Reading and Thinking

Maureen Dowd: “It is not only the humanities that are passé. It’s humanity itself.”

1) Maureen Dowd, “Don’t Kill ‘Frankenstein’ With Real Frankensteins at Large,” New York Times, May 27, 2023;


Trustees at Marymount University in Virginia voted unanimously in February to phase out majors such as English, history, art, philosophy and sociology.

Political eloquence is scarce. Newt Gingrich told Laura Ingraham that the secret to Donald Trump’s success is that “he talks at a level where third-, fourth- and fifth-grade educations can say, ‘Oh yeah, I get that.’”

It is not only the humanities that are passé. It’s humanity itself.

Republicans have consecrated themselves to a war against qualities once cherished by many Americans. Higher principles — dignity, civility, patience, respect, tolerance, goodness, sympathy and empathy — are eclipsed.

Food for thought.

The Spirit of Voltaire

Reading and Thinking

U.S.: Eigth-grade history and civics scores drop

1) Donna St. George, “Students’ understanding of history and civics is worsening,” Washington Post, May 3, 2023 (12:00 a.m. EDT);

2) Danielle Allen, “We hit rock bottom on civics education. Can we turn it around?” Washington Post, May 23, 2023 (6:15 a.m. EDT);

Reading and Thinking

Solvang: Cultural battles in California’s Little Denmark

1) Philipp Wittrock, “Etwas ist faul im kalifornischen Klein-Dänemark; Das Städtchen Solvang in Kalifornien wirkt idyllisch, doch zuletzt gab es Drohungen, Schimpftiraden, eine Regenbogenfahne brannte. Hier tobt der große amerikanische Kulturkampf. Sogar Kopenhagens Bürgermeisterin mischt sich ein, Der Spiegel, den 8. Mai 2023 (15.33 Uhr);

2) Philipp Wittrock, “Something is rotten in California’s Lesser-Denmark; The town of Solvang in California looks idyllic, but recently there were threats, insults, a rainbow flag burned. The great American cultural struggle is raging here. Even Copenhagen’s mayor interferes, Der Spiegel, May 8, 2023 (3:35 pm);

Reading and Thinking

John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty”, and Wokery


1) Daniel Hannan, “Blasphemy codes are still with us. If JS Mill were alive today, he would be fighting wokery; The liberal era through which we have lived looks more and more like an interregnum between different forms of despotism, The Telegraph, May 6, 2023 (5:00 pm);

Reading and Thinking

Is Western Civilization committing suicide by adhering to a defeatist, victimist ideology that denies its achievements?


Gerard Baker, “If Western Civilization Dies, Put It Down as a Suicide; We are in the grip of an ideology that disowns our genius, denounces our success, disdains merit, Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2023 (3:23 ET);

We often wonder where the self-defeating ideology that decries the achievements of “dead white men”, that substitutes equity of results” for “equal opportunity” as a desired social goal, that leads law students at Yale and Stanford to shout down or shut down speakers whose opinions they abhor, which subordinates the quest for excellence to the quest for equity results as determined by ascending orthodoxies, comes from.

Gerard Baker, the former Editor of the Wall Street Journal, decries these recent developments.

He is sounding the alarm, as many others have been doing in recent times. This is a useful exercise, since we need to describe what is happening before we can discern or analyze its causes and take corrective action.

It seems like many devotees of the new ideology, sometimes referred to as “wokism”, are woefully ignorant of the achievements of the civilization which, consciously or unconsciously, they are acting to untermine.

It is this ignorance of Western Civilization, not only on the part of “woke” students and ideologues but also on the part university administrators and presidents, that is the real problem.

What is truly alarming is that vocal advocates of this anti-Western cultural ideology are to be found at such elite institutions as Yale and Harvard Law Schools.

A Maxim of La Rouchefoucauld comes to mind:

There are those who rush to denounce the criminals before they know the crimes. (approximate, from memory)

What is equally alarming is that so few university presidents and administrators have had the knowledge and the courage to stand up and oppose these developments publicly.

Of course, some have stood out in their defense of Western values such as freedom of speech. Dean Jenny Martínez is one such courageous soul, who after a recent disruption at Stanford Law School wrote a powerful defense of freedom of speech and why it is of central importance in the education of a lawyer.

