Friday, December 13, 2013

The Heroic Mind

Heroism as an Achievement of Consciousness
—and as the Courage to Express It

A former film student, who sought me out years ago in response to things he read on my (now officially censored and banned) Boston University faculty web site, and who is now a professional editor, producer, and independent filmmaker, sent me the following link to a speech by Noam Chomsky that may be of interest. For readers who are not already familiar with Chomsky’s life and work (and if anyone is not, they should be), I would simply state that, in my view, he takes his place alongside Nelson Mandela and hundreds of other individuals still with us, as a supreme exemplar and practitioner of “moral heroism” in the contemporary world. (Ralph Nader would be another American I would put on the short list.) 

Cultural theorists, professors, and journalists have been telling us for the past fifty years that there are no more heroes, and no opportunities for heroic acts and stances in the modern world; that we live in a “post-heroic” age; that our expressions of ourselves are hopelessly bureaucratized and compromised; and that the “anti-hero” is the embodiment of the spirit of the times; but it is not true. (As the saying goes, there are some ideas so stupid and wrong that only a professor could believe them.) Teachers who teach things like this to their students are denying them their own possibilities of being heroes in their own lives. 

As I told my students last week in class, the day after Nelson Mandela died, the mistake we make is to think of heroism (and similar virtues) as existing only in external forms—in the form of actions and events. When someone talks about being heroic, we think of the soldier throwing himself on the hand grenade; the mother shielding her child from a gunman; the Captain going down with the ship after offering the lifeboat to the passengers. Those actions are indeed heroic. But they make us overlook the fact that most of the highest forms of heroism (yes, higher than the ones I have listed), and almost all of the forms of heroism available to us in our daily lives, are internal. They take the form of being acts of consciousness—acts of thought and feeling, acts of caring and loving, acts involving the questioning of accepted values and practices. This is heroism not as something we do, but something we believe and have the courage to express in public. We are being heroic when we say something that may be unpopular; when we refuse “to go along to get along” on our jobs; when we question authority and speak truth to power. 

In a university setting, we can be heroic in our writing and beliefs, when we dare to question the common wisdom, the common-sense pieties (and stupidities) that compromise and corrupt most of academic life and discourse. We are being heroic when we swim intellectually and emotionally against the current, when we point out institutional problems that others have resigned themselves to accepting. Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this concept of heroism when he wrote about “the heroic mind” in his American Scholar and Divinity School Address essays. Our minds can be heroic. Noam Chomsky is heroic in this sense, in Emerson’s sense. He has an heroic mind—and the courage to speak his thoughts, no matter how unpopular or controversial they may be. He has been diagnosing small and large forms of corruption in American thought, institutions, and culture for more than forty years. The Kennedy Center should give him an award. —Ray Carney

* * *

Subject: Chomsky and you

Hi Ray,

Long time no speak. I hope life is treating you well. I watched a bit of this and thought of you. Maybe you can't watch it but it's a 90 minute speech Chomsky just gave earlier this year called The Corporatization of the University. Of course when he says it he has a packed crowd of adoring fans cheering him! But I'm glad you continue to post on your blog. Hopefully it will do some good one way or the other.

In any case, I send you all my best wishes, and to remind you that people are out there who support you and your work.

Matthew Weiss 
Langdon-Boom Productions
[Though I usually remove the writer's last name to protect his or her confidentiality, Matthew asked me to include his full name and production company.]

* * *

Ray Carney replied:

Thank you, Matthew. Don’t laugh, but I still have a dial-up modem (and no cable TV, cell phone, iPad, or anything else in that category either), so I can’t access the link you sent, or very much of the internet at all (simplifies my life wonderfully and gives me more time to read, read, read!), but I shall post the link on the blog for my readers. If it’s a speech by Chomsky, that’s all I need to know. The blog readers will let me know what they think of it. (There are tens of thousands and they are not shy—to tell the truth, it’s really a bit overwhelming to keep up with my mail.)

If it matters, nothing has changed in something like ten years in terms of the Boston University situation. The letters in the November 2013 postings pretty much summarize the past, present, and (ugh!) future. Great place to work, eh? Great, high-minded, ethically principled administrators, who simply deny every last thing, and then shoot the messenger (me, yikes!) for reminding them (when they aren’t calling me names in meetings, telling me I'm mentally ill, and mocking my reports--nice guys, eh?).

Stay well and thanks for the support. There are a lot more postings and letters still to come. I appreciate your friendship over this many years. 

Oh, almost forgot: Say hi to Tom Noonan from me if you’re still in touch. I haven’t seen him or talked with him in a good while. Tell him I had my students look at two of his films (The Wife and What Happened Was) in my Indie Film course this fall. They are as good as ever. Masterpieces both. But you know that.


P.S. This G-mail address is the best one to use, since my Dean [Tom Fiedler] and other Boston University administrators have asserted their right to read the emails I write and receive at the account (and have scorched and abused and sworn at me for what I have written in that account in the pastthe Spring blog entries have more than you want to know about that subject!). What a world I live in. What a world we all live in.

[A parenthetical note from Ray Carney about material on this site that deals with some of the same issues Professor Chomsky’s lecture does: To read my own thoughts about the “corporatization” of the contemporary American university, and the lamentable effects of corporate modes of organization, market pressures, and business values on the life of the mind and the faculty promotion and pay system, I would refer the reader to two earlier postings on this site. The first is the essay titled “The Two Cultures—The Conflict Between Business Values and the Life of the Mind," and the second is Part 2 of the long essay titled “Ten years of Administrative Retaliation for Speaking Up to Defend the Freedom of Academic Expression Inside and Outside the Classroom.” Both pieces were posted in March 2013 and are available via the side menu on this page. Many other pieces also indirectly deal with these issues, which are a serious problem at Boston University.]

Ray Carney
Prof. of Film and American Studies
Boston University

"Inside Boston University—A Faculty Member's Efforts to Defend
Academic Freedom of Expression" --

Ray Carney's observations about academic freedom of expression, the
censorship of faculty publications, and bureaucratic retaliation
against independent-minded faculty members at Boston University. Prof.
Carney reflects on the deleterious effect of corporate modes of
organization, business measures of value, and market pressures on the
life of the mind, academic research, and course offerings—and on the
distortions corporate values introduce into the faculty promotion,
pay, and support system.

Ray Carney is the author or editor of: Henry Adams, Mount Saint Michel
and Chartres
(Viking Penguin), Henry James, What Maisie Knew and The
Spoils of Poynton
(New American Library/Signet), Rudyard Kipling, Kim
(New American Library); The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism,
Modernism and the Movies
(Cambridge University Press); The Films of
Mike Leigh: Embracing the World
(Cambridge University Press); Speaking
the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer
(Cambridge University
Press); American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge
University Press); American Dreaming (University of California Press
at Berkeley); Shadows (British Film Institute/Macmillan); Cassavetes
on Cassavetes
(Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus); Autoportraits (Cahiers
du cinema), The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why
Art Matters
; and other books, essays, and editions, published in more
than ten languages.