The Hollow Men

…and hollow women, too.

I’ve been writing for years about the rise of toxic ideologies on America’s college campuses–totalitarian, anti-Israel, outright anti-Semitic–but still have been surprised by what has happened in these places since October 7.  We need to discuss the reasons why it’s gotten so bad.

A few days ago, someone republished an essay, written in 2016, by a professor who has taught at several ‘elite’ colleges.  Excerpt:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture. It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:  they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

And when someone has devoted the first 18 years of their lives in large part to jumping through hoops in hopes of making a good impression on some future college admissions officers…and then, in many cases, having to get good ratings from professors whose criteria are largely subjective…that someone is unlikely to develop into a person with a strong internal gyroscope. Quite likely, they are likely to be subject to social pressures and mass movements.

Someone at X said that the Cornell student arrested for making threats against Jewish students was probably just trying too hard to fit in and win approval of his peers and took it a step too far.  My view is that there’s no just about it…the desire to fit in and win approval is very often the reason why people commit evil acts.  I’m reminded of something CS Lewis:  Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

The above sentence is from a talk that Lewis gave at King’s College in 1944.  Also from that address:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

So yes, the passion for approval has always existed. But I feel sure it is much stronger, or at least has fewer countervailing forces, among people who experience today’s college admissions race and its eventual fulfillment.

The students about whom the professor wrote in the essay linked above have not only been encouraged to devote their time to hoop-jumping, they have also been told again and again that their country and their society are evil–that their ancestors were evil, and their parents are probably evil as well.  And that practically all aspects of culture more than 5 years old, whether traditional songs and folktales or classic movies, are harmful and certainly unworthy of study except for purposes of deconstructing their bad examples.  And, of course, relatively few of these students are influenced by or have seriously studied any traditional religion.

So they will likely be attracted to ideologies that promise to give a sense of meaning and coherence to their lives.  I’m once again reminded of something in the memoirs of Sebastian Haffner, who came of age in Germany between the wars.  He says that when the economy and society began to significantly stabilize–which he credits to Gustav Stresemann’s chancellorship and the introduction of the Rentenmark into the monetary system–most people were happy:

The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.

But not everyone was happy.  A return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:

A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.


To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

I think that in America today, we have a considerable number of people who get, maybe not all of the entire content of their lives, but much of the content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions.  And I suspect that this phenomenon is stronger among the students described by the professor in his essay than in the American population at large.

Someone at X remarked that “Social justice progressivism (SJP) is the first time most people—including most Christians—have encountered a truly vital religion. Rarely since the peace of Westphalia and the scientific revolution have we seen its like.”  (SJP is, of course, basically what we call Wokeism, as it has been called by some of its proponents.)  He continues:

I use “religion” here descriptively, not derogatorily. I never liked the New Atheists and their dismissal of religion. Religion, broadly defined, is the unified source of a person’s moral and epistemic beliefs, put into practice. People in my circles panic, at times, over the apparent progressive takeover of institutions: universities, the government, the media. They appeal to goals of institutional neutrality, to a sacred role of science as being above petty political concerns, to political traditions—and people are startled and upset, time and again, as they feel SJP tramples those traditions. But that is precisely what we should expect from a vital religion. As Helen Lewis memorably points out, many young progressives would never think to judge someone for marrying across religious lines, but to marry across political ones is unthinkable. Religion is just a belief, after all, and you can’t judge someone based off of that. But politics? Well, some things are sacred.

What are your own thoughts on the outbreak of support for Hamas atrocities among college students and academics?  Were you surprised?  What factors do you think drove it, and how, if at all, can it be reversed?


26 thoughts on “The Hollow Men”

  1. Agreed. The original piece was accurate, and things have continued to degenerate. There are more than enough of the Leftist elite who will gladly start singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” [remember the Nazi’s were the National SOCIALIST German Workers’ Party that matters are probably not repairable by conventional electoral politics in these days when electoral integrity is something that cannot be expected.

