Campus hand-wringing is not a pretty site

Posted: Oct 01, 2001 12:00 AM
Spend a few hours on a computer search, and you get some idea of how the American campus is reacting to the current crisis. It isn't pretty. The first thing you notice is that vigils and rallies tend to focus on feelings. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. We all have to get our bearings.

But the concern with emotions and personal dislocation seems over the top, as if we need to look inward for therapy more than outward to come together for the fight ahead. An anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said she was pleased that her students' "thoughtful, passionate varieties of anger are openings to reflection, learning."

Worse, the words the rest of the nation is using -- "attack," "terrorism," "resolve" and "defense" -- don't seem to come up much on campus. Umpteen college presidents put out timid and content-free statements about coping with "the tragedy," and "the events of September 11" as if we have just suffered an earthquake or some other passing natural disaster.

The American Association of University Professors put out a statement that probably would have made Neville Chamberlain throw up. It promised to "continue to fight violence with renewed dedication to the exercise of freedom of thought and the expression of that freedom in our teaching."

What does that mean? That the professors of 1941 should have responded to Pearl Harbor by just logging more class time? Bradford Wilson of the National Association of Scholars, a group that has been struggling to restore intellectual integrity to the campus, called the AAUP statement "fatuous nonsense," "basic Marxist claptrap" and "anti-American in its basic thrust."

The campus flight from reality takes many exotic forms. One is the notion that the terrorists did not really mean to attack America. "Students in my classes see this as an assault on international trade, globalization," said the dean of Columbia University's international affairs school. Another is the attempt to adapt the crisis to the campus fixation on bias crimes.

The most animated rally at the University of California-Berkeley was a protest against a campus newspaper for an editorial cartoon showing Islamic terrorists in hell. Many on the campuses feel that singling out members of any religious or ethnic group as responsible for the attack is a sort of hate crime. The attack "was done by people who hate, and I don't think hate has a color or ethnicity," said one University of Wisconsin student.

But the dominant campus notions were ones that the terrorists themselves would surely endorse: that America had it coming, and fighting back would be vengeful, unworthy of America and a risk to the lives of innocents. A speaker at a University of North Carolina teach-in called for an apology to "the tortured and the impoverished and all the millions of other victims of American imperialism." Georgetown is holding a debate titled "Resolved: America's Policies and Past Actions Invited the Recent Attacks."

Yale held a panel discussion of six hand-wringing professors and university officials who focused on "underlying causes" of the attack and America's many faults, including our "offensive cultural messages." In response, classics professor Donald Kagan said the panelists seemed intent on "blaming the victim" and asked why Yale couldn't find one panel member somewhere to focus on the enemy and "how to stamp out such evil." An article in the Yale Herald expressed sympathy for the motives of terrorists, though not their actions. Another article in the Yale Daily News complained that the government's "simplistic narrative" of what happened on Sept. 11 "prepares the machinery of a warrior nation to kill in response."

Some students show a glimmer of awareness that the campus is a bubble of unreality, disconnected from the rest of America. A Columbia student said: "A lot of people here think it would be a travesty to begin killing people. But off campus you hear something else." On other campuses students resist the anti-war tilt in large numbers. At the mostly blue-collar California State University-Fresno, says Victor Hanson, who teaches there, "Maybe 90 percent of the faculty sympathizes with boutique anti-Americanism, and 90 percent of students are firmly behind the government, with the strongest support coming from the Mexican-American kids. The students understand what the faculty doesn't -- that fostering humanity means stopping people who kill."

America still doesn't understand what has happened to its colleges. A strong and implacably non-diverse campus culture has arisen around very dangerous ideas. Among them are radical cultural relativism, non-judgmentalism, and a post-modern conviction that there are no moral norms or truths worth defending -- all knowledge and morality are constructions built by the powerful. Add to this the knee-jerk antagonism to the "hegemony" of the West and a reflexive feeling of sympathy for anti-Western resentments, even those expressed in violence. This is a toxic mix, and it is now crucial for those both on and off the campus to start saying so.