Scholars vs. Ideologues

Julia Geran Pilon

Not a few among today’s intellectuals, both inside and outside the ivy-towered temples of higher learning, sound like modern-day Jeremiahs who lament the false promise of America and capitalism while genuflecting before the prospect of a brave new world. Self-styled secular prophets, they gravitate to what Lewis S. Feuer called “the ideological mode of thought.”1 But there is one crucial difference: unlike their putative Hebrew predecessors, argues Feuer, “as ideologists, [they claim] to know the plan of God in history and His long-term purposes.” Ideology is not merely a replacement religion for most of its adherents. It also provides a lofty political mission: building the City of Man. The promise of a utopian “higher society” inebriates its proponents, who embrace the new political religion with pious devotion.

The anti-liberalism pervading the academy today can best be understood with this in mind. Paul Hollander’s influential Political Pilgrims similarly noted that many intellectuals are blinded by a lust for power to which, secretly and not-so-secretly, they feel entitled. “The utopian susceptibilities of contemporary Western intellectuals,” observed Hollander, “are part of a long-standing tradition of seeking heaven on earth . . . [which] is not to say that utopian and religious designs are antithetical, but that the utopian ones often feed on and derive from religious impulses.” These utopian ideals tend to have much in common: they are in principle applicable to all mankind, and must be radically, categorically different from present circumstances. But by far the most important element is that

[utopians] lean toward the belief that most people do not know what is good for them, that the individual pursuit of happiness is inefficient and often leads to the collision of the desires of different individuals (which could be averted in the utopian framework proposed). It follows from the compelling character of many utopian schemes that those intent on their realization cannot, in good conscience, exclude the use of force to bring it about and to maintain it.2

Thus paternalism trumps individual freedom, as the guardians of the Common Good promote it uber alles.

But if a sense of alienation cum arrogance is the intellectual’s occupational hazard, a visceral hatred of one’s society need not be. Yet so it seems to be, throughout America’s campuses, particularly in social science and history departments, most of whose faculty appear obsessed with national self-flagellation. And no wonder, considering that so many of today’s professors were yesterday’s radicals. Those of us who attended college during the 1960s and ‘70s witnessed the hate-filled student riots, pro-Vietcong fliers, campus shut-downs, and attacks on police.

“Amerika” became a code word for repression, for work as against pleasure, the capitalist “social cruelties” as against Rousseau’s “natural” man, who is “born free and everywhere is in chains.” Amerika is the enemy; utopian socialism spells salvation. Private property makes men greedy; communal living is groovy. The Flower Children of the sixties got high on slogans.

It all exploded with the Vietnam war. Writes critic Roger Kimball: “More than any other event, it legitimated anti-Americanism and helped insinuate radical feeling into the mainstream of cultural life. . . . the war helped to ‘normalize’ a spectrum of radical sentiments, including in the realm of domestic politics.” Especially unfortunate was “the transformation of the civil-rights movement from a non-violent crusade for equal rights into an agitation for black power . . . [amounting to] . . . a blueprint for the ‘victim politics’ and demands for political correctness that have so disfigured American culture.”3

Writer Susan Sontag, who taught philosophy at Columbia University in the early 1960s, admitted that “Vietnam offered the key to a systematic criticism of America.”4 Radical student leader Jerry Rubin, who called himself “a child of Amerika,” went one better in his 1970 book Do It! Scenarios of the Revolution: “If there had been no Vietnam war, we would have invented one. If the Vietnam war ends, we’ll find another war.”5

The “program,” explained Eldridge Cleaver in the introduction to Rubin’s volume, “unite[s] around hatred of pig judges, around hatred of capitalism, around the total desire to smash what is now the social order in the United States of Amerika. Around the dream of building something new and free upon the ruins.” Cleaver was writing from Algeria, reminiscing about the time, in 1966, when he and a handful of other leading radicals were staring, stoned, at a wall poster of the Cuban Communist Che Guevara, with his “farseeing eyes, staring fiercely and fearlessly into the revolutionary future.” The same poster would soon be found throughout America’s college dorms.

But who, exactly, was this Ernesto “Che” Guevara? A photogenic pathologically ruthless killer. It boggles the mind of self-described leftist Daniel Benveniste, author of The Venezuelan Revolution: A Critique from the Left (2015), how members of his beloved counterculture, who had preached peace and love, “could turn around and celebrate Che Guevara, who personally executed and oversaw the execution of about five hundred people. . . . [and who] spoke of ‘hatred as an element of struggle.”’6 Except it wasn’t a turnaround—at least, not for the leadership.

