Academic Jarheads?
By Jim Sleeper
History News Network

Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.

One of the dubious contributions of the movie "Jarhead" to American popular culture involved showing that some Marines in Iraq call their corps "The Suck." That's not quite the dismissal of all moral meaning you hear when a friend says of some bad situation that "It sucks." The Suck is more and less than that. It gives institutional concreteness - in this case, the U.S. Marine Corps -- to the macho admonition to "Suck it up," to prove you can take a bellyful of pain and even death and inflict the same on others. Supposedly it's all in the service of something worthwhile, but when you're in The Suck any higher justification has receded pretty much beyond visibility or moral imagination. Virtue seems to lie in sacrifice itself, not in any nobler end.

The most tempting civilian analogy is to organized crime: A mafia "stand-up guy" is admired for being tough enough to endure and inflict evil for his "family;" all that count are his loyalty and strength -- in the service of what, exactly, is for the don, not the soldier, to decide. But while the military operates abroad under Hobbesian conditions of lawlessness, force, and fraud, a mafia or other criminal gang operates inside of, yet in defiance of, a constitutional and civic-republican code of rational legal standards and conduct. Alexander Hamilton wrote that history had destined Americans, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined for their political constitutions on accident and force." He wasn't sure which it would be.

No wonder veterans returning to a republic from The Suck don't usually talk much about it. The ultimate justification for whatever they did abroad is that it protects our "destiny," obligation and plain good luck to have Hamilton's experiment to carry on here at home. We don't want to start thinking of conditions here as Hobbesian, tribal, or warlike. We don’t want calculations based on force and fraud to overtake our politics, commerce, and culture, eclipsing the freedom that comes only with reflection, choice, and mutual trust. We don't want civil society to morph gradually into that of "The Sopranos" and then "Jarhead," so that, say, the Republican Party of John McCain becomes that of Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney. We don't want our political movements to become places where activists learn mainly to "suck it up."

And the last thing we want is for college classrooms to become decorous boot camps for variations of The Suck in the wrong kind of business corporation or high-government agency. Conservative activists like David Horowitz have been lobbying state legislators who hold the purse strings of dozens of universities to pass a so-called "Academic Bill of Rights" (ABOR) to counter political bias in teaching. The examples of bias they cite always involve teachers who overreach in their condemnations of the powerful, but never those who enforce conformity to what's dominant without even acknowledging it. (Horowitz protests that his ABOR "would not give government the power over curriculum, course content and/or faculty personnel decisions...." Yet he has been traveling the counry lobbying more than a dozen state governments to pass a document that, he now tells us, isn't a bill of rights at all, or even a statute, but merely a platitudinous affirmation of good pedagogy and good scholarship. The country's not-so-distant political history shows that not all government coercion has been legal, however, or even explicit.)

Isn't the encroachment of a coerced, if unacknowledged, conformity palpable now, not just on campuses but in so many realms of daily life? The most serious problem isn't that the War in Iraq's hypocrisies, corruption, and incompetence have skewed liberal education; it's that many small "r" -republican, commercial, educational, and religious leaders have betrayed Hamilton's experiment by inducing their followers, employees, and students to scramble in ways that spread mistrust and betrayal -- and, sometimes, in reaction to that, yearnings for a warrior's kind of honor and order.

The Bush administration has done that many times over, but so have the sad corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, the implosion of Enron and too many other companies, the swaggering arrogance of so much corporate investment, mass marketing, and employment policy; and the transformation of hard-pressed universities into media-ranked training grounds for corporate ladder-climbers. It all amounts to a "riot from the top" by a multi-problem, pathological overclass against civic-republican crucibles and habits of the heart.

Membership in that overclass is alluring, even dazzling, especially when force and fraud are choreographed subtly enough to look like sophistication. Powerful investment combines and perverse leadership can orchestrate people's fears and impulses, accustoming them to strategize in semi-Hobbesian terms, which can include "sucking up" through deft and assiduous networking. Some people I know have become "stand-up guys" since 9/11, not even flinching at Abu Ghraib, systemic torture, domestic surveillance, economic exploitation, or cultural degradation, telling themselves that "A man's gotta do what he's gotta do." Kids growing up on this see-saw between statist intimidation and market hedonism may seek relief in oaths and orders, however crude. They give up learning the arts and graces of deliberative democracy.

