Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mercy Otis Warren and the Great American Wall

Mercy Otis Warren, the great polemicist historian of the American Revolution, warned in typical republican fashion that the young American state had grown far too large to maintain a civilized republic. As an antidote, she proposed the building of a great "Chinese Wall" along the Appalachian Mountains not so much to keep the Indian tribes out, but to forcibly restrain the American lust for conquest and expansion. As a friend of mine remarked, no word yet on whether the Indians were to pay for the building of the wall.

From her regrettably under-read History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution:
Those subsequent circumstances in American story which have been cursorily mentioned above, suggest the reflection, that it might have been happy for the United States, and happier for the individual “who weeps alone its lot of wo,” if, instead of extending their views over the boundless desert, a Chinese wall had been stretched along the Apalachian ridges, that might have kept the nations within the boundaries of nature. This would have prevented the incalculable loss of life and property, and have checked the lust of territory, wealth, and that ambition which has poured out streams of innocent blood on the forlorn mountains. The lives of our young heroes were too rich a price for the purchase of the acres of the savages, even could the nations be extinguished, who certainly have a prior right to the inheritance: this is a theme on which some future historians may more copiously descant.
The acquisition and possession of territory seems to be a passion inwove in the bosom of man: we see it from the peasant who owns but a single acre, to the prince who commands kingdoms, and wishes to extend his domains over half the globe. This is thought necessary at some times to distance troublesome neighbours, at others to preserve their own independence; but if the spring of action is traced, it may generally be found in the inordinate thirst for the possession of power and wealth.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Standard Fare Gun Control Theatrics

Quoth the New York Times' Carl Hulse in a news piece this morning:
Not one senator in either party believes that someone who presents a serious terrorism risk should be able to waltz into a gun shop and legally buy powerful firearms. Yet partisanship, a reluctance to compromise and the influence of powerful special interests again prevented lawmakers from achieving a consensus objective, as four separate plans went down on Monday to an entirely predictable defeat.
Of course! Because political disagreement must be the product of corruption and plutocratic horse-trading. It would be silly to look for principled disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on matters of gun rights or due process. Indeed, the ACLU's opposition to the Democratic gun control proposals must also be part of the same blood money by which "special interests" distort the democratic process.

Such silliness. More so than any other issue, gun control allows our politicians and our politically obnoxious facebook feed to go full blown virtue signalling. It's a rather simple issue if you think about it. Those who oppose gun control support murder (and now terrorism to boot), while those who support gun control embody that most ferocious bravery needed to concur in full with every institution of elite opinion and social power in this country.

It's abundantly clear to all who spend even a trivial amount of time following such debates that the benefits of the gun control measures offered in the Senate yesterday will be positively liliputian. But that's not such a convenient empirical reality for the coterie of bloviating, cant-drenched cabbage leaves who govern this nation in deed and in thought.

Never mind that one of the four gun control measures defeated yesterday (and indeed the only measure that paid lip-service to the constitutional demands of proper due process) was blocked by Democrats on the grounds that (1) the due process entailed by actually checking whether someone on the notoriously vague terrorist watch list actually ought to be on the list is just to cumbersome; and (2) the measure is not as effective as it could be.

This second objection is rather curious. After all, aren't critics of gun control repeatedly lectured as to why even a small step to curb gun violence is a morally required step to take? Aren't we constantly reminded that although feasible gun control measures will save statistically trivial numbers of American lives every year, "if there's just one life we can save" it will all have been worth the while? Curious then why the Democratic caucus would block the Cornyn amendment, which may well have saved "just one life."

Ah well, hobgoblin of small minds and that sort of thing.