The Spirit of Voltaire

Epistemology of truth Reading and Thinking

Should we cancel Picasso? If the New Puritans have their way, nothing will be left except the ignorance with which they started


1) Alex Needham (Compiled by), ‘Notoriously cruel’: should we cancel Picasso? Collectors, artists, critics and curators decide; He was the 20th century’s most influential artist – but he was also a monstrous misogynist. On the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, we ask: is it time to mothball the master?” The Guardian, April 7, 2023 (14:50 BST);)

2) “Picasso was a genius—and a beast. Can the two be separated? It’s the wrong question to ask, says “Monsters”, a provocative new book by Claire Dederer,” The Economist, April 5, 2023;

Picasso by all accounts would be viewed as a sexual predator today. Should he be canceled?

The New Stalinists would comb through history and cancel all the people who don’t measure up to their high (21st century) moral standards, and who are the objects of their self-righteous contempt.

The phenomenon is not new in history.

In fact, history reveals where this misguided impulse to control the thoughts of others can lead. George Orwell’s Nineteen-eighty-four highlighted the mindset of those who would control what others think.

What, we can imagine, do the New Stalinists know of history?

George Santayana described the problem succinctly:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Of course you can never remember what you have never learned. Or, in the words of San Francisco’s legendary columnist, Herb Caen, “You can never return to where you have never been.”

If the New Stalinists succeed in cleansing our history of offensive people and offensive facts, what will be left?

We can look to Soviet and Russian history, and now “Putin’s Russian history”, for suggestive examples. Stalin’s crimes are erased. Those who documented Stalin’s crimes, like the Russian NGO “Memorial”, are banned.

There is a lot to be learned from history.

If we don’t learn and repeat past mistakes, we should  at least bear in mind another quote from Santayana:

“A country without a memory is a country of madmen.”

The Spirit of Voltaire

Academic freedom Freedom of Speech Reading and Thinking

Free Speech at Stanford: Associate Dean for DEI urges “balancing test” between free speech and diversity, equity, and inclusion


Tirien Steinbach, “Diversity and Free Speech Can Coexist at Stanford; We have to stop blaming, start listening, and ask ourselves: Is the juice worth the squeeze?” Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2023 (2:00 pm ET);

Tirien Steinbach, the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Stanford Law School, offers a defense of her controversial intervention in the conflict over Judge Duncan’s speech at Stanford Law School recently.

At the same time, however, her article reveals the fundamental flaw in the approach of university administrators to the relationship between DEI and free speech.

She writes,

Diversity, equity and inclusion plans must have clear goals that lead to greater inclusion and belonging for all community members. How we strike a balance between free speech and diversity, equity and inclusion is worthy of serious, thoughtful and civil discussion. Free speech and diversity, equity and inclusion are means to an end, and one that I think many people can actually agree on: to live in a country with liberty and justice for all its people.

The fundamental flaw in this reasoning is the assumption that free speech should be “balanced” against diversity, equity, and inclusion, or any other societal goal.

Balancing free speech against any goal of society (Who decides what are and ranks societal goals? Who balances? What standard or test is used to balance?) is a slippery slope that leads very quickly to the curtailment of free speech.

The only balancing test that is necessary or desirable is that administered by judges between the near absolute value of free speech in a free and democratic society, on the one hand, and the likelihood of speech producing immediate physical violence or other physical harm, on the other.

The classic tests are still valid: “Don’t cry ‘fire’ in a theater” or give directions for arson in the middle of a riot.

Our legal system has carefully defined the few limitations on free speech that exist in our constitutional democracy.

Free speech is not only a societal goal, it is a constitutional right.

There is no need for university administrators or anyone else to introduce any new “balancing test” for limiting free speech.

The Spirit of Voltaire

See also,

1) Tunku Varadarajan, “DEI at Law Schools Could Bring Down America; After the Stanford episode, Ilya Shapiro sounds a warning: The threat to ‘dismantle existing structures’ is an idle one in English class. But in legal education it targets individual rights and equal treatment under the Constitution,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2023 (6:50 pm ET);

Reading and Thinking

The crisis of free speech in America: Recent events at Stanford Law School

The following comments are by a Stanford Law School graduate


1) Conor Friedersdorf, “What Stanford Law’s DEI Dean Got Wrong; Tirien Steinbach’s approach to a recent free-speech conflict on campus disempowered students,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2023 (5:25 PM ET);

2) “Free speech: Yale law students are lost. They are the new Stalinists. And if they are lost, we may all be lost,”
The Eighteenth Century Club, March 16, 2022;

What is going on? The events at Yale and Stanford Law Schools should be a warning of flashing red lights and sirens for all those who are concerned about the practice of democracy in the United States, and elsewhere.

