Politics & Policy

The United States of Anxiety

(Kirill Zdorov/Dreamstime)
Sony brass might be cotton candy, but they are iron men compared with the American college student.

In ten days about 1 million Americans will be gathered in Times Square waiting for a ball to drop, a strange spectacle indeed for a country that seems to be waiting on both of them.

If 2014 had a grand theme, it was testicular absence.

In science fiction, corporations are deathless juggernauts imposing their will on governments and galaxies, but in the real world Sony, one of the most powerful business entities in the world, got cowed into submission by the release of some embarrassing e-mails and threats from hackers acting on behalf of the Evil Kingdom of the Hermit Midgets. Hollywood is forever congratulating itself on its courage for banging on, e.g., the American suburban bourgeoisie, because bourgeois American suburbanites don’t generally resolve disagreements by sawing off heads. But let Kim Jung-un take offense at your dopey Seth Rogen movie and Sony is suddenly a wounded kitten.

You think the Weyland-Yutani Corporation would put up with that nonsense?

James Franco and Seth Rogen and the Sony brass might be man-shaped objects carved out of cotton candy, but they are iron men compared with the American college student. Students at the University of California at Irvine felt the need to avail themselves of the services of grief therapists after the grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for a shooting in Ferguson, Mo., some 1,800 miles away. It’s not like the UCI Anteaters don’t have legitimate reasons for grief – starting with the fact that they are called “Anteaters” — but a no-bill from a grand jury five states away isn’t one of them. Meanwhile at Occidental, students who were receiving class credit to work on Democratic political campaigns were reduced to shambolic mounds of blubbering distress by Republican victories.

Oh, the humanities.

Presumably, Republican students at the University of Michigan also will need trauma counseling after the chairwoman of the of the communications department published an article arguing that “It’s okay to hate Republicans.” But given that Professor Susan J. Douglas chairs the second-most-laughable academic division on campus (there is a school of education), it may be that the sting of her hatred is not unbearable.

At the other end of the academic-respectability spectrum, students at Harvard Law want “trigger warnings” on criminal-law lectures covering sexual assault; some students have requested that such questions be excluded from exams on the grounds that the subject is so traumatic as to cause them to perform less well; others have gone so far as to advise students to ditch classes when the subject comes up and to advocate that sexual-assault law be excluded from the law-school curriculum; other sensitive souls have for similar reasons asked that that the word “violate” be excluded from conversations at the law school – not merely in the sexual context but in the context of statutes and contracts as well. If we call law-breakers “violators,” some are sure to feel offended; but it is as sure that if we called them “offenders” some would say they felt violated. Trying to use the English language to communicate under the conditions these people imagine is like trying to communicate in sign language while wearing oven mitts.

Another Harvard Law student, writing on behalf of all of those Ivy Leaguers troubled by the goings-on in Ferguson and Staten Island, argued that students needed to have their exams delayed. He wrote that “opponents portrayed today’s law students as coddled millennials using traumatic events as an excuse for their inability to focus on a three-hour exam. In essence, law students were told to grow up and learn how to focus amid stress and anxiety — like ‘real’ lawyers must do.”

Grow up? These people need to grow something.

But then products of Harvard Law have never been the gutsiest bunch. While Sony was busy surrendering to North Korea, Harvard Law’s favorite son, Barack Obama, surrendered to Cuba. It’s as if we decided to go back and lose the Cold War but all the Russians were too busy to accept our surrender.

It is difficult to say which would be worse: if the nation were really so populated by fragile twentysomething toddlers so mentally brittle and incurably neurotic that the deployment of a perfectly good verb could send them over the edge into some sort of 1980s concept-album psychic crisis or if instead (and as I expect) all this hysterical insistence upon their emotional vulnerability were simply a passive-aggressive means of exercising control over what is said and thought, over how schools are administered, etc., with the people crying about “trigger alerts” acting simultaneously as hostages and hostage-takers.

Liberal, open societies are always vulnerable to encroachments from illiberal forces with sufficient motivation, whether it’s the totalitarians in Pyongyang, the ones in Riyadh, or the ones in Cambridge, Mass. That’s especially true when elites lose their confidence in such liberal principles as free speech and freedom of conscience. As soon as you accept the premise that a person’s right to free speech (or a professor’s ability to conduct his class) is circumscribed by another person’s “right” not to be offended, then you have jettisoned principle entirely, and all that’s left is brute-force negotiation — a situation in which the partisans of liberty and humaneness always find themselves lamentably outnumbered. And if we’ve learned anything from the waning days of Harry Reid, during which Senate Democrats attempted to repeal the First Amendment, it is that our own elites do not have very much confidence in traditional American liberalism.

And that’s the strange thing: The same people who are forever insisting that we need to have “an honest, open dialogue” about this, that, and the other are at the same time working tirelessly to ensure that we cannot have an open, honest dialogue about anything at all: no jokes about brutal and homicidal dictators, no open discussions of criminal law, no Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — not without a warning label. All of this is an invitation to mockery, assuming we have permission to mock from Dear Leader.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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