Review: The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

 The safety culture burgeoning in US universities is a danger both for ‘coddled’ students and the future of society, warns Niall Ferguson

Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Preferred pronouns. Checked privileges. If you work at an American university these days, you have to tread as if on eggshells, if not land mines. One ill-judged microaggression is all it takes to be accused of racism or sexism, transphobia or Islamophobia, harassment or full-blown rape. Often, such accusations lead to investigations that are the antithesis of due process, with the transgressor deemed guilty until proved innocent.

I remember when it was not like this. Sixteen years ago, what lured me away from Oxford to New York University (NYU) and Harvard was the sense that the real intellectual action in my field (economic history) was on the western side of the Atlantic. The US economists, in particular, were impressively free in their speech. To present a paper at one of their seminars was to run a gauntlet of caustic criticism. “There are idiots,” Larry Summers famously began one of his papers. “Look around.” He was right. Unfortunately, idiotic ideas were in the process of taking over large swathes of academic life.

The speed with which campus life has changed for the worse is one of the most important points made by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in this important if disturbing book. Lukianoff is a lawyer and head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), which works to protect academic freedom. Haidt is a professor of social psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the founder of Heterodox Academy, which promotes intellectual diversity in academic life — the one type of diversity that universities appear not to care about.

Of course, the authors no more believe in a prelapsarian paradise than I do. When Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind more than 30 years ago, there were already reasons to worry about where the fad for “political correctness” was leading: after all, Bloom’s subtitle was How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. The crusade against the western civilisation and the “dead white men” who created it is not new.

But Lukianoff and Haidt are describing not the closing but the losing of the American mind. In their view, things changed as recently as 2013, when they first heard students demanding that “triggering” material be removed from courses and “offensive” speakers be disinvited from giving talks.

The media tend to cover only the sensational episodes: the violence at Middlebury College, Vermont, last year when the social scientist Charles Murray came to speak, or the Antifa riot at Berkeley that prevented an appearance by the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. But the real story here is much more widespread and insidious. Rowdy protests are the least original things today’s student radicals do — and by the standards of the anti-Vietnam era they are amateurs.

What we see today is more like a religious cult than a political moment. Devotees insist on using the pronouns “they” or the made-up “zhe” for students who regard “he” or “she” as “cis-heteronormative”. They like to congregate in “safe spaces” where they can take refuge from ideas they find uncongenial. (The original safe space, at Brown University in 2015, “was equipped with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members purportedly trained to deal with trauma”. Cult members glory in infantilising themselves.)

Rather than protest against speakers they consider heretics, the zealots prefer to have them disinvited or “no-platformed”. According to Lukianoff’s research, there have been 379 disinvitation campaigns since 2000. Nearly half were successful.

The campus cult also owes a debt to China’s Cultural Revolution. Like their predecessors, today’s American Red Guards like to humiliate academics who stand up to them — professors such as Nick Christakis, the master of Silliman College at Yale, whose wife dared to defend Halloween costumes from the charge of cultural appropriation, and Bret Weinstein, the biology professor at Evergreen who opposed a “day of absence” that required white students and faculty to vacate the college’s premises for a day.

I highly recommend watching the videos of these struggle sessions. The students scream hysterically at their incredulous victim, refusing to let him speak, or sinisterly snapping their fingers to indicate their disapproval.

Lukianoff and Haidt trace all this lunacy back to three bad ideas that have spread throughout American education, beginning in primary school. The first is that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”. The “coddling” of the book’s title begins early with the measures devised in schools to protect children from such menaces as peanut allergies. Today’s students expect to be equally well protected from white supremacists.

Bad idea number two is what the authors call “the untruth of emotional reasoning: always trust your feelings”. Today’s students rarely say: “I think that…” The correct form is: “As a gay woman of colour, I feel that…”

The third bad idea is that “life is a battle between good people and evil people”, an idea lent intellectual respectability by the likes of Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault, but the basis for witch-hunts since time immemorial.

As Lukianoff argues, on the basis of his own positive experiences with cognitive behavioural therapy, these ideas are the opposite of what young people need if they are to develop mental resilience.

Yet bad ideas are always lying around. The libraries are full of them. The really interesting question is why these ones have gained ascendancy now. Here Lukianoff and Haidt tell a plausible story. The increasing polarisation and shrill tone of American politics has played a part. The mental-health epidemic, especially among girls, is another variable. (A 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, based on data from 139 colleges, found that half of all students surveyed in 2015–16 had sought counselling for mental-health concerns.)

