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From Idealism to Irresponsibility: Comparing College Protests Then and Now

Like every major college protest since the 1960s, the pro-Palestinian—which is to say, the anti-Israel—protests sweeping college campuses today have early and often been compared with the protests of that annus horribilis, 1968.  There are plenty of similarities but also plenty of differences. History repeats itself as student and faculty protestors align themselves with the totalitarians.  Then it was the Viet Cong, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge. Today it is the Sunni Muslim terrorist group Hamas, the main puppet master of the “pro-Palestinian” agitators.

One apparently striking difference is the strong current of anti-Semitism. It is ubiquitous now; it was not a factor in the protests of the 1960s and 1970s.

But that difference distracts us from a deeper similarity between the two.  Fueling the anti-Semitism is a profound anti-American and anti-Western animus. Although shot through with radical Islamic verbiage, the overarching ideology is essentially Marxist in aim and origin.  The assaults on campus are not so much political as a snarling repudiation of the political in favor of something more atavistic. As Jean-François Revel noted in The Totalitarian Temptation (1977), such an upsurge is “not simply a new political orientation. It works through the depths of society. It writes the play in which political leaders will act much later.”

Providing a full anatomy of this phenomenon would take a book, or several books.  But as we ponder the emergence of “Gaza Solidarity Encampments” on the quads of our most exclusive universities, it may be useful to note a few things that today’s protestors have in common with their predecessors.

One of the most conspicuous, and conspicuously jejune, features of America’s cultural revolution has been the union of hedonism with a species of radical (or radical-chic) politics. This union fostered a situation in which, as the famous slogan put it, “the personal is the political.” The politics in question was seldom more than a congery of radical clichés, serious only in that it helped to disrupt society and blight a good many lives. In that sense, to be sure, it proved to be very serious indeed.

Our new revolutionaries, like the college revolutionaries of yore, exhibit that most common of bourgeois passions, anti-bourgeois animus—expressed, as always, safely within the swaddling clothes of bourgeois security.  Typical was the spectacle of that Columbia Ph.D. candidate who, having helped smash into and occupy a major college classroom building, stood before microphones, keffiyeh in place, to demand that the university feed the occupiers.  As Allan Bloom remarked in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the cultural revolution proved to be so successful on college campuses partly because of “the bourgeois’ need to feel that he is not bourgeois, to have dangerous experiments with the unlimited. . . .Anti-bourgeois ire is the opiate of the Last Man.”  It almost goes without saying that, like all narcotics, the opiate of anti-bourgeois ire was both addictive and debilitating.

Like Falstaff’s dishonesty, the adolescent quality of these developments was “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” Looking at the pampered multitudes agitating on campus, one is reminded that now, as in the 1960s, the actions of the protestors were at bottom an attack on maturity; more, they was a glorification of immaturity. As the Yippie leader Jerry Rubin put it, “We’re permanent adolescents.”

In “Dreams of Plenitude, Nightmares of Scarcity” (1969), the sociologist Edward Shils summarized the chief components of the revolution he saw unfolding around him in the universities and elsewhere in American life. “The moral revolution,” Shils wrote,

consists in a demand for a total transformation—a transformation from a totality of undifferentiated evil to a totality of undifferentiated perfection. Evil consists in the deadening of sentiment through institutions and more particularly through the exercise of and subordination to authority. Perfection consists in the freedom of feeling and the fulfillment of desires. . . . It is the transformation of sentiment and desire into reality in a community in which all realize their wills simultaneously. Anything less is repressive.

Two decades later, in  “Totalitarians and Antinomians,” Shils elaborated on the theme of absolute fulfillment in his description of the “antinomian temptation.” At the center of that temptation was the fantasy of absolute freedom, unfettered by law, custom, or the promptings of morality.

The highest ideal of antinomianism is a life of complete self-determination, free of the burden of tradition and conventions, free of the constraints imposed by institutional rules and laws and of the stipulations of authority operating within the setting of institutions.

“Free,” in other words, from the very things that underwrite freedom, that give it content, that prevent it from collapsing into that merely rhetorical freedom that always turns out to be another name for servitude.

The glorification of such spurious freedom is closely connected with another misuse of language-one of the most destructive: the description of irresponsible political naiveté as a form of “idealism.” Nor is it only naïveté that gets the extenuating absolution of “idealism.” So do all manner of crimes, blunders, and instances of brutality; all can be morally sanitized by the simple expedient of being rebaptized as examples of (perhaps misguided) “idealism.” The one essential qualification is that the perpetrator be identified with the political Left. In her book On Revolution (1963), Hannah Arendt—who was certainly no enemy of the Left herself—cannily observed that,

one has often been struck by the peculiar selflessness of the revolutionists, which should not be confused with “idealism” or heroism. Virtue has indeed been equated with selflessness ever since Robespierre preached a virtue that was borrowed from Rousseau, and it is the equation which has put, as it were, its indelible stamp upon the revolutionary man and his innermost conviction that the value of a policy may be gauged by the extent to which it will contradict all particular interests, and that the value of a man may be judged by the extent to which he acts against his own interest and against his own will.

