David Bromwich has a long, readable, and quite positive review of Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict what students Learn in the current issue of The New Republic. It’s the second or third review I’ve read and I have the book in my “to read” pile. The gist of the book is that rightwing and leftwing absolutists are destroying American education by boiling all of the flavor and marrow out of our textbooks. The most pernicious aspect of the new educational regime is that children should never be exposed to an idea or even a fact that is shocking or unpleasant. Maybe this sounds nice to some, but minds expand by building muscle and muscle is built only when we encounter resistance. So children cannot read stories of life by the sea because it might unacceptably upset urban or Midwestern kids who do not live by the sea. A tale about a rotting stump in the forest attracting all sorts of wildlife was canned–unanimously–by one of the censor committees because “youngsters who have grown up in a housing project may be distracted by similarities to their own living conditions. An emotional response may be triggered.” A story about a heroic young blind man climb Mt. McKinley is cut from the reading list because it suggests that “normal” blind men (er, unsighted persons?) are neither heroic nor are they hikers, and so on.
Anyway, it’s a good and interesting piece–as most TNR book reviews are–but it slides completely off the rails at the end. Bromwich, for reasons that are a bit unclear to me, decides to pick the oddest thing to lament at the close of his essay. The “disaster” Bromwich identifies as the perhaps the worst result of the niceness jihad is that it has made leftwingers too nice. He complains that Democratic politicians aren’t abrasive enough in the face of rightwing nastiness. This is an odd closer for a number of reasons. First, in an otherwise closely reasoned piece, Bromwich simply asserts that middle-aged politicians–he cites Daschle, Pelosi, and Dukakis by name–are too bland because of K-12 textbooks. Weren’t conservatives of the same cohort educated under the same circumstances? If so, why are they not nice? Maybe the causal relationship Bromwich posits needs a bit more fleshing out.
More annoying: I don’t know what Bromwich is talking about. Yeah, okay Tom Daschle does say he’s “saddened and disappointed” a lot. But that’s Tom Daschle (who has, nevertheless, said some pointedly nasty things about President Bush and Republicans in general). Nancy Pelosi has never struck me as a particularly nice politician. And Michael Dukakis? Yeah, okay, but stretching back fifteen years to find a suitably bland politician isn’t all that persuasive. Besides, Dukakis came across as more of an arrogant, condescending jerk than an unnaturally nice guy.
Meanwhile, the suggestion that liberal politicians are too nice and too sheepish about saying abrasive things is simply not true. A few random examples: While in office, Bill Clinton said that Republicans would rather risk nuclear war than give Clinton a political victory. When President Clinton campaigned in Texas during the 2000 election, he declared the Texas Republican Party’s platform, “was so bad that you could get rid of every Fascist tract in your library if you just had a copy.” “When I compare this to what happened in Germany,” New York Rep. Charles Rangel observed during the debates over the Contract with America, “I hope that you will see the similarities to what is happening to us . . . . Hitler wasn’t even talking about doing these things.” And of course there’s Al Gore who was arguably the nastiest campaigner since at least Richard Nixon and/or George Wallace. He assigned evil motives–and stupidity–to all of his opponents on Global Warming, affirmative action, and economic policy. Gore said people who disagree with him about Global Warming are akin to people who ignored the Holocaust. Al Gore, I believe, said that conservatives have an extra chromosome. More recently, he accused the current president of warmongering and enriching his friends at the expense of the common man. And let’s not even get into what his handlers and sock puppets have said.
The idea that liberals get “aw shucks” tongue-tied is just the latest convenient myth to cover up for the ongoing failure of liberalism as a political philosophy. It’s a shame that Bromwich who spends a great deal of time denouncing propaganda decided to use his essay to spread some of his own.