Children who grew up with smartphones and social media (“iGen”) seem more prone to depression than the millennials who preceded them. Also at fault, however, are the paranoid parents, who thought that wrapping their offspring in cotton wool was the way to raise them.

The final, fatal ingredient has been the tendency of academic administrators to appease snowflake students. Every university in America has an ever-growing contingent of “officers” whose role it is not just to coddle their fragile charges but to encourage them to vent grievances. To give just one example, Fire has found that two-fifths of American colleges have established some form of bias reporting system.

Despite all the evidence they present, the authors are optimists. All this can be fixed, they insist, concluding their book with a list of remedies, from free play for younger children to free speech for older ones. If only the problem were so fixable. Unfortunately, history suggests that such cultural revolutions are quite slow to subside unless, as in China, they are forcibly suppressed. Belief in witchcraft took at least a century to die out after the 17th-century witch craze.

When I look at today’s universities, where conservative academics have gone from being an endangered species to an oxymoron, I see little if any sign of impending improvement. As for Lukianoff and Haidt, it’s surely only a matter of time before they are both “called out” as white supremacists or otherwise defamed.

Once it was closing; now it is coddled. What’s next for the American mind? A return to sanity seems too much to hope for.

Allen Lane £20 pp338

Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Book review: Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell

 A political portrait looks back on the life of one of the most controversial presidents in modern American history. Review by Niall Ferguson

‘I am a square,” Richard Nixon told a journalist towards the end of his life, drawing a square in the air with his forefinger. “My values are traditional: God, country, family. I am absolutely opposed to the destruction of those values that came about during the Vietnam era. Free love, drugs, tearing down your country, denying God, selfishness and indulgence — everything I despise took root when I was president and there was so little I could do to stop it…I represented everything they were trying to overthrow.”

In the affections of the baby-boomer generation that runs America today — from the Oval Office to the casting couches of Hollywood — Nixon does indeed occupy a uniquely low place. Never in the history of American democracy have so many people loved to hate one man so much.

True, most baby-boomers long ago reached some kind of accommodation with God, country and family. But to this day, they still hate Nixon. They look back on his resignation as one of their generation’s greatest achievements. Although he was by no means the least popular of modern presidents while in office, he is certainly bottom of the league today.

It is, of course, easy to see why Nixon is hated. His presidency ended more ignominiously than any other, with resignation forced upon him following the exposure of his efforts to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. Nor was this an isolated lapse. Dicky was always tricky: witness his denials during the Alger Hiss case that he had spent time at key witness Whittaker Chambers’s farm, or the 1952 funding scandal that nearly cost him his place on the Republican presidential ticket.

Nixon’s youthful anti-communism, too, always irritated liberals. As a congressman, he came to national attention with his implacable pursuit of Hiss, the State Department official accused of spying for the Soviet Union. As Dwight D Eisenhower’s vice-president in the 1950s, he continued to play the Cold Warrior, famously confronting Nikita Khrushchev in a televised debate about the merits of Soviet and American kitchens. Above all, there was Nixon’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save South Vietnam from communism, unhappy memories of which are currently being stirred by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary series.

In this new biography, John A Farrell (born in 1953, Nixon’s first year as vice-president) re-retells the tale in terms that few of his fellow boomers will find objectionable. We read here of Nixon’s culpability in helping the South Vietnamese “steal…a moment of genuine hope” for peace in Vietnam in 1968 — according to Farrell, the “most reprehensible” of all Nixon’s acts. We read, too, that an option existed the following year, Nixon’s first as president, for “an immediate withdrawal of US forces under terms that would lead to the unification of Vietnam under a communist government”. Instead, Farrell writes: “More than 20,000 US soldiers…died on Nixon’s watch.”

Never mind that these counterfactuals can easily be shown to be unrealistic and the statistic misleading. The conspiracy theory that Nixon scuttled a chance for peace in 1968 has two logical defects. First, the South Vietnamese knew very well, without any help from Nixon, that President Lyndon B Johnson was cynically timing a Vietnam “October surprise” to help Hubert Humphrey defeat Nixon. They had every incentive to drag their feet and hope for a Republican victory. Second, the North Vietnamese had no serious intention of making peace in 1968 or 1969. Despite the failure of their Tet Offensive, they had not given up on achieving outright military victory even as they went to Paris to negotiate in bad faith.

