Snickering Over Virtue

Even if your mother told you otherwise when she was trying to cheer you up, it isn’t true that every cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes bad news is just the beginning of more bad news.

But there is some truth in the old aphorism. There are times when an unfortunate turn of events can serve as shock therapy leading to a change for the better. The brouhaha over the University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill and Harvard president Larry Summers could do just that. We will have to wait a while to find out. The politically correct leftists in control of our universities are deeply entrenched.

Still, there is a chance that all the attention paid to the Churchill and Summers stories could go a long way toward shattering the mystique of the university “intellectual.” If it was not obvious to us before, it should be now: There is no reason to assume that an “intellectual” is intelligent. Or wise. Or learned. Or good. Anyone who harbored the image of a professor as a tweedy, pipe-smoking scholar who spends his days in serious research should have been disabused of that notion by the televised images of Churchill strutting and fretting his hour on the stage. He offered us a case study for how political correctness often counts for more than scholarly accomplishments in the modern academic world. Conscientious scholarship deserves great respect; politically correct agitprop none.

Charley Reese made the point in his inimitable way in a recent column. “Don’t confuse intellectuals with intellect,” he wrote. “An intellectual is a person who makes a living with words, either writing or talking or both, as opposed to doing really useful work, like construction, plumbing, ranching, farming and so forth. If we don’t reverse this proliferation of word people, we’re going to end up eating paper.”

Reese is exaggerating, of course. It is his style is to needle his opponents, to wisecrack, to entertain as much as to inform. True scholars provide an essential service to society. As Russell Kirk phrased it, they “preserve, protect, defend and extend the heritage of the Christian West.” John Leo’s style is less epigrammatic than Reese’s, more reflective, if you will. That is not said in criticism of Reese. Both styles can be effective in their own way. In a column in early March, Leo explored why modern intellectuals no longer resemble Kirk’s definition of a scholar. He wrote, “Many Americans notice that liberalism nowadays lacks a vocabulary of right and wrong, declines to discuss virtue except in snickering terms, and seems increasingly hostile to prevailing moral sentiments.”

Leo contends this has led to a “breakdown of the universities, the fortresses of the 1960s cultural liberals and their progeny.” Under the banner of deconstructionism, “[s]tudents are taught that objective judgments are impossible. All knowledge is compromised by issues of power and bias. Therefore, there is no way to come to judgment about anything, since judgment itself rests on quicksand.”

This is why we must be non-judgmental and open to a multicultural view of the world, argue the deconstructionists. We do not know what is “true,” they tell us. All we know are opinions rooted in gender, racial, and cultural biases. Traditional views of sex, marriage, the family? The values of Western society? Private property rights? Republican forms of government? The nation-state system? A university education should be dedicated to shaking students free from these ethnocentric, bourgeois perceptions of truth.

But Leo knows a con-job when he sees one. Objective judgments are impossible, say the deconstructionists. But “this principle is suspended,” Leo notes, “when the United States and Western culture are discussed, because the West is essentially evil and guilty of endless crimes.”

Precisely. University leftists are not reluctant to blame America first. They are anything but non-judgmental and open-minded on the issues that are central to their agenda. Do they teach their students to be open the notion that homosexuality is either a sin or a psychological disorder, that an abortion is the taking of unborn innocent life? Do they promote free-wheeling discussions of the possibility that censorship of sexually explicit material may be necessary for the preservation of a healthy society? Are they open to the claims that European imperialism was a wise and just way for the West to interact with the Third World in the 19th century?

Do they think the students on their campus deserve the opportunity to sit down and discuss their career options with military recruiters? Do they explore in their classes the relevance of the Church’s encyclicals on matters of sex and social policy? Are G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis on their required reading lists? We could go on. I am not exaggerating for emphasis: The deconstructionists have their own version of the Index.

There is a television commercial prepared by the United Church of Christ making the rounds. Perhaps you have seen it. It illustrates the extent to which the politically correct biases of the university intellectuals have seeped beyond their campuses. The ad features a scene of night club bouncers standing outside a church, picking and choosing which members of the crowd will be admitted. White, middle-class couples with scrubbed-faced blonde children are waved in. But homosexual couples and various counter-culture types are rejected, along with an older couple that I suspect was meant to represent people who have divorced and remarried. As the faces of those turned away flash on the screen, a warm and friendly voice is heard in the background: “Jesus did not turn people away, and neither do we. No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

The barb is directed at us, and Protestant groups that take the Bible seriously in regard to traditional values. Let us leave aside for the moment the question of whether the Catholic Church “turns away” those who do not accept the Church’s teachings, and focus instead on the ad’s contention that the United Church of Christ welcomes everyone, “no matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey.” (For the record, the Church does not turn away sinners. It welcomes them — but with a call to repent and change their ways, rather than an assurance that ignoring the Bible and 2000 years of Christian tradition does not matter.)

Pretend for a moment that the ad agency that came up with this commercial, after being told to come up with copy that would make clear the extent to which the United Church of Christ welcomes those out-of-step with middle class moral values, had produced a commercial featuring our bouncers turning away men dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and neo-Nazi regalia, as well as some overweight men in business suits, their mouths stuffed with big cigars, talking about ways to cut costs by dumping factory waste into the local river. What do you think the reaction would have been from the folks at the United Church of Christ? The Klansmen and corporate polluters would be perfect examples of individuals in need of redemption “on life’s journey,” no?

The question answers itself. You know what would have happened to such an ad. It would be in the incinerator. The message of the ad that is being run is not that it is wrong to be judgmental, only that it is wrong to be judgmental in defense of moral values that run counter to the modern politically correct agenda.

James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage