The Unreality Is Not New, Alas

By now, all my readers will have heard of the protests on campuses across the country, aimed at some vague “white male privilege,” or aggressions so minuscule that they can only be registered on a leftist Geiger counter – subatomic particles of opposition to the regnant sexual orthodoxy.

We have been warned by wise men writing for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and The Week, that this bodes the end of liberal tolerance and the end of unfettered thought, speech, and inquiry at our universities.

Imagine that you are a citizen of the Soviet Union shortly after the Second World War, and you have learned that your paternal Man of Steel has sent returning Russian soldiers to Siberia by the tens of thousands, lest they infect the populace with dangerous ideas about the west, or about Soviet military ineptitude. You bite your thumb and say, “I fear that this shall mark the end of Soviet solidarity with the sensibilities and the needs of the common people!”

Imagine that you are a wealthy man on a plantation in Georgia, sipping your mint julep fifty years after the Civil War, when you hear of the latest cross-burning of your friendly neighborhood chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. “Oh dear,” you say, taking out your handkerchief to dab most genteelly at the sweat of your brow, “I fear that this bids fair to mark the end of kindly relations between the races in our state.”

Imagine that you are a Catholic bishop of a large American diocese, and that some of your priests have organized a prayerful protest outside of an abortion clinic and its dumpster. “You must not do this,” says the bishop, “because it might subject the Church to the disapproval of the media, and thus would be counterproductive.”

Where have you all been?

The academy has not been itself since the student protests of the Sixties. That was all about free speech, was it? Then why did colleges across the country overthrow their long established courses of study? Brown University, a small private school across the city from mine, sent its curriculum down the memory hole, at the instance of black student protesters and a white opportunist who positioned himself to negotiate between them and the administration.

That sort of thing happened everywhere. Oh, the excuse has long been that students needed to be exposed to writers from underrepresented groups; but all that means in practice is that politics wins the day, and the great works that might transcend contemporary battles are reduced to caricatures so as to serve as counters in the struggle, if they are studied at all.

Rigoberta Menchu, that proven fraud, is about feminism and colonialism and many another fashionable ism. So is what’s left of Shakespeare?
Where, pray tell, does a man enjoy greater freedom of speech? In a faculty lounge, or a barroom? We might answer that question by asking another. Where will the people you meet be more predictable in their opinions, their social habits, and their expectations?

Black Panther 40th reunion, 2006
Black Panther Party 40th reunion, 2006

Or suppose you are applying for a job, and you are asked to write a personal statement. It’s a fire department, and you say that every time you are called out for a fire, you say a quick prayer for your fellow firemen and for the people who may be in danger. It’s a college, and you say that you commonly pray for your students, for their welfare and their increase in wisdom. For which job will your frank confession be a kiss of death?

Every academic conservative knows of people who have been run out of their jobs or careers because of the implacable hatred of someone on the academic left. We do not forget these things. Why should it be so?

Consider the unstable moral position of someone who denies any objective standards of truth, goodness, and beauty. If you believe in those standards, you can have a fruitful argument with someone about the relative merits of Matthew Arnold and G. K. Chesterton, or you can defend the liberal Woodrow Wilson while acknowledging his racism, or criticize Martin Luther King, despite his good work for racial reconciliation.

You can, because you and your interlocutor both assume that political good is only temporary and provisional; and in this sense it is the most practical thing in the world to have your head, if not in the clouds, at least sometimes in heaven.

But without those standards, all is political, all is a fight for power. Add feminism, and the biological directives that women feel – to protect their offspring against all attacks, and to value security above the thrill of danger – and even the rickety protection of the fair fight must fall. It is victory or nothing.

Add the irremediably guilty consciences of people who sin against the sexual order, in whatever manner they do so, and the possibility that someone may breathe a word of disapproval becomes a threat to your delicate and unstable sense of being. It is the puff of wind that brings down the house of cards. Such words must be silenced.

