The truth about the "campus free speech" crusade and its myths that won't die

While critics of college "snowflakes" prop up a fake crisis, even "good liberals" misunderstand student outbursts

Published March 31, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Yana Paskova)
(Getty/Yana Paskova)

Let’s not let the controversy over the Mueller Report’s reception eclipse what President Donald Trump is doing to advance the long-running conservative crusade against liberal arts colleges, that helped to elect him in the first place. His recent executive order to deny federal funding to universities that his agents and allies deem unfriendly to “free speech” reinforces a false narrative, abetted by many in the media, that has already damaged not only higher education but also the American republic.

Journalists have been reinforcing that narrative, sometimes with good intentions. The latest instance is New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s March 21 puff piece on the Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika, a child psychologist and education specialist. Bruni recycles the Christakises’ and their ideological handlers' assiduously-cultivated, widely-accepted claim that in 2015 they were martyred on the altar of freedom of expression by, as Bruni put it, “taunts and insults from furious Yale students who swarmed [Nicholas] in a campus courtyard one day. ‘You should not sleep at night!’ one of them screeched, as he miraculously kept his cool, a mute punching bag. 'You are disgusting!’"

“Perhaps you saw the video,” Bruni adds, noting, “It became a viral sensation in the fall of 2015” and linking it to make sure you won’t miss it. Like the video itself, Bruni doesn’t report fake facts, but he confines his lens only to events that support a narrative roughly 75 percent false, or at the very least woefully incomplete.

Possibly with the best of intentions, Bruni swallows and regurgitates a lavishly-funded, brilliantly orchestrated, politically poisonous lie about college students and their deans that riveted millions of Americans during the run-up to the 2016 election.

That narrative spotlights only embarrassingly bad student protests and administrative strictures against “unsafety” and offensive behavior, real and imagined. It consigns to outer darkness the fateful truth that inept protests and bureaucratic responses are symptoms, not causes, of swift, dark undercurrents that are degrading public reasoning and trust — off campus far more than on. Most responses by college students and recent graduates to these pressures have been far more constructive.

Conservatives have been mocking campus “social justice warriors” and “totalitarian” professors for 70 years in a crusade to harness liberal education to the market economy. That effort began in 1951, when William F. Buckley Jr. warned in "God and Man at Yale" that godless socialist professors were corrupting the splendid, Christian young gentlemen in their classes.

Now, as then, the conservative campus crusade's purpose isn’t to promote individual rights and free speech but to advance a free-market economy and “free marketplace of ideas” against any possibility that colleges might educate people like those who would vote for a Bernie Sanders, an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or an Elizabeth Warren. Like “Voter I.D.” and “Right to Work” campaigns, the “free speech” campaign undermines what it pretends to uphold.

The “free speech” crusaders of 2015 didn’t expect that their campaign would be hijacked by a candidate who just last week signed a presidential order to withhold federal funding from colleges his agents decide are suppressing free (market) speech. As I’ve shown here in Salon, Trump’s assaults on “political correctness” highlight a disease that the conservative campaign is trying to eclipse.

Why what happened at Yale in 2015 still matters

Even the most inexperienced, overwrought 19-year-olds are barometers of civil society’s accelerating implosion — and their readings of it are often quite accurate. Obsessing about their excesses and making martyrs of those they assail leaves unchallenged swift, dark undercurrents that have frightened and angered millions of Americans, and not mainly on college campuses.

The underside of the “free speech” crusade’s attack on colleges was sidelined by media coverage of the 2015 outbreak of “political correctness” at Yale, which I’ll examine here because I saw it first hand. The distraught black student hurling curses at Nicholas Christiakis was videotaped by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and a mastermind of the "free speech on campus" crusade, but that outburst and a couple of others were comparatively tiny exceptions to a huge, more earnest, and yes, impassioned effort by thousands of Yale students whom I watched addressing challenges far more fateful than anything reported in 2015 and recycled by Bruni this month.