    Subotai Bahadur

  2. What are your own thoughts on the outbreak of support for Hamas atrocities among college students and academics? Were you surprised? What factors do you think drove it, and how, if at all, can it be reversed?

    Disappointed but not surprised.

    The cultural changes that drive the current explosion of academic antisemitism, and that drive Social Justice Progressivism (for want of a better term) generally, are in part demographically determined (cf. Jean Twenge), in part knock-on effects of general institutional decay in western societies, and in part predictable consequences of generations of leftist subversion of educational systems in the USA and Europe.

    These changes are all functions of long-term trends. Long-term trends tend to take a long time to reverse. It took decades to get where we are culturally. It seems likely that decades of determined cultural and political opposition to the leftist program will be needed if we are to return to something like the cultural status quo ante. The Twitter commenter makes a strong case that SJP is a religious movement that triumphs by its own cultural confidence while many of its opponents are intellectually adrift and unsure of themselves, of their heritage and their values.

    I hope I’m wrong.

    Interesting times.

  3. The most obvious religion today is climate hysteria. Anti-Semitism is not directly connected to that belief system but there is a rejection of utilitarian beliefs that emphasize merit and reality. If we are to live in a world dominated by a belief in fairies, old pathologies are free to re-emerge. Magic will not be far behind.

  4. Consider if you aren’t as indoctrinated as the people you call “woke”. Seriously. Don’t hear much about the “right to free association” anymore, do you?

  5. David,

    I think your comment regarding the lust for the inner circle is well-taken; power has its own physics. It has a gravitational pull that attracts into its orbit those who may not be true believers but rather would either grift or get along. Also power is in the eye of the beholders, that usually means what is in its ascendancy and therefore is momentum and direction not necessarily mass.

    What can be done? Simple this is the George Floyd moment for the Right and time to use this moment of national revulsion at this pro-Hamas business to make fundamental changes. The Left already understands this vulnerability and are trying to rally people to ignore the pro-Genocide creeps and defend higher ed. Too late, time to wield some power by making higher ed a campaign issue and cause one of the Left’s bastions pay dearly. They stuck their head in the meat grinder and time to turn the crank.

    3 proposals which are designed to punish universities for kowtowing to the Left and create a viscous counterbalance to force them to do the right thing. This isn’t about academic freedom, this is about what we the people will pay for and protecting people from abuse.

    1) Withdraw the federal guarantee for student loans in favor of only those programs deemed necessary for national defense (i.e. STEM) The humanities, social sciences, fine arts… all those disciplines feeding the Woke/Deconizliazation/Hamas movement? Time to take a big haircut. You can teach them but we aren’t paying for them.

    2) Pass a law, or enforce existing ones, which allow higher ed. institutions and/or individual administrators to be sued or in the case of the latter criminally prosecuted for fostering hostile environments and hate crimes for people based on race, sex, or religion. Jewish students hiding in broom closets to escape Hamas demonstrators? Heck why not white heterosexual males being intimidated based on sex, race, and sexual preference.

    3) Establish a model curriculum and prohibit federal hiring of anybody who graduated from a non-complying institution within the past 5 years

    Trump, these are for you, take them, and godspeed use them on the campaign trail as only you can. Make them squeal.

    As far as the states go, I’m sure governors like DeSantis and Abbott and others can cook up some ideas for their schools.

    This should buy us some space while we reform K-12 and end this Woke pipeline

  6. Pat Henry:
    Consider if you aren’t as indoctrinated as the people you call “woke”. Seriously. Don’t hear much about the “right to free association” anymore, do you?

    Free association is important. So is winning. I have no interest in being the political equivalent of a Shaker.

    And I am fine with the pro-Hamas people getting together and holding political demonstrations to promote their views. The Nazis had the right to march through Skokie.

    What I disagree with is the idea that we can’t play by the other side’s rules. They dox and cancel conservatives. Why can’t conservatives do the same things to them? There’s no violation of free association. Nobody is owed a job, or a security clearance, or license to publicly harass or physically attack people one disagrees with. The rest of us don’t owe these little pricks indulgent treatment. They are adults and deserve all the consequences of their malicious behavior.

