Victor Davis Hanson is a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, a classics scholar, and conservative commentator. He’s won national awards for his work as a teacher of Greek and Latin and his opinion journalism. You’d expect that his work would be pretty unassailable, that he’d get his facts straight, that his arguments would hold together a little better than tissue paper when someone whose credentials weren’t nearly as prestigious started poking at them.
One of his recent pieces—on the right-wing talking point of politically active Hollywood celebrities of the left—not only displays the intellectual flabbiness pervading the ideologically-driven work of many conservatives, but also exposes the contempt Hanson and others have for democracy and the average American.
Being a classical scholar, Hanson starts out with an allusion to the Greeks, the people we get the word democracy from:
Nearly 24 centuries ago, Plato warned not to confuse innate artistic skill with either education or intelligence.
The philosopher worried that the emotional bond we can forge with good actors might also allow these manipulative mimics too much influence in matters in which they were often ignorant.
So he would cringe that the high-school graduate Sean Penn is now capitalizing on his worldly fame from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to pose as an informed commentator on the Iranian elections.
There’s little doubt that Plato would get his chiton in a wad at the thought of actors involving themselves in politics (another word we get from the Greeks), but that would hardly be surprising given that in the Athens city-state’s direct democracy government of Plato’s time, women and slaves couldn’t vote. Estimates are that fewer than 1 in 5 residents of the city could participate in decision-making.
Plato wasn’t keen on democracy. In The Republic, he ranked it #4 out of 5 in his list of “Ideal Forms of Government,” just above tyranny. In his view, while democracy promised equality, all it delivered was mob rule. What did he rank higher? Well, #3 was oligarchy, where the few rich and powerful members of the state rule. Timocracy, where rule by the military and an adherence to a code of honor trumps informed decision-making was #2. And Plato’s #1 ideal form of government? Aristocracy. Not necessarily what we’ve come to think of as aristocracy—with the in-breeding and stuff—but one made up of people whose minds, wills, and desires are in perfect balance (Plato was big on perfection and ideals). I’ve got to say, that sounds good to me, too. Order one up for the whole world!
Now, it’s been almost 20 years since I read what portions of Plato’s works I did read. But I remembered this stuff (and double-checked it). If you’ve ever had to read Plato for a humanities course, this is the part they make you read. It’s inconceivable that Hanson forgot about it. But he apparently feels justified in picking Plato’s comments on performers out of the general context to make his point. Plato also said that, while it was perfectly natural for men of all ages to exercise naked in the gymnasia that it would be ridiculous to let women in because old women naked would give him the willies. While The Republic does argue for the an ideal system that includes women in decision-making, it also advocates limits on wealth and the forcible removal of children so that they can be communally housed and educated.
Then there’s Robert Redford, who once played Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” and apparently still believes that role made him an experienced Washington Post-like muckraker from the Watergate Era. These days Redford lectures reporters to go after George W. Bush, undeterred by the fact that the real journalist Dan Rather ended his career by just such an obsessed effort.
Hanson, apparently, can read Redford’s mind! He somehow knows that Redford thinks he’s a “muckraker.” I have to say, that’s a pretty derogatory word considering Woodward and Bernstein did expose one of the most corrupt presidents of the modern era, who was involved in covering up an attempt to subvert the Constitution. If Redford was actually deluded and thought he was a muckraking reporter, though, he wouldn’t be encouraging others to investigate the Bush administration, he’d be doing it himself.
And you have to be glad Hanson’s never been in charge of anything more important than bullying electrons on his computer, because if his strategy (drawn from the Rather incident) is to give up when an adversary wins an early victory, the Naval Academy midshipmen who attended Hanson’s lectures while he was a visiting chair of military history at Annapolis (more Greek reference, that) may need a refresher on how to actually win a battle.
The United States took out the Taliban in seven weeks, Saddam in three. Despite a difficult insurrection, there is a democratic government in Iraq. Yet the action-hero George Clooney pontificated, “We can’t beat anyone anymore.”
