By Robert Weissberg
It is not so much our friends' help that helps us, as the confidence of their help. - Epicurus (Greek Philosopher 341 BC-271 BC)
Though relatively tiny in number PC forces now exercise disproportionate influence across the university, even capturing entire departments. What makes this conquest especially noteworthy is the lack of resistance from academics, liberal and conservative, who know better and should have stood up and shouted, "Enough with this race/class/gender crap, we need people to teach Chinese or Japanese politics, not yet one more course about African Americans." Going one step further, where is the vocal outrage when the PC contingent accuses a fellow professor of "hateful insensitivity" by assigning the Bell Curve or his "heretical" remarks on colonialism? Outside the university this bystander unresponsiveness even has a name---the Kitty Genovese phenomena, named after a repeatedly stabbed woman who lay unattended for hours in an apartment building courtyard while "oblivious" neighbors ignored her screams (she eventually died). But, why would life-time tenured professors go deaf when the ninnies beat up on a colleague who, to be hypothetical, dare hypothesized a biological factor in male/female mathematical distinction? Rallying to his defense is hardly as dangerous as, say, trying to stop a Mafia execution. Callous indifference to the plight of those singled out for PC attack is critical to understanding what bedevils today's academy, and deserves an explanation.
The decline in friendship explains a lot---friends defend friends, even risk death, but without camaraderie, it is all too easy to run and "not notice." Friendship's role in helping others was made crystal clear following World War II when sociologist Morris Janowitz and others interviewed German POWs to assess their extraordinary unit combat cohesiveness. It turns out that small units like tank crews typically came from the same town and were kept together for the entire war. This bonding, plus the realization that cowardice would travel back home encouraged bravery---Hans would risks his life to save his friend, fellow Bad Homburger, Rolf, and this loyalty far outweighed abstract ideology. American units, by contrast, favored shifting personnel and mixed composition (recall WW II "buddy" movies where "Brooklyn" shared a foxhole with "Tex"). But with the war ending, and German units becoming hastily assembled hodge-podges, combat effectiveness collapsed and mass surrenders ensued. Hans would risk death for Rolf but not the newcomer Wolfgang from far distant Rostock.
Today's universities are almost organized conspiracies against such cohesion. Affirmative action consciously rips it apart (recall how in 1984 friendship was sabotaged to atomize society on behalf of Big Brother). The diversity fetish guarantees departments filled with strangers having little in common. Hiring newcomers who "will fit in" has been replaced with "is he or she sufficiently different enough to satisfy the Diversity and Outreach Dean." Departments grow to resemble modern grade- school earth science textbook role model pictures---no two young faces alike, a few disabled to boot, and numerous smiling representatives from "under-represented" groups hardly known for scientific achievement. Indeed, hiring a white male job candidate who will further cement social cohesion may require extra justification beyond "he is the best." Too many white males implies unacceptable "good old boyism."
These "diversity recruits" can also bring ideological baggage, namely "the personal is the political" mentality along with razor-thin skin, and both easily can corrode friendship. Suddenly, the "off limits" territory vastly expands so stone silence must surround innumerable legitimate conversation topics. We now have "look around first conversation"--one carefully looks around first before broaching a once humdrum subject. Only one's most trusted confidants are privy to thoughts regarding "sensitive topics" and with self-censorship, give-and-take frankness vanishes, and the forbidden list grows longer daily. Forthrightness is risky and too many "controversial" comments invite trouble. Think DDR Stasi informers ever anxious to squeal about "dangerous" views. In the old Soviet Union establishing friendship first required polishing off a bottle of vodka together to ensure that neither one was a police spy; there is, sad to say, no equivalent in the contemporary academy.
