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Saturday, April 27, 2024

The Campus Revolt and its Enemies

 I have blogged many times over the years about the changes in our intellectual life in the last half century and their impact.  They actually began, at least embryonically, in the early 1960s, when the United States was in the midst of an era of unprecedented economic and social progress that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare in 1964-5.  None of that was enough to satisfy a small cadre of undergraduate activists who formed the Students for a Democratic Society, whose 1962 manifesto painted a grim picture of an oppressive, stagnant American society and, fatefully, identified universities as the best place to begin the work of overthrowing it.  The Vietnam War--undertaken by Lyndon Johnson when his power was at its height--seemed to many young Americans to validate their critique of American society, and it turned colleges and universities into the leftist hotbeds of which the Port Huron statement had dreamed.  Meanwhile, women, liberated sexually by the pill and entering college in unprecedented numbers, began their own rebellion against traditional roles.  Eventually, in the 1970s, the gay rights movement followed.  Very recently, no less a figure than historian Drew Faust, a former president of Harvard, approvingly quoted those key paragraphs of the Port Huron manifesto in her own autobiography.

Something else, I am convinced, was at work--something much bigger.  The mid-twentieth century was the climax of Enlightenment civilization, based on the idea that reason, not emotion or blind allegiance, could become the organizing principle of society.  Impartial rules might govern our behavior, our institutions, and our education.  France, as I learned in college, was the country where these ideas had gone the furthest the fastest, and beginning in the 19th century and through most of the twentieth, they had provoked major intellectual revolts on both the left and the right by those who found these ideas too sterile and confining.   Something similar happened among the millions of Boomer university students in the late 1960s who suddenly rejected their parents' dress, much of their personal moral code, and many of the symbols--such as the American flag--that they revered.  The rebellion quieted down when the Vietnam War did, but within academia, it entered a new phase thanks to the ideas of intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Edward Said.  Foucault argued that the whole structure of Enlightenment ideas was just an oppressive mechanism designed by by a particular elite, and championed rebellion against it.  Said in effect extended a similar analysis to the whole of western civilization, which treated him very well--making him a Columbia professor--but which he saw merely as an oppressive mechanism directed against the Third World.   From the 1980s through the 2000s these ideas took over the humanities in American academia, leaving no place there for academics like myself who never accepted them.  (For new readers, that is a theme of my autobiography, A Life in History.)  

In the last seven months, we have seen a replay of the late 1960s on elite college campuses, with a twist.  Most of today's students are not radicals--just as most of them weren't radicals in the late 1960s.  Yet some of them have imbibed the idea that western civilization is inherently oppressive and that the job of students and universities as a whole is to alter it.  "Settler colonialism," a popular phrase nowadays, refers to the whole spread of European people and western ideas around the globe from the late 15th century onward, and treats it as one huge oppressive mistake.  That is the message of "land acknowledgements" that audiences routinely sit through nowadays at concerts and plays, of the renaming of public buildings and the removal of certain statues, and of movies and New York Times supplements that shamelessly rewrite history to eliminate any positive role for white people. And since the Six Day War in 1967, this ideology has treated Zionism and Israel as settler colonialist enterprises.  Ironically, this has become, at best, a half truth.   The elite that founded Israel in 1948 was indeed very heavily influenced by the Enlightenment.  It was largely irreligious and justified Zionism as simply one more application of nationalism, which had already rewritten the map of Europe and was about to do the same in Asia and Africa.  Now, however, a new Israeli elite draws much more heavily on the ancient ideas of the Jewish people as expressed in the old testament, where it finds its justification for an Israel that will indeed include the entire West Bank and Gaza, and, to some of its extreme elements, the East Bank of the Jordan River as well.  Israel and the United States are now two of the more religious nations in the world, and in both of them the Enlightenment has also faced determined long-term attacks from the religious right in recent decades as well.

And now, as in 1966-72, the left wing campus revolt has unleashed a right wing political backlash.  Ronald Reagan in 1966 won a landslide victory in California partly by attacking the Berkeley administration for not cracking down on the protests that had begun in the fall of 1964, and taking advantage of older Americans' feeling that their kids were out-of-control, spoiled brats.  The same belief contributed to the Republican victories in 1968 and 1972, when the share of the Democratic vote fell from 60 percent in 1964 to the low 40s.  Today, some Republican elements and Republican intellectuals have been complaining--rightly, in this Democrat's view--about the intellectual tenor of our campuses for a very long time, but they are complaining more loudly and with much greater effect now because they have powerful allies among very wealthy conservative Jewish Americans who are putting great pressure on college administrations to crack down on what they regard as anti-Semitic protests on campus.  I know some people would regard that last sentence as an anti-Semitic trope, but it happens to be a fact. (For the record, as I have tried to make clear, I do not regard opposition to the policies of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic.  I have explained my attitude towards the current conflict in two earlier posts.)  Pressure from that contingent played a critical role in the resignation of two university presidents.  And that, to me, is another tragic irony.  Society at large, and particularly our educated elite, did not try to do anything about the intellectual attack on the Enlightenment and the founding principles of the United States on campuses, until those changes seemed to threaten the tribal interests of one important element within society.  And to paraphrase Al Smith, the cure for the ills of tribalism is not more tribalism.  The bulk of American Jews, meanwhile, remain Democrats, at least half of them probably oppose the Netanyahu government, and a good number of younger Jews are taking part in pro-Palestinian protests, as is their constitutional right.  Nearly everyone, meanwhile, seems to share the fantasy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that the US government can and should resolve.  And no one is focusing on the broader failures of today's universities, especially in the humanities, which are threatened with extinction because they now offer products that almost no one wants to buy.

Great historians, I often say, do not argue with  history.  Like the rise of the Enlightenment in earlier centuries, the rebellion against it must reflect fundamental aspects of human nature.  Thanks largely to generational change, I think, history is inevitably cyclical, which means that gains made my some generations will be lost by others.  That is what has been happening, intellectually, politically, and socially, in the United States for the last half century or so.  As the fascinating book, The Closing of the Western Mind, pointed out, something similar happened when Christianity tried to wipe out the intellectual heritage of the ancient world, and that time, it took nearly a millennium before a renaissance came along to revive it.  We don't know how far current intellectual trends will go and when they might be reversed.  I take comfort in having spent my youth in the last years of Enlightenment supremacy, and in the historical record that suggests that it will indeed make a comeback, sooner or later, to the delight of generations yet unborn.

1 comment:

Energyflow said...

From my Xer perspective I find it refreshing that students have political interests and are not just into getting MBAs and engineering degrees as in the 80s. Israel, the Jewish diaspora, our common abrahamic religions antisemitism is such a complicated matter that having a direct opinion is almost showing ignorance. Persian cultural continuity in the Middle East has a similar importance there over millenia and so perhaps serves as a general counterweight to judeo-christian/ greco-roman Western civilization. Rationalism can be applied to any current paradigm. In books on philosophical history one sees such phases. Middle ages thought had them " counting angels on the head of a pin". One argues therefore from the gut or the heart and it sounds quite rational to oneself, being devoid of contrary evidence. The JWST telescope has destroyed scientific consensus on our beginnings and they have been humbled as after galileo's first telescope. So perhaps our society's rationalism was just building on a certain factual basis which the future will see as superstitious nonsense(although well meant). In some later society where perhaps we have no machines but amazing mental powers like telekinesis and similar we can simply perceive the edges of the universe by expanding our consciousness like the indian rishis. Young people notice that the scientific method excludes subjective consciousness, feelings and are dissatisfied with the contradictions. Scientists are not neutral and protect worn out doctrines for example or just fudge data for corporate sponsors, which is far worse.