Reflecting on Campus thought police

In my recent post Campus Thought Police, I suggested that all the attention campuses pay to hate crimes and intolerance ends up diminishing individuals’ sense of agency and empowerment.  Looking at it after the fact, I wondered if I could make the connection more clear.

To clarify on sense of agency: when the community is given no sense of progress, it comes to feel powerless.

The messaging that comes from the campus establishment treats hate and intolerance as if they were perennial, unparalleled mortal dangers.  The constant use of such an urgent tone makes it seem as if the Civil Rights era counted for nothing.

But there has been much progress.  Racism, sexism, and other bad -isms have become stigmas to a culture that is now loathe to harbor stigmas.  Nonetheless, instead of placing us somewhere on the long arc of the moral universe, campus voices convey to us that we are in a Sisyphean task: rolling the boulder ever up the hill with nothing to show for it.  The unending klaxon calling us to battle stations against intolerance eventually convinces us that we are fighting some insurmountable evil.  No reasonable observer can maintain hope if they take the academy’s message at face value.

To clarify on empowerment: activism shunts individuals to the radical margin when they should be integrating with the mainstream.

All the prevalent theories on race, class, gender, and so on shove earnest young souls like cattle onto the divisive boat of oppression politics.  If they stay for the ride, they go on to commit civil disobedience, plan direct actions, and lead generally counterproductive lives.  The dogma that they are in mortal combat with oppressive forces locks them necessarily into solidarity and cooperation.  For the sake of comrades and self, they’re never free to think that oppression may not actually define their existence.

But if their worldview is mistaken, then in all their sound and fury they are missing their true calling.  Instead of uncritically fighting on some far flung front of the war on oppression, students should be preparing to constructively enter a society that is on balance more just than unjust.  They should experience the wonderful challenge of interpersonal competition rather than the dull drumbeat to cooperate with comrades.  The university prides itself as a marketplace of ideas, but if there is any such competition, it hasn’t pierced the Berlin Wall that upholds the politically correct dictums of the academic establishment.

Campus leaders’ actual if unintended conveyance of a lack of progress erodes onlookers’ sense of agency.  The shunting of students into unfruitful radicalism not only bereaves society but dis-empowers the students as well.  The leading voices of the academy need to re-examine the message they’re sending to the world.

Campus thought police

Hate crimes have received a bit of press lately, with the news supernova over Trayvon Martin as well as the recent conviction of Dharun Ravi in the Tyler Clementi case.  Much ink has been spilled on these things already.  I will spare you but to say that hoodies are not a good symbol to rally around, and that Mr. Ravi’s disproportionately harsh sentence tells us just how powerful the politically-driven liberal witch hunt for bullies is.

Now only occasionally do hate and intolerance receive as much attention in the public square as they do on university campuses.  The past couple of years there has been great hand-wringing across the University of California system.  President Yudof issued this open letter in March.  The academic establishment typically shies away from moral and absolutist language, but its use in this letter betrays the community’s critical-thinking blind spot.  In response to one act of vandalism, the UC President sounds more like a back-bending diplomat when he applauds the “rapid and vigorous condemnation of this cowardly act.”  This kind of language is reserved for when some ultra-important party has been ticked off and must be mollified.

That party is a large one, animated in its adherence to the orthodoxy of victimhood.  It is driven by the oppressor-oppressed paradigm, and it continuously demands urgent, corrective action.  As a modern day Sisyphus, the university president or chancellor must repeatedly expend campus time and resources condemning every little act of vandalism and thoughtless transgression.  Furthermore, their chains require them to assure that such crimes will be expunged completely from the grounds of the academy.  But there will always be insensitive yokels ready to wreak havoc, if for no other reason than to elicit a response from the ultra-sensitive communities on campus.

A couple of news items from last fall help us see a fuller picture of the campus orthodoxy that dictates these responses.  After a student column on some regrettable phenomenon called “jungle fever,” The California Aggie editorial board informed its readership that its staff were to undergo “diversity training.”  This prescription can’t help but remind me of Communist-era reeducation camps.  And after some abortion opponents surreptitiously distributed the “180” video on campus, the campus Women’s Resource Center not only condemned the act but felt compelled to offer support to “students identifying as Jewish, Queer, People of Color, Women, Transgender, Romani, and folks with disabilities” who were offended or else menaced by a sense of “erasure.”

There are limits to sensitivity on campus and in the public square.  Authority figures always take it upon themselves to reassure the public through their actions, but these grandiose declarations end up diminishing the sense of agency and empowerment that ought to be cultivated in the individuals of the community.  There is too much coddling of victims and not enough sense of perspective.  If we are to preserve the academy as an arena of critical thought, and if it is to deliver us well-rounded, capable citizens for society, we must shake off the unhealthy campus obsession over hate and intolerance.

