Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Crisis on Earth-Wriston: Two Robert Georges & Questions of Identity

"Who am I and why am I here?" (And why the heck did it take so long to write this darn thing!?!?)

Not usually the first thing I think of going to a Manhattan Institute lecture. But then again, how often does Robert George get to hear Robert George speak -- after hearing various people talk about how "rare" and special is "Robert George"?

That's what was happening last week -- on an especially rainy Tuesday night in late November. The Princeton Professor Robert George was speaking on the topic of "civic education" at MI's annual
Wriston Lecture.

And I get to look forward to a whole night of introducing myself as "the other" Robert George all night. Isn’t that special?

To make matters even weirder, one of the first people I run into smiles warmly as she says, "Hi, great to see you. How's Naomi?"

I think, "Naomi?"

Oh, right. "Oh, I'm Robert George, New York Post. You're thinking of
Jason Riley. He writes for The Wall St. Journal. " (Naomi is his wife.)

At this point, most people would be mildly embarassed at making this sort of mistake and quickly change the subject. This brown-haired middle-aged attractive woman was not most people. "You and Jason do look alike; have you heard that before?" Fortunately, I was able to excuse myself as we had to take our seats for dinner.

[Two digressions: 1) For what it's worth, this is at least the third time I've been mistaken for my WSJ counterpart. Interestingly, two of them have been at Manhattan Institute events -- and on both of those occasions, concern for Naomi was the initiating statement.

2) And no, it's not all a black thing: Barely a half-hour into dinner, a lanky gentleman passes by the table. We exchange quick pleasntries. My charming dinner companion -- a self-described "Greenwich housewife" named Karen with adult children between 35 and 42 -- says, "That
Steve Moore is brilliant."

I said, "Oh no, that's the guest of honor (for tonight's purposes, the "real"?) -- Robert George. ]

What's in a name? Sometimes nothing sometimes everything. There's very little difference, fundamentally speaking, between calling a container of sweetened carbonated liquid "soda" (as many of us growing up in the Northeast did) or "pop" (as various Midwesterners or Southerners did).

On the other hand, at certain points in time, groups of people often determine that the burdens of history remain so heavy that changing the name of the group can signify a fundamental difference in how that group is viewed within society.

Thus, in 20th Century America, "Negro" gave way to "colored" which gave way to "Afro-American" which gave way to "black" which now shares space with "African American" (which, yes, dwells within a newly created generic pocket universe of "people of color").

It's easy to be dismissive over the PC obsessiveness of it all. But then again, how many of us ever actually find ourselves in a position where we examine ourselves to such an existential level that we conclude that we have to change our names to reflect a specific change of status or identity?

Well, for 50 percent of Americans -- women -- that point comes at that point of marriage, where name and identity. If a bride chooses the traditional route, she does not merely surrender social freedom for the uniqueness of the marital bond – as does the groom – but she also surrenders her name, how she has defined herself, seen herself, been defined by society and seen by society. It’s not just a transition from “title” – Miss to Mrs. In the most traditional societies, it symbolizes a girl leaving her father’s protection for the security of her husband and the home they create -- a big enough deal to signify it with a changing of the name.

But, on this rainy day in November, journalist
Robert George was to meet Professor Robert George.

In addition to his name, I've always liked Prof. George -- even though I don't always agree with him. He's more of a straightforward social conservative, whereas my own ideological leanings tend to fall in the libertarian camp (though we did show up on National Review Online the same day once -- he in an
interview and me in an article on the same issue). He is strongly supportive of an amendment to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman. I am...skeptical of most amendments -- but particularly those seeking to organize intimate human social relationships (in contrast, for example, to an amendment outlawing slavery).

But, I like the professor for precisely the topic he chose at the Wriston Lecture. It was about education -- but not simply policy/ideological issues along the lines of "school choice." Instead, George -- a conservative tenured professor at an Ivy League institution -- was telling fellow conservatives, "Don't give up on the universities...they have the students [who need to be taught]. [Good as they are], Heritage, Hudson, A.E.I. can't do it."

It sounds like an odd exhortation, but it is appropriate. Conservatives often sound too whiny when it comes to academia. On the one hand, they complain about liberal bias in the academy. Yet, when asked about where the conservatives are, they decry how conservatives are actually treated among fellow academics. In short, they sound like traditional victims of discrimination complaining about glass ceilings. Too many of them run to the protected ivory towers that are even more closed off than the ones in which their primarily liberal brethren reside: the think-tank "community."

