Friday, May 17, 2013

Challenging the New McCarthyism

Assaults on free speech in academia are not new. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out seventy years ago, academic freedom in European universities meant freedom to teach and agree with the government’s viewpoint (Bureaucracy, pp. 81-83).

It has always been a little risky for students to disagree with their professors’ ideas, unless the disagreement is done within the narrow confines, defined by the professors, of what is considered “reasoned debate.” This is what happens when the government is in charge of education; the government’s agents dictate what is acceptable speech, leaving its customers little choice or opportunity to take their business elsewhere.

A recent survey, however, starkly demonstrates the silencing of dissent on college campuses today: thirty percent of college seniors and less than twenty percent of faculty agree that it is safe to hold unpopular positions.

The cause is McCarthyism from the left, speech and harassment codes that are blatantly non-objective and violate First Amendment protections. As in the original McCarthyism these codes and their enforcement use “unfair allegations” and “unfair investigative techniques,” such as Star Chamber (secret) proceedings, “to restrict dissent or political criticism” (

The history of political correctness has been chronicled in a number of books (1, 2, 3). The latest is Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of Academic Debate. Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), details hundreds of cases his organization has defended on college campuses in the last fourteen years. FIRE initially writes to administrators citing First Amendment law and urges them to dismiss the cases they have against students and professors. When discussion fails, FIRE takes the cases public and helps victims litigate. FIRE to date has won all such cases. Very few universities, however, have apologized for almost wrecking a student’s or professor’s future.

Orwellian-style thought control is used to re-educate students in the political correctness ideology. Code violators face threats of expulsion, disciplinary blemishes on their records, and even criminal arrest. They often are “graciously” offered to have their records cleansed if they recant their sins (Galileo style?), apologize to the offended and write papers on the “correct” ideology, and attend mandatory counseling (Soviet style?) with a psychologist or other person well versed in the PC dogma.

The way speech and harassment codes work is that they equate words and actions; they declare fully protected offensive and hurtful speech to be nearly as harmful as assault and battery. Thus, racial or sexual epithets may be in violation of the codes because they are considered “hostile acts.” Sexual harassment is determined by the perceptions of recipients and may be as innocuous as a mild flirtatious comment saying “you’re beautiful.” If the recipients feel harassed, harassment has occurred. The codes are overbroad and vague, and the intent of speakers, in opposition to the First Amendment legal record, is irrelevant.

Indoctrination begins in first-year orientation in which students may be made to line up in order of skin color or by sexual leaning, for the purpose of demonstrating how racist, sexist, and homophobic certain privileged races, genders, and social classes are. One-on-one “therapy” sessions—or rather, invasions of privacy—may be required with a resident assistant to probe a student’s (incorrect) sexual attitudes and orientation. Ideological loyalty oaths are not uncommon, especially in fields such as social work where students must sign statements of agreement with their professors’ ideas about sex.

Other examples range from the comical to the reprehensibly serious. The comical includes dampening of the allegedly offensive decades-old tradition of Harvard and Yale students trading barbs over their annual football game and umbrage taken by Harvard’s Information Technology Department over a satirical cartoon lampooning the department’s computer glitches (Lukianoff, pp. 81 and 87-88).

The serious includes threats of arrest—for disorderly conduct of a professor who put a poster on his door of a sci-fi television hero saying, “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And You’ll be armed.”  The message means “I play fair.” The university guardians of peace and harmony assumed he was threatening violence (Lukianoff, pp. 138-39).

The upshot of the codes is that anyone who feels hurt, feels criticized, or feels threatened—regardless of objective legal criteria spelled out in multiple court decisions—may file a complaint and be backed up by the weight of modern bureaucratic PC-ness to crush (or scare the living daylights out of) the student, professor, club, newspaper writer, or Facebook poster who “inspired” such feelings.

The uniqueness of Lukianoff’s organization is that FIRE is bi-partisan. Lukianoff describes himself as a lifelong Democrat and environmentalist. FIRE’s founders are Alan Charles Kors, a “conservative-leaning libertarian professor,” and Harvey Silverglate, a “liberal-leaning civil rights attorney.” Other members of the staff include “liberals, conservatives, libertarians, atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims” (Lukianoff, p. 13). What they all have in common is a commitment to the First Amendment and freedom of speech.

Where has this PC lunacy come from? Marxism, of course. The new McCarthyism is a coercive application of political correctness to the regulation of behavior—everyone’s behavior, student as well as professor. It is not about being nice and respectful to historically disadvantaged and discriminated against races, genders, and sexual orientations. It is about old Marxism dressed up in modern cloth, using the historically disadvantaged groups as pawns in the continued political agenda to disparage capitalism.

The bourgeoisie are no longer the oppressors of the proletariat, especially since the working classes have moved up in the world under capitalism and in some cases now make more money than college professors! Today, the oppressors are white, Anglo-Saxon males and other allegedly privileged groups who are subjugating the historically disadvantaged. In true Marxist, revolutionary fashion, so goes the canon, some liberties must be sacrificed to make amends. Free speech and equality before the law must be sacrificed to the goal of social equality, that is, the goal of equalizing those historically disadvantaged races, genders, and sexual orientations even if it means harming the privileged classes and restricting their speech.

The source of this new McCarthyism is that Marxist darling of the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse and the virulent absolutism of his post-modern followers. Marcuse advocated in unmistakably plain language “the systematic withdrawal of tolerance toward regressive and repressive opinions and movements” and endorsed revolutionary violence (quoted in Kors and Silverglate, p. 71).

As serious as the present state of censorship on campus currently is, organizations like FIRE and tireless writers and speakers like Lukianoff promise a freer future in what the Supreme Court has acknowledged is—and should be—a truly diverse marketplace of ideas.

Postscript: Read Lukianoff’s Wall Street Journal response to the latest federal government attempt,
through the harassment codes, to restrict and punish speech on (and off) college campuses. Prior restraint is also involved in the feds' attempt.

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