You’ve probably heard about the cancellation of a showing of the film American Sniper at the University of Michigan.
The film was cancelled in response to a student petition protesting that the film was racist and anti-Muslim. The initiator of the petition told the Detroit Free Press that she felt “uncomfortable” watching it. The university responded by replacing American Sniper with Paddington—presumably on the premise that no one feels uncomfortable when watching a movie about a teddy bear.
After the school’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh, tweeted his support for American Sniper, the university relented and decided to show both films, although at different locations.
There are several morals to take away from the story. One is that football is still the most important institution on campus. Another moral—the one I would like to expound on—is that the infantilization of our society is complete. When a movie about a stuffed animal is considered age-appropriate for twenty-year olds, it’s a sign that our society is in trouble. When a movie about one aspect of the biggest story of our time is deemed a threat to the safe-space of same twenty-year olds, it may be time for all of us to exchange our newspaper subscriptions for a lifetime subscription to Vermont Teddy Bear’s annual editions of stuffed ursines.
“Infantilization” may be a bit harsh. Let’s just say, as sociologists have been saying for the last fifty years, that the preferred end-state of development for many Americans is adolescence. Culture critic Roger Kimball put it this way: “If America’s cultural revolution [of the 1960s] was anything, it was an attack on maturity: more, it was a glorification of youth, of immaturity.” The result, wrote Kimball, was that the values and attitudes of the youth culture “were adopted by the culture at large.”
Although adolescents have many fine qualities, the mainstream culture tended to celebrate the more immature traits of the age group, such as self-absorption and a limited sense of personal responsibility. The results were devastating. The widespread adoption of the youth culture zeitgeist led, among other things, to the divorce culture and the unwed mother culture, both of which led to more generations of mixed up youth who elected, in their turn, to put growing up on permanent hold.
America has paid a steep price for its infatuation with youth culture, but it has somehow managed to avoid a final reckoning. Up until now, that is. As the counterculture in America and Europe gradually became the established culture, another adolescent culture was beginning to assert itself in the Mid-East and Near-East. In many places it was an adolescent culture in the literal sense of the word. For instance, the average age of a resident of the Gaza Strip is about sixteen. Although Islamic cultures are ancient, they nevertheless tend to exhibit some of the fantasy-based thinking of the adolescent. For example, a good many Muslim males, both young and old, are quite certain that 72 virgins have been reserved for them in paradise.
And, like the adolescent mindset that ate the West, the Islamic mind tends toward excitability and even irrationality. Almost any perceived insult—an obscure video, a mild cartoon in a Danish newspaper—has the power to provoke paroxysms of anger. Much of the Muslim world also shares the countercultural view that Western imperialism, colonialism, and racism are at the root of the worlds ills. In addition to endearing them to Western progressives, this simplistic explanation (which was largely borrowed from Western academics) has the advantage of relieving rioting Muslims of any sense of personal responsibility for their actions.
The re-emergence of Islam on the world stage is often attributed to three factors—rapid population growth, the success of the Iranian Revolution, and the Arab oil money which financed the spread of Islamic ideology to every corner of the world. But a fourth factor should be added—the concomitant spread of youth culture ideology in the Western world. Counterculture ideas helped to create the moral, spiritual, and population vacuum that Islam was quick to fill.
The biggest idea in the counterculture thought world is cultural relativism. Simply put, it means that all cultures, religions, and customs are equally valid. In a large sense, it puts other cultures and their cultural practices beyond criticism.
It also makes it difficult to see other cultures for what they are. One effect of adolescent self-centeredness is the belief that the “other,” for all his otherness, is essentially made in one’s own image and likeness. The youth culture (now middle-aged) looked out and saw—or thought it saw—a global youth culture whose members were all equally dedicated to peace and love and the elimination of whatever divisions hindered the universal embrace.
But many of the world’s youth are not like that. They may appreciate the rhythms of rock music, but they may see little wrong with throwing rocks at adulterers. A young Muslim may be easygoing and personally inclined toward tolerance, but tolerance is not typically an important value in his culture, whereas honor—a concept that elicits laughs from sophisticated Western youth—is of ultimate importance. For males in the Muslim world the concept of honor is bound up with control over women; for the sake of restoring family honor, a father may kill his daughter and a brother may maim his sister. Islam is an honor culture writ large. It elevates loyalty to the ummah (the community of all Muslim believers) over other loyalties, but the same sensitivity to being disrespected is still there. Thus, the hair trigger reaction to any insult against the religion or its prophet. Insofar as the Islamic mindset is an adolescent mindset, it is more like the mindset of an adolescent gang member than that of an adolescent flower child.
The honor-dominance dynamic which rules Islamic societies is in many respects the antithesis of counterculture values. Yet, except for the triumph of the counterculture and its celebration of primitive values, it’s unlikely that the Islamic revival would have been such a success. A society of grown-ups would have been able to see the Islamic resurgence for what it was and would have been able to resist it. But a nation in which the navel-gazers had somehow gravitated to the top would only be able to view Islam through the prism of their own self-absorption.
