Life in the Old Endowment Yet


December 16, 1992|By GARRY WILLS

Already the election of Bill Clinton is clearing the national air -- Lynne Cheney has resigned. As the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ms. Cheney sponsored anti-intellectualism in the name of intellectual standards and political repression in the name of depoliticizing education.

A measure of the Cheney mind was given in a recent issue of the endowment's magazine, Humanities, where Ms. Cheney interviewed this year's Jefferson Lecturer, the eminent classicist Bernard Knox. When Mr. Knox pointed out what all classical scholars know by now, that the Sophists forged the intellectual tools for rational analysis within our tradition, Ms. Cheney expressed shock. She still lives at the simplistic level of history that treats Sophists -- a term covering many very different thinkers of fifth-century Athens -- as the villains of history.

Plato tried to create that impression, in order to disassociate Socrates from the Sophists. Right-wing ideologues have absorbed these simplisms from people such as Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, and Ms. Cheney defended their sweeping judgments with all the literalism of a fundamentalist defending the Bible.

Mr. Knox gently tried to explain the situation to her, but she kept coming back with accusations against the Sophists. They were relativists! They did not believe in absolute values! How can he defend such people?

Instead of learning from a man who knew what he was talking about, she tried to instruct him. That is a picture of the tolerance she brought to any views that did not fit her ideological straitjacket.

While in charge of the endowment, Ms. Cheney tried to appoint to her board an English instructor named Carol Iannone. There were no scholarly credentials for this woman except her view put forth in right-wing journals that literature voicing the concerns of women and minorities is favored too much by current critics.

Ms. Iannone was upset that no white male won any of the National Book Awards last year. Though she is one of the group that pretends to oppose quotas, in fact she was upholding a quota -- 100 percent -- for white males.

Yet the new arrivals on the cultural scene are often those with the most interesting reports to bring from sensitive battlefields. It is a priori likely that women's literature and minority literature will be charged with special meaning, inspiring breakthrough works.

We saw that happen when literature of the west, immigrant literature, vernacular prose and poetry challenged the white male monopoly of the arts once exercised by Boston, New York and Hartford.

It is fitting that, in the week of Ms. Cheney's resignation, Ms. Iannone should be peddling her views in another right-wing journal -- this time National Review. There she argues the superiority of Malcolm X to Dr. King because Malcolm X believed in the free market. He wanted blacks to go out and earn their own living. It would break Malcolm's heart, Iannone tells us through her crocodile tears, to see affirmative action programs.

Because Malcolm told his followers to expect no cooperation or good will from whites, he would cry to see any sign of such good will? Many people are co-opting Malcolm these days, for many purposes. But the biggest ideological hijacking comes from the people who were promoted as depoliticizers of our thought.

Breathe a sigh of relief. The National Endowment is rescued from the know-nothings.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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