The Current Crisis

Unthought Through

Progressives have lost the will to listen to what they do not want to hear.

By 1.19.05

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WASHINGTON -- The present acrimonious controversy that Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, finds himself in reminds me of something I have suspected for years. The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech is a reactionary blight inimical to all true progressives and certain to be formally eliminated from the Constitution as soon as progressives again gain ascendancy.

There have been times when progressives, or liberals as they are often called, championed free speech, for instance, in the early days of the Cold War and during youthful protests in the 1960s. In the early days of the Cold War progressives favored the right of Communists to denounce America as they often did, particularly on college campuses. In the 1960s progressives favored the right of youthful idealists to use the F-word. At the University of California at Berkeley, something called the Free Speech Movement rose up dedicated to the freest possible use of the F-word. So successful were these idealists that I am told today on college campuses the F-word is often employed by professors in their lectures, often as a punctuation mark. I think I learned that from Tom Wolfe's new book I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Now times have changed and progressives are the most prominent opponents of free speech, especially on campus. This has gotten Summers in his present predicament. He is not keeping up with intellectual fashion. Some years ago he created an enormous furor by denouncing anti-Semitism as it is practiced on campus. Then he made bold to state that a Harvard faculty member's scholarly writing was not very scholarly. Now he has said that there are "innate" differences between men and women. He said this at a scholarly meeting. There were progressives there. They were furious.

At a meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the condition of women in academia was the topic, Summers said that the comparative lack of women in the sciences might be explained by a number of things -- social practices and genetics were two. It is a fact that though girls score about the same as boys in the median range of standardized math and science tests, girls are less likely to score in the highest ranges. It is also a fact that women scientists are infrequently responsible for major scientific discoveries. Possibly, said Summers, this is because of their child-bearing responsibilities or other cultural norms, but he had to add the possibility the difference in achievement might be because men and women do not have the same chromosomes. That did it. Summers moved from being a free-thinker to being a health threat.

Said a biology professor in attendance, Professor Nancy Hopkins, "I felt I was going to be sick." And she offered grisly details: "My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow….I was extremely upset." As for the issue Summers raised, Hopkins said: "That's the kind of insidious, destructive, unthought-through [?] attitude that causes a lot of harm….It's one thing for an ordinary person to shoot his [not his/her?] mouth like that, but quite another for a top educational leader."

Well, Summers probably will not make that mistake again, if he wants to remain a "top educational leader." From the reports I read of the meeting only about half the women professors were offended by Summers. One, an economist named Claudia Goldin, actually told the Washington Post, "I left with a sense of elation at his ideas." She is proud that Summers "retains an inquisitive mind." How very old-fashioned.

For years now there have been things that one simply cannot say in the presence of progressives. The possibility that men and women have different aptitudes is one of those things. There are others. This means, of course, that there are things progressives are unlikely to hear. When they do hear them they are astonished and, as Professor Hopkins demonstrates, physically convulsed.

That progressives rarely hear ideas displeasing to them I think explains their present dazed condition regarding the drift of American society. It also explains their anger. What is to be their fate? Allow me a suggestion, unwelcome though it may be. They are going to go to their graves dazed and angry and thinking they are right. They are going to cause a great deal of unpleasantness but they are going to disappear. The First Amendment will outlast them all. They have seen their last ascendancy.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.