American Campus Diary: First Verso

Charles Mackay is a British academic with a visiting fellowship at an elite American university. They are strange places, but through America’s soft power, they tend to spread their strangeness abroad, with English-speaking countries most susceptible. But forewarned is forearmed, so here are your warnings. The second entry in this diary is here.


Dear Diary…

The first piece of American Campus strangeness that I’m going to relate will explain the presence of this feature at The Quad. American academics are more politically conscious than British ones: they are also more politically homogeneous. (I don’t know enough French or Germans to make a similar generalization. I expect the Russians and Poles are fairly exciting, since the gravity well of groupthink can only take apples so far from their trees.)

This political consciousness and homogeneity means that it’s unwise to have interesting views. This applies to those on the traditional left as well as the worthwhile right. Of course, if one has interesting views, one is more likely to see events around one in an interesting way. But it remains unwise to make these observations out loud.

This is particularly true if one works in a cosy subfield, and particularly if one is in one’s early career: the same set of individuals will sit on or be contacted by all the search committees for all the jobs one applies to. And in our age of outrage, news of intellectual infraction travels fast.

So when the managing editor of The Quad approached me (and, I take it, others) and asked if I would like to occasionally contribute to a diary feature designed to give its readers an off-beat exposure to another culture, I was delighted to join the team of young academics rallying behind this pseudonym, scratching up the tracks by our teamwork, and so preventing a probably fatal discovery. And I take it I speak for all of us. (I’m also given to understand we’re not all British, but that the adopted alias offers an opportunity for those who aren’t to realise in their prose the strangeness of their home.)

Why would you care?

The interest of a travel diary is obvious. America is weird. (In the generic sense of the term, as I’ll describe in my next entry.) The experiences of travellers are extraordinary, and sometimes worth reading about. But I’ve just told you that these entries won’t always be by travellers, but sometimes by natives. So why would you want to read those? The serial tubes are running full with commentary on America by Americans, and all the literati of America’s European satellites who can read English, regularly read it. Why read my comments?

You should care because America is an empire of soft power, you are a subject of its dominion, and its culture spreads through your screens, and from the mouths of its ambassadors stood at the front of your lecture halls. The colour of its glow scars your retinas, so you might see everything in a red-white-blue tint. Its self-evident truths deafen your eardrums, narrowing their range of sensitivity. And, if not alerted, you’ll believe: no history but the realization of God-given freedom. No rival cultures, but only themes for restaurants and costumes, melting in a pot. Once you’ve tasted coca-cola, wine is warm and bitter.

And cultures are set – handed down or pulled apart – by universities. (There’s a coda to write about Hollywood here, but this isn’t an American Studio Diary, so it won’t be written.) All of the strange things happening in UK universities these days were road-tested here first. So you can think of this as a warning or an inspiration, depending on your appetite for strangeness.

The professors are coming. Watch the beacon. I’ll be climbing that cliff, and lighting it up.

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