BY AARON BARLOW
Charles Murray is a complicated figure. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), he married into a wealthy Thai family and spent time in the countryside as a PCV there during the 1960s. That type of experience, as any RPCV can tell you (as I can tell you), is formative. Immersion into another culture shifts one’s views of even one’s home culture, leading to an updated version of Nora Bayes’s 1919 “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” For most of us among the several hundred-thousand RPCVs, the obvious answer (you can’t) has led to an expansive view of the world and its peoples, an appreciation of variety and difference.
There is also a great deal of learning about the ‘metropole’ and its attempts to control people far from it. One of the things that I learned (and have written about) is the danger of bringing things to an area for development as opposed to supporting things indigenous and helping them develop to meet the needs of a changing world. Murray, apparently, had learned the same lesson long before, even using it as the basis for his PhD dissertation at MIT. Like most RPCVs, we had come to recognize the abilities of humans, of any background, to govern their own affairs.
Murray, though, turns the view in a direction that I (like most RPCVs) cannot stomach. Boiled down, Murray argues against government intervention to correct social ills because such intervention is imperfect, that governmental solutions are worse than the problems they are meant to solve. He brushes aside the notion (at least as old as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations) that government serves as a bulwark against exploitation of the poor by powerful scoundrels. He would rather do nothing than do any harm. Most of the rest of us would rather not sit by and watch disaster strike others.
I’ve written negatively about Murray a number of times, even here. The positions that his doctrinaire thought has led him to offend me. However, I will not go quite so far as to call him “a well-funded phony” as does a letter to the President of Middlebury College, Laurie Patton. Murray may be wrong and may have twisted his errors into a vision of humanity I find appalling but that he finds profitable, but I don’t think he’s a phony. That said, I also believe that he has removed himself from profitable intellectual debate through his own writings and activities over the past three decades.
The letter, signed by a number of Middlebury faculty, was occasioned by an invitation for Murray to speak on campus and the fact that the President was scheduled to introduce him. The letter asks the president to “cancel your introductory remarks” at the March 2, 2017 talk. I agree, and fully support the intent of the letter:
Rather than lend legitimacy to this event, we respectfully request you stand up for a campus that is intellectually open and culturally diverse, but one that does not fall prey to the designs of external organizations who peddle partisan propaganda in the guise of “public scholarship.”
Though the letter depicts Murray more harshly than I think he deserves, there is nothing incendiary about it, nothing that might lead to the raucous events surrounding the talk.
As Murray began speaking, “students stood up, turned their backs to him and started various chants that were loud enough and in unison such that he could not talk over them.” The first part of this, the turning of backs to him, is a perfectly legitimate form of protest; the shouting him down is not, as John K. Wilson eloquently argues.
However, to then blame the faculty letter, as a commenter on Wilson’s post does, for partial responsibility for the inappropriate behavior inside the hall and the shoving, hair-pulling and banging on cars that apparently occurred afterwards smacks of that same desire to smother speech one does not agree with. The commenter says the signers “should be ashamed of their role in this disgusting and violent episode,” a role they did not play. The commenter goes on, claiming the signers should be “held responsible for fostering an environment of anti-intellectual bigotry.” That sort of call, as any student of history knows, is common to movements that themselves lead to suppression of dissent.
The treatment of Murray was wrong, but it should not be allowed as an excuse for the repression of others. Nothing in the faculty letter advocates violence or even asks the students to act—they are not even addressed. The letter simply asks the college president not to give official imprimatur to the talk, doing so in a manner giving vivid representation to faculty feelings about Murray. The comment on Wilson’s post, on the other hand, puts forward a threat to both freedom of speech and academic freedom, something much worse than simply asking someone not to introduce someone else.