Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Sometimes I think the real reason Hume aimed his skeptical arguments at the notion of causation is because he perceived the manifold ways dubious argumentative strategies can give causal arguments tremendous rhetorical force.   George Will was kind enough to provide us with just such a perverse causal claim this week.  Recent events at Penn State, University of Georgia,and Syracuse have prompted many journalists to consider the peculiarly American phenomenon of the state university football coach.  Will surveys the scene and deduces a culprit for this quasi-demagogue: American Progressivism, of course.  Will argues

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

To quote my favorite small business owner, I don't even know where to begin to correct that sentence.  But before we being with the correcting, let's get a taste of the argument:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Pick a lane, George.  Eliding is fun, but if there's a connection between Progressivism's causing universities to become football factories and this host of religious universities "embracing athletics" as some sort of corporeal moral education, it's not apparent from this graph.  If there isn't such a connection, then this paragraph seems to contradict the one which preceded it. But let's see where this goes:

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Who needs arguments?  String barely-related facts together in temporal order, manufacture narrative, close with pithy quote, QED.  I have wasted my life.

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production. 

Setting aside the risible reading of James…wait, no, let's not set it aside.  Here's what James actually argues:

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Well, we already know how George feels about trains, so it's no small wonder he would drag poor Billy James into the fray.  The problem is Will's completely misrepresented the claim.  James isn't concerned here with the plight of "workers enmeshed in mass production," and Will's desperate attempt at a dogwhistle connection between Progressivism (as represented by a Boston Brahma, natch) and Marxism can't make that so.  James' "moral equivalent to war" is proffered as a mitigation of the seeming impasse between the "war party" and the "peace party."  James sees the former as promoting martial virtues to extremes that actually run counter to goals of human society, while the latter engage in a fool's errand to utterly eliminate martial virtues.  James' middle way mollifies both parties: martial virtues are extolled, but instead of being channeled into war, they are channeled into productive human activity (which activity could plausibly include monotonous mass production-type activities!).  James is thinking here of things like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, not the LSU Tigers (although one might reasonably argue that the argument could extend to those things, but not in terms that Will would accept).  Moreover, there's something else going wrong here, with this talk of the individual. As Will continues,

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

I've never been convinced by this sort of "kingdom of the blind"-type argument.  They either seem painfully tautologous ("If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns"), or they seem self referentially incoherent, as is the case above.  But more to the point, the contradictions in this claim point to a deeper flaw in Will's argument, namely that Will doesn't even seem to have a firm grasp on what he takes Progressivism to be, let alone show concern for what it actually is, so he enmeshes himself in a web of contradictions and half-hearted historical claims that ultimately come to nothing. Instead of providing himself a worthy foe, "Progressivism" functions as an umbrella term for a loosely related set of social doctrines to which Will objects.  Will might have proved that some particular doctrine lent a hand in the rise of college sports as public spectacle, but he hasn't shown (1) that American Progressivism as such is a cause, nor has he shown, most importantly, (2) that even a majority of American universities are football factories.  He clearly seems to think so, but he's never offered even a hint of an argument for either view.   In place of an argument, we get a shitty reading of William James and a milquetoast narrative more worthy of small-time sports blog than the Op-Ed pages of a major newspaper.  

Another sparkling moment in our national discourse.

13 thoughts on “Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing”

  1. Yes.  Progressivism is now responsible for overly paid college football coaches.  In all seriousness, I think we have something like a genetic fallacy going on here. 

  2. I would have went that way of Will had anything like a consistent picture (even if it had been an inaccurate one) of what Progressivism is, but he doesn't.  It's just the type of lazy narrativizing we see on the sports pages all the time.  There's no argument, just slapdash "fact patterns" and unfounded assertions.    

  3. Will must really hate the football train those Coors Light commercials. Not to mention all the folk wearing jeans.

  4. Are the political convictions of football fans really germane to Will's claims?  I'm not sure Chait is being very fair.

  5. I think Kilgore does a better job of showing that.  Chait's piece just seems like point-scoring.

  6. Given college football's supposed subordination of the individual into the collective machine, how can Will account for the near-worship of individual star athletes? Tebow, RG3, Luck, etc. certainly seem to embody the characteristics of the hero, and are treated as such. Moreover, why does Will hate teamwork? I bet he was always picked last as a child…

  7. First of all, full disclosure: I am the author of the book George Will was reviewing in his column last week when he made the connection between football and progressivism.  While I am grateful for his generous review and I have enjoyed the exposure for my book, I think that his use of my argument for present-day political purposes was (shall we say) surprising. The problem with the column was that Mr. Will conflated progressive politics with things that happened during America's so-called Progressive Era (1890s-1910s).  My book is somewhat critical of Progressive Era thought, including some of the reformers and the solutions they crafted; it is not, however, critical of all progressive politics, or progressive activism in other historical contexts.  I contend that it is possible to be critical of the unintended consequences of Progressive Era reforms–including some of the unintended consequences that followed the well-intentioned reform of intercollegiate football a hundred years ago—without saying that attempts to regulate society are always bad.  Moreover, we need to keep in mind that there is absolutely no way to draw a straight line from the folks who reformed football in early-1900s football to progressive politicians like Barack Obama in the early 21st century.  As many conservatives hesitate to point out, one of those "progressives" who worked to save college football was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican.
    In closing, while Mr. Will made a compelling argument about the history of American college football, his attempt to connect it to the 2012 presidential election was intellectually problematic, to say the least. 

  8. Brian,
    Thanks for the clarifications.  As we've noted here before, Will's reading strategies are nearly as problematic as his argumentative strategies.  I'm not sure I buy the historical argument Will is feebly trying to make, but that shouldn't be construed as reflecting on your work in any way.  Sadly, you won't be the only author who finds their work being taken up by Will in his hamfistedly dishonest manner.  Thanks again for stopping by.

Comments are closed.