After a generation-long attempt at social engineering on college campuses, it appears that leftist thought reformers have met with a rather decisive student response. Mandatory “civility” and “tolerance” codes have been derided and rejected in practice. Efforts to re-engineer relationships between the sexes into the bloodless transactional model favored by so many feminist activists have foundered. There has been no wave of student protest against either of America’s two “imperialist” wars. And not even a force as powerful as Barack Obama in his political prime could lead this new generation of students to emulate their baby-boomer parents in political activism and passion.
Should conservatives take heart at this nascent student rebellion? Should we cheer the demise of “tolerance” in student culture and mock professors’ increasingly desperate calls for a new generation of student activism? Not when the source of student apathy is the primacy of their personal party schedule, and the face of the resistance is a gaggle of drunken, slobbering students stumbling back to the dorm after their fourth night of binge drinking in a week.
Millions of college students have answered political correctness with hedonism, defying feminist and multiculturalist scolds with hoisted beer glasses and libraries full of Girls Gone Wild DVDs. If this is the current state of student rebellion (and it is), then it’s terrible news for our culture and a disaster for conservatism. It is the rejection of one form of vice (leftist thought control) for other, equally destructive vices that will have enduring, negative effects on our civil society.
On August 26, 2009, North Carolina State University hosted a preview screening of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, a movie inspired by the life of Tucker Max, Duke Law School grad, blogger, and hero to mindless hedonists everywhere. The event was protested by campus feminists and packed to capacity with adoring fans, men and women alike. Jay Schalin of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy described Max’s rebellious role well:
Perhaps the unintended consequence of feminism is that the best qualities of men have been cast aside for the worst. No longer is the ideal the “strong, silent type” who upholds decency and the law. No longer is the ideal the men who jumped into the icy waters to attack the Nazi stronghold at Normandy during World War II, nor the unflappable, resilient leader who refuses to be unnerved under pressure. Nor is it even the countless honorable men who do unpleasant jobs everyday to put food on the table for their families.
In its place, the feminist movement has sought to impose a new male ideal — one that is less aggressive, more emotional, and subservient to women. But a large portion of the newer generation of college males have been so alienated by these feminist constraints that, without the traditional model in place, they have adopted the worst part of their own natures — sexual predation, abusive and juvenile humor, and contempt for basic standards of civility — as the new masculine ideal.
And while campus feminists reject this masculine response, many campus women seem to feel differently. Schalin continues:
It would also appear that many young women are buying into this new concept of masculinity as well. There were far more women in the audience — between one-third and one-half — than there were protestors on the sidewalk. Many of them were dressed for attention (Max leeringly told one young woman wearing a revealing outfit “now that’s how you dress for a movie like this”), and several prefaced their questions to him with comments such as “I love you,” and “I want to be you.”
With the latest research showing that four in ten college students are binge drinkers, and with the “hookup culture” continuing unabated, it may be time for conservatives to recalibrate their campus critiques. Yes, we should continue to decry (and challenge) speech codes, thought-reform programs, and threats to free association, but we need to challenge with equal vigor the warped alternatives presented by the Tucker Maxes of the world. For conservatives, it would be a hollow victory indeed if we decisively defeated the ideologues only to make the world safe for the Thursday-to-Sunday party circuit.
The answer to both totalitarianism and hedonism is, of course, ordered liberty — the connection of freedom to moral responsibility and a sense of duty. Ordered liberty rejects the de jure limits to freedom so favored by the campus Left. No speech codes. No compelled speech. No mandatory thought reform. But ordered liberty also rejects hedonism. Writing for the Acton Institute, Michael Joyce rightly highlighted Pope John Paul II’s thoughts on proper American self-government:
John Paul identified several critical features of American self-government: that it is rooted in a view of human nature governed by self-evident truths that are fixed forever in the human person by “nature’s God”; that the political consequence of human truth is an irrefutable case for self-government, so long as our freedom is shaped and ordered by moral and civic virtue; and that we come to be fully human, fully moral, and fully free only within “natural units or groupings” — family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association — which we form to pursue the higher purposes of life.
Sadly, even as campus feminists protest Tucker Max, they often work for outright bans of some of the last campus advocates of ordered liberty. As a result, Christian and social-conservative organizations are forced to fight an exhausting two-front battle — a legal fight against speech codes and expansive “nondiscrimination” policies imposed by the faculty and administration, and a moral fight against the hedonism lived by the bulk of their fellow students.
There is no doubt that, as the advocates of ordered liberty charge the ramparts of campus culture, there will be cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them. After all, if there is one thing that a feminist and a hedonist can agree on, it’s that traditional virtues are a real buzzkill.
– David French is a senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund and director of its Center for Academic Freedom.