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Jean Bethke Elshtain


The Groves of Academe

The Dissenters Club

Somewhere along the line, the idea took hold that, to be an intellectual, you have to be against it, whatever it is. The intellectual is a negator. Affirmation is not in his or her vocabulary. It was not always so. Throughout the World War II era, when the stakes were high, American intellectuals signed on for the war effort. Our foreign policy enjoyed bipartisan support: As everyone fought fascism, liberal, conservative, moderate, even radical intellectuals and academics found common ground without fearing that they would be accused of betraying a lofty stance of dissent.

The Vietnam era broke this solidarity forever; indeed, the Vietnam War era opened up a fissure that transfixes us yet and freezes our thinking. At that time the old Cold War consensus broke up and former allies split bitterly. It became unfashionable, at least in some circles, to suggest that, although the Vietnam War was unjust and needed to be brought to a halt as quickly as possible, communism posed a real threat. Yet the historic record was clear: In the process of destroying freedom, including religious freedom, Communist regimes slaughtered millions of their own people. Although that was an empirical reality, many denied it. Even today, a nostalgia for the Soviet Union reigns in some circles, including portions of the academy. There is even a KGB bar in New York City. As one wag observed, it is difficult to imagine scholars or the literati flocking to a Gestapo bar, although Nazism and Stalinism were equally murderous ideologies propping up equally horrendous regimes.

So reflexive is the role of the intellectual as negator, so free from accountability, that the very meaning of dissent has been obscured. Hence in the wake of 9/11, those who disagreed with claims that America somehow brought the attacks on herself were said to be "stifling dissent." But the true measure of dissent isn't whether the vast majority of one's countrymen and women agree with what one is saying but, rather, that one has ...

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