By Kathy G.
The decision on the part of Washington University, the highly respected research university located in St. Louis, Missouri, to award an honorary degree to the odious Phyllis Schlafly is deeply distressing to me. One reason why is that this story has gotten nowhere near the attention it deserves, either from the mainstream media or from the left blogosphere (although there are a few blogs that, against the grain, have been on the case).
I think part of the problem is that, these days, many people have no idea who Phyllis Schlafly was and is. And, compounding that, a lot of folks don’t understand what awarding an honorary degree means. I will try to correct what I see as those lacunae, or misunderstandings, in this post (which I’ll warn you right here, is exceedingly long).
Let me start by posing a question: how would you feel if a great university decided to bestow its highest award —an honorary doctoral degree—on Ann Coulter? Or on Karl Rove? Well, the reprehensible Schlafly is very much their equivalent, as I’ll explain later.
Washington University has defended its outrageous decision to honor Schlafly with these disgusting weasel words:
Alumna Phyllis Schlafly’s articulation of her perspectives has been a significant part of American life during the last half of the 20th century and now the 21st century, serving as a lightning rod for vigorous debate on difficult issues where differences of opinion are profound and passionate. Not only should a university serve as a place where such discussions take place, but it may also choose to recognize those who provide leadership and articulation — both pro and con — on vital issues.
Well, yes, there can be doubt that Phyllis Schlafly has been a “significant part of American life,” that she has been a “lightning rod,” that she has shown “leadership.” As Alan Wolfe pointed out in a 2005 review of a biography about Schlafly that appeared in The New Republic (but which, unfortunately, is unavailable online, because the TNR archives are still screwed up, as they have been for about a year now):
If political influence consists in transforming this huge and cantankerous country in one’s preferred direction, Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the twentieth century. . . Had she never been born, the Constitution would now include an Equal Rights Amendment.
I am in complete agreement with Wolfe here—Phyllis Schlafly is indeed probably “one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the twentieth century.” That is a bitter and painful truth, but a truth nonetheless. Wolfe again:
Critchlow [author of the Schlafly biography Wolfe is reviewing] is right to insist on Schlafly’s influence—but influence is a neutral category. It may be a force for good or a force for ill, depending upon the ideas that animate it. Let it be said of Phyllis Schlafly that every idea she had was scatter-brained, dangerous, and hateful. The more influential she became, the worse off America became.
The officials at Washington U. can piously murmur all the bland words they please about “difficult issues where differences of opinion are profound and passionate,” but let’s get real: when you award someone with an honorary degree, you are making a value judgment. You are saying that the honoree—because of her exceptional intellectual, creative, or entrepreneurial talents, or her extraordinary contributions to American life, or the world—is so distinguished that she has rightfully earned the highest honor a great university can bestow. Let’s not kid ourselves: plenty of fairly hacktackular people—mediocre sitcom stars, not especially distinguished politicians, and the like—are regularly rewarded with these babies.
But very rarely—in fact, almost never—do you see a great university honor someone who, throughout her public life has shown nothing but contempt for the values of the academia, values such as intellectual honesty and integrity, rational discourse, and the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge. Who has been, not a champion of human rights and human progress, but rather, at every turn, sought to thwart the aspirations of millions of female and nonwhite Americans and deny them equal justice under the law. Who has attempted to leave the world a far worse place than it was when she came into it, and in many ways has succeeded at this.
All right, you may ask: specifically, what is my bill of indictment against Phyllis Schlafly? Dear lord, where do I even begin?
Well, let’s start with something that I think should be very disturbing indeed to a great university like Washington U.: Schlafly’s deeply ingrained habit, from the beginning of her public career well into the present, of crackpot conspiracy-mongering. Early on Schlafly was a member in good standing of the John Birch Society. You know them—they were an organization of redhunters so freakishly obsessed and paranoid that they famously believed President Eisenhower was a “conscious agent” of the international communist conspiracy. Schlafly first became well-known for her slim 1964 volume—a pamphlet, really—supporting the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, A Choice Not An Echo. The book has been described as
a conspiracist theory in which the Republican Party was secretly controlled by elitist intellectuals dominated by members of the Bilderberger banking conference, whose policies were allegedly designed to usher in global communist conquest.
