All of us, I imagine, are granted from time to time moments of uninvited insight that will, for years to come, provide a basis for reflection and a more penetrating glimpse of the forces that shape the realms in which we live and labor.  Such a moment was granted to me back in the early 1990’s, shortly after I left graduate school and embarked upon my first full-time position as a college professor.  I was lucky enough to find employment—albeit temporary—at a major Southern university, one of those SEC football titans whose pursuit of academic excellence was never allowed to handicap its recruitment efforts.  In short, this brief appointment seemed a safe haven.  Whatever the limitations of its intellectual life, I thought, surely I would be free in this sacred grove to plow my little acre of academic soil with little or no interference from prying overseers eager to upgrade my “pedagogy” with the latest politically correct inanity.

How naive I was not to have anticipated the call I received one day from the dean’s office requesting my prompt appearance about a matter of grave importance.  What in the world, I wondered, could possibly have drawn the attention of such an exalted personage to my lowly self, a mere peon, an underpaid assistant professor without a scintilla of hope of tenure?  To be fair, the dean in question was no ogre—not quite elderly, but silver-pated nonetheless, and even kindly in that reserved Southern way that one rarely encounters anymore.  I was invited to take a seat and briefly introduced to a youngish if somewhat plain and bespectacled 30-something Caucasian woman who was already seated off to the side of the dean’s massive desk.  She nodded.  I never heard her speak.  Not once.  Her legs were crossed, and a writing pad was perched menacingly on her knee.  Pen in hand, she seemed prepared for serious business.  I was informed that she was the head of the university’s Diversity Office.  I smiled and stifled a momentary sarcastic impulse.  (Shouldn’t she be black, or brown, or Native American?)

A complaint, it seems, had been filed against me.  “I see,” I intoned, concealing my apprehensions.  A student in one of my classes, her name and particulars withheld, was concerned that I had used “racist” language during one of my lectures, language that made her uncomfortable.  “I see,” I repeated.

The dean held a form in his hand and found the passage he was looking for.  She claims, he uttered solemnly, that you expressed a preference for “Anglo-Saxon vocabulary,” and that you insisted upon its “superiority” to other forms of expression.

“I see,” I muttered again, watching the diversity officer scribbling furiously on her pad.  (Was she recording my Anglo-Saxon body language?)

The dean fell silent for a moment.  “Is that it?” I politely inquired.  He glanced nervously at our quiet companion, appearing at once cautious and embarrassed.  The young woman who filed the complaint was under the impression, he explained, that you were advocating (pregnant pause) “white superiority.”

I was dumbfounded (a portmanteau word with one superior Anglo-Saxon parent, by the way).  My self-restraint shattered, I exclaimed, “But this is ridiculous, laughable!  I wasn’t advocating anything of the kind!  I was simply encouraging my students to avoid excessive use of abstract, Latinate terms in their writing.  It was a course lesson in concision!”  Perhaps I simply fancied a gaze of sympathy from the dean, but, compelled to complete the interrogation according to form, he continued to probe and ended by announcing portentously that the complaint would be filed in my record for internal use, should any further complaints of “that nature” be made against me.

The moment of insight came just a few days later when I had worked the rage out of my system.  I realized, not quite in a blinding flash but with crystalline certainty, that the silent young woman from the Diversity Office—let us call her Madam X—was the real power in that room, not the gentle academic behind the massive desk.  Something had changed while I was toiling away for years in the dusty bowels of libraries and archives, and growing pale as Hamlet’s ghost gathering materials for a dissertation on Renaissance drama.  Somehow, in what seemed the blink of a sinister eye, the groves of academe had become shady groves, indeed.  Behind the scenes, the balance of power had shifted.  The dean who handled the complaint against me (and I pray he rests peacefully in his grave) would no doubt, only a few years earlier, have dismissed it out of hand.  Now, Madam X held the whip.

And who was she?  An innocuous functionary, a bureaucrat with no academic credentials who may very well have believed that the term Anglo-Saxon was covertly racist, though I have grown cynical enough to doubt that possibility.  No.  She, like most of her ilk, was an opportunist.  She knew perfectly well that the complaint was baseless, but she knew also (with that innate cunning that defines the bureaucratic mind) that every opportunity to assert her power would, regardless of the outcome of any particular instance, expand that power.  I remember well the student who filed the complaint, a rather rotund black woman a few years older than the average undergraduate.  (Her size is irrelevant, of course, except that the incident looms that much larger in my imagination!)  I guessed her identity because she was the only black female in my class, and the only one capable, to judge by her truculent behavior in the classroom, of making such a complaint.