In fact, the “peculiar selflessness” that Arendt describes often turns out to be little more than an abdication of individual responsibility abetted by utter self-absorption. It is a phenomenon that, among other things, helps to explain the queasy-making spectacle of left-wing Western intellectuals falling over themselves in a vain effort to excuse, mitigate, or sometimes simply deny the crimes of the Soviet Union and other murderous left-wing regimes throughout the Cold War and beyond. Perhaps we can admit that Stalin (or Mao or Pol Pot or Fidel or whoever) was repressive (or maybe that is just an ugly rumor propagated by the United States); perhaps he “went too far”; maybe some measures were “extreme”; this or that policy was “misjudged”; . .  but omelettes require breaking a few eggs, . . . and besides what glorious ideas are equality, community, the brotherhood of man . . . going beyond capitalistic greed, mere selfish individualism, repressive patriarchal society based on inequitable division of labor, etc., etc. The odor of piety that attends these rituals of exculpation is almost as disagreeable as the aura of grotesque unreality that emanates from them.

One has seen the same thing in another key in the left-liberal response to America’s cultural revolutions. Whatever criticisms might be made of the counterculture, they are quickly neutralized by invoking the totem of “idealism.” For example, one has regularly been told that youth in the 1960s and 1970s, whatever their extravagances and silliness, had a “passionate belief (the beliefs of radicals are never less than “passionate”) in a “better world,” in a “more humane society,” in “equality.” The guiding assumption is that “passion” redeems moral vacuity, rendering it noble or at least exempting it from censure. This assumption, which, even today, is part of the Romantic background of the counterculture, is profoundly mistaken and destructive.

As T. S. Eliot observed in 1934, the belief that there is “something admirable in violent emotion for its own sake, whatever the emotion or whatever the object, is a cardinal point of faith in a romantic age.” It is also, he noted, “a symptom of decadence.” For it is “by no means self-evident,” Eliot wrote,

that human beings are most real when they are most violently excited; violent physical passions do not in themselves differentiate men from each other, but rather tend to reduce them to the same state; and the passion has significance only in relation to the character and behavior of the man at other moments of his life and in other contexts.

Furthermore, Eliot observes, “strong passion is only interesting or significant in strong men, those who abandon themselves without resistance to excitements which tend to deprive them of reason, become merely instruments of feeling and lose their humanity; and unless there is moral resistance and conflict, there is no meaning.”

“Passion,” like “idealism,” is a nostrum that the left prescribes to itself in order to relieve itself from the burdens of moral accountability.

G. K. Chesterton once observed that in the modern world, “the virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus, some scientists care for truth, and their truth is pitiless. Thus, some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity … is often untruthful.” Something similar can be said about the virtues of freedom and idealism. Freedom is an important virtue. But it is not the only virtue. And apart from other virtues—apart from prudence, say, and duty and responsibility, all of which define and limit freedom—freedom becomes a parody of itself. It becomes, in a word, unfree. And so it is with idealism. Idealism remains a virtue only to the extent that the causes to which it devotes itself are worthy of the devotion they attract. The more abstract the cause, the more vacuous the idealism.

In a subtle essay called “Countercultures,” first published in 1994, political commentator Irving Kristol noted that the counterculture of the 1960s was in part a reaction against a society that had become increasingly secular, routinized, and crassly materialistic. In this respect, too, the counterculture can be understood as part of our Romantic inheritance, a plea for freedom and transcendence in a society increasingly dominated by the secular forces of Enlightenment rationality. Indeed, revolts of this tenor have been a staple of Romanticism since the nineteenth century.

Dostoevsky’s “underground man,” who seeks refuge from the imperatives of reason in willful arbitrariness, is only one example (a rather grim one) among countless others. The danger, Kristol notes, is that the counterculture, in its attack on secular materialism, “will bring down—will discredit—human things that are of permanent importance. A spiritual rebellion against the constrictions of secular humanism could end up . . . in a celebration of irrationalism and a derogation of reason itself.” At a time when the radical tenets of the counterculture have become so thoroughly established and institutionalized in cultural life —when they have, in fact, come more and more to define the tastes, habits, and attitudes of the dominant culture—unmasking illegitimate claims to “liberation” and bogus feats of idealism emerges as a prime critical task.

 

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