Learning from Legutko at Middlebury

Over the weekend Steve called out Middlebury College as another college that deserves to die when it canceled a planned public lecture by the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko. Legutko was the editor of Solidarity’s official journal of philosophy and, since Poland overcame its Communist subjection, he has served at the highest levels of Polish government as well as in the EU’s European Parliament. He is also the author, as Carl Eric Scott put it in NR, of “the challenging book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies.

Steve found Middlebury the perfect example of a place yielding to the totalitarian temptation: “Supposedly it was the threat of violent protests like those that shut down Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury two years ago that led the administration to cancel Legutko’s talk, but a clarifying email shows that the real reason the administration offered is even more cowardly.” Steve quoted the email to reveal the depth of the administration’s cowardice.

However, this was not the end of the story. Middlebury professor Matthew Dickinson said he’d allow Legutko to appear stealthily in his class if all his students approved on a secret ballot. All nine students voted yes. When word circulated on social media, the audience grew to 45 students.

Shades of Solidarity! I wish I could have been there. As Steve suggests, the Middlebury story provides a case study in the phenomena dissected in Legutko’s book.

As it happens, Adrian Vermeule has just published a brilliant review of the book in First Things under the title “Liturgy of liberalism.” Toward the end of Professor Vermeule’s summary of Legutko’s argument, he writes:

Liberalism needs an enemy to maintain its sacramental dynamism. It can never rest in calm waters, basking in the day of victory; it is essential that at any given moment there should be a new battle to be fought. The good liberal should always be able to say, “We have made progress, but there is still much to do.” This is why the triumph of same-sex marriage actually happened too suddenly and too completely. Something else was needed to animate liberalism, and transgenderism has quickly filled the gap, defining new forces of reaction and thus enabling new iterations and celebrations of the Festival. And if endorsement and approval of self-described “gender identity” becomes a widely shared legal and social norm, a new frontier will be opened, and some new issue will move to the top of the public agenda, something that now seems utterly outlandish and is guaranteed to provoke fresh opposition from the cruel forces of reaction—polygamy, perhaps, or mandatory vegetarianism.

Read the whole thing here.

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