Where has this intolerance of free speech come from? What is causing many of the best and the brightest of our students at top elite institutions to turn away from one of the cornerstones of democracy?

We had better find out, and take corrective action soon before “the new Stalinists” take over the the intellectual “superstructure”, as Karl Marx would put it.

Have these students read Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Hayek? Have they read Thomas Paine, or Voltaire? Have they studied the Enlightenment in Europe and the philosophical underpinnings of democracy?

Have they studied the history of socialism and communism since 1848? Or spent time in a country where there is no free speech? What are their views on free speech in Iran, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia?

Something is fundamentally wrong. Those who believe in democracy and know a little history need to pay attention and to start taking corrective action.

Stanford Law School has been the home of great constitutional law teachers and scholars. I had the privilege of studying Constitutional Law with Gerald Gunther, who grew up as a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany. I remember Gunther recounting at a small informal lunch his experience in his small town on Krystallnacht, November 9-10, 1938.

Stanford also has hosted outstanding visiting professors, like Leon Lipson from Yale Law School, a preeminent expert on Soviet Law. I recall taking Lipson’s seminar on Soviet Law, and studying the Soviet show trials of 1936-1938. Lipson knew all about free speech in the Constitution and practice of the Soviet Union.

Mauro Cappelletti, another Stanford Law Professor (and concurrently professor of Comparative Law at the European University Institute in Florence) was the leading expert in Comparative Constitutional Law in the world. I recall taking his class in Comparative Law, and the critical role assigned to freedom of speech in modern civil law constitutions and legal systems.

Stanford Law School has a proud tradition of supporting freedom of speech.

Given the gravity of the situation represented by recent events at Stanford and Yale Law Schools, Stanford Law School should consider establishing an endowed chair for the teaching of Freedom of Speech Law, and establish a Freedom of Speech Program which would bring together scholars who could also address the subject from comparative and historical perspectives. Such a program could serve as a focal point for the study and teaching of the subject throughout the university.

Reading and Thinking

A liberal’s critique of woke jargon


“Nicholas Kristof,”Inclusive or Alienating? The Language Wars Go On,” New York Times, February 1, 2023:

Epistemology of truth Propaganda Race Reading and Thinking

“Wokeness” at Princeton and Stanford: Who will fire these university administrators, who out of cowardice, coddle students attacking the fundamental purposes of a university?

George F. Will describes one of the latest university skirmishes with “wokeness”.

George F. Will: “Wokeness in all its self-flattering moral vanity comes for a statue at Princeton,”Washington Post, January 6, 2023 (7:00 a.m. EST);

The madness he describes, of “woke” students demanding this statue be removed or that name removed from a building on the basis not of reason but of their uninformed infantile rage, is a welcome reminder that freedom must be defended not only at the gates against outsiders, but also in the inner sanctums where future leaders are groomed and basic attitudes toward democracy and its essential freedoms are forged.

Who is really at fault when ignorant student mobs demand this or that action by a university administration in subservience to some mindless incantation of a higher cause, like opposing racism?

In the French Revolution, the higher cause was “Reason” and the enemies were the Church, the aristocracy, and those opposed to Reason. Ultimately “enemies” included anyone who disagreed with the zealots. Many heads were chopped off by the new machine called the guillotine.

To be sure, the “woke” themselves are at fault, for it is their obligation to get an education and to free themselves from their own ignorance and prejudices.

But professors are also at fault, to the extent they fail to stand up to the demands of Unreason in their classrooms. They have a duty to foster the development the Enlightenment values of their students, from freedom of expression to the defense of diverse opinions held by individual students.

“Woke” students make their demands from a position of overweening self-righteousness. They demand that they be protected from views that might make them uncomfortable.

But surely it is the duty of the professor to protect all of hus or her students from the stunting intellectual effects of enforced conformity.

Many a professor wants to do just that, but without strong backing from university administration officials they often cannot perform this most essential function of their jobs out of fear that their jobs or prerogatives (e.g., teaching the courses they want to teach) may be adversely affected.

So, in the end, winning on the battlefield of ideas ends up being a question that is decided by university administrators.

How tragic this situation has become, even at our best universities, is revealed by the recent Stanford University administrative guidance on “appropriate” speech.


1) Sheila McClear, “Stanford Releases ‘Harmful Language’ List of Hurtful Words to Eliminate; The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative seeks to rid Stanford, and perhaps the world, of troubling terms like ‘American’,” Los Angeles Magazine, December 29, 2022;