Every year, the William F. Buckley Jr. Society at Yale, founded by Lauren Noble, honors a public figure who was “disinvited” from a college campus. The speaker might have been shouted down at the podium, or his invitation might have been rescinded before carnage could ensue.
Past honorees include George Will, Charles Murray, Raymond Kelly, and Peter Thiel, each of whom has been kicked off at least one campus. Will had suggested in a column that colleges were making their students hypersensitive and inclined to feel like victims. (What could have given him that idea?) Murray had written in a book that racial differences in intelligence might to some extent be hereditary. Former NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly supported the “racist” stop-and-frisk policy. And Peter Thiel was forced to leave a 2014 speech at UC Berkeley by students shouting “No police state!” and “Black lives matter!” But it’s not clear what the students thought Mr. Thiel had to do with any of that.
This year, the honoree was Henry Kissinger, shouted down at NYU by students who called him a war criminal and a Nazi. Which is ironic, considering that in the days of the actual Nazis, Kissinger was serving in the 84th Infantry Division and receiving the Bronze Star for tracking down Gestapo officers. Ho hum.
And while there is something predictable in students’ childish glee at expunging popular conservative writers from their campi, an attack on the 95-year-old Kissinger seems like an attack on learning history — they might as well throw their textbooks out the window.
Just last week, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he’d been disinvited from Concordia University after he was accused of “trafficking” in “discredited philosophies.” He observes that his banishment is easy to understand if you discard the notion that speech has anything to do with the exchange of ideas. If, like these students, you instead view speech as an expression of power — whether one is talking or just screaming — then the natural thing is to prevent your opponents from opening their mouths in the first place.
Kissinger would call this a tactical victory, where the object is to defeat your enemies not by changing minds but by canceling the debate.
Kissinger’s student critics say he is a war criminal who had a role in “multiple atrocities worldwide,” most especially his “well-known role in prolonging the Vietnam War.” Those are quotations from an article published this February by students at MIT, who were then running their own (unsuccessful) disinvitation campaign. But the students who object so strenuously to Kissinger’s “war crimes” are the same students who wear Che Guevara t-shirts and quote Mao. They do not criticize (or are unaware of) North Vietnam’s mass-murder campaign following the American withdrawal.
So what these students really object to is not anything Kissinger has done or is supposed to have done — they object to him as a representative of Western culture, and of the belief that Western culture and civilization are a positive good to be protected and preserved.
In his remarks at the Disinvitation Dinner, Kissinger pointed out that the First World War destroyed Europe’s confidence and sense of purpose, and that Europe has never recovered. A society needs great objectives to which it can apply itself with conviction, instead of being “obsessed with its own shortcomings.”
The students who object to Kissinger’s presence on campus are emblematic of this loss of confidence, and of that obsession. They hate the West (and in particular the United States) for suppressing and oppressing other cultures, ranging from the American Indians to the Communist Chinese.
But these students’ admiration and even espoused preference for non-Western cultures is not just a loss of confidence. It is also, oddly enough, an expression of belief in the universality of Western values. Because what these students are really saying is that they believe every culture has the same basic desires that we have: that all cultures want security and prosperity and are willing to respect the rights and interests of other cultures pursuing the same thing. This, as Kissinger writes in World Order, was the basis of our nuclear deal with Iran: Our assumption that what Iran really wants “is to negotiate in good faith on the premises of existing order and arrive at a reasonable conclusion.” We assume, in other words, that other cultures will think as we think, want what we want, and work with us towards this shared goal.
In this view, all cultures are basically Western in their desires, and are distinguishable from us only by their different traditions in language, clothing, or food — which is perhaps why these items are always the culprit in cases of “cultural appropriation.”
And this is an exceptionally, almost disarmingly naïve approach. I recently learned how a liberal friend of mine from New York was shocked to discover, on a visit to a Middle Eastern country that wasn’t Israel, that to be publicly identifiable as a Jew was not just unwise but could actually be dangerous. It had not occurred to him that a universal acceptance of other cultures was not itself a universal value.
There may be one encouraging point to emerge from the disinvitation frenzy. It is at any rate the most ironic: The students who think they’re helping others cast off the shackles of Western imperialism are the most culturally Western of us all. They, as much as anyone, love and believe in the values found here but not elsewhere. They just happen to think those values are found elsewhere, but not here.
So the next time you see students screaming at a podium about war crimes or racism or the police state, you can keep in mind: They don’t believe the West is simply good. They believe it’s so good that no one could possibly want anything else.