By Kevin D. Williamson
Sunday, April 26, 2015
When tyranny arrives on these shores, it isn’t going to start off looking like something out of George Orwell — it’s going to look a lot like college, which is why the sort of people who twice made Barack Obama president of these United States will welcome it.
George Washington University (“the Harvard of safety schools,” as alumnus Dan Foster calls it) has a swastika problem. This goes back a ways. In 2007, a Jewish student, Sarah Marshak, reported that her dorm-room door had been defaced with swastikas, and she complained that the university was doing too little to investigate. But the university was in fact investigating thoroughly — it had, ridiculously enough, gone as far as consulting the FBI — and its sneakily hidden surveillance cameras recorded the vandal in action.
No points for guessing that the malefactor was Sarah Marshak.
Recently, somebody drew swastikas on the wall of a GWU dormitory. Whether that is the work of another hoax artist or a genuine free-range national-socialist graffitist is unknown, but the school’s students have an unproud history of faking hate crimes. A group of left-wing students some years back drew up a phony anti-Muslim flier that was falsely attributed to a conservative group, the Young America’s Foundation, in an attempt to smear the organization as racist.
(If you’re wondering what these jackasses grow up to become, consider that Matthew Bruenig of The American Prospect and Salon similarly manufactured out of whole cloth a quotation he attributed to me, expressing sympathy for Donald Sterling during the controversy over his racist comments. I’d never even heard of Sterling at the time and assumed everybody was talking about a character on Mad Men. Purportedly respectable institutions still publish Bruenig.)
Fake hate crimes, like false rape accusations, now are a regular part of college life, and they serve the same purpose: a pretext for terrorizing unpopular individuals and organizations.
The hoaxers rarely if ever endure any serious punishment. Punishment is reserved for the innocent.
Or the mostly innocent. Given the low intellectual climate on George Washington’s campus, the Jewish student returning from a trip to India with a Hindu symbol of auspiciousness — the Sanskrit word is svastika — surely must have known what he might be stirring when he tacked it up on the bulletin board belonging to his Jewish fraternity. He has been expelled from the fraternity and banished from the campus, and probably will be expelled from the university. Compare that with the treatment of “Jackie,” the University of Virginia student whose manufactured tale of a brutal gang rape sent that campus into convulsions — nothing happened. The student who originally complained about the swastika retracted his complaint after learning that the iconography in question was Hindu rather than Nazi — that he’d assumed the wrong kind of Aryan — but none of that matters to university administrators.
Of course the streets patrolled by the thought cops (and the actual cops who enforce their edicts) are all one-way.
The resemblance between the Hindu swastika and the Nazi swastika is not coincidental. The eastern fascinations of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, particularly those of Heinrich Himmler, are well known, and the connection between the Third Reich and exotic mystical traditions lives on in the very odd world of “esoteric Nazism.” (This is a very amusing book on the subject.) The Nazis’ hijacking of the swastika was, culturally speaking, a very thorough one; when living in India, I found the symbol’s ubiquity jarring, even in a land rich with striking religious images. I never got used to it. It often is painted over doors, and my newspaper’s offices once were visited by a holy man who broke a coconut and finger-painted swastikas on our new computers for good luck. They were Windows boxes, unfortunately, and thus beyond even the intercession of the infinite proceeding from the infinite.
You cannot not notice a swastika.
But that doesn’t mean that you must proceed as though you are too stupid to tell the difference between Nazi vandalism and something that is — let’s be clear here — not Nazi vandalism. But those are the wages of multiculturalism, which is a moral pose that has displaced the actual study of culture — and cult is the first word in culture, which is why the study of religious thinking and tradition is a necessary part of any liberal education. Part of the value of a liberal education is that it helps you to avoid doing stupid things, e.g. effectively criminalizing the display of an ancient religious symbol in an institution purportedly dedicated in some part to the study of the liberal arts.
This is familiar territory. Violating what I had taken to be my own monopoly on goofy stories about events in Lubbock, Texas, in the early 1990s, GWU law professor John F. Banzhaf III points to an ill-advised effort on the part of my hometown public schools to police purportedly occult symbolism — with authorities circulating a list of images to be on the lookout for, including the peace sign and the Star of David. This was in the heyday of the Satanic cult panic, and Lubbock’s Jewish families (both of them) were not very much amused that the school superintendent was targeting the symbol of their faith as something sinister, though they must have been amused that his name was Moses. (If you happen to be wondering how long I have been getting cranky about these things, I editorialized on the subject in the Lubbock High School newspaper lo those many years ago. No link, I’m afraid; the Web had not yet been invented; kids, ask your parents about “print.”)
