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Harvard’s Glass Menagerie

Over the weekend, I met a friend in Cambridge, Mass., for lunch. He’s a foreigner studying at Harvard. He told me that his experience there has been quite an education in how the American elite constructs its worldview and reproduces itself. In fact, that is perhaps the most important lesson he has learned from his experience at the top US university.

I’m writing this with his permission, but I want to be careful about what I say, to protect his privacy. In general, he said it has been a real shock to him — and to the other foreign students in his circle — to observe how “coercive” (his word) the intellectual atmosphere at Harvard is, at least in the areas he’s been studying. He explained that it is quite simply impossible to discuss certain things, and ask certain questions, because of the ideological rigidity of the American students and their teachers. My friend made clear that this is the consensus view of the foreigners he knows there, whether they are on the left or the right.

My lunch companion said that the elites formed by this most elite American university are people who have set up a world in which they never have to encounter an idea, or a person, that they don’t already endorse or embrace. We were joined at the table by a third person, a left-wing Baby Boomer who works in a very liberal Boston institution (I’ll not name it to protect his privacy), and who said that he finds the ideological rigidity of Millennials and the generation behind them to be insufferable. Such joyless, humorless, incurious people, he said. The foreigner, though a Millennial himself, agreed.

On our way to the restaurant, I had mentioned to my foreign friend something I’ve heard from several of you readers of this blog who are conservative academics: that as long as old-school liberals remain in charge of faculties and academic institutions, there will be a place for right-of-center scholars. But when the Jacobin-like younger generation moves into leadership, that will be the end. He agreed, and brought up several examples from academia and academia-adjacent institutions (e.g., publishing). He told me one story about a left-liberal scholar he knows who has been turned into a non-person for questioning out loud some of aspects of au courant progressive dogma. I’m not easy to shock about things like this, but this particular story — my foreign friend named names — was for me a sign of how advanced the ideological militancy has become.

It recalled in fact an e-mail conversation I had last week with a liberal journalist friend who hates to see this closing of the left’s mind. My journalist pal said that he’s seeing on the left a moralistic refusal even to consider ideas, people, and data that contradict these leftists’ moral code. Understand: it’s not that this new breed of progressives disagrees (though they do); it’s that they believe, and believe strongly, that even to confront information that contradicts what they prefer to believe is intolerable.

Said my friend: “No wonder these people are always shocked by the latest developments in politics. They refuse to see the world as it is.”

While I was out and about in Boston this weekend, I met and spoke with a professor, who holds fairly despairing opinions about the academy. I brought up the situation at Villanova, where the president and provost responded to two professors’ criticism of politicized student evaluations by saying, in part, that “Diversity and inclusion are not accessories in higher education today, they are at its core.” My interlocutor told me that at his university, white professors are genuinely afraid to give students of color bad grades. They are terrified of being accused of racism, and being forced to defend themselves in a university hearing. It’s a big problem of academic integrity, he said, but the diversity deans, and the “diversity and inclusion” mentality, are all-powerful. It’s not just at his college, the professor said; it’s spreading like wildfire throughout academia.

I am nearing signing a contract on my next book, which is going to focus on practical lessons about resisting this ideological cultural revolution  that we can learn from dissenters who grew up under Soviet and Eastern European communism. Like communism, a system built on a false ideology cannot and will not last forever. But as Adam Smith observed, “There is a lot of ruin in a nation” — meaning that it can take a long time for the consequences of corruption to work themselves out. I came away from these gloomy conversations this weekend, with even less confidence in American elites and institutions (believe me, I heard a lot more detailed information than I’m able to discuss here). But the collapse is not going to happen overnight. If my Harvard friend’s observations are correct, the technocratic American ruling class is preparing itself to preside over a country it doesn’t understand, recognize, or care for. They sound like the Soviet nomenklatura, before the cynicism set in, when it was still possible to tell oneself lies and believe it.

This is not going to end well.

