Last week, after traveling to Vermont from Poland, the scholar and statesman Ryszard Legutko was abruptly disinvited from a speaking engagement at Middlebury College after its administration decided that it could not guarantee his safety. That’s the official story, anyway. Legutko agreed to an e-mail interview giving his side of the story, and what this incident means about higher education, and the greater struggle within Western culture.
What happened at Middlebury?
Last year I was invited to speak about my book The Demon in Democracy at Middlebury and then to meet some students and faculty for an informal conversation. I was pleased to receive the invitation – as every author would be – but because of many commitments my visit had to wait until April. On my way to Vermont – which lasted a couple of days – I started receiving information about some students and professors planning to organize protests against my speaking at the campus. They issued a statement that I was a homophobe (“f*cking homophobe”, as they put it on Facebook), a misogynist, a racist, a sexist and practically everything an ideological sinner can be today. The next information that reached me was that in all likelihood my talk would not be disrupted, but that outside the lecture hall the protesters would expose me to their ideological anger and then I would be taken to task during Q&A.
This did not look to me like an academic event, but rather like a political exorcism, but, unperturbed, I continued my trip to Middlebury. A few minutes after I arrived I was told by one of the professors that my lecture had been cancelled by the president of the College “for security reasons.” The President herself never bothered to contact me directly, informing about her decision, explaining it or apologizing. After all, this was not a usual situation, and as somebody who flew all the way from Europe at the invitation of the college I deserved some explanation why I came in vain. Apparently, bad manners and cowardice go hand in hand.
But soon after my arrival a delegation of students came to see me with an invitation to a seminar conducted by Professor Dickinson who, as I was told, offered me the floor to present my ideas. All this was done in defiance of the college administration. I was smuggled in a student’s car to the campus and entered the building through the back door. When I started my talk there were about twenty students in the room, but soon others started coming in. When I finished, the number was between 40 and 50. Then came questions, all of them pertinent, to which I was trying to give as exhaustive answers as possible. The event ended with polite applauding, as is usual in similar circumstances. When I was leaving the room, the chief of security approached me, offering a safe departure from the campus. I declined and was driven to the hotel by one of the professors. In the evening, we met for dinner: about 40 students and a few professors. The food was good, and the conversation lively, absorbing, occasionally funny.
Why did you agree to speak there? Did you not know what happened to Charles Murray?
I knew very well what had happened to Charles Murray, but I thought that this was such an outrageous incident that it must have had a sobering effect on the students, professors and administration. After all, to become a symbol of ideological hooliganism and of the drastic violation of academic standards is not – I was telling myself – what a respectable college would want, and I was sure that Middlebury College would, as a community and as an organization, do everything to prevent similar incidents from happening. I was, of course, extremely naïve, being unaware that nowadays ideological hooliganism is something to be proud, not to be ashamed of, and that cowardice, not courage, motivates the policy of the administration. But I accepted the invitation primarily because it was extended to me in the spirit of friendship, and those who invited me felt terrible when the situation developed the way it did.
It seems to me that the way you were treated at Middlebury vindicates much of The Demon in Democracy. If so, please explain how.
The book is about how liberal democracy tends to develop the qualities that were characteristic of communism: pervasive politicization, ideological zeal, aggressive social engineering, vulgarity, a belief in inevitability of progress, destruction of family, the omnipresent rule of ideological correctness, severe restriction of intellectual inquiry, etc. All of these I remember from my young days in communism, and all these I have been observing, with a growing sense of alarm, in today’s liberal democracy. In the heyday of the communist rule it was customary that the communist students disrupted the lectures of old “bourgeois” professors, accusing them of having reactionary views, of trying to corrupt the young minds with idealist philosophy, and of being at the service of imperialist forces. Why teach Aristotle who despised women and defended slavery? Why teach Plato whom Lenin derided as the author of “super-stupid metaphysics of ideas”? Why teach Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was propagating anti-scientific superstition? Why teach Descartes who in his notion of cogito completely ignored the class struggle?
The professors were abused and humiliated. Heckling and caterwauling were a standard weapon of the militant students then, and they are a standard weapon of the militant students today.
Each time the results are the same: certain authors are stigmatized, certain arguments cannot be raised, and certain questions must not be asked. Both then and now the ideological hooligans live in the illusion that they open new perspectives and tear down the existing barricades. In fact, they are doing the opposite: they help to legitimize intellectual vulgarity and intimidate all courageous and independent thinking. They reinforce this feature of all ideological regimes, which George Orwell called “thought crimes.”
The paradox is that in today’s liberal democracy there are more thought crimes than in communism: racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, ageism, binarism, Eurocentrism, white supremacy, and many others which a person like myself long ceased to keep up with. They give the latter-day Bolsheviks enormous power and countless instruments to silence all opponents. The only way to avoid any of these accusations is to capitulate, body and soul, to the prevailing ideologies and to participate in all ritualistic dances that express either absolute approval of the ideological gods or absolute condemnation of the enemies.
How should we fight this? Do you believe these institutions of higher learning are worth saving? Or should men and women of good will — whether they are on the left or the right — create new institutions within which the scholarly tradition of the liberal arts and humanities may be preserved through this new Dark Age (an Alasdair MacIntyre solution)?
