The news about all the disinvited commencement speakers — at Brandeis, at Smith College, at Haverford — grabbed America in an unexpected and gratifying way. Yes, something was amiss! Students were telling their elders to shut up, and — this was the gratifying part — the public feedback was strictly negative: enough so that the replacement speaker, at Haverford, for the beaten-down Robert J. Birgeneau, ex-chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, called the protesters and their faculty backers “immature” and “arrogant.”
Which they are and were, of course; the question being, where did the protesters get their sense of entitlement to push around supposedly smarter people than themselves? It’s in the cultural water, one is afraid. We’ve been on this track for around half a century — the track of immature, arrogant claims to moral superiority, based on nothing but given credence by people with more professional authority than moral courage or common sense.
What an irony to see UCB emerge, through Birgeneau, as a victim in the current affrays. Berkeley is where much of the bad stuff started in the mid-’60s: students and faculty taking over campus buildings and disrupting the higher work of higher education to make known their grievances over the war in Vietnam, civil rights, male oppression, etc., ad absurdum. The unrest spread over much of the country — chiefly to supposedly elite institutions such as Yale and Harvard. Everything was wrong, according to the protesters, who found sympathizers among the alleged grown-ups in academic, media and political circles.
The grown-ups, if they had really been fully grown, would have asserted order before deploying the mechanisms of discussion and listening. But no — “the kids,” in their ragged jeans, had something to say. They were “talking to us.” They were “the future,” the “best-educated” generation in our history! Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, in spite of his own moral failings, more truly limned them: They were “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
They helped set the precedent, nevertheless, for moral collapse on society’s part whenever some new nabob — Al Sharpton, say, or Jesse Jackson — made some bird-brained declaration we were supposed to strain our ears eagerly to appropriate. The right to shout down the differently minded apparently inheres in good liberal folk, with motives of conspicuous purity. A stray remark by someone like dim-witted Donald Sterling and it’s all over, baby. Agents from the Department of Orthodox Thought will wham you upside the head, even when you haven’t done much.
The very astute and capable Ayaan Hirsi Ali was supposed to deliver commencement remarks at Brandeis. Shockingly, the Somali-born author — and former Dutch legislator — takes a dim view of radical Islam. To preserve radical Islamists from vexation, Ali had to be told she should take her views to less-enlightened venues.
Enlightenment, we must recall, is always defined by those who tell us they are enlightened — but who seem mostly to represent a played-out, unplugged spectrum of society; a little narrower, and maybe more vicious on account of it, than the spectrum that gave us the ’60s.
Note the schools that caved in during the fuss over “unacceptable” commencement speakers: elite, expensive, Eastern institutions all, as intellectually inert as the Bourbons, who returned to power in France having forgotten nothing and learned nothing. East Coast-style liberalism — whose paradigm could be New York City’s fey and disconnected mayor, Bill de Blasio — hasn’t had a new idea in decades, apart from banning 64-ounce soft drinks.
Intellectual depletion seems in our times to equal arrogant, chest-thumping outburst against one’s intellectual betters. Perhaps that’s not saying much in the case of such people as hang around our elite universities. Our real “betters” wouldn’t collapse on the prompting of youthful know-it-alls. But then moral collapse squares with the precedents set 40 years ago on campus: Give the little dears their heart’s desire; oppose patriarchy, imperialism, whatever you got.
A bunch of losers our hot-shot universities have turned into: turning out, predictably, losers wearing regalia whose cost they will work for years to pay off. It will serve many of them right.
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