Add the boredom of young people without faith, without hope, and without charity, who have never known the reality-refreshing discipline of hard manual labor, who have no cause to be grateful for the opposite sex, and nothing to boast of in their own, whose aims are all worldly and are at that mainly to be disappointed, and who desperately need a cause not to live for, but to persuade themselves that they are alive.

They have no passion for moral truth. How should they? They have been taught for twelve years and more that there isn’t any.

Add a residue of chivalry, misplaced. Add the sugarcoated stories of revolutionaries of yore. None of what is happening should be any surprise. Nor is it new.

But then, Catholics of all people should know this.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • samton909

    I just gradated from an ivy league school, but I couldn’t read the big words in this artickle. Pleez mak all future columns into kartoons so i can understand. Or make it about sex.

    • SJ Man

      Funny…..yet true….

  • john hosemann

    mr esolen ought to get a higher platform but he better watch his back…the forces of evil are lurking for those who speak the truth…academic standards by those institutions who have taken the political route to increase their numbers aided by free money from the government to let pretty much anybody ‘go to college’ is all backfiring now…the outcome remains to be seen and if there will emerge other mr esolens to speak louder for the truth…god bless him and the small group of others who are slowly coming forward…john hosemann rising sun wisconsin

  • givelifeachance2

    Add in the craftiness of Iago in pitting man against wife, black again st white, parent against child, neighbor against neighbor.

  • Stanley Anderson

    “But then, Catholics of all people should know this.”

    I guess, in relation to the rest of your column, one might ask “But have Catholics (as a group of course) ever known it?” If not, perhaps that might be a powerful argument for the power of the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Church’s unwavering Doctrine and such. And I suppose equally that forty years of restlessness in the desert will never be a thing of the past, alas.

  • George Sim Johnston

    At Mass this morning it was announced that next Sunday the second collection would be taken for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. For years, this organization handed the money of unsuspecting Catholics to leftist groups promoting racial and class grievances under rubrics prescribed by Saul Alinsky. One beneficiary was a young community organizer in Chicago named Barack Oboma, whose entire career has been a series of micro- and macro-aggressions against the Catholic Church, to use current phraseology. Does anybody know if CCHD has been cleaned up? My point is that the institutional Church itself has helped enable the grievance mongers currently plaguing our campuses.

    • Manfred

      A great benefit of the recent two-part Synod was the laity learned that many in the hierarchy, including the pope, are not Catholic. We also learned that many in the hierarchy are homosexualist, a word meaning they are themselves homosexual or they support it. To justify their very existence they have formed a secular group within the Church which I call Sodomite Social Services which supports CCHD.

    • Dave Fladlien

      Sim, you raise a very good point, thanks for bringing this up. I was an early supporter of CCHD. At the time it was doing things like loaning low-income people the seed capital to start businesses. I was proud to support that activity. And there are still good Catholic charities which do some of that, though not nearly enough in my view.

      Eventually I started to notice a change in CCHD to emphasis on “advocacy for the poor”. That often seems to be a metaphor for more and bigger government programs which, far from enabling the poor to escape poverty, often actually trap them in it. I certainly agree with the modern Popes that there is a place for government programs, but those programs have to work in the form of enabling people to move up out of poverty, not trapping them in poverty. Of course, if it wanted to do that, the government would also have to allow an environment where business people could actually create the quality jobs that the now-enabled poor would be ready to take on.

      The rationality for this “advocacy for the poor” seems to be that private donations are inadequate to do the job, which is very probably true, at least in part due to the high tax rates we all face. But even to the extent that it is true that private donations fall short, the answer can not be to become participants in what amounts to government enslavement programs. There has to be a better way.

      I don’t know if it has been “cleaned up”, as you say. I haven’t followed it for a long time. I’m trying to be part of the solution, and the last I saw, CCHD had to a great extent become part of the problem, not part of the solution. That’s sad; it was once a very good thing.

