Ethics & Public Policy Center

Universities and the Zeitgeist

Published in The Washington Times on April 22, 2007



When it seemed it could get no worse, President Robert Mugabe again tightened his grip on Zimbabwe. Earlier he had confiscated white-owned farms and given the best to his political cronies and family. This and other draconian measures have virtually brought the once-prosperous economy to a virtual halt. Facing dangerous food and gasoline shortages, the country now has the world’s worst inflation.
   
The other day, after Zimbabwe’s ruling party backed the 83-year-old Mr. Mugabe for a 2008 presidential bid — in effect making him president for life — he cracked down on the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) attempted to rescue the country from the misery he had created. In revoking their licenses, according to Agence France-Presse, he followed the example of Russia, Uzbekistan, Burma and other regimes that “restricted foreign-based NGOs considered hostile to the regime.” Specifically, Mr. Mugabe accused Britain’s Tony Blair of using such groups to overthrow his regime.
   
In response to Mr. Mugabe’s latest crimes, several universities have belatedly expressed second thoughts about having given him an honorary degree. An Associated Press story reported that the University of Massachusetts announced it was considering revoking the honor it bestowed on Mr. Mugabe in 1986, when he “was hailed as a humane revolutionary who ended an oppressive rule.”
   
Unfortunately, the University of Massachusetts got its facts wrong. The “oppressive” regime Mr. Mugabe “ended” was really an interim arrangement that, ironically, had organized the first free election in tropical Africa open to all races and genders.
   
Further, Mr. Mugabe’s political support came from the so-called Rhodesian Patriotic Front, whose Soviet-equipped guerrillas had murdered more than 1,900 civilians, including nine missionaries and their children. In any event, the election was inconclusive, revolutionary violence continued, and in April 1980, the Republic of Zimbabwe was established.
   
After seven years of turbulence, Soviet-backed Mr. Mugabe, emerged as president of Zimbabwe, vowing to forge a one-party, Marxist-style state. He used strong-arm tactics against his opposition and in 2001 emerged as a virtual dictator, despite parliamentary trappings. It can be argued that in 1986 Mr. Mugabe’s worst assaults on human rights had not yet happened, but decades before 1986 he had already shown his dictatorial stripes. A bit of timely research should have warned the University of Massachusetts that well before 1986, Mr. Mugabe was a confused Marxist prepared to flout the rule of law to serve his ambitions.
   
But by the mid-1980s a brand of political correctness rooted in the radical 1960s had asserted itself in many American universities. To expose “the true America,” these revisionists had written university textbooks that distort our history and help delegitimize our Western cultural heritage. By insisting all ideas and civilizations are of equal value, some self-styled multiculturalists promoted a moral relativism that subverts the crucial distinction between right and wrong, good and evil.
   
This savaging of America by the adversary culture was exacerbated — but not caused — by our troubled involvement in the Vietnam War. The “new barbarians,” as Daniel J. Boorstin characterized them, paved the way for further assaults against traditional democratic values in the 1980s and beyond.
   
Many university presidents were influenced by this culture in their selection of commencement speakers and recipients for honorary degrees. For them, the cast of heroes included flamboyant Third World politicians who, like Mr. Mugabe, delighted in thumbing their noses at the West.
   
Certainly there were other foreign leaders who embraced Western values on whom the University of Massachusetts could have bestowed its blessing in 1986. Konrad Adenauer of Germany and Margaret Thatcher of Britain come to mind.
    
   
Ernest Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Spear and Scepter: Army, Police, and Politics in Tropical Africa.

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