By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
When you look at pictures of Middlebury College in Vermont (founded in 1800), you look at a perfect campus, the kind that makes you wistful with the hope that you could go back in time, sit under a tree with brilliant fall foliage, your best pal and best gal next to you. The Green Mountains are glorious... so glorious that every time you look outside your dormitory window, you cannot believe just how privileged you are. This is what we see, this is what we want to see.
And then, there is the incident of Thursday, March 2nd, 2017, where that picture perfect postcard became a playing field of violence, hatred, vulgarity, disgrace, and yes, dishonor, turning a great institution into a place of ignominy.
The facts go like this. A campus organization did what they have always done throughout history; they selected a speaker to enliven one of their meetings. You can see them at their work, saying "He'd never come," "My father knows him," and "Let's give it a try and see whether he comes." Bringing special guests to campus is, you see, a long hallowed tradition.
Since there is usually no money in the treasury, the game goes like this. Meet your guest... provide plane tickets, if possible, or even send one of the members to pick up the guest, the benefit being that extra time with a person of consequence. A dinner was customarily arranged at a fine local restaurant... the President, the officers of the club making sure they got to have dinner with the guest.
Then the President of the club would escort his guest to the campus auditorium, where the number of seats filled was a direct indication of how popular, even how controversial the guest speaker was. The talk, of course, would be erudite, clever, humorous... a breath of real life. The speech was followed by a reception, ordinarily attended by the President of the institution, his wife, and any other guests he may have happened to have staying with him just then.
The sherry, of course, was always mediocre (why did it have to always be that inferior brand?). But you were drunk more on the atmosphere than the vintage. It was a wonderful thing, that a person whose name you saw in the newspapers or even the movies could come sit next to you. You wanted the guest to autograph the program, but you were afraid your friends would see, and it would establish you as a weenie. Still, somehow, you got the autograph in the end. You still have it.
Before you went to bed, you called your parents or wrote them a brief letter. After all they were footing a sizable portion of the bill (which in 2016 was just a shade under $50,000 a year). Still, it was a good thing to show your parents that there was value for money, your father particularly would be relieved.
This is the way it was supposed to be. This is the way it had been so often before. Now, this longstanding tradition had been besmirched by people who manifestly failed to understand what a liberal arts college exists to do, and why the behavior of some caused consternation to the many.
Enter M. de Voltaire (1694-1778)
One of the most well known quotations on Earth is Voltaire's ringing declaration "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Men and women have gone to war to defend this sacred oath. They died to preserve it. They gave up the ghost to defend for the rest of us a sacred trust that allowed us to say what we had to say without any fear of obstruction, retribution, or impediment of any kind. Generations came and went with near unanimous agreement. Defense of the indefensible constituted one of the great virtues of our Republic.
We might abhor the thought, be disgusted by the thought, find the thought painful, revolting, even pernicious, but we also knew, and this is the point, our Great Republic had grown and flourished in part because we allowed those who thought differently than we did to have their unacceptable say without rancor or hostility, without physical abuse or frightening tactics.
This freedom, found so infrequently around the globe, was one of the indelible glories of our Constitution, of our entire way of life, and we were right to exalt what was this treasure we had helped create and make more splendid yet.
This is what had made the day in pristine Vermont so troubling to so many. Take a look at the facts. Charles Murray is a well known gadfly and columnist, whose particular bee in his bonnet is his firm belief that some are gifted with superior intelligence, and some have hardly any intelligence at all.
He has gone about the country stirring up hatred and division. No reputable authority has stepped forward to say "We have Charles Murray, and he will show us the way." But this is not how it is when Charles Murray comes to college campuses. He looks out upon a sea of faces of every race and color and says some of these are at the bottom of the heap because of DNA, whilst others are at the top.
Who is responsible for this state of affairs? Why, your DNA molecules, of course. Mr. Murray says his piece, the audience rolls its eyes on schedule, sniggers and disputes him. He picks up a nice check, gets his story in the New York Times, whilst the trustees of the institution congratulate themselves, having pulled off a quiet coup, no blood spilled, the institution's reputation for truth, justice, and the American way is sustained.
The people in the audience look at each other and say smugly "That wasn't so bad. I even found things to agree with him about." And everyone is happy... except the self-proclaimed "revolutionaries" who have only pure thoughts and pure intentions, and a pocketful of shibboleths and "knowledge" which doesn't even rise to the status of cliche.
They hear about the Murray visit and they determine upon a course of action that will sustain their purity, and turn them into heroes for each other. They plot their course... first, they make sure they look terrific, for after all they will be on the 11 o'clock news. Their clothes must be black, the de rigueur revolutionary color. No exceptions, except for the occasional red Che Guevara t-shirt, a hero they have adopted though they know nothing about him.
Hair must be cropped irregularly. The whiff of many unwashed days must follow them like a rancid dog. And of course, they must wear masks, for while they're willing to go to any extent on behalf of what they believe, they want no one to know that they believe it.
Oh yes, one last fashion touch. Since they will, as part of the choreography, turn their backs shunning the people they mean to overawe, what they write on their jackets must be short, sweet, and if at all possible misspelled. For their leader has said "What is misspelling compared to gross injustice? We stand for the right way, grammar be damned."
