The Left in the Universities

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There is a book coming out that everyone interested in campus politics should read.  It is a refresher course in the recent past, years 1998-2010, well before the current protests and disinvitations and riots broke out, though it foreshadows everything that has happened since.

But before that, a little background.

I first came upon the distinction between respectable conservatives and right-wing ideologues some 15 years ago.  I don’t mean to say that it really existed and representatives of each were easily found, only that there was a distinction, real or fabricated.  Up till then I had no idea there was a split in the right between those figures who seemed politic and statesmanlike and those who had a rougher edge and approached politics as combat, not compromise.  I remembered the Pat Buchanan vs. George H. W. Bush contest in 1992, highlighted by Buchanan’s rousing culture wars speech at the convention, but didn’t mark much difference between the two figures from my position well on the left and largely ignorant of conservative politics and tradition.

I hated Buchanan’s speech—and loved it.  A secular atheist liberal academic couldn’t help but ridicule and abhor his every contention, but at least he gave us a potent rhetorical adversary, unlike President Bush who was frustrating in his bland and responsible leadership.  That may have been why the Republican machine didn’t want Buchanan around.  He got the other side riled up.  He said controversial things.  He was divisive.  But to me, though, they weren’t much different, one just a little more blunt than the other.

It took another ten years and a drift to the conservative side on my part before I began to sense a divide between the responsible, sober conservative and the in-your-face conservative.  David Horowitz was the instrument.  I’d first come across his name (if I remember right) in a Chronicle of Higher Education story on an event at the American Studies Association convention in which Horowitz criticized the members for their leftism and narrow-mindedness.  The debate was acrimonious, and Horowitz’s final comment was, “You people are hopeless.”

The comment stuck in my head.  It may have struck most readers as insulting and pointless, but to me it marked someone who had realized that there was no advantage to debating with the academics.  Their minds were made up, their positions unshakable.  And they had the jobs, too.  Why bother, then, to play the game against them when they were the other team and the umpires, too?

This was, increasingly, my experience as well.  Though an outsider—or maybe because of that—he understood the politico-rhetorical dynamic of academia better than just about anyone involved.  In those years just after 9/11, he had jumped into the controversies over political correctness and speech codes by developing an initiative called the Academic Bill of Rights, a plan to institute academic freedom for students, not professors and administrators (in 2003, conservative and libertarian students seemed to be the victims of indoctrination in and out of the classroom).  It was a full-on campaign at the state level, with legislative hearings, lots of op-eds and position papers on all sides, and hundreds of speeches by Horowitz himself.

His example was inspiring.  I had seen professors and administrators run of all kinds of games with hiring and curriculum, some of them of the bullying kind, and I didn’t have the intellectual clarity and moral courage to stand up to it.  I had just begun to work my way through Hayek, Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, and more recent efforts such as Tenured Radicals and The Burden of Bad Ideas (by Heather MacDonald).  They helped firm up my grasp of a conservative alternative to the feminist, postcolonialist, and other identity-based approaches that we were spoon fed through graduate school.

Horowitz’s Radical Son helped, too.  It is, I believe, one of the great memoirs of the 20th century.

I was surprised, then, when I got to know him, when he said that he wasn’t much welcome in polite conservative circles.  They liked him, yes, because he had a knack for fundraising and for crystallizing wedge issues.  But he had too edgy an aura.  He talked about the left in warrior terms.  He was a leftwing radical in the Sixties who got too close to the Panthers, they thought, and now he’s a rightwing radical who hasn’t lost his extremist tendencies.  We need a softer approach, a “compassionate conservatism,” not Horowitz’s anger.

If only, I remember thinking.  I’d been at enough academic gatherings to know how well the conciliatory strategy worked.  From what I’d seen of academic behavior in the preceding 15 years, Horowitz discerned all too accurately the political theatrics of identity politics on campus.  The aggression among women’s studies and other political formations pretending to be academic disciplines disallowed dissent.  To meet them on their terms was to accept the guilt they imputed to everyone else (male guilt, white guilt, Christian guilt, American guilt).

Instead, Horowitz threw the guilt right back at them, and when people on the Right feared that he was too combative, he had a simple reply: “What do you think the Left has been doing to us for 40 years?”  They hire their own, they invite their own to give lectures, they publish one another, they teach their own traditions and exclude the rest.  And they’ve succeeded gloriously.

Now, a decade-plus later, it looks like all of Horowitz’s heated contentions of 2003 have come true.  That’s why the new book is a worthy read.  It is Volume VIII of his writings on the American Left, this one entitled The Left in the Universities.  It compiles essays Horowitz wrote during the years 1998-2010, some of which are astonishingly pertinent at the present time, plus a final reflection from last year, “The Free Speech Movement and Its Tragic Result.”  The latter piece demonstrates Horowitz’s insight.  While many people have deplored recent campus violence, especially at Berkeley, as a betrayal of the Free Speech Movement founded there 50 years ago, Horowitz opens with a fundamental clarification:

In fact, the Free Speech Movement was not about civil liberties.  Nor was it about free speech, nor could it have been, since that is a right already guaranteed by the First Amendment and obviously honored by the liberal administrators at UC Berkeley and at all other public universities at the time.  What the “Free Speech Movement” was about was the right to conduct specifically political activities on the university campus, including the recruitment of students to political causes. (p. 380)

Right there we have an explanation for the heckler’s veto and storming-the-stage antics of protesters, along with the tepid response of security and administrators.  Free speech implies a neutral arena in which different political opinions may contend.  But if the Free Speech Movement was more about politicizing that space then securing it from politics, well, that changes everything. Once politics come into play, then the intimidation tactics of social justice youths acquire the same status as the speech of a conservative guest.  The Free Speech Movement, in other words, produced the freedom to be political on campus, to deny academic freedom and explode the campus as an open marketplace of ideas.  The disinterested pursuit of knowledge was over.

There are many other illuminations and curiosities in the book, for instance:

  • John Podesta’s appearance, through his organization Center for American Progress, as a prime opponent  of the Academic Bill of Rights
  • The first academic occasions (that I know of) of conservative intellectuals being called “Nazis”
  • Professors urging people not to read Horowitz’s work, a sad anticipation of the anti-intellectualism of today’s protesting students
  • Leftist figures such as Julianne Malveaux calling for the death of conservative leaders
  • Conservative and libertarian professors remaining in the closet, fearing reprisal for their mainstream rightist opinions

The book will be available on October 2nd.

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