Politics, et Cetera

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

They Said It:

What survives, from such stuff as this, is ne-plus-ultra relativism, idiot nihilism.  “What is required,” Professor Greene spoke, “is more, not less tolerance — not the tolerance of indifference, but the tolerance of honest respect for divergent convictions and the determination of all that such divergent opinions be heard without administrative censorship.  I try my best in the classroom to expound and defend my faith, when it is relevant, as honestly and persuasively as I can.  But I can do so only because many of my colleagues are expounding and defending their contrasting faiths, or skepticisms, as openly and honestly as I am mine.”

A professor of philosophy!  Question: What is the 1) ethical, 2) philosophical, or 3) epistemological argument for requiring continued tolerance of ideas whose discrediting it is the purpose of education to effect?  What ethical code (in the Bible? in Plato? Kant? Hume?) requires “honest respect” for any divergent conviction?”

William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale:  The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” 1951.



Last week, a Yale student caused quite a scene – and quite a national stir – by yelling, screaming, swearing, and bawling at Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor of sociology and the Master of Silliman College.  This student, whose tirade was captured on video and posted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), was part of a much larger group that was protesting an email sent by Christakis’s wife Erika, the associate master of Silliman College.

And what did the email say, you ask?  Did it contain some horrible, terrible threat or offense?  A racist comment, perhaps?  A defense of Donald Trump?  Well, no.  It simply offered the mere suggestion that students not expend their time and energy freaking out about Halloween costumes.  And not their own costumes, mind you, but those of others, which might, theoretically provide some cause for offense.  The inimitable Roger Kimball provides the details of this sordid and sorry tale:

Deep background: Just before Halloween, Burgwell Howard, the Dean of Yale College, sent round an email urging caution in the matter of Halloween costumes.  It was an extraordinary document, disseminated by the “Intercultural Affairs Office” and signed by the Dean, representatives of Yale’s “LBGTQ Resources” office, the “Native American Cultural Center,” etc., etc.  Although allowing that “students, undergraduate and graduate, definitely have a right to express themselves,” the email asked that they “actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.”  Only that? . . . .

We now move on to step two, the corpus delicti.  The body in question was another email, this one written by Erika Christakis, wife of Nicholas, and associate master of Silliman College at Yale.  As I noted yesterday, EC’s email was full of liberal handwringing, expressions of concern about trivializing “genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” etc. (what “genuine concerns”?).  But la Christakis also expressed support for free expression (“increasingly,” she mused, American campuses “have become places of censure and prohibition”) and concluded with this little air-clearing expostulation:

Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.  . . .

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?  It’s not mine, I know that.

Quite right, too, Erika!  But it was just this admission, coupled with the observation that “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society” that “triggered” that pampered hysteric into shouting obscenities at the Master of her college.

The whole thing is, quite literally, insane.  Both the guidelines offered by the Dean and the students’ response suggest that the students of Yale are likely mentally unstable.  As John Hinderaker notes at Powerline, “The young woman in the video became hysterical and behaved bizarrely not because she had been offended by a Halloween costume, which would be bad enough, but because she imagined the hypothetical possibility that such a costume might someday exist.  She needs help.”  And she’s hardly alone.

The conservative media has, of late, ramped up its coverage of free speech/political correctness issues on the nation’s various and sundry campuses of higher education.  The current schoolyear, it would appear, is even worse than the last when it comes to the ravages of political correctness, while last year was worse than the one before it, which was worse than the one before it, which was worse than the one before it, and so on.  This nation’s campuses have, in a very real sense, become little more than exceptionally expensive babysitting services, dedicated to preserving and validating the emotional needs of perpetual toddlers trapped in the bodies of 18-22 year-olds.  The hissy fit thrown by the student/students at Yale is but the latest chapter in this ongoing saga of anger, frustration, emotional instability, and delicately honed sensitivities, all of which are impervious to logic, reason, or even the education these students are alleged to be receiving at these so-called institutions of higher learning.

Unfortunately, as crazy as the goings on at Yale might seem, they are, relatively speaking, not the worst of it.  Yesterday, Tim Wolfe, the President of the University of Missouri resigned, under pressure, because some of the students on his campus felt that their emotional well-being was threatened . . . or something . . . by racial insensitivity.  The Yalies may be crazy, in other words, but in Missouri, the crazies have actual power, the power to force the resignation of the university president.  All of which is to say that in Columbia, Missouri, of all places, the inmates are now, quite plainly, running the asylum.

