Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is Kingsolver Right For Duke? (Post 1)

Many at Duke believe President Richard Brodhead’s stumbled again.

This time it’s his selection of prize-winning novelist, Bush-basher and ardent leftist Barbara Kingsolver as Duke’s 2008 commencement speaker.

A Chronicle editorial critical of her selection is here; a Duke professor, in a letter to The Chronicle, defends it here.

Brodhead’s told critics of Kingsolver’s selection they should “read more.”

I took his advice.

I read a Washington Post op-ed Kingsolver wrote shortly after 9/11 and a presidential speech she references throughout the op-ed: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Jan. 6, 1941 State of the Union address.

What follows are excerpts from Kingsolver’s op-ed and FDR’s address, after which I make a few comments and invite yours.

From Kingsolver’s Nov. 23, 2001 WaPo op-ed :

I found a speech made by Franklin D. Roosevelt on Jan. 6, 1941, that made me wonder where we have mislaid our sense of global honor. "At no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today," he said, as he could have said this day.

But instead of invoking fear of outsiders he embraced their needs as our own and called for defending, not just at home but on all the earth, what he called the four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, freedom from want.

"Translated into world terms," he said, the latter meant "economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants."

He warned that it was immature and untrue "to brag that America, single-handed and with one hand tied behind its back, can hold off the whole world" and that any such "dictator's peace" could not be capable of international generosity or returning the world to any true independence. "Such a peace would bring no security for us or for our neighbors. Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

We seem to be contriving a TV-set imitation -- the look with no character inside -- in our new wartime of flags flapping above shopping malls and car sales lots, these exhortations to purchase, to put down a foot and give not an inch. There's a rush on to squash the essential liberties of others and purchase some temporary safety for ourselves.

The four freedoms are not much in evidence. Faith and speech have taken hard blows, as countless U.S. citizens suffer daily intimidation because their appearance or modes of belief place them outside the mainstream of an angry nation at war. Any spoken suggestions about alternatives to violent retaliation are likely to be called an affront against our country.

I struggle to find some logical path that could lead to this conclusion, that free speech is un-American, and find as its only source our president's statement: "Either you're with us, or you are with the terrorists." He was addressing nations of the world, but that "us" keeps getting narrower.

If FDR's words were published anonymously today, especially those about force leading only to a "dictator's peace," FDR would get hate mail.[…]
Now excerpts from FDR’s address:
I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world -- assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace. . .

Armed defense of democratic existence is now being gallantly waged in four continents. . . .

In times like these it is immature -- and, incidentally, untrue -- for anybody to brag that an unprepared America, single-handed and with one hand tied behind its back, can hold off the whole world.

No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion -- or even good business. Such a peace would bring no security for us or for our neighbors. Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

As a nation we may take pride in the fact that we are soft-hearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed.

We must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal preach the "ism" of appeasement. We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.

I have recently pointed out how quickly the tempo of modern warfare could bring into our very midst the physical attack which we must eventually expect if the dictator nations win this war.

There is much loose talk of our immunity from immediate and direct invasion from across the seas. Obviously, as long as the British Navy retains its power, no such danger exists. . . .

The first phase of the invasion of this hemisphere would not be the landing of regular troops. The necessary strategic points would be occupied by secret agents and by their dupes -- and great numbers of them are already here and in Latin America.

As long as the aggressor nations maintain the offensive they, not we, will choose the time and the place and the method of their attack.

And that is why the future of all the American Republics is today in serious danger. That is why this annual message to the Congress is unique in our history. . . .

The need of the moment is that our actions and our policy should be devoted primarily -- almost exclusively -- to meeting this foreign peril. For all our domestic problems are now a part of the great emergency.

Our national policy is this:

First, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to all-inclusive national defense.

Secondly, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to full support of all those resolute people everywhere who are resisting aggression and are thereby keeping war away from our hemisphere. . . .

Third, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. . . .

Therefore, the immediate need is a swift and driving increase in our armament production. Leaders of industry and labor have responded to our summons. . . .

[But] today's best is not good enough for tomorrow.

I am not satisfied with the progress thus far made. . . .

To change a whole nation from a basis of peacetime production of implements of peace to a basis of wartime production of implements of war is no small task. . . .

