View From The Faculty Lounge
“[T] he events that subsequently erupt onto the surface and shake the world, such as wars, terrorist attacks, or even natural disasters, have some kind of analogy or even augury in people’s inner world and are presaged long in advance by changes in the spiritual lives of many individuals and the ‘mood of the times.’” — Tomas Halik.
A reader blogging as “Anonymous Professor,” but whose real name I know (and yes, he really is a scientist working a major research university) writes:
There is an asymmetry in the cultural hegemony that left of center types enjoy. Universities, civil service, the arts, the media, and increasingly tech are no-go zones for religious/political conservatives.
When I was a new post-doc 15 years ago, I took a job at an institute. At an introductory lunch, a few of the old timers started ranting about politics…the recent director of the institute made a comment along the lines of “that’s why I would never hire a republican (this was during the run up to the Kerry/Bush election). Fast forward two years, and I take a job at an R1-university in a science department. Politics never come up in the interview. Shortly after being hired, I go to lunch with a few of my new colleagues. One of them invites me to a political event for the Democratic Party…another colleague kiddingly chided him about assuming I was a democrat to which he replied along the lines, “Of course he is, he can think can’t he….” At a teaching workshop on how to deal with course disruptions and difficult students, jokingly asked what we would do if we had a Southern Baptist student in our course… At a professional society meeting, after a presentation on confronting ID and other forms of creationism, one of my colleagues remarked that he wished we were more like China who know how to keep that kind of nonsense away from the gullible (hardy har har…).
I have witnessed lots of these kind of eye-rolling comments as a religiously and politically conservative scientist in an R1 institution. I have never experienced overt discrimination… I was promoted early, given great service and teaching assignments, and generally have a pretty positive interaction with my colleagues. But I also know that when the conversation at lunch turns to religion or politics I had better bite my tongue. A few close colleagues know a bit about my religious activity and political commitments, and they are more or less met with wry amusement. But they have also warned me about letting word get out too far. I keep a low online profile for fear of being blackballed on proposals and possibility losing access to collaborators, but I don’t find that too problematic. I generally don’t want to know about the personal life of my colleagues.
All that being said, I’ve noticed a significant shift since the last election. The republican/conservative bashing has shifted from what I would have considered a more or less good natured ribbing or cluelessness to something more aggressive. One colleague wanted to confirm that I didn’t vote for Trump – he wasn’t sure how he could work with someone who did. Another noted how she was checking Facebook and Instagram to make sure she didn’t take on any students who were Trump supporters. At a conference, one colleague was commiserating with another about how life was going on their blue island in a sea of red… she went on a tirade about how one of her kid’s friends had Trump supporting parents (obviously, she won’t be at any more play dates). There really is no neutral ground or room for tolerance. To hear my colleague, opposing Trump and his supporters is akin to fighting the Nazis.
Social media is about information gathering… it is doing a great job of separating us into tribes and making us fearful of one another. Left of center allies hold virtually all of the cultural power (Hollywood, TV, mainstream news media, academia, HR, educational leadership, mainline religious denominations, and much of corporate governance). The right represents about half of the country – the entrepreneurs, developers, farmers/ranchers, mineral extraction, and military. Increasingly, how we shop, what we drive, where we live, what we read, what we watch, etc… is defined by our political allegiance. The lack of common apolitical space makes it difficult for us to fully appreciate the full humanity of people with whom we disagree.
People who support abortion rights are baby killers. People who oppose abortion rights want to take us back to the Middle Ages.
People who support foreign intervention are profiteering, warmongering chicken hawks. People who oppose foreign intervention are anti-Americans.
People who think that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples because of the message that sends about the importance of the stability of these relationships for bearing children are homophobes. People who think that marriage should be extended to ss couples in order to bring stability to these relationships are bent on undermining civilization.
To be sure, you can find extreme voices on left and right for all of these positions. The problem is that we have been playing this schtick for so long that we have normalized those voices. Elections long ago ceased to be about what a politican would fight for rather than what he would fight against. Voting became defensive.
This has been going on for a long time, but social media has changed the landscape and eliminated neutral, common spaces for us to come together. How long can two groups of people coexist as one nation when they have virtually nothing in common except language? I have no idea… I think we underestimate our ability to just muddle though. On the other hand, the vitriol from some of my colleagues makes me more pessimistic about our future.
