A professor of government, even a professor from Harvard, who comes to Washington to lecture on the "nature of politics" is asking for it. After all, Washingtonians think they invented politics. So when he arrives, dropping names like Aristotle and Plato, suggesting that we might learn more from great philosophical literature than from the front page, C-SPAN or the shout-and-insult cable-TV shows, we have to admire his willingness to shoot from the lip in a town where the practitioners of politics are more accustomed to shooting from the hip.
But when you have something to say, you can expect people to listen. Harvey Mansfield delivered the Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the pursuit of intellectual achievement in the humanities, the other night without a single reference to presidential candidates, congressional debates or the war in Iraq. But it didn't take a high IQ for anyone in the audience to catalog his (or her) favorite heroes and villains simply by applying his criticism and insights to current affairs.
Political science, he says, has been diminished to narrow questions of self-interest instead of linking personal interest with the larger issues of the public good. The republic always suffers when there's a lack of authentic heroes to harness pride and ambition. Politicians inevitably reduce the important issues to spin, not reason. "In a contested situation, the asserted reason typically has to be made with bombast and boast because one cannot prove it," he says. "Certainly one cannot prove it to the satisfaction of one's opponent or enemy. That is why the atmosphere of politics is laden with reasons that convince one side but not the other." Politics, in other words, becomes mostly noise and smoke, with not much wisdom or fire.
"Manliness," as he defines it in his latest book ("Manliness"), drives men (and women) to take a stand based on personal pride coinciding with what's best for the community. This requires toughness to run against cultural and political conformity -- what may be the conventional wisdom. Margaret Thatcher "changed the politics of her country," Harry Truman knew that "the buck stops here," and even the movies can sometimes teach a lesson. Humphrey Bogart as Rick in "Casablanca" fused confidence and cynicism and was cool before someone invented cool. The professor cites the New York cops and firemen whose courage and bravery was instinctive on September 11. "Manliness" is not sex-specific in this definition, and it means having the courage to take risks to win big when there's a good probability of losing big.
Winston Churchill was isolated in his condemnation of Hitler when appeasement was in the air in the days before the outbreak of World War II. Joe Lieberman put principle above party to argue that cut-and-run is always a recipe for disaster. John McCain fights for what he believes even when it invites ridicule. Manliness means not tripping all over yourself to apologize for something said or done not because it was wrong, but because apologizing is convenient.
It's rare for an intellectual like Harvey Mansfield to offer philosophy and reflection as something for Washington pols to think about. The consultants who run campaigns are more likely to quote Dick Morris or James Carville than Plato or Aristotle. Philosophy is about the contemplative life; politics is about getting elected. Plato saw the rulers and the ruled as inhabiting a dark cave and thought they should be listening to philosophers, thus getting their light from the sun. Rodney Dangerfield put it another way: "I don't get no respect."
Prof. Mansfield thinks Alexis de Toqueville's fears of "democratic despotism" have come true as political correctness. "Mild despotism is a kind of conformity that happens almost without your feeling that you're being oppressed by it. It's all about the questions that are not raised or ideas that are put aside. Mild despotism tutors tyranny. It feeds people as children and keeps them or makes them unwilling to raise dissent or ask questions."
He blames his colleagues in academe for lacking intellectual nerve and verve, for framing their arguments in terms of utility and relativism, dismissing as merely quaint the enduring ideas of what is good, noble and just. Relativism is only "lazy dogmatism." It's a lesson Washington could put to profitable use.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist with The Washington Times. Write to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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