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There is much to say for the idea of a campus conservative journal. Sanctimonious liberal hypocrisy still prevents Harvard from funding its ROTC program. Leftist academic excesses can still get in the way of an education, especially in departments like English and Romance Languages.
And yet, the most recent installment of Peninsula confirms that Harvard's paleo-conservatives are a sorry bunch. Not evil or dangerous. They are not smart enough. Simply artless and sorry.
The back cover of this month's Peninsula (I am speaking of the February edition, dropped at my door on Wednesday, March 1) contains the following crafty take-off on a cigarette advertisement: "If you like to read, please try Peninsula." And it is in these few words that the story of this journal's startling lack of intellectual nuance begins.
You see, Peninsula advertises itself as a magazine for readers. And it is, in a sense, a magazine aimed at readers--picture-readers. In the current issue of Peninsula, the editors have once again decided to give pride of place not to a learned argument against abortion or affirmative-action but to sensationalist photographs with callous captions.
I shall not provide a graphic description of the photographs--good taste forbids it. Suffice it to say that Peninsula has out-done itself. The monthly provides us not only with the now standard photo of an aborted fetus, but also a photograph of Shannon Lowney's casket, she of Brookline Planned Parenthood fame. What the editors make of these photographs, how they read them, I shall leave for you to consider.
Peninsula continues to wage its political battles the only way it knows how: without reference to methodical thinking or subtle argumentation. There is nothing probing about these photographs, nothing instructive. They will not convince anyone, and by now, they will probably not shock too many either. They sure do come in handy, though, when you desperately want to grind an ideological ax without getting caught up in the messiness of serious contemplation.
Peninsula's sensationalism is all the more surprising considering the magazine's historic commitment to the academic canon, the "Great Books" approach to learning. What motivates such an educational philosophy if not a reverence for the fantastic power of words to shape our cultural horizons? Does it not naturally follow that balanced, carefully wrought analysis, and not graphic gore, ought to be the bread and butter of today's conservatives?
Peninsula's decision to go beyond words, or rather, below them, points to a larger crisis in American conservatism. The shrill, populist conservatism embodied by Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich is hostile to intellectual culture. That hostility is not utterly unfounded. It is no secret that academia has historically been antagonistic to the Right, and never more so (in America) than in the past score of years.
Yet in the Right's wholesale dismissal of the 'elite northeastern universities' (Representatives Armey and Gingrich both have Ph.D.s from southern schools) it throws out the good with the bad. Like Peninsula, this brand of conservatism has utterly aborted the project of serious debate and nuanced argumentation. It prefers easy pictures and tidy slogans to the knottiness of words.
This evasion of serious thinking is by no means characteristic of all conservatives, either at Harvard or in the United States. Only this week Harvard's Center for Jewish Studies and Program on Constitutional Government sponsored a deeply thought provoking conference on the legacy--and future--of American neo-conservatism.
But for those who have exchanged the pen for the image, the following caveat is worth bearing in mind: When good men cease to express their ideas in words, good men are doing nothing.
Samuel J. Rascoff's column appears on alternate Fridays.
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