As for the death toll, the reality is that nearly two-thirds of all US fatalities in Vietnam happened under Democratic administrations. And of the 21,000 who died between 1969 and 1974, more than half lost their lives in 1969. By 1974, the toll was down to one. The Nixon administration ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. It was not Nixon, but the Democrat-dominated Congress that doomed South Vietnam by cutting off the aid on which its defence depended.

Farrell’s misrepresentation of Nixon’s Vietnam policy is unfortunate, as it detracts from his readable if superficial book’s recognition that, on a host of issues, Nixon was in truth the most liberal Republican president of the modern era. Admittedly, this was partly a matter of congressional arithmetic. As Farrell notes, Nixon was the first president since Zachary Taylor in 1849 to take office with both houses of Congress in the hands of the opposition party. Yet Nixon was drawn to the kind of big government solutions to social problems that the Democrats had favoured since Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. “The problem with the right-wingers,” he told HR Haldeman, his chief of staff, was that “they have a totally hard-hearted attitude where human problems and any compassion is concerned.” As Alan Greenspan, the future Federal Reserve chairman, rightly noted: “The size of government under Nixon grew immensely. His reasoning was always, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, they [the Democrats] will do more.’”

As assistant to the president for domestic policy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced the Family Assistance Plan, a welfare reform that guaranteed a basic annual income, day care, and training for the jobless. This was just one of many Nixon-era initiatives that modern-day conservatives blame for the subsequent hypertrophic growth of the “administrative state”.

Farrell dwells on Nixon’s “Southern strategy”, which was designed to woo disgruntled white voters away from the Democrats by implicitly criticising the previous administration’s civil-rights legislation. Race was without question the decisive factor in the 1968 election, but more because so many erstwhile Democrats defected to the segregationist George Wallace. Once in office, Nixon pushed harder than his predecessor for the desegregation of Southern schools. He increased by a factor of 35 the funds available for enforcing civil rights.

Abroad, too, Nixon confounded efforts to typecast him. Not only was he intent on ending the Vietnam War; it was Nixon who went to China and met Mao Tse-tung, Nixon who signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the interim Strategic Arms Limitation agreement with the Soviets in May 1972.

Many commentators today draw casual parallels between Donald Trump and Nixon. The only things the two men really have in common, thus far, is their irresistible impulse to wage war on the media and the media’s insatiable desire to do them in. Contrary to liberal folk memory, Nixon was a centrist who secured a second term by a landslide not through skulduggery but because his foreign and domestic policies were hugely popular. That he was a square was a large part of his appeal at a time of national and international upheaval. That he was a crooked square should not distract us, as it has distracted Farrell, from the undoubted achievements of his presidency.

Doubleday £30 pp737

Niall Ferguson is the author of Kissinger: 1923-68: The Idealist

West Village to West Bank

Tony Judt is an intellectuals' intellectual. To review a book composed of his book reviews, which are often about other people who wrote a lot of book reviews, you feel you really ought to be sitting in a caf' on the Rive Gauche, smoking Gauloises and sipping Pernod.

In fact, you are more likely to encounter Judt in downtown Manhattan, where he directs the Erich Maria Remarque Centre at New York University. Readers of Postwar, his recent, critically acclaimed history of Europe since 1945, will know that he is a highly readable authority on sometimes unreadable west European (and especially French) intellectuals. What this new collection reveals, however, is how the Left Bank looks viewed from the West Village.

A regular reviewer for the unwaveringly liberal New York Review of Books, Judt is accustomed to writing for an elite American audience. At times, he is content to lead that audience in a liberal singalong. On page one of Reappraisals, he laments the years between the fall of the Berlin wall and "the catastrophic American occupation of Iraq" as "the years the locust ate: a decade and a half of wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic". His parting shot is a call for "the left in Europe ... to reconstruct a case for the activist state". Ho hum.

Thankfully, Judt says these boring things only so his liberal readers drop their guard. Then he delivers the intellectual equivalent of a left hook. "The Jewish intellectuals of interwar and postwar Central Europe", he writes, "were especially drawn to Marxism ... 'Zydokomuna' ('Judeo-communism') may be an anti-Semitic term of abuse in Polish nationalist circles, but for a few crucial years it also described a reality." It takes nerve to write a sentence like that, especially in the NYRB.

The uppercut soon follows: "After 37 years of military occupation [of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967], Israel has gained nothing in security; it has lost everything in domestic civility and international responsibility; and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever."