And certainly not after 1968. Writes journalist Bryan Burrough, a former Marxist: “For the hard core . . . 1968 bore signs of the Apocalypse. For these activists, who might be called apocalyptic revolutionaries, there was a vivid and growing sense that the world was on the brink of historic, irreversible change and that the morally corrupt American government, murdering the Vietnamese, unleashing dogs on Southern blacks, and beating its protesters, was poised for imminent collapse.”7

It seemed that nothing short of a revolution would do. Continues Burrough: “Apocalyptic revolutionaries . . . studied Lenin and Mao and Ho Chi Minh . . . but their favorite blueprint was the Cuban Revolution, their icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Castro’s swashbuckling right-hand man.

His posters are still ubiquitous, as are other relics. In 2018, for example, the on-campus bookstore at Washington University in St. Louis was selling stuffed Che dolls. And the University of California San Diego not only allows a massive mural of Che Guevara to exist on campus, but an entire business based around him. Founded in 1980 by a group of students, the Ché Café drew considerable controversy, and was briefly closed, but was reopened in late 2019. Hollander described the religious impulse that drove the veneration of Guevara by the likes of radical Mark Rudd:

Guevara’s cult offers a superb illustration of the religious, or secular-religious, wellspring of all these cults and the hero worship they entail. Mark Rudd, a 1960s radical activist who visited Cuba in 1968 inspired by Guevara, confessed in his autobiography: “Like a Christian seeking to emulate the life of Christ, I passionately wanted to be a revolutionary like Che, no matter what the price.”

Wannabe martyrs of nihilism, pathetic and dangerous, morphed into pop culture superstars for the clueless, with the blessings of their radical professors.

Yet few among those aged under sixty remember Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the terrorist Weather Underground (WU) and their radical colleagues, let alone realize that they are still very much with us, often comfortably ensconced in prestigious academic institutions. On his last day in office, January 20, 2001, president Bill Clinton pardoned Linda Evans and Susan Rosenberg, both WU members who had been convicted for weapons and explosives charges. In addition, Rosenberg drove the getaway-car in a robbery where two police officers and an armored car guard were killed. Besides WU, she also joined the May 19th Communist Organization, which worked in support of the Black Liberation Army. After her release, she taught literature at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and was even offered a position to teach a course at Hamilton College on “Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity and Change,” though after protest by some parents and alumni, and even some professors, she declined the offer. It is not clear whether there would be similar protests from the faculty today, considering the latest developments at Hamilton.8

Rosenberg shares a Hamilton College connection with Angela Davis, winner of the 1979 Lenin Peace Prize, who delivered that institution’s commencement address in 1996 and again in 2016. There, “she encouraged the audience to reach for the world we wish to live in. That is, a world ‘that has no need to rely on policing and imprisonment,’ a world with ‘free education, free health care, affordable housing.’”9 Her earlier membership in the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-black branch of the Communist Party USA, and her support for the Soledad Brothers, three inmates who had killed a prison guard at Soledad Prison, were an obvious badge of honor.

So was being placed on the FBI's “Ten Most Wanted List” in 1970 for having purchased firearms used in an armed takeover of a Marin County, California, courtroom in 1970, where a judge and three black men were killed. Davis is now a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz and former director of its Feminist Studies department. In 2017, Davis was a featured speaker and honorary co-chair at the Women's March on Washington after Donald Trump's inauguration; she is idolized by Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the most radical members of Congress today. From underground to high ground, the Sixties live on.

How former 1960s radicals ended up in the rarified precincts of academe has been the subject of much study and conjecture. Critics such as Allan Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Roger Kimball, James Atlas, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Richard Bernstein, to name only a few, have assiduously documented the formidable presence in higher education of “tenured radicals.” As noted, there is general agreement that its origins can be found in the response of universities to the anti-Americanism spawned by the Vietnam War and the transformation of the Civil Rights Movement into the quest for “Black Power.” But the pivotal events came with the student uprisings of the 1960s, when school administrations acceded to the demands of radical students who held whole universities hostage, many times at gunpoint, demanding curriculum changes, liberalized admissions policies, and separate ethnic studies departments. These events set in motion a process by which the requisites of liberal education would be permanently subordinated to the political exigencies of the moment.

