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And Ask Questions After : Straight Shooting: What's Wrong With America And How To Fix It By John Silber, (harper & Row: $22.50; 352 Pp.; 0-060016184-1)

October 08, 1989|Robert Stevens | Robert Stevens, an English barrister, was educated at Oxford and Yale universities. Now an American citizen, he is professor of history and chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz

John Silber has become a celebrity. I am not certain what a celebrity is in our society, but surely someone who becomes a household name, at least to the readers of the Los Angeles Times (and more so to the readers of the New York Times, since he has been featured in The New York Times Magazine), surely must qualify as a celebrity. John Silber also is a university president. The number of university presidents who are thought of as celebrities is, understandably, small.

John Silber represents an increasingly common phenomenon of our times. For a long time--undoubtedly too long--the trade-union card for being an intellectual was to be a liberal Democrat. In America, as in Europe, this qualification has, over the last decade, receded. The intellectuals of Commentary and Public Interest, some of them former liberals, are now the powerhouse of the New Right. John Silber seeks to put his name in that firmament. He fails.

He fails for a number of reasons. First, he lacks the charm, wit, and grace of a Bill Buckley or a George Will. His is more the style of a Bill Bennett--and the Bill Bennett of secretary of education fame--rather than the new, somewhat less strident version. Nor does Silber's combativeness have the engaging quality of a Bob Bork.

Second, John Silber has written a poorly constructed book. He admits that the book represents a series of essays. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that. The essays, however, are poorly grouped, in many respects one-dimensional, sometimes with themes difficult to follow, and with virtually no attempt to link the arguments in the different essays. As to the claim that the book in some way represents a handbook on what is wrong with America and how to fix it, the claim is pretentious. Only with respect to education is there anything like a coherent policy spelled out.

Third, the book is irritating. John Silber is a philosopher, no doubt a smart philosopher. He writes, however, in a style which is certainly irritating to one who has even a tenuous claim to be a historian. He totally misunderstands the origin of the American university. The New England colleges and universities were essentially public institutions when they were founded, and only became private--or as we prefer to say, independent--institutions as the 19th Century progressed. Similarly, in his irritation with such things as the two or three generations on welfare, Silber fails to realize that, in his own state of Massachusetts, county justices were complaining about three generations having been on welfare as early as 1800. So much for some of his allegations about the thriftiness and moral qualities of earlier generations of Americans.

I do not mean to say that there are not some points with which an increasingly curmudgeonly moderate does not find himself much in agreement. The Greening of America, while it was symptomatic of an age, is an intellectual embarrassment. As a lawyer manque, I share much of concerns about the fact that, at the current galloping rate of increase in the number of lawyers, every man, woman, and child in the United States will be a lawyer by the year 2074. Even here, however, Silber engages in hyperbole--a rhetorical style not unknown to college presidents. His contrasts with the United Kingdom and Japan are misleading. Those countries do, indeed, have fewer lawyers, although, certainly in the United Kingdom, the number of lawyers is growing at a rate virtually comparable with that of the United States. More important, however, in both England and Japan, many of the "law jobs" are, in fact, done by other professions--in England by civil servants, company secretaries, accountants and others.

Silber, too, in his guise as the barefoot boy from Texas, would also find that many of the substitutes for the Rule of Law--and lawyers to enforce it--are less than attractive. He claims to be a civil libertarian, yet civil liberties are less alive in England and Japan than they are in this country.

No doubt, an important reason for that is the different role of the legal profession. Social class, and the other subtle pressures of a much more authoritarian society, make a need for a lawyer-ridden society far less important. These are, however, high costs. These costs Silber ignores.

Silber is a very American American. He is the kind of American who, in so many ways, makes us a "can-do" society. For those of us who grew up in Europe, he is the kind of person who makes this such an exciting society in which to live and work. Vibrant Americans see things in black and white. They like simple solutions to complex problems. Whereas Europeans, for instance, allow themselves the luxury of thinking the politics of Nicaraguan complex and unclear, Americans have bad guys and good guys. For Silber, they are, not unnaturally, the Sandinistas and the Contras, respectively.

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