Saturday, August 27, 2011

A response to Deresiewicz's, "An Empty Regard"

For those who followed the link in Monday's post to William Deresiewicz's article, An Empty Regard, I have something in addition to Greyhawk's ponderings for you to consider.

Occasional guest poster here and USNIBlog, Professor of English at the United States Naval Academy Bruce Fleming, has a interesting personal and philosophical take on it. The rest of the post is his. Well worth your time.

Professor Fleming, over to you.

William Deresiewicz’s front page New York Times Sunday Review article (August 21, 2011) that the editors entitled “An Empty Regard” provided amusement value for military insiders with its initial photo of the mismatched insignia the model was wearing. Anybody who’s ever been to the Naval Academy must have been similarly amused by the Hollywood movie entitled “Annapolis but shot in the neo-classical buildings of a private school in Philadelphia, and completely unfaithful to the Academy (a mid slugs an officer). Both the newspaper’s treatment of the topic and this (really dumb) movie, both ostensibly about the military, are clearly aimed at people who don’t know much about their subject matter. What’s unsettling is when you have to conclude that the people who made them don’t either.

The problem with Deresiewicz’s article was not that it wasn’t true: it was. The problem is that it took center stage to air a completely trivial issue. The article and its presentation show how clueless both author and editors of “the newspaper of record” are about the real issues it all but avoided. Deresiewicz is an interesting guy, but he and his editors are outsiders both talking about and exemplifying their outsidership.

I think I “get” Deresiewicz. We wrote dance criticism together (!) in the 1990s for some of the same publications. He was an English professor for a decade; I’m in year 25 here in the English Department at the Naval Academy. Like me, he’s distrustful of what institutions like colleges do to individual products like literature, or individual pursuits like original thinking—so distrustful that he wrote a “what’s wrong with American education in general and Ivies in particular” essay for the American Scholar after he failed to get tenure at Yale. (My take on this problem was the essay “Leaving Literature Behind” for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the book on which it was based.) And the points he makes in his much-publicized address of 2009 to plebes at West Point, “Solitude and Leadership,” are things that every English professor at a service academy makes over and over: learn to think for yourself, don’t follow the herd. (Unlike Deresiewicz, however , I know that extrovert alphas will never be lovers of solitude, nor should they be, so he’s on the wrong track here.)

He’s not afraid to swing hard and wide, either: give him credit for having a pair. What bugs Deresiewicz about the military is what bugs him about Yale: according to him, it’s largely company (wo)men, lemmings, creatures of hierarchy, apparachicks (Gen. Petraeus is the exception that proves the rule, he says). The real issue in his article is this line, buried in the center: “Has the military really ceased to be the big, bumbling bureaucracy it was always taken to be?”

Of course not. Thus the troublesome point is not that the military gets universal respect these days: I say oohrah. About time we retreated from the universal lack of respect for the military of the post-Vietnam era. Sure, it’s too much love (to the point where even Park rangers are “heroes”) and it’s based on ignorance. Americans blow hot and cold on the military: now it’s hot, and that’s better than cold. My concern, however (as I said in a C-Span interview) is that the military can’t be addicted to the “sugar rush” (as I call it) of this public acclaim, because sure as shootin’ the public is going to blow cold again—and the military still needs to go on. That’s why it needs a self-image that is not based on this kind of “empty regard.”

The real issue is not the silly but sweet post-9/11 love for anything in a uniform. It’s that this blanket love will let the military continue being a bureaucracy that is prone to the ills of all hierarchical monopolies. (These are what I call the “structural weaknesses” of the military, in my recent book Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide.) The military has few external checks and balances (Congress doesn’t know squat, usually), and as anybody in uniform knows, the internal ones are very weak. Try opposing the whims of one of what the Army’s recent study called “toxic” leaders: 80 % of respondents to their survey said they had known one of these, and 20% had worked for one. Try, for that matter, getting a new idea off the ground that the old (wo)man doesn’t want to hear about. Combine this with the fierce military rejection nowadays of rare civilian criticism (this is close to Deresiewicz’s point) and you have trouble: no checks from within, those from without rejected (I’m thinking of journalists who uncover problems, like finding out that Pat Tillman’s death was due to “friendly fire”).

