Tuesday, March 04, 2014

the death of reason

Is there anything better than swapping tales with old friends?

There may be.  But sharing stories over dinner has long been one of my guilty pleasures.

Last night Ken, Patti, and I were having dinner at The Ram (a chain that is vaguely reminiscent of the pub near the law school we attended together), and the topic of student protests on campus came up.  More specifically, student protests against speakers.

You know the rather sad litany.  If a small group of students can mold their moral indignation into a frenzy loud enough to cow their betters in the academic administration, the invited speaker will be unfriended by the university.

The classic example occurred last October.  A group of radical students at Brown University, with voices stronger than their reason, shouted down a speech by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. 

Kelly was there to argue why New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy has deterred crime.  But his argument was never heard.  He was repeatedly shouted down by students who must have learned their rhetorical skills from either the Red Guard or the Nazi Youth.

It was not always so.  Ken was an undergraduate at the University of Montana in 1974.  John Dean, fresh from the aftermath of Watergate, had been invited to speak before several thousand students at the university.

Dean came to the stage, set aside his speech, and announced that he would like to speak directly to the audience about their concerns, rather than deliver a set speech.  The organizer had provided index cards for questions.

As if on cue, about a dozen students marched forward following a sociology professor -- placards in hand.  They were the Montana Socialist Party – as Monty Pythonesque as that sounds.

They mounted the stage as if they were storming the ramparts of the Bastille.  Dean moved away from the microphone, and the professor ranted on about the inappropriateness of having a known felon address the university audience.  He then built himself into a frenzy of moral indignation and challenged Dean to donate his honorarium to the poor people of Missoula.

Nonplussed, Dean took the microphone and agreed to the challenge -- if the professor could show that he had donated his last pay check to the poor people of Missoula.  The Montana Socialist Party slunk away to the exits.

That story sums up why fascist-minded students would rather shout down their opponents than engage in actual debate.  They too often show up to a knife fight with a glob of organic goat cheese.

There is no doubt that some people who show up at universities have controversial ideas.  That is what universities are supposed to be -- places to think through ideas.  To learn why we believe what we do.  Universities are where the First Amendment should be accorded its full practical application. 

As John Dean proved at Ken’s school, when freedom of speech is given its head, the fatuous can easily be winnowed from the truth.  That may be why students, who are not educated in rhetoric, can only destroy rather than build. 

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