It’s not that Harvard is full of bad people; I personally know some good people at Harvard. And it’s not that this mindset is limited to Harvard, or even to just the Ivy League. From what I can tell, it is general across America’s leading educational institutions. I am not picking on Harvard alone. Still, it is quite extraordinary to hear this kind of testimony about the most elite institution of its kind in the world. It means something.

I commend to your attention an extraordinary 2017 essay, “In Defense of the Bad, White Working Class” by Shannon Burns, a progressive Australian writer who grew up in his country’s white working class. In the piece, Burns explains why even though he no longer shares the cultural politics of his family, he sympathizes with them for loathing elites. Excerpts:

I suspect that the shame I felt about my parents’ racism sprang mostly from experience: the bulk of my friends were Vietnamese and Chinese, and their families seemed more admirable than mine. My attitude was, therefore, a product of intimacy and experience rather than abstract notions of morality or equality. I had an opportunity, as a child, that my parents—who had grown up poor among working-class whites—never had.

I also had the chance to see myself through migrant eyes, and what I saw was often confronting. Poor whites were scorned by more than a few of the Chinese and Vietnamese migrants I came to know, especially the hard-working, self-sacrificing parents who were deeply invested in their children’s education and upward mobility. They made it clear that I was not the kind of friend they wanted for their sons.

The experience of being deemed undesirable and unworthy even by new Australians is a peculiarly lumpen trial. For me, it was eye-opening. For others, it’s an unutterable humiliation.

An unutterable humiliation. Read on:

The habits of progressive social and political discourse almost seem calculated to alienate and aggravate lower class whites. I confess that if a well-dressed, university-educated middle-class person of any gender or ethnicity so much as hinted at my ‘white privilege’ while I was a lumpen child, or my ‘male privilege’ while I was an unskilled labourer who couldn’t afford basic necessities, or my ‘hetero-privilege’ while I was a homeless solitary, I’d have taken special pleasure in voting for their nightmare. And I would have been right to do so.

As an aspirational teenage lumpen, I learned to embrace a working-class ethos. It was a simple, experiential lesson: whenever I allowed myself to feel like a victim, I fell into paralysis and deep poverty; whenever I took pride in my capacity to work and endure, things got slightly better. One world view worked; the other didn’t.

Even if I was wronged or oppressed or marginalised, claiming victim status seemed absurd (since I often came across people who were more unfortunate than me), limiting (since there were other, enriching aspects of life to focus on), humiliating (because in the working-class world self-pity is reviled), and self-defeating (because if you allow yourself to think and behave like a victim, you quickly fall into lumpen despair).

At university, I discovered that this ethos didn’t apply. A season of despair would not send middle-class teens spiralling into a life of drug-addled indigence; they could simply brush themselves off and enrol again next year. Strong, class-enforced safety nets meant that self-pity could be accommodated, and victimhood could even form part of a functional identity.

Indeed, the willingness to expose your wounds is another sign of privilege. Those for whom injury has a use-value will display their injuries; those for whom woundedness is a survival risk, won’t. As a consequence, middle-class grievances now drown out lower class pain. This is why the wounded lower classes come to embrace conservative discourses that ridicule middle-class anguish. Those who cannot afford to see themselves as disadvantaged are instinctively repulsed by those who harp on about disadvantage.

Think back to the Harvard student elites I mentioned earlier in this blog post. They use their fragility to their advantage, because it works in their rarefied environment. It gets them ahead in their world. But Harvard is a glass menagerie. More Shannon Burns:

Those who hail from the lower classes rarely have relatives or mentors who encourage them to modify or scrutinise received ways of thinking about social issues. Many go to schools that are under-resourced, where behaviour management replaces education, and where punitive controls make learning feel like abuse. The only people they know who embrace progressive values are the vegetarians down the street, whom nobody talks to, and those who are materially better off than they are. Because of this, those values take on a particular aura: they represent the world view of those who stand above them.

Given this inherent structural problem, progressives must surely seek to persuade lower class people to entertain their ideas—patiently, inventively and persistently—instead of imposing them.