And yes, to be sure, in that book she didn’t explicitly identify those communist international bankers as Jews—but then again she didn’t have to, did she?
Later on, Schlafly’s conspiracy theories took more of a black helicopters, anti-UN, anti-”one-world government” flavor. In recent years, she has been identified as one of the leading proponents of conspiracy theories about the National American Union—the belief that “behind closed doors, the Bush administration has collaborated with the governments of Mexico and Canada to merge the three nations into one Socialist mega-state.”
Given her anti-intellectual conspiracy-mongering, it’s not surprising to learn that Schlafly rejects the theory of evolution and believes that creationism (or “intelligent design”) should be taught in schools. It must be said, though, that it is startling to read that she blames the Virginia Tech shootings on that school’s English department.
But it’s not just through anti-intellectualism and paranoid conspiracy theories that Schlafly has lowered the tone of political debate in this country. Do you enjoy the ugly and vicious character of political discourse in George Bush’s America—the way conservatives cast aspersions at everything from their opponents’ patriotism to their gender identity? The way every political issue under the sun becomes fodder for cheap and sleazy sensationalism? Well then, you would just love Phyllis Schlafly. To this day, Schlafly is an ardent admirer of Joseph McCarthy, and that’s not surprising, since her tactics of smearing and redbaiting greatly resemble his. Alan Wolfe explains:
The ugliness of American politics today can be directly traced back to Schlafly’s vituperative, apocalyptic, character-assassinating campaign against the ERA. In Slander, her 2002 contribution to American letters, Ann Coulter described Schlafly as “one of the most accomplished and influential people in America” and “a senior statesman in the Republican Party.” Coulter was right. Karl Rove only perfected what Phyllis Schlafly invented. And the wild, filthy rhetoric of Coulter and some of her screaming reactionary colleagues owes a great deal to Schlafly. We are lucky, come to think of it, that Schlafly flourished in the days before cable.
I can hardly believe that someone whose entire public career as a writer and speaker is littered with lies, smears, conspiracy theories, and shrill, ugly rhetoric would ever be rewarded with so high an honor as an honorary doctorate from a great university. But there are yet more reasons why every decent person should consider Phyllis Schlafly beyond the pale.
There is, for example, not just her style of argument, but the content of her political views. Which is very disturbing indeed.
Schlafly has always been an energetic proponent of the view that in America, nonwhites should not enjoy equal rights under the law. Here, for example, is what Wolfe has to say about the relationship between Schafly, the Goldwater-for-president boom, and the civil rights movement:
The origins of the Goldwater boom could be traced to a meeting between Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon in 1960 when, in return for Rockefeller’s support, Nixon agreed to endorse a civil rights plank calling for “aggressive action to remove the remaining vestiges of segregation or discrimination in all areas of national life.” This was too much for the right-wing activists from the South and Southwest, who were intent on taking over Abraham Lincoln’s party for their own bigoted ends. Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and conservatives such as Schlafly loved him for it. Conservatives maintained that their opposition to the Civil Rights Act was based on a preference for state’s rights over federal power, but no one, least of all their enthusiastic followers, was fooled. Conservatism was in large part a revolt by whites against the aspirations of blacks, and whatever success it enjoyed was a by-product of the backlash that it generated.
Her views on race remain unchanged, lo these many years later. Unsurprisingly, Schlafly (again quoting Wolfe here) “strongly” endorsed “Lee Atwater’s use of Willie Horton to scare voters away from Michael Dukakis.” She continues to be (Wolfe’s words) “anti-immigrant and hostile to minorities.” She has fairly recently, for example, described Mexican immigrants as “invaders” seeking to take control of America.
