxist thought because Marx never again set down a comprehensive statement of his theory of history at such length and in such detail.” Be that as it may, there was no relief from Marx’s bulky prose: I had to face his text alone, if not exactly man to man, then callow man to great man. And I found myself wanting.
True, I’d been an outstanding president of my high school government. But now I had to ask myself: Wouldn’t a future president of the United States—one aspiring to be as well-read, say, as the very well-read Dwight Eisenhower—be able to absorb, synthesize, explicate, and even refute The German Ideology, Part I, no matter how difficult or elliptical the language? Yet what was I to make of this paragraph, for example?
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself—geological, orohydrographical, climate and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.
Well, of course!
This was the beginning of my disillusionment—the beginning of the end of my fantasies about holding great office, indeed of achieving greatness in any realm. With my intellectual vanity nearly crushed by this passage, I did what seemed to me the most logical thing to restore some sense of self worth. I went to the dictionary and I looked up orohydrographical. And then I went back to the text—as I know all of you would do—and reread the whole damn thing.
I wouldn’t want you to think that this raw encounter with Marx was negative. On the contrary, disillusionment—the discarding of illusions—is essential to any good education. I looked at my underlining the other day and it confirms that I did get something out of the text. And I will tell you that Columbia, my engagement with The German Ideology, Part I, Professor Rothschild, and his CC successor, Professor Robert Lamb, set me on a course that altered my life forever and for the better.
But back then, on that spring night in 1975, weighed down by turgid text, what I really needed was a beer. Fortunately, things weren’t all deadly, world-historically serious in 1975, just as they aren’t in 2012. And fortunately, for every encounter with Marx there were many more with better stylists and teachers who had more humanistic sensibilities. Once I’d finished struggling with The German Ideology, Part I, it’s likely I walked over to a crowded and noisy bar, known as CDR, located in a basement on 119th between Amsterdam and Morningside, to take the edge off my German/Marxist gloom. Inside, I was likely to run into another German, much livelier than Marx, Professor Karl-Ludwig Selig, Columbia’s resident expert on Cervantes and, as he insisted on pronouncing it, Don Kwiksot. Professor Selig often held court at CDR over multiple pitchers of Schaefer or Rheingold, and if you listened carefully to him above the din you could learn a lot. By now I knew I was supposed to engage deeply with the texts that Columbia was requiring me to read, but Selig made it sound enjoyable. He wanted you to embrace the text, to read it with rigor, but also with pleasure. However, like all of my best professors, Selig insisted that reading text was a fundamentally serious endeavor, that text must be respected. I’ll never forget his remark about the Spectator’s April Fools’ issues, one of which my managing board sneakily published on March 31, 1977. The headline on our lead story was “Kissinger Named Food Services Chief; Pledges Sweeping Reforms of Cafeterias.” Some of us worried that the joke was too heavy-handed—Henry Kissinger was just then the subject of a violent debate about whether he was morally or academically fit to teach at Columbia, and Food Services was embroiled in scandal—but Selig later told our managing editor, Dan Janison, that an alarming number of his colleagues had in fact been fooled. (I wish I could do his German accent but I can’t.) “So many of our faculty are such poor readers of text,” he lamented.
I would not, I vowed, be such a poor reader of text. Nor would I be a humorless or unemotional one. Happily, Marx’s materialist view of history did not kill my interest in history itself or its literary and romantic possibilities. Among my compensations was a mesmerizing history of the lead-up to the Civil War and of the war itself, written by Allan Nevins. Thanks to James Shenton, who had been Nevins’s student at Columbia and subsequently was my professor and mentor, the ordeal of Marx’s prose was more than mitigated by these passages from volume two of Ordeal of the Union, Nevins’s eight-volume masterwork. Here’s Nevins describing Stephen Douglas, a man who badly wanted to be president, and his reaction to the abolitionist Salmon Chase during the Senate debate in 1854 over the Kansas–Nebraska act:
Chase’s attack … seemed to him a dastardly blow because it accused him of selling his honor for the hope of the presidency, because it stigmatized him as a cheat and liar.… Quivering with rage, he rose in the Senate on January 30th to open the formal debate.… Day after day Douglas was in his seat when the session began, and still there when it ended. Week in and week out, his quick, piercing eyes watched every move with tigerish intentness. When a stroke was needed, he was on his feet, tossing his mass of dark hair like a lion’s mane and scowling at his enemies.
Two years later, with violence breaking out in Kansas, Lincoln’s great rival is forced to defend the tinderbox he helped create in the name of saving the union. He’s still trying to have it both ways, popular sovereignty, yes, but at the cost of preserving slavery. Here Nevins attains a brilliant level of insight about Douglas: “Alert in retort, crafty in the manipulation of argument, redoubtable and unscrupulous in attack, he seemed momentarily to sweep all opposition before him; yet he never quite convinced wary men, for his ideas lacked deep sincerity, and his manners had always the touch of the barroom.… He seemed dazzling—until men could think over his arguments.”
As my late friend, Walter Karp, valedictorian of the Columbia College class of 1955, would have said of Nevins: “No Dead Sentences! Not One Dead Sentence!” Reading Nevins’s book in the College Library one night, I wondered: Could I ever hope to write this well, to know so much and think so clearly? Almost certainly not, but at least I was beginning to know my limits and something about my ambition to expand my limits. Gazing upward at the great Allan Nevins on the shelves of Butler, the scales began falling from my eyes, which is a very important feature of disillusionment. I was beginning to learn how to read.
Which brings me to the point I want to make to you, the class of 2012. I didn’t tell these stories to try to make you nostalgic for a golden age before text became a verb, or to comfort myself in middle age. As historian Andrew Bacevich writes in the current Harper’s Magazine, with reference to Robert Kagan’s new book, all so-called golden ages should be viewed with the greatest skepticism. Kagan’s book argues that postwar American power has engendered a “golden age for humanity” and that the United States is not in decline. Bacevich believes this is a “fairy tale,” as much a fairy tale as so-called American exceptionalism.
