Last month, Chapman University’s film school removed from the walls posters that students and many professors deemed offensive. They were original posters promoting Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s sweeping silent classic set during the Civil War and after. The film was fabulously successful in its day, and historians regard it as a breakthrough in cinematic technique and craft.
But the film is also a powerful specimen of early-20th-century white supremacist propaganda. Griffith based the story on Thomas Dixon’s popular Ku Klux Klan novels, which traded in notions of black ignorance and degeneracy as well as Yankee exploitation. In the story, the Klansmen are heroes, not villains. One couldn’t find a much better work of art or literature to inflame the 21st-century progressive temper than Griffith’s blockbuster. Even in its own day, it sparked protests from negro organizations and intellectuals (though President Woodrow Wilson, an old college chum from Johns Hopkins, loved it).
So, what to do about Birth of a Nation? The artistic genius of the filmmaking is incontrovertible, but the social message is abominable. How should scholars and teachers handle it?
Campus progressives have a quick and handy answer: they ignore it. Why, they ask, should they bother about human creations with racist content? They wish to teach the young to be upright, tolerant, and inclusive. Works of art and literature and philosophy from the past that instill anything else block the proper outcomes. They should be removed from the curriculum.
That’s the bare and basic rationale, and it has a disarming simplicity, a linear logic. Conservatives may talk all they want about learning from the errors of the past, or merely the necessity of knowing the past, but progressives don’t believe they need any tutelage from previous generations. They’ve got their vision in place and can implement it all by themselves.
Conservatives may also warn of the dangers of “presentism”—the assumption that we 21st-century citizens understand things so much better than did our forebears—but progressives hold that assumption as an article of faith. That’s what makes them progressives; it gives them strength. A conservative caution on this matter strikes them as weak, ineffectual, reactionary.
Conservative warnings about the dangers of utopianism don’t faze them, either. The French Revolution became a bloodbath? That’s nothing to us. The Russian Revolution gave us Stalinism? That’s ancient history. Progressives have too much confidence in their goodness to believe that they might sink into savagery, much less end up eating their own.
And they have another advantage: they aren’t shy about attributing base motives to their real and imagined opponents. In the Chapman affair, protesting students composed a tweet with a photograph of themselves standing next to the posters in a hallway of the school. They included this text:
Why does Dodge College, @THR’s 6th best US film school, still condone the celebration of white supremacy? (The Hollywood Reporter includes the tweet in the story linked to above. The Reporter ranks Dodge College, Chapman’s film school, among the best ones in the country.)
This kind of accusation in the mouths of young progressives is so customary that we have lost touch with its passive-aggressive manner. Does anybody really believe that professors and administrators at Chapman University “condone the celebration of white supremacy”? The charge is ridiculous.
But, of course, it works. For a half-dozen students of color to level it is enough to make everyone afraid. Nobody wants to reply, “Gimme a break.” Offense is sufficient evidence of crime. These young warriors live in a habitat of sensitivity wherein the old academic ideals of disinterested study no longer hold. They have a different measure of value when it comes to the works on the syllabus. Their teachers once asked, “Is this work historically significant? Is it aesthetically brilliant? Is it morally and intellectually profound?” The social justice youths ask, instead, “Does this offend me? Does it misrepresent me? Does it do justice to my experience?”
Their leftist teachers agree, but not their liberal teachers. Liberalism in education calls individuals to uphold objectivity. It insists that they exert the labor of understanding before they issue a judgment. Liberalism prizes open-mindedness and deep knowledge, including knowledge of the abhorrent. It distinguishes, too, the aesthetic and historical value from moral and political value.
But from what I have seen, campus liberals can’t withstand the sensitivities and indignation of the campus leftists, though they outnumber them completely. What the left lacks in numbers, however, it makes up for with passion. And passion is conspicuously absent from the moderates in higher education. I expect the list of aesthetically great but morally defective artworks that fall into disuse will grow in the years ahead.