What and whom we esteem, as a culture, says a lot about the kind of people we are and the kind of people we are becoming. So what does it say about us when our most prestigious institution of higher learning provides convicted felon Chelsea Manning an audience and designates him “Visiting Fellow”?
While Harvard University’s venerable Kennedy School has since withdrawn the designation of Manning as a “Fellow” under pressure from high-profile alumni, we should consider the implications of its choice to provide Manning with a platform at all.
In his public statement, Dean Douglas Elmendorf indicated that he had withdrawn the “Fellow” designation upon determining, in retrospect, that he had improperly balanced “what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from [Manning’s] visit against the extent to which [Manning’s] conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire.”
But if Manning’s conduct fails to meet the school’s values (an encouraging sign), then why should it provide him with a venue and an audience? Dean Elmendorf’s “explanation” leaves us all clueless as to the more fundamental question: Why did Harvard ever invite Manning in the first place?
Was it because he leaked classified military information to the world, thereby endangering the lives of American troops and our allies? Or was it because he declared himself – in attempted defiance of biological fact – to be a female? Perhaps it was because Manning obtained government-funded hormone therapy to assist him in “transitioning” from male to female? Could being a convicted felon – or being dishonorably discharged from military service – possibly trigger a speaking invitation? Or was it because former President Obama commuted his sentence?
I honestly can’t say what Harvard was thinking, and Elmendorf’s statement is an unhelpful guide. But I can say that not one of these aspects of Manning’s persona represents the qualities of goodness, truth, or beauty that ought to be exalted at our institutions of higher learning and in our culture, generally.
Like every other human being on the planet, Manning was created in God’s image with unique value, purpose and the inherent dignity that belongs to every human being. But surely something more than these basic human characteristics must be required of those whom we would elevate to the status of teacher, leader, role model, icon, or “Visiting Fellow.”
At the end of the day, I think what this special invitation to Manning says about us as a people is that we are hell-bent upon rejecting the worldview in which honor is assigned on the basis of virtue. Whereas once we openly sought to honor the noble, the courageous, the selfless, the persistent and the talented, we now exalt the sensational, the self-absorbed, the vulgar and sometimes even the perverse.
The disturbing trend I’m describing plays out not only in our choices of celebrities and icons, but also in our public-policy advocacy, as when we promote the concept of individual “choice” even when the object of the choice means death to another human being.
It plays out in our politics when we clamor for politicians who promise us what we think will benefit us, personally, rather than what will benefit our nation, as a whole, and our posterity.
And it plays out every night in the entertainment products we consume in spite of (or perhaps even because of?) their many nods to sexual immorality, profanity and crude “humor.” What does it tell us when two out of 10 of the hardcover titles on the Washington Post’s nonfiction best-seller list contain the F-word? It tells us that we have abandoned the pursuit of excellence to wallow in the stinking mud.
It’s easy to see how we arrived at this low place when we see how our modern culture thumbs its collective nose at Absolute Truth, Objective Value and the Moral Law. After all, how can any such thing as “virtue” exist except as a step toward or reflection of what we all recognize to be good, true, or beautiful. If the good, the true and the beautiful exist only as matters of subjective opinion, then any common criminal will do just as nicely for a hero as a George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., or Saint Teresa.
C.S. Lewis said, “Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.” In other words, all the knowledge Harvard has to offer won’t raise mankind above our basest, most animalistic instincts unless we train ourselves and our posterity to honor only what is virtuous, and to reserve our esteem for what is really and truly good.