Acton Institute Powerblog

Negotiating “The Captive Mind” on American campuses

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What does an ancient Islamic concept have to do with negotiating woke campuses in 2021? A Nobel Prize–winning Pole proves a fascinating guide. […]

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God being dead, Nietzsche warned us, meant that new gods had to be created to fill the void. Our age is godless in some ways, to be sure, but in other ways we have become polytheists with jealous gods competing for our allegiances. Just as Fate ruled over the gods in ancient Greece, so in the contemporary world all the new gods are ruled by History. She determines our destinies, shapes our choices, and demands from us that we be on her side. Only a madman would try to cross History, whose ways are known and advanced by her prophets, none more energetically than the privileged knowers in the modern academy.

When Czeslaw Milosz wrote The Captive Mind in 1951, he was subjected to History’s fury. The Second World War had recently passed and the descent of the Iron Curtain exacerbated the sense of being an ant on the wheel of time. Milosz’s book reminds us that intellectuals, the main subject of his analysis, will arrogate to themselves tremendous power so long as they can cloak themselves in the language of historical inevitability. When one is at the end of History, sensing the promised land where all conflict will cease, the intellectual, Milosz warns us, will try to become “useful” and thus a source of misfortune for others. Knowledge of the “objective conditions” of life will yield a level of certainty that makes sure the Truth, which History alone reveals, takes every mind captive.

A resistant man “weighs his chances and concludes it is unwise to align himself with the side that has been damned by … History.” No one, however, can stand outside the great historical struggle, so resisters either quickly become History’s victims or they sign up to experience “the collective warmth” produced by the fires of History’s abstractions, or they develop strategies of resistance that allow them to live ironically and perhaps even subversively in the middle of ideological foment. Milosz presents with great charity and no sentimentality four anonymous figures. These are not great historical figures courageously resisting all the forces of totalitarianism; rather, the various writers shaped by their experiences developed their art and altered their allegiances to adapt to the changing circumstances of living under a totalist regime. Milosz never claims to know more than he does, and thus those four chapters are written sympathetically and with an absence of moralizing. Milosz wants us to feel the tension of people who are stripped down by ideology and trying to regain the drapery of life.

Milosz’s mechanism for capturing the complexity of such a life is the Islamic idea of Ketman. While intellectuals experience a collapse of the distinction between the social self and the real self (the personal is political, after all), and thus become actors who perform rather than thinkers who reflect, those who practice Ketman try to maintain their sense of self, their inner life, their integrity against the forces that threaten them. Ketman is a self-preservation strategy whereby one keeps silent so as not to draw attention to oneself, or deceives in order to survive. While the one practicing Ketman will conform publicly to the demands of those in power, in private he will act subversively and maintain faith that History may yet change course. The rationalizations of Ketman, Milosz observes, are always based on some future faith.

Milosz identifies seven different kinds of Ketman. We need not rehearse them all, and my interest here is largely in seeing how Milosz’s description applies to Americans in social institutions, such as the academy, that, while not possessing the hard, life-threatening power of totalitarian regimes, do possess soft, life-altering power. Being denied merit increases, appointments, honors, tenure, promotions, or other emoluments of academic life may not be the gulag, but they are sufficient to produce Ketman in academics who daily face obstacles to their integrity. And so, Milosz argues, they mustlive in order to maintain their “spiritual health” and “create a particular form of happiness,” for there is a distinct happiness in opposing something on the sly, something that one feels in one’s marrow isn’t worthy of the worship it demands.

Milosz refuses to resort to abstractions in identifying either the spiritual source of Ketman or the modes of its expression. Indeed, in his aversion to jargon Milosz demonstrates that Ketman emerges in part because people refuse even small doses of abstraction. Ketman results from particular attachments or experiences: the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around us having a self-evident goodness that belies the disappointed and bitter love that Milosz identifies as the core of ideologies. Individuals inclined toward Ketman will appreciate the beauty of language, especially poetry, and understand how jargon becomes an instrument of control. They’ll read books trying to grasp their meaning rather than as grist for a crabbed ideological hermeneutic. They have an appreciation for the mystery, the strangeness, the tragedy of life and the complexity of man, and that not everything they do must achieve a predetermined social end. But they’ll make sure their expressed appreciation for the world never exceeds the level of “discomfort it creates for the rulers.”

The rulers are fundamentally Puritans. A world of freedom is one where impurities exist and perhaps even proliferate. There will be error, conflict, fear, and selfishness, some individuals not taking seriously their obligations to “the species.” At the end of History, however, all that withers away; indeed, History itself has no real form or substance, but precisely because it’s empty it is now pure. Such purity cannot be achieved easily or quickly, and therefore “it will be necessary to maintain a constant terror in order to instill that feeling of responsibility by force.”

