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.
The New Left no longer cares that freedom of speech is a keystone of a free republic. Free speech is so important that it takes pride of place in the Bill of Rights, as part of our First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Nor do they care that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the privileges and the provisions of the First Amendment to all citizens, or that the Supreme Court has extended those provisions to apply not only to state and local governments but also to publically funded universities such as UC Berkeley.
The New Left now regards the jurisprudence of free speech as an obstacle to be overcome by cunning. When the University of California claims that threats of violence force it to cancel a speech, it is using a specious rationale to allow a “heckler’s veto” to suppress free speech. More insidiously and more chillingly, the New Left uses propaganda and soft pressure to encourage mass complicity in self-censorship—what Matthew Reynolds in his essay on translation refers to as “a complex permeating web of psychological pressure and misinformation as well as explicit rules.” In America this web of censorship, through peer pressure aimed at promoting a cluster of radical political ideas and silence opposition, is known as political correctness.
Victor Davis Hanson describes it as the form of pressure that faculty and students face in the university when they “know precisely which speech will endanger their careers and which will earn them rewards.” This, he says, is similar to the situation seen in Nazi Germany: “As with the German universities of the 1930s, [the] faculty [members] keep quiet or offer politically correct speech through euphemisms.”
The case of Paul Griffiths, professor of theology at Duke University, illustrates what can happen to a faculty member if he steps out of line and challenges the New Order protected by political correctness. Griffiths responded to a faculty-wide email encouraging faculty members to attend a two-day “training” program promoting the politically correct view of “racism.” He responded by saying that what the attendees would hear at that session would be “intellectually flaccid … bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty,” and that the program’s “illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show.” Griffiths was criticized by Elaine Heath, dean of the divinity school, who scolded him for using the campus email for “humiliating colleagues” with whom he disagrees. She repeated the precise litany of bromides and clichés that Griffiths had condemned in her rebuke of “racism, sexism and other forms of bias” that create a “hostile workplace.”
Professor Griffiths’s workplace was certainly hostile. His colleague Valerie Cooper made her own totalitarian tendencies quite plain by saying that to oppose Duke University’s official policy of “diversity” is not academic freedom of speech, but “academic malpractice.” Eventually Griffiths was forced to resign. This incident, among others, illustrates Hanson’s parallel between American universities now and German universities in the 1930s.
The Marxist Antonio Gramsci once said that the long march through the institutions was a better way than violent revolution to achieve the Marxist transformation of society. Capture the institutions and you capture the culture. This is what has happened in higher education today. The long march by the New Left has created a politicized curriculum and a politicized faculty, as well as part of the student body, which uses political correctness to defend and to advance their cause.
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