Roger’s Rules

Roger’s Rules

Kierkegaard and ‘Trigger Warnings’

May 26th, 2015 - 12:47 pm

“The Rotation Method” is one of the most amusing sections of Kierkegaard’s early classic Either/Or. The second most famous melancholy Dane has some good advice for dealing with irritating absurdity: cultivate arbitrariness when confronted with flagrant examples of  it.

There is someone whose conversation you find insufferable. Circumstances often throw you together. What to do? Kierkegaard’s narrator has some useful advice:

I discovered that he perspired copiously when talking. I saw the pearls of sweat gather on his brow, unite to form a stream, glide down his nose, and hang at the extreme point of his nose in a drop-shaped body.

Presto! What had been unbearably tiresome was suddenly transformed into an entertainment. Now, instead of avoiding that bore, you seek him and egg him on, waiting with breath bated for the drop-shaped pendant to form.

There is much about contemporary academia that can be profitably approached armed with the Rotation Method. Consider, to take one recent example, “Our identities matter in Core classrooms”. It’s a sad little effusion by Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe, and Tracey Wang in The Columbia Spectator, the chief student newspaper of that once-great university. Columbia still has a vestige of its famous Great Books “core curriculum” program, and one of the monuments of Western literature that students had the opportunity to read this year was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This was a problem for Mesdames Johnson, Lynch, Monroe, and Wang.

As they report, a student had gone before the university’s — wait, the sweat is beginning to coalesce — Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board on Literature (yes, really) to complain that reading Ovid made her feel bad.

To appreciate the formation of that little pear-shaped opalescence, however, you have to get the story in their own inimitable words:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

Time was I would feel alternately embarrassed and angry reading this tripe — embarrassed for these privileged twits, who are sufficiently ungracious and self-absorbed to fritter away the opportunity of a serious education on such exhibitions of romper-room feminist histrionics, angry that their bleatings should find a home at a serious university. I have since learned better. The proper response to such drivel is delectation, not debate or dialectic. Really, if you step back and contemplate it as a prodigy of fatuousness, what these skirling young scholars have to say is quite deliciously funny. Attend:

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

This cringe-making epistle has been treated to some small portion of the contempt and ridicule it deserves, both in the comments to the online version of the piece and elsewhere (here, for example). But the cri-de-coeur raises questions as well as offers diversion. For example, do you suppose the parents of these young ladies wonder, just a little bit, about the wisdom of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a college education for their delicately brought-up progeny only to have them behave like this while postponing their maternity? As I say, there was a time when I would have posed such questions. Now I am just grateful for the display of unalloyed fatuousness: the bulbous globule of rancid fluid poised precariously on the snout of this insufferable pretension. Really, the hilarity is nearly endless:

[A]nother student who attended the forum shared that her Lit Hum professor gave her class the opportunity to choose their own text to add to their syllabus for the year. When she suggested the class read a Toni Morrison text, another student declared that texts by authors of the African Diaspora are a staple in most high school English classes, and therefore they did not need to reread them. Toni Morrison is a writer of both the African Diaspora and the Western world, and her novels — aside from being some of the most intellectually and emotionally compelling writing in the last century — should be valued as founding texts of the Western canon.

The student’s remark regarding Toni Morrison was not merely insensitive, but also revealing of larger ideological divides. This would have been an opportune moment for the professor to intervene.

In a sane world, a professor in a course devoted to great books of the Western canon would have intervened to point out that Toni Morrison is, among all the admittedly stiff competition for the title, probably the most overrated novelist of the last thirty years. Her works may deserve a place on the curriculum of a course in sociology, one that examines how race or some other external characteristic can substitute for merit in the cultural metabolism of decaying liberal democracies. But if it is a choice between  Dostoyevsky , say, or Jane Austen or Henry James or Anthony Trollope or Dickens, Thomas Mann or any of 100 other serious novelists and Toni Morrison, well, you get the picture.

