Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” strikingly depicted in the David Lean cinematic masterpiece of the same name, displays a scene where a number of aristocrats attend a Christmas party in 1911 Moscow. It is a sumptuous affair, but while the old liberals and aristocrats enjoy their food and drink, outside a revolution is brewing. When a poor woman breaks in and shoots someone, the crime is hushed up: class division and related violent acts are seen as rather silly and embarrassing isolated incidents, but certainly not reflections of social movements that threaten the current order.
So it is with conservatives and the current unrest on college campuses, most recently escalated by a recent compilation of student demands nationwide. At a recent Federalist Society lunch, I listened to Kirsten Powers, the USA Today columnist and author of the recent book “The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.” Her talk was excellent and engaging. She deftly listed a string of recent abuses on college campuses and elsewhere where mobs and their administration enablers targeted conservatives and shut down their speech. For example, she explained how “The Great Gatsby” is considered too offensive to be taught, and how professors are often censured for not providing “trigger warnings” in their talks.
When she explained what a trigger warning is, the urbane legal crowd laughed, politely, at the inanity. When she explained “microaggression,” the same polite laughter. This is silly, the crowd thought. This ignorance on college campuses deserves no real response. It is the Left fighting the Left, and as moderator Nicholas Rosenkranz, a law professor at Georgetown, noted, the only solution to this nonsense is to watch.
It is horrifying to watch Yale students physically surround and shout down a professor of theirs. It’s horrifying to watch University of Missouri students and professors physically push reporters and disrupt campus. It’s horrifying to watch Dartmouth students pin a woman to a wall and scream in her face: “filthy white bitch!”
The First Amendment Isn’t What You Think
Yet none of this is news to those who have followed higher education culture for years. So it is equally horrifying when these abuses meet inaction on the Right.
Those who have (rightly) complained about the redefinition of marriage should be aware that we are also witnessing a redefinition of “violence” and of “reason.” The activists who assault pro-life students are not hypocrites when they say they stand up for the First Amendment: they honestly believe they are doing so. In their minds, these leftists are not here to abrogate the law, but to perfect and fulfill it.
When directly asked what to do about this percolating chaos, Powers was frank: “I don’t know.” For the classical liberal, this is the correct answer. The marketplace of ideas, Pollyanna tells us, will sort truth from falsehood. Good will triumph, and the rioters on college campuses will, if we explain free expression to them enough, wake up. Voluntarily, when exposed to classical liberal thought after years of left-wing thought, students of goodwill should and will obviously select peaceful toleration of contrasting views over violent suppression of politically incorrect opinions.
This is the view of the old liberals in “Doctor Zhivago.” The Russian Revolution was, to them, temporary madness. So these men, good men, did nothing. And they later returned home to find their houses and families destroyed.
Start Considering Responses, Stat
It might be true that mankind is perfectible. It may be true that the current unrest on college campuses is temporary insanity. It might be that when exposed to truth and falsehood, man will inevitably choose truth. Certainly, this appears to be the view of those who support the Chicago principles at Princeton University and elsewhere. But while the arc of history might bend towards justice, its arc is long. In the meantime, generations are lost to falsehood.
I do not blame Powers or any libertarian for a lack of political will or concrete solutions. I understand that at this point conservatives and libertarians can still claim that additional education about traditional American values and law will solve any cultural problem. Yet even as those listening politely laughed and applauded her talk, there was an underlying sense of unease. There was an underlying sense that this movement would not quietly assimilate to American modes of thought, and that something in it strikes at the heart of American liberalism.
I share that unease, and while we are rightly distracted with events in France, unrest on college campuses will not disappear any time soon. As things progress, I look forward to hearing concrete proposals for how to address the rot in American higher education.
Surely, it is a welcome sign that some professors, such as a number of Yale professors, have openly objected to the excesses of campus disrupters. It is telling that these professors are largely in the sciences, however—not because science is any more insulated from ideology or any more likely to deal with “facts” than the humanities, but because professors in the hard sciences, unused to political battles, are more likely to elide false distinctions between their opposition to a specific group of misbehavior and support for abstract freedoms.
As one professor noted, his support for the Yale letter was due to the “horrible” behavior of specific Yale students. Tellingly, it was not due to a global, ideological view of how universities should be structured. So it is with America today. A room full of highly educated lawyers handwring over the meaning of this campus unrest. Ultimately, though, we see the enemy. Shouldn’t that be enough?