From time to time, I email Allison Stanger. She answers always, but says she is not yet healthy enough to talk. On March 2, Stanger was escorting the social scientist Charles Murray, whose speech at Middlebury College, where she teaches, had just been shouted down, when the mob charged their car. “Someone pulled my hair,” she recounted, “while others were shoving me. I feared for my life.” The car was rocked. Stanger is still recovering from a concussion.
Last week, Middlebury disciplined 67 students for what happened that night. Some were put on probation and others were cited with the college equivalent of a demerit that will go in their “permanent record” — all in all, a slap on the wrist for students who deserved something more severe. Their offenses were not incidental. They had trifled with freedom of speech, academic freedom and, not incidentally, the health of a professor who was merely trying to facilitate the implementation of those rights. Charles Murray is controversial. He is not an Ebola carrier.
Middlebury’s disgrace was one of several incidents this year in which controversial or studiously obnoxious speakers were either run off campuses or were intimidated from coming. These included Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, in the first category, as well as Heather Mac Donald and Murray, conservative scholars with interesting, if provocative, things to say. Mac Donald, the author of “War on Cops,” is a critic of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Murray is best known for co-writing the book “The Bell Curve.” Suffice it to say it deals with the intellectual nitroglycerin of race and IQ. When it exploded upon publication in 1994, the New Republic devoted most of one issue to shredding it. Still, Murray survived to write other books, and while he is a conservative, he is redeemed by being vociferously anti-Trump. Maybe he will someday do a book on the link between real estate development and IQ.
Far more dangerous than what any of these speakers has to say is the reaction to it. The protesters — some of them non-students — are involved in what’s called, to invoke a trendy term, “cultural appropriation.” In this case, it is the culture of fascism. Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy was facilitated by the steady use of violent protesters to break up meetings and silence opponents. The tactic proved successful, and in 1922 Mussolini became dictator of Italy. Hitler, on the other side of the Alps, took careful notes.
I won’t flatter the student protesters by asserting they are aware of their ideological antecedents. But I will say that those who chose not to hear Mac Donald or Murray missed something. Mac Donald, who writes often for the Wall Street Journal, knows her stuff. You may not agree with her, but she is reasonable and learned. As for Murray, his caricature as a white racist is a simplistic libel. I am not prepared to defend “The Bell Curve” — it has been years since I’ve read it — but that’s beside the point. It’s for Murray to defend. And, if given the opportunity, I’m sure he can do it.
Maybe, as some have argued, campus intolerance is escalating in reaction to President Trump. He has a pugnacious affect that encourages a like reaction. He wants to silence the critical press. He dismisses his critics as “losers.” He always seems to be spoiling for a fight — and not a fair one, either. But Trump’s simian behavior is no excuse for violence.
The Vietnam War engendered the same sort of fascistic response. In the name of a good cause — ending the war — the occasional protester set off the occasional bomb. One, ostensibly directed at the University of Wisconsin’s cooperation with the Defense Department, nearly demolished Sterling Hall on the Madison campus. It killed a physics researcher, whose work was entirely unconnected with the Pentagon, not that it matters any. The mad, arrogant virtue that animated the bombers is little different than what drove Manchester’s suicide bomber to wantonly kill kids at the Ariana Grande concert in England. Spare us the true believers.
I have known Stanger a bit over the years. To me, she personifies the scholarly life — fluent in Russian, fluent in Czech, fluent in critical ideas. She has her politics, avowedly Democratic, but she agreed to moderate the discussion with Murray solely because she believes in the robust exchange of views. Now she suffers because some protesters thought they were entitled to silence Murray and injure Stanger. Middlebury got a black eye, Stanger got a concussion — and we all got a warning.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
Read more here:
Danielle Allen: Why Middlebury’s violent response to Charles Murray reminded me of the Little Rock Nine
Ruth Marcus: College is not for coddling
Eugene Volokh: Protesters at Middlebury College shout down speaker, attack him and a professor
Catherine Rampell: Why should college students let their enemies speak? Naked self-interest.