Now, before we get too deeply into the details of Missouri’s capitulation to the craziest of the crazies, we want to make a couple of quick points.  As some of you may have gleaned over the years, one half of The Political Forum did his undergraduate work at the University of Kansas and therefore bleeds Crimson and Blue, which is to say that we take a backseat to no one in our distaste for the University of Missouri.

More to the point, much of that distaste – the entire rivalry, if you will – is based on racial issues, all stemming from the fact that Missouri was a slave state, while Kansas was a “free state.”  The “Border War” between the two states – which included William Quantrill’s infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in which he and his Raiders slaughtered 189 men from age 14 to 90 – was one of the principal precipitants to the Civil War.  Nevertheless, for decades now, Missouri students, fans, boosters, and even student-athletes have celebrated the history of the “Border War,” and lionized the bushwhacking murderer Quantrill.  To make matters worse, members of the “Antlers,” which is the University of Missouri’s “celebrated” unofficial student basketball fan group, have spent years harassing opposing players, especially Kansas players, often being accused of using racial epithets and other tactless attacks against said opponents.  Or, to put in another way, the University of Missouri is not exactly an idyllic, racially congenial place and never has been.

All of that said, what happened at Missouri had nothing to do with any of that.  No one insisted that the president of the University apologize for the Border War.  No one asked Wolfe to disown Quantrill.  No one demanded that the Antlers be banned.  Indeed, the Missouri students’ plea for racial healing had very little to do with race.  It is true that some students did indeed experience real and profound racial animosity, as newspaper timelines demonstrate.  But that animosity is neither the fault of the now-former University President Wolfe, nor was it likely any different, unfortunately, than that which students might experience in any racially diverse and racially tense region, university or not.

The student at the center of the controversy is a graduate student in “educational leadership” – whatever that is – called Jonathan Butler.  Butler started a hunger strike about a week ago, insisting that he would not eat until Wolfe was removed from office.  Claiming that the problems on campus were racial, Butler demanded not only that Wolfe be removed, but that he “admit his white privilege.”  He then cited a handful of incidents that, he claimed, proved that Wolfe and his administration were too racially polarizing to remain.  Butler’s letter cited four principal complaints:  racial slurs yelled at some minority students, graduate student health insurance subsidies being cancelled, the voiding of the University’s contracts with Planned Parenthood, and an incident two weeks earlier in which a swastika was drawn by parties unknown in human feces in a residence hall.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: only two of those things are even conceivably racial, and of those two, the latter (i.e. the poop smear) is both disgusting and more a sign of psychopathy than racism.  But never you mind that.  Missouri students – especially Butler – insisted that it was all racial.  And they had a list of ultimatums that they needed met before they would allow the University to get on with its business.  According to the student newspaper The Missourian, that list of demands was formulated in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri (natch) and included the following:

Recent conversations with activists invested in the cause highlighted these platforms as places to start:

Openly acknowledge the distress of students on campus who feel targeted, uncomfortable, unwelcome and unsafe.

Publicly admit the racial problem on campus and admit to the university’s racist past.

Understand the dynamic of a privileged race that has the luxury of disregarding the black experience.

Make university administrators accountable, particularly Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.

Work hard to understand perspectives and cultures in order to make decisions that are best for all students.

Most of this, of course, is pure gibberish, intellectual-sounding nonsense that means nothing and advances no tangible goals.  Nevertheless, this past weekend, the black players on the Missouri football team decided that they too need to be involved in this gibberish-filled protest and released a statement indicating that they “will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.”  And while this statement too borders on the absurd for its lack of coherence and objective measures of displeasure, apparently, the idea that the football program could be compromised was too much for the Missouri Board of Curators, who then pressured Wolfe to abandon his alma mater and thus make the children feel better.

Two things stand out here.  First, the Curators for the University of Missouri apparently know absolutely nothing about how revolutions work.  If they did, they would have responded to the perpetual adolescents firmly and defiantly, suggesting that football players receiving free education should consider the consequences of their actions, among other things.  As it is, the Curators gave in and gave the protestors the head they wanted – Wolfe’s – only to discover that Wolfe’s wasn’t the only one they were after.  As is always the case, the MU revolutionaries were buoyed by their success and immediately demanded more heads.  And by the end of the day, they had another, that of MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.  We have no idea whose will be next, but now that MU’s very own Committee of Public Safety has tasted blood, we doubt that it will be sated anytime soon.  All of which is to say that this could well turn into a far larger mess than it already is before the University of Missouri is permitted by its students to return to the semblance of normalcy.