Professor Robbie George, on the other hand, chooses to make his stand in the true academic world. He is better for it -- and the strength of his arguments are better because he encounters "real people" in a regular way far more frequently than Senior Fellow X in Institute Y. Contrary to the image that many have of today's college student, George finds that they "come wanting to know American History better" and are "bright and willing to learn."

However, he feels that the broader education system has failed students by not ingraining a full understanding of the principles and debates at the heart of the American founding. "Students have no knowledge of the philosophy of American constitutional government...It is the rare student that enters the university who understands that the true bulwark of freedom is limited government."

In short, students enter academies of higher education missing a key perception of America's full identity -- a sense of the debates that helped shape the nation's foundation. He observes that few know that Madison and Hamilton actually opposed the creation of the Bill of Rights -- out of a fear that BoR would undermine the principle of limited government.

A critic might say that Professor George is driven partly by the current ideological controversies surrounding the issue of judges and the courts. "'Who checks the courts?' is a question that students can't answer," he says. However, he doesn't belabor the point. In fact, his overall message is non-partisan. The fact is that, arguably, the goals of conservatives and liberals could well do with a regular bathing in the waters of original debate.

The professor calls for a K-12 "commitment to promote the principles of the American Founding" and the general "principle of order liberty."

"Insist upon it," he exhorts. Because, "We do students a great service inviting them into a discussion of the nation's Founding."

And keeping America' students informed has a ripple effect: "People of the world look to America as the gold standard of freedom and ordered liberty."

He quotes Madison's statement that "Only well-educated people can be a free people." He fears that a failure to follow this basic education requirement would have dire consequences: 1) Because basic freedoms are "hard-won and easily lost"; and, 2) the purpose of a "polis" (in the original Greek sense) is not merely to provide security, but to provide the conditions for citizens to lead good and decent lives.

The professor concludes, "Our posture cannot be one of complacency. Renewal and reform must be our constant urgent priority."

As the evening ends, Robert A. George, the journalist, asks Robert P. George, the academic: "You say we do students a 'great service' by introducing them into the conversation. Given that the culture from which they come speaks daily in terms of race, class, gender, how do you describe the nature of that conversation? Is it that the highest of man's thought happened to be created by imperfect men -- white, male, property owners -- or..."

Professor George is at his most animated in response: "The [students] are sick of hearing about race and class. They've heard it all... Construct the recreating the circumstances...Tell them the story of the individuals who had lost freedom of worship as they peaceably assemble...and then they looked at a huge land mass with different religions, accents, and figure out how it's going to run. Once you've done that -- not even getting into the white male stuff -- you've got the students engaged. They want this conversation."

George is right -- and that passion in his answer demonstrates how profoundly he believes it.

But what he was describing was something ideologues of any stripe desperately need to learn -- the art of translation.

The educating process can be described in various ways -- teaching, training, persuading, convincing -- depending on whether the focus is student, worker, voter or "other"

But to be succesful, the process depends on the teacher first being able to deconstruct and rebuild -- marry accumulated knowledge -- "the conversation"-- to the life experience of the student.

Conservatives too often don't see this translation step -- or are wary of it. Again, it has become natural to George because he sees a value in teaching -- not just in writing, giving speeches and expounding on cable news shows. Thus, it seems to this Robert George that the other Robert George actually had two messages forhis audience last week: It is vital for the continued health of the United States of America that our young people be schooled in principles and debates of the nation's birth. But, conservatives can't just sit on their butts and hope that this happens.

Professor Robbie George was talking about the origins of the American experiment -- and the nation's continued existence in its current identity. But, in doing so, he may have forced conservatives to consider their own. They will have to ask that important question, "Who am I and why am I here?" Engaging themselves, they may realize the importance of engaging the future leaders of the world. Conservatives -- or their younger peers -- will eventually have to surrender the safe conveniences of the think tank world; they must go back to the universities to make this renewal possible.

If the conservatives have the courage of their convictions, that's a battlefield that must not be abandon.

Amazing the things that come to mind once one is forced to think about what's in a name.

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