Intellectual terror, Milosz avers, is a principle central to the ideological project. The dream of the ideology may not be real, but its power is, and will be applied ruthlessly and relentlessly. Milosz warns us against such obsession with purity and to accept instead the messiness of things. He recognized that in times and places of such obsession, Ketman resulted from a person accepting his or her “inner command and plac[ing] everything at stake in order to express what seems to him to be true.” That inner command, in turn, had to be supported by “an order of values that exists beyond the changeability of human affairs” and that only those who could still have faith in those values could be capable of practicing Ketman.

On many of our campuses, the ideologues have gained ascendancy and have driven their detractors into various modes of Ketman. Professors go along with “training sessions” they know are indoctrination sessions, they attend committee meetings they know will promote nonacademic ends, they’ll teach in a curriculum that has nothing to do with liberal learning, and they’ll keep their mouths shut when their colleagues and the apparatchiks on campus hyperventilate about perceived racism and sexism and transphobia and homophobia and any other thought crime one might commit. The faculty member practicing Ketman will be an ironist. He will often be reduced to calculations such as this: You receive an email from an administrator about a training you are expected to undergo or something you’re “supposed” to do in your class. You think it has a smell to it that would be familiar to a farmer. So you wonder: Do I just go along with it, or do I send a reply that will surely indicate my disapproval? And if the latter, what form will that take? You might simply want to ask what happens if you don’t perform the required task, but you know that this, too, will put you on the watch list.

Ketman means sticking with something you no longer believe in, or at least are losing confidence in, because it’s the only way you can do the thing you do believe in. You stick with your employer, even as you watch the school self-immolate, because you still believe in educating the youth. You even think it matters. You know the school is not committed in the same way: Most administrators and faculty want it to be a place committed to “solving social problems.” As if.

Every day brings with it little decisions of this sort. Do I attend this meeting? Do I agree to alter my syllabus to reflect the new demands? Do I submit to this training? Do I insist my students go to that training, or allow the trainers into my classroom (which requests I get surprisingly often)? Do I keep silent or do I say something? Do I simply focus on narrow and “objective” research, or do I write things that will surely get me in trouble? Can I assign this book in class? (For one personal example, in the past I’ve assigned Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, but desisted from doing so this year because I wanted to avoid the trouble that would surely come my way.) Is this particular battle worth it? What hill will I die on? But the latter question is in part moot, because we are rarely Franz Jägerstätter. We are mostly stabbed with stilettos and not hacked with broadswords, even if the impulse of the ideologue is “to cut down human trees blindly than to wonder which among them is really rotten.”

Educating on the right side of History cannot occur without the purging of atavistic, and therefore subversive, opinions. The people who run our colleges have, often under the rubric of Title IX offices, established “reporting protocols” for heterodox views. “Informing,” Milosz observes, “was and is known in many civilizations, but the New Faith declares it a cardinal virtue of the good citizen. … Work in an office or factory is hard not only because of the amount of labor required, but even more because of the need to be on guard against omnipresent and vigilant eyes and ears.” Bias incident reports and Bias Response Teams are now commonplace on campuses. Students are encouraged by student life and by other faculty to be hyper-alert for transgressions and to file complaints.

I have recently been the subject of two Title IX investigations. One involved a class where, when discussing religious freedom and nondiscrimination claims, I indicated that courts and legislatures were trying to craft balancing tests that would properly honor both claims. This effort to present fairly both sides of the issue made the reporting student “unsafe.” The second incident occurred recently when, in a class on state and local politics, I gave the students some reading concerning the Dutch settlement of Holland. The reading, however, did not denounce the genocidal impulses of white Christian missionaries. Keep in mind, I had no idea that I was being investigated, nor was I ever asked to give my side of the story—the whole trial, including the verdict, took place without my knowledge.

These incidents have the desired chilling effect. More and more professors I talk with have sanitized their classrooms. I’ve said for years the thing that is going to get me is a joke I make, humor being the last thing those of the New Faith will tolerate. Ketman, Milosz claims, operates in an already poisoned community. In a liberal regime, order is created to avoid the war of all against all; but in the “inclusive community,” the war of all against all is the telos. Success results from cunning and conviction and not from intelligence and principle. Try asking what makes “inclusion” a virtue and see what happens. One of my main objections is that it renders education boring.

The delights of Ketman are a consolation, Milosz says. So long as the person practicing it does so resolutely and consciously, it produces an inner tension that not only reminds one he is a man but that also sharpens an appreciation for what is good and true and beautiful in life. Some students may be laying in wait, but there are still some who want to learn. Reading Milton because one thinks poetry is beautiful is a threat to the New Faith itself, wherein everything must be directed to its appointed social end. There can be no simple, apolitical relishing of beauty. Faculty who practice Ketman “must be ejected to the margins of society not because of what they do, but because of what they are.” History, which laughs at our pretensions and jeers at our certainties, may perhaps judge those practicing Ketman more graciously than do our peers.

Jeffrey Polet

Jeffrey Polet is professor of political science at Hope College and a senior fellow with the Russell Kirk Center.