A student of mine at the time, a young white man with a classically Establishment bearing, wrote me a few weeks later that he was "disturbed ... by the discrepancies between what was actually happening on campus and the depictions in the national media." He continued:

What was happening on campus was not exactly a protest. It was a moment of education. For a short time, the entire campus was united, engaging with black feminism, confronting collective emotions and challenges in a way I had never before experienced. It was beautiful. It was challenging. Urgent. And it needed to be emotional — so it was.

The reckonings that I witnessed weren't always edifying, but one evening I watched four panels, composed mostly of students and professors of color, address more than a thousand people of all colors, about half of them white, who packed the university's chapel to hear their stories and thoughts. (Yale President Peter Salovey and the Yale College dean at the time, Jonathan Holloway, sat, listening, in the front row.) The speakers at Yale addressed us from their hearts and deepest humanity, without malevolence or duplicity.

So why do so many Americans keep fixating on a theatrical minority instead of the disease that's devouring us? For one thing, media outlets largely seek quick explanations and sensationalism in pursuit of high ratings. For another, ideologues crave vindication against opponents and skeptics of “free-market” riptides. Others are looking to excuse their own half-forgotten regrets about ducking liberal education’s true challenges while in college. (For a look at the conservative political correctness that gripped colleges for more than a century, see my Salon essay, “The Coddling of the Conservative Mind.”)

All of these critics find angry company among readers and viewers who haven’t set foot on a campus in decades but are looking for scapegoats because they fear to face honestly the forces that are generating their own burdens and weaknesses. The biggest truth they’re ducking is that “snowflakes” and “cry-bullies” and protective mentors are driven by the torrentially strong regimentation and atomization of an increasingly soulless consumer society. As casino-like financing and predatory marketing hollow out trust and comity, they leave a civic vacuum that attracts the harsh politics and economic injustice within which today’s college students have come of age.

Arriving on campus from 5,000 hours spent on the worst of the Internet in basements of homes wired against armed invasion, and from experiences of civic decay at school and in the streets during their formative adolescent years, some students are vulnerable and demanding in ways that desperate political correctness may signal and even compound but didn’t cause. Watch any Trump rally to see  thousands of the millions of Americans who haven’t attended college but are just as frightened and enraged by developments that they're told have been driven by what's taught, counseled, preached, or imposed by campus social justice warriors and a few “tenured radicals.” Walk into any college economics or statistics or game-theory or science course, on the other hand, and you'll see nothing like that.

Even some “good liberals” who consider Trump a horrible aberration don’t acknowledge that he’s only the most prominent carrier and casualty of the larger disease that’s been devouring civil society. They imagine that they can achieve justice by breaking the glass ceilings of our structures of financing and marketing without reconfiguring their walls and foundations. But draping those structures, including media corporations, in United Colors of Benetton diversity and sexual equality and calling it “progressive” won’t humanize the regimentation and atomization that are triggering hyper-sensitive barometers like the screamer in the video that Bruni and many others have been sharing to excuse their lack of inquiry into what’s actually causing the outbursts.

In 2015, The Atlantic magazine helped to birth that myopia about student snowflakes and the cry-bullies ruining America by publishing "The Coddling of the American Mind." Co-authors Lukianoff and New York University business psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a 1985 Yale College graduate, blamed civil society’s implosion on liberal deans and parents who were hobbling their students' capacities for reason and freedom. The essay garnered more than half a million Facebook shares and became a manifesto for the “blame the liberals” campaign thanks to Fox News, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, and conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard and National Review.

The sky-high ratings came from readers well-primed to join the scapegoating for reasons we need to examine. Those Trump rallies do show that demands for over-protective “safety” protocols and for censorious, vengeful attacks on speakers of inconvenient truths aren’t coming mainly from the “politically correct” leftist blunders that helicopter pundits prowl college campuses to find.