    • Isabel

      The odious “Campaign for Human Development” is back in my parish too, along with a new parish council president who swears allegiance to a combination of the Democratic Party and the current pope. Francis has revived the worst of a rotten generation,

  • Manfred

    Dr. Esolen: Just think of the twenty-six Catholic colleges and universities which signed the 1967 Land O’ Lakes document at Notre Dame, which effectively removed them from the Church. Think of all the “Irish Catholics” who insisted in marching in the 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Parade after it was announced Cdl Dolan was permitting an LGBT group to march behind their banner.
    Do you remember the Catholic childfren’s books we received showing Catholic crusaders with their red crosses on their tunics and shields, flourishing their lances and swords? They were fighting to save the Christians in the Holy Land from the Muslims.
    We are entering the last phase of the Third Secret of Fatima where the Church and the world enter into complete chaos and the entire world, both the good and the wicked, will be mostly destroyed.
    All the enemies of God, both inside and outside the Church, will be destroyed.

    • Sheila

      Scary and sad to think of all the pain and suffering that has to come our way. Much more than what we’ve endured in the past or what’s going on in present day. Dear God have mercy on us poor sinners. We all need You more than we’ve allowed so far. We need Your mercy, Your forgiveness and Your Holy Spirit in abundance to cast away all fear so we can pray as we ought and then act in Your holy Will. But first let us forgive everyone, everything, starting within our families.
      May God’s love and peace rule in our hearts and minds today.

    • bernie

      Manfred, sometimes you take things too far, like glibly defining who is and who is not in the Church. Be that as it may, sometimes you are right on. The Dolan LGBT acceptance and the Land of Lakes thing are disgraceful and an insult to all American Catholics. Then the Cardinal’s fawning over the Muslim community in Staten Island, sometime before the Parade, blew away any pretense he might have to serious thought. I wouldn’t be surprised if he supported the latest pretense of guidance from on high. “Madonna” has just spoken, saying we should engulf in love all the masses of Syrian (Muslim) immigrants. Perhaps I’m taking it too far, but isn’t this the ultimate deception of the Devil to make us all feel guilty about not loving the Devil’s brew that is Islam? After all, God is Love.

  • Michael Dowd

    What’s new is that most Catholics couldn’t care less. Just like everyone else they have bought into the secularized religion of our times and want their kids to have the “good life” which consists of good job making lots of money, career oriented spouse, one or two kids, and be a “nice” person who may or may not attend Mass. And why not? How would they ever get any other idea? Certainly not at Sunday Mass where Vatican II, read Protestant, worship of Man is the order of the day. It is a tragedy brought on by the Catholic Church itself. By their fruit you shall know them.

  • augury

    I recently challenged a young, and seemingly faithful, young Preist ( recently minted from Father Barron’s USML Seminary ) for reading Pablo Neruda’s “Bread” in the Mass. “Bread” is obviously intended, pretty much exlusively, to mock the Eucharist and to worship the proletariat as the real God. Neruda is an outspoken (Nobel Prize winning) atheist and communist, who said he could not seperate his politics from his art, a classic Marxist idea. My Priest reacted very very angrily to my challenge, which was not impolite. Taken aback at his wrath, I did some research and found that Neruda is taught widely and uncritically at Catholic universities. The point of this digresson, Professor, is that the intellectual decay you describe in academia his now at the Eucharistic altar. Even faithful Religious ( unless my young Priest is a flat out liar ((which I doubt )) of an intellectual bent don’t know that what they’re preaching is subversive. My question is how would you break through to my Priest to explain why Neruda has no place at the Eucharist? My second question is should I even try? God bless you for trying to make an oasis for faithful intellectualism. It’s a great thing you’re doing.

    • Tony

      Yes, and that is why the most far-sighted bishops and directors of seminaries must help their young men to attain something of an education in the liberal arts, rather than a leftist icon here and a totalitarian tyrant there and a hipster priest smiling upon them all. We need our priests to be learned men, men who have at least something of the education promoted by John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University.

