Conformity's Newest Guise

By , Keith C. Burris is an editorial writer for the Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

THE neoconservative critique of campus orthodoxies is not a criticism of the idea of intellectual smugness per se - but of the wrong smugness. The real fight on campus now is not over classical substance versus relativist fluff, but over who gets to establish the codes of acceptable thought. The critics who deplore dogmatic leftists apt to shut down debate on the campus are the same ones who have shut down debate in other circles. They dictate the orthodoxies of the magazines, the political parties, the foundations, and the think tanks. On the campuses it may be politically correct to favor race-norming, gender norming, abortion, feminism, and all manner of disarmament. But among American yuppies and managers, affirmative action is out, conspicuous compassion is laughable, and quick and dirty wars are de rigueur. Yes, there have been cases like essayist Edward Hoagland denied tenure at Bennington College because he was supposedly homophobic (which he does not seem to be). But that is more a peculiar American desire for certainty than of the power of gays. What is really happening on campus is not a McCarthy-like purge of conservatives. Conservative legal and economic scholars are doing quite well for themselves. Nor are the American young being brainwashed into Maoism and an unnatural affection for Joan Baez. In fact, faculty are profoundly depressed at how little influence they have on students - who vote and think Republican. The academic culture influences students far less than the dominant culture, which is a modification of the Reagan totems: government is the problem; private enterprise is the solution; America has done enough for the poor; the world should be thankful for a kick by the United States now and then. The campus culture is so far behind in the battle for hearts and minds that one wonders why the dominant culture worries. The left may have the power on campuses, but so what? The campus has merely isolated the left and allowed it to wallow in irrelevance. MEANWHILE, is the neoconservative culture that dominates popular society producing tolerant, civilized citizens? Hardly. American social and public life is more thoughtless and anti-intellectual. The new conservatives squandered their hard-won hold on power. There is something wrong with eggheads forever thinking up new ways to justify weapons and greed. They make Mr. Reagan seem almost refreshing. True, the pathetic and cheap narcissism of TV talk shows, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings books, and "sensitivity training" seem to trivialize almost every aspect of American life. But the ethics of all this pap serve the cult of numero uno; it is the other side of Reaganism or Reaganism is the other side of it. It is true that the women's movement, and now the men's movement, are cultish. It is true that millions of abortions a year in a rich society is a sign of profound moral idiocy. And it is true that thousands of children are now being robbed of decent childhoods by substandard and, as it must seem to them, endless hours in child care. But are we to believe that the cure for American materialism will come from the champions of the death penalty, leveling Iraq, and supply-side economics? Politically correct thinking is not the new McCarthyism but the same old conformity Tocqueville warned of 150 years ago. It is the same mind-deadening search for easy certainties about the complexities of social life. It is the desire to find comfort in group- think, in ideology, not ideas. It is the desire to reduce literature, science, even religious faith to the status of a how-to manual. There are two large schools of conformist thinking today. One, heaven help us, rules the National Security Council. The other rules college English departments. There can be little doubt that the one that has done more harm is the one of power; the one now warning us of intolerance on campus. But the other has damaged us too, by preferring vague feelings to careful thought. Americans have ignored the life of the mind. We prefer exploring the requirements of the self. That, and not a new McCarthy bogeyman, is the ultimate reason why talk on campus is cheap.

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