Thursday, June 28, 2007

Don't just do something; stand there

I’ve been trying to prune my library, some 20,000 volumes, of unneeded items. Yesterday my harsh gaze fell on a clump of books on academic freedom, especially in the perspective of the threats posed by political correctness, speech codes, and false allegations of sexual harassment.

Many have sought to make light of these problems. Yet through my teaching at the City University of New York, together with my work with the National Association of Scholars, I learned that such infractions are all too real. Some professors, generally of a left-liberal persuasion, retaliate against students who refuse to toe the line and echo their views. These zealots may be few in number, but (since the overwhelming liberal leanings of academic faculties are well known to students) the recorded incidents must have a chilling effect. Better not to take a chance, students reason, by seeming to advocatie “reactionary” or non-PC views.

Ironically, this tendency to enforce political orthodoxy may have had a reverse effect, as students resolve to think outside the conventional box once they leave campus. Many of these students turned out to be “South Park conservatives,” combining iconoclasm with skepticism regarding liberal pieties. Recently, to judge by an article in the New York Times today, this pattern may be changing in its turn, as students again turn leftwards. How could they do otherwise in view of the grotesqueries committed by Bush, Cheney and their minions?

No doubt such academic interventions, intended to promote conformity instead of original thinking, are still going on at many campuses, especially at elite ones with the highest concentration of PC faculty. Yet the matter has been thoroughly aired, as seen in the books that I no longer need. Possible victims are alerted. As a result, the whole issue has receded in significance. Moreover, who ever thought that American universities were--or ever could become--perfect?

Here is another burning issue that gradually faded in significance. During the 1970s, when I joined the gay activist movement for a few years, the burning issue was the conflict between the reformers, who wished to address gay rights within the context of American society, and the (would-be) revolutionaries, who believed that gay rights could only come as the result of a fundamental restructuring of social and economic arrangements. This controversy chugged along, taking a new form in the 1990s, when the Queer Nation folks spoke out against those they labeled “assimilationists.” As more and more gay men and lesbians aspire to a stable middle-class lifestyle, it may be that (as my friend Paul Varnell has argued) that the forces of embourgeoisement have won out. Still, as we were reminded a few days ago, the “excesses” of the Pride Marches show that there remain some--exhibitionists and others--who have not been won over to the assimilationist template. At all events, the whole controversy has come to seem almost archaic. We have moved on to other concerns.

Here is a third example of crisis subsidence. During the 1970s it seemed that crime rates in American cities were just going to increase year after year. But in the eighties these rates began to decline. Various reasons have been advanced for this success, ranging from better policing and decreasing tolerance for social acting out, to stabilization of drug-dealing turfs and even access to abortion. To be sure, there are still horrific crimes, as the media with their “if it bleeds, it leads” policy keep telling us. But the fear that just leaving one’s residence means the danger of becoming a victim of crime has pretty much disappeared. Again there has been a gradual abatement. The problem has not disappeared, but it has become manageable.

I conclude that this pattern of crisis recession is much more widespread than is generally assumed. The lesson? “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” This precept may not be universally valid, but if one can just hang on it works in a surprising number of cases.



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