New York Letter

Pictures from an Institution

no edukashunWho says the guild system is dead? In New York, these days, you seem to need a licence for everything. The prominent Catholic journalist Ross Douthat discovered this mournful truth recently when he practised theology without a licence in his column for the New York Times. The offending column, “The Plot to Change Catholicism”, was published on October 18 and sparked an immediate rebuke from the Fraternal Order of Snot-Nosed Leftish Academic Theologians, Ltd. (I may not have the name exactly right.)

Here’s what the brotherhood had to say (as an aid to the reader, I italicise a few phrases):

Aside from the fact that Mr Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

This effusion was signed by more than fifty academics and many more have subsequently weighed in to denounce Douthat for practising theology without a licence. The “Twitter war” that erupted is partly comical, partly alarming, as such public displays of intemperateness often are. “Own your heresy,” Douthat recommended to one left-wing interlocutor, a piece of advice that sent the groupthink brigades over the edge.

The case of Douthat is actually more complicated than a bare recitation of the events might suggest. The reason the brotherhood refused to issue the old nihil obstat to Ross Douthat was not really because he violated the cardinal guild rule against freelance theology. The guild suffers many interlopers to wax theological, provided that they come to the right conclusions.

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Ross Douthat’s real sin was not so much theo­logising as expressing the wrong opinion about certain sensitive subjects dear to the brotherhood’s collective heart (and other organs). Specifically, when writing about the recent Synod on the family in Rome, Douthat expressed the heretical view that the Catholic Church ought to abide by Catholic teachings. If that seems elliptical, let me explain that by “heretical” I mean “orthodox”. Douthat, as a traditionalist Catholic, had the temerity to point out that Pope Francis aimed to use the Synod to advance the Left-liberal view that marriage is a relationship of convenience that can be revised or abrogated at will without incurring ecclesiastical censure. Specifically, Douthat charged, the Pope “favors the proposal, put forward by the church’s liberal cardinals, that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without having their first marriage declared null”. Douthat continued:

The entire situation abounds with ironies. Aging progressives are seizing a moment they thought had slipped away, trying to outmaneuver younger conservatives who recently thought they owned the Catholic future. The African bishops are defending the faith of the European past against Germans and Italians weary of their own patrimony. A Jesuit pope is effectively at war with his own Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the erstwhile Inquisition—a situation that would make 16th century heads spin.

This might seem like something of interest only to theologically-inclined Catholics. But in fact it provides a good window on a much broader Kulturkampf. Ross Douthat—that rarest of rarae aves, a conservative at the New York Times—writes a column defending the traditional Catholic teaching on marriage. The academic Left swings into action and tries to get him sacked.

Look again at that letter to the Times: Douthat has “no professional qualifications” for writing about the Catholic teaching on marriage. What can that possibly mean? That a PhD is required to opine authoritatively on the subject of marriage? Especially hilarious is the charge that what Douthat writes is part of “a politically partisan narrative”, as if the signatories to that letter were free from political affiliation. Behind that contention is an important leftist assumption about the world: that politics are what other people, specifically conservatives, exhibit. What all right-thinking (that is, Left-leaning) people espouse is not politics but merely the state of nature. The idea, for example, that marriage is an indissoluble bond between two people (and a man and a woman at that) has the imprimatur of that other non-PhD theologian, Jesus of Nazareth. And yet in today’s world, it is a political—that is, a conservative, that is, a retrograde—position. All good people know that marriage is just what you want it to be. That’s not political, that’s just common sense. It’s what everybody I went college with thinks, ergo it must be true.

It’s the same with any contentious subject. There is the “non-political” (Left-liberal) position on abortion, climate change, the free market, the idea that there is a “rape culture” on American campuses, and so on. Sign up for the orthodox position and you’re home free; dissent and you get the treat Ring Lardner immortalised with the line, “Shut up, he explained.”

As I write, America is wracked by a couple of academic scandals, one at Yale, one at the University of Missouri. They represent other chapters in the gospel of intolerance that greeted Ross Douthat. Both stories are hard to recount with a straight face. Towards the end of October, an entity called the “Intercultural Affairs Office”, which represents such groups as Yale’s “LBGTQ Resources” office, “Native American Cultural Center”, and others, issued a sort of travel advisory for Halloween. Be careful what costumes you choose, children, because you might give offence to someone, somewhere. “Feathered headdresses”, for example, as well as “turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface” were deemed, er, beyond the pale. “Could someone take offense with your costume and why?” the memo asked, with shaky grammar.

This is just business-as-usual in the sanitised, politically correct kindergarten that is the American university today. But then something extraordinary happened. Another college administrator sent round an e-mail that began with all the usual Left-liberal pieties but concluded with this enormity: “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society … In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.”

Oh my God: can you believe it? How dare she stand up for “the ability to tolerate offense”? How dare she suggest that it would be OK for a student to wear a culturally insensitive Halloween costume? I know it is hard to believe, but trust me, Yale erupted in a self-induced panic.

I should add at this point that I agree entirely with the writer. I think people ought to be able to wear any costume they want. Doubtless some costumes are in bad taste, but none of the items listed above bothers me at all. I don’t care if kids, or others, dress up as injuns—dot or feather, either is just fine with me—minstrel singers, pasty-faced accountants, or slatternly suburban housewives in tattered dressing gowns.