Today, she is probably one of the army of Madam X’s who direct lavishly funded diversity offices (or the like) on campuses across the country, all of them staffed with busy moles brandishing iPads in place of pens and notepads, sniffing out diversity infractions, harassment claims, speech-code violations, microaggressions, toxic masculinity, and white privilege.  Tireless dispensers of social-justice nostrums, they were, according to Law and Liberty, the instigators of the Halloween brouhaha at Yale a few years back, when some 13 different campus offices—LGBTQ Resources, La Raza Resources, and Gender and Campus Culture among them—generated a blizzard of emails instructing undergrads in how to costume themselves for the holiday with multicultural and gender sensitivity.  I could spin out dozens of equally dispiriting examples.  The point is that these people have become a malign and domineering force in the postmodern university, and none of their activities—not one—has anything to do with the traditional mission of higher education.

The most recent manifestation of this transformation of academic life is, of course, the clamor for so-called safe spaces.  Virtually everyone who pays even scant attention to what passes for news in the mediasphere knows something about safe spaces.  They are, strictly speaking, gathering rooms set aside on campuses to accommodate “marginalized” students—that is, women, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBTQ students, and assorted others.  Almost indistinguishable from safe spaces are “safe zones,” which have a more fluid definition, but seem to be focused primarily on the needs of LGBTQ students.  Most often, safe zones are classrooms or faculty/administrative offices that bear the characteristic LGBTQ rainbow insignia.  Faculty or administrators who wish to demonstrate their solidarity and nonjudgmental openness by displaying the insignia must be “certified” by taking a safe-zone training course promoted by national organizations like The Safe Zone Project.  Said certification consists, among other objectives, in learning to “recognize the legal powers and privileges that cisgender straight people have and which LGBTQ people are denied.”  Thus safe spaces in the form of such designated zones proliferate across campuses like a contagion spread by the urge to advertise one’s cisgender humility—that is, one’s willingness, at least cosmetically, to repatriate the persecuted, to give them sanctuary, to offer up one’s “power and privilege” while basking in the aura of the victims.  Old-fashioned tolerance (a well-informed colleague informs me) is no longer enough.  In this new sacrificial order in which we are all either victims or perpetrators, we must grant our whole-hearted blessing to those whose sexual practices might otherwise provoke a natural revulsion.  Indeed, we are to understand that what we might imagine to be natural revulsion is nothing more than a socially conditioned reflex.

Defenders of safe spaces and zones rely largely on two arguments.  First, today’s undergraduates find themselves thrust into a demanding and complex academic environment, befuddled by ideological crosscurrents, conflicting truth claims, and, often enough, a debilitating anomie.  Their sense of self is fragile and undeveloped, and thus their need for acceptance and direction is pressing.  Second (and this is really just an extension of the first argument), when these students come from marginalized groups, they bring with them a history of discrimination (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.); thus their need for sanctuary is that much greater.  In this view, safe spaces and zones are pressed into service as a therapeutic necessity in the ongoing democratization of the American university (seen, of course, as an unalloyed good).

If these justifications seem less than satisfying, the critics of safe spaces are themselves curiously nearsighted.  The most common complaint is that safe spaces “coddle” and “infantilize” students at a time when they should be prodded toward adulthood in preparation for the hard realities of the world outside academe.  This argument, not without some merit, is part of the broader and often unfair ridicule directed at Millennials—sometimes derisively labeled the Peter Pan generation.  However, if infantilization (one of those ugly Latinate terms for which there is no Anglo-Saxon equivalent) is a concern, then take a look at the broader culture, at our films and music, our fascination with gaudy spectacle, our swinish consumerism, our slovenly attire, our vulgarity, our love affair with the selfie (the banal apotheosis of democratic art), our perpetual rebellion against any external moral authority that might encroach upon our childish self-fashioning.  Consider also how childrearing in America since the 1960’s has been transformed by our fretful parental anxiety over the tender self-esteem of our progeny, or our pretense that a single mother and her children are an acceptable family unit—even an admirable “lifestyle choice.”  Why, then, should we be surprised that so many of the generation now passing through our universities are at once timorous and furiously belligerent?  Who, exactly, is to blame for this?  If our students imagine themselves to be the victims of PTSD, it is worse than useless to ridicule them for the absurdity of such assumptions.  They have been primed for this histrionic role since preschool by parents, teachers, therapists, high-school counselors, and social media.  Now they are Play-Doh in the hands of victim ology experts like Madam X.

