Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

The Closing of the American Mind 

(Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)
The media and the universities have mostly lost interest in fair debate

Cheers, but just two of them, for this special issue of National Review on the defense of America’s heritage and heroes.  

Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, it was inevitable that a strong reaction would take place. All elements of American society joined in condemnation, from the president, to members of Congress, to the black leadership, to the population at large. Protests ensued, directed first at the police and then at targets indifferently charged with a measure of blame, from the federal government, to the nation’s historical legacy, to the newly minted abstraction of “systemic racism.” Dismissing the plea of Floyd’s girlfriend to remember that George “was about love and about peace,” and the assertion of Floyd’s brother that his family is “peaceful” and “God-fearing,” mobs soon formed within and alongside the protesters, bringing arson, violence, murder, and the widespread destruction of property, estimated to be among the most costly ever for an eruption of civil unrest. Mass iconoclasm against monuments, statues, and symbols of the West became the order of the day, as the lawless made a jubilee of the suspension of police enforcement.

Assembling important thinkers to set straight the historical record of America is assuredly a good thing. It should help make clear that Christopher Columbus, though a harsh commander, was a brilliant and dauntless explorer; that George Washington, rumored to have chopped down a cherry tree, was a man of extraordinary skills of leadership; that Thomas Jefferson, for all his moral shortcomings, was a statesman of unparalleled intellect; and that Abraham Lincoln, coming from a deprived background, succeeded in keeping the Union together and emancipating the slaves. These persons merit recognition for the good they did for the nation, which is certainly more than what the woke today, who celebrate their superiority by claiming to live lives without flaws, have contributed. 

Why then not go ahead and extend a full three cheers to this special issue? If there is a reason, it is the premise that if only the real facts are made known, the false reasoning and deceptive narratives behind so many of the ideologically tinged historical accounts of our time will eventually come tumbling down. The truth will set us free. But the reality is more dire than many suppose. America is now well down the road to losing its capacity to respond to argument. Let’s be clear about terms. Arguments are encountered everywhere today, filling almost every nook and cranny of intellectual space. But a repetition of arguments is not the same as the willingness and ability to argue, or the same as cultivating a disposition to consider alternative viewpoints. American society is now arranged from top to bottom, institutionally and sociologically, to suppress the encounter with different ideas and to fix thoughts automatically on set positions.

Begin with higher education, the institution traditionally charged with presenting much of our youth with different perspectives and with asking them to explore alternative points of view. University mottoes often boast of just this kind of commitment, be it Lux et Veritas (“Light and Truth,” Yale), Emet (“Truth, Even unto Its Innermost Parts,” Brandeis), or Scientia et Virtus (“Knowledge and Virtue,” Middlebury College). Many universities and colleges have become renowned for suppressing such inquiry, reversing course on plans to award honorary degrees, as Brandeis did to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or allowing their students to prevent, through disruption, an invited speaker from giving his talk, as with Charles Murray at Middlebury. Such actions are taken today in compliance with decisions of university presidents or in acquiescence to student-activist demands. The institutions now insist on their new unlimited right to indoctrinate, not their old obligation to present uncomfortable ideas. The greater problem in universities is not, however, in the limits they place or allow on outside visitors, which can prove embarrassing for the media coverage they attract. The deeper challenge is found in the day-in, day-out operation of the institution itself, where the left-leaning positions of the faculty and administration are pervasive. Higher education has become a monoculture, serving as a plantation for progressive and leftist ideas. Conservative perspectives are rarely heard. Just a decade ago, when the imbalance of viewpoints was becoming more obvious, lip service was paid to making an effort to bring to campus a greater diversity of opinions. This concern has now gone by the wayside. The term “diversity” itself now carries a completely different meaning, no longer referring to different ways of thinking but to the gender orientations and ethnic and racial characteristics of the faculty. Applicants for many faculty positions are today required to present diversity statements, testifying to their views on this subject, as a condition for employment, while existing faculty in many institutions are asked to offer a report on their equity activities. 

It has largely slipped the notice of observers that the events that have taken place since May 25 occurred at a time when universities were for the most part closed because of summer recess and the pandemic. Students were deprived of the opportunity to mobilize in full and play their customary role. Administrators have filled the void, with presidents and deans availing themselves of their privileged position to command the university channels of communication and to issue general statements. In accord with the national reactions of other leaders, these statements frequently include expressions of approbation of Black Lives Matter and calls for the university to do much more to help eliminate racial injustice. Faculty committees joined in, going so far, as in the case of the University of Virginia’s faculty senate, as to speak of the “racism that is still deeply woven into the creation, history, and contemporary biases of our university,” and to demand that the university “identify concrete actionable steps to collectively dismantle structural racism and repair our institution’s long history of oppression.” In all of the statements, only the first stage of this crisis, relating to George Floyd, was addressed. Silence has apparently reigned in regard to the mayhem and civil unrest that have followed. The opportunity for open consideration of different arguments has been skipped, with the presented views falling more in line with the 1619 Project. Universities have expressed their mea culpas for “structural racism,” ignoring the fact that, if there is structural anything that dominates the campus today, it is systemic progressivism. The push to do more for diversity, when many universities have already devoted themselves to this cause, is leading to a tyrannical pressure of opinion that engulfs much of the institutions’ planning and thought. 

The other institutions that now discourage honest argument are found in the field of journalism. Going back a couple of generations, the press in America was diversified, and, in its geographical dispersion, it presented a variety of viewpoints that afforded citizens the opportunity to follow up with debates of their own. Confidence in the press in its heyday brought the formation of prestigious university schools of journalism, which, like schools of medicine and law, adopted and disseminated codes of professional conduct, promoting such standards as objective presentation of news. Journalism went so far as to bestow upon itself the inflated title, now largely forgotten, of “the fourth estate.” It also erected a museum to itself in the nation’s capital — the Newseum — that sought to celebrate its historical accomplishments. Today these kinds of high journalistic ideals are so far from the truth that they are openly flouted by the journalists themselves, who, in what is now known as “resistance journalism,” all too readily accepted accusations of the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign. Schools of journalism have fallen on hard times, and the Newseum last year folded for want of visitors. 

The nationalization of the main news functions of the written press and media has brought more of the content of the news under the influence of three major papers, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. The latter two have abandoned tradition and now assume a wholly partisan posture, organizing the news to downplay or bury inconvenient events and play up accounts favorable to a progressive viewpoint. In their coverage of recent events, it is almost as if mob violence in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death were incidental and the death of black citizens in the midst of this violence had not occurred. Who, for example, heard much if anything about the retired police chief, David Dorn, who was gunned down by a looter in St. Louis on June 2 while guarding a pawn shop? The partisan press replicates the formula of the university, presenting arguments while suppressing the capacity to argue. 

One thing is now certain. If the disposition to argue is ever to return, it will not come from today’s university professors or from denizens of the partisan press.

This article appears as “The Closing of the American Mind ” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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James Ceaser — Mr. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976.

In This Issue

A Defense of America

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