There’s nothing wrong with the current reverence for the uniform except that the military might begin to take it seriously—and conclude that they really are perfect. Now that’s a real problem: the insistence of the military that it’s morally more virtuous than the civilians it exists to protect. Why put your behind on the line to defend a bunch of bagits? Instead of this nonsense, I propose a new professionalism, a realization that the military is a tool of the civilian world, with the measure of its success being effectiveness, not whether it’s Boy Scout eunuchs (being “held to a higher moral standard”). Dissent from within has to be actively encouraged, and “leaders” taught that they can’t “lead” from the gut, but by looking at the evidence and encouraging others to share their views. Leading isn’t about imposing your will, but about getting the best out of your players. Some officers know this; everybody has to be reminded of it.

That’s a more realistic goal, I think, than Deresiewicz’s embittered ex-Ivy Assistant Professor of English who wants officers to be solitary thinkers (he’s got the military personality all wrong with that one). These are the real issues facing the military in America today. As for this uniform business: take the civilian love while you can get it, and enjoy it. You deserve it. But don’t take it too seriously.

30 comments:

Eagle1 said...

As long as I am hijacking this post thread, let me pile ona little more. Here's a quote from the former prof's piece:
"But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead. The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters, he argues, embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators. What we really need, in other words, is a swift kick in the pants."

I would suggest that Mr. D get out more. America is the "volunteer nation." Those Red Cross shelters? Manned by volunteers. FIrefighters? Most of America's firefighters are . . . volunteers. Coast Guard Auxiliary? Volunteers. Civil Air Patriol? Volunteers. Search and rescuse teams? Largely volunteers. National Guard? PTA? Youth sport coaches? Church emergency response teams like the Baptist Men? Ski patrol? Volunteers.

"We" don't need a kick in the pants but I know someone who does. . .

ewok40k said...

ahem, one thing that prof.Fleming nails on the head:
Try opposing the whims of one of what the Army’s recent study called “toxic” leaders: 80 % of respondents to their survey said they had known one of these, and 20% had worked for one. Try, for that matter, getting a new idea off the ground that the old (wo)man doesn’t want to hear about.
LCS anyone?

ralewi1 said...

Is it me, or is Prof Fleming in violent agreement with Mr. <span>Deresiewicz? Sure, the professor throws in an ad hominem attack or two, and brings up a bad photograph, since corrected (funny thing, the NYT, they make corrections when they are obviously wrong, and prominently display them.) </span>
<span>But the professor agrees with Mr. D's main points, that there's an embarrassing high regard for servicemembers, and that that sugar-smacking worship is a frosting that covers up a flawed war effort.
</span>

Salty Gator said...

<span>"Now that’s a real problem: the insistence of the military that it’s morally more virtuous than the civilians it exists to protect. Why put your behind on the line to defend a bunch of bagits?"</span>

I actually think that is the case.  Same issue that we as volunteer firefighters deal with.  Some a$$hats won't lift a finger for their community, ridicule the actual volunteers as goobers and then cry havoc when their own lives and property are in danger.  Are they worth saving?  Decidedly not.  Same goes for the US Military.  As a former uniform guy I can tell you that I always thought there were many in my beloved country who are not worth dying for.  You do what you do for the ones that are worth dying for.

As for it being more honorable to be a Sailor than say...a lawyer?  Or a wall street loser?  That's an easy one.

Salty Gator said...

<span>"Now that’s a real problem: the insistence of the military that it’s morally more virtuous than the civilians it exists to protect. Why put your behind on the line to defend a bunch of bagits?"</span>

I actually think that is the case.  Same issue that we as volunteer firefighters deal with.  Some a$$hats won't lift a finger for their community, ridicule the actual volunteers as goobers and then cry havoc when their own lives and property are in danger.  Are they worth saving?  Decidedly not.  Same goes for the US Military.  As a former uniform guy I can tell you that I always thought there were many in my beloved country who are not worth dying for.  You do what you do for the ones that are worth dying for.

