Lolling around Auckland's campus on the last day of O-Week, I was struck by the absence of the ideological fervour that so animated university common rooms & quadrangles in days of yore. The group I was fronting for that day, The Auckland University Objectivist Forum, seemed to be almost alone in kindling the flames of idealism. To be sure, there were some (suitably unprepossessing) specimens manning the inevitable Socialist Workers' (ex-Communist) Party stand; I was told the Labour Party had held its pallid pink flag aloft for a couple of days & then vanished in the face of overwhelming lack of interest; I spotted a University Atheist Club table as replete with books as it was devoid of visitors; and I learned of a fundamentalist Christian stand in another quad whose personnel specialised in forewarning passers-by of their looming liaison with flames of a more literal kind ... but that appeared to be it! The bristling, ideas-charged subversiveness of yesteryear had given way to a gormless apathy, a thoroughly unintellectual, passionless, ritual chorus of "cool" and "awesome" mumbled arhythmically to a foreground din of amplified jungle "music." Even the mandatory demonstration was numbingly parochial in its targets - Mercury Energy and fees - which I hope explains why its participating stragglers were so few, & so willing to hide behind the cadre of Alliance geriatrics that awaited them downtown.
What to make of this?
The relative absence of far-Left groups on campus is no doubt a simple reflection of the fact that students know that Marxism is moribund (even though some of their lecturers will try to persuade them otherwise). They are not so young that they cannot remember the collapse of the Soviet Union or the ecstatic tearing down of the Berlin Wall & draw the appropriate conclusions about the doctrines that sustained these abominations. That is healthy. The reported resurgence of Christian fundamentalism, however, is a worry. If mouth-foaming threats of hellfire, reminiscent of Tertullian & Augustine & the equally unhinged Protestants of the Reformation, are the latest word of the mind, then the mind is in very poor shape indeed. On the other hand, the lively debates around the Objectivist Forum table bespoke both intellectual eagerness & vital idealistic impulses yearning for fulfilment.
And here, I think, lies the clue to the overall intellectual vacuum so gapingly apparent on campuses & in society at large - the clue, that is, to both explaining the vacuum & filling it. Yes, there are vestiges of intellectual eagerness & idealistic impulse - even the Christians & the remaining lefties embody them in their own perverse way - but they have been swamped by cynicism. Why? The discrediting of Marxism has left many of its erstwhile followers convinced that there's nowhere else to go. The unedifying preoccupation of the harbingers of New Zealand's (phoney) revolution with gdp statistics & cost-benefit analyses is scarce going to fuel the moral passions. More broadly, the death of God proclaimed by Nietzsche has left many restless souls convinced that life can have no meaning. And more universally still, the impossibility, proclaimed by philosophers from the Sophists through to Hume and beyond, of deriving values from facts, ethics from reality, has reached its climax, 2,500 years after the birth of philosophy, in the belief EN MASSE that values are arbitrary & subjective. One value as good - or as bad - as any other. There IS no good or bad. As Dostoevsky put it: "If God is dead, everything is permissible." Nihilism pervades. Philosophy itself is pointless.
Well, God IS dead (he was never alive), but NOT everything is permissible. Objective arguments CAN be raised against murder, torture and the like; life CAN have meaning, with freedom and without God; philosophy need not be pointless; the intellectual & spiritual vacuum CAN be filled.
But that's another column for another day.
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