It’s possible that Hanson hasn’t been reading the papers the past couple of years—except for the celebrity news so that he has some info about what the stars are saying about politics—but the Taliban is still around. They were driven out of Kabul, certainly, but there’s been an upsurge in fighting in northwest Afghanistan, nearly three years after the invasion. The Soviets took Kabul, too, but it would be stretching the truth—a lot—to say that they won their war in Afghanistan. Iraqi President Iyad Allawi said last week that his country is facing civil war. The US is the major military force within his country. Saddam’s government may have fallen in three weeks, but if our forces haven’t been able to keep Iraq from the brink of civil war after over two years, that supports Clooney’s argument of fact more than Hanson’s eyes-covered, fingers-in-ears approach.
Hanson continues with some out-of-context quotes from Sheryl Crow and Richard Gere before he gets to the mother lode:
Cher often sings of losers and so drew on her artistic insight to share a complex portrait of the president: “I don’t like Bush. I don’t trust him. I don’t like his record. He’s stupid. He’s lazy.”
Cher’s not my particular cup of tea, music-wise. I’ve never met her. I doubt Hanson’s ever met her. But if there’s anyone qualified to make an assessment about whether they think someone’s lazy, a woman who’s roughly the same age as George W. Bush; has been working as an entertainer for four decades; who’s released roughly an album a year during her career and appeared in more than 15 movies; and who seems to have been on a perpetual farewell tour for the past ten years, might have something to say. Certainly, her business acumen seems to have been better than Bush’s; without the benefit of his family connections, he didn’t have any success. Cher, on the other hand, built up a fortune on her singing talent and looks, and ability to parley that into other entertainment venues. Sure, she had talented agents and business managers, but if you’re not smart enough to pick a good management team, they’ll rip you off and/or bungle the job. Which sort of circles the argument back around to Iraq.
Entertainers wrongly assume that their fame, money and influence arise from broad knowledge rather than natural talent, looks or mastery of a narrow skill.
In fact, what do a talented Richard Gere, Robert Redford and Madonna all have in common besides loudly blasting the current administration? They either dropped out of, or never started, college. Cher may think George Bush is “stupid,” but she — not he — didn’t finish high school.
Like many other elitist snobs, Hanson confuses education and intelligence, denigrating people who may not have finished college or high school who had to work for a living, and lauding George Bush, whose wealthy family could afford to put him through Yale and Harvard without having to work. If Hanson was intellectually honest, he might have remembered that Bill Gates—by most accounts a pretty smart guy—famously dropped out of Harvard to start a little company called Microsoft. Benjamin Franklin didn’t go to college, his schooling ended at the age of 12. Plato didn’t go to high school. The woman or man who invented the wheel did so before colleges were invented. There are millions of highly intelligent people around the world who, for lack of access, lack of money, conflict, religious discrimination, etc., don’t finish college, high school, or even grade school. Hanson would like to pretend that the more degrees you have, the smarter you are.
According to Hanson, because Gere, Redford, Madonna, and Cher didn’t finish college (or high school in Cher’s case), they’re ipso facto (that’s Latin for you classics fans) not as smart as Bush and their opinions couldn’t possibly be informed or well-reasoned. Now there’s a gob of spit in the face for you.
Census Bureau figures show that in 2004 there were about 187 million Americans over the age of 25 in this country. 25 is old enough to have gone through both high school and a four-year college. 52 million of us had a bachelor’s degree (or higher). That, at a bare minimum, seems to be Hanson’s requirement for admission to the aristocratic cohort (Latin again) of Plato’s ideal republic; the people who are raised far enough above the masses Plato distrusted to be given the reins of power; the people Hanson has determined capable of reason. That’s only about 28% of the population over 25, though, which means that the views of three-quarters of the adult population—in Hanson’s argument—shouldn’t count. It doesn’t matter if your views come from experience (Redford’s nine years older than Bush, Madonna’s the same age Bush was when he became President) or if you’re a successful businessperson (virtually any entertainer still around by their forties or later has to be), if you don’t have the degree, Hanson says your views don’t count.
If these apparent autodidacts are without degrees, aren’t they at least well informed? Not always. Right before the Iraqi war, Barbra Streisand issued an angry statement assuring us that Saddam Hussein was the dictator of Iran.
This oft-repeated story was the result of a typo and Hanson probably knows it. As for “well informed,” I seem to remember someone named making the Bush administration’s case to the UN Security Council claiming they had irrefutable proof that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and no end of spokespeople beating the chemical warfare drumheads beneath the specter of smoking mushrooms. Plus, something about candy and flowers.