Another oft-heard criticism focuses on the threat that safe spaces pose to freedom of speech.  Listening to the endless talk-radio diatribes on this topic, one might imagine that the First Amendment will soon be a thing of shreds and patches.  Many of the critics who take this line are also liberals, and among those are many college professors who find themselves embarrassingly allied with strange conservative bedfellows.  Yet safe spaces, strictly speaking, are no threat to free speech.  They are a refuge, a therapeutic sanctuary from the speech of the dreaded other whose criticism might cause hurt.  On the other hand, a significant number of today’s college students would happily narrow the acceptable range of free speech.  For them, questions related to matters like sexual preference, gender identity, racial and ethnic equality, etc., are already settled.  To enter into reasonable debate on such questions would imply that somehow their antagonists’ arguments were something less than deplorable, and that their own truth claims might be something less than unassailable.  Even worse, for them the political is personal, hence any challenge to their claims threatens to undermine their already tenuous sense of self.  It is also true that many of the students who clamor for safe spaces are among those who swell the ranks at Antifa or Black Lives Matter rallies, shouting down rightist provocateurs like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos (who milk the psychodrama for all it’s worth), as well as a number of other more intellectually serious speakers.  While safe spaces are not by themselves a direct threat to free expression, they are nonetheless an attempt to create separatist campus realms that effectively repudiate the full range of free expression.  When the spread of such separatism is coupled with demands for “trigger warnings” and the rank proliferation of speech codes directed against “hate speech” or sexual harassment, et al., then there is genuine cause for concern, since both (depending on how they are implemented) may be understood as forms of censorship.  It has been objected that very few colleges expressly mandate trigger warnings, but the voluminous policies that regulate speech and behavior on campuses these days make it quite clear for anyone capable of reading between the lines that “verbal harassment” charges can be avoided (by faculty or students) only if one exercises constant self-censorship.  Moreover, these speech and behavior codes are pervasive, even at community and regional colleges, and have been multiplying rapidly since the early 1990’s.  While the constitutionality of speech codes at public universities has been repeatedly challenged in the courts, private institutions have far more leeway to restrict speech.  Typically, such codes (public or private) prohibit any speech or action that could be construed as creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment.  The language is vague and wide open to invidious interpretation.  If, for example, I were to attempt to present the arguments for and against the preservation of Confederate monuments to a group of freshmen, and I made a serious effort to take the arguments for preservation seriously, I would be treading on extremely thin ice.  Even with trigger warnings provided, I would stand a good chance of being accused of creating an intimidating or hostile environment—easy pickings for Madam X.  If she fails to make the charge stick, no matter.  The accusation alone is enough to silence all but the foolhardy.

A university with a robust understanding of its mission should, as the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, has recently done, unflinchingly remind its students that their job is to learn, not to dictate what is or is not settled opinion, or to flee into solipsistic asylums with their fingers in their ears.  While we may hope that more of our college and university administrators will follow the example set by Dr. Zimmer, the outlook at the moment is grim.  For almost half a century now, our universities have been the epicenter of a homegrown Cultural Revolution.  The Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s, which began at Berkeley and spread across the nation as the war in Vietnam raged, is now lauded by both liberal and conservative critics of current campus politics, who fail to appreciate how that movement enormously abetted the rise of the New Left, the breeding ground of today’s identity politics.  In fact, the Free Speech Movement had precious little to do with free speech and everything to do with politicizing the university (in the name of civil rights, of the struggle to end the Vietnamese debacle and the “military-industrial complex” that spawned it, etc.).  And it was college and university campuses that proved to be the most fruitful hatcheries for the New Left, which rejected the Old Left’s monolithic Marxism and its understanding of class struggle as primarily an economic rather than a broader cultural concern.  As the universities began to teem with new arrivals—women, racial minorities, gays—the left increasingly envisioned the revolutionary struggle as a reclamation of marginalized groups, of their suppressed histories and singular identities, or at least those marginalized groups that were free of any taint of “whiteness” or Christian tradition.  (Afro-Christianity could, of course, always be romanticized as a mask for liberationist aspirations.)  For Tom Hayden and friends, the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, the whole of American society and its history was profoundly racist.  Complicit in that racism was the bureaucratic apparatus of the nation-state and its capitalist “liberal consensus,” which was believed to stand athwart any further progress toward a truly egalitarian society.  One of the great ironies of recent history is the failure of that angry generation of the 60’s to foresee how easily the new identity politics would be absorbed and reformatted by the corporate state and its liberal (and neoconservative) apologists.

