Politics by Other Means

25 Years Later


David Bromwich

Politics by Other Means had an accidental beginning. An editor at the Atlantic Monthly read two articles I had written about “the canon wars” and asked if I would write a more substantial essay on the humanities and higher education. What was the nature of the conflict between the recent innovations and a course of study based on the Western tradition? What part did ordinary politics play in the curricular battles at Stanford and elsewhere? Was there a new kind of pressure that I could help his readers to understand? As it turned out, the Atlantic wanted a simpler story than I could tell (“Just lay it out: there are two sides, X stands for such and such, Y stands for such and such”), and I took a kill fee rather than revise the argument along the lines suggested. Irving Howe picked up the essay to publish in Dissent, with a few well-advised cuts and clarifications, and a few months later the Atlantic got the piece they wanted. Dinesh D'Souza wrote it — the germ of his book Illiberal Education.

In one respect, the academic left matched the description offered by their accusers. They did hope to improve the justice of American society by molding the attitudes of students. Disagreement with their views was liable, in consequence, to appear censurable as a moral fault; and the result was a new strain of intellectual conformity. But none of this occurred by premeditated design. Rather, as I saw it, the academic left was caught up in a confusion between the single-minded imperative of social amelioration and the duty of scholarship never to exclude inconvenient facts. This contradiction has persisted. I recently heard a teacher admit that she had no answer for a black student who said “I don’t see people like me in the Canterbury Tales.” The appropriate answer to such questions has never varied much. Do white students see people like themselves in Chaucer, or even in Henry James? Lurking under the bafflement in such encounters may be a danger of corruption by pity; and we owe it to students not to be so shaken by compassion that we are embarrassed into silence. The judgment of Panofsky — that liberal education requires the embrace of tradition along with the rejection of arbitrary authority — still expresses for me a central discovery of the Enlightenment. But the freedom of the mind that his axiom enunciates has always been hard to practice.

My sketch of the culture of suspicion and my counter-statement on the good of a non-coercive tradition, roughly the material in chapters 3 and 4 of Politics by Other Means, seemed to me in 1992 the heart of the book. But the first chapter, which canvased some incidents of censorship arising from identity politics, may now have a separate interest, because it foreshadowed the deeper threats of censorship we are seeing in the educational part of campus life. To speak of the educational part of education may seem a tautology - what else is there? But universities and colleges have come to think of themselves as offering a total environment, a “surround,” a society-in-small and (the key word in this set) a community. Letters from the president or provost or a dean of students or faculty will commonly be addressed to members of the community. This is understood to be a community specially defined by an unwritten code of the mutual respect and politeness due to each of its members. Increasingly, that tacit understanding will be supported by a published code that spells out the legitimate expectations of every category of person in the community, and the penalties affixed to a failure of appropriate conduct.

The speech codes that I criticized have proved only the lower layer of an intricate administrative apparatus of ethnic theme-house advisers, cultural affairs coordinators, diversity deans, associate provosts for harassment policy, and so on. What Jeannie Suk and Jacob Gerson call “the sex bureaucracy” — the machinery built up by government directives on Title IX — has been a potent factor in conditioning speech unrelated to sex. Once harassment has been defined as a word, action, or gesture that creates a “hostile work environment,” and once misconduct can be charged against someone who initiates an “unwanted advance” (the offense being chargeable without reference to the standard of what a reasonable person would think), ordinary speech too is fated to become less adventurous and more guarded. White students naturally wonder why they should enter a discussion about civil rights. They might say the wrong thing. The same goes for men talking about women, Muslims talking about Jews, and a great many other identity-crossings.