Univocal language

In recent episodes of his Reasonable Faith podcast, William Lane Craig hits hard at physicist Laurence Krauss’s assertions that the universe came from nothing.  It turns out Krauss’ “nothing” is basically vacuum space filled with a sea of crackling energy.  Among other things, it has properties regarding stability of decay and the potentiality of begetting matter. But anything with properties and states of potentiality, even if devoid of matter, is not nothing! This is not the first time a naturalist has deployed a definitional bait-and-switch in the hope of dispatching the annoyingly transcendent Deity.  Each time Dr. Craig refutes these kind of metaphysical transgressions, he reminds us of the necessity of univocal language; that is, the importance of using words whose meanings do not change from one sentence to the next.

One arena that could benefit from this clarity of meaning is the question of rights.  Last month, Greg Koukl highlighted on his radio show a string of stories illustrating the tragic trajectory of human rights.  First, he reported this BBC this headline: “Dolphins deserve same rights as humans, say scientists.”  And then followed the cetacean saga where PETA sued Sea World under the premise that the 13th amendment, protecting against slavery, applies to killer whales.  The thread linking these stories is the desire to assign legal personhood on the basis of what Koukl called functionalism.  When a living being achieves a certain functionality, say certain brain wave complexity, then it deserves rights and protection.  The flip side is that some beings, like human fetuses, may not attain to the criteria, depending on who assigns them.  Koukl illustrated the case powerfully with reference to the recent Journal of Medical Ethics article on “after-birth abortion.”

Without an objective grounding to our moral values, there is total confusion as to rights.  Are they really human rights, or are protections conferred only when certain experts declare personhood?  Can Flipper and Koko the gorilla come along for the ride?  It’s complicated enough just in the realm of Homo sapiens.  Justice Ginsberg, much to her discredit, isn’t on the same page as the rest of us when it comes to human rights.  It seems on her view that the year your constitution was written has considerable bearing on how good it is.  And then, there is the obfuscation that comes from sensational media train-wrecks, as we’ve seen with the privileged, 30-year-old Georgetown law student and rising victimhood star Sandra Fluke.  Fortunately, there are still those who can elucidate the absurdity of when rights go too far.

Whether we’re talking about the origin of the cosmos or the foundation of human rights, or just wondering if “quinoa is good,” our debates and discussions will be much smoother when we use our terms univocally.

Of sheeple and super PACs

Just the other week, the charmingly hateful Bill Maher announced he was giving $1 million to a super PAC working to re-elect President Obama.  Despite his past harangues against the Roberts Supreme Court, Mr. Obama has resigned himself to the reality of unlimited campaign spending for now.

The Citizens United decision that ushered in that reality is deeply unpopular with the public. But what is the alternative?  Restrictions on political advertising are inextricably at odds with America’s free speech tradition.  Contrary to popular belief, the first amendment does not aim to protect lap dances, the pitching of tents on university quads, or school children’s ability to endorse “bong hits for Jesus.”  If nothing else, free speech exists so we may amply criticize our incumbent political leaders.  Anyone who remembers Tienanmen square ought to have a natural appreciation for this necessity.

Yet, Americans fear the pernicious effects of too much political speech.  Some are concerned for the quality of the speech, but most trepidation is reserved for the idea that rich people and wealthy corporations will have too much power.  In reality, there is a healthy split between rich Democrats who want to raise their own taxes and rich Republicans who understand the importance of keeping taxes low.  Even from the class war perspective, there is no need to worry that big donors will team up and categorically dominate everyone else.  President Obama’s ample 2012 war chest attests to that.

What of the quality of political speech?  This election cycle, news media consumers cannot help but be acutely aware of the Republican tit-for-tat.  Recall the sensational, anti-capitalist dross that Gingrich supporter Sheldon Adelson financed earlier this year.  But in what past golden era were political campaigns not ugly?  More to the point, the desire to suppress distasteful or distorted speech through legislated, bureaucratic discernment is chillingly Orwellian.

As the unattributable maxim goes, fight bad speech with good speech.  True democrats (lowercase “d”) have nothing to fear, as long we believe our fellow citizens aren’t dumb.  But for some reason this pervasive mentality prevails: that millions of dollars of campaign money automatically translate into bought votes, as if people were uncritical voting robots.  This is classic “sheeple” thinking, a presumptuous judgement that your fellow countrymen are mere followers who are too blind to apprehend the truth you happen to perceive.

We must appreciate our democracy as a marketplace of ideas, where we test confidently a faith that our fellow citizens are endowed with true decision-making ability and are not bought-and-sold sheeple.  To do otherwise would be to shrink into the clutches of tyranny.

Who is that hipster?

Apparently there was a big to-do about Jay Carney’s square glasses last September.  But I missed out on that one somehow.  I don’t see this guy’s face on TV as much as his predecessor Robert Gibbs.  The wall-to-wall coverage of the Republican presidential primary must have something to do with that.  But sure enough, I was reassured of Carney’s uncannily youthful visage while watching Today this morning.

Speaking of White House czars, have you learned about the new video game czar, UW Madison’s Constance Steinkuehler?  Even now, the economic benefits of our farsighted leaders are accruing to us.  Where will the maddening overreach of government end?

Envy, or fairness?

