Dostoyevsky’s “The Demons,” one of the finest political novels ever written, tells the story of Stepan Verkhovensky: an amiable, if faintly ridiculous, scholar idling in the provinces of Russia. As a young man, Stepan flirted with the liberal ideas of his day, publishing an article in a “progressive journal” and aiding in a translation of the socialist Charles Fourier. He even grew convinced for a time that the government was watching him closely (and grows very annoyed to find out that they do not care the least bit about him). Evidently allured by the chicness of radical ideas, Stepan is nonetheless too frivolous and gentle a man to try to implement those ideas in the real world.
His son, Peter, is a different case altogether. Immediately upon returning to his hometown, he begins organizing some wannabe revolutionaries into a cell to carry out their seditious designs. The deeply sinister character of Peter is fully revealed when he plots the murder of Shatov, a former member of the group, who Peter fears may betray their identities. The significance of Dostoyevsky’s political parable is clear: however kind-hearted in its first intentions, leftist politics breeds dangerous sons.
What Dostoyevsky Teaches Us About Middlebury
I thought of this novel over the weekend when I read Frank Bruni’s op-ed piece decrying the recent violent protest at Middlebury College. It is an article that sounds many of the same notes that conservatives have been sounding since this incident. He laments the “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” on display at Middlebury. He warns that the fracas was “the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.” He condemns the “policing of imperfect language, silencing of dissent and shaming of dissenters” all too prevalent on the university campus now.
Falling under the spell of this article, one could almost forget that the writers for the op-ed pages of the New York Times—where Mr. Bruni plies his trade—routinely employ the very same political rhetoric used by Middlebury’s protestors. “Racist, sexist, anti-gay”: that was the chant Middlebury’s budding Peter Verkhovensky’s hurled at Charles Murray.
But it could just as well serve as the minutes for most meetings of the Times editorial board. Those are the charges that the Times’ writers level at their political opponents all the time.
The Left Has Employed Angry Speech For a Long Time
Bruni himself wrote an article after the defeat of the Indiana RFRA law in 2015, about the “religion-based bigotry” of those who still adhere to traditional Christian teaching concerning sexuality. He wrote another earlier that year, subtitled “Religious Liberty, Bigotry, and Gays,” in which he dismissed concerns over the increasing threats to religious liberty.
Charles Blow published an article two days after the election entitled “America Elects a Bigot,” then went on television to smear a black man who supported Trump as “part of the bigotry that is Donald Trump.” This same author actually wrote an article warning that we do not use the charge of racism enough.
Paul Krugman dismissed the notion that Trump voters were motivated by economic insecurity, chalking up their decision at the polls to straightforward “racial antagonism.”
And on and on. It’s not just the New York Times—smearing political opponents in this manner has been standard practice on the left for quite some time. Remember when George Bush was accused of being a racist, because he couldn’t stop a hurricane? Remember when Mitt Romney was accused of being a sexist because of his silly comment about binder full of women? Remember when a pizzeria in Indiana was nearly shut down after its proprietors were libeled as homophobic?
The effect of these charges is to de-legitimize the accused: to brand them as persons outside the respectable norms of society. The protestors at Middlebury simply took the logic implicit in such accusations and extended it one step further. If Murray is a racist—as many of their professors assured them he was—then why should he be accorded any platform to speak at their university? Don’t such people represent everything good liberals are supposed to deplore? If the administration at Middlebury was misguided enough to allow him on campus, why shouldn’t they instruct their elders in the proper treatment of such undesirables?
There is an unmistakable coherence to their line of reasoning. Measured against it, appeals to freedom of speech and inquiry can seem feeble and unconvincing. That is why it is becoming increasingly common for young leftists to brazenly espouse limits on these freedoms, in deference to their own political sensibilities.
The Left’s Indignant Rhetoric Makes Restraint Impossible
But more than the logic of leftist politics, its emotional dynamic has contributed to the cultivation of campus violence. Identity politics, which is now more or less synonymous with progressivism, has its soul and substance in resentment. It thrives on the arousal of resentment, on the instigation of perpetual outrage. The sentiment it needs most of all is the readiness to be offended, so it cultivates this frame of mind relentlessly. It takes little knowledge of human nature to understand how prone young people are to being corrupted by such rhetoric, given their emotional propensity towards defiance. Once corrupted, their indignation can take on a life of its own. There is no controlling such a beast once it is let loose.
Bruni wants the protestors to be alight with resentment, but nonetheless to respect the decorum of civilized life. He never considers that resentment is, per se, an uncivilized attitude, one that inevitably brings about uncivilized behavior. He writes of the early stages of the protest: “(Murray) arrived on campus … to encounter hundreds of protestors intent on registering their disgust. Many jammed the auditorium where he was supposed to be interviewed … and stood with their backs to him. That much was fine, even commendable, but the protest didn’t stop there.”
Imagine how unacquainted with basic human psychology you must be to suppose that a pack of 20-year-olds—aroused against the presence of a branded villain, inflated with self-righteous disgust, and egged on by their professors to behave with flagrant incivility—would somehow magically take hold of their passions and stop there. If the students were taught that, thus far, the effects of resentment were “fine” and “commendable,” then who in the world can be surprised they would push a little bit further?
The Left Owns Their Rioters, Like It Or Not
It speaks well of Bruni, and other leftists like him, that he is beginning to feel revulsion towards the growing extremism on our college campuses. But that doesn’t mean he and his colleagues do not share some responsibility for the rise of this phenomenon. Let’s not pretend these protests emerged out of nowhere. They are launched in the name of left-wing causes, and couched in standard left-wing rhetoric.
If the parents are now horrified at the fervor with which their children carry out their own movement—well, they are still the ones who enlisted them in that movement in the first place. Stepan, too, was appalled when he came to learn Peter’s real character. But he was still the scoundrel’s father.