The right fears free speech: Donald Trump and conservatives wage war on PC to disguise their own relentless assault on independent thought

Our republican crisis is accelerated by greed and delusion. Its obfuscation by all sides deepens allure of Trump

Published May 22, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Bill O'Reilly, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell   (AP/Reuters/Charles Sykes/Carlo Allegri/J. Scott Applewhite)
Bill O'Reilly, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell (AP/Reuters/Charles Sykes/Carlo Allegri/J. Scott Applewhite)

A not-so-funny thing happened to critics of campus “political correctness” on their way to convincing Americans that liberal educators and parents have coddled the young American mind. Maybe this will be only a footnote to this year’s upheavals, but it’s a telling one: No sooner had well-funded organizations and helicopter pundits descend on colleges last fall to catch liberals using their own freedoms of speech and inquiry to shut down the freedoms of others than Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell hijacked the game. They played it in a way that demonstrates what’s shallow and duplicitous about the campus critics’ pretense that our freedoms of expression and inquiry need to be rescued from 20-year olds and deans.

The vulgarity and intimidation in Trump’s “free speech” and the outright repression in the Senate majority’s refusal to hold an open hearing on a Supreme Court nomination are only the newest fruits of a decades-long, relentless assault on civil discourse and intellectual independence by powers driven by ideology or profit, including much of the news media and, more recently, business corporations newly granted First Amendment rights. If you wondered last fall what all those self-avowedly frightened students were demanding to be “safe” from, now you have your answer: a society that finds avatars in Trump; in a Senate majority gripped by intellectual lockjaw and political lockstep; and in a Supreme Court majority that facilitated interventions of “robust speech” by fiduciaries of anonymous investors into citizens’ decision-making about how best to regulate corporations, markets, and their social effects.

For all the liberal academy’s faults – and it has accommodated itself only too readily to conservative ideological and market pressures as well as to feckless “progressive” reactions – it remains one of the few places where freedom to interrogate these forces survives. That’s precisely why it’s under attack by practitioners of the “free speech” game that Trump, McConnell, and others have inadvertently exposed.

Political correctness is dangerous if it dominates students’ politically and intellectually formative experiences. Some students do disrupt civil discourse and violate other students’ rights even while demonstrating against racism or alleging sexual assault. Some professors do peddle propaganda and impose orthodoxies instead of stimulating free inquiry. Some deans do “guide” social life with rules that infantilize and tribunals that short-circuit due process. Some alumni in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights have been trying to bureaucratize that “guidance” in ways that strengthen only critics of political correctness, including candidates like Trump who are campaigning against it.

But undergraduate colleges have always been civil societies on training wheels, where some students engage in a politics of self-definition through moral posturing, within guardrails and guidance that deans and faculty provide. The almost exclusively white-male Yale College I attended in the mid-1960s had plenty of official rules -- such as “parietal hours” that restricted women’s visits to our rooms – and plenty of unwritten ones, decisively enforced by students upon one another, mandating heterosexual braggadocio and stigmatizing homosexual expression, not least with trigger warnings in some classes.

Even at the new, diverse Yale College where I’ve been a lecturer for 15 years, the “liberal” political correctness that critics dramatized and bemoaned last fall exists alongside lavishly funded “conservative” centers, programs, and cultural safe houses, including not only the traditional fraternities and historic senior secret societies but also the curricular “Grand Strategy” courses, funded by former Reagan Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, not to mention the restored ROTC program, all of which are renovating Yale’s historic conduits to national-security and intelligence gathering – and all of which could be credibly accused of coddling young minds.

The Wall Street Journal reported that when Grand Strategy students visited West Point in 2008 to discuss a book about the Iraq War with cadets, the Yale visitors “decided not to record the discussion because they did not want to have ‘views expressed in the spirit of intellectual debate be used against them at a Senate confirmation hearing,’” according to Grand Strategy’s associate director, who treated their discretion as evidence of their future importance.

