The poverty of liberalism

[Posted 2:26 PM by Roger Kimball]

The English essayist Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) is not much read these days, I think, and more’s the pity. Bagehot (his name, by the way, is pronounced "badge-it") was a delicious writer, commanding a manly, outdoor style, a quiet but infectious sense of humor, and a sensibility that was at once large and admonitory. Of course, those very qualities help explain why he is out of favor today: a manly style? That unpleasant squealing you hear is from nearby feminists powering up their whine-machines. Bagehot would not have been at home in early 21st-century America. Today we prefer our writers soft, exculpatory, self-righteous but nevertheless wrapped in the rhetoric of non-judgmentalism.

Bagehot’s prose is the opposite: sinewy, forthright, focused outward toward the world. His mind ranged nimbly over history, economics, literature, politics, and what we would today call cultural criticism. His collected works run to some 15 stout volumes. His legacy, alas, where it exists at all, has been whittled down to a single bit of advice (though it’s damn good advice) about dealing with the English monarchy, to wit, that "we must not let in daylight upon magic." Tell that to Princess Diana!

Among Bagehot’s many neglected works is the unfortunately titled Physics and Politics. It’s unfortunate because misleading: the book has nothing to do with "physics" as we understand the term. The long subtitle goes some distance in setting things straight: "Or: Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of ’Natural Selection’ and ’Inheritance’ to Political Society." Bagehot published the book in 1872, at a time when Darwin’s ideas about evolution were percolating for the first time through educated opinion. Back then, it still seemed novel to apply Darwin’s engine of biological change to the issue of social and political development. Bagehot did it with a light and illuminating touch. (I heartily recommend the book, and not only because I edited a recent edition of this neglected minor masterpiece.)

All of this is rather a long way to my point, which is the connection between an observation Bagehot makes in the course of Physics and Politics and the rationale offered by Columbia University officials for inviting the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the university on September 24.

Here’s Bagehot from Chapter 2 of Physics and Politics, "The Use of Conflict":

History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.
"A little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness," all of which, says Bagehot, prepares a nation for "destruction" at the first opportunity. Keep that in mind as you contemplate these words of Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University. Explaining that he intends to confront President Ahmadinejad with some "sharp challenges" (e.g., why does he deny the Holocaust? Why has he publicly called for the destruction of Israel?), President Bollinger goes on to deliver this little aria about free speech and "the powers of dialogue and reason."
I would like to add a few comments on the principles that underlie this event. Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas—to understand the world as it is and as it might be. To fulfill this mission we must respect and defend the rights of our schools, our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes. Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the powers of dialogue and reason.

I would also like to invoke a major theme in the development of freedom of speech as a central value in our society. It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. To commit oneself to a life—and a civil society—prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words. That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.

What can one say? That President Bollinger traduces the idea of "a community dedicated to learning and scholarship"? Yes. That he elides the notion of free speech and the more limited privilege of academic freedom? Yes again. That his incontinent demand that his university provide a forum for all ideas, no matter how toxic, erodes freedom by making it vulnerable to fanaticism? A third time Yes. Powerline’s Scott Johnson got it exactly right when, reflecting on this pathetic congeries of liberal cliches, he wrote that
Columbia and President Bollinger are a disgrace. They welcome to their campus a man who is a ringleader in the seizure of American hostages, a terrorist, the president of a terrorist regime, and the representative of a regime responsible at present for the deaths of American soldiers on the field of battle. Columbia’s prattle about free speech may be a tale told by an idiot, but it signifies something. And President Bollinger is a fool who is not excused from the dishonor he brings to his institution and his fellow citizens by the fact that he doesn’t know what he is doing.

Amen. And it is worth stepping back to ask ourselves why Scott is right and President Bollinger is wrong. Here are some of the reasons: Universities are institutions dedicated to the pursuit and transmission of learning and the furtherance of civilization. They are not circuses for the exhibition of politically repugnant grandstanding. Free inquiry is not a license for moral irresponsibility. At a university, as at every other human institution, freedom can thrive only when it is limited by allegiance to certain positive values--the value of historical truth, for example, or the moral truth that human dignity is worth preserving.

President Bollinger’s sophomoric conception of free speech is precisely the sort of supine intellectualism that, if consistently embraced, would make free speech impossible. President Bollinger primly lectures us that "It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas," etc. But he is quite wrong about that. By providing a madman like Ahmadinejad with a platform at Columbia University, President Bollinger has in effect welcomed him into the community of candid reasoners. He has granted him a patent of legitimacy that no amount of "dialogue and reason" can dissipate. In this case, "listening" is indeed tantamount to an endorsement. It reduces free speech to a species of political capitulation and renders dialogue indistinguishable from a suicide pact.

Where, if anywhere, would President Bollinger and his colleagues draw the line? The Regents of the University of California just rescinded an offer to Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University, because his presence on campus was offensive to the delicate sensibilities of feminists. (I had more to say about the original Summers debacle here.) So we know where the Regents of the University of California are wont to draw their line. It excludes a former President of Harvard. Meanwhile, at Stanford, there is an uproar about offering former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a fellowship at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. So we know where Stanford would draw the line: in the name of "tolerance" it would exclude a lifelong public servant who was twice Secretary of Defense of the United States.

And Columbia? Would they welcome Larry Summers or Donald Rumsfeld? I wonder. But a man who was likely involved in the 1979 Iranian Hostage crisis, and who was therefore directly implicated in fueling the growth of murderous Islamic fanaticism that has cost the world so dearly these last few decades, the man who has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel and whose government is directly supporting the murder of American servicemen in Iraq--the man representing those possibly "offensive" ideas is just fine.

It would be interesting to know where Columbia would draw the line. In a breathtaking interview on Fox News, Columbia Dean John Coatsworth cheerfully affirmed that, were Adolf Hitler in New York and willing to engage in "discussion" and "debate," Columbia "would certainly invite him." Who would doubt it?

The spectacle of these left-wing academics repudiating men like Larry Summers and Donald Rumsfeld even as they abase themselves scrambling to find excuses for welcoming a fanatic like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the halls of a great American University is disgusting. I think again of Bagehot’s observation that "History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it." Are we really willing to let ourselves--our ideals, our way of life--be carelessly traduced by a rancid leftism so enfeebled that it can no longer distinguish between free speech and suicide? We are even now in the process of answering that question. How we answer it will determine a lot more than the issue of who gets to speak on American college campuses.

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