California State University at Fresno English professor Randa Jarrar has behaved badly. No, that doesn’t quite capture it. Jarrar has behaved like an ill-bred adolescent with an underdeveloped vocabulary, an overdeveloped ego and an entirely atrophied sense of empathy. Her behavior should embarrass not only her but every adult human being who had to witness it.
Not content to privately nurse her apparent antipathy to the Bush family, she took to Twitter to publicly revel in Barbara Bush’s demise. She called the former first lady an “amazing racist” and the mother of a war criminal, then noted how much she was looking forward to the deaths of the rest of the Bush clan.
This is not how adults behave. It is not even how eighth-graders behave, if they have been raised well. A toddler of average intelligence would know enough to feel a little bit ashamed. Jarrar wasn’t ashamed at all. When Twitter rushed to castigate her — and naturally, to say that Fresno State should fire her — she gleefully responded with the following incredible tweet:
I work as a tenured professor. I make 100K a year doing that. I will never be fired. I will always have people wanting to hear what I have to say.
She also sent people seeking her phone number to a counseling line at Arizona State University.
Fresno State’s administration, apparently less sure that Jarrar cannot be fired, announced an investigation Wednesday. One can certainly empathize with the desire to banish Jarrar from their presence. But as a tenured professor, Jarrar is supposed to have a great deal of freedom to speak her mind; as an employee of the government, she is also protected by the first amendment. Fresno State is wrong to investigate her private speech, and conservatives who are tempted to support the school should think again.
That temptation is certainly understandable; Jarrar’s behavior is appalling. Moreover, given the recent campus speech dust-ups, it’s only natural that the right would be eager to claim a liberal scalp to match the Charles Murray pelt currently hanging on some Middlebury College wall.
But this is mistaken and dangerous. If we want to advance the sum of human knowledge, people need to be free to speak their minds as often as possible. That’s especially true in academia, where the explicit mission is expanding that knowledge. And it is double-extra-true at a publicly funded university, because we should be frankly terrified of any effort to get government officials involved in policing speech.
Conservatives, even more than other Americans, should be on Jarrar’s side. Free speech always protects the minority, and that’s what they are on campus. If we weaken the principles that protect academics who speak their minds, it is conservatives who will be most at risk. It’s no accident, after all, that academia’s sprinkling of right-leaning professors often “come out” only after they’ve gotten tenure. If we undermine the principle that tenured professors can say any damn thing they want on their private time, we will hand the ideological thought police just the weapon they need to banish conservative “wrongthink” from campus.
Now, there is one thing that might give us pause: that tweet about the suicide hotline. That wasn’t a political statement about a person of public interest; it was something akin to vandalism — tying up resources at another school as they are forced to deal with whomever calls. So Fresno State, and conservatives who want to support them, can say, “See, this isn’t about academic freedom, it’s about misconduct.” They could then happily move on to separating Jarrar from her tenured position and her $100,000 salary and her sense of overweening entitlement.
They could, but they shouldn’t. Not because that tweet wasn’t wrong, but because the punishment is all out of proportion to the offense. Let’s be honest: If pointing people to another campus’s suicide hotline had been her only violation against decency, how many of the people currently calling for her head would be demanding that Fresno State fire one of its professors for what amounted to a dumb prank?
None, that’s how many. Her would-be executioners are using that tweet as a pretext to litigate other grievances — and in the process, they’re damaging something much more important than the grievance they’re trying to avenge.
Alas, that’s a good description of most politics these days: no proportion, all grievance. The news cycle is an endless succession of minor offenses being blown up into gigantic battles by revenge-bent partisans who spend every waking hour fantasizing about the total destruction of their long-standing enemies.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen too many conservatives defend Donald Trump, not because they approved of him or his ideas (which violated damn near everything they’d spent their lives working for) but because it was more important for liberals to lose than for conservatism to win. I’ve watched the left, which allegedly believes that President Trump is an existential threat to the republic, revel in schadenfreude over establishment conservatism’s demise at the man’s hands.
This is madness. If you think that Trump might be the next Hitler, then you shouldn’t be gleeful about his ascendance, no matter how much you hated House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Nor should someone who thought Ryan was pretty swell be defending his destroyer simply because Trump so reliably provokes sweet liberal tears.
This commitment to mutually assured destruction is stupid, dangerous and frankly un-American. Conservatives who are rushing to make Jarrar’s tenure the next battlefield in this partisan warfare with a piercing war cry of “Turnabout is fair play!” need to ask themselves whether the fight will leave them weaker or stronger when it’s over. And then they need to ask themselves the vital question that seems to have slipped everybody’s mind: “Do I want to win the last battle — or the next one?”