Feature 07.01.2019 14 minutes

High Noon at the American Academy


Today’s power struggle is the stuff revolutions are made of.

America is in crisis. The citizenry is fragmented, polarized, and angry. The media, Hollywood, and academia hate the President, who doesn’t care much for them either. This elite trifecta, along with the coastal, urban upper class, not only loathes Trump, but is contemptuous of Middle America and its traditional virtues. But the battle to preserve these virtues and the very possibility of self-government among future generations of Americans can no longer be waged merely at the level of politics. It must now be fought on every college and university campus across the nation.

Middle America versus the Elite Trifecta

Middle America knows what the richer, more successful, more powerful, and more famous think of them and their prosaic way of life. They are ridiculed for clinging to their religion and guns, for attending NASCAR rather than the Met, for guzzling beer rather than sipping prosecco—in sum, for their unrefined tastes and their blue-collar or middle-management jobs.

At the same time, the children of Middle America have college loans and many are moving back in with their parents, trying to eke out a living in the face of an uncertain future. Yet these kids, now adults—whether still in college or living under their parents’ roofs—think mom and dad are out of step with the times.  As a generation that has never known a world without the internet, legal abortion, gay marriage, and economic unpredictability, many Millennial and Gen Z kids view their elders as clueless about globalism, unaware of social and gender-constructed identities, and unable to grasp how critical sustainability and socialism are to the future of humanity and survival of the planet.

It’s bad enough that Middle America has to hear how deplorable they are from the elite trifecta. Now they have to listen to a version of the same from their adult-live-at-home kids.

The current cultural divide in America tracks along the lines of those who voted for, and those who voted against, Donald Trump. Those who hate Trump do not understand those who support Trump. For most of the latter group (i.e., Middle America), they elected the president not so much as an endorsement of Trump the man, but as a decisive show of support for his defiant stance against the progressive, politically-correct elite of America. The ordinary people of the nation simply felt they had taken enough—especially enough derision and ridicule—and decided it was time to stand up and fight back.

The hinterland and the neighborhoods throughout the nation sent a clear message in the presidential election to the progressives who considered them unwashed and “unwoke.”  Caught sleeping at the wheel, these elite kingmakers were shocked that they did not control public opinion and the choice of presidential candidates in their America (think Joe Scarborough and his daily, clueless rants on this very subject on Morning Joe).

Despite the data explaining Trump’s electoral success, it is symptomatic of the elite Left that they still do not get it. They neither understand why Americans voted for Trump in 2016, nor why Middle America may vote for him again in the next presidential election. They do not grasp the extent to which the contempt they themselves have shown towards the ordinary people of Middle America has so infuriated them and piqued their pride.

The Cold Civil War Runs Deep

This is how we have gotten to where we are in America today and why the two sides despise each other.

Each side believes the other side will destroy the country. The disagreement is not, in its essence, about this or that policy; it is over what it means to be human and how we should live our lives. As such, the disagreement could not be more fundamental. This is the stuff revolutions are made of.

In this civil conflict, one side wants to preserve the traditional American character and ethos, including the idea of a standard maxim grounded in human nature and equality, and the natural rights and duties derivative from it. The other side rejects the phenomenon of nature, including human nature and the idea of ahistorical rights and responsibilities. Instead, it promotes a new direction for America.

Those who reject the ideas of natural justice and human nature are not, however, monolithic in their vision for the future. They are split between two different perspectives, which are ultimately incompatible philosophically and politically.

Up until recently, the American experiment has been generally understood to be the vindication of republican self-government. This challenge was eloquently expressed by Washington in his First Inaugural, when he reminded his fellow citizens that “the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” It was captured by Madison in The Federalist when he wrote that only the republican form of government would be acceptable to “the genius of the people of America…[and] with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” And in the Peoria Speech, Dred Scott decision speech, and Gettysburg Address, Lincoln called for a rededication to the American purpose of human equality and self-government. He did this partly by summoning the past—“our ancient faith,” i.e., the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and partly by looking ahead to the future, to that “standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

Now, in the 21st century, the once-vibrant practice of self-government is fading, at least for some Americans. Whether it is the perceived narrowing of opportunity, or the rejection of the spirit of “individualism and responsibility,” the traditional “American way” is no longer embraced by many citizens in contemporary society.

In its stead is a new vision that emphasizes inclusion and différence. Rejecting any grounding in reason, the contemporary hard Left professes a new faith. Its tenets are multiculturalism, egalitarianism, diversity, inclusion, globalism, sustainability, identity politics, gender constructs, social constructs, and safe spaces, all defined in whatever shifting manner the leading Left intelligentsia choose.

While the leading liberal and progressives in Washington and the national media never accepted Trump as president, and made it their agenda to get rid of him in whatever legal way necessary (whether through investigations, impeachment, or the polls), the relatively monolithic American academy has taken a more radical path. Its salad bowl of progressives, postmoderns and liberals have forged a common cause in their passionate and relentless desire to put an end to the Trump presidency, by whatever means necessary, legal or otherwise.