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Memorial Day Notes

May 25th, 2015 - 9:09 am

We are up visiting friends in the Northwest corner of Connecticut for Memorial Day.  Yesterday was one of those rare brilliant days suffused with robust sun, mild breezes, glittering greens, and heady scents. At dawn, the thermometer read a brisk 47, but by late morning it was into the 70s.  I went to visit another friend up the street who with his wife is an avid collector of contemporary art and who maintains a swank private exhibition space. From time to time, they organize shows drawn from their collection and invite sundry friends and acquaintances for an afternoon of art and conviviality. The next of these jamborees is scheduled for a couple weeks hence, but as I was here now I was given an advance look around. 

My taste in art differs markedly from that of my friends, but the overall tenor of their latest assembly is quite remarkable, indeed moving.  The inspiration for the exhibition is a letter from 1942, written in German, and addressed to “Lidi Sara Israel.”  It was from the Nazi government occupying Luxembourg announcing “for the record” in echt Deutsch fashion the seizure and confiscation of her possessions. Thanks for the heads up!

The woman in question happened to be my friend’s mother. Hers was a story with a happy ending. Many others were not so fortunate. A copy of the Nazis’ courtesy notification occupies a quiet spot in the first room of the exhibition. Other objects include various WWII recruitment and propaganda posters, a skeletal representation, built to scale, of the Fat Man atomic bomb by Robert Morris, and a lithograph by Sigmar Polke of the infamous Nazi exhibition of Entartete Kunst—they organized one final showing of “degenerate art” before consigning  Kandinsky,  Max Beckmann, Klee, Mondrian, and all the rest to Nazi oblivion. There are other haunting pictures from the WWII section of the exhibition, including a terrifying  painting by the Norwegian artist Vebjorn Sand depicting a celebratory, glasses-raised moment at the conclusion  of the Wannsee Conference in 1942.  The raucous group of senior apparatchiks had something to celebrate.  They had just organized the administration of a huge and logistically complex government undertaking, the extermination of European Jewry. Sand’s painting, appropriately, is called Corpses I.

The exhibition is a sort of illustrated autobiography: signal world events from World War II, through the civil rights movement in the U.S., to 9/11 and its longaftermath. I am not at all sure my friends intended the exhibition to accompany the little town’s  Memorial Day festivities, but  it offered a thoughtful introduction. It was the usual thing.  Brief fly-over by — I think — F16s), parade with vintage cars,  trucks, and tractors, interspersed with veterans, boy scouts, local police and firemen, etc.  The best-decorated bike of boy and girl were awarded commemorative coin sets, and former Senator James L. Buckley delivered a brief address which, unlike most such effusions, was much more than a congeries of clichés. Buckley was not afraid to speak of, and praise, American exceptionalism, an idea that has been in bad odor among the beautiful people at least since Barack Obama took office and told us that he believe in American exceptionalism in the same sense that a Greek would believe in Greek exceptionalism, a Brit in British exceptionalism, etc.  We may leave aside the tantalizing suggestion that Obama has been doing everything possible to make America exceptional in the Greek sense. In fact, as Buckley noted, America emerged form the Second World War as the most powerful, prosperous, generous, and free  country the world has ever seen.

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Free Speech: Yea or Nay?

May 23rd, 2015 - 6:58 am

You might think that my title is merely rhetorical: “Of course we in the West are  in favor of free speech.”  Do you think so?  Writing in The New Criterion a few years ago, Anthony Daniels had this to say about the prospects for free speech in Britain:

The huge change in British society, from a free and orderly but very unequal society to a highly regulated but disorderly and rather more equal society, came about because the ruling political passions and desiderata, particularly among the ever-more important intelligentsia, changed from freedom and equality before the law to equality of outcome and physical well-being and comfort. If freedom failed to result in the latter, so much the worse for freedom: very few people in Britain now give a fig for it. The loss of their double-glazing would mean more to them than the loss of their right to say what they like.

“The loss of their double-glazing would mean more to them than the loss of their right to say what they like.”  Ouch.

Or perhaps I should say “hurrah”? Over at National Review Online, Charles C. W. Cooke has some depressing news, the burden of which is summed up in his headline: “Majority of Democrats, 37 Percent of Republicans Want to Repeal First Amendment.” Yes, that’s right folks, give us our double-glazing, free speech be damned.

