I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
Over the past two weeks many American intellectuals must be feeling like Dr Victor Frankenstein did about his Monster.
On October 7 Hamas militants burst out of Gaza and swept through surrounding Israeli towns and kibbutzim and an all-night rave music festival. They slaughtered some 1,300 people, men, women and children. They spared neither babies nor grandparents. Most were shot, some were burned to death, some were beheaded, some were tortured. Women were raped. It was barbaric, a vicious pogrom on a scale not seen since the Holocaust.
Israel and the Palestinians have a difficult history. Its great achievements notwithstanding, Israel has made terrible mistakes and is making them right now by bombarding Gaza. But October 7 was a premeditated attack on Jewish people carried out with inhuman sadism.
You would think that American college students would sympathise with the Israelis in this disaster, even if they disagreed with Israeli policies. Human dignity does not depend upon religion or nationality. It doesn’t even depend upon past history. After all, their nation’s Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Amazingly, ignoring Israel’s sorrow, on campuses across the United States, students organised demonstrations in favour of Hamas and celebrated its victory. A coalition of student groups at Harvard College published an open letter holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” At Tufts, another college in the Boston area, one group called the terrorists “liberation fighters paragliding into occupied territory,” who had “especially shown the creativity necessary to take back stolen land.”
Student groups at Columbia University called the massacre a justified “counter-offensive against their settler-colonial oppressor.” Disgusted alumni of the University of Pennsylvania have stopped supporting it. One large donor called his alma mater an “anti-semitic cesspool.”
You get the picture. Elite colleges are producing students with no empathy and no analytic skills and a moral compass which is stuck pointing towards a savage terrorist group.
The Old Guard was shocked.
A leading American bioethicist, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the New York Times that the war in Gaza has exposed a moral vacuum in American colleges. He was shocked by the moral ignorance and brutality of Ivy League students.
Emanuel is a quintessential Ivy League product. He did both an MD and a PhD at Harvard. He taught at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard. He is the head of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s your go-to man for contemporary medical ethics, one of the best & brightest of the older generation of academics. In a passionate and indignant op-ed, Emanuel wrote:
The Hamas massacre is the easiest of moral cases. The attackers intentionally targeted and killed over 1,000 civilians. They killed babies and children, people attending a concert, and people from Thailand, Nepal and more than a dozen countries who could hardly be responsible for the decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence, as if that could be any justification. And then these same gunmen took civilian hostages, with the explicitly articulated intention to use them as deterrence and, if that failed, to execute them.
Emanuel acknowledged that universities have failed to educate students in basic morality. For all the palaver about how odious “othering” is, they “othered” the Israelis as despicable oppressors who got what they deserved.
Those of us who are university leaders and faculty are at fault. We may graduate our students, confer degrees that certify their qualifications as the best and brightest. But we have clearly failed to educate them. We have failed to give them the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity.
How did this happen, Emanuel wonders.
For the last 50 years, with a few exceptions, higher education has been reducing requirements. At the same time, academia has become more hesitant: We often avoid challenging our students, avoid putting hard questions to them, avoid forcing them to articulate and justify their opinions. All opinions are equally valid, we argue. We are fearful of offending them.
Emanuel’s lament is a modern echo of Dr Frankenstein’s cry: what have we created?
He is right to weep over the intellectual dark age which seems to have fallen upon America’s elite campuses. But he is wrong to attribute it to lack of rigorous academic standards. The real problem is that he and his fellow professors abandoned their belief in truth. Nowadays, the proud motto of Harvard, Veritas, or Truth, inspires cynicism, not reverence.
Emanuel is a prize example of the decline of American moral standards. In a 2017 article in the New England Journal of Medicine he argued that medical societies should “declare conscientious objection unethical” and remove conscience clauses from their codes of ethics. If the law permits abortion, assisted suicide, contraception, or gender reassignment surgery, doctors should comply. “Health care professionals who are unwilling to accept these limits have two choices,” he and a co-author wrote: “select an area of medicine, such as radiology, that will not put them in situations that conflict with their personal morality or, if there is no such area, leave the profession.”
Read in the light of this stark ethical totalitarianism, Emanuel’s mea culpa that “We have failed to give them the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity” rings hollow. He threw his compass away long ago.
Emanuel is just one of many eminent American intellectuals who enabled the “dictatorship of moral relativism”. They sowed the wind; now they must reap the whirlwind. They taught that there are no self-evident truths, no unchanging moral standards. And guess what? Their students believed them. No wonder they have been celebrating the atrocities of Hamas.