Monday, June 20, 2016

"Consider What Nation It Is Whereof Ye Are" - Brief Thoughts on Brexit

Lords and Commons of England, consider what Nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governours: a Nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, suttle and sinewy to discours, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to. Therefore the studies of learning in her deepest Sciences have bin so ancient, and so eminent among us, that Writers of good antiquity, and ablest judgement have bin perswaded that ev'n the school of Pythagoras, and the Persian wisdom took beginning from the old Philosophy of this Iland. And that wise and civill Roman, Julius Agricola, who govern'd once here for C├Žsar, preferr'd the naturall wits of Britain, before the labour'd studies of the French. Nor is it for nothing that the grave and frugal Transylvanian sends out yearly from as farre as the mountanous borders of Russia, and beyond the Hercynian wildernes, not their youth, but their stay'd men, to learn our language, and our theologic arts. Yet that which is above all this, the favour and the love of heav'n we have great argument to think in a peculiar manner propitious and propending towards us. ... Behold now this vast City: a City of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection; the shop of warre hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed Justice in defence of beleaguer'd Truth, then there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and idea's wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more from a Nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge. What wants there to such a towardly and pregnant soile, but wise and faithfull labourers, to make a knowing people, a Nation of Prophets, of Sages, and of Worthies. 

So John Milton exhorted the British parliament in 1644 in his canonical defense of a free press. And so too, perhaps, do the British people need reminding just a few days away from their historic vote on Brexit.

I have no original thoughts to contribute to the cause of Brexit--certainly nothing the indispensible Daniel Hannan has not said better. As for the prophesies of economic doom, it seems that should Britain be admitted to the European free trade area as is extraordinarily likely, then the costs of reduced trade volume, while non-trivial, are too small to conclusively militate in favor of Remain. And as for the scurrilous accusations that the case for Brexit is inextricably bound with the most sordid expressions of racism and hate, well, such vile thinking reflects the very worst of democratic sophistry.

The case for Brexit rests, ultimately, not on matters of trade policy or research funding or even immigration, but on the most foundational question of national sovereignty and self-rule. Despite wild, historically illiterate gesticulations to the contrary, Britain's freedom is not the gracious gift of faceless technocrats and bank clerks in Brussels. It is the hard fought accomplishment of millennia of intellectual and institutional brilliance. It was Britain, that remarkable little island, which invented freedom as the world has come to know it. And it is Britain which today must defend her precious "entailed inheritance" from the noxious temptation to succumb to a distant, bureaucratized despotism--"de jure a servant, but de facto a master."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What Does Islam Teach? A Methodological Inquiry

Following every barbarous act of terrorist butchery perpetrated by some radical Islamist comes the inescapable debate over the character and identity of Islam as a religion and as an ideology. Each time, the familiar barrage from left and right reworks the same old tropes. On one side, Islam properly understood is a “religion of peace” and we should not let the fanatical few distort our understanding of the world’s second most popular faith. On the other, Islam is a “nihilistic cult of death,” the essential values of which are simply incompatible with those demanded by a free, tolerant, liberal society.

I am not interested here in taking a particular side in this debate. My hope is rather to find some methodological clarity in understanding how we should approach the question “What does Islam teach?” in the first place. (Though my particular object here is Islam, the same sort of analysis could apply to any religion).

There seem to me to be two main answers to the question. The first answer, which I term the “interpretive approach,” attempts to discern the “true” philosophical and theological principles of Islam by appealing to the religion’s history and scriptural tradition. The second, which I term the “sociological approach,” is agnostic on such matters of interpretation, and proceeds instead by equating the question of “what Islam teaches” with the question of “what do today’s Muslims believe Islam teaches?”

Neither of these approaches maps perfectly onto one or another normative assessment of Islam. Apologists and critics both are wont to appeal to what “millions of Muslims believe,” thereby practicing the sociological approach. Likewise, apologists and critics often invoke scriptural evidence of Muhammad’s teachings from the Qu'ran and Hadith, thereby practicing the interpretive approach. Nor is either of these approaches “wrong,” as they both have immense value if employed in the appropriate context.

But what exactly are the appropriate contexts? My argument in what follows is that the interpretive approach is most appropriate for Muslim commentators fighting over the soul of their religion and academics committed to understanding the historical richness of the Islamic tradition. However, in debates over public policy and in clear-eyed evaluations of potential civilizational conflict and cultural compatibility, commentators would do well to limit themselves to the sociological approach.