But the protocols of humility that come with training in the routines of speaker position — speaking as a woman, speaking as a middle-class American, speaking as a person of relative privilege — have been enforced above all by the self-censorship of students. No external mechanism of regulation and punishment has been required; just how this came about remains something of a mystery. If the K-12 teachers of the 2000s were faithful products of the identity politics of the ‘80s, their students on reaching college have gone better by going worse. It is the piety of an energetic faction that drives the concern for saying the right thing in the right way; but the majority accept the new requirements, under the ever-present possibility of reproach and shunning. An outsider can only guess at the broader cultural sources of the collective mood, but the surveillance ethic of social media clearly plays a considerable part. For with the matter-of-fact acceptance of surveillance goes an implicit approval of censorship. Edward Snowden observed that the usual dodge of people who assent to the surveillance regime — “Why should I worry? I have nothing to hide” — is a good deal like saying “Why should I care about free speech since I have nothing to say?” The analogy is fair. People who are used to being surveyed and used to surveying others on social media are likely to think that any speech worth uttering will be approved by their community of sharers and friends. Those outside are of no consequence. Self-censorship is indeed the norm in the speech communities of social media, the price of admission and the index of proper self-care. Also at work in the passage from social media to the expectations of a university community is a paradox of transparency. To know that anything one says might be immediately reported and disseminated, even if it was overheard and not intended as a public remark, kills the appetite for saying something unusual.

To be exposed to a possibly offensive word, without preparation, has been likened to a sudden blow, a physical injury. Therapeutic and educational authorities have been found to back the theory that such unpleasant surprises actually inflict a psychic wound as painful and durable as a physical injury. Psychosomatic trauma, induced by words and other inanimate objects, has thus been educationally certified as a genuine malady; and once the diagnosis was publicized, sufficient numbers of young people were found to exhibit the relevant symptoms. On encountering a painting, a statue, or a name on a building that is judged to mark a person or tendency “on the wrong side of history,” students have complained of being haunted, overshadowed, deprived of the capacity to sleep or work in the presence of the detested object, which has become for them a symbol. And the damage that adverse “symbolism” can do has been vouched for by university authorities.

A symbol, according to theology, that may carry literal force for the believer, partakes of the substantial essence of the thing symbolized. The Christian sacraments are the obvious example. That such literalism should haunt the waking lives of secular undergraduates testifies to a return of superstition. And yet superstition in just this sense was allied to the irrational sway of custom and prejudice that the Enlightenment sought to eradicate. Superstition endows an ordinary object with a more-than-natural ability to create awe and aversion. Or it ascribes physical powers to a non-physical object, such as a name. Superstition embodies the most stubborn kind of prejudice because it denies the possibility of a rational explanation of cause and effect. It is also the most dangerous kind of prejudice for a society partly founded on a trust in persuasion, because it raises against persuasion itself the a priori barrier of dogma. If a public speaker constitutes in himself a site of impurity and an imminent danger of pollution, the only safe response is to prevent his crossing the boundary that protects the community from his words.

Current doubts about the principle of free speech on campus - often genteelly phrased as not wanting to take free speech to an extreme - spring from a superstitious failure to credit the distinction between persuasion and force. We know that a man who carries a gun to recommend the soundness of his views is different from the same man without the gun. A mob shouting down a speaker it deems obnoxious is different from several members of the same crowd asking pointed questions of the speaker. The opponents of free speech recognize no practical distinction between the two sorts of situation. Certain words, they believe, can inflict harm as surely as weapons, and so the words must be forbidden; the removal of a speaker from a platform does the same work as a series of challenges to his argument, but it does the work faster. Yet to reject the distinction between persuasion and force is to nullify the unique character of an educational institution, as distinct from, say, a religious commune. The commune is bound to enforce certain prohibitions on conduct: these make the elements of a code, obedience to which is a prerequisite for inclusion, and violation of which must be punished by expulsion. Can a university afford to promise students a sentimental community with prohibitions no less rigorous?

Mill in On Liberty noticed how Victorian censors avowed their readiness to tolerate speech they deemed socially responsible. So, too, academic censors in our time have no hesitation endorsing what they call “productive speech.” The aim is to spare the impressionable young the irritation and trouble-of-mind that come from exposure to unproductive speech. But who is to say which is which? The poems of E. E. Cummings, absent from the English curriculum of the 1920s, went far to form the sensibility of the English teachers of the 1960s. Allen Ginsberg was expelled when he wrote “Fuck the Jews” in the dust coating of a window pane at Columbia University, and now they read “Howl” at West Point. Still, where doctrine and not only language is in dispute, we may think that we can properly assume we are right to forbid opinions that we know to be pernicious. Mill replied that any regime of censorship commits itself to “assuming very much more,” and he went on to say: “There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” How does this radical principle apply to the recent proliferation of banned images, banned speakers, codes of conduct and prescribed penalties for misconduct? The habit of searching out enemy utterances and shaming them on social media surely has an effect the reverse of enlightening.

