At the Aspen Institute, seminar participants discuss great books in a spirit of mutual goodwill.
Richard Reinsch: (00:04)
Today we’re talking with Stanley Kurtz, about a new book he has authored called The Lost History of Western Civilization. Stanley Kurtz is senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s a well known commentator on education, higher education, urban suburban policies. He’s also a student of the American left. He’s authored two books on Barack Obama, Radical-in-Chief, and Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities. We’re glad to have him on the program today to discuss something that seems evident to us now, particularly over the past couple of months, this lost history of Western civilization. Stanley, welcome, and what’s going on in this book?
Stanley Kurtz: (01:09)
Well, Richard, thanks so much for having me. And yes, I put out a book called The Lost History of Western Civilization. It came out in January. It’s a little bit unconventional, it’s actually available as a free downloadable PDF from the National Association of Scholars. It’s sort of a book-length report for the National Association of Scholars, so readers can actually get it just by clicking on the free PDF. And I put it out in January, and the book has a couple of themes, but one turns out to be surprisingly relevant to the turmoil the country is going through now. The first half of the book largely focuses on the destruction of the academic tradition of teaching Western civilization. And some of the intellectual critiques that were used to justify pushing Western civilization required courses aside in our colleges and universities.
For a long time, if you went to college, you likely took a course on Western civilization, and of course on American history, by the way. Those were very often required. And that was all pushed aside amidst great national controversy around 1987 and 1988. And the controversy was focused on Stanford University, there was a famous or infamous demonstration chant by the student protesters, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Western culture’s got to go.” And once that chant was publicized, it really galvanized the national controversy. And one thing I do in the book is to dive into the argument which was probably most important for America’s scholars regarding this conflict. It wasn’t nearly as well known to the general public, but scholars, what are called deconstructionist historians and academics who were receptive to this skeptical form of postmodernism that we call deconstruction of history.
Those sorts of historians argued that the very idea of Western civilization was a kind of bogus, late invention, rather than Western civilization being a great long-standing, continuous cultural tradition coming down to us, from the Athens or Pericles, and from the biblical period, running through Ancient Greece and Rome and then the medieval era, and on into the enlightenment and modernity. These deconstructionist historians suggested that instead, the very idea of Western civilization was a kind of propaganda device, an invention created during the First World War to essentially hoodwink young American soldiers into thinking that they shared enough with Europe to make it worth their while to put their lives on the line in the trenches of the First World War. So this is a great example of what we mean by deconstruction of skeptical history.
And then in the second half of the book, I somehow segue from all that into a reflection on the ways in which this dispute over Western civ, and which gave rise to what came to be called political correctness and multiculturalism actually set the template for our politics today and to the constant accusations of racism and bigotry that we see today. Somehow these things are in fact linked. So that’s broadly speaking what the book tries to do.
Richard Reinsch: (05:06)
A question just apart from the ideas. Why Stanford University? Why was it ground zero for this attempt to remove Western civilization courses from higher education in America?
Stanley Kurtz: (05:17)
Well, that’s a great question, and the likely reason is that the demographics of Stanford in 1987 and 1988 were somewhat different from the demographics of colleges in most of the rest of the country. Stanford being in California had a relatively large percentage of minorities of various sorts, there were South Asian, East Asians, there were blacks, there were Hispanics in fairly large percentages. And these groups allied with strongly left leaning white students to form what they called a rainbow coalition. And they were taking their lead from Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns at the time. They were somewhat quixotic presidential campaigns, but they were a foreshadowing of what came later in the Obama years. They were a foreshadowing of we what we think of as campus intersectionality. And this was the coalition that chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho Western culture has got to go”, on a day when Jesse Jackson was actually visiting the school to help rally students in support of what would become his second presidential campaign in 1988. So Stanford in a way prefigured the rising diverse population that we see in our colleges and universities, and the ideology carried by that group.