Second, liberal guilt over their royal status explains why leftist entertainers drown out the handful of conservative celebrities. Sanctimonious public lectures provide a cheap way of reconciling rare privilege with professed egalitarianism. British rockers draft legions of lawyers to evade taxes, yet they parade around at hyped concerts to shame governments into sending billions of taxpayers’ money “to end poverty” in Africa.
Again, Hanson’s reading minds here. Is it liberal guilt that drives entertainers to speak up for causes they have an interest in? How does Hanson know that? What’s driving the conservative celebrities to speak up? Is it just money? I have no insight into why movie stars and pop musicians who’ve chosen to speak out on humanitarian, political, environmental, or other subjects have tended to the left. If it was because of Hanson’s presumed “liberal guilt,” you’d think that any person in any profession who’d attained celebrity would be subject to the same pressures. But there doesn’t seem to be so much of it in professional sports, business, or other industries.
Hanson also seems to have conveniently forgotten that there are a whole raft of conservative celebrities, but by limiting his target to “Hollywood” he chooses only actors and those musicians to the west of Nashville. Rush Limbaugh—another college dropout—has absolutely no credentials as an expert on politics. His reputation is based entirely on radio celebrity. Bill O’Reilly does have master’s degrees and worked as a TV reporter, but his career really took off after he’d joined Inside Edition, a tabloid news show. Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity (college dropout) and others on the conservative TV/radio talk circuit wouldn’t be giving about their opinions on most subjects if they weren’t celebrities. And unless I’m mistaken, Dennis Miller and Ron Silver—the GOP’s pet “movie star” during the 2004 election—were on-screen far more than any representatives of the left-leaning portion of the entertainment industry last year. It was a fine career move for Silver, certainly better than Ratz.
If retired actors and entertainers wish to become politicians — an old tradition, from the empress Theodora to Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger — let them run for office and endure during a campaign sustained cross-examination from voters. Otherwise their celebrity is used only as a gimmick to give credence to silly rants that if voiced by anyone else would never reach the light of day.
If Victor Davis Hanson wasn’t having his opinions pimped by the Hoover Institution,* they wouldn’t be getting into papers across the country. His academic field is, after all, classical history. According to his biography, he was a “a full-time farmer before joining California State University, Fresno, in 1984.” He graduated with his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1980 after two years of study in Athens. You do the math on the “full-time farmer” career and tell me how that was working out. His book titles cover Greek military history and agrarian studies, which doesn’t give him any more insight on Iraq, multiculturalism, Vietnam, Korea, terrorism, or any other subject he’s written about recently than my English Literature degree. What does separate us is the fact that he’s got the imprimatur (Latin, again) of Condoleeza Rice’s former think tank and some awards, conferring a certain amount of celebrity on him. Without that, he’s just another professor of classics.
There are many, many opinions out there in the country. I don’t agree with most of them. A number of the celebrities Hanson names have pretty goofy opinions on some subjects but then again, I think Hanson has goofy opinions. Hanson says that because Robert Redford dropped out of college, his opinion is no more than a “silly rant.” The opinion of “anyone else” who hasn’t got a college degree —75% of voting-age adults—is as worthless as Redford’s, in Hanson’s view. That seems like an incredibly elitist argument to make in a democracy. Citizens of the US are entrusted to choose candidates to represent them in all levels of government. We make our decisions about those candidates and the views they support based on what we read, hear about, or see on TV, as well as personal experience. Some people share their opinions with family, friends, and others. But if people like Hanson had their way, 150 million Americans—everyone over 18 without a college degree—might as well just shut up, because without the degree it’s just silly ranting. Don’t even bother voting, you folks, because any conclusions about the candidates you might draw from watching the TV or reading the paper is probably wrong in Victor Hanson’s world. Unless, of course, you agree with him, in which case it’s right, but then who really cares what you think?
* What’s rather sad is that the mission statement of the Hoover Institution ends with this “…The overall mission of this Institution is, from its records, to recall the voice of experience against the making of war, and by the study of these records and their publication, to recall man’s endeavors to make and preserve peace, and to sustain for America the safeguards of the American way of life. This Institution is not, and must not be, a mere library. But with these purposes as its goal, the Institution itself must constantly and dynamically point the road to peace, to personal freedom, and to the safeguards of the American system.”