What can colleges do about it? Liberal education in a republic depends on the formal curriculum and the extra-curriculum, both of which should nourish a strong moral imagination and the kind of courage that "disdains fame, and wins it," as a motto atop a bas-relief of a Periclean citizen-warrior at Yale puts it. If college debating contests degenerated into empty jousting and sophistry, if athletic-team initiations and fraternity hazing started to mimick The Suck, if student writers and activists began to appeal to others' worst instincts, if classrooms became mainly boot camps for domestic swat teams in business and government, we'd become, as Seneca said of his fellow ancient Romans, "too ill to bear our sicknesses or their cures.

Whether a student hopes to join the State Department, a major corporation, a news organization, or a local school board, he or she ought to be learning not only the ropes of self-advancement and narrow team loyalty but also the principles and arts involved facing down and outmaneuvering a Tom DeLay, a Ken Lay, a Bill O'Reilly, or a local demagogue, including those who seem less terrible only because they "suck up" instead of "sucking it up."

A liberal education teaches that not all loyalty and toughness are the same. In the not-so-long run, it's better for society and therefore for the individual if truth emerges neither from radical pronouncements of the general will or from following orders but from the trust-nourishing processes of deliberative democracy. "Anyone who is willing to listen deserves to be listened to, Yale's President Kingman Brewster, Jr. wrote in a 1967-68 annual report; "If he is unwilling to open his mind to persuasion, then he forfeits his claim on the audience of others."

He knew that it takes a daring artistry to keep that kind of trust alive: A liberal democracy and free economy depend on virtues and beliefs which armies can't defend and neither the market nor the liberal state can nourish by themselves. Somehow, the strengths and dispositions for Hamilton's experiment in self-government have to be cultivated.

"To a remarkable extent, this place has detected and rejected the very few who have worn the colors of high purpose falsely," Brewster told my entering Yale class on September 13, 1965; "This is done not by administrative edict but by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility that lies deep in our origins and traditions." (When he said that, George W. Bush was a sophomore, John Kerry a senior, Joe Lieberman a recent graduate, and Howard Dean a year from entering. And Dick Cheney had flunked out of Yale four years earlier.)

Sometimes, the ethic of loyalty and responsibility Brewster had in mind do break down. Last October I was meeting with a small group of students in a room we'd reserved just off a large dining hall. A couple of other students burst in with their trays. "Sorry," I said, "this room's reserved tonight." "That's a pretty slick move, if you really didn't reserve it," said one of the intruders as he turned and sailed out. He wasn't loyal to any ethic of trust, only to clever calculation based on expectations of fraud or force. If he thinks society a hustle, from top to botom, he'll make his prophecy self-fulfilling unless enough other students "detect and reject" him.

The Marine motto -- Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful -- is noble in battle, and something like it can matter a lot at times in domestic struggles. On a recent visit to West Point, I met cadets and officers whose tested loyalty doesn't compromise their commitment to the freedom that comes only with self-government; if anything, heightens their appreciation for it. But not everyone should be like them; there are compelling civic-republican reasons why the military must follow civilian leadership. Mottos like "For God, For Country, and for Yale" may sound similar to the Marine one, but like liberal education itself, they're more multi-layered, pluralistic, their understanding of obedience limited. During the Vietnam War many on campuses did what Marines can't: They struggled to reconcile God and country but found them opposed and stood up for the "sacred" civic republic they believed the government was betraying.

Today's war is more complicated, but liberal education's challenge remains what Brewster said it is: To open doors to leadership not just by fine-tuning meritocratic standards for civic boot camps but by deepening commitments to a politics of persuasion, to questioning authority responsibly, not cheaply. Only if colleges keep doing that can they keep the future citizen-leaders of Hamilton's experiment from entering a decorously slippery slope toward The Suck.

This article is adapted from The Politic, a Yale undergraduate quarterly.