A former dean of the Yale Law School sounds a warning.
Anyone who has followed the news from college campuses over the past few years knows they are experiencing forms of unrest unseen since the late 1960s.
Now, as then, campuses have become an arena for political combat. Now, as then, race is a central issue. Now, as then, students rail against an unpopular president and an ostensibly rigged system. Now, as then, liberal professors are being bullied, denounced, demoted, threatened, sued and sometimes even assaulted by radical students.
But there are some important differences, too. None of today’s students risk being drafted into an unpopular, distant war. Unlike the campus rebels of the ’60s, today’s student activists don’t want more freedom to act, speak, and think as they please. Usually they want less.
Most strange: Today’s students are not chafing under some bow-tied patriarchal WASP dispensation. Instead, they are the beneficiaries of a system put in place by professors and administrators whose political views are almost uniformly left-wing and whose campus policies indulge nearly every progressive orthodoxy.
So why all the rage?
The answer lies in the title of Anthony Kronman’s necessary, humane and brave new book: “The Assault on American Excellence.” Kronman’s academic credentials are impeccable — he has taught at Yale for 40 years and spent a decade as dean of its law school — and his politics, so far as I can tell, are to the left of mine.
But Yale has been ground zero for recent campus unrest, including a Maoist-style struggle session against a distinguished professor, fights about “cultural appropriation,” the renaming of Calhoun (as in, John C.) College, and the decision to drop the term “master” because, to some, it carried “a painful and unwelcome connotation.”
It’s this last decision that seems to have triggered Kronman’s alarm. The word “master” may remind some students of slavery. What it really means is a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit, not only for its own sake, but also as an essential counterweight to the leveling and conformist tendencies of democratic politics that Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed as the most insidious threats to American civilization.
What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.
“In endless pronouncements of tiresome sweetness, the faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities today insist on the overriding importance of creating a culture of inclusion on campus,” Kronman writes.
This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.
Hence the new campus mores. Before an idea can be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, it must first be considered in light of its political ramifications. Before a speaker can be invited to campus for the potential interest of what he might have to say, he must first pass the test of inoffensiveness. Before a student can think and talk for himself, he must first announce and represent his purported identity. Before a historical figure can be judged by the standards of his time, he must first be judged by the standards of our time.
All this is meant to make students “safe.” In fact, it leaves them fatally exposed. It emboldens offense-takers, promotes doublethink, coddles ignorance. It gets in the way of the muscular exchange of honest views in the service of seeking truth. Above all, it deprives the young of the training for independent mindedness that schools like Yale are supposed to provide.
I said earlier that Kronman’s book is brave, but in that respect I may be giving him too much credit. Much of his illustrious career is now safely behind him; he can write as he pleases. Would an untenured professor have the guts to say what he does? The answer to the question underscores the urgency of his warning.
Alberta and Texas are rather similar in many ways. One is that they are very big and nearly the same size. Texas is 269,000 square miles (696,000 km2), while Alberta is 255,000 sq mi (661,000 km2), or 5% smaller than Texas.
The main similarity is that both are the oil producing giants of their respective countries. They both produce a little over 3 million barrels of oil per day. (75% of Alberta’s oil is exported to the US since that is far too much oil for the Canadian market.)
Both have huge agricultural industries, particularly cattle ranching. Alberta has about 5 million head of cattle (40% of the cattle in Canada) while Texas has about 12 million head of cattle (13% of the cattle in the US). As a result people in both places have a tradition of riding horses and wearing cowboy hats.
Both have two main cities which are nearly the same size as each other. Texas has Houston located 240 miles (390 km) south of Dallas, Alberta has Calgary located 180 miles (300 km) south of Edmonton. In both cases the southern of the two cities is the main head office center of the oil industries of their respective countries.
Both are quite conservative by the standards of their respective countries, (although the entire political spectrum of Canada is offset to the left of the US, so Alberta is not as conservative as Texas). This may be a result of their main industries, since workers in both oil and cattle ranching tend to be independent, conservative-thinking people who don’t like government interfering in their lives.
The main difference is that Texas has 7 times the population of Alberta, and its two main cities are about 5 times the size of Alberta’s two main cities. It is the second most populous state in the US, and this gives it a lot more clout in US federal politics than Alberta has in Canada.
As Texans say, “Don’t mess with Texas”, whereas Alberta does get messed with a lot by its federal government, although people in neither place like being interfered with and told what to do.
I may disagree with Mr. Flake on policy, but I consider him an honorable man, a loyal friend and a valued colleague. His retirement is deeply troubling to me because he represents a principled and patriotic Republican Party, one that has long championed strong American leadership around the world, and one I now fear is falling apart.
.. Over the past few decades, our political culture has corroded. Traditions of compromise and civility have given way to a zero-sum, winner-take-all approach that is now out of control. As Mr. Flake said on the Senate floor Tuesday, “Anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”
.. Republican leaders have offered occasional defenses of their colleagues from these attacks: Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, called Mr. Flake “a very fine man” of “high principles” on Tuesday. But they have largely remained on the sidelines as Mr. Trump and his allies have attacked those few Republicans who have dared to call for civility and compromise.
The consequences of this could be grave.
.. If the Republican Party under Donald Trump has no room for independent-minded conservatives, and if, in the coming years, senators like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are replaced by fringe conservatives handpicked because of their blind loyalty to this president, it will be too late for responsible conservatives to salvage the party they’ve built over generations.
.. As Democrats call for independence and pragmatism from Republicans, we should be asking ourselves how tolerant we are of dissent within our own party and how much we are really willing to reach across the aisle.
Why do working-class conservatives seem to vote so often against their own economic interests?
My stab at an answer would begin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Trump supporters live in places that once were on the edge of the American frontier. Life on that frontier was fragile, perilous, lonely and remorseless. If a single slip could produce disaster, then discipline and self-reliance were essential. The basic pattern of life was an underlying condition of peril, warded off by an ethos of self-restraint, temperance, self-control and strictness of conscience.
.. Today these places are no longer frontier towns, but many of them still exist on the same knife’s edge between traditionalist order and extreme dissolution.
.. Many people in these places tend to see their communities the way foreign policy realists see the world: as an unvarnished struggle for resources — as a tough world, a no-illusions world, a world where conflict is built into the fabric of reality.
.. The virtues most admired in such places, then and now, are what Shirley Robin Letwin once called the vigorous virtues: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.”
.. The sins that can cause the most trouble are not the social sins — injustice, incivility, etc. They are the personal sins — laziness, self-indulgence, drinking, sleeping around.
.. Moreover, the forces of social disruption are visible on every street: the slackers taking advantage of the disability programs, the people popping out babies, the drug users, the spouse abusers.
.. In their view, government doesn’t reinforce the vigorous virtues. On the contrary, it undermines them — by fostering initiative-sucking dependency, by letting people get away with their mistakes so they can make more of them and by getting in the way of moral formation.
The only way you build up self-reliant virtues, in this view, is through struggle. Yet faraway government experts want to cushion people from the hardships that are the schools of self-reliance. Compassionate government threatens to turn people into snowflakes.
.. a woman from Louisiana complaining about the childproof lids on medicine and the mandatory seatbelt laws. “We let them throw lawn darts, smoked alongside them,” the woman says of her children. “And they survived. Now it’s like your kid needs a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads to go down the kiddy slide.”
.. they perceive government as a corrupt arm used against the little guy. She argues that these voters may vote against their economic interests, but they vote for their emotional interests, for candidates who share their emotions about problems and groups.
.. I’d say they believe that big government support would provide short-term assistance, but that it would be a long-term poison to the values that are at the core of prosperity.