“On Many Sides?” Not in Academia!


Blowhard-in-chief Donald Trump’s condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides” in the wake of this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia (UVA), has been criticized so extensively and justifiably, even by members of his own party — many of whom themselves bear responsibility for fueling the resurgence of racist bigotry  — that it would be superfluous to try to add anything here.

Except this: The bankruptcy of Trump’s “many sidesism” should point as well to the near-equivalent bankruptcy of the charge by more respectable and intelligent proponents of free speech that, when it comes to violations of free expression in America’s colleges and universities, “both sides do it.”  The two “sides,” of course, are the vaguely defined and extremist “right” and “left.”  But this position most obviously leaves off the hook the most dangerous potential censors: those in the “center” who seek to restrict expression less out of ideology than from the self-interested search for order and stability.  More to the point, however, is that because colleges and universities are so widely (and exaggeratedly) perceived as fortresses of left-liberalism, it has become common among this segment of the free speech crowd to claim that censorship from the left is the “main danger.”

One can only hope that Charlottesville will finally put that claim to rest.  To be sure, as I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, even canine fecal matter like Milo Yiannopoulos should have the right to speak on campus.  Efforts to prevent speakers, even the most distasteful ones, from speaking — or protesters from assembling — are both wrong and counter-productive.  But the problem revealed this weekend in Virginia doesn’t concern the expressive rights of racists, anti-Semites, misogynists, and homophobes.  To be sure, one wonders what might have happened if these Nazi klansmen had not cynically scheduled their action during the dead period between summer session and the fall term.  But neither the University of Virginia nor the city of Charlottesville made any effort to bar this sick assemblage of hateful losers or in any meaningful way restrict their expressive rights.  No, the issue this past weekend — and the issue on too many U.S. campuses on an everyday basis — is not so much freedom of expression as the frightful abuse of that freedom in the service of hatred and attempts to intimidate and, yes, silence the objects of that hatred.

Despite UVA’s best efforts to respect the First Amendment rights of demonstrators while offering constructive alternatives that would uphold “mutual respect and inclusion,” violence still ensued.  And that violence was, let’s face it, no anomaly.  Back in November the AAUP joined over 100 other organizations in calling on then President-elect Trump to denounce a wave of campus hate crimes (crimes, not speech!).  The next day our national Council issued a strong statement of its own.  Nonetheless the attacks continue.  In the wake of Charlottesville, Vann Newkirk, a staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote:

what is happening not only in the streets of Charlottesville, but streets across the country, is that the rhetoric and policy of white supremacy, which is still fostered and abetted widely, is again being converted into the kinds of overt interpersonal violence by which most people recognize it.  And for the people who stand to lose the most from that kind of violence, the question might be when—not if—it transforms from a political peripheral into a regime.

Peter Cvjetanovic

It would also be foolish not to recognize that despite the widespread attention paid to activist “antifa” students — the supposed “snowflakes” busily suppressing conservative and traditionalist views via “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” — the racist element represented in this weekend’s “Unite the Right” march may be a far more threatening force among white students.  Take, for instance, one Peter Cvjetanovic, an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno, studying history and political science.  Cvjetanovic was photographed in the front lines of Friday evening’s torchlight march (see photo at left).  He was soon recognized by classmates as the student who “always spouts fascist and racist comments” in history classes.  In a local television interview Cvjetanovic quickly responded that he is “not the angry racist they see in that photo.”  Perhaps.  But what is more telling is that he has been in the past an active member of the university’s College Republicans, who reportedly hastily removed photos of him from their Facebook page, including one that still made the rounds on Twitter of Cvjetanovic with Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller.  Who knows how many Cvjetanovics there may be throughout higher education, afforded both respectability and generous financing by a wide range of right-wing funders, allegedly to promote “alternative viewpoints.”

[UPDATE: Here’s a second example: James Allsup, speaker at the Charlottesville torchlight event and president of the Washington State University College Republicans.]

One might also ask where today is that ever-vigilant watchdog of “free speech” and “political correctness,” Campus Reform?  That’s the website that regularly calls out left-leaning and minority faculty members (and even occasionally students) for anti-Trumpist or supposedly “reverse racist” views, thereby cynically inciting waves of terrifying online and direct threats and harassment.  A visit to Campus Reform today shows no comment at all on the events at Charlottesville from this self-proclaimed “#1 site for college news.”  Instead, we find the lead article to be a piece criticizing universities that “whitewash history by eliminating conspicuous apologists for slavery,” a particularly timely and revealing stance given that the white supremacist marchers in Virginia were allegedly motivated by a desire to preserve a statue of slavery defender Robert E. Lee.

In 2013, Jacob Levy, Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University (and my favorite anti-racist libertarian), wrote a polemic against a trend in libertarian thought that he labeled “the Confederatistas,” a category to which Campus Reform may fit quite comfortably.  (Levy was likely thinking of, among others, those libertarian economists like James Buchanan who in the 1960s, as Nancy McLean has recently argued, took advantage of opposition to racial integration to advance their free-market ideas.  And his critique applies as well to those well-funded disciples of Buchanan who have sought to tarnish McLean’s work.)  Here is some of what Levy wrote that I think could apply equally to today’s free speech mavens, whose vocal horror at the occasional silencing of a Charles Murray by a handful of leftist students is matched only by their deafening silence when minorities are assaulted — often quite literally — on our college and university campuses:

the Confederatistas perpetuate the white southerners’ two-century-long scam of dressing up the cause of racial dominance in classical liberal clothes, perverting the goal of liberty into the project of slavery.  This has been a defining fact of American political life; it has served to discredit some of those classical liberal values and institutions, while also perpetuating a story in which the freedom of African-Americans (postbellum as well as antebellum) lies somehow outside the calculus of American liberty.  These weren’t uniquely southern problems; they were problems in and of the American Revolution and Founding.

It is welcome that many leading conservatives, inside and outside academia, have denounced both the Charlottesville demonstrators and, more importantly, Trump’s clear complicity in their project.  But such voices must go further.  They must recognize that the two sides do not pose equivalent threats to freedom and democracy, and not only in Charlottesville.  In a New York Times column today conservative writer Erick-Woods Erickson points out “What Trump Got Wrong on Charlottesville.”  That’s fine, but his starting point is entirely wrong and it is this view that must be abandoned if conservatives are to play a constructive role on campuses.  Erickson begins his piece with these words:

As a conservative, I see both the social justice warrior alt-left and the white supremacist alt-right as two sides of the same coin.  Both would punish others for wrongthink.  Both see the other side not as opponents, but as evil that can justifiably be silenced.  Both have risen in recent years as a response to the crumbling of Western civilization’s certainties.

No, sir, you are wrong.  These are not two sides of the same coin.  White supremacists do not punish people for “wrongthink” but for who they are — blacks, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, gays, trans people, etc.  For all their mistakes the activist youth of what you call the “alt-left” are responding to that.  As University of Wisconsin professor Donald Moynihan replied on Twitter, “If Charlettesville has taught us anything it’s that the people who promote fascism & those who stand against it are not morally equivalent.”

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