A protester was shot at the University of Washington during a clash between rival factions — one faction physically blocking an audience from hearing a speech, the other faction seeking to hear a rabble-rousing orator.
The orator was Milo Yiannopoulos, a leading spokesman for the alt-right movement, a revitalized and muscularized version of nationalist and populist politics long submerged in American politics.
Outside the auditorium, blocs of red-wearing Trump supporters and black-wearing anarchists and others faced each other (unconsciously updating Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black.) The man who was shot was apparently a peacemaker, placing himself in the middle of the verbally-abusing and pushing-and-shoving factions.
The victim’s positioning was unfortunate, as there is little “middle” left in our polarized political times.
And it is symbolic that the shooting took place at a university, because it was precisely at universities the battle for civility was lost.
A generation ago in universities we had vigorous debates about truth, justice, freedom, and equality. The governing premise was that through argument rational people could fine-tune their grasp of the facts and test the logic of their theories. The process would often be contentious. Yet with professors and students committed to a baseline civility, it would be cognitively progressive.
But the leading professors of the new era — Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty among them — undercut that entire process. Facts, they argued, are merely subjective constructs and masks for hidden power agendas. Over the next generation the words “truth,” “justice,” “freedom,” and “equality” began to appear exclusively in ironic scare quotes.
“Everything,” declared post-modern professor Fredric Jameson, “is political.” And absent facts, argued post-modernist Frank Lentricchia, the professor’s task is transformed from truth-seeker to political activist: in the classroom he should “exercise power for the purpose of social change.”
We live in the resulting postmodern intellectual culture, with an entire generation (mis-)educated to see politics not as a cooperative quest for the realization of human rights — but as a ceaseless clash of adversarial groups each committed to its own subjectivist values. Feminist groups versus racial groups versus wealth groups versus ethic groups versus sexuality groups versus an open-ended number of increasingly hostile and Balkanized subdivisions.
Thus we have a generation populated with biologically mature people who lack the psychological maturity to handle debate and occasional political loss — at the same time convinced of the absolute subjective necessity of asserting their goals in a hostile, victimizing social reality.
As reasonable discussion declined in universities, physicalist tactics quickly replaced them. Arguments about principles were replaced with routine ad hominem attacks. Letters of invitation to guest lecturers prompted threats of violence. The heckling of speakers turned to shouting them down. Picketing protests became intentional obstruction.
And now we get the the inevitable backlash as other, rival factions learn the new rules and steel themselves for engagement.
Yiannopoulos himself is a product of post-modern culture, as it was he who exultingly coined the phrase “post-fact era” to describe how politics now works. He is proving himself an effective player of that brand of political activism.
Yet the governing ethic of our political culture is not a lost cause, as large swathes of the American populace are still committed to the core democratic-republican civic virtues of robust debate, free speech, tolerance — and of being both a good loser and a good winner. A fractious election brought out many of the worst among us. But journalistic headlines aside, our choice is not only between the tactics of post-modern political correctness and those of alt-right populism. Our leading intellectuals, especially those within universities who are training the next generation of leaders, must also teach the genuinely liberal-education alternative.