Richard Reinsch: (06:54)
Thinking about Stanford at that time as well, specifically, it seems to my mind, what objections would you raise to learning about Western civilization? And you talk a lot about a certain scholar making this argument that it was put together during World War I to give the soldiers a fighting faith, to give the citizens a fighting faith, etcetera, something like that. But even then I thought, “Okay, maybe that’s the case.” You prove conclusively that it was not the case. But even if we assume that this person is right, one should still learn about aspects of your civilization, the fundamental ideas and history behind your civilization. Why would you not want to, and what were the arguments that they made?
Stanley Kurtz: (07:43)
Well, that is a really very interesting issue. And one of the things that I argue in the book is that the opponents gave an argument to the effect that Western civilization and the great books that belong to it are racist, that the study of it is racist. It’s racist in the sense that the West was a colonial power that oppressed people of color across the world. It’s racist in the sense that by focusing on so many authors who are “famously dead white males,” it’s racist. But what I argued in the book was that that wasn’t entirely the full truth of the objection.
I think the real reason for the objection to Western Civ was that it was powerful that it did teach us about ourselves, that it was a popular course, that students loved the great books. Because whether they agree with a given great book, author or not, the great books as a whole brought students into confrontation with the fundamental questions they would be facing in life, philosophical questions, questions about what they wanted to devote their lives to. And these courses were extremely popular. They were in fact the most popular courses in the school. Now, if you have a very, very popular course that is all about Western civilization, and if students there feel as though that is not really their heritage, they’re coming from outside, from Asia, or as far as I’m concerned, a black American is part of Western civilization and has every legitimate reason to be proud of that. But many black students in Stanford at the time felt as though they were identifying with Africa and their African heritage. So if you don’t feel as though you’re part of the Western tradition in the first place, and the Western tradition turns out to be tremendously popular and appealing, you actually experience that as an affront.
Richard Reinsch: (09:53)
This is at some level, and by the way, and we were talking about this before the call. I took a great books seminar on Western civilization. I have a very distinct memory of the last day of class of the students in unison, applauding. The last day, the professor, I think, in recognition of how excellent the course had been, and how much we had all learned. Things that we had no clue of before. But that was my freshman year, it was the first time I had read T.S. Eliot. So I think that’s exactly right on and what those courses were able to do and are able to do, where they’re still taught, which makes what happens in my mind, just insidious and dastardly. Question though, this is also our university’s rejection of the educational enterprise of the liberal arts. Hearing that, and you say that in the book that, “Well, this isn’t me.” Or, “These courses don’t reflect my heritage or my background.” But that’s the very idea of education, that it takes you out of that. One could also take courses in African history or something like that, but this in itself is to misunderstand what education is, it’s to turn it into an ideological enterprise.
Stanley Kurtz: (11:06)
Well, I think that’s true. And I think you can also put it another way, going back to the point I made about American blacks actually very much being a part of Western civilization. And in the book, I say that the same thing applies, say, to Hispanic students, and to almost any student who gets into, say, an elite college has already very likely, in almost every case, become deeply a part of Western civilization. And in the last part of the book, I look into some of the controversies playing out on our campuses. And I argue that in fact, they are very Western controversies, controversies about say whether you should use the word Latinx, instead of Latino. In other words, controversies over whether we should think of ourselves as part of a larger family, and part of a tradition about the family, or whether we should be such free individuals that we can almost create our own language, a language that completely respects and preserves the rights and independence of every individual with respect to their sexuality. That is a very Western sort of controversy.
And the students who attack the West don’t fully realize that the cultural politics that they carry is a descendant of the individualism and the great tradition of liberty of the West. Now, it may be, and I personally think it is the case that they’re taking this tradition to a dangerously radical extreme, and in that sense misusing it. But whether you think they’re going in precisely the right direction or not, I don’t think you can understand campus politics today in a deep way, without actually reading the great books of the West. And these students, even students who are of different races and ethnicities, are profoundly Western and could gain self knowledge by truly reading and learning to understand the great books of the West.
