“What came first,” in the immortal words of Nick Hornby, “the music or the misery?” During one of the most highly anticipated panels at the biggest academic conference of the year in my field, I’m sitting on the floor with a bunch of other eager dopes who didn’t show up in time to snag a seat. Everyone’s still in high spirits, though. One of the hottest names in “theory” today is running the panel and all the papers sound fascinating, in an obsessive hobbyist sort of way—it all promises to be a thunderous nerdgasm.
Then, halfway through the panel, it hits me: this is awful. The redeeming insights are just so few and far between, stranded between deserts of lame, forced conference humor and straightforward, even banal points dressed up in comically unnecessary jargon. And everyone in the audience keeps nodding. I’m annoyed first, then just overwhelmingly sad. Being overwhelmingly sad is, to be fair, a regular part of being an academic, and oftentimes it can feel like there’s just something about the profession that attracts overwhelmingly sad people. But, for the first time, I start to wonder if it’s not just me. In my head, all I can hear is Hornby by way of John Cusack . . . Did I join academia because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I joined academia?
There’s something serious going on here, and we need to talk about it. No, this will not be another rambling naval-gazing excursis on what “the role of the academic” should be. Instead, I hope to isolate the sick blisters on the academic body politic that are rotting away our ability to even talk about such things in mildly interesting, let alone useful, ways.
To be an academic in today’s America is to be plunged into a perennial identity crisis. And like most academic things, it’s a maddeningly elliptical, recursive, and small-bore sort of crisis. Fueling all our self-indulgent angst is a never-fully-acknowledged social contract, the one that, via countless professional canons and conventions, confirms your choice to be a so-called academic, to assume it not only as a profession, but an identity, and to wear on yourself the trappings that come with that identity without stopping to wonder how necessary they really are and whether they are actually killing your ability to be and do something better. Most of the time this doesn’t even feel like a choice at all, but it is. At other times, how to deal with this choice may seem more or less like a personal matter. But, in the age of Trump, the public implications of this choice, the civic implications, have been exposed more than ever before, and the stakes are as high as they’re going to get.
In 1953, the historian Daniel Boorstin testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Boorstin had been a Communist Party member in the late Thirties, and he proved to be an unusually cooperative witness, providing a full account of his own and others’ activities in the Party. Asked how he was working to combat communism today, he replied that his opposition took two forms: the first was his active involvement in religious organizations, the second his attempt to “discover and explain to students, in my teaching and in my writing, the unique virtues of American democracy.” He wanted to use history to show how Americans had avoided extreme ideologies like communism in the past—and how they might continue to avoid them in the future.
Two years earlier, while on a teaching fellowship in Rome, Boorstin had been struck by a profound difference between European and American politics. Europeans tended to have deep and irreconcilable conflicts over the ends of society, he observed, while Americans had an unspoken agreement about what society ought to look like and differed only on the practical means—how much taxation, how much regulation—by which that shared objective could be attained. The root cause of this distinction, Boorstin wrote in The Genius of American Politics (1953), was that Europeans tended to be susceptible to the “romantic illusion” that society could be remade following the blueprint of abstract political principles. Geography and history had saved Americans from that kind of idolatry, which led straight to tyrannies like “Nazism, fascism and communism.”
A philosopher once assured me, many years ago, that he had converted his cat to veganism. Believing he was joking, I asked how he had achieved this feat. Had he supplied the cat with mouse-flavoured vegan food? Had he presented his cat with other cats, already practising veganism, as feline role models? Or had he argued with the cat and convinced it that eating meat is wrong? My interlocutor wasn’t amused, and I realised that he really believed the cat had opted for a meat-free diet. So I ended our exchange with a simple question: did the cat go out? It did, he told me. That solved the mystery. Plainly, the cat was supplementing its diet by covert hunting. If it ever brought home any of the carcasses – a practice to which ethically undeveloped cats are sadly prone – the virtuous philosopher had managed not to notice them.
It is not hard to imagine how the cat on the receiving end of this experiment in moral education must have viewed its human teacher. Perplexity at the absurdity of his behaviour would soon have been followed by contemptuous indifference. Seldom doing anything unless it serves a definite purpose or gives immediate satisfaction, cats are arch-realists. Faced with human folly, they simply go their own way.
The independence of cats is one of the features most admired by those of us who love them. Given their evolutionary history as solitary hunters, it is easily explained. Seeking their prey alone, cats – with the exception of lions and sometimes cheetahs – have not developed patterns of collective action and hierarchy of the kind found in dogs and other pack animals. “Herding cats” is a metaphor based on fact: cats don’t live in herds. As they are highly territorial and notoriously picky in their eating habits, they make an unlikely candidate for domestication. And yet, more than almost any other species, cats have learned to live on intimate terms with human beings. How has this come about?
“Severe, Jerusalem-generated mental problems.” Such, as characterized by the British Journal of Psychiatry, is the pathological derangement known as Jerusalem Syndrome. The madness is generally attributed to the city’s intoxicating spiritual powers, recognized over the centuries to inspire wild prophecies, orotund pronouncements, and utopian fantasies sometimes accompanied by predictions of imminent apocalypse.
If you happened to visit New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in recent months, you might have detected a particular, very contemporary version of the syndrome lurking in the background of Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, a sumptuous and ecstatically received exhibition that closed on January 8 after a three-month run. Or maybe not, if the contagion has spread as widely as now seems—since most visitors, and for that matter most reviewers and critics, were thoroughly seduced by the ravishingly beautiful items on display. These included illuminated manuscripts in exotic calligraphy like the ancient Hebrew script of the Samaritans; caches of gold and jewelry that until recently had been hidden in jars or lay sunk off the Caesarea coast; gilt pages of Qurans; handwritten letters by the medieval Jewish luminaries Moses Maimonides and Judah Halevi; intricately carved capitals from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; and much more.