But I am not a delicate hothouse seedling at Yale, which greeted this permission with several hours-long public gatherings at which students berated administrators for not treating them like helpless children. At one such meeting, a black girl screamed obscenities at the head of her college, shouting that it was his job “to create a place of comfort” for students—not “an intellectual space”, she elaborated, but “a home”. She ended by demanding that he step down as head of college. A public-spirited observer captured the encounter on video and posted it to the internet. It’s gone viral, and I recommend looking it up. You have to see it to appreciate the virulence of the exchange. It is a breathtaking exhibition of what Charles Mackay called “the madness of crowds”.

As chance (or perhaps it was Providence) would have it, I was at Yale the day after this episode to take part in a conference on (irony alert) the “future of free speech”. One of the participants was Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has a long and distinguished record of defending free speech on campus. Having witnessed the bizarre show trial the previous day, Lukianoff was incredulous. It used to be, he noted, that the bulk of FIRE’s interventions were against college administrations that had infringed upon the free speech of faculty or students. But more and more, he noted, the assault on free speech was coming from the students themselves. Here was a case in point. Someone in authority had said, “It’s not my business to police your Halloween costume.” Why on earth would anyone object to that? It’s not, he mused, as if someone had burned down an Indian village.

The line got a laugh from the audience, which was appropriate, because (does this really need to be explained?) burning down an Indian village is an enormity while saying that people can wear whatever sort of Halloween costume they want is simple sanity. Or so one would have thought. There were a few student moles planted among the audience, and one proceeded to disrupt the proceedings by pasting up signs on the wall that read, “Stand with your sisters of color. Now, here. Always, everywhere.” He was asked to sit down or leave and when he refused, a security guard dragged him kicking and screaming from the room. The chief burden of his complaint revolved around that Indian village. Greg Lukianoff had said that the response to that innocuous e-mail was so violent that you would have thought someone had destroyed an Indian village. He didn’t advocate destroying an Indian village, mind you. No villages of any sort were despoiled in the conduct of his remarks. He merely suggested that the response to an e-mail treating students as responsible adults (first mistake!) was wildly disproportionate.

The student who was ejected obviously had friends, for soon there were about thirty, then over 100, students outside the lecture hall chanting, “Genocide is not a joke.” Extra security was brought in to assure the safe egress of the participants an hour later. Even so, some people were spat upon by the angry mob as they left the room.

Then there is the University of Missouri. Someone reported that a swastika made from human faeces was drawn on the wall of rest room in a college dormitory. Whether the swastika actually existed is a matter of some dispute. There is no photographic evidence. Nevertheless, the alleged objet sparked a protest by the black football players at the university who demanded that the president do something to condemn racism on campus. (What the connection between the alleged swastika and racism is supposed to be remains mysterious.) Apparently the president’s response was inadequate. The football team struck, refusing to play until they got satisfaction. That came a few days later when both the president and the chancellor of the university stepped down, casualties in an escalating outbreak of politically correct insanity.

The story didn’t end there, however. Once the natives get stirred up, it is difficult to pacify them. There were more protests, demands for a “safe space” for “people of color” and so on. Some students, abetted by sympathetic Left-leaning faculty, erected a tent village on a public space on campus. When a student who was not one of the demonstrators attempted to photograph goings-on around the tents, a cordon of twenty or thirty students and faculty encircled him and, with menacing taunts, forced him back away from the tents. He calmly pointed out that the First Amendment protected his rights to free speech even as it did theirs, but the crowd just laughed at that. When another interloper got close to the tents, a professor called Melissa Click, who teaches in the journalism program at the university, obstructed his view and cried out for “some muscle” to come and help remove the would-be photographer.

This episode, too, was captured on a video that has gone viral and, again, I suggest tracking it down to get a palpable sense of the aura of thuggish menace that suffused the event. American universities—American public discourse generally—is more and more captive of a newly minted species of Orwellian doublespeak in which putative victims are in fact victimisers and a rhetoric of “trigger warnings”, “micro-aggressions”, and “safe spaces” is deployed partly to infantilise the parties who indulge in it, partly in order to advance a covertly brutal regime of political conformity.

Back in the early 1950s, the poet Randall Jarrell published a novel called Pictures from an Institution, one of those comic academic larks that is as terrifying as it is funny. “If Benton,” the imaginary women’s college of the novel, “had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you feel guilty. Just as ordinary animal awareness has been replaced in man by consciousness,” Jarrell writes:

so consciousness has been replaced, in most of the teachers of Benton, by social consciousness. They were successful in teaching most of their students to say in contrition, about anything whatsoever: It was I, Lord, it was I; but they were not so successful in teaching them to consider this consciousness of guilt a summum bonum, one’s final claim upon existence. Many a Benton girl went back to her nice home, married her rich husband, and carried a fox in her bosom for the rest of her life—and short of becoming a social worker, founding a Neo-Socialist party, and then killing herself and leaving her insurance to the United Nations, I do not know how she could have got rid of it.

Jarrell’s novel is still plenty pertinent to academic life, but there is this difference: the metabolism of misplaced guilt he anatomises has been weaponised. These days, the suffocating sense of guilt has been jazzed up into a cocktail of self-congratulation, on the one hand, and menacing intolerance, on the other. Doubtless it portends many things, but support for liberal education or liberal society, properly understood, is not among them.

Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of the New Criterion and Publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St Augustine’s Press).


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