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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Obama and Kagan: the sheltered world of academia

Michael Barone writes of the similarities in the backgrounds of Barack Obama and Elena Kagan.
Both Obama and Kagan also earned the reputation of being respectful of the views even of conservatives. Candidate Obama had the gift of fairly stating others' positions in ways that moved them to think he actually agreed with them. As dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan hired conservative scholars and gave welcoming speeches to the conservative Federalist Society.

Reporters have unearthed some of their writings in college that sound sophomorically left wing, but, hey, they were sophomores then, and you won't find many such utterances later in their careers. Obama's autobiographies carefully avoid statements that might have proved politically toxic later.

This stealth strategy has certainly paid off: Obama is president and Kagan is solicitor general and looks like a cinch to be confirmed for the Supreme Court.
Of course, there are times when their real views shine through. And Barone sees how their backgrounds coming from the sheltered world of elite universities has colored those attitudes.
But behind their careful avoidance of incendiary issue positions, one can find evidence that both the appointer and the appointee share the standpoint of the professor. They bring to public service attitudes that are commonplace in the faculty lounge but not nearly so common in the rest of America.

Consider Obama's constant calls for civility -- starting with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech -- and his harsh characterizations of those who oppose him on issues. The candidate who talked of his eagerness to listen to others, "especially when we disagree," is the president who in a commencement speech laments that through blogs, cable TV and talk radio, "even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I've had some experience in that regard." Obama fans have taken to calling disagreement "sedition."

To critics this sounds like a contradiction: the man urging civility engaging in incivility himself. But to the professorial mind the contradiction may be invisible. University campuses, far from being open-minded forums of opinion, are the most closed-minded parts of our society, with speech codes and something resembling re-education classes for those who violate them.

University administrators seem to believe they have a moral obligation to suppress speech that displeases or offends them. Obama the self-proclaimed paragon of civility seems, like most professors, to regard Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as outside the bounds of legitimacy.
And consider Elena Kagan's opposition to military recruiting on campus.
The one issue on which Kagan has voiced strong opinions is the ban on open gays in the military -- a stand pretty much universally held on campuses, but on which the nation beyond is divided. In barring military recruiters from Harvard Law School, she condemned "the military's discriminatory recruitment policy," "the military's discriminatory employment policy" and "the military's policy."

But it is not the military's policy. It's the law of the land, mandated by a bill passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by Bill Clinton, in whose White House Kagan was nonetheless willing to serve.

As dean at Harvard Law, Kagan signed a brief that sought to overturn the law denying federal funds to universities that barred military recruiters. Yet that brief, written by one of the ablest Supreme Court advocates, Walter Dellinger, was nonetheless rejected by the justices by a vote of 8-0.

In nominating Kagan, Obama said he wanted a justice who understood "the real world." But it seems that he nominated someone who, on one important occasion, utterly misjudged the real world beyond the campus.

Of course one might say the same of Obama himself, who has pushed big government policies that seem like no-brainers to most professors but have aroused passionate and principled opposition from the public at large. We are seeing what government by the faculty lounge looks like.
William F. Buckley's statement that he'd rather "entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University" is apropos today.


Expat(ish) said...

To be fair, I'm not sure Obama ever grasped that congress makes laws and presidents sign them or not.

So why should Kagan?


David said...

The idea that people should get their guidance on how to live (in both moral and practical terms) from *college professors*...would have struck all earlier generations as insane.