After all, if you aren’t a Muslim (and virtually all American practitioners of the interpretive approach aren’t), you must believe that Islam is a social construction the most fundamental tenants of which rest on metaphysical fantasy. Of course, there are better and worse ways of evaluating and interpreting any belief system, all of which are constructions. But we must not forget that to the non-Muslim the particular construction of Islam (1) relies on axiomatic scriptural principles which often appear to wildly contradict one another, and (2) is built on assumptions that verge on the incoherent. There is still some room for interpretation—the non-Muslim is surely justified in disregarding any reading of Islam in which Muhammad plays no role as a bad interpretation, just as the most secular of observers is capable of recognizing the absurdity of modern Christian theology

But setting such extreme-cases aside, it is rather difficult to understand how a non-believer could possibly go about the project of constructing the “best” interpretation of Islam.

In the context of political theory, Marxists, for example, may be interested in formulating the best interpretation of liberalism, just as liberals are deeply interested in formulating the best interpretation of Marxism. But in this context, “best” means most intellectually charitable or philosophically convincing. Liberals too ought to develop the most intellectually powerful interpretation of Marxism in order to take seriously the true insights of the competing tradition. In other words, the criteria for interpreting “best” in matters of secular philosophy involve serious consideration not merely of doctrinal accuracy, but of an external standard of coherence and truth.

This is very different from the project of interpreting a foreign religious tradition. The “best” interpretation of Islam need not be the one that most convincingly aligns with our independent convictions about morality or metaphysics. Unlike the interpretation of a competing ideology, the project of religious interpretation does not aim for “intellectual charity," which is why we ought to be deeply skeptical of any interpretation of the “true” meaning of Islam that magically identifies a foreign faith tradition with virtually every dictate of contemporary Western morality. There is no prima facie reason to believe that true Islam teaches peace or tolerance or respect for human rights or any of the other ideological preferences held by our professional commentariat.

Perversely, this version of the interpretive approach to Islam tends to embody an unparalleled narrow-mindedness and disrespect of a foreign tradition. While we are free to engage to argue about respects in which Islamic principles are inferior or superior to our own, the implicit assumption that proper Islam will converge on the pieties of our own post-Christian liberal age manifests a deep arrogance toward and ignorance of the impressive diversity of human thought.

There are some respects in which the interpretive approach remains important and valuable. Academics (even those who take Islam’s fundamental assumptions to be utterly absurd), do us a service in considering the broad range of Islamic thought in contemporary society and throughout history. By bringing to light schools of thought that have been lost from sight, and by carefully reconstructing past paradigms of thought that don’t fit well with contemporary conceptual categories, they challenge us to broaden our own thinking by taking seriously past and foreign wisdoms. The interpretive project is even more important to the Muslim, who, far more than the secular academic, has a genuine interest in fighting for the soul of his own religion. Following a Walzerian model of interpretation, debate and interpretation within a common tradition is an indispensable part of navigating the complexities of the moral life. To the Muslim, moreover, there is such a thing as a “true” Islama truth which inheres not merely in faithfully following from first principles and scriptural assumptions, but in manifesting a loyalty to God's plan for humanity. Winning the war of interpretation thus matters far more to them than it ever will to we non-Muslims.

But extraordinary caution must be exercised by the non-Muslim observer interested in understanding the teachings and principles of Islam. As with all religions, Islam is not simply a set of beliefs, but a sociological phenomenon that fundamentally shapes the lives of hundreds of millions of people. To the vast majority of Muslims, Islam is not a great exegetical debate. It is not an academic pursuit of theological consistency, historical depth, and logical coherence. It is what they have been taught and how they have lived their entire lives. In light of this, the most humble, respectful way for the non-Muslim to consider the question “What does Islam teach?” is to ask actual Muslims. It's their religion. Let’s do them the basic dignity of taking them at their word. Indeed, there is precious little in this world that is as patronizing as a Western secular academic explaining why hundreds of millions of Muslims misunderstand their own religion.

