The lazy moralism of liberal college politics
Successful efforts to ostracize Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali show the vacuousness of the college political scene
Why do today's college students, professors, and administrators hate powerful women?
That's what first came to mind when I read that Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, had withdrawn as commencement speaker at Smith College after protests by students and faculty. Which came about a week after Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state, backed out of receiving an honorary degree from and speaking at the Rutgers University commencement due to faculty objections. Which came just a few weeks after Brandeis University summarily withdrew its offer of an honorary degree for author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali after Muslim special interest groups denounced her for criticizing Islam's treatment of women.
This isn't about free speech. Universities are free to invite (and then rudely disinvite) anyone they want to their campuses. No one has a right to don a cap and gown and address an audience of thousands under the auspices of an institution of higher learning.
What this is about is the tyranny of right-thinking moralism on college campuses — and how it's facilitated by the brittleness of academic sanctimony, the preciousness of a certain type of student activism, and the craven financial calculus of university administrators.
A different mix of these factors was apparently at play in each case.
Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure, which is obvious to anyone who spends even 10 seconds Googling her name. That she could have been invited to Brandeis to receive an honorary degree without her writings and public stances being thoroughly vetted is inconceivable. What happened, most likely, is that once the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other groups made a stink about the invite, certain members of the university administration began to panic. They stopped acting like people in charge of an educational institution and began to behave like PR flacks.
"Sure, Hirsi Ali has devoted her life to championing the rights and dignity of women, and lived for years under threat of violent reprisal from their oppressors," one can imagine these administrators saying to each other behind closed doors. "But the optics on this are just awful! We're a historically Jewish school, and now we're antagonizing Muslim groups. I don't want to have to explain the bad press to our donors for the next six months."
Maybe they should have thought of that before extending an invitation to her in the first place. Then they could have chosen a nice, safe, scholarly feminist to receive an honorary degree at commencement — someone who antagonizes no one, who takes no personal risks with her ideas, who would never think of imposing her values on other cultures by angrily denouncing the barbarism of genital mutilation, and who would do nothing to rock the academic boat and jeopardize this season's fundraising priorities.
The situation involving Condi Rice, by contrast, is a much more typical case of academic moral grandstanding: liberal and left-wing faculty members strenuously objected to extending a speaking invitation to a leading official in a Republican administration who played an important role in prosecuting a deeply unpopular war and justifying highly controversial methods of interrogation that many describe as torture.
Lord knows, I detested the Iraq War as much as anyone. But you know what? The world is an imperfect and morally complicated place, filled with people who regularly do things I consider wrong, stupid, misguided, foolish, and unethical. That doesn't mean they should be excommunicated, ignored, or banished from public life.
This is especially true when that wrong, stupid, misguided, foolish, or unethical individual also happens to be, as in Rice's case, a very impressive person who's an esteemed scholar and pianist, a former university provost, and someone who has devoted a large chunk of her life to public service. (Yes, service to the administration of George W. Bush still counts.)
Condoleezza Rice is, without question, one of the most accomplished African-American women in U.S. history. And the faculty of Rutgers University has just told her, in effect, to go to hell.
Why is such moral preening so common in the university? Why are professors so prone to ostracize those who they disagree with? Especially when it accomplishes nothing whatsoever beyond convincing the protesters of their own moral superiority?
I don't know the answer. But I do know that when students are repeatedly taught to take precisely these kinds of self-important moral stands, at least some of them listen. This is what appears to have happened at Smith College, where an indeterminate number of undergraduates took aim at the "systems that we are taught to fight against" by opposing the choice of Christine Lagarde, one of the most formidable women in the world, as commencement speaker.
Why did the students object to the head of the IMF speaking at their graduation? Because, as they wrote in their anti-Lagarde petition, "the IMF has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world's poorest countries. This has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide."
I'm not a specialist in the economics of development, so it's hard for me to judge the accuracy of the accusation contained in the first sentence. On the other hand, I doubt the authors of the petition know much more about this extremely technical topic than I do. Though I am quite sure Lagarde knows about 10,000 times more about it than the rest of us combined. Maybe she would have said a few words in defense of her work at the Smith College commencement?
As for the second sentence, it is moral denunciation at its most vacuous and self-enthralled. Do its authors really mean to imply that they think that a world without the IMF — which, remember, provides loans and other forms of economic aid to poor and struggling nations around the world — would somehow have less imperialism, less patriarchy, and less oppression and abuse of women than our own? I, for one, consider it a risible suggestion.
Could the IMF be improved? Probably. Should it be replaced with another organization that would do a better job of helping the developing world? Perhaps.
The point is that getting the IMF's managing director disinvited from a college commencement ceremony brings us not one millimeter closer to either goal. Making that progress would be hard — enormously harder and less instantly gratifying than a passing act of cathartic moral posturing. To be done right, it would require expertise in numerous specialized subject areas and not just the admirable but utterly insufficient desire to make the world a better place.
And that's what might be the most disheartening thing of all about this year's commencement protests — how each of them grows out of a longing to simplify the world, to wish away our conflicts and deny the need to get one's hands dirty. Fighting for the rights of women can be morally messy. The same can be said of serving as America's leading diplomat. And overseeing the global economy.
The Smith students haven't learned this lesson yet. They're too young to have seen the need to put away their childish things.
The same cannot be said of the administrators and faculty members who played a prominent role in the ugliness on all three campuses this year.
What's their excuse?