Actually, at issue in the poll that Cooke cites was not physical comfort but the psychological variety. “[M]any Americans support making it a criminal offense to make public statements which would stir up hatred against particular groups of people.” There is a political divide here—51%  of Democrats support criminalizing hate speech, while only (only?) 37% of Republicans do.  Also, more blacks support criminalizing “hate speech” than do whites.

But those divisions, while interesting (and predictable) enough, skirt the main issue, which is the phantasmagoric nature of the alleged tort, i.e., “hate speech.” As I have noted elsewhere (here, for example, and here), “hate speech” is a made-up offensive. The scare quotes are necessary because the phrase is simply periphrasis for “speech I don’t like.”  Should that be actionable? To judge by the fetid atmosphere on many college campuses today, where infantilization is the rule and “trigger warnings” and campaigns against “micro-aggression” are the means, you might be tempted to conclude that the answer should be “Yes, it should be actionable.”

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Jacob Collins at Adelson Galleries

April 29th, 2015 - 6:17 am

The other day, I went with a friend to tour the new Whitney Museum of American Art, a neo-totalitarian edifice designed by the world’s second worst celebrity architect, Renzo Piano (the worst of course is the awful Frank Gehry).  I’ll have more to say about the Whitney elsewhere. Here I want to note a certain irony about the Musuem’s name. It says “Whitney Museum of American Art.”  Really, though, once you proceed beyond the 1950s, it should be called “The Whitney Museum of Failed Art” or, possibly, “The Whitney Museum of Pretentious Rubbish Masquerading as Art.” I do not want to indulge too much in preterition here (and I will pass over the fact that Mark Antony is a drunken, sexually deviant lowlife . . .), but I am not going to talk about that either, except to note that the Whitney would have a much better claim to its title if it include work by artists such as Jacob Collins, an amazingly accomplished painter whose new show at the Adelson Galleries in New York is as brilliant and aesthetically accomplished as the Whitney is a disaster.

The English geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, though an incorrigible commie pinko, was a tart and brilliant observer of life’s panoply. “My own suspicion,” he  wrote, “is  that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Haldane was thinking primarily of the natural world, where oddity, like Falstaff’s dishonesty, is “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.”  But irremediable oddity intrudes in the intellectual and cultural world as well. How strange, for example, that I should have been reading Irving Kristol’s 1984 essay “Reflections of a Neoconservative” the same day that I visited the Adelson Galleries to see the extraordinary exhibition of Jacob Collins’s new paintings and drawings.

Perhaps, Kristol wrote, we were living “in one of those historic conjunctures when inherited categories of thought, dominant for some two hundred years now,  have lost their creative vitality.”   A perception—or maybe it was only an assumption—of some such global loss stood behind the great modernist upsurge in culture. We had to have Picasso or Duchamp (say) because no one who was anyone still found anything worth looking at in Ingres (say) or Veronese. The curious thing, though, was the rapidity with which all those rebellions against “inherited categories of thought” became themselves  dominant categories of thought, just as imperious and conventional as the conventions they had sought to replace.

A burgeoning perception of that development has begun to challenge the challengers and unsettle the unsettlers. The salubrious result has been a simultaneous erosion and recovery: an erosion of those angst-ridden challenges to tradition and a recovery—at least, the beginnings of a recovery—of precisely those canons of thought, feeling, and practice which just yesterday had been consigned to the dust bin of cultural history. Many of us, I suspect, will find ourselves coming to the same conclusions Kristol did: “that Jane Austen is a greater novelist than Proust or Joyce; that Raphael is a greater  painter then Picasso; that T. S. Eliot’s later, Christian poetry is much superior to his earlier; that C. S. Lewis is a finer  literary and cultural critic than Edmund Wilson; that Aristotle is more worthy of careful study than Marx; that Adam Smith makes a lot more economic sense than any economist since; that . . .”  well, you get the picture.