  7. I do think that CS Lewis had it right – that the initial temptation on the path to become an evil person will come; soft, casual, wearing familiar colors. The road to being evil will be made to seem so normal, so reasonable. And there lies the road to hell, which seems broad and fair, and smoothly paved.
    Ages and ages ago, I read a pop-culture book – this one, I think – William Kirkpatrick “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong” – which argued that children should read books in which moral lessons were embedded. Not in that thunderingly obvious and heavy-handed Victorian way – but in which the situations were presented, and the reader could come to their own conclusion of who had behaved well … and who had not. The author argued that kids need the good examples, and exposure to the perils of having made bad decisions. A moral sense ought to be exercised, every much as a physical body ought to be, so that when the time came for a snap decision, one would know instantly. The experiences of a number of Righteous Gentiles in WWII was cited – it seemed that in most instances, those people made a stark decision on a matter of seconds on being appealed for help from a Jewish friend, acquaintance, or even a stranger. They didn’t cavil for hours or days over what they should do – they acted in a moment.
    IIRC, one of the examples given was showing to the authors’ university class the movie “A Night To Remember” wherein it was very clear who acted honorably in a bad situation and who had not.

  8. Exactly. “SJP” is a religion, though one with no supernatural god; one of a series of related religions the twentieth century is infamous for.

    And quite a few of our college students seem to have been mostly educated by movies and TV. (“Let me write a nation’s songs…”)

    “His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely “Modern.” The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers)”

  9. As for playing by the rules that the progressives have established – there was a speaking example posted on “X” – linked by Rantburg.
    Someone who was ripping down the posters of the Oct 7th hostages got all butt-hurt because whoever had posted them in the first place – had glued razor blades behind the paper. Poor Widdle Pro-Pally got her fingers slashed, ripping down the posters.
    Awww… Welcome to the rules you made, sweetie.

  10. Pat Henry,

    Ummm…Who said about anything about violating the right to free association? Can you back that up? I don’t recall anyone has suggested that certain people should be assaulted or face government persecution as happens in other areas.

  11. The subtitle of a post at Quillette says: “The enemies of the Jews are the enemies of Enlightenment.”

    If this is correct…and, historically, it largely is…then it should not be surprising that attacks on Enlightenment thinking–which is really what much Wokeness is all about–turn out to encompass anti-Semitism.

  12. Those who signal “Virtue” should have it amplified. Support for Hamas is every person’s choice to make or reject in revulsion.
    Libs of Tik Tok showed the way. There has to be a visible forum for naming and shaming.
    How can the subjects of same object? They have no shame.
    The depravity of Hamas with its callous, bestial acts against those who our Progressive Brethren (and Sistren and Zistren) hold as pure and good must be causing all but the very worst of them a degree of internal conflict. Women. Third world people just there to earn a living (Migrants!). How much some of them care for children is a painful thing to contemplate so I’ll pass for now.
    When wearing a checkered scarf and chanting “River to the Sea” becomes the equivalent of an SS uniform and “Juden Raus!” we will have taken measure of this horrible new world.
    Fortunately I’d rate the percentage of people who can look at this without revulsion as very low indeed. So lets Name and Shame.

  13. Poor Widdle Pro-Pally got her fingers slashed, ripping down the posters.

    Oh no!

    Anyway, I still recall- and not fondly- seeing pro-Palestinian posters on the walls during my brief time attending a major university in the 1990s. This sort of leftist bovine excrement was everywhere, which irritated me greatly and surprised me not at all.

    I’d imagine that the present fondness for Hamas that American colleges display was well along by then, although I also suspect that the people in charge wouldn’t let that sort of thing get too public.

    But now we’re decades further down the road to fanaticism. These leftist activists have never really been told no in their entire lives nor have they had to face any real consequences for their various activities, because they have been effectively acting as agents of the regime.