Richard Reinsch: (13:23)
Thinking about, and you make a nice point towards the end of the book, that those making these claims about gender identity would have to confront more… Okay, well, what about the claims now of community, or the accumulation of knowledge and tradition within a community and how one balances that out with individualism? All sorts of examples of intellectual challenges that would be good for them to have but which they aren’t having. Thinking about, so Stanford, you argue, and you’ve alluded to that sort of the epicenter of the higher education battles over the last 40 years. I mean, they sort of crystallize there. And there’s also, you talk about intersectionality. The term used before intersectionality, I hadn’t thought of this, was multiculturalism, and you argue intersectionality actually is a far better term, given what they’re arguing. Could you talk more about that?
Stanley Kurtz: (14:15)
Absolutely. One of the themes of the book is that the current standpoint of the left, although it is sometimes called multiculturalism, actually has very little to do with culture. I argue in the book that you probably could better call it anticulturalism than multiculturalism. If you actually look at the multicultural, or better the intersectional coalition as it operates on campus, a coalition that generally unites gay students with Latino students and black students and Muslim students. If you actually look at the traditional culture of some of those groups and contrast them, what you actually would have there was a group of people who would probably have a lot of clashing views and clashing perspectives. And so in order to hold a coalition, what you actually have to do is downplay the content of your culture, because that’s what differentiates you. And instead, you have to play up race. That is why the phrase people of color has become so predominant nowadays.
The idea of people of color creates a unification between these groups. And the other thing that unifies them, is the sense that they’re all being oppressed, oppressed by some kind of traditionalist Western, and from their point of view, white majority. And so the idea of finding oppression, finds the intersexual coalition together, and plays down their cultural differences. So we saw, for example, that recently at Stanford, you had a leftist coalition, an intersectional coalition. And they started to demand that the courses which would count towards the distribution requirements, as far as diversity goes, that those courses should only include courses that teach about oppression. And they should not necessarily include courses that teach about, say, the history of Chinese culture, or something like that. So culture is really not at the forefront of what’s going on here. Culture is actually being hollowed out.
And many of the students who come to school to begin with, as I’ve already noted, are actually fairly assimilated, and are not deeply steeped in their heritage cultures. And so what we’re seeing here are people who don’t actually have much of a culture, and their only sense of collective belonging comes from claiming to be oppressed. And that creates a tendency to want to balloon any tiny incident or issue that could be interpreted as oppressive into a massive, massive problem. Let’s say there’s a statue there you don’t like, that’s not nearly as much of a problem as the entire system of segregation was in the south in the 1940s and ’50s. But a statue becomes a kind of signal that, “Yes, I am oppressed, and we can all unite around that.” It’s pretty thin gruel, but it’s all we’ve got left to form a basis for identities in the current environment.
Richard Reinsch: (17:40)
A couple of questions come to mind. So you say courses on oppression as opposed to say positive courses on aspects of other cultures? Going back to 1987, what did those chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture has got to go.” What did they want to replace Western civilization with in terms of courses?
Stanley Kurtz: (17:59)
Well, that in a way is the heart of the matter, they didn’t really have a very good sense of what they wanted to replace it with. And of course, we know that the problem of the left in general from the ’60s on, is that they have a much more enthusiastic sense of what it is they want to get rid of than what they want to replace it with. And we saw this playing out at Stanford, because when the traditional Western Civ requirement was swept away, first of all, very few of the junior faculty members who had pushed for that change actually proposed to teach a course in the new mode. It was supposed to be called culture ideas and values. It was supposed to essentially be a course about multiculturalism. And few teachers even made a proposal to do it. And the few courses that were actually taught along those lines, turned out to be confusing, incoherent, and ultimately very unpopular with the students. So the requirements collapsed. And Stanford has been lurching ever since they got rid of their very popular Western Civ and Western culture requirements.
They have been lurching from one set of required humanities courses to another, and none of them really had any kind of defining center, and they didn’t inspire the students in the way that the old courses did. And one of the things I argue in the book is that this stands for something larger, the people who are critiquing America today and the American tradition in the name of something, multiculturalism, intersectionality, whatever you call it, don’t really have a significant alternative. It’s not as though there is a society in waiting that has its own coherence and its own ability to unite us as a people that they are waiting to put in place of what we have now. It’s much more the case that what they have is chaos. We saw this in a miniature level on the campuses, and I’m afraid we’re facing this on the macro level today.