I thought about Kristol’s observations as I made my way through the Adelson Galleries and savored thepictures Jacob Collins had assembled for this exhibition. Regular readers of National Review will recall my enthusiasm for an earlier exhibition of Collins’s work. “Collins,” I wrote in 2007,  “is part of a small but growing band of artists who are revolutionizing art by reinvigorating, reinhabiting the aesthetic canons and plastic techniques pioneered in the Renaissance and promulgated in the studios of the Beaux Arts. . . . What we are witnessing here is the formation of a powerful aesthetic-moral current, one that promises to sweep away a great deal of quasi-artistic rubbish and transform large precincts of public taste.”

The embryo transformation I discerned is still underway and, alas, it has a long way to go, as anyone who looks around at the contemporary art world will acknowledge. But as this exhibition demonstrates, Jacob Collins has gone from strength to strength. Now in his early fifties, Collins has long been a fructifying force in contemporary art, both through his pedagogy (he has founded and presided over at least two art schools) and his practice. The label that is usually pinned on artists like Collins is “Classical Realism,” which is accurate enough, as far as it goes, which, the closer you look at his work, isn’t very far. Throughout his career, Collins has displayed astonishing technical prowess—that’s the “realism”—and his immersion in the Beaux Arts masters and the masters they studied is patent, which accounts for “classical.”  

But there is something ghettoizing about the term “classical realism” and the force and maturity of his new work renders it a pointlessly diminishing epithet. “Classical Realism” was a name someone proposed to describe those (mostly) young artists who set out to reinhabit certain traditional forms of painting and sculpture. Often, their ambition exceeded their accomplishment: you could see what they were trying to do, but you couldn’t help but register the distance between effort and success.

There is none of that hesitation in Collins’s new work. Here is work in which technical achievement and consummate taste unite in art that transcends the taxonomic labels of art-speak.  This exhibition comprises a wide range of work: nudes, portraits, landscapes,  and still lifes.  Collins brings equal mastery to all.

Collins is a brilliant portraitist, but the current exhibition is devoted mostly to still lifes with a few landscapes thrown in for good measure. There is some extraordinary work here.  The show is up until May 30 and is very much worth a visit.  Here are a few highlights:

p-h A04 exbannerhorizontal A03



Which is real, which is a parody?

Stumped?  The first is a parody, the second two are real, all too real.  But who can reliably distinguish between satire and reality these days?

How about this: crude joke, what James Carville (he was speaking about scandals at the Clinton Piggy Bank, er, Foundation) called “diddly squat,” or non-diddly squat corruption on a sickening scale:

  • Bill Clinton travelsto Kazakhstan, meets his friend Frank Giustra who wants to buy uranium mines there.
  • Clinton gives a press conference with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and extols the leader’s human rights record and democratic progress, even though he had just received 91% of the vote in an allegedly rigged election.
  • A couple of days later, Kazakhstan gives Giustra the uranium concessions he requested.
  • Giustra then donates $31 million to the Clinton Foundation with a promise of $100 million more to follow.

Ricochet has the whole story here.

No, it is impossible to distinguish between parody and fact any longer, because, as Mark Steyn points out, our entire political apparatus is thoroughly corrupt. Eric Holder may not yet have signed up with JPMorgan Chase.  But it’s early days yet, and who would be willing to bet that his seat at the DOJ won’t be cold before he picks up a super lucrative spot at a 1) huge law firm or 2) financial institution?

Steyn is right: the biggest issue facing our political world right now is corruption. Jay Cost, in A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of Political Corruption, provides some historical perspective on the issue.  In “Oligarchs for Hillary!,” Steyn shows just how bad the corruption has become. “The corruption nauseates me,” Steyn writes, “and, if it doesn’t nauseate the candidates, then that explains a lot about why nothing happens on any of those other matters [all the other policy items that are amiss in the Republic].”

We have a “justice” department that prosecutes a senator who made the mistake of crossing the President (Menendez) but declines to do anything about a tax collector who treats American taxpayers differently on the basis of how they vote (Lerner). We have a revenue agency that regards itself as the paramilitary wing of the ruling party. We have replaced equality before the law with a hierarchy of privilege, so that no-name ambassadors can be fired for breaking federal record-keeping requirements by a department whose boss outsources her federal records to her own server and then mass-deletes them with no more thought than when she’s parking her van in the handicapped space. We have a federal police agency in which 26 out of its 28 hair analysts gave false testimony favorable to the prosecution. We have a cabinet officer who managed to get more firepower deployed to toss her designated scapegoat videomaker into the county jail than she assigned to the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi. We have a president who rules by decree on everything from immigration to health care—and a legislature of castrati too craven to object.

