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The inaugural Disinvitation Dinner

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.