I do wonder how far the university wants to take this. If a two-dimensional Hindu swastika is enough to get you tossed, what about a three-dimensional, walking swastika? The svastika symbolizes svasti, or well-being, and “Svasti” is not an uncommon Indian name. (You could spend a lifetime studying India’s naming conventions. Some years ago, an election in Meghalaya pitted Adolf Lu Hitler Marak against Frankenstein Momin.) There are businesses (the inevitable yoga studio) called “Svasti” or “Swasti,” and there are no doubt young people walking around our nation’s capital wearing T-shirts bearing brightly colored swastikas over the caption: “100 percent Buddhist,” Buddhism being one of the many religions (Jainism, Zoroastrianism) in which the swastika is used.
It is impossible to imagine educating in that environment. No doubt GWU students wishing to study the works of Max Müller, the great Sanskrit scholar, would have to endure a raft of trigger warnings, sign a legal waiver, and produce a note from Mommy before being allowed to crack open the Upanishads.
George Washington University is a private school, and as such it ought to be allowed to expel students for whatever reason it likes — swastikas, Crocs, being this girl. But the public universities are, if anything, even more ruthless policemen of speech and thought than are their private counterparts. And the modern public university — which is simply a beery extension of the modern public kindergarten — is a sort of terrarium version of the utopia that our progressive friends are always promising us. It is public, but you are there at the sufferance of those who operate these intellectual veal-pens. For the Left, the citizen exists at the sufferance of the state, not the other way around. Free speech on campus, if it is to be tolerated at all, is restricted to First Amendment “zones” — as though there were not a First Amendment zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Say the wrong thing on a college campus and you will be threatened with state-sanctioned violence.
But of course the streets patrolled by the thought cops (and the actual cops who enforce their edicts) are all one-way. FIRE — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — does important work documenting this sort of thing. When a Sam Houston State student activist named Morgan “Not That Morgan Freeman” Freeman set up a “free-speech wall” upon which students could write whatever they liked — including unkind observations about the school or about roving ex-boyfriends — some genius wrote “F**k Obama.” A professor insisted that the comment be removed, and when students refused, he vandalized the display. (Tenure is a hell of a drug.) Students complained to the police, who, seeing that the students’ rights had been violated and their property damaged, treated the students as though they were the criminals. More censorship was demanded. The students who were encouraging the exercise of free speech were threatened by gun-toting agents of the state not for expressing unapproved sentiments but simply for allowing for the expression of those unapproved sentiments. Offensive? Sure. Lots of things are offensive, and it seems to matter a great deal who is offended: “Piss Christ” gets you a federal subsidy; “F Obama” gets you a gun in your face.
“F Bush” would probably get you tenure at George Washington University.
Call a man in a dress a man in a dress and you’ve committed a hate crime.
With his endless need for trigger warnings and sensitivity seminars, the modern campus progressive puts himself in a peculiar position: He is at once hostage-taker and hostage. He demands restrictions on speech and thought — but only some speech and some thought — because he is so delicate that an unwelcome word is indistinguishable from a mortal threat. You can call Sarah Palin a . . . very unkind term for a woman, or you can call for the murder of Republican politicians or Christians or white men, and it’s ho-hum. Call a man in a dress a man in a dress and you’ve committed a hate crime.
And the Left does want these things to be crimes. I am not much of an admirer of so-called reparative therapy for homosexuals, but it is preposterous that it should be a crime to offer counseling to a man who wishes to lead a normal sex life. It is preposterous that it should be a crime to use the male pronoun when describing a man in a dress. But Barack Obama has endorsed criminalizing unpopular counseling, the only pseudoscience he does not want to subsidize, and there are many voices on the Left demanding that “misgendering” — declining to participate actively in the fantasies of transsexuals — should be made a crime.
The familiar argument is that vulnerable people such as unhappy homosexuals must be protected from the effects of the toxic cultural environment in which they find themselves; that is the explicit rationale behind calls for criminalizing reparative therapy nationwide under a “Leelah’s law,” after the nom du femme of an unhappy young man named Joshua Alcorn, whose parents were unsupportive of his desire to pretend to be a woman and who killed himself in protest: He was hostage and hostage-taker simultaneously, and his willingness to do violence to himself is embraced as a rationale for treating speech as violence. Thus thought and speech and various kinds of ordinarily lawful behavior must be restricted or even criminalized. And if the environment is not in fact convincingly toxic, then you can always invent a lot of fake hate crimes or terrorize your victims with fictitious rape allegations.
Every petty tyranny requires a great fiction to justify itself: that one in three women in college will be raped, that George Washington University students are one or two Hindu religious symbols away from reenacting Kristallnacht on H Street. It is embarrassing. It is uncivilized.
And it is the future.