Condi Rice withdrew on Saturday from speaking at the Rutgers University graduation after the usual round of sit-ins and destruction of property. In tortuous and inhumane logic, New Brunswick’s loud contingent of silencers said that allowing Rice to speak meant “encouraging and perpetuating a world that justifies torture and debases humanity.” In allowing the triumph of the hecklers’ veto, the school sends a disturbing, though not untrue, commencement message: graduates enter a society so contemptuous of free discourse that it exacts a heavy price for its exercise.
The former Secretary of State’s canceled commencement address joins an ignominious list that demonstrates that our infantilized culture rewards temper tantrums thrown by adults: the firing of a gaming company employee for tweeting disapproval of the surreptitious recording of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s private phone conversations, the forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for a six-year-old donation supporting a pro-traditional marriage ballot initiative, and the derailment of an HGTV real-estate reality show because of the outspoken Christianity of its twin-brother stars.
Where did adults learn such hostility for free discourse? At colleges such as Rutgers, the very places where toleration for a diversity of views should be sacrosanct.
I can’t say that I didn’t see this coming. In hundreds of talks to student audiences over the last two decades, I have endured hecklers, forced cancellations, and even a book burning. The surreal experiences make the present assault on free expression appear not so surreal. The “liberating tolerance” that campus guru Herbert Marcuse exalted in the 1960s, defined as “intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements form the Left,” has become a half-century later the de facto attitude toward speech off campus as well.
In 1998, I organized “A Place at the Table: Conservative Ideas in Higher Education,” an Accuracy in Academia conference at Columbia University featuring Dinesh D’Souza, Ward Connerly, and John Leo. As if to demonstrate the event’s point, administrators blocked attendees from entering the reserved, and paid for, meeting space on the second day of the gathering. A Columbia administrator told me that since they were banning the attendees and not the speakers it didn’t constitute censorship.
“Ha, ha, you’re outside/We don’t want your racist lies,” undergraduate commissars chanted as D’Souza attempted to speak in a park across the street from campus. Junior Adrienne Brown told the Columbia Spectator, “We got [D’Souza] into Morningside Park, which Columbia doesn’t pay attention to anyway. This is an alcove where homeless people eat and piss.”
Two years later, at Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, a mob shouted down my talk on the guilt of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal. One attendee called me a “white motherf—er” and a “racist” as I spoke while another mooned me and tried to rip the microphone cord from the wall. I spoke but the audience, beyond the first few rows, couldn’t decipher my words because of the yelling. At the conclusion of the chaotic event, the mob stole my writings on Mumia and held a Nazi-style book burning. Chaperoned by a campus police escort, I spied one protester marching around the fire with a sign reading “Fight Racist Censorship.”
In 2003, Michigan State took away my microphone, scheduled a fire drill during my presentation, and threatened me with arrest, through a resident assistant, if I dared speak. We, me and the audience, defied the RA and obeyed the fire-safety laws that played coda to the performance. That same month at Florida International University, a group of professors shouted throughout the duration of my talk. A Connecticut College student blocked the podium for the entirety of my speech as his numerous allies shouted whenever I said something they objected to (a civil audience heard me there a few years later). In 2007, the principal of Mercy High School canceled my scheduled speech to a pro-life student group at the Catholic institution because the “content” of my talk on anti-Catholic bigot Margaret Sanger, which the headmaster hadn’t heard, “could be misunderstood.”
This abridged chronicling of my interactions with the thought police doesn’t begin to tell the full story of intolerance on American campuses. David Horowitz, Ann Coulter, and any number of more popular speakers could recite dozens of similar, and dissimilar, instances of narrow-minded bigots stamping out speech.
The Long March against freedom of thought on campus has increasingly won victories off campus as graduates have matriculated into the surrounding society. Schools that treat left-wing ideas as dogma, and shout down alternative ideas when they appear, ill prepare students for encountering such views. Like the boogie man, conservative ideas that students haven’t quite heard or seen frighten terribly. Opposing views on war, affirmative action, gay marriage, and any number of disputed subjects elicit chants, destruction of property, and indignation instead of debate. How dare anyone disagree in a democracy!
Marcuse wrote in 1965 that “true tolerance” meant “the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teaching and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior—thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives.”
Hereby do crusaders for tolerance crusade against it.