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Dogmatism and truth

Shortly after he watched White House Counsel Pat Cipollone tell the Senate on Saturday that “the president did absolutely nothing wrong,” a friend sent me an archived copy of Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr.’s baccalaureate address to my Class of 1969. Somewhat surprisingly, Brewster’s response —and Yale’s — to the crisis of that time is as urgently needed for the one we’re facing now.

Maybe it was bad acoustics in Woolsey Hall that June morning in 1969, or maybe it was my immaturity, but, like many others seated before Brewster, I was too sullen to be moved by his plea for due process liberalism. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in the spring of our junior years. Most of us were facing conscription into the slaughter in Vietnam. Yet to read Brewster’s address now is to find it as urgently necessary as we should have found it then.

Explaining why he remained “a due process liberal,” not a polarizing partisan or a radical revolutionary, Brewster recounted the moment when he first discovered that “[i]t is quite terrifying when rational exchange is totally blocked by steely-eyed, unlistening dogmatic assertion.” In 1937, before entering Yale College, he’d traveled “alone through National Socialist Germany,” where, in Berlin, he said: “I was taken in hand by a storm trooper deputized to be hospitable to unwary young foreign tourists. We sat at a café on Unter Den Linden. I, of course, began to argue about National Socialist policy, particularly the preference for guns over butter, a current slogan. Suddenly I realized there could be no argument, not because of the censorship of fear but because of the dogmatic dictate which said … ‘it is so because the Fuhrer wills it so.’”

Read entire article at Yale News