The Language of the Left

Glynn Custred

NAS member Glynn Custred, professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University East Bay, has written a six-part reflection on the anti-free-speech movement at the University of California Berkeley. His essay combines his conversations with Berkeley students with his wide-ranging knowledge of the historical and political contexts of Berkeley’s February 2017 riot. 

Sproul Plaza and the Militant Left

April 27. The campus of UC Berkeley. A free speech demonstration was planned for nearby Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. I walked beneath the redwoods to Sproul Plaza to see if anything was going on at the campus. The Plaza is usually a busy place where student representatives of campus clubs and off-campus organizations set up tables and display signs. A lone lay preacher usually wanders around preaching, although nobody pays any attention to him. People stand in little groups and talk freely about anything on their mind.

Sproul had been peaceful the last time I was there. That was on February 2, the morning after masked leftists had rioted to prevent Milo Yiannopolous from speaking. The debris already had been cleared away and students moved about as usual. One group of students danced to World War II music. Representatives from a Latino group chatted in Spanish, and I stopped to talk with them for a few minutes. There was a table of student supporters of Trump. No one molested them—at least not at that time. That was exactly as it should be on that celebrated plaza, which has symbolized free speech on campus for more than fifty years. Here, in 1964, the New Leftist Mario Savio set in motion the Free Speech Movement. Everyone in Berkeley is still proud of the movement that started in Sproul Plaza.

Well, not everyone. That February morning I stopped and listened in on one conversation where students repeated the left’s current catechism: People like Milo Yiannopolous shouldn’t be allowed to appear on campuses.

One student by-stander looked at me and smiled. He shook his head and said, “And this is supposed to be the center of free speech?”

The Plaza looked very different on April 27. There were barricades filled with water everywhere. People were allowed to pass, but there were no tables or groups of students talking, only police with riot gear. And parked along Bancroft Way on the south end of the plaza were trucks and vans from television stations.

Near Bancroft Way small groups listened to speakers who railed against “racists” and “fascists”—apparently, anyone who does not enthusiastically affirm the party line. One older woman gave me a leaflet that read “The Fascist Invasion of Berkeley: The Issue is Not Free Speech, the Issue is Fascism”. “Humanity,” I read, “faces an extreme emergency with Trump’s rise to power… draconian attacks on immigrants, women, Black and Latino peoples and even the LGBT community.” 

A column in the San Francisco Chronicle on the thirtieth of April reveals one strain of thought typical of many in the coastal counties of California. The article was written by Chronicle columnist Joe Mathews, who played the victim card by depicting California as the “scapegoat” of the nation, a state whose” exceptionalism” makes it a “sacrificial lamb” because California is “the protector of many vulnerable people” such as—now an alliterative flourish to the identity politics mantra—“migrants, Muslims and Mexicans.” California is a noble state whose poor beleaguered flagship public university has to “absorb so much abuse” on account of that “right wing diva Ann Coulter,” simply because Berkeley “couldn’t guarantee her safety.” The victim of it all thus becomes the university, a “punching bag for angry people” both left and right.

Gavin Newsom is the former mayor of San Francisco, now the Lieutenant Governor of California, and he is running for governor in 2018. He also echoed the leftist chorus on Sproul Plaza, and laid the blame for violence in Berkeley on—Donald Trump. This is because Trump hurts people in the Democrat Party’s client groups—“students, immigrants, women, the LGBT community.” In his official statement, issued from the Lieutenant Governor’s office, Newsom stated that Trump is “either too weak or too ignorant to stand up against white supremacists and others who spew hatred. That’s why the president and his extremist acolytes like Yiannopoulos need to hear from the resistance, loudly and repeatedly. We must continue to step up and resist reckless rhetoric in a peaceful and forceful manner.” 

Reckless Rhetoric and Perverted Language

“Reckless rhetoric,” however, is exactly what Newsom was uttering. “Reckless rhetoric” is what one hears from radicals gathered to protest in Sproul Plazas across the nation, in liberal circles everywhere, and throughout the Democratic Party establishment. They speak with what George Orwell described as the “slovenliness of our language” that “makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” and which enables “swindles and perversions.” One such swindle is Newsom’s hyperbole when he spoke of the results of Trump’s proposed policies as “carnage.” Another is the old rhetorical device tu quoque, the non-defense defense of “you’re one too.” The supposedly impartial press uses an implicit tu quoque every time it uses phrases such as “rightist and leftist extremists” without distinguishing between non-violent support for Trump and the organized storm troopers of the left.  

Orwell identified a common perversion of language, the use of a word as an instrument of rhetorical assault rather than for precise denotation. The word fascism is a long standing example, a word that Orwell described as having no meaning other than something bad, something to despise, something to hate. Current examples of words the left uses to signify bad-hate, to mobilize true believers and to put their opponents on the defensive against their slanderous accusations, include “racism,” “white supremacist,” “homophobic,” and “social justice.”

This is the language of an ideology that emerged from the counterculture of the 1960s, a variation of Marxism propounded by Herbert Marcuse and others that became the basis of the New Left.  Richard Bernstein describes it as a “yearning for more power, combined with a genuine, earnest, zealous, self-righteous craving for social improvement that is characteristic of the mentality of the post-1960s era in American life.” This mindset is now entrenched in the current generation of the left. Their rhetoric, says Bernstein, “cannot be taken at face value,” for it is “a defense against exposure or criticism,” a defense that also “presents dubious and cranky interpretations and analysis as self evident, justifiable truths.” This tactic has worked so well not because of its consistency or truth, but because “nobody wants to be against multiculturalism” or appear to be for such things as racism, etc. “To put it bluntly,”  says Bernstein, this kind of rhetoric “has the rest of us on the run.” It limits discussion and makes people afraid to say what they think and feel.

That mindset has seeped into higher education either as a background assumption or as an explicit belief. With Ulrich Baer, vice provost at New York University, it is the latter. He wrote in the New York Times that it is perfectly appropriate to censor the expression of any ideas that offend self-aggrieved or previously marginalized groups

The New Left ideology has born fruit: self-righteous suppression of free speech.

Image Credit: BrokenSphere.

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