To understand Islam—not the great disputative tradition of a millennium—but the religion of millions of people in the world today, let’s start by asking the Muslims what they actually believe. “Muslim values” are the values statistically rigorous public polling tells us Muslims hold, not the values liberal bourgeois elites wish that they held. Making sense of the sociological truth of Islam might not immediately resolve complex public policy challenges (though I suspect it will help), but at the very least, it will help Muslim and non-Muslim observers alike develop an accurate understanding of reality.

The Problem of Normative Expertise

Were a student with absolutely no knowledge of the subject to enter into a debate with an expert over the intricacies of cancer treatment, the appropriate response may well be to tell the ignorant student to shut up. While it would be admirable were his ambition to better understand the complex subject by respectfully listening to the explanation given by one who knows better, it would be entirely inappropriate for him to contradict or argue with an expert when he has nothing of substance to contribute.

But imagine now that this student were to enter into a debate with a leading philosopher over the morality of the death penalty or euthanasia. It may be immediately clear that the student’s views are under-thought and confused whereas the professor’s are well-developed and systematic. Nonetheless, we would think it perverse to insist that the student should withdraw from the debate and defer to the judgment of the professor. Whereas in technical fields the lack of requisite knowledge or study disqualifies one from the debate, nothing of the sort can be said of normative questions. Everyone, it would seem, has a right to participate in debates over justice, morality, and aesthetics.

What explains this asymmetry between technical and normative expertise? Is the very concept of "normative expertise" even coherent? Why is it that the consensus of moral philosophers in matters of ethics seems to lack the authority commanded by the consensus of civil engineers in matters of bridge-building?

Among the most intriguing answers to the question is articulated by Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras. There, in the midst of a debate over whether virtue can be taught, Socrates explains that because all men have a stake in the good life, all men are entitled to give an opinion on normative matters, regardless how poorly formed.

He continues with a somewhat challenging analogy to flute playing. He notes that it is entirely appropriate for a poor flutist to inform the world of his lack of skill. But it would be utterly inappropriate for the dishonest man to loudly declare his dishonesty. Because honesty is part of living well, and because all men are invested in the project of living well (whether they realize it or not), all men must at least identify with the virtue of honesty. Though the reasoning here is somewhat strange, this is taken as a further proof of all men’s right to share in virtue and to participate in debates over virtue.
And this is the reason, Socrates, why the Athenians and mankind in general, when the question relates to carpentering or any other mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations; and when anyone else interferes, then, as you say, they object, if he be not of the favored few; which, as I reply, is very natural. But when they meet to deliberate about political virtue, which proceeds only by way of justice and wisdom, they are patient enough of any man who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states could not exist if this were otherwise. I have explained to you, Socrates, the reason of this phenomenon. 
And that you may not suppose yourself to be deceived in thinking that all men regard every man as having a share of justice or honesty and of every other political virtue, let me give you a further proof, which is this. In other cases, as you are aware, if a man says that he is a good flute-player, or skillful in any other art in which he has no skill, people either laugh at him or are angry with him, and his relations think that he is mad and go and admonish him; but when honesty is in question, or some other political virtue, even if they know that he is dishonest, yet, if the man comes publicly forward and tells the truth about his dishonesty, then, what in the other case was held by them to be good sense, they now deem to be madness. They say that all men ought to profess honesty whether they are honest or not, and that a man is out of his mind who says anything else. Their notion is, that a man must have some degree of honesty; and that if he has none at all he ought not to be in the world.
I was recently reminded of this passage by Michael Walzer’s elegant explication of the character of the moral life in Interpretation and Social Criticism. I suspect that the Walzerian vision of moral thinking as interpretation, not discovery or enlightenment or instruction, poses a poignant challenge to what I have described as the new faith in an authoritative moral pedagogy demanded by contemporary campus activists. (I quote from Walzer's Tanner lectures, not the book they later became)
The claim of interpretation is simply this: that neither discovery nor invention is necessary because we already possess what they pretend to provide. Morality, unlike politics, does not require executive authority or systematic legislation. We don’t have to discover the moral world because we have always lived there. We don’t have to invent it because it has already been invented — though not in accordance with any philosophical method. No design procedure has governed its design, and the result no doubt is disorganized and uncertain. It is also very dense: the moral world has a lived-in quality, like a home occupied by a single family over many generations, with unplanned additions here and there, and all the available space filled with memory-laden objects and artifacts. The whole thing, taken as a whole, lends itself less to abstract modeling than to thick description. Moral argument in such a setting is interpretive in character, closely resembling the work of a lawyer or judge who struggles to find meaning in a morass of conflicting laws and precedents. 
 