Feeling scared yet?  Pause to savor the Clintons’ role in all this more fully, Steyn is right: Hillary is “the most openly corrupt candidate of the modern era.” Even the New York Times is responding to the stench. Writing about Peter Schweitzer’s new book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, the Times reports the allegation that:

“Foreign entities who made payments to the Clinton Foundation and to Mr. Clinton through high speaking fees received favors from Mrs. Clinton’s State Department in return.”

“We will see a pattern of financial transactions involving the Clintons that occurred contemporaneous with favorable U.S. policy decisions benefiting those providing the funds,” Mr. Schweizer writes.

His examples include a free-trade agreement in Colombia that benefited a major foundation donor’s natural resource investments in the South American nation, development projects in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake in 2010, and more than $1 million in payments to Mr. Clinton by a Canadian bank and major shareholder in the Keystone XL oil pipeline around the time the project was being debated in the State Department…
“During Hillary’s years of public service, the Clintons have conducted or facilitated hundreds of large transactions” with foreign governments and individuals, he writes. “Some of these transactions have put millions in their own pockets.”

Is this OK?  Is it “Diddly-squat”?  I admit that it is a sort of joke, but the joke is firmly on us.

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Is Ed Miliband Insane?

April 26th, 2015 - 4:27 pm

Here’s a question for Ed Miliband, the socialist leader of the Labour Party in Britain and eager aspirant to the premiership of the Britain that, were he elected, would certianly no longer be Great: would he arrest his predecessor, Tony Blair? I think he might have to. After all, Tony Blair just went on record to warn that the world must unite to “defeat Muslim extremism.” Isn’t that, Dear Reader, a patent example of Islamophobia? As the heavy Dragoons declare in Patience: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Let’s leave to one side the fact that Islamophobia is a fantasy tort: a “phobia,” as your dictionary will tell you, is an irrational fear or loathing of something that in the normal course of things is not fearsome or worthy of loathing.  But how about Muslim extremism? I know, I know, the people currently in charge of this country are all in the running for the “see no evil” award when it comes to our Koran-toting, scimitar-wielding brethren. Muslims run aircraft into the World Trade Center, and we’re told that Islam is the religion of peace. Muslims bomb a night club in Bali, a train in Madrid, the underground in London, a marathon in Boston: no Muslims here, only “violent extremists.” A couple of deranged Muslims raid the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, leaving a dozen people dead while informing the world that “the prophet has been avenged,” and a colleague across town kills four people in a Jewish supermarket.

Need I go on? I easily could, you know.  But there is some radical disconnect between the “violent extremist” crowd, adamant about not uttering the talisman “Muslim,” and reality. “Islamophobia” is a made-up crime, but if the label is going around, then I am a proud Islamophobe: I fear and loathe Muslim extremism and think civilized countries should do everything they can to stamp it out. Tony Blair is 100% right that “the world has not yet fully come to terms with the scale of the radical Islamist problem or the need to deal with it.” Quite right!

But here’s the question: if (heaven forfend) Ed Miliband actually moves into Number 10, will he arrest Tony Blair? For he has just gone on record saying that he wants to make “Islamophobia” a crime. Yes, that’s right.  Not only does Ed Miliband want to expropriate wealth from the productive class, he wants to make an attitude a crime. “We are going to make it an aggravated crime. We are going to make sure it is marked on people’s records with the police to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime,” Miliband told Ahmed J Versi, the editor of The Muslim News.

In the normal course of things, this frightening (and insane) declaration would assure that Ed Miliband would end his career declaiming from a soap box at Speakers’ Corner.  But these are not normal times, and I have a terrible inkling that the Brits might just be silly enough to elect this enemy of their civilization.  I hope I am wrong.