    That regime, btw, has been heavily funded by liberal Jews. It seems that the latest atrocity might well be enough of a cluebat to convince these folks that the demonrat party and its legions of Hamas-loving activists aren’t really their friends. There is a distinct non-zero possibility that Israel will be destroyed in the present war and would rather ironic if that occurred because American Jews had made so much effort on behalf of the anti-Semitic American left.

    The Twitter commenter makes a strong case that SJP is a religious movement that triumphs by its own cultural confidence while many of its opponents are intellectually adrift and unsure of themselves, of their heritage and their values.

    I will argue that you are indeed wrong. I think the present day SJPs are every bit as culturally confident as the Slavocracy of the Antebellum South was, which will earn them the same fate. American culture has been under rabid and relentless attacks for decades with almost no defenders in public life, yet it was still lively enough to elect Donald Trump.

    I’ve seen it claimed on the internet that revolutions happen when some segment of the ruling class defects to the wanna-be revolutionaries. Trump was one such defector, Elon Musk seems to be another- and I’d bet there at least a few wealthy Jewish donors who have lately become former Democrats.

    Time will tell.

  14. So as I’m following the pro-Hamas/genocide protests and mapping out groups, I have a technical question… where’s AntiFa? Doesn’t it seem like this is tailor-made for them?

    They actually seem to have been pretty quiet since 2020, I know they were part of the Cop City riots over the past year or so but besides that and some small scale gatherings… nothing. I find their relative disappearance, given their level of tactical competence and obvious external support, disturbing; sort of like in those WW II movies where the HQ staff realizes that one of the key enemy units has broken contact.

    So what’s up? I know they are bunch of psychopaths but the level of support they were getting and the purposes to which they were used seems to be me that they wouldn’t succumb to entropy and fade away. Are they being held in strategic reserve? Busy expanding and transforming into v 2.0?

  15. Piece in WSJ today says that Hamas has been pursuing a market segmentation strategy in the US. A FBI wiretap from 1993 reveals a discussion of this strategy: Frame the conflict in religious terms for Muslim Americans, but position themselves differently for non-Muslim Americans, using academic language such as that of ‘postcolonial theory’ and analogizing themselves to American blacks.

  16. Re the WSJ piece, the Soviet Union used similar tactics to get naïve westerners to see communist imperialism as akin to the US Civil Rights movement. Hamas’s market-segmentation strategy is a clever improvement of the Soviet method.

  17. One problem with identifying socialsim, Marxism, SJW, Woke, Climate Change, etc as “religions without God” is that you run the risk of eliding the two as Christopher Hitchens did when he lumped together the deaths caused by (unrighteous and wrong) Christians in past ages with the deaths caused by Communism in ours, allegedly because some religious leaders abetted the regimes.

    I generally admire his idiosyncratic world-view of left and right, but he allowed a visceral hatred of Christianity, Islam, and the Bible to derail his usually sound research and reasoning in this book.

  18. One thing I thought about while in DC this week walking through GWU and Georgetown…

    We laugh at the pictures of “Queers for Palestine” and all, but the truth is there is a natural intersection between the two not only dating back to the secular history of the PLO but also the fact that both Woke and Hamas are transgressive in relation to the West.

    The thing I noticed this week on those campuses? The kids are stoked for some serious trouble. Events that we are living through can, when combined with some proper leadership and organizing, be catalytic events if you have the proper factors in place. Numbers of arrogant young Wokeists who feel the “system” is illegitimate. Leaders, both on campus and in the world, who the Wokeists feel are corrupt and ineffectual. A grievance that goes back (now) generations and fits readily into the neo-Marxist oppressor/oppressed narrative,

    Those factors sure sound familiar to 2020 and keep in mind both that the students of today were still in high school back then and the campuses were closed due to COVID. The self-righteous pinheads haven’t yet experienced their personal “mostly-peaceful” Summer of Floyd.

