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The Campus Chasm on Ukraine

The Campus Chasm on Ukraine

As universities attempt to dictate the morality of their students, college kids are tuning out one of the most important causes of our age.

Austin Lamb

Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova gave Boston College’s commencement address this year, where she exhorted graduating students to lead lives characterized by responsibility, action, and love.

Markarova’s address, given at one of America’s leading Catholic universities, came not long after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s May meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. When I asked Ambassador Markarova about the pontiff’s offer to play a mediating role in the conflict, she said that, although Ukraine welcomes humanitarian aid from the Church and its faithful, any mediation short of Zelenskyy’s ten-point peace formula would constitute a concession to Russia’s unjust attack on the Ukrainian people, which she had earlier that day called “genocidal.”

“Nobody wants peace more than Ukrainians, but this situation is very black and white. There are no two sides to this story.” Ambassador Markarova added that she did not choose Boston College because it was a Catholic university: “God sent me here, and we chose each other.”

As I watched her address from the stands of BC’s Alumni Stadium, I couldn’t help but feel that our university’s pomp and circumstance rang hollow against the forceful tenor of Markarova’s words. Compared to the vividness of the ambassador’s account of resistance in the face of foreign invasion, there was something awkward in BC’s attempts to honor her homeland. Several speakers, including University President Father William Leahy, made reference to “the” Ukraine—not the country’s preferred appelation. The first mention of the ambassador’s presence was met by one rogue cheer, and this from the stands, not the student section; mention of BC’s student radio station was met with a louder group of cheers. And Markarova’s honorary Doctor of Laws, awarded “on behalf of the people of Ukraine” and for the “glory of God” by BC, was watered down by the deluge of other honorary degree recipients and by Leahy’s tired invocation of the quest to “root out social, racial, and economic inequality” in the United States.

One could be forgiven for thinking that, for BC, Ambassador Markarova was not much more than a “good get” for a student body that would like to think well of itself—impressive, as far as commencement speakers go, but not as exciting as this year’s Harvard commencement speaker, actor Tom Hanks.

The Ukraine war should be an irresistible cause for American students. I’m pretty sure that “fledgling democracy fights for its very existence against a tyrannical superpower” is the plot of every single blockbuster I’ve seen this year. Sure, when the news of Russia’s invasion broke in February of last year, we all were on the edge of our seats for a moment. Some of my friends stayed up late that night, filling up on McDonald’s as the TV blared and print news trickled in. But even among the strange and nonrepresentative subset of students I belong to (I’m a grad student in political science), our interest in Ukraine fizzled out quickly.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

For those on the Left, Ukraine should represent a defense of democracy and human rights, not least gay rights, against an autocratic regime that would absorb Ukrainians into itself and deny them such freedoms. But those who take this line of argument are drowned out by the Left’s obsession with identity politics here at home. Meanwhile, the Right has begun to indicate a weariness with America’s foreign involvements, adopting a selective dovishness that can lapse into a praise of Putin’s regime.

On university campuses, the unity that the Ukraine War should have brought about in America is nowhere to be seen. Instead of rallying around common principles in support of a fledgling nation locked in an existential struggle against autocratic rule, the war has been met by division and collective exhaustion by a significant number of students.

The media plays some role in this, but I’m inclined to think that it’s a small one. Apocalyptic coverage of Trump, then COVID, then Trump again for ratings, has done little to convince young Americans that the world of digital discourse has anything to do with the world of their experience. There is no sense of proportion, no depth perception, no reliable way to determine the relative importance of reported-on events. Deafened by endless debates over, say, who can use which bathroom, it’s hard for many to hear the significance of a land war in Europe. The media have cried wolf too often, and many are just done listening.

More blame lies at the feet of American universities, who have failed to stake out a coherent role in our democratic society. Universities just don’t know what they’re doing. Once upon a time, they were meant to prepare young adults for democratic citizenship through free and vigorous debate over first principles. Having adopted a “value-neutral” scientific model, they are now embracing a vision of the university as an agent of social justice rather than free inquiry.

But while it is true that university-driven social justice is on the vanguard of the HR-ification of America, it’s not coming from the students. Consider the massive proliferation of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) departments, which have been more successful in promulgating identity politics than in making universities more racially diverse. (Auburn University’s expansion of DEI, for example, is actually correlated with a decrease in black enrollment.)

Social justice initiatives like DEI that dictate morality to students are not the same thing as teaching students how to think about moral issues. Between teaching students and telling them to shut up and get with the program lies a world of difference. The latter alienates the more reflective students. Accepting university-led, off-the-rack moralism may work just fine for the people-pleasing social climbers who benefit from the new arrangement, but it cuts the most morally serious students off at the pass by declaring what public morality must be in advance and stigmatizing well-meaning students who might have reasonable reservations about such conclusions.

It is possible to understand, then, the general apathy of BC’s student body to Ambassador Markarova’s presence and message. It is also not impossible to understand the Right’s intellectual flirtation with Putin, or the pro-Putin postmodern philosopher Alexander Dugin.

Last year, I attended the international National Conservatism Conference (NatCon) in Miami, the aspiring home of young post-liberal conservatives­­­–and of college students, whose admission fees are generally waived. At NatCon, I heard some choice things about Ukraine. (Not from the official speakers, I should note.) The short version: Ukraine is not a real country. The name “Ukraine,” I was told, just means “frontier” of the Kievan Rus.’ I was also told that more Ukrainians speak Russian than Ukrainian (not true).

At bottom, these falsehoods are all tied to a deep and abiding suspicion of the West, and of a West led by the United States in particular. For some, Putin is an avatar of nationalist resistance to a libertine global monoculture led by the United States. Putin is admired for leading a publicly religious country (let’s ignore the fact that America is actually more religious), as well as for his posture on homosexuality. The Russian invasion, in this line of thinking, is in reality a defensive move, a response to the anti-religious monoculture. In today’s episode of Who is the Most Aggrieved Victim?, the winner is Putin!

I have my own reservations about America’s role on the international stage, but applied to Ukraine, this fear of “globalism” is ridiculous. To label nations banding together to help a fellow democracy from the brink of extinction as “imperialism” is an abuse of language.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Markarova framed her commencement address around Lesya Ukraina, a late-19th century poet whose Ukrainian-language works were banned in the Russian Empire. Her writings were a flashpoint for a young nation finding its legs. Today, after just thirty-two years of freedom from Soviet control, it is doing so again, with a patriotism that America’s youth are struggling to match.

In his Lyceum Address, Abraham Lincoln worried that if ambitious, elite youth could not find glory in the founding of a republic, then they would content themselves with its destruction. This, I think, is the real horror of American students’ geopolitical apathy today. It’s hard to see what good it does us to be on “the right side of history” if our nation’s brightest youth are convinced that America is irredeemably racist (on the Left) or that it is a force for global nihilism and irreligion (on the Right).

Lincoln thought the solution to America’s lack of national confidence was a “political religion” in reverence of republican principles. But at BC’s commencement ceremony this spring, there was only one person who truly thought she had divine sanction to defend those principles.

Austin Lamb is a Ph.D. student of political philosophy and American politics at Boston College. He has written for The American Mind, The American Conservative, and Bright Lights Film Journal.

Image: A student in a college auditorium. (Unsplash: Philippe Bout)

Eastern EuropeDemocracy IRLRussiaUkraineUnited States