Second, the involvement of the University’s football team in this “protest” is both significant and troubling.  As a general rule, when conservative critics comment on on-campus political correctness gone wild, they do so by condemning the ridiculousness and then consoling themselves by rationalizing that “at least it’s just college campuses, and not in the ‘real world’ or anyplace else important.”  We’ve always found such rationalization a little underwhelming.  We know colleges are hotbeds of leftist stupidity and have been for the better part of a century, but still, they also happen to be the places at which future generations of American leaders are supposed to learn to address complex issues in a thoughtful, careful, well-reasoned manner.  Therefore the apparent epidemic of radical PC on campuses causes us no small amount of consternation and fills us with dread and despair about the future.

Equally importantly in this case, the football players took this protest well beyond the confines of the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus.  In the most recent fiscal year for which data is available, Mizzou’s football program generated nearly half of the athletics department’s revenues and turned a profit of more than $14 million.  Both the revenue and profit numbers are expected to increase going forward, with new revenues from the SEC Network, backed by ESPN.  What all of this means is that football revenue is the primary driver in athletics department’s budget.  It pays not only for the football program, but for non-revenue sports – most notably women’s sports – as well.  That is to say that when the black football players threatened a boycott, which would crush revenues, they threatened the financial viability of the rest of the athletics department, again, including ALL women’s sports, none of which turn a profit.

Moreover, as the Kansas City Star reported, in fiscal 2014, the University’s football revenue, “allowed MU athletics to transfer $2,179,583 of the $3.5 million profit to the university for ‘initiatives outside of athletics.’”  The football boycott, in turn, threatened these initiatives and/or threatened to force Missouri state taxpayers to pay for the revenue shortfall.  It is estimated that the University of Missouri would have lost at least $1 million in revenue if it had been forced to forfeit this Saturday’s game against BYU.  That amount would have to be made up by taxpayers.

It is comforting, we suppose, to think that campus-PC craziness can be contained, but it’s also untrue.

Last week, we had one of those rare experiences in which we read an article and thought to ourselves:  dang, we wish we’d written that!  Rarer still, the article in question was written by somebody other than Mark Steyn.  It was a piece written for National Review Online, by David French, a writer and lawyer who sometimes seems to court controversy.  (He defended the flying of the Confederate Battle Flag last spring, for example.)  Pulling no punches, Mr. French attacked the “Social Justice Warriors” (SJW) of PC culture and boldly predicted that political correctness has peaked and thus will, over time, begin to fade.  He put it this way:

If you’re Social Justice Warrior, you’re a liar.  You actively spread absurd falsehoods about the nature of men, women, sex, and culture that can’t withstand even the slightest scrutiny.  You change history and conceal facts to fit preferred narratives, even when it costs human lives.  You claim the best of intentions yet achieve the worst of outcomes.  And through it all, you hate the very nation and political system that have granted you the liberties you so grotesquely abuse.

If you’re a Social Justice Warrior, you’re intolerant.  Because your lies can’t withstand scrutiny, you wall yourself off in comfortable enclaves and then ruthlessly suppress dissent within your chosen communities.  From that secure ground, you then strike out, seeking to expand your territory by walling off the arts, the academy, pop culture, and even athletics, silencing because you can’t persuade and punishing those you can’t silence.

If you’re a Social Justice Warrior, however, you’re also ultimately impotent.  While you’ve intimidated many institutions, you actually control few.  Only in the most cloistered of communities, including in your academic strongholds, do you represent a majority.  You gain power by causing trouble, by making it easier to comply with your demands than to defy your tantrums. And that works until it doesn’t — until your demands become so absurd that you become the joke, until you’ve been proven so toothless that defiance becomes a path to power and popularity.

If history is any guide, then mendacious and intolerant ideological movements tend to have relatively short cultural half-lives, especially when they don’t actually attain total control over law enforcement or the means of mass communication.  The modern wave of political correctness is doomed.  In fact, it has already peaked — it has nowhere to go but down.

French argues that the PC culture/Social Justice warriors “seem to win only on the turf they already control,” which, in turn, causes them “to turn to the behavior best calculated to end their cultural dominance, behavior that makes even their fellow liberals miserable.”  As they say in the blog world, “read the whole thing.”  It’s a very good piece argued very well.

Unfortunately, in the days after we read it, something about it didn’t quite sit right.  French may have the general dynamic of the current outburst of PC nonsense figured out; and he may be right that this outburst is destined to weaken over time; but that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that he’s right that the whole business will eventually come to an end, that it has “reached its limit.”

It strikes us that there are two major problems with David French’s theory that political correctness has reached its peak and is in the process of burning itself out, and both problems are on display in the Yale and University of Missouri incidents.

