the great liberal freakout of 2017
I have been screaming about this on Twitter for the past week which is probably not the most productive way to engage and certainly unsatisfying, so here’s my attempt to get down my thoughts about the liberal punditry’s great hobbyhorse, the protests at Middlebury College.
In the spirit of constructive engagement with differing ideals, I’d like to address some of the main points made over the past few weeks by liberal pundits who are hoppin’ mad about college kids who want to protest.
These Coddled Kids!
This morning, Frank Bruni wrote a column in the New York Times op-ed page titled, “The Dangerous Safety of College.” Bruni’s take didn’t differ too much from everything else that has been written about this subject: He talked about the need for young people to confront ugly ideas in their lives and did some light concern trolling about how the violence that followed the protest signaled a “wake-up call” about a “dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.” He quoted Van Jones and John McWhorter and concluded with this missive: “I worry that in too many instances, the groves of academe are better at pumping their denizens full of an easy, intoxicating fervor than at preparing them for constructive engagement in a society that won’t echo their convictions the way their campuses do.”
It’s fine to argue in favor of a more heterodox academy and quote professors who say that colleges have become too ideologically similar. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out what any of that has to do with the Charles Murray protests unless you truly believe that a handful of students were so mind-poisoned by their overwhelmingly intersectional curricula that they exploded into violence. That seems to be giving way too much credit to the power of the classroom and too little to the usual ripple of revolutionary politics that have always been a part of being eighteen or nineteen and in the thrall of new ideas.
As a nineteen year old freshman at Bowdoin (think ‘Middlebury, but 20 points lower on the SAT and in Maine), for example, I talked loosely and erratically about Lenin and “the revolution” and idolized John Brown. The faculty of the Government/Political Science department was run by neoconservatives like Jean Yarbrough, Christian Potholm and Richard Morgan. If you want to argue that everything is different now, you should know that two of the those three still teach at Bowdoin and the third no longer does because he passed away. Their presence did not infect my brain with neoconservative ideas; I did not tattoo Francis Fukuyama’s name on my arm.
Has campus activism changed significantly since in the fourteen years that have passed since I graduated? Probably not — it was a screaming mess of half-formed ideas and injury claims back then — but even if it has, it’s still beyond disingenuous to blame what happened at Middlebury on some radical shift in curricula and the superhuman efforts of professors to indoctrinate their students. The only evidence Bruni provides that this cause-and-effect happens comes from a professor. Please excuse my skepticism, but I don’t know a single professor who doesn’t wildly inflate the effect his scholarship and his teaching has on his students.
College classes just aren’t that serious, man.
I’d also like to point out that this whole thing happened because the author of the Bell Curve came to campus on the invitation of the school’s Republican student society and that rather than laugh at the thought of having a debunked scholar speak anywhere near their campus, Middlebury assigned him a moderator and gave him an auditorium. That, I would imagine, is closer than most people have to get to hearing racist pseudo-science in their own lives. Imagine what would have happened if someone at the New York Times had invited Charles Murray to address the newsroom. It would have never happened.
But if Charles Murray did come to the New York Times to give a talk about race and IQ, I sincerely doubt the reporters there would huddle together and do what Bruni suggests in his column and “hone the most eloquent, irrefutable retort to him.” They wouldn’t do this because they, for the most part, are thinking adults who understand that Bruni’s grand theater of debate is better left to anxious high school kids at a Model UN convention.
The following passage comes from Danielle Allen’s op-ed in the Washington Post.
I want to point this out because Bruni and Allen both invoke the “real world” in their critiques of what happened at Middlebury. They believe that the real world is hard and that people are mean and unyielding. They want these kids to know that they won’t be able to shout down and intimidate every racist they meet in their lives; that there will be co-workers who will say problematic shit in meetings and that they, as employees, will be expected to push their complaints through normal means.
I have a few responses here:
- I don’t really see why these efforts to change language are doomed to fail— is it so implausible that young people might actually be able to change discourse and route it into a more humane, enlightened space? Doesn’t recent American history prove that the world of language and ideas isn’t equally balanced between the left and the right? I grew up thinking saying something was “gay” was perfectly acceptable. I don’t think there are many kids who grow up in my home town who think that anymore.
- If we want to talk about the real world and not the world of the academy where Allen comes from or Bruni’s society of pundits, the idea that the solution to racism in our daily lives would be to craft an eloquent spoken rebuff… I mean… it’s a fucking insane idea. Last month, a group of kids in a van stopped on Eastern Parkway opened the window and screamed “chink” at me . In response, I flipped them off. If only I had been able to instantly come up with a multi-layered comeback, perhaps rapped along to the strains of Hamilton (“Immigrants, we get the job done!”) that would have exposed the lies of racism and left them smoldering at their feet! That would have shown them! Then, with their minds blown wide open, I could have exposed them to the magic power of dumplings and there would be one less racist in the world.
- Given that racism, homophobia and transphobia have all become much more real in the past three months, I would argue that it’s probably more “real world” instructive to learn how to congregate and protect one another. Does that mean you have to grab a professor’s hair? No! But did everyone who shouted down Murray assault a member of the faculty? No!