Such scapegoating works from kernels of truth that even opponents of scapegoating should acknowledge. Critics of whining, censorious students and "coddling" parents and other mentors do sometimes make insightful observations about what some students and their deans and parents have done wrong, and they’re sometimes right to counsel parents and bureaucrats against keeping young people from working things out among themselves instead of running to authorities for protection.

I learned this in 1965, when one of my Yale College roommates happened upon another student wearing a Nazi armband and mimicking a "Sieg Heil" salute to the accompaniment of a recording of Der Führer himself. My roommate, who's Jewish, never thought of running to a dean or counselor. "Why don't you stop that and turn it off," he said, quietly, firmly. The miscreant smirked, but, embarrassed, he stopped. Probably he was engaging in an ignorant prank, like donning an offensive Halloween costume. We didn't need to have him censured by a higher authority or to involve a diversity counselor to orchestrate our feelings and opinions.

But what critics of such flights from responsibility don’t credibly explain is why there’s now so much coddling and hobbling of young American minds. Lukianoff, Haidt, the Christakises, along with the columnists and editors and editorial boards that privilege their perspectives, don’t tell us that such responses, although counterproductive, are attempts to offset the depletion of civic fairness and trust by the powerful undercurrents I’ve mentioned. They don’t tell us that those undercurrents can only be accelerated by blaming worried deans and parents in the name of “freedom of expression.”

Whose freedom is it, really, when some have powerful, expensive megaphones and others have laryngitis from straining to be heard, even though they’re allowed to rant? That question and its answers have been hidden most effectively by Lukianoff’s FIRE, whose funders and operations I described in a short New York Times column. I revealed the crusaders’ funders again in The American Prospect and described their agendas (and Lukianoff’s pretensions to liberalism) in greater detail in a Sept., 2016 essay, “What the Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade Won’t Say”  (I don’t expect you to study all this, gentle reader, but if you intend to write about it, you’d be well advised to read it all.)

Lukianoff and Haidt have been trying lately to walk back their preoccupation with campus chants, even as they try to profit from their 2015 manifesto’s popularity by recycling its title and some of its arguments in a book they published last fall. I’m writing my own essay on the book and its authors’ evolution, but here I want to clear up what the crusade that generated it in the first place has obscured.

An over-determined reckoning

Bruni’s New York Times column signaled unwittingly his misunderstanding of liberal education’s mission, which is to induct the young into a rigorous conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit. His column opens by announcing that Nicholas Christakis, a 1984 Yale College graduate who’s aggressively staging his own resurrection from his imagined martyrdom at the hands of the students who screamed at him, is “an intellectual rock star” whose “trailblazing work — distilled in a TED talk — on how our social networks shape us” has been certified by “the most esteemed academies that validate scholars’ brilliance.” Not only that, Bruni tells us that “In 2009, Time magazine put him on its list of 100 most influential people.”

Bruni enthuses that Christakis' new book "The Blueprint" is “no lament for the mess that we humans make of things” but “an argument that we’re transcendently and inherently good — that we’re genetically wired for it, thanks to a process of natural selection that has favored people prone to constructive friendships, to cooperation, to teaching, to love.” Bruni leaps to beatify Christakis in his ascent to his pantheon of academic excellence, because a martyr must become a saint.

Although I’ve never met Nicholas and Erika Christakis, I was present throughout their supposed persecution and exchanged some civil email messages with them. What went on wasn't what reporters keep on reporting. In October, 2015 a Yale council of cultural center advisors sent out a memo cautioning students against wearing offensive Halloween costumes. "We would hope," the memo said, "that people would actively avoid those circumstances that ... disrespect, alienate or ridicule ... based on race, nationality or population."

To Erika Christakis, this apparently was bureaucratic overreach. "I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren't a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18?" she asked in an email to students in the residential college she co-headed with Nicholas. But nothing in the council's letter invoked or proposed any statutes, rules or punishments. She seems to have misapplied to 18-year-olds her valid concern, as an early-childhood specialist, that parents and pre-school teachers too often over-program and monitor their kids instead of encouraging them to learn from one another.

