The Mess on Campus Helps Explain the Mess With Russia

What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens at our universities spills over into society at large . . . and quickly. Our friends across the pond at The Economist have finally noticed that collegiate cancel mobs have infected business, politics, media and education with their poison.

While one may argue that the link between our current wokeism and the harm it has inflicted on America has an attenuated link to Vladimir Putin, the breakdown of the rule of law manifest at our colleges and in our cities has emboldened the Russian president in his irredentist ambitions in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe. We are now reaping what we have allowed progressive ideologues to sow for us. 

Why shouldn’t Putin dismiss the West, and America in particular, as pathetically dysfunctional? Weakness is writ large in our daily failure to defend our core values. Putin understood Joe Biden’s cowardly, politically motivated, and hasty retreat from Afghanistan as a reason to think his aggression in Ukraine would stand. But that moment of shame was disastrously intensified by the backdrop of the deterioration of civil society and the abandonment of moral conviction. 

The Russian autocrat has miscalculated the West’s reaction to his invasion of Ukraine, but why shouldn’t he have expected a feckless American response, when we turn our backs on thieving and looting—mayhem and murder—in our cities; when our universities, which are supposed to stand for free thought, inquiry, and expression—the very values brave Ukrainians are presently fighting and dying for—stifle speech, thought, and free expression?

It stands to reason that our apparent contempt for freedom at home would signal to Putin that we would be unlikely to fight and sacrifice for its protection abroad. Putin himself said in October 2021 that the West has lost its way and no longer stands by its defining values.

What message do we send abroad when dozens of students at Yale’s elite law school threaten physical violence against speakers with whom they disagree, stomping to drown out their words at an event whose very purpose was to discuss free speech? This incident occurred only last week, but it is one in a stream of hundreds of such incidents in the past several years and it is a sign to the world that we have abandoned our most cherished values. And it signals to the world that our leaders lack the will to enforce their own rules and deepest values. 

What are dictators like Putin to think when the New York Times and the Washington Post become tools of the Left and their own woke editors—ignoring and manipulating facts, suppressing important stories, and turning news coverage into political opinion essays? What can we expect when social media companies turn off the dissemination of statements by leaders they deem politically unacceptable, when they spy on their customers and manipulate their personal decisions for commercial gain? 

When careers and people themselves are canceled overnight because of an unwelcome comment or a provocative thought, or for failing to hew to the party line and prevailing orthodoxy, we forfeit the moral high ground. Tyrants quite predictably hope for free passes when they trammel upon these very rights abroad. Our failure to defend what we hold most dear—our fundamental rights—constitutes a “soft” invitation, a pass of sorts, for killers like Putin to do so abroad.

America is not a perfect place, but throughout our history, we have worked to improve and to overcome the forces that impede social progress. The woke ideologues who seek to impose their vision of a utopian society have so far given America a frightening glimpse of dystopia. And for the world order, that has invited a brutal war. Our universities—and their now-maturing graduates who are attaining leadership positions—have failed to lead us to higher ground, and the implications are global.

About Paul S. Levy

Paul Levy is a former trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and former overseer of Penn Law School, who publicly resigned in 2018 in protest of the University’s treatment of law professor Amy Wax. His resignation letter provided a spirited defense of academic freedom and intellectual diversity. A private equity expert and former lawyer, Mr. Levy founded the New York-based investment firm JLL Partners in 1988. Previously, he was a managing director at Drexel Burnham Lambert. He has served as the CEO of Yves Saint Laurent, Inc., New York; vice president of administration and general counsel of Quality Care, Inc.; and an attorney with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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