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Ed Driscoll

Of Trigger Warnings and Campus Brown Shirts

May 20th, 2014 - 12:03 pm

Oh, that closing of the American mind. 25 years ago, Allan Bloom documented the descent of academia, and things have only gotten worse, since. Ever since the 1960s, colleges have been hotbeds of lunacy, but in the last couple of years, the trend really does seem to be accelerating, doesn’t it? In his column at PJM, Roger L. Simon, our Maximum Pajamahadeen Emeritus, charts “The Rise of the Campus Brown Shirts:”

A fusillade of attacks by students and faculty on commencement speakers and honorary degree awardees at four of our better known schools — Smith, Haverford, Rutgers and Brandeis — has tarnished this year’s commencement season beyond any in recent memory.  Speakers as distinguished as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, former Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been forced to withdraw even as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the most courageous fighters of oppression on the planet, had to walk from her honorary degree from a university established in the shadow of the Holocaust. Go figure.

What next? The Bill of Rights gets repealed?  An academic “War on Women”? (Three of the four attacked are female.) A new generation of undergraduate Brown Shirts comes back from 1930s Berlin to smash every college window and burn every school library book by unapproved authors in a renewed Kristallnacht?

Of course all of the above dignitaries finally walked away voluntarily from their campus honors, underlining the juvenile absurdity of these same students and faculty, not to mention the paleo-milquetost behavior of their administrations. Mercifully, William G. Bowen, the former Princeton president who replaced Lagarde as Haverford commencement speaker, called out the protestors as “immature” and “arrogant” during his speech, an understatement, to be sure, but welcome nonetheless.

Roger adds that “This would all be great fodder for Saturday Night Live, if it still had any spine.” Back in the 1970s, when producer Lorne Michaels, really did have quite a spine, SNL birthed the mindset of today’s NBC in general: hard left, contemptuous of America in general and the middle class specifically, and always ready to employ crude language and sexual innuendo to make a joke. Compared with anything else on TV in the mid-1970s, it was bracing stuff — and for the first four of the five initial seasons that Michaels produced, often extremely funny as well.

But as I said the other day, you can’t simultaneously tear down the past culture and substitute a far cruder one, and then demand that you want “trigger warnings” placed on anything that might offend your now toughened sensibilities.

Which is why, at the L.A. Times today, Jonah Goldberg quips, “Trigger warning: I am going to make fun of ‘trigger warnings:’”

The New York Times reports that activists want many classics to have trigger warnings in effect printed on them like health advisories on cigarette packages. “The Merchant of Venice,” for instance, would need the label “contains anti-Semitism.” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” would need a warning that it discusses suicide. Oberlin’s memo advised faculty that Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

As a victim of “and more,” I can sympathize. But this way leads to madness.

And what a strange madness it is. We live in a culture in which it is considered bigotry to question whether women should join combat units — but it is also apparently outrageous to subject women of the same age to realistic books and films about war without a warning? Even questioning the ubiquity of degrading porn, never mind labeling music or video games, is denounced as Comstockery, but labeling “The Iliad” makes sense?

I do wish these people would make up their mind. Alas, that’s hard to do when you’ve lost it.

With all of the above added as prologue, plus academia’s insane tuition costs, Glenn Reynolds declares that higher education is becoming a joke in his latest USA Today column:

Though the claim that one in five women on campus is sexually assaulted is pretty clearly bogus — as Bloomberg‘s Megan McArdle notes, it includes things like sexual touching over clothes, which hardly constitute rape — it’s widely repeated, and that surely makes young women a bit less enthusiastic about attending. Then all the responses — involving, basically, kangaroo courts that strip male students charged with sexual assault of all due process protection — don’t make campuses more appealing to male students, who are already an under-represented minority on most campuses.

Then there’s the race hysteria. Just last week, students at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota canceled a “Hump Day” celebration featuring a camel because someone thought the camel signified racism against Muslims. (Yes, Muslims aren’t a race, but that doesn’t matter, apparently.) We make fun of Victorians for substituting the term “limbs” for the too-racy word “legs,” and for supposedly covering table legs with cloth, but our own era is prone to similar over-delicacy, and campuses — supposedly centers of critical thought — seem to be the worst offenders.

Dartmouth cancelled a charitable fund-raising “fiesta” because one student complained that the word “fiesta” was racist. And going beyond race, commencement speakers, ranging from Condi Rice at Rutgers to Christine LaGarde at Smith, have been turned away by rabid student protests, mocked here by Yale Law’s Stephen Carter.

From the economics to the politics, colleges and universities are looking less like serious places to improve one’s mind and one’s prospects, and more like expensive islands of frivolity and, sometimes, viciousness. And that is likely to have consequences.

In his USA Today column, Glenn quotes Iowahawk’s recent tweet, which neatly sums up the box canyon that higher education’s brown shirts have marched into:


But perhaps, not for much longer, unless academia is willing to take a long collective look in the mirror and begins to reform itself. And based on their history of of the oh, past half century or so, that seems rather doubtful.

If only there was a viable workaround to the current madness.

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