Richard Reinsch: (20:13)
You argue this incident at Stanford really illustrates the first use or very expanded use of the charge of racism. Obviously, a very powerful term. But you go back and you look at arguments that were being made against the western civilization course, by arguing that it itself was racist, even though there was no intention, nothing in the course that was meant to be racist. But because of the way it made someone feel potentially or challenged them, that that was racist. And of course, we see that now writ large all the time in the sense of well just American constitutionalism is racist, or capitalism is racist. And the Jews argue that that’s where it started, in that instance.
Stanley Kurtz: (20:58)
Exactly Richard. Right now, we actually see that in some ways the presidential race is turning around this idea of systemic racism. We see that Vice President Biden and Kamala Harris, both fairly straightforward and enthusiastic, and they’re used to the term systemic racism. And we saw this with most of the Democratic presidential candidates, and then President Trump has opposed this, and he’s ordered the federal government to stop teaching critical race theory. So we can almost at this point, if you’re young enough, take for granted the fact that an accusation of racism is something very broad, that it can be brought into almost any ordinary political policy difference. But in fact, this is not the usual, and it’s not what racism originally meant.
Originally, of course, it had more to do with people who believed in the genetic inferiority of a race and the fact that that was in their view, their bigoted view, have necessitated a kind of systematic segregation of the races. And so how did we get from the one point to the other? And I do think Stanford was a turning point. When the accusation is made that just teaching Plato and Aristotle is racist, and creates racist, then you’re beginning to get the first glimmers of a major public national argument, where the claim is made that something that doesn’t have anything to do with a direct intention of racism is in fact racist.
And what we saw at the time, if you actually go back to this period of the Stanford dispute in 1987, in 1988, we see that traditionalists who supported Western civilization courses were completely shocked by these accusations of racism applying to the great books, and Plato and Aristotle. And they called it McCarthyism. They called it a kind of McCarthyism. And they said, “This is an academic setting. We’re supposed to have a debate on the merits of how we construct a course here. And you’re using these high powered accusations when we’ve already said that we’re very happy to add books, by say, Simone de Beauvoir and Frederick Douglass, we’re very open to that. And yet, somehow you’re calling this course racist, and you’re calling us racist.
And this is a smear on the order of a McCarthyite smear, and not something that has a place in the academic setting.” And I think the irony is that now, that is probably the main thing that happens in an academic setting. That there are a whole academic disciplines now or sub disciplines dedicated to finding subtle forms of systemic or institutional racism in almost everything and everywhere. This has actually become the central stuff of academia, and it’s become perhaps the central dividing line in our politics. And so that is a very problematic thing. But again, as I argue in the book, it is ultimately a way of giving us a kind of substitute for the communal and religious meanings that we seem to have lost. It’s a way to give us a kind of collective cause to cling to, but it results in a lot of inaccurate global unfair accusation.
Richard Reinsch: (24:26)
Yeah, the systemic racism, it’s funny just before we got on, I was reading a story, the student life director at Berry College in Georgia was dismissed yesterday for denying that systemic racism exist. So it’s a very powerful term. And I wonder though, when people are saying this, is it to say that the very structures of America are racist. So therefore, at one level, obviously, there’s been a lot of racism in America. On another level, we’ve done a lot to eliminate any institutional ability to oppress people, particularly through government. But it’s almost as if when I say systemic racism, it’s because of this past racism therefore everything is systemic, or something like that.
Stanley Kurtz: (25:13)
Right. I think one problem with the whole charge of systemic racism is that it’s difficult to define. And one of the things I say in the book is that this was true as well of the term multiculturalism. In fact, I find some multiculturalists actually acknowledging that the term doesn’t have a fixed meaning, that it is in fact, in effect, a term that can be deployed by interest groups on behalf of whatever they want for contradictory goals depending on their political interest at a given moment. So at one moment you might get accused of being a racist for not acknowledging a cultural, racial or ethnic difference. And that the next moment someone might turn around and say the fact that you have highlighted a difference by race or ethnicity or culture means that you are a bigot. And you never know what’s going to hit you.
