Enough with the blue-baiting: The biggest threat on campus has nothing to do with free speech

The right-wing attacks over free speech on college campuses are a distraction from what hurts actual students most

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published September 2, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)


One of the most disturbing and most predictable outcomes of the Charlottesville, Va., attacks earlier this month was that rather than lead to a reasoned and careful conversation about the rise of hate groups in our nation, it led to debates about whether the white supremacist neo-Nazis on display were the victims of discrimination. In Trumpland everything is on its head. Thus we have become desensitized to its dangerous combination of absurdity and malice.

But Charlottesville is not only a story about the mainstreaming of hate and fascism in the Trump era; it’s also a story about how the right has engaged in an all-out war to dismantle our public universities. As we have watched the rising public displays of fascism and bigotry sweep across the nation, it has been easy to overlook the fact that many of these rallies have been purposefully staged on college campuses. The decision to hold these rallies on campuses and to thereby provoke counter-protests also on campuses is a deliberate move by the right: one designed to allow them to further their narrative that college campuses are places that are hostile to free speech.

These days, as many of us across the nation head back into classrooms, we would do well to remember that campus hysteria over free speech has a long history. Before the recent attacks in Charlottesville on the University of Virginia campus, universities grappled with the effects of the McCarthyist red scare of the 1950s. In that period the fear was that communists were infiltrating universities in order to brainwash students and bias knowledge production in favor of a sinister commie agenda.

The details may shift but the pattern of right-wing assaults on higher ed are always the same. Create panic and hysteria by overblowing a perceived threat. Paint the student as an innocent threatened by dangerous professors or describe the student as a whiny, but no less threatening, snowflake determined to undermine any sense of social order. And sow the seeds that will make the public fear, distrust and disapprove of our colleges and universities.

In 1950 fewer than 50,000 Americans out of a U.S. population of 150 million were members of the Communist Party. But that tiny statistic of .033 percent didn’t temper right-wing fears of communist subversion. Government loyalty boards investigated millions of federal employees and more than 39 states required teachers and other public employees to take loyalty oaths.

At a certain level the McCarthy era attacks on higher education as a hotbed of left politics that threatened the fabric of our society never let up; they simply morphed with the times.

In the '90s, as debates raged over the pernicious effects of multiculturalism and diversity and what Dinesh D’Souza called “illiberal education,” they had little sway. But the events of 9/11/2001 gave the right new traction in their attacks. Led by David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes of Campus Watch, the argument was that universities were not patriotic enough. In Horowitz’s "The Art of Political War," published just before the  9/11 attacks, he wrote,  “For some time now, conservatives have watched anxiously as tenured leftists have conducted mind experiments on American campuses, regulating speech and punishing ideas that are politically incorrect.”

As Vijay Prashad noted in a piece for "Frontline" in November 2004, the right-wing popular radio host Rush Limbaugh discussed David Horowitz’s efforts to out liberal faculty on his nationally syndicated radio program: “The Right had taken care of the 'liberal bias' in the media, he announced, and the new war will be on the academy. In the language of right-wing critics like Horowitz, today's communists are leftist professors, but the scandal is no less sensational.”

Thus the 1950s era of red-baiting started to adjust to a new version of blue-baiting.

Blue-baiting replaces the communists of red-baiting with liberals who advocate for marginalized identities, social equality and civic justice. It describes these ”blue” activities as a threat to our society and a violation of our nation’s core values. The transition to blue-baiting from red-baiting started as the right moved to attack academic attention to identity politics and campus efforts to diversify the curriculum.

The goal of red-baiting is to intimidate, and today’s blue-baiting continues that trend. But even worse, blue-baiting follows in the footsteps of red-baiting and is designed to destroy public trust in higher education. Ultimately the goal, as seen in the not-so-subtle policies of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is the total destruction of public education as a common good and as a foundation for civic engagement.

Blue-baiting operates today alongside red-baiting as a strategy designed to dominate the narrative and control the conversation.  In fact, Kathryn Olmsted, chairwoman of the Department of History at University of California, Davis, argues in her study of Herbert Hoover’s use of red-baiting that the red scare allowed today’s alt-right politics to emerge. Their efforts enabled the ideology and tactics that led to cultural fears that leftists “were endangering the home and family.” Whether attacking red commies or blue liberals, the goal is to convince the public that everything they hold dear is under attack and that college campuses are ground zero.

What’s of even greater concern is that today their plan is working better than ever. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that for the first time a majority of Republicans (58 percent) say colleges have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. Just two years ago, 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 37 percent rating higher education negatively.

The 20 percent decline in support can be traced directly to news media coverage of blue-baiting activities on campuses that characterize students legitimately protesting the alt-right as rabid menaces to the social order.