Over time, given the continuing dominance of the United States in global affairs and racial inequality at home—even after the 1960s “liberation”—those exigencies became primarily focused on overturning the assumptions of traditional Western culture. Under the guidance of Marxist theorists associated with the Frankfurt School and European poststructuralism, a fierce cultural relativism that denied the existence of universal truths and the means for pursuing them took hold. The notion of an agreed upon canon of imaginative works that every educated person is required to know was dismissed, while humanities and social science departments increasingly viewed texts and ideas as merely instruments for the exercise of power. An honest accounting of how and why America’s higher education leaders succumbed to this politicization of the liberal arts remains unwritten. But it is not hard to see that in institutions where undermining Western civilization constituted a pathway to rapid success, the appointment to faculties of radical revolutionaries would be wholly welcomed.

Thus, in a 2013 article titled “How 1960s Radicals Ended Up Teaching Your Kids,” Michael Moynihan describes the academic legitimation of yet another former revolutionary (and murderess).

Kathy Boudin, a professor at Columbia University, was named the 2013 Sheinberg Scholar-in-Residence at NYU Law School. In 1984, Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground, a violent, oafish association of upper-class revolutionaries, pled guilty to second-degree murder in association with the infamous 1981 Brinks armored car robbery in Nyack, New York. Babbling in the language of anti-racism and anti-imperialism, Boudin assisted in ending the life of three people, including Waverly Brown, the first black police officer on the Nyack police force, and left nine children fatherless.10

Boudin’s Columbia University website biography doesn’t mention these details.

The list goes on. A former leader of the radical Black Panthers Ericka Huggins was brought to trial in 1970 on charges of “aiding and abetting” the murder of Alex Rackley (having boiled the water used in his torture).11 Having taught women’s studies at California State University, she is now Professor of Sociology at Laney College and at Berkeley City College. She has also lectured at Stanford, Cornell, and the UCLA.

Among the latest WU members to be released is Judith Clark, who was serving a 75-years-to-life murder sentence. On April 23, 2019 she was granted clemency by New York governor Andrew Cuomo. This notwithstanding that she has never expressed remorse—anymore than has WU founder Bill Ayers, who wrote in his memoir “I don’t regret setting bombs,” while another colleague (still in prison) titled his book No Surrender. Patrick Dunleavy, former Deputy Inspector General for New York, brings us up to date: “In recent years, their radicalization has taken a new turn, embracing radical anti-Israel movements . . . [seeing] solidarity between former prisoners in Palestine and former U.S.-held political prisoners.” Ayers, along with his wife and fellow WU founder Bernardine Dohrn, “have both participated in the Viva Palestina movement, led by the U.K.’s George Galloway. Money raised by Viva Palestina was openly given to Hamas. . . . [They] were also involved in helping to organize the Free Gaza Movement shipments sent from Turkey.”12

It is no mere coincidence that “utopia,” coined by Thomas More in 1516 to mean at once eu-topia (good place) and u-topia (nowhere), has come to perfectly mirror socialism: both are considered to be ideally good, and though nowhere fully instantiated, will so be in the future—of course, under the guidance of an altruistic intellectual elite. Nowhere now perhaps, but everywhere soon. Utopia is in again: long live utopia!

Even if one admits, as does the sociologist Erik Olin Wright, that capitalism has not been all bad, why settle for imperfection? A Marxist professor at the University of Wisconsin, Wright has been offering advice on “How to Be an Anticapitalist Today” in the fashionable magazine Jacobin, whose website is visited by over one million viewers per month. After all, writes Wright, “[t]he pivotal issue is not whether material conditions on average have improved in the long run within capitalist economies, but rather whether, looking forward from this point in history, things would be better for most people in an alternative kind of economy.” That alternative is, he doesn’t mind admitting, “Real Utopias”—the name of his university project which “explores a wide range of proposals and models for radical social change.” If “real utopias” sounds oxymoronic, so it is.

It doesn’t matter that the socialist utopias of these radicals have failed to materialize; the radicals on college campuses and beyond seem utterly oblivious to common sense and empirical evidence. Hubristic demagogues incite attacks on the Antichrist-du-jour, the scapegoat of choice, under the lofty banner of political correctness, their epithets of virtue are in fact recycled, long discredited dystopian cant.

Of course, the fight is not over. By no means is this influence in American institutions of higher learning, and in American intellectual life more broadly, inevitable or irreversible—as the existence of groups like the National Association of Scholars amply demonstrates. And for each member of NAS there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of other scholars primarily devoted to learning and sharing the insights that evidence permits with others equally smitten with wonder. Edmund Burke was but one of many who understood that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. But he went a step further, consummate scholar and brilliant pragmatist that he was: “No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavors, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”13 And so associate we have, ready to defend our civilization from its discontents.

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