The evidence is visible at every turn.  Our popular culture is awash in the motifs of identity politics, and corporate America (not to mention the DNC) profits from it enormously.  This is not to say that identity politics is incapable of effecting change.  Consider the success of the movement to legalize gay marriage, backed by corporate money and influence.  But these are not changes that threaten the hegemony of the managerial nation-state.  On the contrary, they strengthen it—at least in the short term.  Thus, we should regard the political convulsions on our campuses as a reflection of the Cultural Revolution that has swept through America at large over the past two generations.

The question remains: Is that revolution still gaining ground, or, in the Age of Trump, has it entered into a final, desperate phase?  I am no prophet, so I will resist the temptation to answer that question.  However, it is always wise to be aware of the worst-case scenario, even if the odds are not altogether in its favor.  In fact, that scenario has already played out—over 40 years ago in Maoist China.  For many decades the true history of the Red Guards has been kept largely under wraps, but in recent years several historians, including Youqin Wang at the University of Chicago, have documented with hundreds of personal interviews how the Red Guards were recruited and organized in China’s schools and universities.  Mao’s aim had been to “complete” the revolution that had begun in 1949 but then was effectively stalled by the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent rise to power of pragmatic moderates like Deng Xiaoping.  Ceding control of the economy to the pragmatists, Mao directed his attention to the military and cultural institutions in an effort to purge the Communist Party of those who stood in the way of his vision of “continuous revolution.”  His student cadres, recruited from the primary up to the university level, played a key role in carrying forward the purge of those who were known as the “ox-goats and snake demons,” a phrase which originated in a student song of that era, referring to the men and women who were said to have betrayed the aims of the revolution.  According to the horrific account of Dr. Wang, quite meticulously documented, hundreds of teachers were murdered, tortured, or driven to suicide in the fateful summer of 1966 by vicious student activists.

A fairly typical ritual unfolded as follows: A teacher—or, even better, a dean—would be made an example by being forced to wear a “tall hat.”  Around his neck would be hung a board with his name inscribed but crossed out by a red X.  Paraded and taunted in this regalia, he would be ordered to kneel as the students smacked him with clubs spiked with nails, or poured boiling water over his head.  Few survived the ordeal.  In one instance, a biology professor at the Beijing Teacher’s College was tortured for three hours until she died; afterward, a group of her fellow instructors was made to encircle and kick her lifeless body.  Grotesque?  Indeed.  Is such a scenario on American soil unthinkable?  Perhaps.  But last year at the height of the Antifa rioting at Berkeley, a student Trump supporter was dragged to the ground, beaten, kicked, and treated to a pepper-spray facial.  Similar scenarios were repeated on several campuses across the country.  Moreover, Antifa has a growing number of on-campus affiliates, most of them associated with the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN).  A glance at the CAN website is most revealing.  According to a recent post (April 2018) CAN is fervently supportive of free speech—or, rather, what it terms “dissident free speech.”  Such speech would seem to be any speech critical of what CAN terms “rampant White Supremacy in Academia”—this in a post regarding Columbia University’s willingness to countenance the presence of “racial realists” like Tommy Robinson on campus.  As for any broader or more tolerant defense of the First Amendment, this is what CAN has to say:

[F]ree speech requires commitment to a social order in which all have the ability to speak, and this manifestly requires the absolute rejection of racist discourse that silences Black, Latinx [sic], Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Indigenous voices.  If white supremacy is left unchecked in academia our curricula, classrooms, admissions policies, campus events, and support systems will continue to produce and reproduce the white supremacist knowledges [sic] thereby silencing the speech of anyone who is not racialized as white.

I have cited this at length because every word offers a priceless insight into the aims of our antifascist Red Guards.  Most importantly, note the premise that the right to free speech understood as a universal right must be postponed until the advent of that New Eden where “white supremacist knowledges” have been utterly eradicated.  There is a very strong suggestion that the academic enterprise as presently constituted is, from top to bottom, a “racialized,” supremacist construct.  If that is the case, then clearly what is required is a purge of all those complicit in the reproduction of such dangerous knowledge(s)—that is, all the “ox-goats and snake demons” who stand in the way of continuous revolution.

And who will lead our eager scholars into that new Eden?  Beware Madam X.