The counterculturalists of the sixties and beyond were too busy actualizing themselves to have any but the vaguest ideas about history, philosophy, religion, or cultures. Thus they were suckers for simplistic ideas—the noble primitive, Marxism, the guilt of imperialists, and the justice of “liberationist” movements everywhere. We all know about the devastation to family life when the limited horizons of adolescence are carried over to adulthood, but how about the effect on political life? What happens when adults go into politics still clinging to an adolescent world view? And what happens when the Western adolescent mindset meet the warrior adolescent mindset?
Much of the current deference to Islam and especially to its crazier manifestations can be explained by reference to this adolescent view of history and culture. In a recent piece for National Review, historian Victor Davis Hanson points out that our seemingly inchoate foreign policy only makes sense when you keep in mind that President Obama “has an adolescent, romantic view of professed revolutionary societies and anti-Western poseurs.” Obama’s “juvenile view” of the revolutionary non-West, say Hansen, explains why in any dispute he always comes down on the side of the more revolutionary party—Erdogan in Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, al-Qaeda in Libya, the guardians of the Revolution in Iran, and the Castros in Cuba. Never mind that these revolutionary leaders are ruining their countries. Obama “has a starry-eyed crush on those who strike anti-Western poses” and who claim to speak for the people.
Meanwhile, his starry-eyed Secretary of State is betting the family farm on the trustworthiness of Iran’s ideologically driven leaders. It is rumored that, if all else fails, Kerry, a true son of the sixties, will employ the folk-song and bear-hug diplomacy which worked so well to quell the fears of the French after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Whether or not it will be a teddy bear hug accompanied by the presentation of a stuffed Paddington remains to be seen. However, it would be a mistake to assume that just because a man has reached septuagenarian status, his brain is no longer stuffed with adolescent pipedreams.
The skirmish between Paddington and American Sniper is part of a larger pattern. Last year, the University of Michigan (at Dearborn) cancelled the showing of Honor Diaries—a documentary about the violent treatment of women in Islam. “Honor Diaries” seems like a strange title for a film describing female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and death at the hands of relatives. That is, until you remember that Islam is an honor culture where “doing the honorable thing” by a woman does not necessarily mean marrying her.
Not surprisingly, the film was perceived as an attack on the honor of Islam and the university administrators came under intense pressure from Muslim activist groups to cancel the “Islamophobic” production—which they dutifully did. On college campuses, protecting the honor of Islam often seems to be a higher priority than protecting the rights of women.
Respect for the “other’s” culture and respect for the rights of women are both part of the multicultural agenda subscribed to by academics. But what do you do when the two respects collide? The answer seems to be that you reserve your sensitivity for the group that is most likely to cause you bodily harm if you cross it. Perhaps the faculty and students at U Mich are now dimly aware that in some crucial respects the Islamic honor culture is not unlike the gang culture that rules parts of nearby Detroit. In short, it’s best not to disrespect them.
There’s a good deal of talk on university campuses of providing spaces where students can feel “safe” and “comfortable.” This usually means allowing no space whatever for anything that might trigger the unsafe feeling. But it’s highly unlikely that university officials are worried that a Clint Eastwood film is going to catapult students into a state of shock. What they’re really worried about is that Islamic brownshirts either from on or off campus are going to create a genuinely unsafe environment.
At another Michigan campus—Eastern Michigan University—a showing of the Eastwood film was shut down after thirty-five protesters moved into the theater and marched on stage. Judging by the names of the protest leaders (Ahmed Abbas, etc.), one surmises they were mostly Muslim students. In explaining the decision to cancel the second showing of the film, administrators said they “wanted to make sure whatever happens, students would be safe.” But safe from what? From a film that no one is compelling you to watch? Or from a culture that seems increasingly intent on forcing you to abide by its rules?
A society in which there’s no safe space for free speech will not, in the long run, be able to provide either freedom or safety. For the time being the perpetual adolescents in our society will still be able to rally for legalized pot, the right of gays to have their cake and eat it too, and other momentous causes of the day. But time may be running out.
The Paddington generation (by which I mean all college educated generations since the sixties) has been largely successful at winning battles in the domestic culture war. But that is because their opponents are constrained by the rules of civility and Christian forbearance. It’s unlikely they’ll fare as well in the intercultural war that is looming.
Who seems most likely to prevail? Generations who have been indoctrinated in the belief that even the worst excesses of the multicultural other must be respected? Or generations who have been indoctrinated to believe that jihad for the sake of Allah is life’s highest aspiration?
A final word of caution: When your teddy bear arrives from the factory, be careful what you name it. Eight years ago, Gillian Gibbons, an English woman teaching six-year-olds in Sudan allowed her students to name the class mascot—a teddy bear—“Muhammad.” She was promptly arrested, found guilty of “insulting religion,” and thrown in jail, while outside a crowd of 10,000 protestors demanded her execution. Luckily, the British government prevailed upon the Sudanese government to pardon her and release her back to England. It took only one multicultural misstep and suddenly Miss Gibbons found that all of Sudan was an unsafe space for her.
Note to the University of Michigan: Is it really safe to show a film which might remind Muslim students of an ugly Islamophobic incident that happened only eight years ago in Sudan? Seems rather insensitive.