As for it being more honorable to be a Sailor than say...a lawyer?  Or a wall street loser?  That's an easy one.

Salty Gator said...

E1:  I don't know about where you live, but where I live the USCG Aux is not worthy of being grouped in your list of outstanding volunteers.......

Kristen said...

'Zactly right.  I'll bet the good professor doesn't know a soul who is involved in a church, for instance.  I grew up in a home where my busy mother-of-four always found the time to volunteer, at our church and other places as well.  The kids in my family, and the kids in our neighborhood, were raised to think of volunteering as an absolutely normal and expected part of life.  It's a shame that the professor's circle of acquaintance is so limited.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

I assume the good Per-Fesser never glanced at Kipling.  Probably beneath him.

"Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep,
Is cheaper than the uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap."

"An' if sometimes our conduck, ain't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints."

Worth relating the tale of how cloistered academe at the Ivies has become.  Overheard the conversation that one professor could not understand how Nixon was elected in '72, because he personally didn't know anyone who voted for him.  None of the 68% of the country that voted for Nixon was among the personal or professional acquaintances of that man whose job it was to broaden the outlooks of young students.

milprof said...

Obviously there are a lot of people who do volunteer and contribute to their communities, as Kristen and Eagle1 note.  All due credit in their direction.

On the whole though, <span>Deresiewicz has a point about "citizens by proxy".  </span>There has been a real and signficant decline in the number of Americans who volunteer for community service and charitable organizations, or even just for broad-based social (and semi-service) organizations like the Kiwanas or Rotary.  And polling data too shows a significant decline over time in the share Americans who feel they have some sort of responsibiity to their communities or the nation as a whole, beyond paying taxes.  There's been quite a bit of social science work on this -- the book "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam is a good example.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Well, milprof, we can point to two reasons for a reduction in charitable contributions. 

The first is that the "me" generation is now of maturity, and has always had a difficult time gripping that there is something larger than self. 

We also have a government that increasingly takes from its citizens, and admonishes those who earn and achieve for not giving more.  I am far less inclined to give my time or money for a "cause" that my government keeps pushing, or that is constantly harped on by insanely rich celebrities, than I am to those unsung and likely untracked organizations which either escape the notice of the cameras and microphones or is openly scorned by them because of some perceived incompatibility with their political agenda.  (American Legion, VFW, Boy Scouts, etc.)

Catholic teachings tell us that if we have two coats, we should give one to the man who hasn't a coat.

If we do so of our volition, it is charity.

When a government requires it, that is oppression.  And it comes with the receiver of my coat neither valuing my coat as a gift nor appreciating my gesture, and as often as not hating and resenting me for earning enough to have two coats to begin with.

Eagle1 said...

Not having read Mr. Putnam's book, I am left with only my observations which are, admittedly, not scientific. Of course, my  degree in sociology makes me question most polling data, too. In any event, I have observed a whole lot of people, young and old, out toiling to help others after tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters. I see a shift to chuch groups, I see Scouts, the aforementioned volunteer firemen and the like.I see soup ktichens, women's shelters, and about 1 zillion other "do unto others" volunteer things that give me great hope.

I also see that nearly every one of these "volunteer" organizations has come under attack for one reason or another (Boy Scouts require a religious belief, etc).  Having tarred the organizations and thereby labeled all who participate in them as "religious zealots" "anti-gay" or whatever, who would expect public membership to grow?

See, e.g. the "Tea Party Movement" through which millions of American "terrorists" have take to the street to try to regain control of their government. That is not "citizenship by proxy," that's direct action.

Bowling? Really? With the growth of other winter and year round activities (like jogging,say) which I would theorize have lured people out of the smoky, barfly-filled bowling alleys, bowling seems an especially  poor representation of real life.

Semper said...

Check out the response to Deresiewizv in the comments to this post too.

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