There are moral facts of that sort, but the most interesting parts of the moral world are only in principle factual matters; in practice they have to be “read,” rendered, construed, glossed, elucidated, and not merely described. All of us are involved in doing all these things; we are all interpreters of the morality we share. That doesn’t mean that the best interpretation is the sum of all the others, the product of a complicated piece of survey research — no more than the best reading of a poem is a meta-reading, summing up the responses of all the actual readers. The best reading isn’t different in kind, but in quality, from the other readings: it illuminates the poem in a more powerful and persuasive way. Perhaps the best reading is a new reading, seizing upon some previously misunderstood symbol or trope and re-explaining the entire poem. The case is the same with moral interpretation: it will sometimes confirm and sometimes challenge received opinion. And if we disagree with either the confirmation or the challenge, there is nothing to do but go back to the “text” — the values, principles, codes, and conventions that constitute the moral world — and to the “readers” of the text. 
 
Morality, in other words, is something we have to argue about. The argument implies common possession, but common possession does not imply agreement. There is a tradition, a body of moral knowledge; and there is this group of sages, arguing. There isn’t anything else. No discovery or invention can end the argument; no “proof” precedence over the (temporary) majority of sages.



Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The New Campus Faith in Authority

I have already outlined what I take to be the broad structural parallels between the contemporary campus left’s attitude toward the university and the more traditional conservative doctrine of in loco parentis. Over the coming weeks, I hope to fill in the contours of what remains a rather crude sketch in identifying the similarities and differences between the two campus phenomena.

This post attempts to begin that process by considering the new faith in authority implicit in both the institutional demands and language employed by today’s campus activists. To be sure, the contemporary left’s defense of authority is in important respects radically different from that traditionally espoused by lower-case c conservatives. Authority traditionally was essentially personal, attached to particular men whose status and title demanded respect and deference. Such personalized authority is captured well by the phrase in loco parentis itself. The university is likened to the person of a parent, and is correspondingly charged with the moral obligations of the parent. Yet today’s campus activists are uninterested in reinvigorating the offices or personages of president, provost, master, and professor with new-found personalized authority. The new authority, it would seem, is essentially institutional. Faceless administrators and amorphous bureaucracies are needed to direct sensitivity training programs, issue guidelines for acceptable conduct, and design mandatory courses in ethnic studies.

Moreover, despite serving quite clearly as authorities over students’ lives, the new institutional authorities are imagined to derive legitimacy from a kind of democratic ethos. The bureaucracies invested with power are not spoken of as an elite few governing the many from above, but as more properly representing the students themselves. This conceptual transformation of the idea of authority is outlined with unparalleled clarity and force in Alexis de Tocqueville’s diagnosis of the peculiar character of “democratic despotism.” The new tutelary state is justified as emanating from the people, when it is in reality merely another master in many respects more vicious than the tyrants of old. The new despotism is “de jure a subordinate agent but de facto a master.” This dialectic plays itself out in the economic sphere as well, as the decline of feudalism and rise of industrial capitalism marks the collapse of traditional personal webs of dependence and authority, and the rise of depersonalized, anonymous forms of institutional control. The same pattern of thought makes sense of the new university administrators, whose legitimacy inheres in the purported representation of all students’ voices, but who govern no differently than did the straightforwardly elitist administrators of the ’50s.

I hope to expand upon the depersonalization of social authorities in further posts, but in the space that remains I turn to briefly defending my more basic claim that today’s campus radicals have abandoned the radical skepticism of the ’60s, and have replaced it with a renewed defense of authority. I point to two central pieces of evidence. The first concerns the institutional reforms explicitly demanded by the contemporary campus left. The second concerns the hidden assumptions underlying and in turn reified by the language employed in campus activism.

