Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 1 December 2023

"OUR PROGRESS IN DEGENERACY" (Abraham Lincoln) or, the deviance of postmodern culture

 

Osama bin Laden, Big Man on Campus

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I began to teach the course again in 2017, after a 12-year hiatus. By then the class was filled with students whose education took place entirely within the post-9/11 world. Again we read bin Laden’s letter, and again the students were horrified—this time, not at bin Laden but at me for having assigned it. The students had been trained to consider anyone who might suggest a connection between al Qaeda and religion as racist. The ground had been prepared to insulate so-called non-Western discourse from critical discussion. They denounced me as “Islamophobic” and walked out of class. But at least at that stage they hadn’t yet taken bin Laden as a model.

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Today his letter appears prescient to the young because the views it espouses resonate with what their professors have taught for years. Opposition is rarely heard. At the Claremont Colleges, where I teach, 186 faculty members signed onto a letter blaming “Israeli settler colonialism” for the Oct. 7 massacre and supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Students erected a shrine “to the insurgents who have died for the liberation of Palestine.”

Abraham Lincoln observed a similar change of political sentiment in antebellum America. In an 1855 letter, he wrote that “our progress in degeneracy” was being fueled by Stephen Douglas’s false doctrine of popular sovereignty, which excluded blacks from the Declaration of Independence’s promise that “all men are created equal.” This deviation deprived that principle of its just and beneficent influence at home and abroad.

Like Douglas’s “popular sovereignty,” the false doctrine of “settler colonialism” denies our nation’s founding truths by holding that some groups bear the mark of irredeemable sin and thus may be resisted or punished by any means necessary. It places some above criticism and others beneath human sympathy.

In a republic like ours, “devoted to the proposition that all men are created equal,” theory matters. This wouldn’t be the first time those defeated on the battlefield have imposed the yoke of their own thought on the children of their enemies.

Mr. Nadon is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

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