I think some people who are saying systemic racism, what they really mean is, “We’re socialists, and we don’t like the system.” And by slapping the word racism on it, they find a convenient way to scare people into not talking back to them. And if anyone dares talk back, that just the fact that they’re rejecting the racism accusation is a way of saying, “Well, then you must be racist.” So that’s one way it works, I think. And in another sense, people often look at any disproportion at all in economic situation, or any other kinds of benefits that can be observed statistically between different races, ethnicities, people of different national origins, it can be attributed to systemic racism.
It may on the contrary be that because of complex historical forces, and because of current cultural views, let’s say the collapse of the family which has particularly been strong in the black community, that might explain some of the differences in educational achievement, rather than racism per se. But if you say it’s all because any disproportion in statistics is because of systemic racism, you have a way of deflecting attention from the strengths and weaknesses of the cultures of different communities. And so it’s sometimes a way of just dismissing the claim that there is a cultural component to why some communities do better educationally than others.
Richard Reinsch: (27:42)
But in listening to you say that, and thinking about your discussion of the regimes of truth, it brings up some interesting questions too. So one way of dismissing say the teaching of Western civilization was to employ the post modernism, the deconstructionism, there is no such thing as culture. What could possibly be a civilization? you’re just sort of inventing things on the fly to justify what you want in this sort of business. And of course, in a way and now people argue, well, the problem is relativism on the left. They actually have a lot of moral certainty and objectivity about what they believe in. But it is the case it seems that though, and you make this point and thinking about it, there is sort of like a relativism always there that enables them to sort of justify as you try and puzzle through systemic racism. I was thinking, and just like the arguments we get for gender identity, it’s either hardwired or now we’re increasingly told it’s a choice. But in any event, it’s all good. And maybe you could tease that out a bit.
Stanley Kurtz: (28:49)
Absolutely, that is indeed another theme of the book that there is a kind of incoherence built into the postmodern critique, which simultaneously exhibits radical skepticism and at the same time, utter moral certainty. So for example, the work of Michel Foucault, the French postmodernist who is tremendously influential on our college campuses today, suffers from this incoherence. On the one hand, Foucault wants to argue that there is actually no such thing as truth, that what you call truth… Let’s say that your truth is that there is something called Western civilization, and that that is a great tradition and needs to be studied and understood. And he’s saying actually, no, that is not… He’s not saying it’s false, so much as that he’s saying, “That is your truth and your way of speaking, and that way is actually a technique to give you power and control.”
So what you’re really looking to do by speaking of Western civilization, is to get control and power over people who you call uncivilized. So I’m not even going to bother, I Foucault, about proving you right or wrong as to whether there is a Western civilization and what it consists of. Instead I’m going to analyze all of the subtle ways in which your talk of civilization is really a way of dismissing and demeaning others and giving you power over them.”
But then you turn around and see that Foucault who has thrown out the whole enterprise of trying to find what is true, is himself making a truth claim. He’s making a claim that people’s arguments about truth are really a way of grabbing for power. And that is a kind of moral certainty at the base of his way of thinking. And if you tease it out, as I tried to do in the book, you’ll find that that is actually coming from the great intellectual tradition of Western civilization. The Foucault in an implicit way, depends for his effect on our outrage at the idea that someone would be trying to grab for power over a weaker and oppressed group. And that touches on our basic, classically liberal belief in liberty and equality-
Richard Reinsch: (31:29)
Stanley Kurtz: (31:29)
… and all of the ideas that Americans hold dear, but that Foucault says are a bunch of nonsense. So he simultaneously is exhibiting a very Western way of looking at things at the very moment that he is trying to say that it’s all nonsense.
Richard Reinsch: (31:44)
Yeah, I was thinking as well the relativism you’ve already cleared the ground, and okay, so there’s nothing left. And yet man needs meaning, man needs purpose, some sort of direction. And that racism sort of was still there. Still one thing that a lot of people agree on as wrong. And that sort of fills a power void, an existential power void in people’s lives, particularly on campus, and becomes sort of this guiding ethos for how to organize campus. And I was thinking recently, Glenn Loury has been very strong in the past few months in speaking out against a lot of these claims. And he opposed his own Brown University where he teaches, which issued a letter basically signing the university off on a social justice mission. And he argued that this is completely at odds with the ethos at the university. But then you kind of argue with this, there’s all sort of flows from it’s the relativism dialectic turning into certainty around this one thing of race.