1. The Institutional Appeal to Authority

The most obvious way to assess the campus left’s attitude toward authority is to consider its explicit institutional demands. At schools across the country, campus activists’ demands are variations on a basic theme: the university administration must do more to protect students of color and to educate all students on how to appropriately interact with their peers. To this end, demands range from mandatory sensitivity training to a university-wide database to record instances of racial misconduct to a new core curriculum consisting of courses on ethnicity and gender.

The most obvious question all this raises is who will do the educating? Who sets the new core curriculum? Who designs and administers the mandatory sensitivity training? Who supervises and regulates the racial misconduct database? Though inflected with modern meaning, these are not new questions. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or more apt for the university: Who educates the educators?

The aristocratic answer to these questions is very simple: the best should guard the guardians, the best should educate the educators, and the best should set university policy to regulate student conduct. To the radically democratic spirit of the ’60s, however, such answers are anathema. First, those in positions of power cannot possibly be trusted to exercise judgment when so dominated by singular class, racial, and gender interests. But more fundamentally, the critique holds that no elite should have the power to regulate student conduct. No authorities can trusted with the shaping of students’ lives. To do so would be to infringe upon the most basic demands of autonomy and authenticity.

The first of these critiques to some degree survives today, as demands for a more diverse administration are commonplace in student manifestos. But the second has been lost entirely. The very premise of mandatory courses was once rejected on the grounds that no one should have the power to dictate from above what students should learn and what students should value. Likewise, university-wide reporting systems and databases would have horrified an earlier generation of student radicals as the most vicious, panopticonic of social developments. But today, leftist skeptics of an empowered administration are few and far between. What we find instead is a generation of campus activists committed to the expansion of administrators’ bureaucratic oversight, coercion, and control over student life and values.

2. The Linguistic Appeal to Authority

Perhaps even more telling than the campus activists’ explicit institutional demands, is the language they use to advance their agenda. Last fall, a Facebook group, “Overheard at Yale,” emerged as a campus-wide forum for debate during the peak of campus turmoil. The group remains irrefutable evidence of social media’s insidious propensity to promote vile, anti-intellectual, tribalist calumnies and barbarisms, and it may well be an invaluable resource for future cultural historians interested in documenting the events of the past few months.

In a particularly memorable post made at the high-point of campus protests, a female Asian student explained why she was uncomfortable with the label “person of color.” The response was unrelenting abuse. A few respondents provided civil, thoughtful defenses of the utility of the term. But by far the most popular response (as measured by likes, the ultimate measure of truth in Facebook debates) opened by denouncing the original post as “so fucking ignorant” and concluding “On behalf of Asian Americans who are proudly people of color, go learn something.” That response came after an earlier comment explaining that the ignorance implicit in the original post was a “great argument for why we need a larger Asian American studies program at Yale.”

The language of “ignorance” employed in the thread is characteristic of a broader linguistic pattern within campus discourse. Those with whom the protesters disagree are described as ignorant and in need of education. They are encouraged to attend “teach-ins” where they are instructed to listen quietly so as to better understand.

This topos of education casts contemporary campus debate as a conflict between ignorance and enlightenment, between superstition and reason. It correspondingly vitiates the possibility of genuine, reasoned moral disagreement. The suggestion that disagreement is rooted in mere ignorance and can be cured by proper instruction articulates an essentially authoritarian model of learning. Against the seminar, which posits that learning arises from argument and the mutual exchange of reasons, the language of ignorance demands the lecture, in which an intellectual authority graciously shares enlightenment with her students. 

There are of course cases in which relevant non-moral facts are best disseminated in this hierarchical fashion. But moral disagreement since Socrates has been thought to be best pursued through dialogue and debate. Moral understanding was traditionally thought to be attained through argument, not instruction delivered from above. The inversion of that paradigm, and the suggestion that dissenters ought to educate themselves by enrolling in the necessary classes and attending the relevant “teach-ins,” betrays a new faith in the epistemic authority and wisdom of the campus administrators designing the new educational regime.