When posts in The Atlantic and Foreign Policy criticized former Gen. Stanley McChrystal for teaching a Yale Jackson Institute course on leadership “off the record,” his students announced publicly that although he hadn’t made them pledge not to disclose what’s discussed in the class, they would refuse to talk with anyone about the seminar’s supposedly broad discussion of leadership. Some of them refused to do so even with professors who were teaching related courses and who invited McChrystal to share his insights, only to be rebuffed.

Usually, self-censorship like that is prompted by fear of higher powers in business corporations or authoritarian, state-capitalist regimes like Singapore’s, with which Yale has established an undergraduate college, even as that increasingly Orwellian city-state has fallen to a rank of 154 in Reporters Without Borders’ latest assessment of press freedom in 180 countries. But the self-censorship by students in New Haven that I’ve mentioned was prompted by attraction to power, not by fear of it: Students silence themselves eagerly to get closer to power by proving that they can be relied on never to suggest that the emperor has no clothes.

When that kind of self-censorship is gilded by public pride in one’s public silence, it perpetrates a sad misunderstanding of liberal education and democratic deliberation. Its discourse bears about the same relation to freedoms of inquiry as military music bears to music. It hastens the decay of trust and freedom inside and outside halls of power. It has had a long, quite embarrassing record at many colleges dominated by conservative premises and practices.

Yet last fall’s crusaders for campus freedom didn’t mention conservatives’ long complicity in scaring and coddling students into tightly scripted campus rites of passage toward war-making and reckless or clubby financing. Since none of it could be blamed on liberals, nothing was said about it by crusaders such as Greg Lukianoff, president of the Koch-family funded Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt, the New York University business psychologist who co-authored with Lukianoff “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the Atlantic essay that is the latest manifesto of a decades-long conservative campaign to discredit the "liberal" academy.

The first such assault came in 1951 with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, which summoned its supposedly Christian, capitalist alumni to rescue the college from its professors’ godless socialism. McCarthyism intensified that effort, with Buckley’s strong support. Protests of the 1960s pushed back, but the effort resumed with greater force in 1987 with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, a book that conservatives misread and misappropriated, as I showed 20 years later.

The campaign has become even more perverse since 2010, when the Citizens United ruling extended First Amendment protection of citizens’ political speech to corporate fiduciaries of shifting whorls of anonymous shareholders. “If dancing nude and burning the flag are protected by the First Amendment, why would it not protect robust speech about the people who are running for office?’’ asked Theodore Olson, counsel for Citizens United, the corporation that produced a movie to swift-boat Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Olson’s subtext: Let liberals rant, as long as we can overwhelm them with expensive megaphones and words that titillate or intimidate. The consequence: Conservatives are cheating fatefully and destructively on their older insight that what the Constitution rightly protects, civil society rightly modulates, lest a free-for-all become a free-for-none.

Conservatives used to remind us that liberty wouldn’t exist without limits against which it defines itself and upon which it therefore relies. Free expression requires self-restraint, not hurling scare words and sex words in ads, entertainments, and political diatribes that short-circuit the dialogue and deliberation a republic requires. Freedom of speech means nothing if the powerful have expensive megaphones while citizens who would challenge them have laryngitis from straining to be heard.

Invoking this older, better conservative wisdom, Senate minority leader and 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole assailed “liberal” Hollywood for its degrading, demoralizing entertainment. But he never challenged the consumer marketing that’s driving the pornification of public life, and, upon retiring from politics, he made a television commercial for Pfizer in which he said that Viagra helped him cope with erectile dysfunction. “The poor fellow looks like he’s restraining the impulse to unzip and show us the happy change,” protested the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, author of The Naked Public Square.

At the same time, as The Washington Monthly explains in a report titled “The Corporate Free Speech Racket,” the same corporations that rush to take advantage of Citizens United insist that their First Amendment rights entitle them not to disclose what should be public information or even to put up official U.S. Labor Department posters that inform workers of their rights in neutral, statutory language.

And so conservatism’s uncritical celebration of markets betrays its republican principles. Dole wasn’t all that far from the nude dancing and flag-burning that Theodore Olson and other conservatives now invoke to justify “robust speech” in politics. Nor, of course, is Trump, whose derangement of public discourse has given Lukianoff and Haidt and the other crusaders more than they bargained for.