Stanley Kurtz: (32:47)
Absolutely. One of the things I argue is that morality in general, used to turn around the idea of personal sacrifice on behalf of a community that was larger than yourself. So you will sacrifice on behalf of the family, of the neighborhood, of your religious community, of your nation, or of your civilization. And in the current mode, many of those communities have broken down, and we’ve become much more atomized as individuals. And that stands behind this comprehensive sense of skepticism about larger narratives of history and community. It really is the energy that feeds all of the skepticism.
But as an atomized individual, one of the few things that you have left to believe in, is your individual freedom. You may no longer connect that freedom to this great Western tradition and this great American tradition flowing from the declaration and the Constitution. You now find those unbelievable and unpersuasive, and yet somehow, as an individual, you simultaneously and in a contradictory way, feel outrage about anyone trying to step on your rights or to oppress you and take away your freedom. And so the one thing that can bring you into unity with others, into some kind of at least temporary community is a crusade to fight against oppression.
And that means that the only way to find larger meaning in your life is to find oppression everywhere. If there is no crisis of oppression, then you are an isolated atomized individual who no longer even believes in your own country or civilization. But if you can find oppression somewhere, even if it’s only coming from an inert statue, then all of a sudden you can galvanize a protest group and have meaning and excitement in your life.
Richard Reinsch: (35:04)
As I read your diagnosis there, which I largely agree with, I read your book, I finished it yesterday. And it filled me with great sadness, and almost pessimism because that those underlying problems are only getting worse. And sort of the people separated from community, from family, from their history. I mean, obviously, we haven’t really taught our young people much history. And so if that’s true, then those underlying factors get worse than the turn towards the anti racism continues to grow and metastasize.
Stanley Kurtz: (35:35)
Well, that’s right. And I’ll give you a pessimistic and an optimistic take.
Richard Reinsch: (35:40)
Stanley Kurtz: (35:40)
The pessimistic take is, and we touched on it already in this conversation, that what divides us is not belief in two coherent alternatives, which could somehow be compromised, or even with the triumph of the new way could somehow build a new and coherent society. Really, we’re dealing with a contrast between the traditional American sense of citizenship on the one hand, and a critical perspective that has no real coherent social or cultural alternative to provide. And without that, one has to be very pessimistic about the future. At the same time, on a more optimistic view, I have argued that although it’s contradictory and incoherent, there is still something profoundly Western about the critics of our traditional American system, about the people who have fallen away from it. And that it’s possible that they might be able to recognize this and understand their kinship to the various traditions that they have rejected. And if that begins to dawn on people, I think it creates a basis for some kind of reconciliation. Because the truth is we are all still very Western and American. And it wouldn’t be that difficult, if we wanted to recognize that our founding principles, and the great tradition of liberty developed in the West is actually something that unites us. That we’re fighting over conflicting interpretations of concepts that we still hold in common. And that I think, is the possibility that just might save us.
Richard Reinsch: (37:29)
In this regard too, it’s been interesting talking to another of academics teaching Frederick Douglass, or Martin Luther King, and being told by students that this is sort of ridiculous. That in a way they were playing right into the white power structure with their arguments, and why would we even need to learn this? And I guess that also fills me with pessimism, because if there are bridges to bring these two perspectives into conversation with one another, surely it’s someone like Frederick Douglas and his background and experiences and then appealing back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to try and show the goodness of America. And that course just being rejected outright, that also a bad sign, to put it mildly.
