Poisoned Ivy, by Benjamin Hart
Graves of Academe
by Benjamin Hart.
Foreword By William F. Buckley, Jr. Stein & Day. 254 pp. $16.95.
The rightward shift of the American political Center that can now be seen to have begun with the first election of Richard Nixon in 1968 was accompanied by a leftward shift among American university faculties and administrations. Although college students themselves eventually moved away from the Left, in the 1970’s the minority of them who continued to favor radical causes enjoyed the greatest campus visibility and official approval. Only in 1980 did a group of conservative students at Dartmouth found a newspaper and begin to challenge what had become a distinctly liberal university establishment. By 1982 there were some eighty similiar publications in operation.
The Dartmouth Review, of which Benjamin Hart, class of 1981, was the student publisher, set out to lampoon, ridicule, vilify, and denounce the reigning orthodoxies of the college administration, faculty, and activist student organizations. The issues raised by the Dartmouth Review ranged from the college’s permissive system of electives that, according to Hart, made it possible to graduate from Dartmouth “without ever having read a word of Shakespeare, Dante, or Homer,” to “the obviously political academic departments—Black Studies, Urban Studies, Native American Studies, Women’s Studies.” A favorite target of attack was the college-funded Tucker Foundation, which sponsored
anti-nuclear demonstrations; draft-evasion panels; pro-lesbian films and workshops; lectures against United States involvement in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, or anywhere else; marches against the college’s investment in corporations that do business with South Africa; and abortion information centers.
But like their flag-burning predecessors of the 60’s, the new protesters recognized the still greater value of focusing on symbolic issues, among them, at Dartmouth, the singing of banned college songs and the use by athletic teams of the college’s American Indian symbol, a use that had been discontinued by the administration on grounds that it demeaned the Indians.
By these and other means the Review and its supporters simultaneously gained national attention and drove the liberal Dartmouth establishment into a frenzy. For, as Hart puts it in one of his trenchant observations, “The same people who talk about ‘the importance of tolerance,’ ‘the need for diversity,’ and why ‘we must listen to other opinions,’ are usually astounded to discover that there actually is another opinion.”
In Poisoned Ivy, Hart sets the founding of the Review and its battles in the context of his personal experiences as a Dartmouth student. The prospective freshman who reads his account will get a feeling for the personal friendship and fellowship offered by fraternities; some youthfully sophisticated pointers on how to get along with young women, especially if they present the challenge of holding different political views; a particularly vivid evocation of the spirit engendered by sports; and some sense of the impact on a young mind of great books, the big ideas, and informed religious faith. (Like the Indian symbol, some of these subjects are stand-ins for styles and attitudes calculated to challenge enlightened liberal tastes, and thus have their bearing on the ideological wars Hart was waging.)
For those well past the college experience, Hart’s extensive treatment of how he discovered the classics, religious faith, and patriotism will be of less interest than his all-too-brief and impressionistic report on the liberal establishment’s reaction to the activities of the Dartmouth Review group. That establishment acted as though what it had learned best from the 60’s, the period that brought it to power, was the peril of tolerating dissent. Legal obstacles were put in the way of the Review‘s publication and distribution, and one of the editors was brought up on disciplinary charges, quite evidently to discourage the others.
In recounting these and similar events, Hart is at his best in pointing up the contradictions between liberal principles and practices. He notes, for example, that whereas his opponents condemned criticism of minority and women’s programs as “emotional violence” that caused “emotional damage,” no restraints were ever invoked or practiced when it came to invective against Hart’s group. Still, although no one familiar with the contemporary university can doubt Hart’s account of the liberal intolerance he helped bring out into the open, his casual presentation of the evidence makes one uneasy about the details. Thus, he describes how the Dartmouth Review was founded—it was a response to the firing of the conservative editor of the liberal campus newspaper—but does not fully set forth the circumstances of that firing. Nor does he offer any evidence for the claim that “it was not at all unusual for students to be thrown out of Dartmouth on charges of racism and sexism” (his emphasis). Nor, finally, does he ever describe the famous incident in which, while distributing the Review, he himself was bitten on the chest by a black college administrator. Did Hart, at the time, behave in the insolent manner he elsewhere ascribes to himself? If so, the administration is certainly no less dishonored by the act, yet one’s sense of the situation is somewhat altered.
Similarly with Hart’s picture of a spontaneous and embattled insurgency by a few underdog, high-spirited undergraduates. His own remarks hint that the founding of the Review actually depended on financial and ideological support from an already organized movement of wealthy and influential alumni. The first issue of the paper contained both an article by a newly installed conservative trustee and a column by William F. Buckley, Jr. Hart never explains his own role on the Review, but it must have included seeking advice from his father, Jeffrey Hart, an editor of Buckley’s National Review and a professor of English at Dartmouth.
One senses, too, that the Review was a good deal more outrageous than Hart lets on. He reports that its pages were “in good taste”; he describes one article denounced by the liberals as “sober and objective” and another as “mild” and “eminently respectable.” But it was not these qualities that attracted national media attention and put the editors on television. With some justice, Hart is able to assert that student energy has passed from the radicals of the 60’s to the conservatives of the 80’s. But he does not notice the extent to which his tactics, which included rhetorical excess and personal insult, were reminiscent of the earlier period’s styles of dissent.
There is no doubt that conservative students have been instrumental in exposing the fatuity of liberal campus orthodoxy, and in demonstrating liberalism’s capacity for repressive intolerance when put under pressure. The rest of the student body, though, along with some others who also oppose the present establishment, would probably prefer a different style of opposition. It is too bad that at present no other intellectual force has come to the fore to join in the battle that those like Benjamin Hart had the temerity to initiate.