A distressing aspect of the Columbia incident has been the absence of almost any public commentary on the event from civil libertarians, from public officials or from the nation’s press. Imagine the uproar if Randall Terry and his Operation Rescue squads had surrounded a campus abortion clinic and attempted to harass and intimidate those who entered, and if the president of an Ivy League school had ordered his security forces to block the entrance to the clinic, while a college official explained that no one was interfering with the right of anyone to perform an abortion, just barring anyone who wanted one from entering.
The demonstrators had their intended effect. The attack was geared to strike fear into the hearts of the student community, and to further marginalize the ideas of conservatives in the academic world, which it effectively did. One student who registered for the event, but decided not to attend, explained to the organizers, “I did not attend the conference for a number of reasons, the most important being that I did not feel it would be good for my academic future and safety.” Elsewhere, similar intimidations have produced similar results. While 55 percent of Californians voted to end racial preferences in the state two years ago, the faculty senate at the University of California at Berkeley, in a public vote, lined up 152-2 in support of such discrimination. Does anyone imagine that the fear of collegial ostracism did not play a large role in this otherwise unfathomable ratio?
The incipient fascism that erupted at Columbia did not spring from the heads of a few campus idiots. It was a logical consequence of decades of university pandering to radical intimidationists and campus criminals who regularly assault property, persons and reputations, and almost always get what they want. In the last 30 years, under the pressures of the left, campuses have moved a long way toward endorsing the proposition that the ends justify the means. If the cause is just, it’s all right to ruin reputations with loose charges of racism, sexual harassment or rape. If the goal is racial equality, it’s all right to discriminate. If the ideas are right, it’s OK to silence anyone who disagrees. This brown-shirt activism is intellectually supported by the spread of anti-liberal ideas in the academic curriculum by the postmodernists of the tenured left. As I have pointed out in a newly published book, “The Politics of Bad Faith,” the most powerful intellectual influences in the academy derive from the intellectual traditions of Marxism and European fascism. Identity politics, coupled with fashionable Nietzschean clichés about the will to power, form the core of current ideological fashions among campus radicals. But what is this but the fascist politics of the Volk? The intellectual left of the ’90s, it turns out, owes more to Mussolini than to Marx.
There is even a schism within the left over these issues — between the identity racialists and “postmodern” irrationalists on the one hand, and an older generation of “neo-Enlightenment” leftists who have been manfully defending class analysis and — mirabile dictu — reason itself. The most prominent of these critics are Alan Sokal, Todd Gitlin, Eric Hobsbawm and Michael Tomasky. But at the political ground level, they are a beleaguered force, simply balding Cassandras crying in the wilderness amid the fiercer and more numerous passions of the young. In the ideological war zone, as the Columbia outrage shows, identity politics rule. And identity politics, based on racial and gender categories, and on nihilistic assumptions that power is all, culminate in a posture in which the rules of civility and democratic process are dismissed as so much mystification, mere obstacles to the coming social redemption. This is the stuff that totalitarian dreams are made of.
Ironically, and despite the continental provenance of much of its Weltanschauung, identity radicalism also incorporates a profound element of American mischief. At its heart is an American individualism of the solipsistic, arrogant, community-be-damned kind. The intellectual currents of identity politics began to blossom, after all, during the Me Decade, so it should hardly be surprising if they give expression to a conquering, devouring American ego unrestrained by any social contract. Me, me, my, my — my rights, my pain, my rage über alles. So blinded are these campus bands of the self-righteous and the self-absorbed they don’t even notice the cognitive dissonance in a bunch of privileged white guys and gals hurling racial epithets at a Ward Connerly — in origin a poor black from the segregated South — or a Dinesh D’Souza — an Indian immigrant to these shores.
All this in the name of social justice for people of color! Huey Long would recognize it for what it is, and so would George Orwell.