Her views on military and foreign policy are equally retrograde, which is perhaps not surprising given her notorious pronouncement that “The atomic bomb is a marvelous gift that was given to our country by a wise God.” Predictably, she attacked Nixon’s opening to China, as well as Nixon’s, and later Reagan’s, arms negotiations with the former Soviet Union. Her writings on military and arms policies were spectacularly ill-informed and dangerous, as Wolfe explains:
[Schlafly] teamed up with kooky former military officers such as Admiral Chester Ward to write a series of screeds which, if anyone had taken them seriously, would have brought the United States into a full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The United States, Schlafly and Ward insisted, should build a first-strike nuclear force capable of destroying the Soviet Union, adding, along the way, an ABM system in case the Russians should attack us. Their ideas had a certain intuitive appeal, but only to those completely ignorant of how the world really worked. So long as the Soviets could respond to any attack on our part by launching an attack of their own, and so long as there was even a remote possibility that an ABM system would fail, deterrence, which Schlafly and Ward denounced, was the only strategy available. Published by obscure firms, their books deteriorated in both coherence and sales over the years.
Yet Critchlow presents the views of Schlafly and Ward as if they were part of a responsible discussion about American nuclear strategy. “The debate between the two sides,” he writes, “was technical, with different assumptions brought to the table…. Still, evaluating specific weapons systems allowed much room for honest disagreement on both sides.” This is gibberish. There never was a “debate” between two “sides,” both of which were “honest.” There were foreign policy officials making tough decisions about protecting American lives against Soviet missiles and there was, off in the far corners of the lunatic fringe, a group of embittered reactionaries writing furious diatribes taken seriously by no one—except, that is, Critchlow. It is true that in the late 1970s and early 1980s critics of deterrence emerged who entertained ideas of “nuclear war-fighting” and “nuclear victory”; but they were genuine defense intellectuals, whatever the merits of their arguments, and Schlafly was a raving amateur.
Schlafly’ has had a powerful, and entirely negative, influence on the political direction of this country, and on the tone of our political discourse. But there is no question that the thing she has been most famous for is being an antifeminist. Throughout her career, she has been given to such outrageous statements as “Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women, except in the rarest cases” and “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape.” But she is best known for almost single-handedly stopping the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
The ERA was a proposed amendment to the Constitution that simply said “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” and that Congress would have the power to enforce this by legislation. It was first proposed in 1923 and was added in the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties in the 1940s. It languished for decades, until the feminist movement of the 1970s began a campaign to get it passed. In 1971, it was approved in the House of Representatives by 354-23 and by a vote of 84 to 8 in the Senate the following year. Soon it was passed by 35 of the 38 state legislatures needed for ratification. But then Phyllis Schlafly organized an anti-ERA drive, demagogically claiming that the law would destroy families, deny Social Security benefits for housewives and widows, and mandate unisex bathrooms. Her efforts were so stunningly successful that the proposed amendment was dead in the water by 1982.
It’s hard to say what material difference the ERA might have made to the lives of American women. Many legal scholars believe it would make it easier for women to prevail in cases of sex discrimination, because for the first time it would make sex, like race, a suspect classification demanding strict legal scrutiny (rather than the intermediate level of scrutiny it currently requires). Under the ERA, a number of Supreme Court decisions such as last year’s outrageous Ledbetter ruling, which protects employers from lawsuits over pay discrimination, might very well have gone the other way.
But perhaps, more than anything else, the ERA would have been a symbolic gesture, granting women, at long last, the dignity of equal protection under the Constitution. At any rate, the defeat of the ERA marked a turning point for the feminist movement. The backlash had arrived in full force, and from that moment on, women saw precious little progress on the legislative, political front. Although socially, culturally, and economically, there would continue to be much improvement, politically, American feminists have been preoccupied with holding onto the rights they’d thought they’d already secured (such as the right to abortion ) rather than agitating for new ones (such as universal child care or universal paid leave).
I’ve been working hard trying to understand why a great university like Washington U. ever saw fit to honor Schlafly in the first place. It’s not a matter of denying Schlafly freedom of expression, because granting an honorary degree, which implies an endorsement of the honoree, is not the same as inviting a person to speak on campus, which does not. Universities hold events where all kinds of highly controversial people speak all the time, and that’s how it should be. A mere speech by Schlafly would not be out of bounds (unless it was at some sort of official event that implied the university’s endorsement, such as graduation).