Jihad in Catalonia

April 25th, 2015 - 9:02 am

While Barack Obama is busy telling Americans that Islam has been “woven into the fabric” of America since its founding, police in Spain have just arrested eleven members of a jihadist cell that, woven into the fabric of Spain, was plotting to bring ISIS-style beheadings to a western city near you.

As Soeren Kern notes in an important and depressing post at the Gatestone Institute web site, police have accused the cell of planning to bomb various public and private buildings in and around Barcelona and of—this is especially nice—plotting to kidnap and behead a random person. I’m not sure that the Muslim presence in Spain has gotten the attention it deserves here, but as Kern points out Catalonia not only has the largest Muslim population in Spain, it also has the largest concentration of radical Islamists in Europe. “The cell’s primary objective,” Kern reports, “was to show that terrorist attacks such as those perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could be carried out in the West.”

Prosecutors allege that, among other plots, the group was planning to kidnap a random member of the public, dress their victim in an orange jump suit, and then film him or her being beheaded. The group also allegedly planned to kidnap for ransom the female branch manager of Banco Sabadell, a local Catalan bank, as a way to finance their terrorist activities.

Among those arrested is Antonio Sáez Martínez, a Spaniard who converted to Islam after marrying a Muslim woman. A police raid on Álvarez’s house uncovered a large cache of radical Islamic literature, how-to guides for terrorists, and many weapons, including grenades, military firearms, ammunition, and sharpshooter rifle scopes. His targets included police and military installations, as well as the Catalan Parliament building. Martínez, Kern observes, “is an acquaintance of a Spanish neo-Nazi ideologue named Diego José Frías Álvarez. The two are said to share a mutual hatred of Jews and allegedly discussed bombing Jewish targets in Barcelona, including synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses.”

While Martínez was busy dreaming of blowing things up, other radical Muslims in Spain are taking a longer view. Abdelwahab Houzi, a local jihadist preacher, has this chilling bit of advice: “Muslims should vote for pro-independence parties, as they need our votes. But what they do not know is that, once they allow us to vote, we will all vote for Islamic parties because we do not believe in left and right. This will make us win local councils and as we begin to accumulate power in the Catalan autonomous region, Islam will begin to be implemented.”

Do you doubt it?


Remember the First Amendment?

April 18th, 2015 - 12:27 pm

What psychologists call the association of ideas offers some amusing conjunctions.  When I read that Hillary Clinton, aging presidential candidate, was considering a constitutional amendment to circumvent the First Amendment, one of the first things that popped into my head was an episode from the classic comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.”  It’s the one that begins with Calvin addressing his dad: “Hey Dad, remember our car?” “Why sure,” he says, lying on the couch and reading a book. Then the penny drops. “Wait a minute,” he snaps in the next frame. “What do you mean ‘Remember?’” Yuck, yuck, yuck.

It’s pretty funny in a comic strip. The comedy, if there be comedy, is of a decidedly darker hue when it comes to the multifarious assaults on free speech we witness all around us. Remember the First Amendment? That’s not so funny, is it?  I’ve had frequent occasion to dilate on this problem, both in this space and in The New Criterion, here, for example, and here, here, and here. The assault is multifaceted. On campuses Muslim student organizations, abetted by a radical Palestinian front group called the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), regularly endeavor to shut down free speech whenever any affront to Islamic sensitivity is discovered or invented. The indispensable Investigative Project on Terrorism had a characteristically incisive piece about this front in the war against liberty just yesterday under the title “Free Speech Losing to Campus Thought Police.” But CAIR would get nowhere if college administrators told them to buzz off. They don’t. Nor do they intervene to insist on a little sanity when other students get into the victimhood sweepstakes. This month in The New Criterion, I report on an egregious violation of free speech at Marquette University, which, like most Jesuit institutions these days, has only a tenuous relationship with Catholic orthodoxy but which hasn’t forgotten its inquisitorial skills.

I touch on these other assaults on free speech to provide a context for Hillary Clinton’s foray into the battle to shut people up (a procedure, it is worth noting, that is often a harbinger of a battle to lock people up). The constitutional amendment that Hillary Clinton told the world she would consider would be directed against the Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United.  “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system,” quoth Hillary, “and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment.”