An open letter to Christakis signed by several hundred students protested that "you defend the right to wear racist or marginalizing costumes as free speech and accuse the Intercultural Affairs Council of imposing bureaucratic restrictions on the student body. You deem the call for sensitivity 'censure' — which you say comes 'from above,' not from the students, as if the repeated requests of many students of color do not count." The students’ letter was a bit over the top, but it was intelligent, and it was an example of young people doing their own social norming, as Christakises themselves urged students to do.

Yet Greg Lukianoff, who has written that he just happened to be on campus at the time, told his audience at a campus conference organized by Yale’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program that, to read the students’ protest against Erika’s letter, one might have thought that she “had wiped out an Indian village.” He was speaking at the invitation of one of his own FIRE funders, Roger Kimball, who also heads the board of the William F. Buckley Program, and he stayed overnight with none other than the Christakises, who had also  invited him to speak at Harvard in 2012, when they headed that college’s residential Pforzheimer House and when Lukianoff’s FIRE ranked Harvard as one of the worst American colleges for freedom of speech.  Do I sense a bit of activist solidarity or synergy here?

As I reported here in Salon on November 25, 2015, and in an AlterNet essay on January 26, 2016, and in Truthdig, and Huffington Post on February 14, 2016, Lukianoff’s video of the screaming student was posted by Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller — which Lukianoff and Haidt have cited respectfully on other occasions — under a headline, "Meet the Privileged Yale Student Who Shrieked at Her Professor," with a photograph of her and her parents' suburban home and a caption announcing its assessed value. Internet reaction to the video forced the screaming student into hiding. As Christakis herself once wrote, in a 2013 TIME column about the Steubenville rape case, and specifically about the outrage that followed the leaked cell phone video that went viral, “In the best of circumstances, righteous anger and social media can be galvanizing forces for change, but they can combine in a toxic brew." "Pictures tell a thousand words," she continued, "but in the age of social media, they may sometimes tell the wrong story."

Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson told the Times, in a story that was otherwise a whitewash of Lukianoff’s FIRE, that the organization’s spin and the media coverage were “a complete misconstruction of what happened.” Instead of anyone suppressing freedoms of inquiry and expression, Jacobson noted, “The cultural affairs committee made its statement about Halloween costumes; the Christakises critiqued that; the students critiqued them. Then everyone in the world criticized the students. From beginning to end, it was never a matter of free speech.” (You can listen to Jacobson and me discussing higher education’s challenges here.)

The Times' misconstruction of the uproar was ratified in several other stories, including an essay in the Education Life section by Professors Douglas and Mary Schwab Stone — "The Sheltering Campus - Why College is Not a Home" — defending the Christakises and other college mentors against demanding students. On the same day, the Times also published a profile and interview with Erika Christakis in its National section that depicted her as upbeat, if wounded: After becoming "an unwitting target of campus protests here against racial insensitivity,… She ended up not teaching the spring semester."

The irony is that neither Yale's faculty nor its administration demanded that the Christakises be stopped from teaching. Some student demonstrators did call for the Christakises' dismissal as residential college heads in a midnight list of "demands," but Yale President Peter Salovey affirmed the administration's "full confidence" in the Christakises, praising their "deep dedication to undergraduates," and the demand died.

Yet when Erika Christakis cancelled her popular course on early-childhood education, she said that Yale's climate is not "conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems." Even as she was telling students to grow up and to engage one another instead of being fragile and demanding, she picked up her marbles and went home, letting down dozens of students who, by her own account as well as by their reported comments, would have taken her course.

