Dictatorship of virtue

In his weekly Wall Street Journal column Daniel Henninger chronicles the commencement speakers who have become collateral damage to the tyranny of the lunatic left on campus. As the distance between the left and the lunatic left grows ever closer, attention must be paid. Henninger performs a real service in going in compiling the body count, with respect to which all but the great Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis was news to me.

Henninger begins with the disinvitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Brandeis commencement, allegedly for violating the “core values” of Brandeis in her published views of Islam. The powers-that-be at Brandeis had supposedly failed to discern her views before they invited Ms. Hirsi Ali; they duly confessed error and dismissed her. Here we have on display the tyrannical regime of political correctness on campus combined with the cowardice and dishonesty of university administrators.

Henninger continues: “This week higher education’s ritualistic burning of college-commencement heretics spread to Smith College and Haverford College.” Here is the report from Smith:

On Monday, Smith announced the withdrawal of Christine Lagarde, the French head of the International Monetary Fund. And what might the problem be with Madame Lagarde, considered one of the world’s most accomplished women? An online petition signed by some 480 offended Smithies said the IMF is associated with “imperialistic and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” With unmistakable French irony, Ms. Lagarde withdrew “to preserve the celebratory spirit” of Smith’s commencement.

Somewhere far, far beyond satire, here is Henninger’s report from Haverford:

On Tuesday, Haverford College’s graduating intellectuals forced commencement speaker Robert J. Birgeneau to withdraw. Get this: Mr. Birgeneau is the former chancellor of UC Berkeley, the big bang of political correctness. It gets better.

Berkeley’s Mr. Birgeneau is famous as an ardent defender of minority students, the LGBT community and undocumented illegal immigrants. What could possibly be wrong with this guy speaking at Haverford??? Haverfordians were upset that in 2011 the Berkeley police used “force” against Occupy protesters in Sproul Plaza. They said Mr. Birgeneau could speak at Haverford if he agreed to nine conditions, including his support for reparations for the victims of Berkeley’s violence.

In a letter, Mr. Birgeneau replied, “As a longtime civil rights activist and firm supporter of nonviolence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”

What do these now departed commencement speakers have in common? Henninger concludes: “You’re all conservatives now.”

This credits the forces at work on these campuses with a rationale and a rationality that are sorely lacking. Could one have predicted by the application of any logic or analysis that Birgenau would not pass muster at at Haverford? Henninger’s string of question marks posing the question above correctly implies the negative answer to that question.

“You’re all conservatives now” does not capture the phenomenon. Crane Brinton’s anatomy of the phases of revolution may or may not hold up as a matter of historical analysis, but it has its uses here.

First we have the revolutionary overthrow of the old regime followed by a honeymoon period. Then comes the Reign of Terror during which the revolution devours its own (and others). The Reign of Terror is to be followed in short order by Thermidor, according to Brinton, but the Reign of Terror now in place feels like forever. For those whose heads fall to the guillotine, it is forever.

In “Roots of totalitarian liberalism” I cited former New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein’s analysis of the terror in its manifestation as multiculturalism. Alluding to the French Revolution, Bernstein titled his book Dictatorship of Virtue.

Bernstein took the epigraph that prefaces the text of his book from Robespierre: “Terror is naught but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.” He titled his prologue “Dérapage,” invoking the “school of French historians that uses the word dérapage to describe the fateful moment when the Great Revolution of 1789…skidded from the enlightened universalism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man into the Committee of Public Safety and the Terror.”

Bernstein explains that it “refers to the way fanaticism and dogmatism swept the great upheaval from constitutionalism to dictatorship, from eighteenth-century rationalism, inspired by the thinkers of the Englightenment, to a dramatic foreshadowing of twentieth-century rationalism, urged on by grim, prim Robespierrean despots with a gift for demagogy who believed they were serving the cause of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”

Bernstein’s book was published in the glorious dawn of the Clinton administration, and yet it resonates. It resonates because the Reign of Terror has grown roots and entrenched itself.

Bernstein’s analysis extends beyond the operation of the articles of the multicultural faith. Bernstein describes the doctrine: “It often operates, not through the usual means of civil discourse and persuasion, but via intimidation and intellectual decree. It rewrites history.” HE complained that multiculturalism limits discussion: “it makes people feel afraid to say what they think and feel; it presents dubious and cranky interpretations as self-evident, indisputable truths.”

Bernstein aptly describes the culture on display in Henninger’s column: “…a cultivation of aggrievement, a constant claim of victimization, an excessive, fussy self-pitying sort of wariness that induces others to spout pieties. And that, in turn, covers public discussion of crucial issues with a layer of fear, so that we can no longer speak forthrightly and honestly about matters such as crime, race, poverty, AIDS, the failure of schools, single-parenthood, affirmative action, racial preferences, welfare, college admissions, merit, the breakup of the family, and the disintegration of urban life.” Roughly speaking, this is where we are now.

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