Amazon has sold out of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, a work that engaged the question of why totalitarianism came into being. Speculation has it that the newfound interest in Arendt emanates from the rise of Donald Trump. If so, readers of The Origins are going to be sadly disappointed.
For the precious few who will attempt to wade through Arendt’s subtle and difficult concepts, not to mention sentences that seem to go on forever, it will become obvious that ground zero of totalitarianism’s resurgence is not the White House but the college campus.
Whereas the essence of democracy, as Tocqueville so brilliantly notes, is compromise and conciliation, the essence of totalitarianism is that truth is whatever the movement says it is. Different ideas are to be quashed.
The individual who believes that politics is a series of negotiations or deal making is hardly a totalitarian. By contrast, the diversity administrator who organizes a bunch of pubescent thugs who have been inculcated in the belief that truth is that which advances the interests of their identity and those who share it, is a totalitarian. He or she is no different from those who mobilized Hitler’s Brownshirts to shut down intellectuals whose ideas were not sanctioned by the Nazi movement.
As Nazism rose, Einstein’s theory of relativity became Jewish physics. Freud’s psychoanalysis became Jewish psychology. In 1933, when Hitler consolidated his power, Jews dominated classical music in both Germany and Austria. Yet, not only were Jewish conductors and musicians banned, so too were works written by Jews. The same censorship extended to art and literature.
This is the campus mentality that prevents conservative speakers from setting foot on campus and disrupts their speeches when they do. They have either the wrong identity or the wrong ideas and sometimes both.
Some years ago, I attended a lecture by Daniel Pipes at the University of California, Berkeley. At the venue, we were required to go through security procedures almost identical to those at any airport. Inside, university police lined the walls on both sides of the auditorium.
Pipes had barely begun to speaking when some started shouting him down. Campus police repeatedly had to physically remove the disrupters, who were mostly Muslims. After a series of orchestrated disruptions, the group of protesters got up as one and left.
By contrast, the most radical speakers from the Left can appear on any campus without the need for police protection or concern about disruption. It cost the University of California, Berkeley $600,000 in security expenses to guard against threats when mainstream conservative Ben Shapiro spoke on campus.
Generally, schools are as unlikely to discipline students who disrupt conservative speakers as they are to wage demonization campaigns against radical leftist speakers the way they do against conservatives.
On nearly every campus there is now a diversity bureaucracy whose very existence depends on characterizing people as enemies of identity groups and mobilizing compliant students to oppose them. Conservative speakers provide justification for the bureaucracy’s ludicrous existence.
The disruption of the free exchange of ideas transforms the very essence of a university from a place dedicated to the search for the truth to a place where only certain ideas can be heard, a place dedicated to propaganda.
This is not just a breakdown of an institution but the beginning of the breakdown of society. Individuals are important only insofar as they fit into identity categories. The truth is whatever advances the interests of protected groups. Compromise and conciliation are not valued, for compromise and conciliation are not possible with the oppressor. Normalization is viewed as the enemy of the chaos and disruption on which totalitarian mindset feeds.
These are values that are antithetical to the functioning of a viable democracy. They are, as Arendt notes, the basis of totalitarianism. They are not the values our universities should teach.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. Follow him @salomoncenter