Cogitduck #5


Today is the South Carolina primary.  Sometimes brilliant, sometimes bungling, but always a firecracker, Newt Gingrich has turned things around in the past couple of days.  My commentary doodle though is looking back to a moment earlier in the week.  Twice now in recent days, Matt Lauer has challenged a Republican on the idea that the President and his allies are campaigning on the divisive basis of “envy.”  Last week it was Mitt Romney, and this Wednesday was Romney supporter and New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

It’s a bit amusing to imagine that, in snapping immediately to the question of fairness, Mr. Lauer was impulsively responding to a recollection of some deep-seated childhood trauma.  My joking and his bias aside, Lauer is a pleasant enough TV personality.

But his recent spates do seem to reflect the brokenness of American culture today.  As little kids, we all learn the basic rule to be nice and share with others.  But the last couple generations of children have failed to learn how to get on in the real world.  Since bursting forth in the 1960s, a counterculture has cascaded down to us through Hollywood, progressive pedagogy, and permissive parenting, reinforcing the notion that our society is irredeemably unfair while simultaneously growing our sense of entitlement.

For every ten times a voice in our culture admonishes us about “greed,” how many times are we warned against envy or covetousness (commandment number ten)?  A cultural establishment that mistakenly sees our society as basically unfair cannot be bothered with those kinds of questions.  But to so readily dismiss those psychological motivations is to betray a major deficiency in worldview.

Two revolutions

Cogit Duck #4

You may have learned that “The Protester” is TIME’s 2011 person of the year.  This pronouncement strengthens a strange notion stretching as far back as the Wisconsin state capitol protests of February.  Back then, sleeping bag-toting proto-Occupiers were the first Americans to insinuate a connection between themselves and Tahrir Square.  In so doing, they cast their own struggle in the light of the French  Revolution.  But why would they trade the glorious vestige of the American Revolution for the deeply troubled tradition of the French?

The twin revolts left such disparate legacies because of the drastically different situations of their respective peoples.  We learn from an invaluable resource that the colonial Americans, under decades of relaxed British rule, enjoyed unparalleled prosperity and privilege.  On average, they were several inches taller, better fed, and enjoyed greater freedoms than their British counterparts.  Their corner of the New World was unencumbered by the class distinctions that hung over Europe.  The missteps of Crown and Parliment that soured Americans against the empire were insignificant and brief in comparison to the privations the long-suffering French endured under the direct rule of an inept and illiberal monarch.

The ball of class struggle started to roll with the heads of the French aristocrats over two centuries ago, but a different force was unleashed just a few years earlier in America.  That revolution was deeply conservative in nature.  The French in their revolt sought something new, unprecedented, and decisive, but the American rebels wanted to preserve the prosperity and privilege they had already gained.

Since those heady days of the late eighteenth century, the French model has been a catalyst for the radicalization of desperate masses.  The American project may have been the first decolonization movement, but the class dynamics we see in Old World power struggles are alien and tangential to the American experience.  No mind-numbing mantras should ever convince us that downtown Portland, Davis, or Des Moines is anything akin to the dire streets of Cairo or Damascus.


Remember during the height of the Iraq War, when peace activists felt they had to defend their stance by saying, “Peace is Patriotic?”  Maybe our duck would slap this bumper sticker to his car: “Austerity is Solidarity.”

I am represented in my job by the Teamsters.  Our local is basically clerical workers, but we share representation with truck drivers.  I don’t know how much “solidarity” I can really have with them, except for that guy Omar who got blocked by Occupiers at the Port of Oakland in October.  Even stranger, United Auto Workers represents the campus grad students.  Why do such privileged people need union representation?  At least it gives them crucial, formative experiences in liberal activism.

The Economic Red Button

The economic red button

Today’s strip continues the cafe conversation.  Probably you’ve heard people try to judge presidents by the shape of their economies.  This kind of logic is mistaken, but it is the bread and butter of progressives and Democrats.  They survive pretty much on promises of government activism.  But because of the harm that most often comes from government meddlings in the market, the best kind of president would lead with a hands off style.  Better a good steward than an all-out commander.

Voting against your own interest

#1: Voting against your own interest
Have you ever heard this kind of musing before?  The idea is that Republicans exploit social “wedge issues” like gun ownership or gay marriage to get lower-income conservatives to vote against their own  self-interest.  And that is supposed to be to get government to take money from rich people and dole it back to the poor masses of which they are a part.
I was reminded of this trope while listening to Michael Medved interview Corey Robin about his new book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.  Robin himself used the worn line about voting against self-interest, and it recalled the spirit of the 2006 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?
I wonder if the people who say or write those things are ever conscious of how presumptuous they sound.  Somehow, they know what you should objectively be voting for, and you are just duped by your blind passions.  Not a very charitable view of a fellow citizen.  Worse than the attitude though is their ignorance of the fact that redistribution schemes, whether born of a patronizing benevolence or a covetous “self-interest” of the masses, do not benefit the targets of socio-political largesse  but only beget greater misery for everyone in the society.
%d bloggers like this: