Protecting Academic Freedom through all the Campus Smoke

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Once many years ago I spoke to an Army recruiter who tried to convince me that I would learn many valuable skills in the military, including how to jump from helicopters. I was puzzled. How exactly was learning to jump from a helicopter a valuable skill? He explained that I could then qualify for a career as a flame jumper fighting wildfires.

I passed up that career in favor of the far more practical training in social anthropology. But sometimes it seems I still ended up in the business of jumping into burning terrain. Attempting to make sense of the claims and counterclaims in the debates over free speech strikes me as something like smokejumping. The destination is often obscure, the heat is intense, and the goal keeps changing.

I have good friends in Santa Rosa and don’t mean my metaphor to diminish the awful reality of the devastating California fires. But the image has some purpose. Here, there, and then suddenly over there on a distant ridge, the wildfires burst to life. So too the assaults on intellectual freedom.

I have been working on a larger project in which I attempt to reframe many of the current controversies about free speech by looking at the psychological and anthropological aspects of verbal defiance and transgression. As part of that project, I have been looking over recent examples and attempting to draw distinctions between what we should, perhaps with gritted teeth, accept as provocative speech that still must be tolerated, and speech that “crosses the line” into what should not be tolerated. Not everyone will agree with the lines I’ve drawn. It is easiest, of course, to draw fire from those who profess a doctrine of “no lines.” But as an anthropologist, I know that “no lines” is a fiction. All societies have them. The real questions are Where are they drawn? Who draws them? How are they maintained?

Heckling Democrats at Whittier

On October 5, Whittier College in California hosted an event titled, “A Conversation with the Attorney General,” which was intended to be an hour-long Q & A session with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The event, open to the public, had been organized by Ian Calderon, a Democrat and majority leader of the California State Assembly. Becerra has been in the news for his public opposition to President Trump’s positions on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which deals with the legal standing of the approximately 800,000 individuals in the United States who arrived here illegally as children.

The Q & A session took an unexpected turn. About a dozen pro-Trump hecklers showed up and attempted to shout down Becerra and the other speakers. They didn’t succeed in derailing the event, but they impeded it. This is apparently not the first time that pro-Trump protesters have disrupted events put on by elected officials, but it is, as far as I know, the first time it has happened as part of an organized campus event. A key figure and possibly the organizer of the Whittier protest is Arthur Schaper, who has publicly boasted of his role in disrupting other public events involving Democratic speakers. FIRE, which reported the Whittier incident, quotes Schaper as saying:

“I am prepared to be an uncivil civilian, and I don’t care who’s offended. Civility, accommodation, and playing nice with Republican and Democratically elected officials is over. … Making America great again is not about placating and pleasing everyone, but standing up for what is right, even if it means disrupting a few tea parties.”

Stanley Kurtz, writing at National Review Online, responded to the FIRE report and the accompanying video of the protest with distress. Kurtz noted that many have warned that the “leftist campus disruptors” were endangering their own rights by creating a precedent that right-wing activists could copy. That’s exactly what happened at Whittier on October 5. A small consolation is that the protesters included few if any students. This was a mob of partisans from off campus. That doesn’t absolve the college for its failure to maintain order, but it means that the eventuality of heckling from both political extremes among students hasn’t yet materialized.

Lest there be any ambiguity about this, the National Association of Scholars strongly condemns the shout-down of Attorney General Becerra at Whittier College. The actions of Mr. Schaper and others in his group are an assault on academic freedom, the integrity of higher education, and the civility on which our republic depends.

Diatribe at Drexel

On the morning of October 2, Drexel University professor of political science George Ciccariello-Maher offered in a series of tweets his explanation for the mass shootings in Las Vegas on October 1. According to Ciccariello-Maher, the underlying cause was “the narrative of white victimization” and “Trumpism.” “White people and men are told that they are entitled to everything,” the professor wrote. “This is what happens when they don’t get what they want.”

Police have still not determined the motive of the Las Vegas shooter, but there is no evidence of any sort that substantiates Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s assertions about a link to Trump or to white identitarianism. Public reaction to his Tweets was swift and full of condemnation. On October 9, Drexel University put Ciccariello-Maher on paid administrative leave. The New York Daily News reported Drexel’s explanation:

“Due to a growing number of threats directed at Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, and increased concerns about both his safety and the safety of Drexel’s community, after careful consideration, the University has decided to place Professor Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave,” the university said in a statement.”