A medley of uniquely modern conditions also undermines academic camaraderie. When I began my academic career in 1969 few academic wives worked and the pleasant upshot was endless festive dinners. One met colleagues over good food and drink, and casual acquaintances grew deeper. Today, the faculty wife is likely to be a fellow academic or professional and old-style socializing is often reduced to a once-a-year official "meet the new graduate students and junior faculty" party. "Who has the time?" is today's endemic lament. Equally subversive is the rise of the "look busy" mentality. The old aristocratic style of appearing to be lounging about while producing great ideas has been replaced by conspicuous displays of frenzy to impress bean-counting administrators---showing up at 7AM, working until midnight and chaining oneself to the computer. Thus, leisurely lunches with colleagues, let alone "wasting" hours in a cafe debating Big Ideas is mistaken as a sign of a poor work ethic. The ambitious careerist begs off invitations for lunch or coffee with "We might meet for a quick bite at 11:15 next month but right now I have two conference papers, a book review and a book chapter to do." This is a (self-proclaimed) busy person destined for glory. Ironically, what is actually accomplished with "leisure" is irrelevant---socializing is just verboten. Among grind-oriented academics it is unimaginable that the path-breaking physics of the 20th century was often done in Berlin or Gottingen sidewalk cafes (the brilliant John Von Neumann complained that Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study lacked good coffee houses and this hindered world-class physics).
Finally, the internet and proliferating sub-sub specialty conferences have drastically altered "academic citizenship." Past loyalty was largely local---one's best friends were down the hall, and daily interchanges were the pleasurable norm. Colleagues from afar were contacted only occasionally and seen maybe once or twice a year at professional meetings. Today, by contrast, we have "virtual friends," people we correspond with almost daily via e-mail, blogs, websites and cheap telephone calls who, in many instances, we seldom meet personally. Professional relationships exist independent of one's home university---a specialist in American elections at Harvard might thus have more "contact" with an elections "colleague" at Berkeley than his next door expert on Latin American politics. Interactions across generations are especially rare, and junior and senior faculty may not even know each other. To use fancy terminology, Gesellschaft has replaced Gemeinschaft. A department of mail box names.
The new and old friendships differ profoundly in terms of resisting the Barbarians. To hear that one's long-time e-mail buddy miles away is being harassed by irate radicals for a misunderstood, off-hand remark about black crime might instigate some sympathetic e-mails, but such comfort is thin gruel, and not much more is expected. Let some academic defense organization like FIRE handle it. This is profoundly different than if a lunch partner of many decades were put in the show trial docket. Here the reaction would be strong moral support, shared outrage, rounding up colleagues to show solidarity; organized resistance would be guaranteed. Wives would join the fray, holding coffee klatches to coordinate responses, enlisting other wives ("let me call my friend Marsha the Dean's wife and give her an earful"). The accused would stand tall knowing that people he has known for years, colleagues acquainted with his intimate life story, people who know him to be a good guy, will not let him down. This is exactly what Wehrmacht solidarity was about---you just don't abandon gunner Hans.
It is not difficult to build socially cohesive departments and thus help build resistance to the all-too-familiar assaults by radical ideologues. A faculty lounge with free coffee and bagels can initiate friendships and this is only one of many possibilities. But, and this is speculation, for many administrators anomie is preferable for it facilitates managing the faculty. With everybody in the office dutifully on the computer (door open so others can see), and nobody socializing after work, organized resistance to the latest top-down dictate is unlikely. One by one they all can be picked off. I can only be reminded of a cable TV nature show where a troop of monkeys sat on a log watching one of their own battle a hungry alligator. Eventually, the troop member escaped but no help was provided. When Thomas Hobbes is quoted on State of Nature horrors, it is almost always "poor, nasty, brutish and short." People forget that this should be "...solitary, poor, nasty...."
A prescription resides here, and this applies across the ideological spectrum. The university is under attack from anti-intellectual Barbarians, and many have allies within its walls. Academic honesty is fragile and much depends on colleagues who refuse to abandon friends to alligators. Friendship is one of the great joys of human existence but many (correctly) view it as an obstacle to political control. It has to be encouraged and the good news is that this can be great fun. The PC assault can be fought in many ways, but it is hard to imagine a more delightful tactic than regular raucous beer and pizza outings. Remember, drinking buddies don't let drinking buddies get marched off for mandatory sensitivity training.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.