Question the Cowards

Thirty years ago, when I was a young professor at Providence College, still a fairly Catholic school at that time, the name of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was suddenly in the news. Mapplethorpe was known best for his black-and-white photographs of naked homosexual men wearying themselves in sadism and obscenity. He himself had died of AIDS in 1989. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., intending to run a big exhibition of those photographs, found itself embroiled in a controversy with the conservative Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). That, predictably, set the vanguard of the free and the brave—that is, the supporters of artistic license at the taxpayer’s expense—against the guardians of decency.

What interests me here is what happened at the college. The students didn’t care about the matter. But certain professors did. One day I was walking in one of the halls of the science building, and I saw, in a frame on the wall, a large brightly colored reproduction of a photograph of a flower, with the name “MAPPLETHORPE” featured prominently at the bottom. O courageous professors! The narrow-minded little people perhaps do not care to pay to show pictures of men urinating upon each other, but you will show them, you will. You will display, for all to see, the work of that controversial artist. You will display—a flower.

And there you have the progressive academic mind, in its strange combination of self-satisfaction, irresponsibility, and cowardice. You pollute the water, but that’s all right, because you fish upstream. If some student should be led by your encouragement into the life that Mapplethorpe lived, what do you care? You have your nice home in the suburbs, and a solid health insurance plan. 

Academics talk a lot of big talk about revolution, but they aren’t in the shoes of the owner of a laundromat who has worked 12 hours a day, and who now sees his business burn to the ground, because a mob has gone wild. They scoff at the police from behind the gates of their enclave.

The mind unmoored from tradition, not instructed by broad reading in the ancient cultures of mankind, and not chastened by the exigencies of hard labor, but given all the perks of the academic life and prompted to consider itself as a leader of mankind into a glorious future, is indeed a foolish but dangerous thing. For such a person is comfortably insulated from the misery his bad ideas cause.

I am reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Rope” (1948), in which two young men strangle their classmate, stow his corpse in a chest, and proceed to invite his mother and father and fiancé, and the professor whose ideas they have put into practice, to a dinner party. “The few,” says the chief murderer to his victim’s father, “are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they are above the traditional moral concepts. Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary, average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.” 

This is the warmed-over philosophy of Nietzsche, sure, but ideas put into practice must be judged by the work they do in the main; you do not get to cherry-pick your followers, their passions, and the conditions of their action. The professor in “Rope” would like to believe that his blithe utilitarian amorality has been misunderstood and misapplied, and when he discovers the murder, he is full of righteous indignation. But it rings a bit hollow. We remember his jests about murder when he first arrived at the party. “Personally,” he says, “I think a chicken is as good a reason for murder as a blonde, a mattress full of dollar bills, or any of the customary unimaginative reasons.” An uneasy joke, when the chest with the murdered man is before our eyes.

Feminists in our sociology department who trumpeted the demise of the father-headed family—how often, I wonder, did they pay a visit to the fatherless young men in our state prison? Without the work of men who protected them each day and who built and maintained the halls where they preached their liberation, they could not take one step, and do not think for a moment that they chose to live in neighborhoods where the family had fallen apart. The most vocal critic of religious faith in my English department lived in a posh island town, where you do not have to live among the poor who bear the brunt of a life conceived without God, though you might hire some of them to arrange some rocks on your lawn.

How fine a thing it is to plan a war from your desk, and to go home and have a full meal all the same, while other people end up hunting for rats and drinking from the sewers! 

“Question Authority,” say the academic generals, but God help you if you dare to question theirs. Then they move all the machinery of the powerful against the weak, and if you are a young man questioning a grown woman—let us say for example that you express doubts about the place of women in the army—she will cast you as the aggressor, and will play the Damsel in Distress Card, calling upon the administration in shining armor to make her feel safe again. 

But not to worry, the men are cowardly too. That is why they organize students, so that they can hide behind them, and let their shouting prevent anybody from asking those embarrassing questions that might reveal their irrationality or their ignorance. Isn’t that what pawns are for, to run interference?

“But what about you?” a critic will sneer. “You preach your own bad social ideas, I’ll bet.” No, sir or madam as the case may be, I don’t. I have a higher and a humbler task. I teach young people how to read and appreciate the poetry of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, Frost, and Eliot. I do other things too, in philosophy, theology, literature, and the arts, but they are of the same character. I teach Plato because I want my students to know about Plato. I show them paintings by Caravaggio, because Caravaggio is the most intensely dramatic painter I know. I have them listen to Palestrina and Bach. 

These things need no justification; and they incite no current political action. They are more human than that, and far more valuable.


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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

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