Sunday, May 22, 2011

Letter to Jim: Helprin’s Hillsdale Commencement Address

Dear Jim:

It’s so nice to hear from you after so many years. I got the url containing this year’s commencement address given by Mark Helprin at Hillsdale College, which you recommended that I listen to for “some of the best perceptions of our times.”

Naturally, given your recommendation, I listened to (and watched) the entire address. However, my assessment of it is rather different than yours. In fact, I was a bit appalled at both President Arnn’s introductory remarks as well as Helprin's actual address. Both were colored by a conservative bias that I would have imagined to be off-limits in the context of a commencement address at a liberal arts institution. After all, in my experience, most liberal arts colleges boast a broad cross-section of students whose politics are very likely balanced among conservative, liberal, and independent.

But, then, until today, I had not been aware of the history nor the nature of Hillsdale College. So I looked it up and discovered that the National Review had called it a “citadel of American conservatism.” How peculiar, I thought, for a college that, at its founding in 1844, was the first American college to prohibit discrimination based on race, religion or sex. I’m not sure how Hillsdale evolved from its early and most laudable progressive charter into a bastion of political conservatism, but I assume that its last two presidents--George Roche III and Larry Arnn--played some role in this movement.

I imagine that you sent me this url because you had attended the ceremony, perhaps to celebrate the graduation of a grandchild. If so, congratulations are definitely in order.

Mark Helprin’s topic, “Churchill and the Presidency,” was clearly an acknowledgement of President Arnn, who has an academic interest in Churchill and helped establish the annual Churchill dinners in Washington, D.C. I understand and applaud Helprin’s desire to introduce, and maybe even inculcate in these students, the leadership qualities of a man like Winston Churchill. However, his “exercise in the imagination [that considers] what it would be like to be blessed with someone of Churchill’s quality” in our own times leads the students down a path of indoctrination rather than stimulation. 

Once he presented Churchill as a paradigm of political virtue at its highest, Helprin wastes little time in implying that certain contemporary leaders such as Jimmy Carter, Barney Frank and Joe Biden are unworthy of their positions, because, we are to infer, they lack the necessary gravitas of a Churchill. This certainly took me aback--again, at this point I thought that I was listening to a graduation address at a more “normal” liberal arts college. I found his remarks gratuitous and mean-spirited. I also consider them wrong and conveniently myopic, especially when Helprin suggests that (possibly) only Ronald Reagan, among contemporary American presidents, exhibits those standards appropriate for a leader. Reagan was certainly as flawed as Carter, Frank, Biden, or even Churchill, dare I say.

Helprin alludes to "ill-formed, adolescent presidents of recent decades" and asks, “In a nation of more than 300 million, where are the adults?” Having already named several (democratic) candidates, he felt no need here to be specific; he knew his listeners would make the right connections. But neither Carter, Frank, nor Biden can be called childish--well, maybe except for a few of Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks. Had he named George W. Bush, certainly our most childish president ever, he may have placed himself on stronger grounds; but Helprin was intent upon defending American conservatism by simply castigating America's liberal wing.

Were this not unseemly enough, Helprin really steps off a cliff when he quotes Michelle Obama as she tells an audience what Barack Obama will ask of Americans. Given his reaction to this, one would think that no American president had ever exonerated his citizens to some higher level of awareness and behavior. Helprin uses Michelle’s speech to denigrate Obama, as if her hypotheticals of what Obama would do somehow actually meant that Obama was being "authoritarian" and was "insulting his countrymen." How duplicitous! He takes one person's statement, ignores its context, and then interprets that statement as if it represented what Barack Obama actually said and did. This is devious writing and bad scholarship. 

What was it that Michele said her husband would do, and what was its context? The context was a campaign speech that Michelle gave at UCLA on February 18, 2008. It was upbeat, inspiring , and had nothing anti-American, as Helprin would imply near the conclusion of his talk. Here is the relevant passage to which I have added two earlier sentences in order to clarify her topic:

“Change is hard; change will always be hard, and it doesn’t happen from the top down....We get change because folks from the grass roots up decide they are sick and tired of other people telling them how their lives will be. [We get change] when they decide to roll up their sleeves and work. And Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism, that you put down your divisions, that you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zone, that you push yourselves to be better, and that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed...” 

Even were these words to have come from Barack’s mouth and not Michelle’s, what, I ask, is so wrong or threatening about them? To exonerate a citizenry to roll up its sleeves and work, to shed its cynicism, forget its divisions, push itself to be better, be involved, be informed: are these not what we would want all leaders to ask of us? Would this not have been much more appropriate than when George W. Bush, after 9/11, asked us for no sacrifices, merely saying “enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed?” I played lacrosse at Dartmouth; you rowed crew there--don't Michelle's words embody exactly what you and I would want and expect our coaches to ask of us?

Far from something totally alien to Winston Churchill, as Helprin would have us believe, such exoneration is precisely the sort of thing that Churchill would embrace in an attempt to rally the people of England and the free world. Barack Obama has shown himself to be among our most adult, mature, and thoughtful presidents ever. He certainly doesn’t deserve the tawdry and unfairly biased treatment given by Helprin.

I am certain that some Hillsdale students, listening to this address with an open mind, or a few others with liberal leanings, must have felt somewhat disappointed with their graduation speaker. Moreover, I hope that you will be able to look beyond our differences--I the liberal, you the conservative--and accept my comments in the spirit of friendly discourse, as well as of certain shared experiences, which is my intention in writing this.

Yours truly, Tyko

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