Abraham Lincoln once remarked that “the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Nearly six decades have passed since William F. Buckley Jr., warned that the philosophy of America’s most eminent schoolhouses had taken a turn down a particular road, away from a tradition of faith and liberty, toward godless collectivism.
When God and Man at Yale was published in 1951, liberals denounced Buckley as a fanatic and worse. One hostile reviewer accused him of “un-Christian arrogance,” while another said that Buckley’s book had “the glow and appeal of a fiery cross on a hillside at night.” His critics, however, could not assail the facts assembled in God and Man at Yale, demonstrating that Yale was promoting economic theories hostile to the free market, that the university was neglecting its original mission of promoting the Christian faith, and that when confronted with this evidence, the administration defended itself by appeals to what Buckley called the “superstition of academic freedom.”
Published at a time when American troops were fighting the Red menace in Korea — the year after Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury, the same year that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried as Soviet spies — Buckley’s book was an intellectual fulcrum of the Cold War era. God and Man at Yale became a rallying point for anti-communist conservatives and, in the process of attacking Buckley, his critics accidentally illuminated (indeed, as if by “a fiery cross”) their own fanatical commitment to the ambiguous principles of liberalism. Buckley focused narrowly on academic trends at Yale, with just a few references to the similar trend evident at other leading universities, but his book evoked concerns far beyond the New Haven campus. If philosophical liberalism as taught at Yale tended to undermine faith and freedom, many readers naturally wondered, what would be the impact when this philosophy made its way out of the classroom and into the larger society? Where was liberalism leading us?
One answer to that question may have been revealed last week when a professor of political science at Columbia University was arrested and charged with having carried on a three-year-long sexual affair with his own daughter, who was age 20 when this incestuous involvement allegedly began in 2006. It is of course necessary to caution that Professor David Epstein must be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Yet if the accusations are true — well, perhaps it could all be dismissed as anomalous. The alleged perversion of Professor Epstein need not be interpreted as symbolic of any larger trend in academia, nor should such a crime be considered representative of the moral values of 21st-century liberals.
However, no one can dispute the fact that Professor Epstein is an outspoken liberal. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Columbia alumnus Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and, in a debate last year with free-market advocate Peter Schiff, Epstein gave a presentation entitled, “How Obama’s Policies Are Saving the Economy.” Furthermore, as a blogger at the Huffington Post, Epstein had derided Sarah Palin as “weak” and “self-centered,” and accused Republicans of “taking hypocrisy in their personal lives to new levels of self-indulgent weirdness.”
The criminal accusations against Epstein were evidently made in the context of a recent split with his wife, who is also a Columbia University professor. Epstein’s lawyer told the student newspaper, “We’re asking his friends in the Columbia community to support him and give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Whatever the facts, however, many seem unable to understand why sex between a man and his adult daughter — which, according to police, was “consensual” in the Epstein case — should be illegal and punishable by up to four years in prison under New York law. “Wait, why is consensual incest a crime? It might not be appealing to everyone, but if they’re adults and they consent, who cares what they do?” wrote one commenter on the Columbia student newspaper site. Similar comments were made at the Huffington Post: “It is kinda sick, but I think a four year prison sentence is extreme — considering they are both consenting adults.” Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon wrote that the accusation against Epstein “isn’t a clear-cut case of child abuse.”
That kind of thinking has apparently penetrated to the very highest levels of the American judiciary, as University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse noted. In the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, which struck down a state law against sodomy, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion described “an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex.” The court overturned its own precedent in the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick case. In Bowers, which had upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that there had been laws against homosexual behavior “throughout the history of Western civilization” and that such laws were “firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards.” In Lawrence, Kennedy cited that statement by Burger and rejected it as dubious, contending that the Bowers precedent “demeans the lives of homosexual persons.” Dissenting in Lawrence, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that the majority ruling would “have far-reaching implications beyond this case” — specifically identifying consensual incest between adults as one area where Kennedy’s “emerging awareness” doctrine might undermine existing law.
Has the “emerging awareness” emerged that far? If we have finally repudiated “Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards” as a guiding principle of American law, what would happen if Epstein were convicted and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court? Could Justice Kennedy find any reason to uphold such a conviction? Perhaps so, but some at Columbia University apparently don’t think what Epstein is accused of doing was wrong enough to be illegal, which suggests that the liberal philosophy of the American elite has led us a very long way down a particular road — paved, we are told, with good intentions. What concerned Buckley in God and Man at Yale evidently does not worry the godless men at Columbia.