And finally, a knockout punch: "Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and the shame of the age."

Judt is by education (King's, Cambridge, 1966-1972) a man of the left. But, as his devastating verdict on Hobsbawm suggests, he reserves his harshest words for Marxist intellectuals, especially formerly line-toeing communists. Judt now understands what some people knew all along: "Some version of liberalism that accords the maximum of freedom and initiative in every sphere of life is the only possible option."

Judt is also by birth and upbringing a secular Jew; the descendant of Lithuanian rabbis, he spent his gap year on a kibbutz and even volunteered for the Israeli Defence Forces during the Six-Day war. But in this volume he bestows his highest praise on Edward Said, for decades the Palestinians' most vociferous spokesman in the US.

He even endorses Said's view that Israel should recognise the Palestinian refugees' "right of return" and become a "binational" state, shared equally between Jews and Arabs.

Many of the "rootless cosmopolitans" about whom Judt writes were uprooted by forces beyond their control. Judt is a cosmopolitan who has uprooted himself. He has lapsed not just once but twice: as a socialist and as a Zionist.

It is not surprising, then, that so many of Judt's heroes are what the Germans call Querdenker or contrarian thinkers: Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt and, especially, Albert Camus. The thread linking these intellectuals, in Judt's mind, was their readiness to question dogma, especially when they saw it used to justify violence. "Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed," he (twice) quotes Camus, "but in every case it is someone else's blood."

As a rule, the Querdenker ends up with more enemies than friends. Certainly, Judt lost friends by criticising Israel. But he is clearly a man with the courage of his (new) convictions. He abhors bloodshed but relishes a verbal fight. You sense that he rather admires Koestler for (as one contemporary recalled) being "capable of reciting the truths of the multiplication table in a way to make some people indignant with him".

Judt certainly has a wonderful eye for the telling quotation. Here, in all its awfulness, is the snobbery of the London left circa 1970, as exemplified by Sonia Orwell at a dinner party: "Auschwitz, oh dear, no! That person was never in Auschwitz. Only in some very minor death camp."

Also beautifully captured is the pompous, overblown style that EP Thompson favoured in debate: "There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts," he wrote to the great Polish political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, author of the definitive (and damning) Main Currents of Marxism. Kolakowski's withering riposte was entitled "My Correct Views on Everything".

Judt's deepest fear is that this world - that of the "free-standing intellectual" - is fading as fast as the Marxist ideology that was its principal talking point. Nothing, in his view, can be done to salvage Marxism. But Judt would love to preserve the milieu within which it was discussed - though I can't help feeling that intellectuals without Marxism are a bit like jazz musicians without cigarette smoke.

Like all collections of essays, this one has its duds. On the fall of France in 1940 Judt is beta-double-plus at best. Ditto the piece on the Cuban missile crisis. There is disappointingly little insight in the 1998 critique of Henry Kissinger. And, apart from one slightly funny line ("Blair ... is the gnome in England's Garden of Forgetting"), the piece on New Labour's Britain is off-key.

The discrepancy between these and the many straight alpha essays is easily explained. When Judt writes about generals, politicians and statesmen, he is playing away from home, far from his familiar bohemian haunts. Try as he may, he simply cannot empathise with the men of action who actually make history.

It is only as a reviewer of those who themselves review - the denizens of the caf's, not the situation rooms - that the intellectuals' intellectual excels.


April 13, 2008

War Plans


The Wars for the Twenty-First Century.
By Philip Bobbitt.
672 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

The age of "Atlantic man" is conventionally thought to be over. Some, like Parag Khanna, foresee the rise of a "second world" to challenge American hegemony. Others, notably Fareed Zakaria, are harbingers of a "post-American world." The rapid economic rise of China (and India) suggests to many that the geopolitical center of gravity no longer lies somewhere between Washington and London. The embarrassments of the Anglo-American "special relationship" in Iraq have encouraged others (myself among them) to predict a decline of American empire.

Philip Bobbitt, however, is homo atlanticus redux. A dapper Southerner, renowned almost as much for his sparkling literary allusions as for his acute thinking, he divides his time among Austin, Tex.; New York, where he teaches law at Columbia; and London, where he has lectured in war studies. His new book, "Terror and Consent," is in many ways a manifesto for a new Atlanticism, not just a reassertion but a reinvention of the dominant role of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It will be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan's Upper East Side to London's West End.

