I’m completely in agreement with Claire Potter, writing at her blog Tenured Radical, that mocking Governor Rick Perry for his college grades and using them to explain Perry’s policies on education is a bad idea on several levels. As Potter points out, for one, it personalizes and psychologizes an argument that is more powerful if it’s about politics and not just Perry’s. Perry is not engaged in an obsessive, solitary attack on public education, after all. If you’re a professor, attacking him on this point also breaches professionalism. As Potter points out, faculty should know that a mixed transcript can mean many things, and should have enough decorum to refrain from mocking anyone in public over their grades unless that person is making untrue claims about their earlier work. Weak grades for an 18-22 year old can mean any number of things, and tell you very little about the capabilities and character of a public figure twenty or thirty years later.
The deeper issue is something I keep coming back to as this blog. Precisely because I so deeply oppose both what the leaders and rank-and-file of the Tea Party and their allies are trying to accomplish I think it’s absolutely crucial to spend time trying to understand their motivations. That means inquiry rather than dashing off some bargain-basement invective about racism or standard-issue rhetoric about how they’re being manipulated by the steering committee of global capitalism.
I have two areas that I personally focus on in that inquiry. In this post, I’ll focus on the Tea Party as culture warriors retaliating for a long series of perceived intrusions and trespasses against them. The thing is that kneejerk mockery of Perry as an ignoramus based on his college grades shows that this perception is based on some kind of reality.
I’ll refrain from once again going through my “Gramscian repurposing of institutions once legalistic reform hit the wall in the early 1970s was a tactical mistake” argument in full. In short, the last forty years have provided deep and shallow reinforcements of the proposition that educated Americans who have some ability to prosper in the service economy that they played some role in bringing about have a lot of contempt for anyone left in their wake.
I know there are completely legitimate policy questions as well as moral ones trailing in the wake of issues like gun rights or public forms of religious practice. It’s troubling, still, viewed from a historical distance, how quick a lot of people were to rush in and entangle those policy questions with cultural ones. Honestly, as soon as gun rights questions come up, if I’m in a crowd where everyone is the “right kind of person”, it’s not long before the issue isn’t the right to own a gun but pick-up trucks with gun racks and nude female silhouettes on the mud flaps. And I grant equally that there’s a legitimate politics where that truck is an issue, too, but the mixing of the two has been fairly incendiary.
The consequence is a situation where when Palin, Bachman, Huckabee or Perry says something laughably wrong about either the past or the present there is nothing that we the eggheads can say that doesn’t get written into that record, one more bad grade in a class that we do not control and that the students refuse to accept as valid. If you’re a teacher you know it’s a hopeless situation from the moment that dynamic takes hold. In this case, in no small measure because the moment you set yourself up as the teacher to your peers on all things, rather than the small and narrow range of things you really know better than they, you’ve lost yourself as much as anyone you’d help to teach.
I don’t know better than anyone how to minister to all children or how to deal with all criminals or how to save all the dying or fix all the economies or have all the right governmental processes or have soldiers kill only those who ought to be killed. The olive branch to offer anyone who wants to be my sibling and citizen and peer is not, “You’re always wrong and stupid and you get a C”. It’s also not, “The whole of the law is do as you will: tear down my country and I’ll still always offer to negotiate with you and compromise with you”. Drawing a line in the sand isn’t about what we know: it’s about what’s right and wrong.