The AAUP declared this a “unilateral suspension” and said it was “at odds with normative academic procedures.” Theodore Kupfer, writing in National Review, headlined an account of the affair, “No, George Ciccariello-Maher Doesn’t Believe in Academic Freedom. But He Still Deserves It.” Kupfer describes Ciccariello-Maher as “the angry white man with a violent fantasy,” to wit, armed communist revolution everywhere. But, says Kupfer, “he is not a criminal. And the Drexel administrators have made a mistake.” He says Ciccariello-Maher’s words are “obnoxious, easily refuted and deserving of mockery,” but not of suspension.

Again, lest there be any ambiguity about the National Association of Scholars’ position, it is the same in spirit as Mr. Kupfer’s. Drexel University shamed itself by appointing and eventually tenuring someone of Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s low quality of mind and ideological zealotry. But appoint and tenure him it did, and that has the consequence of protecting him from adverse administrative actions based on the content of his views. Drexel University’s claim to have suspended him to protect his safety and that of the campus is transparently a pretext.

The National Association of Scholars does not uphold an absolute version of “free speech” or “academic freedom.” Neither exists as a free-floating right. We value free speech as an instrument to promote political debate and good republican government. We value academic freedom as indispensable to the pursuit of truth within the academy. Both concepts can be and often are abused by those who disavow political debate according to civilized norms and the pursuit of truth as the organizing purpose of the university. On the evidence, Ciccariello-Maher is among the abusers, but that doesn’t absolve the university of its obligation to live up to its own commitments.

What, then, can a university do about professors or students who radically undercut the spirit of academic freedom while claiming its protection? (The spirit of academic freedom is the pursuit of truth or the gaining of new knowledge. Acts that are intended to distract, mislead, or purvey un-truths are outside that spirit.) Ciccariello-Maher’s intemperate accusations in an essay in The Washington Post, “Conservatives Are the Real Campus Thought Police Squashing Academic Freedom” provide an extended example of this malicious use of speech. The university is not, however, without resources to deal fairly with those in the academic community who intentionally undermine the principles of respect for truth, civility, and what might be called scholarly temperance.

What might those resources be? Criticism. Judicious distancing. In extreme cases, a university may choose to buy a faculty member out of his contract. If a faculty member persistently misuses university resources, his access can be curtailed. No rule or law says that a university must assist a faculty member in spreading falsehoods.

Professors Targeted by Progressives

The National Association of Scholars is, of course, better known for defending academics who have come under attack for promoting ideas that run against the grain of the domineering campus left. We have recently, for example, defended Dennis Gouws, a professor of English at Springfield College, whose research and teaching interests on “men in literature” have brought down the wrath of his college’s feminists, including his department chair and his provost. We have defended Amy Wax, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, who along with Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego School of Law, published an op-ed in which they extolled mid-twentieth century America for upholding the value of marriage, hard work, obeying the law, patriotism, neighborliness, civic-mindedness, charity, clean language, steering clear of addictive substances, and respect for authority. Professor Wax was excoriated by many of her fellow law professors at Penn and by her dean. And we defended Bruce Gilley, professor of political science at Portland State University, after his publication of an essay, “The Case for Colonialism,” unleashed an international torrent of abuse against him, including death threats.

We will continue to defend individuals against such abuses, and not all those individuals are or will be “conservatives.” In general, we are drawn to cases where faculty members have made legitimate use of their academic freedom to pursue substantive research on important topics but who have met with ferocious attacks as a result. Gouws, Wax, and Gilley didn’t land in hot water because of outrageous tweets. They presented reasoned arguments and defended those arguments with genuine scholarship. My use of the word “legitimate” here will no doubt bring libertarians up short. What could possibly be illegitimate when it comes to speech? I part ways with libertarians on this. There may be no illegitimate speech in the public square, but higher education is and always has been about the search for truth, and speech that impedes that search—such as scientific papers based on fraudulent data—is illegitimate. Illegitimacy can and does take other forms as well. Using academic freedom as a tool of political propaganda is illegitimate.