Stories about the antifa movement, for instance, focus on the notion that these protesters are scary and violent. And piece after piece, like this recent one from CNN, puff up the myth that anti-fascists are "just as dangerous, if not more dangerous than the right wing could ever be."

Today news about college campuses is overwhelmingly dominated by coverage of the debates over free speech.  As Inside Higher Education reports, “virtually every day Fox News, Breitbart and other conservative outlets run critical articles about free speech disputes on college campuses, typically with coverage focused on the perceived liberal orthodoxy and political correctness in higher education.”

"Every year there seems to be one higher education policy issue that spreads rapidly throughout the states," says Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in a piece in US News and World Report. "This year it's campus free speech legislation."

These conflicts over free speech on campus are a direct result of conservative efforts to stir things up and to pass laws purportedly designed to protect free speech on campuses that they suggest limit it. "The campus free speech legislation has largely, if not exclusively, been introduced by conservative state lawmakers who have argued that campuses are not doing enough to ensure that all viewpoints are welcome to be expressed," Harnisch says.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how successful the right has been in launching its narrative that free speech is threatened on campuses these days.  One article after another covers the story as it has been framed on the right with little or no attention to the fact that these arguments are either overblown or completely without merit.

Less than a year ago Turning Point USA launched Professor Watchlist, a website designed to call out college professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Turning Point’s founder and executive director, Charlie Kirk, wrote a blog post to explain that the purpose of the list was to expose professors who are out of line. “Throughout the next 120 days, Turning Point USA will be running ads to make sure students, faculty, and administrators see that these professors made the Professor Watchlist.” The 22-year-old closed his post with the chilling phrase: “We believe these people need to be exposed.”

But guess what? Even if we assume that the list is fair and accurate, which is a big assumption, the list fingers a paltry .013 percent of the entire professoriate in this nation as a threat to free speech. Rather than highlight an epidemic of lefty profs who discriminate against the right, it proves there isn’t one.

As I wrote for Salon shortly after Turning Point was launched, the problem with the list — besides its more than obvious blue-bait tactics — is that it’s really stupid. It makes claims that have no basis in reality. It exaggerates. It creates crisis where there is none. And worst of all, it promises to increase conflict rather than improve it.

In the coming weeks about 20.4 million students will begin their next year at college.  But rather than hear about the real challenges this generation of college students will face, chances are pretty good that the news will focus on the campus debates over free speech that have been orchestrated by the right.

Despite the fact that only about 9 percent of college students will even participate in a campus protest, it is far more likely that their activities will be covered than the 70 percent of students who will graduate with loans averaging $37,172. 44.2 million Americans are burdened with student loan debt and 59 percent of millennials have no idea when their student loans, which average monthly payments of about $350, will be paid off.

But rather than cover that story, we will hear that white supremacist Richard Spencer was denied yet another speaking engagement.

And that leads me to the real crisis facing higher education in our nation. While everyone gets distracted by debates over free speech, Republican-controlled states are slashing support for higher education at precisely the time when our nation’s students need more, not less, funding.

Republicans now hold 34 governorships, matching the party’s all-time high from 1922. And it is those same governors, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who have been behind cuts in funding for their state’s colleges. Recently elected Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens cut $68 million in core funding to colleges, universities and community colleges in his state for the current budget year.

According to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, in total, after adjusting for inflation, funding for public two- and four-year colleges is nearly $10 billion below what it was just before the recession. They further report that the average state is spending $1,598, or 18 percent, less per student than before the recession.

To make up for the shortfall in public funding students work while going to school. Forty percent of students work at least 30 hours a week. About 25 percent work full-time and go to school full-time. A recent study found that 13 percent of households with students at community colleges and 11 percent with students at four-year colleges worried about having enough money to buy food in 2015.

UC Berkeley’s food pantry served more than 2,000 students last spring, or 5 percent of its total student population, but it’s the student protesters who are getting the news coverage and leading President Trump to talk about defunding Berkeley even more.

This is not to say that counter-protests and free speech debates aren’t important and don't deserve our attention. But it is stunning to note the public apathy toward the systematic defunding of higher ed — a move that affects all families regardless of political beliefs.

And yet the shrill blue-baiting continues, distracting us from our real crises, sowing distrust in higher education and disincentivizing those on the right from even seeking college degrees — a move guaranteed to help a party that appeals to the less educated.

Despite the fact that the right has tried to twist the meaning of “baiting” by turning the phrase “race-baiting” on its head, it is worth remembering that the term red-baiting and my neologism blue-baiting each derive from the verb “to bait.” Which means to set dogs to bite and harass another animal that is usually chained. The goal is for the dogs to subdue the attacked animal by incapacitating it or killing it.

The chained animal in this story is our institutions of higher ed.

Make no mistake: The right’s blue-baiting has zero interest in helping make our colleges more open to debate and discussion. But it does want to unravel the one institution our nation needs in order to foster an informed and educated citizenry.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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