A university is a community of scholars: a different thing from a club, a cooperative learning group, or a society for the promotion of virtue. An exaggerated emphasis on the benefits of the university as an alternative community, not really defined by teaching and learning, has made the censorship of wrong opinions seem a natural feature of campus life. A community, if we could find it, whose essence was understood to be a practice of non-intellectual decency and neighborly courtesy, would of course be better than the accidental communities we grew up in. It would be better to just the extent that it was more visibly unified. But a scholarly community owes its integrity to the divisions of opinion and judgment it both fosters and tolerates.

Acquiescence in the demand for a community of agreeable and agreeing persons runs a separate risk for the society at large. We may sponsor a generation of docile but weak and irresponsible citizens. They will be unprepared for the duties of constitutional democracy since they do not trust words to defend them against words. This danger is not fanciful: we are seeing a social movement of iconoclasm and purification on many fronts. In August 2017, the launching of a broad campaign to scour American schools and cities of Civil War monuments was described by left-liberal outlets as part of “a conversation,” but in fact there has been very little discussion. What we are seeing is an enthusiastic outbreak of preventive ethics.

In 1992, I suggested that the intensity of the reformation inside the academy was proportionate to the sense of impotence at the defeat of political reform in the Reagan years. Maybe another such parallel must be drawn to explain the vehemence of the present mood of purification. There is always a time lag between the ideas people have about social and political life, on the one hand, and the institutions they have inherited to give a structure to the conduct of life. Institutions often fail to keep pace with new ideas; as often, our self-image cannot follow the changes (induced by technology for example) in the institutions by which we live and work. Social media have built up a society of “reactions” which do the work of opinions, from day to day and almost from hour to hour. Meanwhile, in the background for Americans has been a nameless anxiety. The contest of the North Atlantic democracies against fascism and communism occupied the mid-century decades, and after it ended in triumph, around 1990, we were promised the repose of a benign empire — an empire destined perhaps never to end — in which capitalism and reason would govern the world. The first era lasted half a century. The second, in order to afford much comfort, should have lasted as long. It was stopped - not by an event exactly but by the American choice of how to define an event - in 2001. The epoch of world peace to be ushered in by capitalism and democracy closed in barely a decade.

We have now entered a third phase in which it seems quite clear that the unipolar moment will not come. The dollar may be the global anchor currency for another generation, if we are lucky, and the US may continue to wield the most powerful military in the world, but the election of Donald Trump, and the enormous fragility of the party system which it exposed, is a source of disenchantment today whose effects we have not yet begun to digest. One would like to think that the universities could provide an example of honest intellectual grappling and supply the equipment of ideas to render us “not helplessly strange to the new conditions.” But for the moment they, too, are shocked and disoriented and, like the country itself, the captives of reflexes more than a generation old.

Andrew Young has said of the activists of public safety that they “don’t realize what still enslaves them, and it’s not those monuments… What worries me is that this country will turn to the right, so that it will be taking down Martin Luther King’s statue next when the racist majority takes over. And I’m saying that a minority can’t be provoking a racist majority that is still underemployed, undereducated, and dying faster than we are. That the issue is life and death — not some stupid monument.” Voices from the academy should be capable of speaking as sharply. The truth is that most public art of all kinds is junk, and many things in life are best left alone, especially dead things that matter to some of the living whose sentiments differ from your own. Besides, rituals of mass purification only lead to more purification. To organize for the improvement of the local, state, and national infrastructure, or for the withdrawal of the United States from the destructive and unnecessary wars that have lasted almost two decades, would call for exertions different in kind from the energies required to tear down a statue. I am not sure this adds much to the remarks that concluded Politics by Other Means. I am not sure that the nature of the problem has essentially changed.