Curdled Politics On Campus

Tenured radicals are trying to turn campuses into authoritarian ministates

A familiar jest--that some liberals do not care what anyone does, so long as it is compulsory--must be revised in light of goings-on on campuses. Today's newfangled liberals, the enforcers of political correctness, care minutely about what people do and say and think. They resort promiscuously to intimidation and coercion. But their curdled liberalism is not just a political agenda. It also is a program for the personal pleasure of bossing people around.

In his recent defense of free speech on campuses, Benno Schmidt, Yale's president, underestimated the threat to academic values. His reflex is to analyze the problem in familiar First Amendment terms, invoking the well-established right of "offensive" and "obnoxious" speech to protection. But speech truly offensive by reasonable community standards (more about which in a moment) is rarely the focus of today's zealous regulators of campus thought.

These tenured radicals, often 1960s retreads, are inverting a 1960s demand. Then students demanded that universities loosen restrictions. Today's radicalism-from-above uses administrative power to impose an improved "consciousness" on students. It uses various instruments of indoctrination, from mandatory instruction in officially approved thinking (about race, gender, sexual preference) to codes of permissible speech. This is done in the name of ,'sensitivity" to the needs of "diversity." That code word is the umbrella under which radicals cluster to advocate academic spoils systems-racial, ethnic, sexual-and politicized curriculums.

Universities, Schmidt notes, have become "saturated with polities." Radicals are exploiting "a style of academic leadership that tends to be highly risk-averse, queasy about defending academic values, and inclined to negotiate and propitiate about almost anything." But such appeasement is bred by assertions, like Schmidt's, that the "use of university authority to suppress freedom" is "typically" the result of "the best of intentions." A pernicious agenda is not made less so by its adherents intending that it do good. Schmidt underestimates the plain meanness behind the pleasure people take in bullying. And why take the bullies' word for it that their intentions-which are, after all, to force people to toe their political line-are "the best"? Would Schmidt say those intentions, which involve breaking universities to a political saddle, are "typically" the best if they were not invariably voiced by the left?

When a Harvard dean denounced dining-hall employees for having a back-to-the-'50s party (it is incorrect to feel nostalgic about a decade marred by segregation), no obnoxious speech was at issue. It was just another instance of the new liberal's delight in lording it over his supposed moral inferiors. A Harvard professor was forced to cancel a screening of a film because it included a black maid, a crime against "sensitivity." This was the result of a new entitlement, the right to be hypersensitive and to hector and harass and punish people who do or say or show any sign of thinking anything that offends anybody in an officially approved racial or ethnic or sexual category.

When a University of California administrator wants to stamp out such familiar phrases as "a chink in his armor" or "a nip in the air" (get it? "chink" and "nip" can be offensive in other contexts) he is concocting an "injury" to justify wielding power over others. When a university prohibits "inappropriately directed laughter" and "conspicuous exclusion [of others] from conversations," derisive laughter is an appropriate response. But at bottom none of this is funny. It flows from the tyrant's impulse to extinguish privacy.

There is, you see, a close connection between today's curriculum wars and the lengthening lists of impermissible thoughts, between the assault on "Eurocentrism" and the assault on free speech. These are related battles in a single war, a war of aggression against the Western political tradition and the ideas that animate it. The aggressors, having been trounced in the real-world polities of the larger society, are attempting to make campuses into ministates that do what the Western tradition inhibits real states from doing: imposing orthodoxies.

Donald Kagan, dean of Yale College, defends the essential soundness of the traditional curriculum and canon by noting that Western culture, more than any other, "has asserted the claims of the individual against those of the state, limiting its power and creating a realm of privacy into which it cannot penetrate." Such penetration at the expense of individual freedom and privacy is the aim of today's academic constabulary as it patrols campuses, pouncing on speech, films, teaching material, even parties that deviate from approved ideology or offend the sensitivities of officially designated victims of Western civilization. This is petty politics drained of normal political content and refilled with a gas of moral vanity.

By semantic sleight of hand the aging campus left has packed its political agenda into the word "community," thereby giving that agenda artificial momentum for respect. Professing "the best of intentions," radicals say coercion is justified to infuse "community values" into what they consider a campus climate of the wrong kind of diversity. But such radicals deny the right of all nonacademic communities-local, state, national-to defend community values by circumscribing individual rights (such as the rights to have abortions, burn flags, sell pornography).

Where did we get the ruinous notion that it is the business, even the bounden duty, of schools to produce sweet-tempered neighbors and politically admirable citizens? There is a connection between the rise of that notion--schools as society's perfecters--and the decline of schools as producers of graduates who think precisely, write clearly, read complex material and bring historical understanding to today's conditions. Nice neighbors and virtuous citizens are grand, but first things first, please.

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