While making my annual visit to my college alma mater (which shall remain nameless, to protect innocent and guilty alike), and wandering around the bucolic and eerily quiet (in anticipation of the barbarian hordes about to descend the following week) campus, I had to reflect on a subset – if you will – of the “do history make men or do men make history?” question which I've dealt with extensively in previous posts. This particular subset is of the collective type, and it refers to a specific college in the American Midwest – an area known to be a rich substrate for populism (good) or the “tea party” (bad – according to the mainstream media). (I've also dealt recently with the varieties of populism, so won't repeat myself on that issue.) This school in particular prides itself on being, not just a “trend setter” -- because that sounds, and is, a bit on the superficial and ephemeral side – but in the socio-political vanguard – not just at present, but historically, going back to before the Civil War. (How many small towns have a half dozen Underground Railroad historical sites?) Yes, the narrative – I might say the conceit – is that this particular place has been first and foremost in virtually every significant historical event, movement, process, or phenomenon for over 180 years – with the stipulation that, of course, “significant” is synonymous with “progressive”, “liberal”, “socialist”, “collectivist”, “totalitarian” -- well OK, those last two are implied but not often made specific. It is a place of “gentle persuasion” -- up to a point, beyond which it can descend into a gloves-off hotbed of protest, rallies, and sign-carrying – most of which is open to question, since they are “preaching to the choir” as long as their efforts remain campus-bound.
So yes, this small school in a small town in the Midwest turns out to be the axis mundi – the birthplace... the crucible... the fountainhead... of all that is good, pure, true, and enlightened – by comparison to which all other places must be found wanting. And this virtue is not one of mere assent, oh no! It is the virtue of creativity... of origination... of being indispensable in history. If it were not for this place – or so the myth goes – so much of what we call “progress” would never have occurred, and we would still be mired in the darkness of medievalism, superstition, and countless other political and thought crimes.
Well, that's quite a claim, I must say – and, I hasten to add, it's never made explicit in quite this way, but is strongly implied, to an overwhelming extent, in all “mission statements”, “visions”, and particularly in historical narratives – not to mention the selective memories of both students and faculty. It is, in short, inescapable, whether one is a student there or just passing through (and I have done both). So the question inevitably arises – well, is it true or not? Can something this small exert that much power and influence? And if so, why doesn't it get more credit in the media, and among mainstream historians and political scientists? They have no problem giving Harvard credit for pretty much everything that has ever happened, but this place seldom merits more than a footnote. Is that fair? Or does it reflect reality?
And I'm not even going to try and answer that question. I'd prefer to concentrate on a more grass-roots perspective, as a former student and current observer. What an institution – of any sort – claims, and what its members actually do from day to day, may not always seem to match. My observation as a student was that the other students were being blown about by various political whirlwinds, which made it seem (to them, at least) as if they were “activists” -- i.e. “doing something” -- whereas they were, basically, quite passive and reactive. Not only passive, but, in many cases, infantile. By which I mean rigid, impulsive, dogmatic, and prone to tantrums. Surely this can't have been a hotbed of creativity! When the average emotional age is pre-kindergarten, you're not going to get much more than a herd of intelligent, but brainless, baa-ing sheep – and that's exactly what I saw on a daily basis back then.
But then, where did their political convictions – held with incandescent fervor – come from? Their parents? Doesn't seem likely, especially given the “generation gap” of that era. High school teachers? Maybe, if they had attended one of those “red diaper baby” schools in the New York City area. From books? Mmmmmaybe. (But this assumes they were already well-read when they entered, and I saw scant evidence of that.) Whatever the reason, these characters hit campus on Day One of freshman year already loaded for bear – primed for political activism – thoroughly indoctrinated in the wisdom of Marx, Engels, and Chairman Mao (and probably Stalin too, but it would have been a bit awkward to admit it). They were already fully-formed community organizers, activists, propagandists... really a marvel to behold. But were they creative? Did they have any original ideas? No. They were, basically, political cannon fodder -- “useful idiots” as the saying goes. But did this deter them? Not a bit. They imagined themselves up there on the ramparts, waving a red flag, staring the fascists in the face. (And we have to remember that, not even 20 years after the end of World War II, in which capitalist America had defeated fascist Germany and Italy, fascism and capitalism had conceptually merged in these pea-brains, and become, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.)
I should add, as a sidebar, that although “political correctness” had not yet been so named, it was already standard operating procedure there back in the mid-60s, with any speech that didn't line up properly with Marxist theory being promptly shouted down. This much, at least, has changed very little.
