Shortly after he watched White House Counsel Pat Cipollone tell the Senate on Saturday that “the president did absolutely nothing wrong,” a friend sent me an archived copy of Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr.’s baccalaureate address to my Class of 1969. Somewhat surprisingly, Brewster’s response —and Yale’s — to the crisis of that time is as urgently needed for the one we’re facing now.
Maybe it was bad acoustics in Woolsey Hall that June morning in 1969, or maybe it was my immaturity, but, like many others seated before Brewster, I was too sullen to be moved by his plea for due process liberalism. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in the spring of our junior years. Most of us were facing conscription into the slaughter in Vietnam. Yet to read Brewster’s address now is to find it as urgently necessary as we should have found it then.
Explaining why he remained “a due process liberal,” not a polarizing partisan or a radical revolutionary, Brewster recounted the moment when he first discovered that “[i]t is quite terrifying when rational exchange is totally blocked by steely-eyed, unlistening dogmatic assertion.” In 1937, before entering Yale College, he’d traveled “alone through National Socialist Germany,” where, in Berlin, he said: “I was taken in hand by a storm trooper deputized to be hospitable to unwary young foreign tourists. We sat at a café on Unter Den Linden. I, of course, began to argue about National Socialist policy, particularly the preference for guns over butter, a current slogan. Suddenly I realized there could be no argument, not because of the censorship of fear but because of the dogmatic dictate which said … ‘it is so because the Fuhrer wills it so.’”
“Dogmatism is the enemy of a moral society,” Brewster said, “for without the morality of reason it is hard to see how there can be any higher standard than passion and force. And if passion and authority respond to no checkrein of reason, then neither authority nor its victims can avoid a crude confrontation of naked power.”
I read these old observations only minutes before watching Rep. Adam Schiff warn senators that if they don’t allow clear evidence and the morality of reason to determine what’s right, “it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is … If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”
These are also the premises of a liberal education. It prepares you not just to facilitate whatever “is so” but to interrogate it, as Socrates did. Brewster considered “unwillingness to meet the challenge of plausibility and of argument … the scary thing about this country’s present mood, on campus as well as off. Dogmatic affirmation at best, crude epithet at worst, too often replaces argument. Force is becoming stronger than plausibility.”
At the time, lots of crude epithets were coming from the radical left against what President Richard Nixon called “the silent majority.” But now President Trump is trumpet-tweeting about “Lyin’, cheatin’ liddle’ Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party. ”
“It is not surprising that the liberal is sneered at in a world which seems to have no process to stop a senseless war,” Brewster acknowledged in 1969, but he warned that “if impatience for change were to shove due process aside, … the juggernaut which would take over the highway would not be the small band of idealists, radical or liberal or progressive or conservative. It would be … those latter-day fascists,” reminiscent of his host in Berlin.
So, “keep asking questions,” he admonished; “don’t let either the laziness of apathy or the therapy of dogmatism permit you to accept anything less than reasonable answers.” That advice better suits Republicans now than college “snowflakes” and “cry-bullies,” canaries in the coal mine of our civic and political implosion, whom they scapegoat so relentlessly that they abandoned their own kitchen to Trump.
It’ll take more than “asking questions” to stop them. It’ll take electoral mobilizations, nonviolent civil disobedience and deftly-organized demonstrations on behalf of Constitutional government itself. But liberal democracy long seemed unthinkable in the segregationist American South, the Soviet bloc and apartheid South Africa, until deeply nourished, skillful organizing and fortuitous events made it irrepressible. Tempting though it may be now to sneer at due process liberalism, as it was in 1937 and 1969, better strategies and courage can help more Americans to imagine how frightening our lives and prospects will become if, out of cynicism or resentment, we keep on letting Trump and his acolytes resemble steely-eyed interlocutors in Berlin.
Let’s keep asking questions: “Absolutely nothing wrong,” Pat? Can you explain?
JIM SLEEPER ‘69, a lecturer in political science at Yale, teaches the seminar “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .