Chris Powell: Politically correct vandalism at Yale

Liberals, the old saying goes, are too broad-minded to take their own side in an argument, and Yale University in New Haven prides itself on defining liberalism, or at least the political correctness into which liberalism has devolved.

So Yale has asked the New Haven state's attorney's office not to prosecute a black cafeteria worker for the university who, finding it intolerable, smashed a stained-glass window at Calhoun College, one of Yale's dorms, that depicted two black slaves carrying baskets of cotton. The shards fell on a passerby and the vandal was charged with criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. He confessed and resigned, though now he wants his job back and promises to behave.

Yale long had defended the cotton-picking window as a mere historical illustration rather than an endorsement of slavery, though it has been getting harder to understand the university's persistence in honoring John C. Calhoun, a Yale graduate from South Carolina two centuries ago. While Calhoun held many national offices -- in Congress, the Cabine and the vice presidency under two presidents -- he was not one of the country's founders and he is most remembered for advocating slavery and state nullification of federal law.

Maybe Calhoun's advocacy of nullification is what Yale still finds attractive about him, since the university has made itself the headquarters of the movement to nullify federal immigration law, having induced New Haven to proclaim itself a "sanctuary city" and issue city identification cards to illegal aliens.

After the cafeteria worker's arrest the politically correct brigades who essentially run New Haven and patrol it around the clock for improper thought and expression rushed to his defense. They said the window was "racist" and deserved to be smashed and that Yale should rehire the smasher.

So the incident raises an issue more important than an employee's duty to his employer: freedom of expression. That is, Yale may be insensitive in merely depicting slavery; the university may be crazy in glorifying it and may even hold racist views. But doesn't the university still have the right to put into its windows whatever illustrations it wants and to honor whomever it wants?

The PC brigades say no. They contend that smashing windows is not just acceptable but necessary if a window bothers you enough.

Of course the perpetrators of Kristallnacht, another outburst of window breaking, felt the same way. Suppressing contrary opinion and enforcing orthodoxy, they were the politically correct of their time. No one stood up to them until it was too late.

But at least they were rebuked eventually, perhaps best by a judge of the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in New York, the great Learned Hand.

"Liberty," Hand declared to an audience of more than a million people in Central Park in 1944, "lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

"And what is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will. It is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few, as we have learned to our sorrow. ... The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right."

If Hand tried giving such a speech at Yale today he'd be shouted down, as others who are politically incorrect have been shouted down lately, and not merely because he went to Harvard but because attending Yale these days seems to confer the certainty that one is right, even in breaking windows.

Chris Powell, an essayist on politics and culture, is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.