Tweeting Murderous Thoughts

The behavior of Ciccariello-Maher is but one example of a new kind of abuse of academic freedom. After James T. Hodgkinson shot and wounded a Republican congressman at a baseball field in Arlington, Virginia, Trinity University professor Johnny Eric Williams adopted the hashtag #LetThemFuckingDie. It was a reference to anonymous blogger’s call on emergency medical personnel to leave white victims of shootings to bleed to death. Professor Williams expanded his opinion with other vitriolic and racist declarations. Trinity College briefly suspended him but followed that with a ringing declaration that he had acted within the bounds of academic freedom. My colleague Dion Pierre and I wrote about the Williams case offering our assessment that Williams’ call for negligent homicide really did cross the line. Our verdict: not a protected case of academic freedom.

On August 23, Michael Isaacson, an adjunct member of the faculty of the department of criminal justice at John Jay College, tweeted “Some of y’all might think it sucks being an anti-fascist teacher at John Jay College but I think it’s a privilege to teach future dead cops.” National media, including Tucker Carlson on Fox News, picked up the story, as did the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. Under pressure, John Jay College suspended Isaacson, but the president of John Jay, Karol Mason, justified the suspension as a response to “threats” to the faculty and concern for the “safety” of students.

David Gordon, a CUNY professor, speaking on behalf the National Association of Scholars’ New York Affiliate, posted to the NAS website a statement criticizing the basis of President Mason’s decision. Gordon and his colleagues wrote that Isaacson “had acted in a disrespectful and unprofessional way,” but that Mason’s rationale for suspending him created a precedent for suspending any professor who became “the center of controversy.”

These three cases— Ciccariello-Maher, Williams, and Isaacson—are by no means isolated. They are just examples of the growing phenomenon of faculty radicals across a spectrum of issues who tweet or employ some other social media to pronounce views that they hope will shock and offend. If their statements grab the attention of critics, they may be in for a season of abusive emails, and if the provocation is strong enough, they may face temporary suspension or firing. They can almost always, however, count on the AAUP and some other organizations such as FIRE to defend their pronouncements as legitimate exercises of academic freedom.

I have been willing to engage these matters on a case-by-case basis, but I am always looking for the principles that govern all of them. “Extra-mural utterance,” as the AAUP named it in its foundational 1915 Statement of Principles, has plainly become one of the most vexed areas within the realm of “academic freedom.” What people have a First Amendment right to say is not the same as what they have a privilege to say within the community of scholars. The AAUP itself has long lost this distinction, and it sees no need to ground the exercise of academic freedom as conditioned on the pursuit of truth. Partly that is because the AAUP has politicized itself, but it is also because so many of its members have absorbed postmodernist doubts about whether there is such a thing “truth,” or at least a truth that can be disentangled from the welter of subjectivities and opinions that make up so much of human experience. So we are left to wander. The extra-mural utterance is where we wander into the outrages of Ciccariello-Maher, Williams, and Isaacson, and the paradox that those who purposely subvert the ideals of intellectual freedom are also those who often most eager to claim the protections offered by those ideals.

Marcuse without Marcusians

In speaking of shout-downs and other forms of mob censorship, we are used to observers describing these as part of a crisis in free speech. Americans have plainly grown less tolerant of the expression of views they dislike. We indeed have an epidemic of college students who are ready to suppress opinions they disagree with and even facts that are in discord with their favored views. And while college campuses are the center of this epidemic, it has now spread to other milieu.

Observers have explained this hostility to free speech in various ways. Among those explanations is the view that we have a generation so coddled in its upbringing that it feels “unsafe” when it hears a view it disagrees with. Other branches of explanation emphasize the intensification of political and cultural polarization; the rise of Black Lives Matter as a radical rejection of some of the deep premises of our liberal republic; the prevalence of identity politics; and the porousness of American education to the ideas and attitudes of those who are profoundly hostile to our traditions of civil exchange in the public space.

All of these explanations have merit, and most of them have become familiar as cultural commentators continue to wrestle with the problem of college students, who should know better, mobilizing to prevent invited speakers from having their say. The problem doesn’t stop, however, with shout-downs, speech codes, bias-reporting systems, and the wide assortment of formal and informal techniques aimed at ensuring conformity to prevailing progressive opinions. It doesn’t stop there because, first, it has spread to other cultural domains: Facebook, the National Football League, and the mainstream media, among them. And it doesn’t stop there, second, because the New Censoriousness has been ready for some time to jump the divide between the political left and right, as it did at Whittier College.