Tony Judt's Scathing Critique of the French Student Protests of May, 1968

From his magisterial, Postwar:
It is worth insisting upon the parochial and distinctly self-regarding issues that sparked the May Events, lest the ideologically charged language and ambitious programs of the following weeks mislead us. The student occupation of the Sorbonne and subsequent street barricades and clashes with police … were led by representatives of the Trotskyist Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire, as well as officials from established student and junior lecturer unions. But the accompanying Marxist rhetoric, while familiar enough, masked an essentially anarchist spirit whose immediate objective was the removal and humiliation of authority.

In this sense, as the disdainful French Communist Party leadership rightly insisted, this was a party, not a revolution. It had all the symbolism of a traditional French revolt—armed demonstrators, street barricades, the occupation of strategic buildings and intersections, political demands and counter-demands—but none of the substance. The young men and women in the student crowds were overwhelmingly middle class—indeed, many of them were from the Parisian bourgeoisie itself: ‘fils a papa’ (‘daddy’s boys’) as the PCF leader Georges Marchais derisively called them. It was their own parents, aunts and grandmothers who looked down upon them from the windows of comfortable bourgeois apartment buildings as they lined up in the streets to challenge the armed power of the French state. 
... 
When the time came the police, especially the riot police—recruited from the sons of poor provincial peasants and never reluctant to crack the heads of privileged Parisian youth—could be counted on to restore order.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Belated Reflections on Yale's Campus Turmoil: L'Affaire Christakis and the Return of In Loco Parentis

Last November, student protests over claims of racial discrimination and insensitivity erupted at Yale and across the country. The protests were sparked by an email sent by Associate Master of Silliman College, Erika Christakis, which criticized the university administration for issuing guidelines to regulate students’ Halloween attire. While the ensuing debate revolved primarily around political correctness, free speech, and institutional racism, most of her supporters and critics alike missed Christakis’ central intended point. Her email was not, at its core, about race or speech, but about power, and it raised a simple but fundamental question: Who gets to define the boundaries between the permissible and the impermissible?

To Christakis, the answer was clear: The university, with its massive bureaucratic structure, should not have the power to set the bounds of what is or is not morally acceptable conduct. Such judgments ought to be left to the students.

As a result, Christakis and her husband were relentlessly pilloried, resulting regrettably in their resignations a few weeks ago. Yet in articulating this critique of university power, Christakis’s language was actually deeply resonant with the radical spirit of America’s first wave of 1960s student activism. The Berkeley protests of 1964, known ironically as the “Free Speech Movement,” were intended not to empower campus administrators to combat social inequities, but rather to demolish the invisible instruments through which the university exerted control over students’ lives and ideas.

This resistance to university power found intellectual expression perhaps most notably in the writings of Michel Foucault. Through a series of historical studies, Foucault argued that modern liberal society had not brought about the emancipation it promised. Operating through new forms of “pastoral power” and "normalized judgment," mass society inaugurated a new kind of social control, in many respects even more dangerous than that of the illiberal past. As the student activists of the ’60s well understood, the university’s power to regulate behavior often through implicit instruments was one of the most dangerous forms of this distinctively modern means of social coercion.

It was for these reasons that the radical left fifty years ago set out to destroy universities’ power over students’ lives. And it was for these reasons that in her email, Christakis warned students of “the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”

Traditionally, university policies regulating student behavior have been closely associated with in loco parentis, or “in the place of a parent.” The doctrine holds that having taken students away from the home—the natural locus of moral development—the university inherits the ethical responsibilities of the parent. To this end, universities were historically charged with cultivating a certain kind of character in their students by promoting traditional scripts of life and by enforcing behavioral codes of conduct (including most notably for recent post-pubescents stringent standards of sexual morality).

