Moral Authority

CLARENCE PAGE

May 17, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- Some may dismiss Irving Howe as something of a dinosaur, for he believed deeply in the currently unfashionable doctrine of socialism. Yet, to describe him as a socialist intellectual is like describing Michael Jordan as a Chicago basketball player.

Mr. Howe, who died May 5 of heart disease at age 72, added a richness to the game, a show-stopping nuance that can quickly be grasped and appreciated even by those who are unfamiliar with the rules.

Through his editing of the leftist opinion journal Dissent, his warmly narrated book ''World of Our Fathers,'' about the Eastern European Jewish migration to America, and the dozens of other essays and books he wrote on literature, culture and politics, he displayed an impressive moral and intellectual steadiness.

He never wavered in his adherence to a democratic and humane ideal of socialism despite living through several major waves of intellectual fashion, including the Mao, New Left and Huey P. Newton personality cults of the 1960s; the self-focusing ''Me Generation'' of the '70s; or the free-market utopians of the '80s.

His intellectual steadiness often put him at odds with my generation of college-age, Baby Boomer lefties in the '60s. Although Howe, a product of Jewish tenements in the depressed Lower East Side and the Bronx, had been a committed lefty himself since at least the early days of the Depression, he vigorously scolded the student left for its intellectual laziness, authoritarian arrogance and occasional barbarism.

Mr. Howe's enduring gift was his call for everyone to arm himself with knowledge and a moral authority that could stand up against the paranoia, sloganeering and thuggery that can hijack the worthiest cause.

That's an important lesson for those members of today's progressive student movements who seem determined to repeat the worst excesses of their elders' generations. For example, even as the world was learning of Irving Howe's death, news also was spreading about women in a feminist art class at the University of Maryland who had hung posters around campus listing thousands of ''potential rapists.'' The names had been picked literally at random from a campus telephone book of the 32,000-student campus.

The women said they wanted to draw attention to recent sexual assaults and a general concern over date rape, worthy causes to sure. But to call every man a ''potential rapist'' is to take the easiest and most cowardly way out of having to judge people by their individual character. It is such difficult but crucial distinctions that protect the rights of individuals from the raw prejudices of the mob.

Mob action is not political correctness. It is political convenience, an excuse to bully one's way through simple brute force, even as it devalues the cause it is trying to promote.

Students at the University of Pennsylvania offer another couple of morbid examples. There a Jewish student was subjected to university discipline for yelling ''water buffaloes'' at a noisy crowd of black students whose noisy partying outside his dormitory window had been disturbing his studies.

Student inquisitors charge the word is a thinly veiled racial epithet of some sort, although the student suspect says it comes from an ancient Jewish expression for boorishness. His shouting at the noisy students had nothing to do with their race, the charged student claims. He just wanted to get some sleep.

Sounds reasonable enough. One wonders whether, in the currently supercharged, hypersensitive atmosphere on some campuses regarding anything that might offend women or minorities, anyone would be able to get a fair hearing, even in a matter as seemingly obvious as this one.

At the same university, another group of black students decided to take their disagreement with a right-wing student columnist into their own hands. They roamed the campus, seized almost the entire press run of the campus newspaper and dumped them into trash bins.

As an African-American who vigorously disagrees with the columnist, a reportedly feisty lad who attacks such provocative targets as affirmative action and the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., I am no less appalled when my fellow African-Americans fail to find a better way than brute censorship to show their contempt.

They could begin, as Irving Howe would have advised, by trying a little scholarship. History offers valuable lessons. When newspaper editor Elijah P. Lovejoy was lynched in Alton, Illinois, in 1837 for his writings against slavery, the mob action backfired by inflaming the passions that eventually ended the abominable institution.

When black publisher Ida B. Wells was run out of Memphis, her office destroyed, for crusading against the lynchings of blacks at the turn of the century, it only energized her cause and that of black civil rights.

What will mob action by blacks bring? It won't win respect. It will only bring resentment and downfall.

Yet, when black scholars like Henry Louis Gates or Cornel West denounce black anti-Semitism and other corrupting influences within the black intelligentsia or when a Camille Paglia dares challenge the stuffy Puritanism of some feminists, they often are reviled, sometimes with bodily threats.

We should not ''hang our dirty laundry in public,'' they are told. But the dirty laundry already is hung. Someone must call attention to it so it can be taken down and cleaned. Irving Howe knew how painful it is to criticize those whose cause you otherwise support. He taught us that causes come and go, but the content of your character lasts forever.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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