The left has championed the tactic of suppressing the free speech of those it classifies as enemies, and it has developed a small set of concepts that provide a rationalization. “Free speech,” according to those who bother to explain themselves, is an illusion promoted by the “privileged” few who have to power to enforce their opinions on everyone else. Genuine free speech, according to this view, is the freedom of oppressed minorities to dissent, and genuine dissent includes the right to impede the ability of the privileged few to speak at all. The concept of “hate speech” is added to this critique of “privilege,” because the views of the privileged are said to express deep hatred of the despised minorities. Whatever meager regard still might be granted to “free speech” in the traditional sense, the principle of uninterrupted expression cannot be permitted to extend to allowing the expression of “hate.” Such speech is psychologically damaging to the vulnerable minorities it is directed against, who experience “hate speech” as “violence.” And such speech also subtly reinforces the unjust power structure of the United States by reinforcing “white supremacy,” “patriarchy,” and other forms of unjust privilege.

Most of this ideology was laid out by Herbert Marcuse and his acolytes in the 1960s but left to ripen like a very old vintage whiskey for a couple of generations. The radical fringe of the American political scene never forgot the Marcusian idea that “real tolerance” consists of silencing those you disagree with and imposing your own revolutionary creed on everyone else. This is the “liberation” offered by Marcuse that simmers at the bottom of much of today’s anti-free speech rhetoric, although plainly the vast majority of students who have imbibed this poison have no idea where it came from or what totalitarian purposes it is meant to serve.

The Marcusian “theory” of why free speech should be suppressed is repugnant. At bottom, it is just another attempt to recruit unwary individuals to the murderous vision of the Soviet system of mass murder and rule by an ersatz revolutionary clique. The Twentieth Century provided as much evidence of the horror of Marxist utopianism as we should ever need. But, of course, the proponents of such views always contrive to find a difference between what happened the last time (or the two hundred times before that) and what will happen next time. Without such wishful thinking, Venezuela would still be one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations, rather than a place where ordinary people are barbecuing their pet cats to stay alive.

To mentioning the Marxist premises of the current anti-free speech movement is, of course, to invite a certain kind of derision. While some campus radicals are avowedly Marxists, most are not, and more importantly, the Marxist premises of the anti-free-speechers are generally invisible to their champions. They think this is all new. Their naiveté was on display in 2016 when Bernie Sanders was winning campus support for his candidacy for president. There seemed no glimmer of understanding of the regimes which Senator Sanders admires and from which he still draws inspiration.

Repugnance as a Starting point

The view that prevails among today’s radicalized faculty members and students is not a hard-core Marxist formulation but a tissue of glib rationalizations about “privilege” and “power.” The great text of the moment isn’t The Communist Manifesto but Ta Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Coates is in fact even more of a materialist than Marx. He believes the United States exists as a conspiracy to control “black bodies,” and he means this with utter literalness: bodies as physical objects.

To express repugnance towards such views is plainly not an argument, as such. A good argument, however, might find its orientation in repugnance. Repugnance at the beheading of the innocent and the use of rape as a tool of terror might be good starting points to find compelling arguments against radical Islamist doctrines that justify such things. Likewise, repugnance at mob action against speakers on campus might be a good starting point for why we need arguments that favor traditional liberal tolerance for the expression of unpopular views.

Having led up to the need for such an argument, however, I will leave off for now. Others, of course, have already developed such arguments, including the framers of the U.S. Constitution and philosophers such as John Stuart Mill. The real work lies in defending their ideas against the various assaults of postmodernism, radical feminism, and other ideologies that aim to undermine the foundations of our liberal republic.

The troubling events at Whittier College show that the principles of free expression have abusers across the political spectrum. Some of those abuses may be of the sort we need to tolerate in light of a greater good, but we must always remain ready to see the difference between merely scabrous language and actual incitements to violence. Those differences won’t necessarily be self-apparent. One thing that links the misbehavior at Whittier and all the other colleges and universities I have written about here is the fecklessness of the academic administrators, who either do not know how to control crowds or how to respond to individual faculty members who make irresponsible use of their academic freedoms. We need better administrators, not least ones who have some sense not to appoint to their faculties in the first place individuals who have no respect for the guiding principles of their institutions.

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”

Protecting Academic Freedom through all the Campus Smoke

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