Liberals Must Refute the Leftist Bigots on Campus

Tis the season of Commencement discontent. Let me count in alphabetical order the number of universities affected by the growing intolerance of bigots on campuses in North America.  Among them are Azusa Pacific, Brandeis, Brown, California, Concordia, Haverford, North Carolina, Rutgers, Smith, and Swarthmore.  Withdrawals by individuals to be honored or invited to speak, whether due to university action or voluntary, are now as familiar as leftist indoctrination of university students.

There is always an excuse, a feeble excuse, for the protests, whether the rationale is an action or a supposed action by the person to be honored, or some controversial words written or spoken. Among those absurd excuses are: the attempts by administrators to restore order when a protest was disrupting campus life, criticism of some features of Islam, International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies that predated the tenure of the recipient towards developing countries, police racial profiling in New York City, views on immigration policy, disapproval of abortion.

The objects of the intolerance are not extreme political activists, but prominent and distinguished members of the professions and society. They should be named. Robert L. Birgeneau, a former Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley who is in fact admired for liberal social views. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, the first woman to hold this position and one of the most powerful women in the world. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali-born activist who has made critical and controversial remarks about the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism from which she has herself suffered. Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State and Provost at Stanford. Charles Murray, distinguished author known for controversial views on race class, and intelligence. Raymond Kelly, former New York City Police Commissioner. Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank.  These multiple incidents today are reminiscent of the event in 1983 when Jeanne Kirkpatrick, political scientist and former US Ambassador to the United Nations, was denied a platform at Berkeley.

Although these distinguished people would exemplify the diversity that universities claim to foster, their offence was that they did not agree, or were thought not to agree, with the protestors. They have offended the ideological conformity of the protesting intolerant bigots who would be numbed by hearing views other than their own. The arrogance and close-mindedness of the protestors prevents them from listening to alternative points of view.

The goal of inquiry and research at colleges is to search for truth and challenge accepted points of views. But the dominant mode of protests and of much teaching in the social sciences and humanities is a form of leftist fascism, preventing speech with which one disagrees. The politically correct norm at present is not conservative or status quo views, but rather the opposite, radical intolerant ones. Do those intolerant protests help the growth of social justice?  Both practical activity and highly perverse intellectual argument suggest an answer.

The impetus to leftist politicization occurred in 1964 when the radicals in the University of California Free Speech Movement occupied the administration building in Berkeley, the first such “conquest” in the country. It led to the reshaping of curriculum in an overtly radical direction, and hiring of faculty who leaned towards those changes. It has also led to incredible ignorance, stupidity, and bigotry.

The case at hand is that of the several hundred students at Smith today whose protests led to the withdrawal of Christine Lagarde from Commencement. Their absurd message was that the IMF “was a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries. This led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” The young women at Smith were not informed about or thought it unimportant to mention the “oppression and abuse” of hundreds of women, not by the IMF, but by honor killings every year in Muslim countries.

The current protestors have taken to heart the answer, even if they cannot take time from their protests to read the actual text, given in 1965 by Herbert Marcuse, who taught for a number of years at Brandeis, in his essay Repressive Tolerance. Among his more engaging conclusions was that, “the objective of tolerance would call for injustice towards prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions.”  This logically meant rigid restrictions on teachings and practices with which he disagreed in educational institutions. Perhaps Marcuse did not specifically suggest the shouting down or forbidding of intellectual opponents, but his advocacy of repression or limitation of expression has been taken by the present day bigots to its logical conclusion.

Many objective studies have indicated the host of problems on campuses today: the highly disproportionate number, by very large margins, of far leftist members of university faculty, and sometimes administration; raucous and highly active leftist student groups; one sided teaching if not indoctrination in class and in texts used in many of the social sciences and in history courses; a preponderance of radical campus guest speakers; the incessant activity of radical Islamic campus organizations.

Sixty-five years ago Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote The Vital Center, a book aiming to support liberal democracy against the ideologies of communism and fascism. Though it is not directly relevant to today’s campus intolerance, the book is pertinent for its practical suggestion to “restore the balance between the individual and community.” There is an urgent need for a balance today in campus behavior and for a vigorous response to the changes in recent years in that behavior. Free speech and free thought are being limited by the actions of leftists, many of whom are aging radical revolutionaries left over from the 1960s, and the students they have indoctrinated. The desirable features of intellectual diversity, essential for any real university, are declining. It would be reasonable to argue that this issue of intellectual diversity is as important, and perhaps now more important, than the issues of racial and gender diversity.

A distinction must be drawn between the radical leftists on one hand and true liberals, a group that on the issue of intellectual freedom would include conservatives today. Liberals have to make their voices heard on campuses. They must proclaim themselves as supporters of real tolerance on campuses, the right of speakers who are not leftists to be heard, that ideological indoctrination by faculty and choice of textbooks should be criticized, that conservative faculty or speakers should not be confronted by a hostile environment, that speech codes that ban politically oriented speech be abolished, and even that administrators should question the self-perpetuation of their radical faculty and appoint real liberals and even conservatives.  

It was encouraging and gratifying that some members of the Smith faculty did, if belatedly, issue a statement that Christine Lagarde’s withdrawal represented a “lost opportunity” for informed diverse discussion on campus.  It was the Smith women themselves who lost this opportunity.  Liberals must make sure that students elsewhere do not suffer in the same way. They should have courage, stand up to the bullies and ignorant bigots, and be on the frontlines proclaiming what Max Weber called “the ethics of responsibility.”

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.