The Congress of course, must rightly keep itself informed at all times of the progress of the program. However, there is certain information, as the Congress itself will readily recognize, which, in the interests of our own security and those of the nations that we are supporting, must of needs be kept in confidence.(emphasis added)

New circumstances are constantly begetting new needs for our safety. I shall ask this Congress for greatly increased new appropriations and authorizations to carry on what we have begun.

I also ask this Congress for authority and for funds sufficient to manufacture additional munitions and war supplies of many kinds, to be turned over to those nations which are now in actual war with aggressor nations. . . .

In fulfillment of this purpose we will not be intimidated by the threats of dictators that they will regard as a breach of international law or as an act of war our aid to the democracies which dare to resist their aggression.

Such aid -- Such aid is not an act of war, even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be.

And when the dictators -- if the dictators -- are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part. . . .

No one can tell the exact character of the emergency situations that we may be called upon to meet. The nation's hands must not be tied when the nation's life is in danger.

Yes, and we must prepare, all of us prepare, to make the sacrifices that the emergency -- almost as serious as war itself -- demands. Whatever stands in the way of speed and efficiency in defense, in defense preparations of any kind, must give way to the national need.

A free nation has the right to expect full cooperation from all groups. A free nation has the right to look to the leaders of business, of labor, and of agriculture to take the lead in stimulating effort, not among other groups but within their own group.

The best way of dealing with the few slackers or trouble-makers in our midst is, first, to shame them by patriotic example, and if that fails, to use the sovereignty of government to save government. […]
A link to Kingsolver’s op-ed is here; one to FDR’s address here.

Contrary to what Kingsolver says, FDR did “invoke fear of outsiders.”

FDR said threats from “outsiders” were so grave America needed to immediately “change . . . from a basis of peacetime production of implements of peace to a basis of wartime production of implements of war.”

Kingsolver also misunderstands FDR’s warning of a "dictator's peace."

He didn’t mean something America might choose to do but something that would be forced on us by our enemies if we remained weak.

Everyone understood then, and people today with a minimal understanding of the history of that time know FDR was warning us that if we remained militarily weak and didn’t become “the arsenal of democracy” for nations fighting the Axis, we would someday be forced to accept an Axis “dictator’s peace;” just as happened when Germany invaded France and dictated an armistice; and when it invaded Norway and dictated the installation of the puppet Quisling government.

In future posts, I’ll say more about Kingsolver’s selection as commencement speaker.

For now, if you love Duke, you can at least be grateful Kingsolver wasn’t named to an endowed professorship and granted tenure.

What are your thoughts?


locomotive breath said...

This would be the same FDR who was so unafraid of outsiders that he signed the order to forcibly relocate about 120,000 people simply because they were Japanese.

Anonymous said...


Based on all available evidence, it appears that Kingsolver is exactly right for Duke.


stephen said...

If Kingsolver should happen upon your critique, you will immediately be branded as a racist, genderist, classist, right wing conspirator. Ken is absolutely right, she is a perfect fit.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that Kingsolver is no less a historical revisionist than the average Duke Faculty member viewing the history of the LAX trial and, indeed, the value of western knowledge in education.

I am also reminded once again how lucky America was to have a president who, for all his flaws, recognized the danger of fascism and did all he could to drag an isolationist nation into preparedness for war.


Ruth said...

Excellent John! He said read more and you did. Somehow I don't think it turned out quite the way he had planned. Keep at 'em.

Anonymous said...

I'm disappointed by both the selection of Barbara Kingsolver and by Brodhead's surprisingly snide comment that students should "read more books." I don't think that reading Kingsolver's work would necessarily change student opinion of her as the choice for commencement speaker.

Barbara Kingsolver is a respected author but she has a limited audience. Judging from the reaction to Kingsolver's selection, it seems that the Duke administration has once again demonstrated how out of touch they are with most of their students.

Anonymous said...

With the praise from Brodhead and professors Karla Holloway and Paula McClain for Kingsolver, I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn about an appointment for her as a visiting professor in humanities, probably the English department or Woman's Studies. The trendiness and political correctness in humanities will continue unabated for a long time.

Anonymous said...


Maybe we could have gotten somebody or something safe, like big bird to address the students. What kind of litmus test are you proposing for your perfect commencement speaker? Someone who agrees with your every thought? Kingsolver's speech was fantastic. You should give it a listen.