A. O. Scott’s reflection in the NYT on the video record of the horrific murder of Tyre Nichols begins with a question that in so many ways encapasulates our cultural moment: “Do you have a civic duty to watch, or a moral obligation not to?” An important question! — because it has to be one or the other, doesn’t it?
I find myself thinking all the time — because the world I live in gives me constant cause so to think — about the moment early in The Once and Future King when Merlyn turns the Wart into an ant, and the Wart sees this inscription over the doorway to a tunnel:
EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY
And that’s our world, isn’t it? Everything not forbidden is compulsory.
You can see this playing out in the Education Wars conducted especially by this nation’s three most populous states. As David French pointed out in a recent episode of the Advisory Opinions podcast, the governors and legislatures of California, Florida, and Texas are engaged in a strenuous competition to see how thoroughly they can eviscerate the First Amendment rights of their citizens — especially, though not only, in educational contexts. Within public schools at all levels, no position on the hot-button issues of our time can be left to individual or professional discretion.
(Which, among other things, makes me grateful to be employed by a private university — where, by the way, we are also free, unlike this state’s public universities, to make our own decisions about whether people on campus can carry guns.)
Re: Ron DeSantis in particular, I have never — literally never — seen a politician so often and so consistently lied about, by the media and by his political opponents; but whatever your views about the Woke he wants to Stop, if you think him to be a defender of academic freedom you should think again. No, he doesn’t want to prohibit the study of Black people — as lies go that’s an especially stupid one — but he certainly does have an intellectual orthodoxy he wants to enforce. And these days, who doesn’t? What he compels, others would forbid; what he forbids, others would compel. There are limits to political horseshoe theory, but this is one arena where it definitely applies. Some good things may emerge from our current culture ward unscathed, but academic freedom is highly unlikely to be one of them.