Although I think it's overblown, I have no problem with George Will's assault on university protections from disrespectful free speech — what Will calls students' perceived "entitlement" to be free from "uncongeniality," "buttressed by 'trigger warnings' against spoken 'micro-aggressions' that lacerate the delicate sensibilities of individuals who are encouraged to be exquisitely, paralyzingly sensitive." When I read of commencement speakers who are frantically disinvited by administrative pooh-bahs because of the former's uncongeniality toward, say, a particular religion, my heart sinks a little. But it does so more at the offensiveness of bureaucratic poltroonery than at student hypersensitivities. The latter may be squeaky loud and thus get the oil, but they're an extreme minority awash in a larger indifference to disagreeability and unpleasant speech. They also make the news in their newsy disproportionate way, and thus lacerate the delicate sensibilities of our George Wills, and so cause him to fulminate at an epidemic of student intolerance that isn't.
And that's when Will becomes really enjoyable. "Free speech is more comprehensively and aggressively embattled now than ever before in American history," he declares. Oh dear. Why is that, George? — I mean, other than the obvious (see above: whole armies of excitable students who will brook no disagreement). George explains. It is so "largely because of two 19th-century ideas. One is that history … has a mind of its own. The other is that most people do not really have minds of their own."
In short, it's all the fault of Karl Marx, whose ideational silliness bled into the 20th century and, yea, verily, into today:
Progressives frequently disparage this or that person or idea as "on the wrong side of history." They regard history as an autonomous force with its own laws of unfolding development: Progress is wherever history goes. This belief entails disparagement of human agency — or at least that of most people, who do not understand history’s implacable logic and hence do not get on history’s "right side." Such people are crippled by "false consciousness." Fortunately, a saving clerisy, a vanguard composed of the understanding few, know where history is going and how to help it get there.
Gone from Will's pack of intellectual boogeymen are the vastly influential postmodernists, for whom the mid-20th century's human slaughter obliterated any notions of inexorable progress or universal truths. To Will it is Manifesto-edly clear that "progressives" have ruled without interruption for 167 years. Damn.
At any rate, also gone — in reality — is any notable Marxist intellectual vanguard that firmly believes in history as an independent force, one that obeys universal laws as physical as gravity. They're still around, yes. But Will would have us believe that they are synonymous with "progressives," which is unmitigated bunk. On whole, progressives (a rather indefinable term) are a backward-looking lot, which is to say, they rest more heavily on empiricism than theoretical, forward-looking wishfulness. Is the world safer and healthier and better educated today than it was in civil-wartorn China or ancient Rome or 17th-century Europe? The question answers itself, for the answer lies in empirical data.
Hence most leftist intellectuals believe less in a history of "autonomous force" than in humanity's and civilization's broad evolutionary development. If one wishes to belittle that belief as a misbegotten descendent of strict ideological Marxism, be my guest. I'm neither progressively injured nor offended by it, notwithstanding Will's belief that my delicate sensibilities are lacerated by his heroic defense of free speech.