Earlier this week, I took a trip down memory lane to Yale, where I happily attended college almost 25 years ago in the second decade of its co-ed existence. Which meant that I was plenty old enough to be the mother of the undergraduates I was addressing in the traditionally genteel setting of a "master's tea." The tea, attended by about two dozen, was in beauteous Branford, one of Yale's 12 residential colleges, all carved stone and grassy courtyard.
All power-washed carved stone and weedless grassy courtyard, that is. At least it felt that way. After a renovating overhaul, Yale's patina of age, of passing time, of history itself no longer quite imbues this rigorously spruced-up campus the way it once did, lessening the more tangible links to Yale's storied past.
Maybe it was the disappearance of some of the eclectic book collections from reading-room shelves that was jarring. Or maybe it was the plentiful new crop of plaques prominently advertising -- I mean, attesting to -- alumni generosity that gave the old place a practically nouveau feel. Or maybe it was the absence of rep-tie-and-blue-blazered old dears flapping about campus. Clearly, that once-mighty Ivy ascendancy isn't just down, it's out like the cuckoo. Time flies when the culture is changing.
Still, none of this completely accounts for the interplanetary gulf between myself and some of the students when it came to what, for cuckoo-me, is a bedrock notion: namely, that Western culture -- for its enshrinement of liberty, freedom of conscience, equality before the law and the like -- is a Good Thing.
The point of my talk -- based on my new book, "The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization" -- was to explain why perpetual adolescence is not just a cultural drag, but also dangerous to our way of life. I argued that the leveling of adult authority over the past half century or so was accompanied by a leveling of cultural authority. This brought on the age of multiculturalism, a time when Western Civ (like the adult) no longer occupies its old pinnacle atop the hierarchy of cultures. The multiculti conception of equally valuable cultures (except for the West, which is deemed the pits) depends on a strenuous non-judgmentalism. This non-judgmentalism expresses itself in a self-censoring adherence to political correctness. Such non-judgmentalism, such PC self-censorship, is infantilizing because it requires us to suppress our faculties of analysis and judgment.
Case in point: Our society's refusal to analyze and judge the anti-Western teachings of mainstream Islam for fear of giving offense to the grandees of PC, or to Muslims, or both. This refusal, I maintained, is a brewing civilizational crisis.
Having made ourselves into a self-censoring society, I explained to the students at tea, we now find ourselves confronting an Islamic system that demands such censorship as a point of law. Look what happened to Silvio Berlusconi when, as prime minister of Italy after 9/11, he mounted a heartfelt defense of Western civilization for having enshrined liberty, freedom of conscience, equality before the law and the like -- which, he also pointed out, Islam most certainly did not.
The voluble Italian was dumped upon by the world, Western and Islamic. He swiftly recanted to satisfy both the censoring dictates of PC, which outlaws non-Western critiques, and the censoring dictates of Islam, which outlaws criticism of Islam. Berlusconi's example shows how easily an adolescent, PC society can slip under Islamic law into the hush of dhimmitude.
At this point in the presentation, I expected to hear that Islam wasn't all bad; that I oversimplified. What emerged instead was that the West wasn't all good; that I oversimplified. As the Yale Daily News later put it, "Some students said West blamed Americans for censoring themselves in thought but ignored the censorship she employs in her own speech by concentrating only on the positive aspects of Western civilization."
Sounds like "some students" believe that the freedoms existing here -- which don't exist in Islam -- are somehow voided by "negative" Western aspects. Or maybe that the negatives, which apparently loom larger than any Islamic threat, simply invalidate any positive conception of the West, and maybe any conception of the West as an identifiable, defensible culture, period. Little wonder the Yale newspaper used quotation marks to set off the West as "The West." It's good; it's bad -- whatever.
I hope I'm wrong. But all of sudden the campus renovations that had scrubbed away Yale's past seemed to be all too apt a metaphor.