Stanley McCaffrey, a cop in the ranks of the thought police, saw his duty and did not flinch. McCaffrey, president of California's University of the Pacific, saw what William Bennett said and withdrew an invitation for Bennett to receive an honorary degree: "We simply cannot honor a person holding these views."
I know little about the University of the Pacific, but I will wager that it resembles most universities and therefore is broad- minded about the expression, and even the teaching, of the view that America is racist, sexist, imperialist, militarist, etc. So what did Bennett, the new secretary of education, say that caused McCaffrey to recoil and become the toast of the faculty club?
Among other things, Bennett said that, for budgetary reasons, subsidies to middle-class students should be cut. Specifically, families with incomes above $32,500 should not be eligible for federally guaranteed loans (that would mean they would have to pay perhaps 12 rather than 8 percent interest).
There are many Americans -- including, I suspect, McCaffrey -- in whom the flame of thought flickers so weakly that they only feel vital and engaged with history when they are indignant. America's indignation industry makes neither shoes nor butter nor poetry. Rather, it makes mandatory blandness by practicing moral intimidation. Its intimidation works on people who can be intimidated by the denial of the honor, such as it is, of a degree from the hands of the likes of McCaffrey.
Blandness in public utterance is encouraged by television journalism, which, because of the tyranny of the clock, specializes in what are known as "sound bites." It defines, and distorts, individuals with brief, telegenic "bites." A nation that knew nothing of Secretary Bennett got its first glimpse of him in a "sound bite." He was saying that for some students the cut in subsidies might mean having to forgo a stereo or car or spring vacation at the beach.
A typical viewer probably got this glimpse on television at dinner time. The baby was crying and so was the Cuisinart, the phone was ringing and so was the viewer's head because Billy, 14, had his cassette player blasting out Madonna's "Like a Virgin." It was all background music for the 15-second sound bite that introduced Bennett to the nation.
Sound bites are more than adequate to present all the thoughts of some people. But Bennett is not one of them. He is the only member of the Cabinet who has spent his life taking serious ideas seriously. That is what makes him dangerous to the academic division of the indignation industry.
Bennett says that there can be no "right" for every student to attend the university of his or her choice. Anyone who disagrees with that has a peculiar understanding of the allocation of public goods, especially goods such as university admissions that are valued in part because of the various forms of status they can confer.
Bennett says (well, he said it once, he probably will not say it again because departures from blandness cause too much turmoil) this: He can imagine not being dismayed if his son someday wants the money saved for university tuition to be used instead to start a business.
Bennett is not expressing a Philistine preference for money over mind; he is expressing dismay that so many universities serve the mind poorly. This point, which he has been making forcefully for three years as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been missed by persons eager to strike a pose of indignation. Which brings us back to McCaffrey, who has disinvited Bennett. Why? "Because I find your views to be directly contrary to those held by me and our University of the Pacific. . . ."
The aid plan Bennett defends will preserve all aid for the least affluent students who, without aid, could not go to any college. It would make less-expensive public institutions better able to compete with private institutions, such as the University of the Pacific, for middle-class students. The aid plan is debatable. But dishonorable?
The hysterical condemnation of Bennett illustrates the moral exhibitionism of people like McCaffrey. It also reveals that the academic lobby -- like, say, the tobacco lobby, but with more moral pretenses -- has become an organized appetite. Bennett has interrupted its concentration on the social pork barrel by raising disturbing questions about academic purposes and competence.
McCaffrey's approach to controversy is not new. "Why should we bother to reply to Kautsky?" Lenin asked. "He would reply to us, and we would have to reply to his reply. There's no end to that. It will be quite enough for us to announce that Kautsky is a traitor to the working class, a everyone will understand everything." McCaffrey should know that everyone understands him.