Huey Long was once asked whether he thought fascism could ever come to America. His answer was "Yeah, but it'll come calling itself anti-fascism." America isn't close to such a future, but I couldn't help thinking about Long's comment in connection with an episode that occurred recently at my alma mater.
The occasion was a conference at Columbia University, scheduled by a conservative organization called Accuracy in Academia. The conference title was "A Place at the Table: Conservative Ideas in Higher Education" and its purpose was to highlight the lack of intellectual diversity in the highly politicized environments of academic institutions like Columbia. Among the announced speakers were two university trustees, Ward Connerly and Candace DeRussy, as well as Dinesh D'Souza, the urbane author of "Illiberal Education."
The ceremonies were to begin with a Friday evening dinner, addressed by Connerly, who is currently heading a national civil rights campaign. Connerly was coming off an important victory at the polls Nov. 3, when Washington state became only the second (after California) to ban racial preferences. According to Accuracy in Academia president Dan Flynn, 140 students and professors attended the dinner, which was held in the East Room of Columbia's Faculty House.
But guess who else came to that dinner? The mere presence of Connerly, who expresses ideas the campus left doesn't want to hear, was enough to rouse 100 raucous radicals into action. They threw up a picket line outside the dinner and hurled obscenities and racial epithets at those entering the building. Keep in mind that these students, like Columbia itself, had previously welcomed such rabid antisemites and racial demagogues as Khalid Muhammad, and had honored unrepentant Communists like Angela Davis, who in a recent appearance at Michigan State told students that the main problem in the world was white people. Columbia not only welcomes such race-haters, but pays them handsomely out of student funds to propagate their bigotry.
By contrast, the conservative conference featured no rabble-rousers, no hate-agendas, and actually paid the university $11,000 to hold its event on campus.
In a healthy academic environment, a university administration might be expected to respond to the outrage that took place at Columbia by disciplining students who abused the free speech privileges of others, and who posed a threat to public safety. But these days, such thoughts are far from the minds of university administrators whose profiles, as Peter Collier has observed, are a cross between Saul Alinsky and Neville Chamberlain.
In fact, the decision taken that very night by Columbia's president, who is also chairman of the Association of American Universities, was exactly the opposite of what it should have been. President George Rupp's solution to the problem created by the presence of the demonstrators was to ban those who had registered for the conference from attending the sessions the following day. As security guards were placed at the entrance to Columbia's Faculty House, its director, John Hogan, piously explained that the action was wholly consistent with free speech because only the audience -- and not the speakers -- were subject to the order.
It's a nice distinction: You can talk, but nobody will be allowed to listen.
Evicted by the university, the event organizers decided to move the conference to neighboring Morningside Park, but the Ivy League mob followed them there. The first speaker, D'Souza, was shouted down by chants of "Ha! Ha! You're Outside/We Don't Want Your Racist Lies."
Demonstrators held up signs that read: ACCESS DENIED, WE WIN: RACISTS NOT ALLOWED AT COLUMBIA, and THERE'S NO PLACE AT THE TABLE FOR HATE. Which shows just how out of touch the protesters were with their own reality. But then so was the Columbia administration. An official brochure tells visitors that "Columbia University prides itself on being a community committed to free and open discourse and to tolerance of differing views." Orwell couldn't have said it better.
A distressing aspect of the Columbia incident has been the absence of almost any public commentary on the event from civil libertarians, from public officials or from the nation's press. Imagine the uproar if Randall Terry and his Operation Rescue squads had surrounded a campus abortion clinic and attempted to harass and intimidate those who entered, and if the president of an Ivy League school had ordered his security forces to block the entrance to the clinic, while a college official explained that no one was interfering with the right of anyone to perform an abortion, just barring anyone who wanted one from entering.
The demonstrators had their intended effect. The attack was geared to strike fear into the hearts of the student community, and to further marginalize the ideas of conservatives in the academic world, which it effectively did. One student who registered for the event, but decided not to attend, explained to the organizers, "I did not attend the conference for a number of reasons, the most important being that I did not feel it would be good for my academic future and safety." Elsewhere, similar intimidations have produced similar results. While 55 percent of Californians voted to end racial preferences in the state two years ago, the faculty senate at the University of California at Berkeley, in a public vote, lined up 152-2 in support of such discrimination. Does anyone imagine that the fear of collegial ostracism did not play a large role in this otherwise unfathomable ratio?
The incipient fascism that erupted at Columbia did not spring from the heads of a few campus idiots. It was a logical consequence of decades of university pandering to radical intimidationists and campus criminals who regularly assault property, persons and reputations, and almost always get what they want. In the last 30 years, under the pressures of the left, campuses have moved a long way toward endorsing the proposition that the ends justify the means. If the cause is just, it's all right to ruin reputations with loose charges of racism, sexual harassment or rape. If the goal is racial equality, it's all right to discriminate. If the ideas are right, it's OK to silence anyone who disagrees.
This brown-shirt activism is intellectually supported by the spread of anti-liberal ideas in the academic curriculum by the postmodernists of the tenured left. As I have pointed out in a newly published book, "The Politics of Bad Faith," the most powerful intellectual influences in the academy derive from the intellectual traditions of Marxism and European fascism. Identity politics, coupled with fashionable Nietzschean clichés about the will to power, form the core of current ideological fashions among campus radicals. But what is this but the fascist politics of the Volk? The intellectual left of the '90s, it turns out, owes more to Mussolini than to Marx.
There is even a schism within the left over these issues -- between the identity racialists and "postmodern" irrationalists on the one hand, and an older generation of "neo-Enlightenment" leftists who have been manfully defending class analysis and -- mirabile dictu -- reason itself. The most prominent of these critics are Alan Sokal, Todd Gitlin, Eric Hobsbawm and Michael Tomasky. But at the political ground level, they are a beleaguered force, simply balding Cassandras crying in the wilderness amid the fiercer and more numerous passions of the young. In the ideological war zone, as the Columbia outrage shows, identity politics rule. And identity politics, based on racial and gender categories, and on nihilistic assumptions that power is all, culminate in a posture in which the rules of civility and democratic process are dismissed as so much mystification, mere obstacles to the coming social redemption. This is the stuff that totalitarian dreams are made of.
Ironically, and despite the continental provenance of much of its Weltanschauung, identity radicalism also incorporates a profound element of American mischief. At its heart is an American individualism of the solipsistic, arrogant, community-be-damned kind. The intellectual currents of identity politics began to blossom, after all, during the Me Decade, so it should hardly be surprising if they give expression to a conquering, devouring American ego unrestrained by any social contract. Me, me, my, my -- my rights, my pain, my rage über alles. So blinded are these campus bands of the self-righteous and the self-absorbed they don't even notice the cognitive dissonance in a bunch of privileged white guys and gals hurling racial epithets at a Ward Connerly -- in origin a poor black from the segregated South -- or a Dinesh D'Souza -- an Indian immigrant to these shores.
All this in the name of social justice for people of color! Huey Long would recognize it for what it is, and so would George Orwell.