Using Charles Murray to Attack Faculty


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.

24 thoughts on “Using Charles Murray to Attack Faculty

  1. “I agree, and fully support the intent of the letter”

    That’s about the least unpredictable thing I’ve read this morning.

    I’m also curious though, since you make the charge – in what way were *any* of the faculty signers of that letter “repressed” for their open and published call to silence and ostracize an invited speaker that they disagreed with?

    As always, the AAUP’s blog editor seems only to care about the “free speech” of faculty who ideologically align with him, including “speech” by faculty that actively seeks to shut down and ostracize a dissenting voice from outside of that ideological homogeneity.

    • Freedom of Speech, in case you don’t know, generally refers to governmental repression–or, rather, lack thereof. The implication in your comment is that you would like to see faculty speech punished.

      What you are calling for is suppression of academic freedom. It is academic freedom that the AAUP focuses on (though the organization is concerned, of course, with Free Speech and respect for the First Amendment).

      • I stated that the faculty who signed this letter were responsible “for fostering an environment of anti-intellectual bigotry on the Middlebury campus.” Nothing in that statement could even remotely be construed as asking for punishment or legal penalties against those faculty (barring, of course, the emergence of evidence that any of them participated in the assault on the economics professor that you seem to be entirely unconcerned about)

        But then again, this wouldn’t be the first time that you lied in your representation of something I said.

  2. The part of the faculty letter that Aaron, predictably, omits:

    “Rather, this is to recognize that this event was organized by a chapter of the American Enterprise Institute, is funded by the AEI, and that Mr. Murray has been peddling AEI propaganda as a “public scholar” since the 1990s. Let the AEI be responsible for explaining to the College and the wider community why they hosted someone whose scholarship has been thoroughly discredited and who denies the basic human dignity of members of our community.”

    I’ll simply note that this passage (a) accuses a student club with “propaganda” and a litany of grossly abusive charges for hosting Murray and (b) calls for that club to be held “responsible” for explaining itself to the people making those charges. Physician, heal thyself.

      • In your OP you vehemently objected to the mere suggestion that these faculty were in some way “responsible” for inflaming the events on Friday night after they published that letter.

        Yet when the same faculty use the exact same descriptor – calling a student club “responsible” for bringing Murray to campus and adding the charges of propaganda & denying the “basic human dignity” of campus community members – it’s just a polite and friendly invitation to “engage the community” or something of that nature?

        You’ve moved beyond self-parody on this one, Aaron. The hoops you are jumping through are nonetheless amusing.

  3. It’s not an issue of difference, Aaron. It’s an issue of your indulgence in an absurdity. You see nothing wrong with an organized group of faculty for threatening and targeting a duly organized student group for social ostracization (power differential much?), inflaming a frenzied mob in the process that ends up physically assaulting a fellow faculty member.

    But criticizing those faculty for acting irresponsibly is somehow a “threat” to them. You inhabit a bizarre orwellian world, Aaron, and the only constant appears to be your political ideology.

  4. I can’t tell if you’re intentionally trying to mock yourself, Aaron, but surely you realize that the faculty letter you are defending served the Henry II line’s exact role in the events on Friday. The difference in the comparison though is that unlike what you accuse me of doing despite lacking any evidence, (a) a mob actually assembled against Murray and (b) somebody got hurt because of it.

    • James – In the time since this episode occurred, the AAUP has done more to defend the faculty who helped to foment this attack from wholly imaginary “threats” to their academic freedom than it has to defend either Murray or the economics professor who was physically assaulted by the mob.

      I’d encourage people to read the account by the aforementioned victim of the attack as well, as she noted that some of her faculty colleagues were there in the audience participating in the effort to silence Murray. To make matters worse, some of these same faculty singled out the student-run club that sponsored the event – a wholly inexcusable action that utilizes an unambiguous power differential to bully students who have an interest in hearing a dissenting political viewpoint than what these people tend to proselytize in their English/MLA classrooms. While I realize this blog does not exclusively speak for the AAUP, it is a sad and shameful reflection of an organization whose priorities appear to be far removed from their claimed ideas of defending the university as a place of free and open intellectual exchange.

    • This entire blog relates to a comment by Phil on another Blog which was written to defend Professor Murray’s right to free speech (and to condemn the shouting down action).
      The issue here is about the difference of kind between Phil’s insistence that a group who wrote a letter should be held responsible for a physical attack carried out (we assume) by an entirely different group, and the letter’s original request that those who invite a speaker be held responsible for the invitation they issue.
      Neither of those ‘held responsible’ statements necessarily implies punishment (the ‘necessarily’ is important there) and neither was issued by someone in a position of authority over those speaking (or inviting), so neither is strictly speaking a freedom of speech issue. Freedom of speech is a purely negative freedom – it requires simply that those with authority do not punish, silence, or restrain; it does not require others to agree, listen, promote, or provide a platform.

  5. “government serves as a bulwark against exploitation of the poor by powerful scoundrels.”

