By Judy Wallen
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” —Leonard Cohen.
When I went to college in the 1980s, I recall how inscrutable the politics of many of my professors was. One day the professor would argue with the class over the virtues of Madison or Marx, Milton or Melville or whomever we may be studying, and then the next day the professor would completely reverse course, arguing with equal ferocity against them. The students could never figure out where the professor stood. Rumors would circulate how all of this was some kind of ploy to teach us how to think. Some would eagerly embrace the rumors, while others would laugh at those who flattered themselves with the belief that all these tiresome exercises would be enough to claim an intellectual advantage. Whatever disagreements there were, everyone agreed that questions and challenges, no matter how silly or odious, were essential to understanding.
That was a time when there was assumed to be a shared human experience that the brilliant masters of the humanities were able to capture, before multiculturalism or university departments whose names ended in studies or microaggressions or safe spaces. This truly was a safe space, for thought. That was a time when universities were sanctuaries for free thought rather than the arsenals against free thought that they have now become.
The current class of intellectuals, whether inside the universities or outside as a product thereof, now flout the principles of logic and reason far more than their relentlessly mocked uneducated rubes ever did. Complex issues requiring thoughtful analysis of probabilistic tradeoffs and consequences are replaced with simplistic models that would have left the intellectuals of yesteryear aghast. Where complicated continuums are warranted, binary scales are substituted in which anything besides absolute purity is considered evil. False analogies, poor pattern recognition, hasty conclusions, misjudging the whole by a part, ascribing false motives and meanings have become the artisan bread and butter of the pontificating patricians. Double standards abound in which moving goalposts of unethical or even criminal behavior are applied to capture political opponents, while flexible extenders are granted to liberate supporters. Political opponents, along with groups they may be associated with, are defined by their worst moments or qualities or members, regardless of how insignificant. Conversely, supporters and their associated groups will be defined by their best moments and qualities and members, no matter how meager. Finally all the abuses of logic and reason are wrapped up in shiny packages called science-data-facts with great big bows called decency so that those who refuse such offerings are taunted, censored, blacklisted, and ultimately criminalized.
This attack on reason is the symptom of a cause that has its origins in the great saboteur of free thought: pride. Without acknowledging the limits and intrinsic instability of the intellect, there is a tendency for our natures to err in favor of self-interest. The intellect takes the back seat to our reptilian passions or, even worse, becomes the servant of the reptile. Confirmation bias takes over as pride, greed, envy, vengeance overpower the intellect. Pride will shift the objective of knowledge-seekers from truth to self-glorification, agendas that often conflict. The intellect is apt to pervert itself not to enlighten and explore, but to deceive and conceal. To achieve virtue, the intellect is dependent on humility — humility to mistrust both the completeness of our own understanding and the purity of our own motives. Humility is necessary to acknowledge how easily we go from rational to rationalizing when our desires are strong enough to sacrifice not only our nobler sensibilities, but also the welfare of others, especially the ones we never cared for to begin with. It is in that humility where we will find the humanity that will save us from destroying the lives of others in our intoxicating prideful pursuit of the knowledge of good and evil.
So it should not be terribly surprising that the gatekeepers of higher learning were unprepared for the arrival of the radicals, circa the cultural earthquake of the 1960s. Emboldened by righteousness from Vietnam and civil rights movements and passions untempered by real-world experience, a young crop of areligious educators with a holy mission of social activism began to enter the university. The pampered products of the baby boom generation sought to throw out the babies of cultural, religious, and political traditions with the bathwater of their imperfections. Everything became politicized so that there was little identity separate from a political one, and once politicized, sides were drawn with the opposition targeted. These professors aimed no longer to teach process, but to teach conclusions. Teaching how to think was replaced with teaching what to think. These professors soon began to change the nature of the institution until, a few decades later, the university is no longer a tool for enlightenment, but rather a weapon of mass deception.
In Orwell’s Animal Farm, totalitarianism survives upon a tripod of treacherous tyrants, malleable masses, and police-state propagandists. The authoritarians and their adherents exist in a society as mold spores in the atmosphere do — ubiquitous, needing only the proper conditions and host to embed themselves and proliferate. The Founding Fathers carefully crafted a system to provide the conditions most resistant to such an infestation, a system designed to counter both the failings of the majority and the authority. But in a tragic twist of fate, it is not the backwoods deplorables or bourgeois simpletons or country-club power players or Bible-loving Christians whom the “intellectuals” perpetually warned the citizenry about with countless cautionary tales of horror, but the neo-intellectuals themselves who have come with torches and pitchforks to dismantle that system and its myriad safeguards. As those safeguards are removed, these neo-intellectuals rush into the role of propagandists, demonizing and criminalizing truth-tellers and free thinkers and common sense crusaders, while their bootlickers and backscratchers buttress the other two legs of totalitarianism. By disfiguring all complex challenges to their authority into simplistic paradigms of good versus evil and miscasting challengers into subhuman carriers of hate and violence, these trans-intellectuals are themselves creating the dark comic book–style dystopia in which the culminating battles truly are those of good versus evil.
The story will not end here, for just as the well known account of a people who after their temple was destroyed continued to practice their religion, insisting defiantly for next year in Jerusalem, there will be those who, upon seeing the land of the free drift into a police-state dystopia, stand defiantly upon the tripod of humility and honesty and humanity and continue to practice freedom, to pray and preach and struggle and fight for freedom and proclaim next year…until we rebuild that brilliant country conceived in liberty where we are free to think, speak, dream, create, achieve, and prosper. Liberty is in our country’s DNA; it is part of our own DNA as human beings. It is powerful and infectious. There will always be hope, even if it is no more than a crack in the rubble.