Only a few days before Muriel Spark died, we read that the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, too, had gone to his reward. What a character in a novel by Muriel Spark that icon of Left-liberal sentimentality might have been! Coffin’s heyday was in the 1970s, when from his perch as chaplain at Yale, he helped transform the university into an ideological battleground. Although you won’t hear it from the arbiters of bien pensant opinion, Coffin was almost entirely a malevolent influence, fond of telling his flock such things as “We must recognize that justice is a higher social goal than law and order.” Like other gurus of the period (we think, for example, of Herbert Marcuse), he pretended that American society was an oppressive battleground which could only be rescued by “civil disobedience” (the phrase supplied the title for one of Coffin’s books) or even “revolutionary” activity. In fact, as the legal scholar Alexander Bickel noted in 1970 (he was writing about Coffin and his colleagues), “to be a revolutionary in a society like ours, is to be a totalitarian, or not to know what one is doing.”
Coffin’s career illustrated one of the most profound effects of the long march of America’s cultural revolution: to institutionalize the assumption of institutional illegitimacy. It was less a matter of cynicism than a rejection of established authority: as if the very fact of being established undermined the legitimacy of an idea or institution. Wrapping himself in the mantle of a religious authority that, in one way or another, he repudiated by his actions, Coffin made an enormous effort to legitimize the politics of delegitimation.
In 1970, when Bobby Seale and eight other Black Panthers were on trial for murder in New Haven and it looked for a moment as if New Haven would erupt in a riot, “justice” demanded that William Sloane Coffin publicly declare in a sermon that the Panthers should go free because their trial was “legally right but morally wrong.” Concluding that the situation was “prerevolutionary,” he urged the Yale community to engage in nonviolent protests and acts of civil disobedience. “To those who say ‘what if this were a Klansman on trial and his fellow Klansmen were threatening destruction?’” Coffin wrote, “I can only answer that, while releasing a Klansman would be increasing the power of the oppressor, the releasing of the defendants in this case would mean the sharing of power with the oppressed.”
The New York Times, which was a very different sort of paper in 1970 from what it has since become, editorialized that, by delivering this sermon, Coffin had done
his best to guarantee moral confusion among his student followers. Mr. Coffin said that even if Mr. Seale were to be found guilty as charged, the entire nation stands accused of bringing him to the state of mind in which the alleged crime might have been committed. This is a legally and morally wrong and dangerous concept, even when supposedly elevated to the level of theological doctrine.
The truth is that by the early 1970s, Coffin was dazzled by his sense of himself as a representative of what he described in one lecture as “the universal conscience of mankind.” Acts of civil disobedience that dramatized the conflict between Coffin’s own morality and the requirements of the law were his preferred means of exhibiting the workings of that conscience.
For Coffin and those who emulated him, it was the work of a moment to distinguish between what was “legally right but morally wrong.” But as Morris I. Liebman noted in a debate with Coffin about civil disobedience, “in democratic societies any violation of the law is an uncivil act. This is true notwithstanding the motives of the violator.” Indeed, there is a sense, Liebman remarked, in which “civil disobedience” is a misnomer, since its activities, by breaking the law, are by definition uncivil. Like most advocates of civil disobedience, Coffin was quick to cite the example of Henry David Thoreau. But Liebman is right to point out that Thoreau, who was essentially an anarchist, not a democrat, provides an unedifying precedent. Everyone remembers Thoreau’s remark: “That government is best which governs least.” It is less often recalled that he went on to say that “‘that government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will have.” As Liebman observed dryly, “the day that men are so prepared will be the day that men are angels.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 9, on page 2
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