These "revolutionaries" are expert now in these special touches. They make a positive religion out of it, and they approach battle as if they were the saints marching in. For after all, the saints may only march with the "revolutionaries", never with the people they are attacking.
In Middlebury, Vermont, things followed the usual sneering course. The guest, Mr. Charles Murray was invited, and right at this moment when leadership was necessary, the College chose to stand on its tradition of civility and good fellowship. Though, bit by bit leaders of the institution began to understand that there could well be a ruckus.
They believed that their strict admissions policies (only 16% of applicants are admitted) and their long years of enlightened behavior would protect them from any kafuffle. In short, just like M. de Launay, the governor of the Bastille in 1789, merely issuing an order should suffice to get the desired response. But as the grisly sight of M. de Launay's head riding on a pike proved, one could order, but one could never be sure of what would happen then. That is what a revolution means.
And so, a group of up to 30 students and townies in short order destroyed the veneer of peace and security for one of America's great educational institutions... called a "mini Ivy" because as the students there will tell you, "We are just as intelligent, if not moreso, as our colleagues who went to Harvard or Yale." It is not true of course, but they would like to think so. And after all, it is a harmless enough delusion.
This incident did not take place over merely one day. Professors met with their students, and students met with each other to prepare themselves for the event. It is doubtful whether even one of those students approached the entire business in an honest and non-judgmental way. As is the metier with today's students, who needs the truth when the object is publicity and mayhem.
In my day, by comparison, you went to these meetings where the goal was learning at least a little something, rather than assuming that you already knew it. Today's students are a byword for laziness and nonchalance. Why should they be bothered to learn anything, when they already know everything?
In this case, the first thing the "revolutionaries" did was make sure that Murray was not allowed to speak. Yes, one could almost hear the high principles of the institution being crushed by the elite of the nation.
The program then moved to a new location where the guest was to be interviewed by Professor Allison Stanger and other college officials. Here, they had no more luck than before. The second attempt at ensuring the program took place was in an instant deranged by students pulling fire alarms... their shrill sound made anything else impossible.
And so, Murray and the college officials left, and the attack began. A street sign with a heavy concrete base was thrown in front of the car Murray was in. At the same time, the other insurgents pounded and pumped on the car. Then, in the most serious event, someone had the audacity to pull Professor Stanger's hair, and injured her neck. She was immediately taken to the hospital.
I ask you to consider for a moment the significance of what happened. An approved university guest was pushed off the stage, and given no chance whatsoever to do what he came to do. Here, 200 years and more after Voltaire said it, his great declaration is more relevant than ever. The guests thrust Murray off the stage, and at this moment Voltaire's great proclamation became more relevant than ever.
We live in a nation where the virtues of the 1st Amendment are everyday made manifest, except at Middlebury College, nestled in the Green Mountains... a place not now just of beauty, but of embarrassment and chagrin.
Today's students, for whatever reason, have no desire to learn any point of view but their own. Too many believe that everything said to them by any teacher or other authority figure is, by definition, useless baggage of no value whatsoever. To them, they can text; why do they need to study? Why do they need to consider anyone's point of view but their own?
And so the nation, not just Middlebury College, is diminished daily by people who do not know, will not learn, will not think, but have power and money and the certainty that what they do is always the correct thing, no matter what that thing is... including relations with professors, College officials and yes, even parents.
Sadly, the response of Middlebury officials, including the President of the College Laurie Patton, was inadequate. As of this date, the College has not yet made any announcement to those who are students and those who participated in the mob from the city and area. Remember, "Justice delayed is justice denied."
So mild and futile has the College response been, that similar "revolutionaries" across the nation will say "The game is worth the candle," and carry forth with their heinous plans and ideas. The College instead should have had the trespassers arrested, and the students expelled. If you do not treat this crime as significant, then you are encouraging its growth. And that is why across the nation, the pride of America's educational establishments is rising up, oblivious, without having to worry about recriminations, or indeed, any punishment whatsoever.
Moreover the sad thing is, with institutions fighting for the creme de la creme of the students, it may be the economics of this situation are determining what will be done. Administrators do not wish to take appropriate action, because if they do, they send a message to the other students who can afford to go elsewhere, and the institution cannot afford to squander even a single penny.
And so these disgusting hijinx, so wicked cool, will continue. College presidents paid in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars will hesitate to use their authority, for if they do they might be forced to resign from the most lucrative job of their lives... the job where all they have to do is say the right thing, and never do it.
For the music to accompany this article, I have selected "Ca ira" (1790). The "Ca ira" was the most revolutionary of songs. Its lyrics proclaimed the death of anyone who disagreed with the revolutionaries of 1789. The lyric was sharp; the tune catchy. Ca ira means "it'll be fine". A new world growing from the cascade of blood when the guillotine strikes. It will be good; it will be fine... they sang. It'll be fine. But will it?
"Ah! It'll be fine, it'll be fine, it'll be fine
aristocrats to the lamp post
Ah! It'll be fine, it'll be fine, it'll be fine
the aristocrats, we'll hang them!"
"Ah! ca ira, ca ira, ca ira
les aristocrates a la lanterne!
Ah! ca ira, ca ira, ca ira
les aristocrates on les pendra!"
About the author
Harvard educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant has written over 1,000 articles on a wide variety of subjects and 61 books. Find his complete corpus at www.drjeffreylant.com.