As such, they have no qualms about rejecting the First Amendment or the Constitution in general. What used to be considered “free speech” is now routinely deemed “hate speech” deserving of censorship and punishment. But what they label “hate speech” is rarely defined; they simply assume that all good people know the difference. In their view, our government was established by and for bad people—that is, by and for rich, straight, cisgender white men. Accordingly, the whole notion of rights and liberties is tainted, a wicked straight white rich male scheme to oppress (now) historically victimized groups.

And so the battle is waged. Through conformist virtue-signaling, today’s Left recruits and builds troops of social justice warriors to defeat and destroy America’s wicked past and present, and erect the new regime to come.

Two Kinds of Leftists

Despite their polymorphous political shape, there are some clear distinctions among the new Leftists. For the social justice warrior (SJW), the academic object is as much activism as inquiry and scholarship. Their philosophical bearings are historicist, believing the current inequitable capitalist system has lulled the uninitiated into a false consciousness. They themselves, by contrast, are “woke” to the needs of an evolving “humanity” that will occupy a new and better society (including occupying and transforming the symbolic center of the capitalist evil, Wall Street). Their utopian vision is rooted in German Idealism, Marxist critical theory, and Progressivist notions of egalitarianism and historical human improvement, if not perfectibility.

Allied politically but not philosophically with the SJWs in their opposition to traditional liberal education are the postmoderns. Taking the social justice goals of Marxism and critical theory a step or two further, postmoderns such as Derrida and Foucault declare the death of all grand narratives. Like their Leftist allies, they reject the idea of human nature and human rights (due to the lack of a metaphysical foundation). Unlike critical theorists and liberal progressives, however, postmoderns reject the idea of social progress, of a shared vision of morality, and of any notion of the good society. In place of the utopian vision of the historical process, postmoderns claim life is nothing but contingent hierarchies of privilege and power. Everything is a matter of human will, social construction, and interpretation.

For these professors and their student followers (whose ranks are growing), all is thrones and domination. Within this power struggle are various oppressed groups, such as those based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, class, etc. These identifiers are themselves social constructs: fluid, overlapping, intersectional, and infinite. Reason has no ability to bridge understanding between and among these various groups. Instead, there is only diversity, and withal, hierarchy and hate.

The Activist Academy

It should be abundantly clear at this point that the handful of conservatives and old liberals on American college campuses are dramatically outnumbered by the new hard Left. If once the job of the academy was to free the mind from ignorance and prejudice, so that we might seek the good, the true, and the beautiful, this mission is now explicitly rejected by a majority of college arts faculty, who are joined and supported by college administrators. These administrators are busy instituting new standards of social justice and identity politics at myriad colleges and universities across America. And since this new canon is based on the dictate that “hate speech is not free speech,” dissension is not allowed. All members of the academy, including the students, are expected to comply with the new virtue requirements. Speaking to the contrary, even raising questions or engaging in dialogue on issues considered settled, is treated as bigoted and shameful.

The divisiveness, suspicion, and animosity that characterize life in the contemporary university has seeped into every sector of American society. Think of it as a kind of “trickle-down philosophy.” Whilst the new morality of the hard left has gained a majority of adherents among the educated, edgy cosmopolitan set, it has not yet succeeded in overtaking Middle America, which has remained resilient even as it is on the receiving end of the constant drumbeat of political correctness coming from the venues of television, film, newspapers, and social media. This is cause for hope.

But lest we forget, the Academy has the children—your children. The children of Middle America are virtually captive within its walls, learning to hate what their parents stand for. And outside these walls, these same parents are toiling away, often taking on extra jobs, in order to give their children what they think will make them successful and happy.

What Can Be Done?

The university is the place where opposition to the liberal-republican American ethos has made its home and where the radical politics of the hard Left derives its momentum.

So, what, if anything, can be done to ameliorate if not remedy this current predicament in our nation, including at our nation’s colleges? Is there anything parents, alumni, or faculty can do?

Although it may be difficult and unpleasant to challenge some of the fashionable new aims of your alma mater, this is what is needed. As my colleague James Matthew Wilson and I believe, it is a matter of conscience to stand up against censorship in the classroom, however painful it may be to criticize the place you care so much for and consider home. Calling for classroom speech codes in the name of “diversity and inclusion” is censorship, and something all who are committed to free inquiry at their university and/or alma mater must challenge.

It is time for parents, alumni, and engaged citizens to speak out against the madness that is enveloping our institutions of higher learning, where its ubiquitous anti-American perspective permeates the minds of the young, making them enemies and strangers in their own land. This is where the trouble started, and, if Americans are serious about reclaiming their—and their children’s—future, this is where a bold and intrepid face-off with the menace must occur.

It’s high noon at the American academy.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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