    One other factor, this is a story still unfolding. Alot of the discussion about 10/7 and campuses have revolved around the expression of antisemtisim, but not a lot about where this is going. Israel’s moral standing was at highest point on 10/8 and immediately started dropping. The false story about the hospital “bombing” was a beautiful piece of information warfare because it gave both people and media permission to shift to a new framework of equivalence.; we have moved from Hamas atrocities through the “yeah but Israel shouldn’t” stage and just about into the Israel is evil and why are we supporting it. The media have been awash non-stop with images of destroyed buildings and stories of “thousands” of dead children. This daily drumbeat will only get worse and worse, providing more fuel for radicalism. The inflection point will be the resolution, one way or the other, of the “humanitarian pause”

    This is also the political coming-out party for Muslims in America, the threat issued about withholding support in Michigan should have surprised no one given our past history with various groups on immigrants, just Politics 101. Biden is already folding

  19. “Someone at X said that the Cornell student arrested for making threats against Jewish students was probably just trying too hard to fit in and win approval of his peers and took it a step too far.”

    Like what’s her face, whose name I refuse to dignify by remembering it, when she held up a severed Trump head. Well – all the cool kids were doing it!

  20. I know Lewis was writing in the idiom of his time and culture and class, and he intended it to cover the full range of possibility, but there is this:

    If it were only ‘scoundrelism’, as we would now understand the idea of a scoundrel, I’d be fine with it. Within limits, vice and corruption are normal and human and the harm they do contained. They can get out of control, even destroy societies that are weak enough, I know it, but they can be and often are contained. They even serve to undermine the harm that can be done by true believers, and the true believers hate them for just that reason, ever trying to root out ‘corruption’ because it weakens the cause.

    I am concerned with the true believers, more. There is crossover, there is similarity at early stages, perhaps, but they are not the same threat.

    There is a scene in the fictionalized 1989 telefilm The French Revolution. In which Danton [Klaus Maria Brandauer] on the way to the scaffold soon enough, confronts the puritan Robespierre and asks the latter, “In all this, you have taken nothing for yourself?”

    This is an extreme example. The committee of public safety and the tribunals probably sent plenty of loyal mean to die for doing what I would call the right thing, others for petty corruption or low grade criminality. Danton was not a hero like the former or a low-harm lowlife like the latter. He had been a revolutionary, hence a tyrant, a monster, a true believer, and a murderer. He didn’t only plunder the homes of the deceased and overthrown. But in the end he was the revolutionary as human man. There was a limit to his bloodlust and he also wanted to be comfortable in the end.

    Robespierre was a monster without limit and the true threat.

    We would be wise to maintain an understanding of the difference.

    To take a more recent example- A Nazi officer whose chief offense is to plunder possessions and steal artwork is orders of magnitude a less villainous and above all less dangerous man than the true believer who ships millions to the gas chamber because he thinks it will make a better world.

    A thief I will want to hang but I will see him as part of humanity. A utopian true believer is a mortal danger.

    I fear very much that using Lewis’ now archaic word choice obscures that distinction.

  21. “If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. ”

    CS Lewis

  22. As a favor to a friend, I taught a high school course this past year. The school district was one of the better ones in my state. The students all came from middle class families. The students, were dullards. I pushed them and they simply responded like marshmallows. I was deliberately provocative, solicited argument, and could not get one started. I assigned students to argue topics that I picked, and they would not push against their assigned opponent. Ugh.
    Nothing is demanded of these children. They are catered to at every level. The principal explained that the students were arranged in tables of 4 and given almost all ‘project based’ work. Why? “They don’t like listnening to lectures”. Ugh x 2.
    These kids have zero convictions about anything because they’ve never been forced to fight for what they believe in. This marshmallow generation will be fodder for the forces of evil. I am not surprised that they go for the pro-Hamas non-sense.

  23. Dr Bob…”Nothing is demanded of these children. They are catered to at every level.”

    “A civilization is built on what is required of men, not on that which is provided for them”
    –Antoine de St-Exupery

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