The Atlantic publishes a column every couple of weeks which features two history professors debating various propositions about current events. Today’s edition asks the question “Is Free Speech Really Challenged on Campus?” Brandeis Professor Morton Keller offers a blunt assessment which is worth a read.
Now we appear to be in a new era of groupthink, where ill-defined terms—racism and sexism, most notably—are the stigmata of choice. This is in good part an accompaniment of the reaction to the Donald Trump presidency. But I think it has deeper roots than that. Its primary advocates are part of a left-wing, anti-American tradition that has long been part of the American intellectual scene. It has gained strength in recent times from fractious but extreme elements of old and new strains of political thought: anarchism, socialism, feminism, black nationalism.
The most conspicuously organized presence on today’s anti-free speech college stage is Antifa, whose expansive definition of who and what is “Nazism” extends to just about everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders…
They couldn’t care less what Charles Murray or other victims of their actions actually have to say about public issues. Like their pro-Nazi and pro-McCarthy counterparts, it is sufficient to declare that the victim is a Jew—or a Communist—or a “racist” or a “sexist.”
Contrary to much recent evidence, Princeton professor Julian Zelizer writes that students are just seeking to “turn our attention” in new directions:
They are not whitewashing intellectual inquiry—but just the opposite. Rather than curtailing debate, many students (of course not all) are actually seeking deeper engagement with our history and the way our education functions. I personally am happy that they are paying attention. While some protests against speakers take ugly turns, something that is not particular to our current era, much of the drive to challenge figures invited to campus shows that students are actually paying attention and listening.
This is a peculiar way to describe groups of students who gather under various banners—Black Lives Matter, Antifa, etc.—but who routinely chant their intent is to “shut it down.” The “it” in that declarative can be applied to any speaker, group, rally, protest, or scheduled lecture which the students have decided is threatening, fascist, racist, sexist, hateful, harmful or Nazi.
As for students paying attention, the protesters last night in Berkeley who referred to Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro as a fascist and white supremacist were not paying attention. Another example: Students at the ultra-left Reed College shut down a scheduled class before it even began last month. These students are not deeply engaged with anything other than their desire to control who speaks and what is said. “Shut it down” is a pretty good summary of today far left on campus: