Believing the true believers

Thomas Sowell
Posted: Mar 01, 2005 12:00 AM

While the media have been focusing on the flap at Harvard growing out of its president's statement about the reasons for the under-representation of women in the sciences, a much worse and more revealing scandal has unfolded at the University of Seattle, where a student mob prevented a military recruiter from meeting with those students who wanted to meet with him.

 At first, the university president said that the student rioters should apologize. But the storm this created forced the typical academic administrator's back-down under pressure.

 One of the student rioters explained that she didn't want anyone to be sent overseas to be killed. Apparently it never occurred to her that what she wanted was not automatically to be imposed on other people, with or without mob violence.

 Back in the days of the divine rights of kings, it might be understandable why a given monarch might think that what he wanted was all that mattered. But, in an age of democracy, how can millions of people live together if each one asserts a divine right to impose his or her will on others?

 Surely our educational system has failed if it has not taught something so basic in logic or morality. But too many of our schools and colleges have been so busy pushing particular forms of political correctness that they have not bothered to explain why other views by other people cannot be ignored intellectually or disregarded politically.

 When the propagandizing activities of educational institutions were recently criticized in this column, a defender of these institutions sent an e-mail, claiming that there was nothing wrong with pushing particular beliefs, if those beliefs were correct.

 Violating my New Year's resolution to stop trying to reason with unreasonable people, I replied, asking if this man would feel all right, if he were a member of a jury, to vote after having heard only the prosecution's case or only the defendant's case.

 His reply was that he would -- if the people presenting one side of the case were people he knew and trusted.

 Bizarre as that might sound, it is by no means as unusual as it might seem, even though most people who act on that basis do not spell out such a reason to others -- nor probably even to themselves. They don't say that they believe people on a particular issue because those are people with whom they feel simpatico. But that is often how they act.

 An example of this mindset was recounted in a recent essay by Ralph de Toledano, who told of being a young reporter, years ago, during a case involving Whittaker Chambers against Alger Hiss. Chambers claimed that Hiss had been a spy for the Soviet Union, operating at the highest levels of the American government.

 The charges against Hiss began as just one man's word against another's. No one knew who was lying but virtually everyone took sides.

 Among the reporters and the intelligentsia, it was widely assumed that Hiss was innocent and Chambers was lying. De Toledano recalled that those few reporters who thought that Hiss might be the one who was lying were immediately ostracized by other reporters.

 Why? Because Hiss was in so many ways one of them -- in politics, in manner, in lifestyle. He was a New Deal liberal, an Ivy League-educated young man, trim, erect, well-spoken, a member and leader of the kinds of prestigious organizations that liberals looked up to. Chambers was a paunchy old man in rumpled clothes who slouched and was obviously anti-Soviet.

 To the reporters, Hiss was one of Us and Chambers was one of Them. Like today's young man who would be content to reach a verdict after hearing only one side of a case, the press chose to believe Hiss, their fellow true believer.

 Many chose to continue to believe Hiss even after the evidence that came out at the trial sent him to prison -- and some continue to believe even today, despite information from the secret files of the former Soviet Union which added more damning evidence against Hiss.

 The time is long overdue for our media and our educational institutions to start presenting both sides of issues -- and for our schools and colleges to start teaching students how to think, instead of telling them what to think.