It has often been observed that a good many of the campus radicals who caused such havoc and breakdown in our colleges and universities twenty years ago are now installed as tenured faculty and academic administrators at institutions great and small. Now “working within the system” (as the saying went), they have abandoned their bullhorns and picket lines for more respectable instruments of persuasion, and have thereby succeeded in institutionalizing their radical agenda on a scale that must in many instances exceed even the most ardent fantasies of their youthful activism. The results are well known: intellectual waste, wreckage, and coercion that, especially in the humanistic disciplines, have reduced many academic programs to a political parody of what they once were.
This process of destruction is no longer news, and may indeed have reached the point of being irreversible. What is news, however, is the sheer speed with which the initiatives in this bulldozer campaign are now implemented. What once took a generation to accomplish is now possible to see realized in months or weeks. A recent episode on the Columbia University campus offered us a classic example of the way “the system” currently works in these matters.
Lsat May, during the Columbia commencement ceremonies, a student named Laura Hotchkiss Brown tried to unfurl from the roof of Buder Library a 140-foot-long banner bearing the names of Sappho, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Brontë, Dickinson, and Woolf. The point was, of course, to offer the names of these female writers as additions or alternatives to those of Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, and Vergil that have long been inscribed on the facade of Butler Library.
The university’s immediate response to this act of feminist ideological warfare was to order the banner removed by security officers, and to arrest the student responsible for it. But she was quickly released, and Laura Hotchkiss Brown was straightaway elevated to the status of an academic leader. As soon as the fall term opened, an exhibition and lecture series based on her banner—the so-called “Butler Library Banner Project,” co-sponsored by the Columbia University Libraries and the Columbia Institute for Research on Women and Gender—was organized, with various members of the Columbia faculty enlisted to speak about the glories of Brown’s roster of female literary eminences. Naturally these events, complete with an inaugural wine-and-cheese reception, take place at—where else?—Butler Library. This is the speed with which yesterday’s radical initiative becomes today’s official agenda.
The names that adorned Brown’s celebrated banner are interesting, of course, as an example of what happens when the study of literature becomes radically ideologized. For what is striking about the majority of these names is that they are minor, if not indeed marginal, figures. And it is not as if there were no major female writers available to serve in their place. Neither on the Butler Library banner nor in the lectures based on it are the names of such major writers as Jane Austen, George Eliot, or George Sand to be found. We must assume, therefore, that it does not serve the political interests of the “Project,” as it is called, for students to be reminded that where women have produced major work, their achievements have usually been amply recognized. But alas, so, where warranted, have been their limitations. As Renee Winegarten writes elsewhere in this issue of The New Criterion about the case of George Sand, “the immense variety of her literary projects (which influenced writers as diverse as Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Henry James) cannot blind her deepest admirers . . . to the fact that she never produced a single work of art to rank with Madame Bovary, which was in some respects a response to her outlook. She herself modestly admitted as much to Flaubert. Such a view has nothing to do with patriarchy and everything to do with art.”
But of course such initiatives as the “Butler Library Banner Project” have nothing to do with art. What they have to do with is the conquest of political power. We know for what purposes such power will be exercised: the destruction of the hard-won incremental legacy of our civilization.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 3, on page 2
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