Consider who determines the standards of so-called politically correct speech. Are they primarily negotiated across classes and social groups, or are they determined from above? If the latter is the case, then it would be senseless to deny that political correctness, as it stands, is a form and expression of elitism. When rules of expression are forced on people who have their own peculiar relationship to speech, and who can reasonably be expected to struggle with the constraints, it is not a fair imposition. Political correctness is hardly the evil that conservative commentators make it out to be, but as a moral burden it is clearly weighted against the lower classes, who are smart enough to recognise when they are being set up to fail.

One last quote:

The desire to create a world devoid of cruelty and unfairness is unquestionably noble, and the idea of a racism-free society is rhetorically useful—especially when you are dealing with impressionable children—but it is only a happy fantasy. Tribalism is a global phenomenon. Its roots may be evolutionary or cultural or both, but it appears everywhere, and it flares up whenever people fear that their way of life is under threat. When we believe our rhetoric and use coddled, middle-class experience as our reference point, we lose sight of practical objectives, and ignore obvious risks as well as genuine social accomplishments.

Here’s the whole thing.  I strongly urge you to read it, especially for the very last paragraph, and the killer final line.

Burns’s remark about elites coming to believe their own just-so stories, and the blindness that this brings on, strikes me as deeply true — and another way of saying what my liberal journalist friend said to me last week (see above): that progressive elites intentionally blind themselves to realities that they cannot face without freaking out, and are therefore always being shocked by the next political development. The good news is that any system that excludes accurate information about the real world will ultimately fail — and won’t even see the collapse coming.

I gotta say, though, what a strange feeling it was to walk around the beautiful Harvard campus this past weekend, after that lunch conversation. When I was in high school, a group from my school took a spring break college tour of the Northeast, and stopped at Harvard. I remember being there, and thinking about how I would love to be a Harvard student. I didn’t bother to apply, not because of class issues, but because my father adamantly refused to allow me to take out student loans to pay for an undergraduate degree. (Though I hated him at the time over this, I eventually understood Dad’s wisdom, and will be forever grateful for it.) Today, though, in 2019, I wandered the campus thinking that I do not, in any way, want my children to attend this college, or any college like it, no matter what advantages it might give them in climbing into the meritocracy. I do not want them to absorb the rules of this particular game, the prejudices of the American elites, and the fragility of their class, which will not survive contact with the real world.

In the main, these are not our people. These do not have the best interests of our people at heart. Though honestly compels me to say that I have as much, if not more, in common with the average Ivy League person than I do with I do with the average working-class Trump voter back home in the country, when it comes down to it, I know with which flawed tribe I will take my stand. I do not want my children being part of an institution that forms the kind of people my foreign friend talked about this weekend. In fact, I would be proud of my children if they dedicated themselves in some way to dismantling places like this and the cultural hegemony they maintain.

If you had told 17-year-old me, ambling across Harvard Yard in the spring of 1984, that I would ever come to that point of view, and come to it from the cultural Right, I wouldn’t have believed it. Back then, I was much more liberal, but more importantly, I believed in American institutions, and wanted to be part of them, to let them build my mind and my character. But that was a different time, and a different country.

UPDATE: Reader Pacopond:

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a teacher friend of mine in a high school social science department, a guy who had positive things to say about Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility.” He was planning to do some sort of in-service on it.

I had told him that I totally disagreed about the book, that it was one of the worst things I have read recently. We have a cordial though not close relationship. He’s pretty hard left, but I’d gained some cred with him by driving a load of supplies to the Native Americans at Standing Rock.

We talked, agreed and mostly disagreed, over Mexican food. On our walk back to our cars I thanked him for the intellectual sparring. He’s young-ish, I’d guess early 40s, and he said this appreciation for controversy is a generational thing.

He talked about how his own younger colleagues can’t argue. They find themselves in the presence of those who don’t accept their presuppositions and positions, and they quickly resort to throwing words like “racist” around.

Mind you, he’s on board with most of their goals, but noted their brittleness.

As “fragility” seems to have been claimed by the SJW crowd, I propose “woke brittleness” to designate the inflexibility of the post-liberal illiberal, pomo-poco young adults today.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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