  • Tamsin

    It’s a fire department, and you say that every time you are called out for a fire, you say a quick prayer for your fellow firemen and for the people who may be in danger.

    Sadly, even our fire departments, or especially our fire departments and all government agencies (local, state, and federal) are in the process of de-Christianizing. Consider that the city of Atlanta fired Kelvin Cochran. All government unions are quite in bed with Democrat Party objectives. And our soldiers as well as our teachers are being probed to detect insufficient enthusiasm for the revolution.

    Every private-sector outfit of any size has a non-discrimination policy that comports with EEOC non-discrimination policy, that renders all Christians suspect, though not Muslims. I doublt y ou can get a job at Apple or Amazon or Alcoa or Aetna or Alaska Airlines if you go to the wrong Church after hours. Yesterday’s revolutionaries populate government agencies today, and impose their orthodoxy with the help of friendlies in C-suites.

  • Howard Kainz

    With regard to the changes in colleges, one thing not often mentioned is that colleges began including student evaluations in the 70s and using them in deliberations about promotion and tenure and even raises. When students give thumbs up or thumbs down to your classes, especially in subjects touching on values, religion and politics; one can expect significant changes in political correctness among professors trying to keep their jobs.

    • bernie

      Prof. Kainz, One of my sons was picked as the outstanding TA at a very large University while en-route to his PHD. “Oh, how wonderful”, his Mom exclaimed. “Mom, I’m the only one they can understand.” The others were still trying to speak English. I conclude that teacher evaluations may have a legitimate place. Our family has spent an awful lot of money on higher ed. I have 48 progeny, including 12 great grandchildren who are still babies, and so far 32 have completed their undergraduate work. Many of their Bachelor and graduate degrees have been received from Institutions that call themselves Catholic. Every one of the 32 is still a solid, thinking, Faithful and apostolic Catholic within the context of their family and professional life. If I told you how many were from NDU alone you might not believe me. How did this happen? They each did the teacher evaluation in reverse – they got solid advice ahead of time about which Professors to choose and which to avoid. Any Catholic parent who sends his kids off to College and leaves it all to chance is plain nuts or only vaguely Catholic and really does not care

  • StatusQrow

    Remember when the late leftist—some called him a Marxist—folk singer, Phil Ochs, would sing his anthem “I’m Gonna Say It Now” at college Rathskellers in the 60s?

    “Oh I am just a student, sir, and I only want to learn;
    But it hard to read through the rising smoke
    From the books that you like to burn.
    So I’d like to make a promise
    And I’d like to make a vow,
    That when I’ve got something to say, sir,
    I’m gonna say it now!”

    Every stanza ended with the same declaration. Nowadays, merely uttering words like mothering, fathering, American, Caucasian, foreigners, manpower and freshmen—just to glance the molecule at the tip of the iceberg—are considered “micro-aggressive.”

    Liberalism has always been, at heart, fascist. Apparently it has come, with a vengeance, into its own.

  • Myshkin

    “A fight for power” — indeed, it is precisely in the powerlessness to which Our Lord subjected Himself on the cross that we find our salvation. That we should take up our crosses, daily, and soldier on, advancing through towards our own little Calvaries. Is it not magnificent that the (one and only) God who “is love” should not have manifested himself to his creatures precisely in Jesus, the suffering servant. I tell colleagues at work — by action, by deed — that turning interpersonal relationships into power struggles is the road to perdition for us all. We should surrender our very selves to God first, then with his grace, to other people. No power struggle ever gained salvation, or love.

  • Ajax the Greater

    Is this new to Catholics? No, but I dare say that the Academy, the main fount and purveyor of grievance culture and critical theory, is surprised to now find itself surrounded by its nasty offspring. They seem shocked and ill-equipped to respond. I, for one, am enjoying the comeuppance!