The Ivy League has gone mad

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The Ivy League has gone mad

These days, there are two broadly accurate stereotypes about who makes up the Ivy League: There’s the sort of tweedy ivory tower eccentrics unreasonably invested in Cervantes or quantum physics. And then there’s the wide-eyed spittle-flecked activist ideologues steeped in critical theory, driving themselves to fury as they rant at captive audiences, a distinct type spanning all ethnicities and genders.

Members of this second type tend to be obsessive, monomaniacal crusaders for sweeping social justice reform to be imposed by people like them, wounded visionaries whose pain and persecution will righteously redeem the better world to come. Thoughtful people retain the capacity to minimally concede the basic humanity and best intentions of at least the better sort on the other side, but that sense of grace and grayscale has grown increasingly scarce among tenured intelligentsia as of late, let alone the bombastic cranks whose whole gestalt is big promises and furious scapegoating. The Ivy League rewards a Manichean mindset today, not the practical wisdom of meliorism and compromise and nuance. The incentives all pull toward a totalizing view of the world as a battle between good and evil ideas, represented by good and evil vocabularies.

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Since the theory all but proves that reality is socially constructed, every last inequity an arbitrary artifact of power, it’s really only a matter of will and sheer relentlessness to at last force an equitable global society. I spent the last decade inside Ivy League academia as an in-house historian and PR flack for Columbia University, and watched this worldview, as a psychological tendency, become more and more a sort of madness. I mean this literally: It attracts the insane, and it pulls people toward insanity.

I saw this firsthand. Ivy League colleges, and Columbia in particular, have long employed radicals with far-out political and ethical ideas among their professoriate. Kathy Boudin, for instance, was both a Columbia instructor and a convicted murderer who was involved in terroristic violence as a member of the Weather Underground. But since graduating from a different Ivy League college myself 16 years ago, I’ve noticed that it is not only the self-described radicals who espouse radical ideology.

The ideas have become de rigueur. One symposium insisted that anything but a totally open southern border represented “a fear of too much justice.” The very concept of borders was unconscionable violence. It wasn’t just that students accused of sexual assault should be presumed guilty but that offering them due process compounded the original crime. (I saw a professor shout about that one until she was flushed and quaking with rage.) And when it came to race, anything but reparations and universal quotas was tantamount to Jim Crow, countless Columbians constantly repeated.

Perhaps it may seem like referring to political proposals as insane is a sort of metaphorical use of language or that it is just hyperbole. But I mean it literally, and I know of what I speak. When I was growing up, it was rather routine for people I cared about to declare suddenly that they could control others’ minds or were Jesus Christ or that a shadowy cabal of villains was coming after them.

Truth be told, my mother was never thrilled for me and my brother to spend so much time growing up around mental patients. But our father, her ex-husband, was an earthy social worker, head of a local nonprofit organization called “The Self Help Center” that gave tenuously stabilized clients a place to congregate. And he was too damn cheap to hire a babysitter. So, many an afternoon and evening were spent playing cards, board games, and Nintendo with slightly disheveled adults on heavy psychotropic medication — and occasionally off of it.

Seldom did I ever feel physically threatened, but sometimes their outbursts hurt my feelings — wasn’t Larry supposed to be my best friend? Yet as years have passed, the experience of seeing seemingly intact grownups abruptly lapse into psychosis has proved invaluable in life. The skills I learned defusing the situations the mentally unwell create have served me well, especially at Columbia.

Whether diplomatically navigating unhinged professors’ rambling streams of marketable talking points or smoothing things over at meetings after older colleagues inadvertently said something that had recently turned offensive, it’s come in handy.

Today, lunatics increasingly dominate the asylums of America’s elite institutions — the federal bureaucracies, the media, and most especially the universities. I want to be perfectly clear: I mean no insult, as there goes any of us but for a few bad incentives and a social milieu with the wrong rewards tipping us over the fence. And it’s not that the truest of true believers are all that numerous but that they’re the most obsessively focused and have gobs of money behind them. The wackiest of excesses are just in the water now, part of the obligatory ambiance. Ambitious folks tend to figure out where their bread is buttered.

How many of their policy prescriptions actually make any sense? Maybe a few, if tweaked to be anchored more firmly in human nature and hard institutional constraints. But that’s not what’s ever earned them attention or funding or named professorships. A lot of students, donors, and journalists prefer champions whose style is more fire-breathing, ferociously condemning the wicked, and building castles in the sky.

The fundamental insight of Public Policy 101 is that it’s essentially always an exhausting, exasperating slog of incremental progress at best. Real political success looks and feels not nearly satisfying enough, particularly for those prone to magical thinking, which is what is needed to believe that changing the language and dominant narratives will —hey presto — make pain and injustice things of the past.

As even the most cursory scroll through TikTok demonstrates, crazy people do often have a kind of superpower: the tireless ability to create compelling spectacles at scale, winning far more attention and adherents in this atomized and desensitized age than more staid and sober voices. Serious policymaking is a game of inches and intractable trade-offs, the best of intentions crumbling to dust, and not half as entertaining as charismatic narcissists.

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There’s no easy fix for a society and institutional culture that have come to actively reward delusion. Sanity has fallen way out of fashion, and there’s no reason to expect it will bounce back anytime soon. As Public Policy 101 reminds us, you get more of what you subsidize.

Is there anything voters in the vicinity of the center can do to self-help? Batten down the hatches, for one, because the derangements are only going to get worse. Most important, reject credentialism — an Ivy League affiliation or New York Times byline or government title no longer connote credibility, if they ever did. They are gradually becoming pretty good proxies for dangerous detachment from reality.

Jesse Adams is a New York-based writer and consultant and the author behind the pseudonymous Substack The Ivy Exile. Find his work at IvyExile.Substack.com.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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