It’s Bruni and Allen who are living in a fantasy world. There are only two places where this ornate debate has any “real world” relevance: the academy, where Allen hails from, and the pundit class of elite media.
Who gets to debate?
I’ll make this short because it’s so obvious to me that I can’t believe I have to say it again:
- I believe, perhaps more so than most Republicans, that free speech is vital, both morally and practically. I believe that when students shout down Charles Murray, they are exercising their free speech. I do not believe that Charles Murray or Milo deserve more access to free speech than the students who are using their right to protest to shut him down. If your response is to point out the few who got violent, I would ask you to extrapolate that idea out to its logical end and conclude that no protests in which any violent act might occur by any individual should ever take place.
- Free speech does not have to take the form of polite debates between massively privileged media people, politicians and academics. If you really think the biggest assault to free speech is taking place at Middlebury and NOT IN THE 18 STATES ACROSS THE COUNTRY THAT ARE TAKING MEASURES TO SHUT DOWN PEACEFUL FORMS OF PROTEST, than I honestly don’t know what to tell you. If your response is to smarmily say, “I can think of both things at once,” I would ask why Middlebury has occupied reams of copy from elite liberal publications and the extensive efforts to criminalize protest have not.
So why is everyone going nuts about Middlebury?
They’re freaking out because Berkeley and Middlebury are threats to the pundit and academic class. I’ll be charitable here and say that I don’t think the majority of people who have written about this issue have consciously placed their own careers at the center of their arguments, whether implicitly or directly. But I do think that’s subconsciously at play here — why else would it inspire so much anger and so many hundreds of thousands of words? The academic and the pundit both have to believe that persuasive argumentation — especially civil argumentation — can change people’s minds and open them up to new, progressive ideas. Without that core belief, they would have to conclude that they were endlessly preaching to the choir.
That’s why they want Milo and Murray to have their say; that’s why when they dream of the best response to bigotry, they can only think about a well-crafted turn of phrase or an elegantly crafted, Goldberg Variation of an argument that will unlock the racist’s mind and get him to start reading “Notes of a Native Son.”
These direct action responses do away with all that and take away the need for a translator. I’ve felt a similar lack during my years of covering protests — the activists I cover all have their own Twitter accounts, independent livestreamers provide credible video footage and their message gets disseminated out through pretty much every social media platform. The idea of the reporter as a “witness to history” or the “speaker for those who can’t speak for themselves” feels absurdly out-of-date and self important. Most journalists are facing some similar crisis of utility and I think the worst thing we can do is crash back over the top and pretend like the world hasn’t changed since the first time a bunch of liberal pundits were defending Charles Murray.
But what about the homework!
One of the more disturbing strains I’ve seen in all this is the assumption that all these students were stupid and hadn’t bothered to read the Bell Curve or read up on Murray. If they had bothered, these pundits say, they would have realized that Murray was, in fact, an intellectual who had published in the respected New Republic.
Here’s an example I found funny:
I am certain that the vast majority of the students who protested Charles Murray knew exactly who he was and what he had written in the past. Marche and many other liberal-leaning pundits are dismissing the protests by basically saying, “you didn’t do the reading.” It’s a disingenuous attack, but it also reveals all the implicit hierarchies there are within this world of “embrace debate.” I’ve found that whenever I try to actually debate one of these liberal pundits on this issue, they almost always retreat to appeals to expertise and the titles one has accrued over their career. I am not exactly an outsider, but I can always tell what they’re doing — they’re drawing the lines closer to themselves, pulling up their pants and screaming “everyone inside this circle is a serious adult and the rest of you are hysterical children.”
I don’t have to tell you how those lines are usually drawn. There are many of us who work in media who have no desire to go back to the 90s, when the media and the academy was made up almost entirely of white elites who bantered back and forth across the narrow ideological aisle that divided James Carville and Mary Matalin. That sort of charming theater doesn’t hold up when one of its principal actors is Donald Trump and if my years within the “elite media” have taught me anything, it’s that the sort of polite discourse that I have engaged in over the years has done almost nothing to change anyone’s mind about anything.
The last three years have radically changed the way race, gender and privilege are discussed within the media. Activists in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte and St. Paul did that, not pundits or academics. Have we really learned so little that we can’t understand why some young people might simply decide to take this whole Charles Murray thing into their own hands? Do we still have so much faith in both the academy and the theater of ideas to really believe that Charles Murray will be defeated by smart arguments delivered in an elite place like Middlebury College?
But what about the backlash?
If someone can point me to the millions of moderate Trump voters who saw what happened to Milo at Berkeley and decisively cast their vote for the 2020 incumbent, then I’ll retire from journalism and send all my future earnings to the editorial board of The Atlantic.
The backlash isn’t amongst conservatives who voted for Trump. Every part of the backlash — the disproportionate amount coverage in the media, the handwringing over what it all means, the frankly insane extrapolations that what happens on these campuses will alter how speech is speeched throughout the country — all that comes from liberal writers who all start their tweets or articles with “I DO NOT AGREE WITH CHARLES MURRAY, BUT…”
The backlash, my friends, is you.
Aren’t there more important things for all of us to be writing about?
Right? Can we all, myself included, shut the fuck up about this campus protest thing?