Whatever the case, there is no question that our culture is not at all conducive to traditionalist religious belief. To pass our faith on to our children and grow in our faith ourselves, we will have to build networks of mutual support. This has been true for a very long time in the US. The modernists routed the traditionalists 100 years ago. We’ve been in exile sense. The neo-evangelical tidal wave from roughly WWII to around 2000 made it look like we really could engage with mainstream culture. But we were wrong. Our lot in this nation is exile. We should embrace that and look at ways to strengthen what we do. The culture is getting more corrosive to traditionalist faith, not less. Those that persevere will be doing something like a Benedict Option. Given the vitriol being expressed towards traditionalists, I believe we are going to see that those who do this will face a pretty heavy price. Certain career paths will be closed, many of our co-religionists will be harassed, but most difficult will be the empty promises of the peace that will come from compromise and the enticement of material advancement that comes with it. We have not been preparing ourselves to resist this allure and it will ensnare a lot of Christians.
UPDATE: Amazing comment by reader Axxr:
I’ve posted here on and off, but I’ll say that I am a former professor that taught for years at a major private university on the east coast and has a Ph.D. from a similar institution.
I was a life-long self-described leftist until perhaps decade ago, when I began to feel uncomfortable with the “all things as praxis” positions of fellow faculty, and the ways in which this crept into teaching, research, and community engagement.
I no longer consider myself a leftist, nor do I consider myself a conservative convert. Instead, I consider myself (in keeping with your recent posts, Rod) a citizen in exile in a land in which citizenship has been banned.
I left my post and academics in general several years ago now. This was not about political positions or about persecution that I experienced for them, but rather about a principled discomfort and disillusionment with trends in the academic world in general. I had begun to have experiences in peer review, accreditation review, and faculty collaboration in which it was clear to me that empiricism was dead and what mattered were relative ideological positions and posturing.
I saw the increasingly taken-for-granted “all life as praxis” presumption (read: research ought to be political activism; teaching ought to be political activism; mentorship ought to be political activism; scholarship ought to be political activism; parenthood ought to be political activism; etc.) to be a betrayal of the best traditions both of the Humboldtian university and of the institutions that preceded it in western history.
Now I work in a small company in the broader economy doing something quite divorced from my academic background and previous work. I have no party to vote for and am generally allergic to “activism” in all its forms.
I regret that the “activist” has overtaken the “citizen” as the basic unit of public membership in virtually every sphere, and I think that this will ultimately lead us to civilizational ruin, as societies function only when they are solidary, deliberative, cooperative, and voluntaristic things, and activism runs precisely counter to all of these.
Most importantly, I see along with the collapse of trust in our institutions a collapse of collective identity and narrative memory on every front and at every level. What is a university? What is a corporation? What is a family? What is a church? What is the nature of our civilization?
It’s not even that there are disagreements about these things any longer so much as that on both sides these questions are considered wrongheaded for differing ideological reasons, particularly amongst elites. But if we cannot answer them, then none of these things will remain.
And if we lose these things and replace them with nothing in particular, then we are left with what Deneen writes about. But Deneen didn’t go far enough; it’s not individual and state, as the state is also increasingly discredited and seen to be ideological false consciousness as a “theoretical” matter, particularly in fields that ought to be concerned precisely with society and statecraft. No, it’s individual and disembodied, ascendant, ever-emergent power, undefined, without telos, without geography, without identity, and without any particular purpose.
Life as will to power, bare and barren.
The universities, such as they are (the term is nearly empty these days, meaning everything and nothing at once) are full participants in, and embracers of, this state of affairs. The purpose of existence (and of academics, and of religion, and of politics, etc.) is negation and ascendance for their own sakes. Nihilism as dogma.
My conscience gave me pangs for several years, and then suddenly I couldn’t do it any longer. Some former colleagues have imagined that I was a closeted conservative that secretly seethed. The truth is harder for all but a couple of them to understand—I was a closeted empiricist and mere citizen, rather than an activist in a place that could make neither heads nor tails of either empiricism or citizenship, which any longer increasingly lie beyond the professoriate’s imagination beyond a few enclaves in STEM, not to mention being beyond the imaginations of those in the administrative class.
In other terms, I felt complicit in something terrible and nihilistic, and—seeing no particular way to further participate in good faith without reifying precisely that which troubled me, and living life as a parent as well—I dropped finally dropped out and left the sphere of “elites” behind to tend my own garden. I am buoyed by the appearance of movements like Heterodox Academy, but they are not sufficient to entice me to want to participate once again.
I don’t know if there are others like me, but I suspect that there must be at least a few.