Madness and Civilization

Aug 05, 2011 |  Peter Wood

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Madness and Civilization

Aug 05, 2011 | 

Peter Wood

Anders Behring Breivik, the bomber and gunman who carried out the massacres in Norway last week, posted a 1,500-page manifesto to the Internet 90 minutes before he went on his rampage. As has been widely reported, Breivik’s manifesto, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, cites with approbation numerous American organizations and bloggers.

The New York Times’s initial story on this ran under the headline “Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.Times columnist Ross Douthat followed up in an op-ed, “A Right-Wing Monster,” that more accurately captured the breadth of Breivik’s meanderings. This madman apparently spent years gleaning and compiling material that he believed buttressed his hatred of multiculturalism.

Fairly early in the document in a section titled, “The Movement for Academic Reform,” Breivik mentions the National Association of Scholars. This is the entirety of what he says:

Now that alternative newspapers and organisations dedicated to academic reform are spreading the word, the larger communities that surround our institutions of higher education are getting more involved in serious academic reform. For example, the National Association of Scholars is encouraging university trustees to take a more active and vocal role in opposing the excesses of political correctness. Efforts of this type must be expanded and intensified.

Had this sentence appeared in a news story in The Chronicle of Higher Education or The Washington Post, or in an opinion essay someplace, I would have taken it as a bland statement of fact. But appearing as it does in the icy deliberations of a man plotting mass homicide, the sentence induces a certain nausea.

Breivik didn’t actually write the paragraph I quoted:  he plagiarized it.  The original appears in a book by T. Kenneth Cribb, Political Correctness:  A Short History of an Ideology (2004), from a chapter titles, “Political Correctness in Higher Education.”  Breivik stole a lot more from Cribb’s book, taking trouble only to Europeanize some spellings (“organisations”for “organizations”) and to substitute a few words, e.g. “Europeans” where Cribb had written “Americans.”

When I first learned that Breivik had mentioned NAS, I was incredulous. I now see that NAS is one of hundreds of authorities he cited to give a semblance of rationality and coherence to his rage. Breivik has a variety of well-known symptoms of a certain kind of paranoia. As the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders puts it: “unrealistic grandiose fantasies are often attuned to issues of power and rank, and tend to develop negative stereotypes of others, particularly those from population groups distinct from their own.” To these might be added “hypergraphia,” that manic compulsion to write that Breivik’s manifesto manifests, as well as hyper-rationality—his no less manic effort to make all the pieces of the world fit into his imaginary universe.

This is of course a non-expert’s comments. Presumably the Norwegian psychiatrists will have plenty of time and opportunity to diagnose Breivik. But from any layman’s perspective, the man is as mad as he is evil.

That still doesn’t entirely remove the sting of seeing him appropriate the name of my organization or arguments about the academic freedom and the importance of Western civilization that I have helped to frame and promote over the years. What is the proper response when a madman borrows your words and goes on a rampage?  To start, we have put out a press release.

Another part of my response, unfortunately, has to be anticipation that opponents of NAS will unscrupulously attempt to blame the organization and to discredit its ideas by implying with various degrees of artfulness that the organization or the ideas come down to inciting right-wing terrorism. Forcing an organization to defend itself against such a charge is all by itself a tactic aimed at discrediting its ideas, rather than debating them. It would be nice to think that higher education is free of this sort of unscrupulous attack, but it isn’t.

I expect Breivik’s mention of our name will only stimulate the appetite of those who mistake character assassination and conspiracy theory for sound arguments. This is a larger issue, not confined to higher education, but it has a lot to do with the tenor of contemporary academic debate, which is often marred by efforts to stigmatize, to intimidate, and to silence opponents. The university cannot, of course, bring an end to these low-road tactics all on its own, but it should take the lead in showing a better way.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on July 28.

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