    Many see that portrayal of government as wishful thinking. They should study topics like “public choice theory” whose nobel laureate co-founder James Buchanan termed it “politics without the romance” since it studies how governments operate in reality, rather than naive wisful thinking about how we hope they would. As nobel laureate George Stigler wrote in his related work on regulatory capture theory “as a rule, regulation is acquired by the industry and is designed and operated primarily for its benefit” since special interests have more incentive to expend effort to lobby than the general public. The powerful scoundrels are more likely to be able to gain control of things in far off DC (where citizens are less likely to fly to lobby) than they are local governments, which is why many argue that if the government *is* going to do something, that it be done by the most local government possible.

    Those who push for federalizing programs often pretend that anyone daring to oppose that necessarily opposes something being done at all, rather than considering doing things at a more local level to allow different governments in different places to take local values into account and to experiment with different ways to solve problems to learn which work best. Unfortunately some people irrationally think they already know “the answer” and wish to inflict it on the public as a whole rather than allowing such experimentation to take place to evolve better solutions. Thomas Jefferson noted long ago what we hadn’t found angels in the form of kings to govern us, nor have we since then found angels in the form of federal politicians, bureaucrats or the academic policy experts who advise them to do so either. Of the centralized approach comes back to haunt these people when they see the federal government under control of people they disapprove of and the whole country needing to live with the results. Decentralization means electoral mistakes are limited to a smaller area and not the whole country, leading to lessons being learned from different places being governed in different fashion, or at least allowing the possibility of moving between locales.

    Most voters are “rationally ignorant” of economics and political theory since their 1 vote matters little so they don’t spend much time studying such things. Expecting a good outcome with that incentive is questionable. On more local issues their vote still counts for little, but some see it as at least a bit more likely to be of use to be involved in something more directly impacting them (rather than merely leaving it up to the special interest groups).

    Of course an even better way for different solutions to be tried is to do so via private entities and private individuals trying different approaches rather than government imposing a 1 size fits all approach, even at the local level.

    re: ” 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.”

    Contrary to that misinterpretation, libertarians (as he has described himself) wish to see people helped. They merely wish to see it done in private voluntary fashion as much as possible, or by as local a government level as possible if government is going to be involved. Libertarians object to the selfish desire of some who feel they have “the” answer to help people, rather than merely 1 possible approach, and who wish to force the entire nation to go along with their approach, rather than granting people the ability to try different alternatives (either privately or via low level government). Even if the government is argued to be necessarily involved in ensuring some social task like helping the poor is done, it is still possible to try to find ways to allow more experimentation to be done to discover how best to solve problems and allow the public the freedom to engage in that experimentation to as great a degree as possible. Of course designing approaches that allow the evolution of better ways to help people is more complicated than the simplistic “just have the feds do everything, they know better than everyone else” anti-intellectual approach.

    Libertarians also object when some people seem to misguidedly think they not only know better than others how to run their own lives, but that they have the right to force others to go along “for their own good” to avoid “disaster”.. when others may disagree over whether an outcome is a “disaster” or how to avoid it.

    re: “may have twisted his errors into a vision of humanity I find appalling but that he finds profitable,”

    Many libertarians find the selfishness of modern liberals who wish to inflict their views on others by force of government (as if they had “the answer”) just as appalling as those of religious conservatives who wish to do so in other areas, many of who never bother to learn much about relevant economics and political theory. Others who have looked into various theories emotionally profit through seeing their theories enacted via force of government.

  6. “government serves as a bulwark against exploitation of the poor by powerful scoundrels.”

    To add to what I wrote, I should have noted that public choice theory suggests special interests should be expected to control things in our form of government, not merely regulatory capture theory. The voting paradox and related issues call into question the hope that democracy will accurately represent the public’s preferences, even aside from the issue of tolerance for minority views (libertarians tend to be appalled at the implicit “we outnumber you so we get to force you to do our bidding”, i.e. might makes right, aspect of democratic control that most modern liberals sweep under the carpet too easily, rather than at least leading them to prefer decentralization to try to minimize some of the flaws).

    Unfortunately many folks who are rationally ignorant of economics and political theory are selfish enough to still wish to vote and push for their policies to be enacted, despite lack of a solid examination of whether they make sense. Many have vague awareness of things like “economies of scale” and are duped into federalizing tasks, unaware of things like “diseconomies of scale”.

    Just as many people are emotionally drawn to creationist talk of an “intelligent designer” and it takes rigorous thought for many to grasp the concept of evolution leading to order arising out of chaos, many are too easily drawn into the simplistic assumption of a need for an “intelligent designer” central planning government for aspects of human affairs. They are unaware e.g. of the work of nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom on voluntary arrangements evolving for dealing with supposed “tragedy of the commons” issues regarding shared pool resources,or other creative ways the public can address issues that some simplistically assume require that “intelligent designer”.

  7. Pingback: On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part III | ACADEME BLOG

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