What has changed is the subject matter, or orientation, of the infantile tantrums. And it comes as the latest point in a very long trajectory. In the early days (far before my time), the causes were just even if there has been some self-serving historical revisionism since. Eventually, abolition, racial equality and women's equality morphed into broader progressive causes, which, again, at least had some philosophical and moral validity, not to mention political momentum. In my day (said in a creaky voice punctuated by weak coughing) it was all about the war in Vietnam, the draft, and profiteering – nothing creative or unique about that, but the validity question was never in doubt.
(I would say, regarding the previous discussion, that the causes were better then the people promoting them. It's not that the war in Vietnam wasn't illegal, unjust, and immoral – because it was all of these. It's that the people objecting to it were offering Maoism as a realistic and viable alternative. They still saw the Soviet Union as the shining city on a hill.)
So... what is the issue of the day that has everyone tied in knots and in a state of high hysteria around campus? Why, it's none other than “micro-aggression”, and “triggers”. I've referred, in a previous post, to the fact that our campuses these days are full of pathetic creatures oozing around like eggs with no shells, just waiting to be stepped on or offended in some way. And the rule – conceptually similar to witch hunts – is there is no word, phrase, or action, no matter how apparently harmless or well-intended, that is off limits when it comes to some sad, sick soul reacting to it as if they'd been splashed with burning pitch. Things have gotten to the point where, to quote a recent article by Walter Williams of George Mason University, “30 students and the campus therapy dog [paid, undoubtedly, in “fair trade” wages] retired to a 'safe room' with soft music, crayons and coloring books to escape any uncomfortable facts raised by (a speaker sponsored by the Young Republicans – yes, they do exist there, and I imagine they could all fit into a Smart Car).”
I'm sorry, but students were made of sterner stuff in my day. Yes, they may have been delusional and easily swayed by demagogues, but at least they weren't afraid of their own shadows. Political correctness was in vogue, but the response to “offensive speech” was typically to shout back with something equally offensive, not to curl up in ball on the floor, piteously whimpering.
And what is the response of the powers-that-be on campus to all this? Well, it should be to scrape these people off the floor and send them back home to mama. But no – that would never do. We have to not only “understand” and “accept”, but accommodate – up to and including the providing of special rooms to which the victims can repair in order to recover and heal from the trauma of hearing or seeing something they don't like (including, by the way, things that are part of the curriculum of classes they signed up for). (I hope that, at least, this group doesn't include any political science majors. If so, their career in politics is already over.)
It's tempting to say that this latest (and possibly terminal) madness is the reductio ad absurdum of a long history of liberalism... a final stage of decay. It's true enough that we are seeing the triumph of pure feeling – and not just the emotional will of the majority (nothing new about that) but the pathology of a small minority, which now reigns supreme. And again, it's relevant to ask where this all came from. Were they like that in high school? (Maybe they're suffering from PTSD based on bullying.) Or if not, how soon after they arrived on campus were they infected with this virus – and by whom or what? I suspect (witch hunts again) that it has a lot to do with mass hysteria – the way an idea, or meme, or a way of reacting, spreads through a group for no apparent reason. This is, after all, the basis for many events, both large and small, throughout history, so it can't be discounted. A college campus in a small town is a bit isolated, like the Salem of old... and yet we find this same issue everywhere, including plenty of much larger schools in large cities.
So, again, I say – it's all well and good to be in the vanguard if the cause is just, but that also implies some level of judgment and discernment – and independence of thought. What we're seeing here is certainly a sign of the times, but it has nothing to do with objectivity and everything to do with passivity and fear. It may not be a logical milestone in the decline of liberalism as much as a milestone in the decline of strength of character and common sense. And I would add that what we are seeing is not so much trend setting as a symptom of a larger, society-wide pathology. One has to ask – is this the same society that defeated the Third Reich, and that stared down the Soviet Union? Could anything like this happen today? We're having enough trouble with Iran.
Again, it's the old, weary cycle of history, in which what seem to be trivial weaknesses rise up and become dominant. Even if we allow that America has greatly sinned on the world stage, it is troubling to see things deteriorating in this way. But has any empire handled its decline and fall with dignity? We actually – and ironically – have Russia as an example, and they came out of the Soviet era about as well as anyone could have expected – and better in many ways. Will we have the historical perspective to do likewise, or will we be fighting down to the last man, like the Japanese soldiers who hid out on Pacific islands for decades after V-J Day? Time – as they say – will tell.