Nor do I believe that conservatives should never receive honorary degrees. There are conservative scholars who do work that is respected within academia—many economists, for example—and they would not be inappropriate candidates for such an honor. Nor would I have a problem with conservative pundits, so long as they’re sane and genuinely distinguished (which these days admittedly narrows the field to practically zero), such as the late William F. Buckley. I’ll even grudgingly accept the reality that conservative Republican elder statesmen are regularly awarded these things. Though even here there are limits—while personally I wouldn’t protest the awarding of a degree to George H.W. Bush, even though I find him pretty hateful, far-right lunatics like Cheney, Dubya, and Jesse Helms should be entirely out of bounds.
But Schlafly, as I’ve explained, is another matter entirely. In its statement, the university says the decision was made by an Honorary Degree Committee consisting of students, faculty, staff, and members of the Board of Trustees. The Committee must approve all candidates unanimously, after which the Board of Trustees must then approve all the Committee’s selections unanimously. I am stunned that all those people thought that a figure as noxious as Schlafly merited so high an honor—that there wasn’t a single person who objected. How ignorant can all those people, many of them quite distinguished, I’m sure, be?
Though probably at least a few of the board and committee members who voted to honor her are conservatives, I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority are not exactly McCain supporters. I’d guess that most of them are liberals of one sort or another, and I suspect the decision to honor Schlafly came out of a misguided attempt to be “fair.” It’s a distressing fact that many liberals, anxious not to be seen as “biased” or as condescending to conservatives, in fact bend over backwards to be “fair and balanced” towards them. Such behavior then allows them to congratulate themselves on their “tolerance” and “open-mindedness.” Though, to be “fair,” so to speak—such behavior does come out of a genuinely decent liberal instinct to be evenhanded.
But this way madness lies. Because, as much as conservatives may whine and scream to the contrary, liberalism and conservatism are not moral equivalents. Because, on the one side you have the thinkers and activists who have advanced freedom, social justice, and human rights, and on the other, you have those who have attempted to thwart all those things. King George III is not the moral equivalent of George Washington. Jefferson Davis is not the moral equivalent of Abraham Lincoln. Joe McCarthy is not the moral equivalent of Walter Reuther. George Wallace is not the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King. And Phyllis Schlafly is not the moral equivalent of Betty Friedan.
So if you’re going to be handing out honorary degrees to political activists, conservatives are always going to come up short. And that is how it should be.
Right now, I’m thinking about what a bitter, infuriating experience graduation will be for so many Washington U. students this year. Did you know that, in addition to honoring Schlafly, there will be a commencement address given by Chris Matthews? To paraphrase D. at Lawyers, Guns and Money, this has got to be the Worst. Graduation. Ever.
If I were a parent who’d spent a small fortune to put my kid through Washington U., I’d be beside myself with rage. Graduation should be a joyous event, a celebration of an important achievement, a time for students to rejoice at their entrance into the adult world. But this graduation will be something entirely different. Look at the crystal-clear and quite powerful message that Washington University is sending to its female graduates, through its selection of Chris Matthews as commencement speaker and Phyllis Schlafly as the recipient of an honorary degree. They’re saying that it’s far more important for them to suck up to, respectively, media elites and the conservative movement, than it is for them to honor the dignity and aspirations of their female students. That giving their imprimatur to one of the biggest sexists jerks in the media today, and one of the greatest enemies of women’s advancement in American history, is a far greater priority for them than respecting their own female graduates. That must be one hell of a bitter pill to swallow. What a lovely parting gesture to students about to venture forth into “the real world.”
If you oppose Washington U.’s decision to award Schlafly the honorary degree, I suggest that you join two anti-Schlafly Facebook groups—this one and this one. Both groups list actions you can take and Washington U. officials you can contact to register your protests. I do think there’s hope they will back down. Just last week Northwestern University reversed its decision to award an honorary degree to Jeremiah Wright, so there is precedent for this sort of thing. I will continue to follow this story on my blog, The G Spot.