Since Haidt has publicized his talks to students at private high schools, telling them that their “liberal” institutions silence every hint of political incorrectness and that therefore “the Yale problem” begins in high school, one might expect him to expose the high schools that coddled and hobbled the minds of senators such as Dole and McConnell and of Yale Grand Strategy and Jackson Institute students and alumni. One might expect Lukianoff, who visited Yale to document and inveigh against political correctness, to protest corporations’ refusal to honor workers’ rights to simple information.

Not only haven’t Haidt and Lukianoff spoken against these threats; neither have David Horowitz, a scourge of academic liberals and author of an Orwellian “Academic Bill of Rights;” or Daniel Pipes, president of creepy-crawly Campus Watch, which publicizes and tries to shame professors whom it decides have said things problematic for Israel; or Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education and chair of the board of the lavishly-funded William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, which calls for “intellectual diversity” against bureaucratically color-coded and sexually driven “diversity.”  (As I was writing about campus demonstrations and their critics last fall, I reached out several times to Buckley Program students, offering to talk with them as a group and proposing individual meetings over coffee. None of these champions of intellectual diversity accepted my invitations.)

It’s not enough to expose what students and deans are doing wrong if one can’t explain credibly why they’re doing it, other than to blame feminists, post-modernists, and unreconstructed leftists. Conservative as well as liberal students are coming of age amid the torrentially marketed civic mindlessness and malevolence of a “culture” whose come-ons bypass their brains and hearts on the way to their wallets, goosing them, groping them, intimidating them, tracking them, indebting them, and thus hobbling them long before they enter college and encounter a few of the wrong deans and professors.

No wonder that some conservative students crave the illusory clarity of “an Oath and an Order” in service to national-security regimens and huge concentrations of wealth. No wonder that some liberal students crave the false clarity of Justice that’s concocted only in rules and conventions. No wonder that even some liberal academics, rattled by the worst student “cry-bullies’” mix of self-pity and censoriousness but sheltered themselves from many of the larger society’s brutalities, have taken up the conservative cry.

In The Colonizer and the Colonized, the writer Albert Memmi observed that the war of white against black became a war of black against black as the victims internalized the hatred and, in vain hope of escaping it, directed it against those even more victimized than themselves. Just as some Jews and gays as well as blacks energetically disdain the bad habits and misfortunes of others in their group for that very reason, some liberal academics, understandably embarrassed by the most outrageous of the politically correct on their own campuses, misdirect energy that should be focused on the academy’s more powerful enemies.

Why do so many of us resist drawing the obvious connection between student anxieties or excesses and an anomic, rule-and-escape obsessed society where free speech is abused and suppressed?

Many of us are complicit in this rout of civic-republican virtues and institutions – neoliberal Democrats and harder-pressed liberal constituents who resort to favor-seeking, quite as much as conservative Republicans and their far-more-successful favor seekers: Neoliberals who’ve done fairly well in the regime aren’t serious about reconfiguring it and resort instead of tokenistic, feel-good gestures that patronize some and enrage others. And conservatives can’t reconcile their professed devotion to republican freedoms of speech and inquiry with their obeisance to every whim and riptide of global investment and anomic consumerism that are dissolving republican virtues and sovereignty.

It’s not enough to blame the resulting injustices and degradations on “globalization” and “technology.” Our republican crisis is being accelerated by greed and delusion, and its pious obfuscation by all sides deepens angry, confused Americans’ vulnerability to a casino-financer and national marketer-in-chief.

The irony is that millions of American college students have responded so vigorously to a candidate they think is telling the truth that, whatever the accuracy of their perception, they, like Trump and McConnell, have upstaged those who blame our public distempers on the liberal academy. At the very least, the helicopter pundits and provocateurs ought to revisit these students, this time to listen and observe quietly instead of lecturing and provoking.

This is adapted from a talk given on May 12 to the Connecticut Chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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