Tyranny's first victim is always language, particularly for governments that parade in the trappings of democracy even though the substance is lacking. Writing of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, W. H. Auden put it as tersely as anyone I know:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master speech.
The latest ogre down the pike is the government of South Africa, which has recently imposed upon its universities "criteria" to help them preserve "the undisrupted and undisturbed continuance of teaching and research activities." There is not much of a jump from "Academic Freedom Is Conformity" to the more famous slogans from George Orwell's Ministry of Truth: "War Is Peace; Freedom Is Slavery; Ignorance Is Strength."
The "open" universities that accept both black and white students (Rhodes University, the universities of Cape Town, Natal, the Western Cape and The Witwatersrand) derive approximately 80 percent of their support from public funds. The new rules threaten to cut off such funds if their criteria are violated. Some of the support for black students, particularly for their housing, comes from private sources. There is, however, no way the universities could continue without what Americans call "tax-levy money," so the new rules threaten their very being.
Let us by way of illustration apply such rules to the publicly supported University of Maryland or the University of Virginia. Let us suppose also that the federal government has decided that all affirmative action programs are illegal. Any Maryland or Virginia faculty group discussing affirmative action or, even worse, urging it, any student group supporting affirmative action, any publication that speaks of racial justice will automatically have violated the law. The university board of trustees must then look into the incident and report to the department of education what happened, what disciplinary steps were taken against the students or faculty members involved and finally what the board did to make certain that no affirmative action talk will occur on campus in the future.
The legislation is unclear about bull sessions in a student dormitory or, indeed, where faculty live in university housing, dinner table conversations in a faculty home. It would not take too much imagination on the part of the minister of education to declare that both of these forums are also subject to the law.
Those who remember the '60s can imagine what would happen on the campus at College Park or Charlottesville were any such draconian regulation imposed on them. Universities are hardly famous for political orthodoxy, and all show an instinctive and healthy resistance to being punished for having ideas, or for debating ideas, or for publishing them. South Africa's open universities are responding to F. W. de Klerk's "Newspeak" about as tamely as would their American counterparts.
What the South African government seeks is to prevent university discourse, assembly or publication on the explosive topic of apartheid. It is interesting that this subject is never mentioned in the long, intricate set of regulations, but it is clear that in the mind of the minister of national education, any university opposition to apartheid, be it by assembly, speech or publication, is disruptive of academic freedom. De Klerk would make a good member of Orwell's "Thought Police," since he has already subscribed to the concept of "thoughtcrime."
In South African society some vestiges are left of freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. All three areas are controlled, but despite the controls citizens still manage to talk, meet and publish. Thus the rules imposed on the universities are considerably more stringent than those governing the general public, and universities are naturally vulnerable to political vengeance in a way that more diffused bodies of citizens are not.
Universities can only claim civic autonomy when they are dealing with their own inner workings and being. Thus no university in any Western state is an enclave immune to police action where it is called for or indeed to governmental sanction where it is justified. But when it comes to the exchange of ideas, to free speech about any topic of any interest to anybody, universities are right to defend savagely their self-governing status.
A further sadness in all this is that the South African open campuses are, with the exception of the churches, the one free forum where black and white can argue, debate and come to know each other. Spend any time at all at the universities of Cape Town or The Witwatersrand, and you have the sense of a new leadership taking shape that could with patience and skill undo the terrible inheritance of apartheid. It is clearly the purpose of the South African government to destroy this next-to-last forum in which peaceful solutions can at least be talked of.
So the universities face the ogre of an intransigent and brutal government bent on battering them into conformity, all in the name of preserving academic freedom. Let Auden continue:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
The writer is president of Georgetown University.