“Unaccountable money”: what do you suppose that means? It is sometimes said that the Citizens United case had to do with contributions to political candidates.  The Left hates the decision, it is said, because it removes limits on the amount of money that rich individuals and corporations can contribute to candidates.  But in fact, it has nothing to do with individual contributions to candidates.  That remains $2,600 per year. The Citizens United case had to do with free speech in a much broader sense.  At issue was a movie critical of Hillary Clinton that the conservative activist group wished to distribute. The U.S. government attempted to stop the distribution of the movie.

Think about that for a moment.  Then get your mind around this: what the government argued was that it had the right to stop the distribution of a movie or the publication of a book if they were made or sold by a corporation and could be interpreted as having a political message.

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The inaugural Disinvitation Dinner

April 16th, 2015 - 5:42 am

Last night, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program hosted its inaugural “Disinvitation Dinner.” A couple hundred of the best and brightest  assembled at the Pierre Hotel for the black-tie event. The keynote speaker was George Will, the subject was the attack on free speech that has become such a prominent part of those bright college years we underwrite at such great expense.  As chairman of the program, I had the honor of introducing George Will. Here is what I said:

 I suppose I should begin with a trigger warning: this evening may be dangerous to your complacency. As you take a moment to check your privilege, I should also warn you that  micro-aggressions are likely to be perpetrated tonight, and that Management cannot guarantee that you will find this a safe space sanitized of thoughts you find offensive. In other words, this is not a contemporary America college campus.

When Lauren Noble founded the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale a few years ago, her idea was partly to help propagate the central ideas of its eponymous inspiration.  Bill Buckley was a passionate advocate for the virtues of limited government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility. He favored local initiative over centralized bureaucratic authority, understood that democratic capitalism was the greatest engine for the production of wealth ever contrived by human ingenuity, and he looked upon life as an invitation to personal fulfillment, not an endless opportunity for indoctrination.  Since such ideas are utterly foreign to most college campuses today, Lauren also undertook the important missionary work of bringing the gospel of Buckley to Yale and other elite redoubts of intellectual and moral conformity. The vigorous response to tonight’s program is a testimony to her success. With the Buckley Program, Lauren has managed to institutionalize this impulse of freedom, and I’d like to take a moment to applaud her courageous and effective efforts on behalf of the liberating conservatism that Bill Buckley devoted his life to propounding.

Tonight’s speaker cut his journalistic teeth at National Review in the 1970s,  and like Bill he has devoted his career to advertising the advantages of limited government and individual liberty and doing battle against the Leviathan of political correctness and the Piranesi-like nightmare that is the modern regulatory state.  Also like Bill Buckley, George Will is as industrious as he is percipient.  His syndicated column appears in some 450 newspapers nationwide, he is a ubiquitous presence on serious television commentary programs, and he lectures often all across the country on a wide variety of exigent policy questions. The similarities to Bill Buckley continue.  Like Bill, George Will is so well known that introductions are mostly superfluous. You already know that George Will went to Trinity College, studied philosophy at politics at Magdalen College, Oxford, and took a Ph.D. at Princeton University. Despite these disadvantages, George Will has managed to make himself one of the most authoritative and influential public intellectuals of his generation. Like Aristotle, he understands that rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and his commentary is agreeably nimble and amusing as well razor-sharp.

All of these qualities have put George Will in great demand.  Businesses, think tanks, politically mature enterprises like the Buckley Program all clamor for George Will’s invigorating oratory. Until recently, the same was true of college campuses. My use of the preterit brings me to the occasion of tonight’s festivity, the phenomenon of “disinvitation” at American universities. April 15 is a black day on the American calendar not only because it is the government’s chief redistribution-of-wealth day, but also because it marks the unofficial start of the college disinvitation season.  Among the champions of the season last year were Brandeis University, which invited then disinvited the distinguished critic of radical Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Azusa Pacific University which invited then disinvited the great social scientist Charles Murray, and Rutgers University made it impossible for former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice to speak on campus. George Will joined this distinguished company when Scripps College in California invited and then disinvited him from speaking.