The first problem is that we’re not sure it matters whether we’ve hit peak PC or not.  It is true, as French notes, that many Americans have had it with the social justice nonsense and are ready to fight back anyway they can.  And it’s also true, again as French notes, that the fact that Donald Trump and Ben Carson are the leaders in the Republican primary contest speaks to the force of the American public’s frustration with political correctness.  But then . . . so what?  What, exactly, are Republican voters going to do about it?  Let’s say they elect Trump.  What then?  He makes fun of PC and refuses to play the social justice warriors’ game.  And?  How will that change anything on campus?  How will that change anything in the bureaucracy?  How will that change anything in the business world, where social justice blackmail does serious and tangible damage?  Are we to presume that Donald Trump, simply by the strength of his own personality, can change the way universities and other bureaucracies have operated for decades?  Does anyone really believe that?

French writes that “‘Social Justice Warriors’” simply have no influence on large swaths of the American electorate.”  But again, so what?  The supporters and advocates of hardcore political correctness have NEVER had influence on large swaths of the population.  Indeed, they’ve never even tried to have such influence.  They are a minority and always have been.  But they are an active, aggrieved, and thoroughly effective minority that knows how to leverage its power and to dominate those institutions they wish to dominate.  Does French suppose that the students at the University of Missouri who detested Timothy Wolfe constituted a majority of the student body?  We don’t.  In fact, we know that Mizzou has some 35,000 students and only a handful – maybe 50, maybe 100 – were ever involved in the protests.  ONE student went on a hunger strike.  Heck, the black players on the football team didn’t even constitute a majority, being only 60 of the team’s 124 total players.

Did any of that matter?  Did that affect the outcome of their protests?  In a word, nope.  The Social Justice Warriors may be tiresome scolds with an irrational view of society and no understanding of the real world.  But they are very well positioned nonetheless, dominating academia and other bureaucratic institutions and thereby influencing the lives countless millions of others simply by virtue of their existence.  French suggests that political correctness is losing steam in part because of “the scalps that the Left hasn’t taken — Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby, American Sniper, Duck Dynasty.”  Duck Dynasty’s ratings have been halved over the last two seasons.  Chik-fil-A, of course, still exists and is still doing well, but has also stopped using its charitable foundation to donate money to groups that support “biblical marriage,” which is to say that, for the most part, the company succumbed to the PC pressure.  As for Hobby Lobby and its owners, the Green family, they are the subject of a federal investigation reportedly focusing on biblical artifacts presumed to have been stolen from Iraq and intended to be displayed in the Green family’s biblical history museum.  And these are “scalps” that weren’t taken?

The second problem is one that we addressed earlier this year, when a handful of liberals and journalists railed against the “new” PC and the “chilling effect” it was having on free speech, academic integrity, and the like.  Political Correctness, you see, is eternally malleable because the foundation on which it is built is entirely subjective and arbitrary.  There is nothing consistent or timeless about the shibboleths of PC, and they are constantly adapting to create new classes of victims and to insist on new concessions to those aggrieved classes.  Or, as we put it in a February 10, 2015 piece titled “Chaos, the Elites, and the Clash of Moral Codes”:

A couple of weeks ago, a handful of writers on the Right had some good fun with an article written by Jonathan Chait, a liberal who writes for New York magazine.  Chait, who is probably best known as the author of last decade’s Leftist cri de Coeur ”Why I Hate George W. Bush,” is unhappy that the menace known as “political correctness” has turned against him and many of his fellow middle-aged liberals and is being wielded by ever more domineering and aggressive youngsters.  The conservatives, of course, noted that Chait is just getting what he deserves and that it is quite entertaining to see the denizens of the Left turn on one another, and quite expected, given the radical drift of the Left in this country.

To the best of our knowledge, though, no one mentioned the fact that the phenomenon Chait describes is a constant and inescapable repercussion of the post-modern moral code.  The Left has come to embrace a moral view that is premised on one enduring principle, that being the belief than empathy is the primary value of human existence and that a just political system compels that empathy.  Everything else is malleable.

Once upon a time, America’s Progressives were ardently and evangelically religious.  By the end of World War I, however, the religious sentiment had begun to wane.  And by the end of World War II, it was dismissed altogether.  Religious men and women were considered REgressive, rather than progressive.  Once upon a time, the American Left was pro-Jewish, ardently supporting this incredibly valuable and incredibly oppressed religious and ethnic minority.  By the 1970s, however, the Left’s support for the Jews had begun to wane, replaced by support for a “better,” more empathetic oppressed minority, the “persecuted” Palestinians.  With the election of Barack Obama, the transition from Jewish to Arab sympathies was completed.