However, I do believe there is something exceptional about Columbia College and I hope it’s something you’ll hang on to after I’m finished talking.
Besides being publisher of Harper’s Magazine and writing books, I occasionally review them, including the most complete biography to date of yesterday’s Barnard commencement speaker. To help illustrate my point, let’s do a close reading of one passage from this book [The Bridge] by New Yorker editor David Remnick. We learn that in his senior year at Columbia, Barack Obama took a modern fiction course with Edward Said, who until his death in 2003 was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature. My reading of this text leads me to believe that Remnick’s account of Barack Obama’s life was authorized by its subject—that most of what’s in it is there because the president wanted it there. Remnick offers this description of Said and of Obama’s feelings about his English professor: “Best known for his advocacy of the Palestinian cause, and his academic excoriation of the Eurocentric ‘Orientalism’ practiced by Western authors and scholars, Said had done important work in literary criticism and theory. And yet, Said’s theoretical approach in the course left Obama cold.” Remnick then quotes a friend of Obama’s who also took the course: “My whole thing, and Barack had a similar view, was that we would rather read Shakespeare’s plays than the criticism. Said was more interested in the literary theory, which didn’t appeal to Barack or me.” According to Remnick, the young Obama referred to Said as a “flake.”
Although I agree that it’s usually better to read the original than a criticism of the original, this is a misreading of Said. Edward Said was many things: a lover of literature, a fearsome and inspiring teacher, a politically engaged public intellectual, a humanist, but most pertinent to this speech, an extraordinarily rigorous reader and teacher of text. On at least one occasion he threw a student out of class for not knowing the definition of a word, and he never went into class less than completely prepared. The last extended conversation I had with him was in his apartment on Riverside Drive: we talked not about Middle Eastern politics, but about Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma and its wily and seductive female protagonist, Gina Sanseverina. “Ah, Gina,” he said with appreciation and feeling, as if he had known her personally.
Although a great many people disliked him for reading too carefully and talking too loudly, to dismiss Said as an eccentric critic mostly interested in theory—more interested in criticizing a text than reading and enjoying a story—is to miss the mark, perhaps for political reasons (if indeed this passage is accurate).
But please stay with me and the closed-captioned text just a little longer. As Said wrote in Orientalism: “No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of society.” This is what we call context, which is essential to understanding text.
You may know that Said’s three most influential books are Orientalism, Covering Islam, and Culture and Imperialism, all of which deal with Western stereotypes and caricatures of the Orient and of Islam, of Arabs and Persians. As a Protestant-baptized and -educated Palestinian Arab-American who attended British colonial and then American schools, Said was himself decontextualized as an Arab—permanently Out of Place, as he titled his autobiography.
Said’s sense of deracination—of never quite knowing where he came from—is something Barack Obama should know all about. Of course, the president doesn’t have to admit an emotional affinity, which I understand could be politically dangerous. He’s already been forced by too many idiots to waste too much time proving he was born in the United States.
But is it too much to ask of anyone concerned with our Middle Eastern policy to read Said’s trilogy—that is, before they encourage a military attack on Iran by proxies—be they French, Israeli, British, or Saudi Arabian? Wouldn’t it be truly audacious if Barack Obama, class of 1983, had done a close enough reading of the three Orientalism texts—with their subtext of humiliation endured by colonized peoples—to cite them as a reason for his praiseworthy reluctance to move from sanctions to violence? That before he wasted one more life, one more dollar in Islamic Afghanistan, Obama showed some interest in his old professor instead of reading the dubious Robert Kagan? And furthermore, that the president of the United States consider following the fine example of the president of Columbia University and be willing to meet with Iran’s, shall we say, flaky, President Ahmahdinejad? After all, Obama has already visited another religiously intolerant abettor or terrorists and officially anti-Israel head of state, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
But here’s the good and useful thing about reading text in a serious way, considering it both at face value and in context: I suspect that President Obama has read the Orientalism trilogy, but just doesn’t want to advertise it. And my own reporting, my own reading, my own analysis, suggests that he did not, in fact, consider Edward Said a flake—because the grown-up Obama is a serious, intelligent person who attended Columbia College, where he learned how to read past the obvious and the superficial.
My hope is that none of you seniors would shrink from such a reading assignment, or from such a political risk, because of your exceptional Columbia College education—your training in directly engaging the author and never hiding behind someone else’s interpretation of the text or of the writer’s reputation. My advice to all of you today, poet or scientist, is to absorb, to question, to challenge, to refute any author on any subject. Or, for that matter, any politician or commencement speaker.
You may disagree with me that your sovereignty as citizens has been largely stolen by the political and financial oligarchy that I believe rules this country. You may disagree that your Constitution, literally and in spirit, has been gravely violated by the previous and current administrations. That the so-called suspension clause of our founding text, concerning habeas corpus, has been abused, twisted, and stretched.
But I trust that as Columbia intellectuals—mercifully free of received wisdom, resistant to cant, confident in your own skill as readers—you’ll all agree with Edward Said’s summary of your responsibilities and your rights: “The role of the intellectual is to ask questions, to disturb people, to stir up reflection, to provoke controversy and thought.… The role of the intellectual is never to justify power, to always be critical of power, whether it is the power of the weak or the power of the strong … the role of the intellectual is to challenge power by providing alternative models and, also as important, resources of hope.” I would only add that the role of an intellectual is to be prepared to tackle any text.
Thank you and congratulations. I’m deeply honored to be your speaker, so much so that I will join you all here tomorrow morning for President Bollinger’s commencement address.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."