With this historical perspective in mind, Yale’s campus turmoil reveals two sets of awkward allies across the last half century of university politics. In articulating a skeptical critique of university power and in denouncing administrators’ right to uphold norms of conduct, the radicals of the ’60s (and Associate Master Christakis) find themselves the intellectual bedfellows of contemporary campus conservatives. And in demanding that administrators do more to promote a holistic account of student welfare and in calling for clearer moral guidance from the university about how students should responsibly interact with their peers and with society at large, today’s student activists use language that would have been intensely familiar to mid-twentieth century conservative defenders of in loco parentis.

Having all but abandoned their radical skepticism toward the controlling power of mass social judgment and the implicit power of entrenched hierarchical elites, today’s campus activists are quite explicit in their appeal not to demolish the power of administrators, but to expand it. Of course faceless bureaucrats should be allowed to issue behavioral codes of conduct, of course mandatory sensitivity training is needed to instruct students and faculty how to act appropriately, and of course new administrative appendages are indispensable in the moral guidance of university life. Each of the remedies called for at Yale and elsewhere is symptomatic of a new-found faith in university administrators as responsible guardians of social justice and as legitimate moral authorities.

Nowhere is the call for a restoration of in loco parentis more clearly seen than in debates over the proper purpose of the residential college. Student activists have rejected the charge that they are hostile to intellectual freedom and free speech by pointing to the language Yale herself uses in describing the residential college system—language that is itself a relic of an older campus commitment to students’ moral development. Silliman College is not the Yale Political Union and the master is not the facilitator of debate. Instead, the colleges’ central purpose is to nurture and support students as they grow and develop.

This language of nurture and care quite plainly flows from the sphere of the household. The college’s role is to protect students and to aid their growth. These idioms of personal safety and security are certainly quite different from the language of moral development and character formation more traditionally associated with in loco parentis. Yet all this reveals is the limitation of a heavy insistence on the distinction between negative freedom (the protection from harm) and positive freedom (the formation into a “free” individual). As we rightly expand our conception of “harm” beyond brute physical violence to include forms of emotional and psychological suffering, it becomes clear that proper protection requires a broader administrative commitment to the promotion of certain behavioral mores. As has become increasingly clear over the course of the last year, there is no conceptual distinction between protecting students from harm in the broad sense and promoting their holistic wellbeing just as advocates of in loco parentis have always demanded.

Contrast this insistence on the college as an essentially nurturing space with an alternative conception of the role of a university education—that expressed by the 1974 Woodward Report on intellectual freedom at Yale. The report opens by declaring that “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.” It continues that the university “is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends, a replica of the civil society outside it. Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect.”

Though now official university policy, the report quite clearly embodies much of the radical spirit of the ’60s. The university’s primary role is not the formation of a certain kind of student or the promotion of a particular moral vision of the good, but rather the relentless pursuit of truth. Though ideally these ends will not conflict, when they do the university cannot forget its primary commitment is to scholarship, not parenting.

There of course remain important differences between traditional advocates for in loco parentis and today’s student activists that merit lengthy explication. But it remains striking that the contemporary campus left seeks to enforce its social morality through the same informal and institutional controls traditional societies have always used to enforce theirs—and against which liberals have traditionally chafed.

In making these observations, I have not intended to pass normative judgment on the character or aims of recent campus protests—though I have plenty of judgments to pass. Rather, I have attempted to point out a curious historical transformation in the contours of campus politics over the last fifty years. This transformation isn’t hypocrisy, but is merely the natural outcome of the cultural left’s dialectic with social reality. Accordingly, conservatives must do away with their stale critiques of a relativistic, nonjudgmental left and should grapple instead with the substantive conception of the good today’s campus radicals wish to enforce.

Indeed, the explicit revival of in loco parentis is in some sense a salutary development. For the last half century, universities have pretended to administer value-neutral, technocratic reforms while in reality they have vigorously embraced a thick moral vision of the kind of people their students should become. A frank acknowledgment that Yale does wish to shape (and perhaps can't help but shape) the moral lives of her students would be an honest improvement to contemporary campus discourse. We would do well to drop the facade that Yale remains agnostic between competing visions of the good life and to grapple instead with what values Yale ought to enforce upon her students.