Once upon a time, the Left favored a feminism that argued that all people are equal, men and women sharing both the same virtues and vices, the same strengths and weaknesses.  Today, however, the Left advocates a feminism that echoes the reactionary values of old.  Women are weak; men are strong and seek nothing more than to inflict that strength upon women.  All women are victims.  All men are rapists.  Once upon a time, Karl Marx was a revolutionary genius whose theories would transform the world into an egalitarian utopia.  Today, he is nothing more than another in a long line of dead white males.

The problem which Chait and his fellow middle-aged, white liberals are discovering is one that derives directly from the rejection of all absolutes.  If nothing is inherently good or evil, then those conceptions can and will change.  What was good ten years ago is not necessarily good today, since the very definition of “good” depends on power relationships and manipulation of language.  All that matters, as we said, is coerced empathy.  And those who have power decide with whom and for what empathy must be coerced.

Consider, if you will, what happened last week at Yale.  We’ll note here that Yale is not exactly a newcomer to the post-modern leftist orthodoxy.  Indeed, as evinced by the quote used in the “They Said It” section above, it has been nearly six-and-a-half decades now since William F. Buckley wrote his devastating treatise on the state of education at his alma mater and pronounced it wanting, largely because of the influence of post-Christian moral subjectivity.  And yet, Yale is still, somehow, a hotbed of reactionary privilege of some sort.  Sixty-five years ago, the idea that a group of students, including one who shrieked wildly at her college master, might be able to bring one of the world’s most prestigious universities to a standstill over Halloween costumes would have seemed completely and utterly alien.  Fifty years ago, it would have seemed incredibly bizarre.  Twenty-five years ago, it might have been laughable, silly at best.  Ten years ago, it would likely have been considered “a little” over the top.  Today, of course, it’s national news.  And why is this so?  Because the values of the post-modern Left are constantly changing; the victim classes are constantly changing; and thus the givers of offense are constantly changing.

In God and Man at Yale, Buckley argued that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world” and that “this battle of educational theory [is] important and worth time and thought even in the context of a world-situation that seems to render totally irrelevant any fight except the power struggle against Communism.”  In other words, Buckley believed that all of this – the conflation of a couple of drunk racists with “systemic racism,” the desire to see “white privilege” acknowledged and battled, the wholehearted and emotionally crippling need for universities to be “safe spaces,” and the broader clash of moral systems – mattered and mattered a great deal.  To lose the battle for the universities meant to lose the battle for education and the next generation of leaders.  If the results of the cultural, historical, and economic ignorance of the current generation of leaders – and especially the President of the United States – isn’t enough to give you pause about the likely effects on the nation of a generation subjected to even LESSER standards of tutelage, then presumably nothing will.  Buckley was right, which is to say that the worst is yet to come.

We sympathize with the sentiments expressed last week in the online version Buckley’s magazine by David French.  We really do.  Like we said, our initial reaction to his piece was to wish we had written it.  Upon further contemplation, though, we wondered whether French might not have been too quick and too eager to dismiss the effects of political correctness on the nation and its likely persistence as a major cultural burden.  The recent (and ongoing) incidents at Yale and the University of Missouri demonstrate clearly that something is really and truly rotten in the state of American higher education.  And contrary to our initial reaction, we doubt very much that said rot will be going anywhere soon or that it will, in time, become less relevant.  The clash of moral codes is indeed the most important in our world.  And as of right now, we’re losing the future.

Will this ever end?  Will the PC nonsense ever be washed clean from the nation’s institutions of higher education?  The short answer is “no.”  The traditional moral code has been destroyed by Western intellectuals and has been replaced by nothing, save an ad hoc scheme in which individual feelings and emotions substitute for moral principles.  In such an environment, pettiness and passion will always prevail over logic and reason.

The longer answer is that it will, eventually, abate somewhat, which is probably the best we can hope for.  The kids on college campuses today, tomorrow, and the day after that will, in time, face some hard truths.  Their massive debt load, coupled with the semi-permanently stagnant economy and an ongoing influx of hard-working, unskilled immigrants, will force them to take themselves less seriously and their education more seriously.  The health care system is collapsing; the blue social-welfare model is collapsing; the nation’s fiscal position is collapsing; indeed, the entire world that the Baby Boomers envisioned when they wrecked higher education the first time back in the 1960s is collapsing.  And this time, the young will be unable to get by on the stored intellectual capital of the past.  They’ll have to fight very hard to keep things going for themselves, even as they support the rest of us in our dotage.  It will get ugly.  And they will get serious.  Or else….

Copyright 2015. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.