Stanley Kurtz: (38:18)
Well, that’s true, but I will say this is not an entirely optimistic reply, but it is a reply of sorts. Remember that the ’60s at their height had a kind of collapse. There was a collapse there. Eventually, the hippie communes broke up, and the druggies sort of overdosed and snapped out of it. There was no real place to go from the ’60s. Yes, it seeped into our culture since then. But the ’60s was never able to build a coherent alternative. Similarly, the French Revolution collapsed. Now, there was a lot of struggle and strife in France for a long time after that, before they came back to a stable resolution, but I don’t think the current situation is going to lead to a stable alternative. It’s going to collapse of its own extremism. We’ve already actually seen perhaps a glimmer of that. When you see the unprovoked murder of these police officers, and then demonstrators trying to block the hospital saying, “I hope you die.” This is the sort of thing that is already I think, probably beginning to snap people out of it. Where you look at Minneapolis, where now they’re beginning to worry. They started to say they were going to disband their police, and now people are complaining-
Richard Reinsch: (39:36)
Where are the police?
Stanley Kurtz: (39:36)
… there are no police. There’s nowhere to go from this perspective, and they’re going to hit the wall, and then people are going to rethink.
Richard Reinsch: (39:45)
Yeah. That was sort of my next question, is what sort of community can one build within an ideology like intersectionality. Some of it is made of these dynamics that we saw say in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, where the most radical group wins. But what was actually won, and what could they actually build?
Stanley Kurtz: (40:08)
I think that’s true. Although now to switch on to the pessimistic side, I think that’s true but when you look over Russia, you see that they were able to sustain this unsustainable for 70 years, and they haven’t done very well for themselves since then, either. So I do think America has deeper resources culturally than that. We have a larger bank of cultural capital, so to speak. So I don’t think we’re necessarily quite as badly off as Russia was. But you never know when will you have one of these unsustainably radical perspectives knocking down what has been built with such care, you could have a situation as say in the ’60s where things turned around, and we actually got in response to the ’60s, a period of relative conservatism, at least on the political level if not the cultural. You could have a relatively quick turnaround, because America has good cultural resources, but sometimes you can have a long period of an essentially untenable situation, which only collapses of its own weight after a long time. And it’s tough to say what the future holds. As Yogi Berra said, “Predicting is hard, especially the future.”
Richard Reinsch: (41:20)
The future takes a long time.
Stanley Kurtz: (41:22)
Richard Reinsch: (41:23)
Final question for you is just higher education, the future of it? And I think, particularly in the light of the last few years, is there a future for humanities in higher education in an authentic sense? To my mind, if there is it would require pretty extensive federal government action to bring it to bear and actually return it to what it was or what it could be.
Stanley Kurtz: (41:51)
I think there’s a place for federal action, particularly cutting money, and maybe some other things as well such as campus free speech legislation. But I make an argument in an essay that came out a couple months ago. In the American mind, I kind of lay out a broad strategy for how to take back the academy. And I actually think the largest task falls back on ourselves. There is actually, I would argue, a majority of Americans at this moment who are unhappy with the academy. This includes not only Republicans, but many independents, and many moderate Democrats. The problem is that they aren’t organized.
This is a classic case where a particular interest group, the people within the academy itself, and they have a very large and powerful lobbying arm, exercise disproportionate power, because the general public is not activated and organized. What if there was a lobby group, like the NRA on the right, or NEA on the left? What if there was a lobby group in favor of reforming the academy? If there was such a group, and millions of people signed up and gave in their membership fees, and then the leaders of that lobby could walk into state legislators and Congress with those legislators knowing that whether they go the way that this person favors or doesn’t favor, means letters going back to a very large national membership, saying that this person is in favor of shutting down free debate on college campuses, or this person is trying to help us, then I think that the dial could move. And we haven’t even tried to do that, haven’t even realized that we need to do that. So I lay out a number of ideas like that in this article. I think it’s possible to win, but we’ve got to get a better strategy and I try to lay one out.
Richard Reinsch: (43:46)
Well it’s interesting. I look forward to reading that. Stanley Kurtz, thank you so much for joining us. We’ve been talking with the author of The Lost History of Western Civilization. Thank you.
Stanley Kurtz: (43:56)
Richard. Thanks so much.
Richard Reinsch: (43:58)
This is Richard Reinsch. You’ve been listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk, available at lawliberty.org.