Highlighting symptoms but not causes

Such willful mischaracterizations are part of the long conservative crusade. In 2005, its credulous or fellow-traveling talking heads vilified Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences for its vote of no-confidence in the university’s president Lawrence Summers, who resigned in early 2006. Talk-show hosts thundered that "feminazis" had ousted him for questioning women's ability to sustain scientific research. A Wall Street Journal editorial assailed Harvard's "largely left-wing faculty that has about as much intellectual diversity as the Pyongyang parliament."

In 2006, much of the same cohort reviled Yale's administration for enrolling former Taliban spokesman Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi as a special student in what critics charged was the college's fatuous quest for "diversity." Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund spent days on campus penning columns against such political correctness and urging alumni to withhold donations. Rahmatullah was chased around New Haven by a Fox News TV crew, and he departed after a year instead of applying to become a full-time undergraduate, as he'd hoped to do.

The narratives about Summers’ ouster and Hashemi’s enrollment were as skewed as the story of the Christakises' crucifixion. Two faculty members who were involved in the deliberations told me that Summers was driven from his presidency not by politically correct professors (he's still an outspoken professor there himself) but by faculty moderates and members of  Harvard’s governing corporation who found him duplicitous  and high-handed in his efforts to change degree-granting prerogatives, and found him protective of, if not indeed complicit with, close colleagues who'd corrupted Harvard's efforts to re-capitalize Russia.

And the portrayal of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi's enrollment at Yale as what the Wall Street Journal's John Fund called "the obsession that the U.S. universities have with promoting diversity" fell apart when Charles Hill, a conservative faculty member, former high official in the Reagan State Department, and well-known critic of liberal "diversity" policies in the Foreign Service, declared that Rahmatullah's presence at Yale reflected its commitment to "identifying and encouraging those with the potential to make the Middle East a better place and responsible region within the international community.” In their zeal to nail liberals, the anti-"diversity" bloodhounds had missed the scent of Yale's long intimacy with American intelligence and diplomacy in the vetting and admission of Rahmatullah.

Yet the bloodhounds were back again in 2015, when students signed their open letter condemning Erika Christakis. Again they missed the mark on what was really motivating students and administrators: the emptiness of a "retail-store university” that treats students as customers, not citizens. In market parlance, the customer is always right, but corporate bureaucracies guide and monitor customers' choices. As commercial priorities and funding pressures transform collegiate crucibles of citizen-leadership training into career-networking centers for a global workforce that answers to no republican polity or moral code, students are incentivized to think as consumers and careerists, not least by professors who teach them economics, computer science, game theory, public policy, grand strategy, and other subjects in ways that reinforce the parameters and pressures they've grown up with.

If we really want Americans to stop infantilizing children and college students, how about ensuring affordable daycare and health care, public funding of higher education instead of crushing student debt, and employment security and pensions? Wouldn't that relieve Americans of some of the stress and fears that market forces are exploiting and that the anti-"political correctness" campaigns are stoking?

"I see myself as very anti-establishment, in a sort of old-school, lefty way," Christakis told the Times. The artfully marketed story of her martyrdom came at the start of a tour to market her book, "The Importance of Being Little," an excerpt of which The Atlantic published just after it had ballyhooed the crisis at Yale.

The assiduous, years-long seeding of resentment and mistrust of the liberal academy through the establishment media abetted Trump's rise, no matter how "never-Trump" its standard-bearers may be. Yes, Nicholas Christakis was unfairly targeted by some students who, again, are sensitive barometers of our civic implosion but are inexperienced and overwrought in dealing with it. Yes, Erika Christakis’ useful message to parents and teachers of young children was demonized unfairly, even though she deserved criticism for misapplying it to college students. But the Christakises, Lukianoff, and Haidt and their media celebrants are riding and hiding from the omnivorous marketing, indebting, and dispossessing of Americans, and that is the only "totalitarianism" currently driving parents and teachers to hobble the young.

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).

MORE FROM Jim Sleeper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Campus Free Speech Culture Editor's Picks Frank Bruni New York Times Yale University