Why? Doubtless the pampered denizens of Scripps College could find many things in George Will’s writing to horrify them.  But in this instance his particular tort was to challenge the absurd idea that American campuses are home to a “rape culture” so rampant that, according to one made-up statistic, one in five women is raped during her tenure behind the ivy-covered bowers of academia. George Will had the temerity to point out that the really dangerous epidemic on campuses is not a “rape culture” but the cult of victimhood, and that when colleges “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”

All true, of course, but truth is not on the menu at many of today’s colleges. It used to be said of the graduates of the elite École Normale Supérieure that they knew everything; unfortunately, that was all they knew. Such vacuous omniscience is inseparable from the illiberal liberalism that the culture of political correctness enforces. If one has peered into the heart of the universe and understood everything, then dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy appears not as a difference of opinion but as heresy. The proper response to heresy is not argument but prohibition. Thus it is that so much debate today takes the form of Ring Lardner’s expostulation: “Shut up, he explained.” Campus culture is so instinct with moralism because it is wedded to an unearned certainty. As earlier devotees of the genre understood, intoxicated virtue can countenance no doubts. Robespierre articulated the essential dynamics of this species of political correctness when he spoke of “virtue and its emanation, terror.” Contemporary colleges do not—not yet—field guillotines, but they are nevertheless sedulous in (metaphorically) severing heads from bodies. The great irony is that the cult of conformity, underwritten by a minatory if amorphous leftism, has taken root in an institution whose stated purpose was to foster a liberal spirit of inquiry and debate.

Looking around campus culture today—indeed, looking around the world at large—there is a lot to give one pause.  The fact the American culture is still able to produce such articulate champions of freedom as George Will is a rare bright spot in a gloomy and forbidding landscape.  On behalf of the William F Buckley Jr Program, I am delighted to welcome George Will to this inaugural disinvitation dinner.


Clinton Fatigue Returns

April 12th, 2015 - 7:26 am

In a few hours, Hillary Clinton will announce that she is running for the presidency of the United States. Is she in time? It is clear to the foggiest observer that what the commentator Michael Goodwin calls “Clinton fatigue” is growing apace. Will it have reached critical mass by the time the campaign gets underway in earnest?  I think so. At least, I certainly hope so.

The whole phenomenon of the Clintons’ celebrity is something of a mystery to me. Part of the reason it is so difficult to analyze is that it is not all of a piece.  The engine  of the enterprise is Bill Clinton. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. He provides the pheromones for the enterprise, and absent that, what do we have?

It’s hard to say.  On her own, Hillary Clinton has to be one of the least likeable people in politics. I’m talking about her personality, her “people skills.” Does anyone, anyone, believe she competes in that arena? Barack Obama is a chilly narcissist, but next to Hillary he seems like Roy Rogers. It should be, but somehow isn’t, an embarrassment to the feminist sisterhood chanting for Hillary, Hillary, Hillary, that right from the beginning hers was a “coattail career.” Back in 1977, when she became the first female partner at the Rose Law Firm, that was—surprise, surprise—just after Bill Clinton was sworn in as the state’s attorney general.  Think there was a connection?

And so it’s been ever after. Although she, not Bill, is the couple’s chief ideologue and Minister of Propaganda, she has always existed in the echo chamber of his accomplishment.

A question to ponder: how was it, exactly, that she, as resident of Arkansas, managed to become a New York senator in 2000? Yes, I know she bought a house in Chappaqua, New York, before the election, but really, what were her qualifications? That she was married to Bill Clinton.  That was the chief qualification. The auxiliary credit was her sex: in contemporary American the fact of being female, even if one is only a technical specimen of the genus, like Hillary, is like running in a rotten borough in early nineteenth century England.

But let’s return to Clinton, Inc.’s celebrity. That it exists is patent. Look, if your stomach is strong enough, at the cover of the current issue of Elle, which features a dolled up image of the fruit of the Clinton loins, Chelsea, under the headline “Chelsea Clinton Opens Up About Motherhood and Women’s Rights.” Make-up is a wonderful thing, but note that air-sickness bags are not included.

Still, how do we account for the overall nimbus of celebrity, the slick bubble of invulnerability that envelopes these morally repugnant people? 

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