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.
The future looks quite grim.
Blind capitalism, or the wholesale deregulation of markets made possible by a failed liberal class, is an undiscriminating destructive force.
Without limitations imposed on mass production or industrial growth, the ecosystem that supports our very existence has been brought to the brink of collapse. Climate change, spurred by unregulated production and consumption, will drastically alter the living conditions on earth.
Moreover, there is a revolution in our future, and one that will be born at the far-right end of the American political spectrum.
Revolt is necessary, as it is our only means of toppling corrupt government. However, this revolt won’t come from the middle classes or be inspired by moderate politicians.
Looking back to Germany in the late 1920s, citizens then knew revolt was coming. Theirs too came from from the far right, as Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party used government weakness along with people’s frustration to gain political power.
The only solution is a complete restructuring of human society into small communities, in which small groups of people can rebuild their lives.
These communities will have to be modest and self-sufficient, growing and building everything they need themselves. To live within their means, these groups can’t be much larger than a few families, otherwise they risk becoming reliant on larger industrial producers.
Hopefully, these small communities will give birth to a new kind of political system, one that is not so easily corrupted by the power of money or wishful thinking.
The chief accomplishment of the current educated elite is that it has produced a bipartisan revolt against itself.
.. A narrative is emerging. It is that the new meritocratic aristocracy has come to look like every other aristocracy. The members of the educated class use their intellectual, financial and social advantages to pass down privilege to their children, creating a hereditary elite that is ever more insulated from the rest of society. We need to build a meritocracy that is true to its values, truly open to all.
.. The real problem with the modern meritocracy can be found in the ideology of meritocracy itself. Meritocracy is a system built on the maximization of individual talent, and that system unwittingly encourages several ruinous beliefs:
.. Exaggerated faith in intelligence. Today’s educated establishment is still basically selected on the basis of I.Q. High I.Q. correlates with career success but is not the crucial quality required for civic leadership. Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions.
.. If you build a society upon this metaphor you will wind up with a society high in narcissism and low in social connection. Life is not really an individual journey. Life is more like settling a sequence of villages.
.. Misplaced notion of the self. Instead of seeing the self as the seat of the soul, the meritocracy sees the self as a vessel of human capital, a series of talents to be cultivated and accomplishments to be celebrated. If you base a society on a conception of self that is about achievement, not character, you will wind up with a society that is demoralized; that puts little emphasis on the sorts of moral systems that create harmony within people, harmony between people and harmony between people and their ultimate purpose.
.. Inability to think institutionally. Previous elites poured themselves into institutions and were pretty good at maintaining existing institutions, like the U.S. Congress, and building new ones, like the postwar global order. The current generation sees institutions as things they pass through on the way to individual success.
.. Some institutions, like Congress and the political parties, have decayed to the point of uselessness, while others, like corporations, lose their generational consciousness and become obsessed with the short term.
.. Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation.
.. The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.
Pompeo’s ascent underscores just how many politicians who came to prominence with the tea party — including Vice President Pence, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney — now occupy powerful positions in Trump’s administration. Depending on how far Trump goes to try to remake the GOP in his image, tea party alumni may form the core of a new Republican establishment.
.. The grievances that animated the movement and fed Trump’s presidential candidacy live on. The tea party’s insurgent impulses have fused with his erratic populism to become one of the three contending forces in the Republican Party — the other two being establishment Republicanism and ideological conservatism. Tillerson’s fall is a prime example of how traditional Republicans are becoming yesterday’s men and women in the Trumpified GOP. Tomorrow, will it be the ideological conservatives like House Speaker Paul Ryan?.. The Washington Post reported that Trump disdained Tillerson, the pro-big-business former ExxonMobil CEO, for being “too establishment” in his thinking, by which the president seems to have meant Tillerson’s prudence (at least in relation to Trump), adherence to traditional diplomatic protocols, and unwillingness to rip up trade agreements and the Iran nuclear deal.Pompeo, on the other hand, first won election to Congress in 2010 as a tea party favorite, in a race where some of his supporters urged Kansans to “Vote American ” to defeat his Indian American opponent... party leaders were uneasily aware that the tea party stood apart from the Republican Party and in some ways defined itself in angry opposition to the GOP establishment. (The divide plagued the speakership of John Boehner and ultimately helped lead to his resignation.).. Republican and Democratic leaders came across to tea party activists as equally uninterested in their worries about immigration, the loss of jobs and industry to global economic competition, and a social agenda of “political correctness” pushed by academia and the media. Trump built his movement by championing these issues both parties seemed to ignore and projecting a willingness to fight to the death rather than surrender... In the long view of history, the tea party was one more episode in a series of right-wing populist revolts that marked the development of the modern conservative movement.
- .. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, squelchedSen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, while the conservative intellectual champion
- William F. Buckley Jr. expelled the conspiracy-mongering John Birch Society from the respectable right. At other times, leaders like
- Ronald Reagan brought conservative activists into the mainstream of the GOP without permitting them to engage in intra-party fratricide.
.. When the conservative supporters of Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona came together in the early 1960s, for example, they took over many state and local party organizations and threw out anyone they deemed insufficiently committed to the cause.
.. As for Burch, after Goldwater’s massive defeat, he repented and told the RNC that “this party needs two wings, two wings and a center, or I fear it may never fly again.”
.. The grievances of most tea party supporters didn’t fade with time but were inflamed by Trump’s campaign, which strengthened the movement’s tendency to view opponents as illegitimate and un-American, and compromise as treason.
.. Despite the tea party’s provenance as a conservative movement, there was little about past political patterns and practices that it wanted to conserve. Activists hoped not only to “throw the bums out” but also to get rid of anything that passed for the status quo.
.. The affinity of tea party veterans for Trump is based in part on their common interest in disruption. Ryan may soon be in trouble because his authority and his orthodox conservatism have become another establishment to be overthrown