Meetings with Savages

A friend called my attention to a 1969 article by Nathan Glazer in which he brilliantly analyzes the radical student movement that had begun a few years earlier at Berkeley and was manifesting itself at his own university, Harvard. Glazer’s astuteness in judging even at that early date the nature of student radicalism is impressive. He saw its destructiveness, its nihilism, its insatisability, its utopian drive for complete societal transformation, its implacable hatred of America, and its aim to destroy the good in the name of the perfect. The problem was that many liberal professors sympathized with the radicals and their demands and, having lost the ability to articulate firm principles, could not maintain the distinction between legitimate grievance and wild-eyed jacobinism. Many soon drifted into radical stances themselves, with the results that are familiar to us today. 

Glazer suggests that the way the faculty should have responded to the radicals was by saying this:

“We disagree totally with your means, which we find abhorrent, we disagree totally with your ends, which are the destruction of any free and civil society; some of the slogans you have raised to advance your ends nevertheless point to real faults which should be corrected by this institution, which has shown by its past actions on various issues that it is capable of rational change without the assistance of violence from those who wish to destroy it, and we will consider them.”

That would have been better, perhaps. But maybe it would have been even better to say: “You are acting like a bunch of savages. We as civilized men and women cannot deal with savages over important issues affecting our lives, our university, our society, and our culture. When you have learned to present your ideas rationally in a proper democratic spirit and in an intellectually responsible fashion, we would be glad to meet with you in debate and discussion.” 

Things might have turned out differently.

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