But "Terror and Consent" is much more than that readership might suggest. This is quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 - indeed, since the end of the cold war. I have no doubt it will be garlanded with prizes. It deserves to be. It is more important that it should be read, marked and inwardly digested by all three of the remaining candidates to succeed George W. Bush as president of the United States.

Bobbitt's originality lies in his almost unique ability to synthesize three quite different traditions of scholarship. The first is history. The second is law, particularly constitutional law. The third is military strategy. This synthesis owes as much to the corridors of power as to the sequestered groves of academe. Bobbitt was an associate counsel to President Carter, legal counsel to the Senate's Iran-Contra committee and a senior director on the National Security Council under President Clinton.

In his last book, "The Shield of Achilles" (2002), Bobbitt advanced a bold argument about the history of international relations since the time of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). His central argument was that, in the aftermath of the cold war, the traditional post-Westphalian ideal of the sovereign nation-state had become obsolescent. In the increasingly borderless world we associate with globalization, something new was emerging, which Bobbitt called (and continues to call) the "market-state." This state's relationship to its citizens resembles that between a corporation and consumers. Its counterpart - and enemy - is the terrorist network. The central problem raised in "The Shield of Achilles" was how far the market-state could and should go to defeat such networks, particularly when they were in some measure sponsored by traditional nation-states.

Read as a tract for the times, "The Shield of Achilles" seemed to exemplify the change in American attitudes to foreign policy that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, accelerated during the Balkan wars of the 1990s and came to a head after 9/11. Some reviewers took it to be a neoconservative work, and Bobbitt's support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 lent credence to that view. However, read as a work of history, it was no such thing. Rather, it was a reflection on the decline of national sovereignty in an age of globalization.

"Terror and Consent" is less historical; indeed, it is more concerned with the future and how best we should anticipate its challenges. Did I say "the future"? Bobbitt has learned from the scenario-builders of Royal Dutch Shell the essential point that there is really no such thing as the future - only futures (plural). The task he has set himself here is to challenge nearly all our existing ideas about the so-called wars on terror (note, once again, the plural), in the belief that only a root-and-branch rethinking will equip us to deal with the problems posed by "the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, mass terrorist atrocities and humanitarian crises that bring about or are brought about by terror."

Bobbitt's central premise is that today's Islamic terrorist network, which he calls Al Qaeda for short, is like a distorted mirror image of the post-Westphalian market-state: decentralized, privatized, outsourced and in some measure divorced from territorial sovereignty. The terrorists are at once parasitical on, and at the same time hostile toward, the globalized economy, the Internet and the technological revolution in military affairs. Just as the plagues in the 14th century were unintended consequences of increased trade and urbanization, so terrorism is a negative externality of our borderless world.

The difference, of course, is one of intent. The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based "terror-state" in the form of a new caliphate. Osama bin Laden and his confederates want to acquire nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction. Precisely because of the nature of the market-state, as well as the actions of rogue nation-states, the key components and knowledge are very close to being available to them - witness the nuclear Wal-Mart run in Pakistan by A. Q. Khan. With such weapons, the terrorists will be able to unleash a super-9/11, with scarcely imaginable human and psychological costs.

In short, we are in a war. Those who say that you cannot fight an abstract noun have misunderstood that "terror" itself is being deployed as a weapon against us by a hostile and calculating nongovernmental organization. To refine his argument, Bobbitt introduces a distinction. Both the market-states and the nation-states of the West are democratic; they are "states of consent," in which the rule of law exists to uphold individual liberty and rights. Our adversaries aim to replace our consent-based order with a "state of terror."

So how should you fight terror? Like the British soldier-philosopher Rupert Smith, Bobbitt argues that the Bush administration blundered in Iraq by waging the wrong kind of war. As a victory over a suspected rogue nation-state, Operation Iraqi Freedom was a triumph. But the "war amongst the people" that then had to be waged to convert Iraq into an ally in the war on terror was a fiasco. Bush had wanted an old-style victory-with-parades. In these new wars there can be no such resolution (hence Bobbitt's earlier coinage, "the long war," which a more sober Bush briefly adopted).

To make matters worse, the Bush administration has seemed to glory in its contempt for the rule of law, even as it has posed as the exporter of freedom. A member of the Democratic Party (and nephew of Lyndon Johnson), Bobbitt is damning about the deficiencies of the Patriot Act, the "prison colony" at Guant

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