Banned Books Week 2010 Poster

The idea depicted in this American Library Association poster is increasingly dismissed at university campuses as students refuse to hear challenging commencement speakers.

The Internet is a beacon of intellectual freedom to some. But for others it provides an easy means to organize attacks on anyone they do not wish to hear.

Attacks by students and faculty on proposed commencement speakers and recipients of honorary degrees at four well-known schools — Smith, Haverford, Rutgers and Brandeis — have, in commentator Roger Simon’s words, “ tarnished this year’s commencement season beyond any in recent memory.”

Speakers as distinguished as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, former Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been forced to withdraw even as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the most courageous fighters of oppression on the planet, had to walk from her honorary degree from a university established in the shadow of the Holocaust. Go figure.

What next? The Bill of Rights gets repealed? An academic “War on Women”? (Three of the four attacked are female.) A new generation of undergraduate Brown Shirts comes back from 1930s Berlin to smash every college window and burn every school library book by unapproved authors in a renewed Kristallnacht?

These proposed speakers and honorees were not driven from the campuses; they sensibly withdrew when they spotted the gathering brownshirts. Note: Brownshirts are political thugs bent on suppressing civil liberties or ideas they disapprove via noisy demonstrations, hinting at violence to come. The term was first used to describe Nazi street theatre in the 1920s. Today’s brownshirts rely heavily on new media to organize.

Arts faculties bear heavy responsibility for this problem. Many seem to have abandoned the intellectual life. Indeed, instead of arguing about issues, they insist on “Check your privilege.” That is, “You only say that because you are a … ”, or—put another way—“I am wasting my time and everyone else’s at a university because I am incapable of rational argument about things I care about.”

A law professor, corresponding with one of them, neatly captured the attitude of one such student, who protested his disagreement with a campus policy:

“Dear Dr. Adams: I was perhaps struck most by the tone of your rhetoric, which was both angry and fearful.”

The opening line of her response is typical of today’s college graduate in at least two specific ways. First, there is the tendency to respond to the tone rather than the substance of an argument. Second, there is the tendency to project motives of anger and fear onto others simply because they hold a different opinion. Gone are the days when we evaluated arguments. Today we evaluate emotions. This is particularly the case when sexual orientation is either directly or tangentially related to the topic at hand.

So where are we now? On the arts side, self-involved piffle now counts for education, and on the science side we so often find mere technocracy. To invoke H. G. Wells’s Time Machine (1895), a story of a dismal future, one can’t blame the Morlocks (the technocrats) for despising the Eloi (the artsies). But both societies are utter failures.

Next: “Trigger” warnings on literature.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, below, had her offer of an honorary doctorate withdrawn, due to pressure because she regards herself as an ex-Muslim. She would be a hard act to follow, a harder one to replace, if quality mattered. But, increasingly, perhaps, it doesn’t:

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...