It's anticlimactic to speak of the "closing" of the American mind. Use the past tense, please. Briefly consider one hardly surprising response to my last column on inequality: The fuming author repeatedly expressed his shock at what I wrote ("I still can't believe what I read ... it boggles my mind") and in an apparent attempt at irony, concluded the letter by reciting nasty stereotypes about black people. Gosh, what exactly was the author intimating? You're staring at the state of intellectual debate in our culture. This author knew exactly what he was doing: Smear people as racist, unpatriotic or hateful and -- abracadabra -- they are silenced. This blinkered hatred of challenging ideas is a self-indulgent culture's flabby version of debate.
As with so many other unfortunate trends coming out of the cultural woodwork, for this we can blame Sept. 11, 2001. The cause for alarm is not that the provincialist passion has gripped political debate and the newsroom, but that it has taken aim at the intellectual -- and with great success. This was clear immediately after Sept. 11, when the late Susan Sontag was flogged for her response in the New Yorker. The rules were set: Like so many other issues in American life, we would address Sept. 11 in glib sound bytes. We were barred from pointing out the perfectly obvious: Terrorists are not cowards and Sept. 11 was not a random act of evil.
Our penchant for repression has not ebbed since Sept. 11. Middle East studies and Muslim professors are under constant assault. A group of unscrupulous Columbia University students is making a racket with a "documentary" that purports to demonstrate anti-Israeli bias among professors. The documentary's claims are so banal (my professor is pro-Palestinian!) that, even if true, they hardly merit attention.
In agreeing to investigate these allegations about classroom bias or unethical research, university administrations have been either naive or eager to avoid bad press. As the kerfuffle over psychology Prof. J. Michael Bailey proves, most of these charges are red herrings for hatred of particular ideas.
The new rage for "objectivity" in the classroom must be among the most misbegotten student political fads in recent campus memory. Students have launched a perpetual campaign that has in its crosshairs professors with inconvenient political views. Online blacklists of such professors are not unheard of. These students -- who ironically call themselves advocates of "academic freedom" -- ignore the fact that academics are necessarily biased. The purpose of an intellectual is to think. This would be awfully hard to achieve without opinions. To frighten professors into checking these opinions at the door of the lecture hall would not be desirable.
So the barbarians are past the gates and we lash out at provocative opinions. The more intolerant we are of challenging beliefs, the more benighted our culture becomes. Welcome to the intellectual doldrums.