This seems a good idea, although I am not sure how realistic it is. In my country, all attempts to create such schools after the fall of the old regime failed, but perhaps in America with the tradition of private funding, it may be possible.
It is true that in Poland political and ideological correctness has not reached the level it did in other countries, and there exist powerful alternative forces. The institutions of higher education are however beginning to be threatened by political correctness. The original sin of the academic institutions in the entire Western world was, I think, to open them to highly political and ideological disciplines (or rather, pseudo-disciplines) such as gender studies, feminist studies, etc., which quickly infected all humanities and social sciences.
First, they killed the academic culture of research because all of them start not with questions, but with conclusions – one and the same in all matters that are being discussed – and then bend the arguments to justify those conclusions. It is always about how men discriminate against women, heterosexuals against homosexuals, white people against black people, Europeans against non-Europeans, etc.; all effort is to provide additional proofs or present another variation of the same story. Consequently, they turned the schools into the training camps; young minds are shaped in such a way that they cannot but perceive the intellectual inquiry as leading to or away from desired political and ideological ends. This unfortunately spilled over to the departments of literature, history, social and political sciences.
Second, they changed the demographic structure of the universities, giving the representative of these pseudo-disciplines an unusually big influence – considering the dubious quality of their work – on academic and scholarly matters. They created the atmosphere of suspicion and vigilance. No wonder that they too often start performing a function of a thought police, or, to use a Soviet term, of politruks. The latter word stems from the Russian polititcheskyi rukovodityiel meaning “a political guide” (literally, “somebody who leads others politically by the hand”) and it denoted those who watched the purity of the communist doctrine in what people said and in what they thought. These two factors make it extremely difficult to reform the existing schools as things went very far – too far, some would say. The schools which are free from political ideologies and from politruks seem indeed something that should be created rather than be a result of a reform.
What advice would you give to American parents considering colleges for their children? It seems to me that the institutions that offer the most certain path into the global ruling class are the most ideologically corrupted. I recently spoke to a friend at Harvard, a foreign student studying there, and he told me the most important lesson he has learned at the world’s most prestigious university is how the American ruling class is preparing its youth to be a ruling class of ideologized hysterics.
Most parents, I think, continue to believe that a college is an institution that opens and ennobles the minds of young people, and that the higher the tuition, the more efficient is this opening and ennobling. That is no longer the case. More and more often the colleges close the young minds in the ideological shackles from which an escape is extremely difficult. This means that the parents have additional duties and should be more involved in the education of their children.
My advice to the parents is the following. “You must realize that there is a war of cultures (or rather a war of leftist anti-culture against Western culture) going on in the United States and in Europe, and that very many colleges take part in this war on the side of anti-culture. Be most selective in the choice of the college and examine carefully the profile of education your children intend to pursue. It is important that from the very beginning you create an alternative cultural environment for your children and provide them with other sources of intellectual and spiritual development, untouched by the prevailing ideology. It is not easy, but relying solely on the soulcraft administered by the college is too risky. You have to start with the language your children use. Make them avoid today’s gobbledygook – gender, queer, non-binary, discrimination, empowerment, emancipation, contextualization, patriarchy, etc. – and try to teach them to express their views without those concepts, and without any reference to current ideologies. When they read old books, let them get to their meaning without those concepts, as if these ideologies never existed. Only then could they discover what those books say, and will shudder at the vulgarity of the modern ideological discourse. Make them accustomed to classical vocabulary describing human life and human conduct: truth, beauty, goodness, virtue, evil, courage, duty, treason, patriotism. Try to convince them not to base their thinking of the two assumptions that today are considered self-evident: everything changes and everything is relative. There is a lot in human condition that does not change and there is a lot that is absolute. Once they drop those assumptions and are equipped with a different set of general concepts as their basic instrument of communication, they might be able to resist the pressure from today’s anti-culture.”
Finally, you and I will, I hope, be seeing each other later this year. I am going to write a book on the rise of soft totalitarianism in the liberal democracies of the West, and what practical lessons we Americans and others can learn about resistance from anti-communist dissidents like you. As you think of your experience at Middlebury in context of the cultural revolution shaking the West to its foundations, what would you say are the main lessons people like you can transmit to us from your experience under hard totalitarianism?
It all starts with overcoming fear. Of course, fear under hard totalitarianism is of a different kind than fear under soft despotism in liberal democracy, but it is fear all the same. Do not be afraid – that was John Paul II’s message at the beginning of his pontificate, which he continued to preach during his entire life. Once we get rid of fear, things become simpler. We think more clearly, which is a prerequisite of a good description of the world around us and of our own life in this world. We also feel better, not in the superficial psychological sense of having pleasant emotions, but in a deeper sense of reaching a stable internal equilibrium, resistant to external shocks. But the most eye-opening discovery is that with the absence of fear not only many problems that we had disappear, but that it is we who become a serious problem to the guardians of the totalitarian system, to all those politruks, to ideological hoodlums, to cowardly bureaucrats. The moment we cease to be afraid of them, we see that they begin to be afraid of us. And this is a reward that has no price.