January 17, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Everyone blames the liberals

No one blames the institutions for getting the liberals’ ideas wrong.

A painting of the Prophet Muhammad raising his hands in prayer. Courtesy of The Conversation.
A painting of the Prophet Muhammad raising his hands in prayer. Courtesy of The Conversation.

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Everyone blames the liberals. That should be the American motto. Put it on the money. Put it on the national monuments. Everyone blames the liberals and their ideas about liberty, even other liberals.

But everyone should blame the institutions that get the liberals’ ideas wrong, and everyone should blame the illiberals for blaming the liberals for the institutions that get the liberals’ ideas all wrong.

Of course, everyone doesn’t.

The teacher isn’t the problem
Case in point is a controversy at Hamline University in Minnesota. An adjunct professor of art history taught a class on global religious art. She warned students in advance that, among other things, they’d be studying a canonical painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Total time in class focused on the painting was about 10 minutes.

At least one Muslim student was offended by it.

The administration called it Islamophobia.

The adjunct professor was fired.

The problem was the institution using liberal values to cover its ass and in the process, impugning public trust in the liberals’ ideas, which in turn fed into the idea that college campuses are hotbeds of “wokeness,” “cancel culture” or some other totally made up thing.

According to Inside HigherEd: “The image shows Muhammad receiving instruction from the angel Gabriel. The original painting is in a collection at Edinburgh University Library in Scotland. The reaction to the lesson surprised the instructor and many others. One or more students complained about the image, believing (as many, but not all, Muslims believe) that showing the image was wrong.”

The image might be wrong, but the teacher wasn’t. 

Her institution was.

But the illiberals blame the liberals for the institutions that get the liberals’ ideas all wrong. By getting the liberals’ ideas all wrong, the institutions end up affirming what the illiberals say about the liberals.

The story begins with blaming the liberals.

It ends  there, too.

The institution is the problem
For most people, the Hamline story begins in the wrong place.

The real beginning was a university administration’s decision to protect the institution’s image and interests against possible accusations of Islamophobia by throwing under the bus an adjunct professor who did what any professor of religious art would be expected to do. 

The story really began with characterizing 10 minutes of discussion of a canonical work of Islamic art as an act of Islamophobia. It really began with the administration’s abominable claim that “respect for the observant Muslim students should have superseded academic freedom.”

But for most people, that’s not where the story began.

Rather, the Hamline story began with an adjunct professor’s decision to discuss a canonical work in the global history of religious art. The story began with at least one Muslim student being offended by it. For most people, the story began with questions about whether freedom of thought should bend to the dictates of religious sects. 


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In other words, the story began with what the enemies of liberalism say liberals say about liberal values after the institution, by protecting its image and interests, warped those same values of liberalism.

The result was a bunch of false binaries – defenders of free speech against defenders of religious liberty; defenders of academic freedom against defenders of “wokeness.” None had any bearing on the story. 

The problem wasn’t liberalism. It wasn’t “wokeness.”

It wasn’t religious views, extreme or otherwise.

The problem was the institution using liberal values to cover its ass and in the process, impugning public trust in the liberals’ ideas, which in turn fed into the established belief that college campuses are hotbeds of “wokeness,” “cancel culture” or some other totally made up thing.

The problem was the illiberals looking at an institution, which got liberalism wrong, and seeing proof of what they already believed to be true about liberalism. The problem was the story starting there. 

Aligning with the illiberals
Seeing an image of Muhammad was probably offensive. It was probably insulting. But the adjunct professor made allowances for that by warning students in advance before discussing an artifact that “depicts the beginning of Islam’s holy book and the onset of Muhammad’s divinely ordained apostleship,” said Christiane Gruber.

It was not an act of Islamophobia, the historian of Islamic art said.

It was the opposite:

The painting no doubt was produced to extol Muhammad’s prophecy and Quranic revelations, making it an Islamophilic artistic endeavor for its painter and viewers. The painting thus falls on the other side of the Islamophobia coin, in both intent and impact.

Liberalism is the force in politics and society that aims to flatten entrenched hierarchies of power in order to advance liberty, equality and justice for all, not merely the few. But liberalism gets the blame when something like this happens – when an institution claiming to embrace liberal values uses them cynically to protect itself.


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The result is not only false binaries. It’s cynicism of the liberal goal of flattening the hierarchies of power, as if the liberals don’t mean to reform the status quo, but instead usurp those who benefit from it. 

That’s how the illiberals view the liberals. To them, after institutions warp and distort the liberals’ goals – making the goals seem like less a moral undertaking than a power play – that’s proof they’re right. 

In effect, the institutions align with the illiberals to not only undermine trust in the liberals’ goal but also undermine freedom of thought, freedom of speech, the education of the republic and the advancement of knowledge. The illiberals stand athwart history, yelling stop. The institutions, in shirking their moral responsibilities, join them.

Getting liberal ideas wrong
This pattern repeats itself ad nauseam.

After the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, the liberals advanced antiracism into the public sphere to such a degree that institutions around the country – whether universities or corporations – embraced antiracism, or at least gave the appearance of it.

But a true embrace is complicated, difficult and probably disruptive of institutional needs. In the face of internal resistance, institutions tended to go halfway. That, in turn, redoubled internal resistance as well as increased cynicism by the public about the liberals’ real intentions, which the illiberals have already said is not a moral undertaking. It’s swapping who gets the upper hand in society.

These conditions can give rise to an upside down, backward and prolapsed view of the world in which the liberals are illiberal, because, for instance, “respect for the observant Muslim students should have superseded academic freedom,” and the illiberals are liberal, because they stand with freedom of thought and freedom of speech. 

This is a backlash.

The pattern repeats itself over and over when the liberals manage to advance their values. A backlash can fuel the candidacies of (Republican) illiberals as well as the political movements that bring them to power so they can stand athwart history, yelling stop. 

Liberal ideas aren’t the problem. 

Getting them wrong is.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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