Do liberals really condemn the Middlebury outrage?

The suppression by force of Dr. Charles Murray's planned address at Middlebury College, Vermont was an event so vile, so inimical to academic freedom and the governance of reason, that several prominent liberals have felt compelled to write in condemnation of it.  Should we not voice gratitude for this reaction and commend it, reassured that there is hope of respectful discourse between the political camps after all?

Conservatives, perhaps, live with a certain longing that a gesture of civility may emanate from the left, that there be respite from its daily contumely, a moment when it joins us in upholding the American constitutional tradition, even in defiance of its own adherents.  If this is so, it is difficult to say whether we shall here prove more ungracious to the liberal critics of the Middlebury outrage or to conservatives wishing to take seriously their professions of chagrin.

The event at Middlebury, like so many similar ones, was the result of a condition diagnosed with perfect lucidity by William F. Buckley, Jr. in Up from Liberalism (1959).

I think it is fair to conclude that American Liberals are reluctant to coexist with anyone on their Right.  Ours, the Liberal credo tells us, is an "open society," the rules of which call for a continuing (never terminal) hearing for all ideas.  But close observation of the Liberal-in-Debate gives the impression that he has given conservatism a terminal audience.  When a conservative speaks up demandingly, he runs the greatest risk of triggering the Liberal mania; and then before you know it, the ideologist of openmindedness and toleration is hurtling toward you, lance cocked.

The tools of controversy are tough, as necessarily they must be.  But I wonder when else, in the history of controversy, there has been such consistent intemperance, insularity and irascibility as the custodians of the liberal orthodoxy have shown toward conservatives who question some of the orthodoxy's premises?  The Liberals' implicit premise is that intercredal dialogues are what one has with Communists, not conservatives, in relationship with whom normal laws of civilized discourse are suspended.

The eminent justice of Mr. Buckley's observations overshadows a few insignificant anachronisms.  When he speaks of liberals using physical violence against conservatives ("lance cocked"), Buckley speaks only metaphorically.  And these days, liberals do not so often promise a "hearing for all ideas."  We might say their hypocrisy waned as their penchant for tyranny grew.  On this occasion, however, the New York Times' Frank Bruni ("The Dangerous Safety of College") Peter Beinart in the Atlantic ("A Violent Attack on Free Speech at Middlebury"), and Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine ("Is Intersectionality a Religion?") have all written in condemnation of what happened at Middlebury.  They stood up for "hearing all ideas," did they not?

Referring to Mr. Bruni's piece, Dr. Thomas Sowell points out that Bruni, even while defending Murray's right to speak, "lent credence" to the calumny of Murray's "white national[ism]" (Dr. Thomas Sowell: "The real lessons of Middlebury College").  And indeed, Mr. Bruni tells us that Murray's "1994 book, 'the Bell Curve,' trafficked in race-based theories of intelligence and was broadly (and in [his] opinion, correctly) denounced."  Bruni goes on to report that the Southern Poverty Law Center (a glistening monument to dispassionate equanimity) "labeled [Murray] a white nationalist."  He considers it "fine, even commendable" that students should have stood with their backs to Murray, indicating their unwillingness to listen to him, so long as they let it go at that.

Bruni does quote approvingly another author's observation that only by weighing Murray's arguments in The Bell Curve could he say with confidence that they were wrong and why.  Mr. Beinart, on the other hand, will have none of that "marketplace of ideas" mush.  The views Murray expressed in The Bell Curve are "odious" and his arguments "intellectually shoddy, racist and dangerous."  The New Republic was wrong to publish excerpts from the book when it came out together with rebuttals from critics, for this "gave it a legitimacy it did not deserve" (emphasis supplied).

Beinart cannot assure us enough that he is not at all different from the Middlebury thugs in his revulsion at views adverse to his own.  "Like many liberals, I consider it bigoted to oppose gay marriage," he avows, and he sails on.  "I consider it bigoted to support voting restrictions that disproportionately impact African Americans and Latinos [voter ID]. I consider it bigoted to deny trans students the right to use the bathrooms of their choice. [He considers it right to force females to share bathrooms with seriously misdirected males.]  I consider it bigoted to claim that Islam is inherently more violent than Judaism or Christianity. I consider it unconscionable to oppose government action against climate change."

Why, then, does Mr. Peter Beinart also oppose the forcible silencing of conservative speakers on campus?  Does he wish to promulgate the bigoted and unconscionable?  No, he offers a perfectly clear reason why universities should let conservatives show their faces: there's a bunch of them out there.  "The point is this.  What's considered morally legitimate at Middlebury differs dramatically from what's considered morally legitimate in large swaths of America" (emphasis supplied).  Sorry, but that is not the point.  The right of someone to express his views without physical obstruction does not depend upon whether enough voters share those views to upset Mr. Beinart's apple cart on Election Day.  A minority of one before an audience of two still is allowed freedom to speak.  Neither does any of this depend upon Beinart's metamorphosing notions as to which opinions are "legitimate."  In contrast to a religious order, a university is not supposed to keep a register of views that are sanctioned ("morally legitimate") or excluded as heresy. 

Mr. Andrew Sullivan has all sorts of true and interesting things to say about Murray's excoriation and how it resembled a religious inquisition.  He denounces the new leftist trope of "intersectionality," by which all supposed forms of oppression are linked.  He affirms that "reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy."  But for all of that, he would have been "highly sympathetic" to the "protestors" shutting down Murray's talk "for a period of time," provided that they then "let it continue."  Mr. Sullivan assures us that he is Charles Murray's friend, so Murray may discontinue any eBay searches for new enemies. 

And in the end, of course, everything is Donald Trump's fault.  By adopting policies and taking positions that Mr. Sullivan really does not care for at all, and by denigrating such institutions as the mainstream media and the Washington bureaucracy, which should not be denigrated, according to Sullivan, the president perpetrates "an attack on reason itself."  He does what the Middlebury goons did, except that his doing it is "significantly more frightening given his position as the most powerful individual on the planet."  He is that powerful individual because a free people elected him, but Mr. Sullivan makes him out to be iniquity personified and a threat to "our way of life."

To those who truly love ideas, rational argument, and the most important books containing them, it is a point of pride that opposed positions prevail or fall on the field of discourse – words, not blows, not boycotts, not protests, not tantrums.  Resorting to these latter hijinks would be a concession that one cannot defend his view by the use of reason and factual evidence.  For intellectual activists like Bruni, Beinart, and Sullivan, the alarm about things actually reaching the point of violence on a university campus may be genuine enough, but they really are not adverse to more restrained extra-rational responses to ideas they hate.  Their view of conservatives and conservative positions is not fundamentally different from that of the rabble who attacked Murray and his colleague.  Let us take no solace in their lamentations over Middlebury. 

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