From Missouri to Paris

The left should be held accountable for the alternative moral orders it creates.

Guarding the Eiffel Tower, Nov. 18. ENLARGE
Guarding the Eiffel Tower, Nov. 18. Photo: joel saget/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Before Islamic terrorists murdered 132 people in Paris last Friday, the biggest news story in the U.S. was the bonfire of the academy. Protesters at the University of Missouri forced the resignation of the president of the 35,000-student campus. They said his efforts to reduce racism were “inadequate.” University officials at other campuses expressed solidarity with the Missouri protesters’ goals.

Missouri and Paris have something important in common. Both represent the inability of primary social institutions to defend themselves. American institutions of higher learning are beset by an intellectual anarchy that is eroding their reason for being. In the Middle East, unchecked anarchy has caused millions of refugees to flow into a Europe incapable of handling that crisis and now reeling from its vulnerability to terrorist attacks on normal life.

How has this happened?

Institutions survive for many reasons, but one is that they operate inside a common moral order—a foundation built over a long period of time.

In universities, the basis of that order for centuries has been free inquiry. In the U.S. the country’s founders gave constitutional protection to freedom of speech. They knew that the moral claim for free speech is that it protects the common good.

Since President Tim Wolfe’s resignation at Missouri and since the video of a shouting match between a Yale student and administrator over the university as “a place of comfort,” many articles have described the decline of free speech as a common value on American campuses. One recent student posting said simply, “Hostile speech is not free speech.” That statement describes the revision of a moral title that has been under way in academia a long time.

For years, the liberal academy shunned conservative teachers. Progressive students extended the logic: Failure to shout down certain views, they say, is itself immoral. Now these students organize themselves into mini-mobs—recently at Missouri, Yale and Dartmouth—to silence anyone on campus who they imagine disagrees with them. Once it is established that “hostile speech is not free speech,” they can do anything they want to their targets, because the opposition is . . . no good.

The pace at which university presidents—and boards of trustees, if you can call them that—are acquiescing to this alternative moral order is astonishing. Their broader institutions are left undefended, and their pained restatements of commitment to free-speech are crocodile tears. Freedom of speech is dying on the ivy vines in the U.S.

Some will say that Socialist French President François Hollande’s forceful, eloquent opposition to Islamic terror suggests the European left can still see clearly on the moral imperative of protecting a nation. I doubt it. Their support for him will wane over time, as after 2001.

Through the pitched battles over the Patriot Act, Edward Snowden’s releases of the U.S.’s antiterror surveillance software, and the controversies over interrogations of captured terrorists, the progressive-liberal opposition pressed the idea that these initiatives were not only illegal or unconstitutional but that they were self-evidently immoral.

The war on terror itself became morally distasteful to the global left. On Oct. 29, weeks before the undetected Paris rampage, the European Parliament passed a resolution that all member states should “drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden.” On Wednesday, FBI head James Comey said Islamic State’s encryptions were thwarting investigations of terror recruits.

The French may indeed be austere in these matters. Their neighbors are not, and Barack Obama and John Kerry are not. Secretary Kerry expressed Tuesday his ambiguities over the Charlie Hebdo murders. A European version of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which played to cheering progressive audiences in New York, will arrive in time.

President Obama, like a campus protester, has repeatedly expressed in public his moral disdain for the antiterror policies of the previous eight years (even as he quietly continued many of them, notably for surveillance). In fact, Mr. Obama was merely aligning himself with a quarter century of Western progressivism’s moral ambivalence, at best, about national security. The terrorists kill-riding their way across Paris interrupted that long reverie, for now.

Moralistic trumping afflicts both the left and right; witness the right’s embrace of Edward Snowden’s betrayals, led by Sen. Rand Paul. But progressivized liberals run most of America’s universities, and the left presides over national security for the U.S., which means the world.

Imposing an alternative moral order on crucial institutions may be the fruit of political victory, but at some point the imposers should be held to account for the consequences of their morality in a world of practical life.

Write to henninger@wsj.com

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