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The Left Can’t Stop Campus Riots Like Middlebury’s Because Their Ideology Deserves Blame

By Peter W. Wood • The Federalist

The Middlebury College protest on March 2 that silenced an invited speaker and hospitalized a popular professor has continued to garner attention.

More than 100 Middlebury professors—included the one injured in the encounter—have signed a statement of principles, Free Inquiry on Campus, upholding the classic virtues of “free, reasoned, and civil speech.” The document implicitly repudiates the actions of some other Middlebury professors who instigated the effort to deny Dr. Charles Murray the opportunity to speak on campus.

The American Political Science Association, representing 13,000 professors and students, issued its own statement condemning “Violence at Middlebury College.” The APSA statement says, in part, “The violence surrounding the talk undermined the ability of faculty and students to engage in the free exchange of ideas and debate, thereby impeding academic freedom on the Middlebury campus.”

How Liberals Are Responding To Middlebury’s Protest

Harry Boyte, founder of the Public Achievement movement, has written in The Huffington Post to condemn Middlebury students’ intolerant, violent actions. Boyte pointedly evoked his memories of the 1960s: “the student actions recalled the mob violence across the South which I often saw as a young man in the civil rights movement working for Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).” Boyte also underlined the essential point: “Free speech is a crucial value for education.”

The liberal commentator Frank Bruni devoted his Sunday New York Times column, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” to lamenting “the recent melee at Middlebury.” Bruni’s point is that “somewhere along the way,” the Middlebury protesters “got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them.” Instead of using the occasion “to hone the most eloquent” arguments against Dr. Murray, “they swarmed and swore.” Indeed they did worse than that, but Bruni provides a nice round-up of comments from liberals who firmly reject the tactics of the Middlebury protesters, if not their message.

One notable figure Bruni failed to cite is Bill McKibben, the radical environmentalist who may well be Middlebury’s best-known professor. In the same vein as Bruni, McKibben took to the pages of The Guardian to chastise his fellow activists for choosing the wrong tactic to express their disdain for Dr. Murray. McKibben explains that by preventing Murray from speaking, they conferred on him a “new standing” and made him “a martyr to the cause of free speech.” It would have been better to have “taken all the available seats, and then got up and peacefully left.”

Many other Middlebury students, alumni, and faculty members have been writing and posting about the events as well, and because I published one of the longest and most detailed accounts of what happened, I received many private communications as well as pointers to other items of interest.

Interest in the story seems to be growing because it has implications well beyond the one small college in Vermont where the events took place. In that light, I think it useful to summarize the discussion so far, starting with the microcosm of Middlebury itself.

Yes, The Protest Really Became A Riot

I heard from quite a few people at Middlebury who praised my account of what happened during Dr. Murray’s visit to campus and who upheld its accuracy. But I also heard from two who disagreed. One appeared to be an undergraduate student who was incensed at the word “riot” in the title of my essay, “How Middlebury College Enabled the Student Riot During Charles Murray’s Visit.” That title, assigned by The Federalist, was accurate.

As riots go, the protest against Dr. Murray was not in the same league as the February 1 protest against Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California Berkeley. That caused more than half a million dollars of property damage, as well as criminal assaults on individuals. Yet the Middlebury protest took the form of a series of lawless acts carried out by a mob, i.e. a riot.

This student’s objection to the word shines a light on what the Middlebury protesters thought they were doing. Some at least continue to imagine they stand on high moral ground. They protested; they didn’t riot. The distinction, I suspect, is that their actions were executed according to plan rather than helter-skelter. But while riots may turn helter-skelter, they are almost always in their initial phases staged.

The Middlebury riot, we now know, was planned days in advance. The college administration thought it had worked out a deal with the organizers. The arrangement was that the protesters would turn their backs and walk out. Some of the students who stood up still thought that was the plan and were caught by surprise when the leaders kept them locked in place and turned the protest into sustained chanting and clapping, in defiance of the college’s rules.

The Proper Balance Between Emotion And Restraint

The college officials believed the protesters would let off some steam and then let Dr. Murray proceed with his speech. What they got instead was a mob in which the disdain for Dr. Murray intensified by the minute.

This presents a good question for social psychologists. When does a protest moderate emotional intensity, and when does it heighten it? All the vitriolic accusations against Murray (e.g. “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away”) repeated loudly over and over in unison surely did nothing to relieve tensions, but only to exacerbate the crowd’s feeling of righteous indignation.

There was also at play a tension between the euphoria achieved by seizing control of the room, on one hand, and the protesters’ underlying sense of powerlessness, since they could not through sheer declaration make Dr. Murray disappear. Feeling powerful and powerless at the same moment is a dangerous combination. The events that followed—fire alarms, rampaging in the hallways, and ultimately the physical assault on Professor Stanger—testify to that combustibility.

How Vice President Burger Responded

I heard from Middlebury’s Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer, Bill Burger, who had made a brief appearance in my article for his anemic warning to the crowd before the event got underway. I wrote that his soft warning was “surely something” that the college president had approved in advance. Burger asked me to correct that inference, saying, “You should know that President Patton did not see or review the statement in advance, so any critique should be directed at me alone.” I informed the editor at The Federalist, who promptly added an update to the end of the article.

But what was Mr. Burger’s request really about? My guess is that Middlebury officials scrutinized my article for errors, and this is what they came up with. He also tried to persuade me that President Patton’s remarks were really a “clear defense of the ideal of free speech on campus.” But this was mere spin on the vice president’s part. I replied:

I stand by what I said. President Patton referred to the principle of free speech and mentioned some of its possible contexts, but she came nowhere close to offering any reason why free speech matters. The ideals of free speech, so masterfully presented in “Free Inquiry on Campus,” the document currently garnering signatures among Middlebury faculty, are utterly absent in President Patton’s six and a half minute talk. She had time to repeat verbatim other things, such as her “no matter their race…” declaration, but no time at all to tell those students who had already declared their hostility to Dr. Murray’s free speech that there are profound principles of justice and intellectual integrity at stake in permitting someone with whom they disagreed to have his say.

Patton gave a superficial nod to the ideal of free inquiry but didn’t invest it with any particular urgency. She spent more time assuring the students that she hated Murray’s ideas as much as they did. This maneuver was also adopted by Professor Stanger and many of the liberal writers who have subsequently condemned the tactics of the protesters. Generally they repeat the conceit that Murray is a racist bigot, but argue that those views need to be refuted rather than silenced. Of course, to refute Murray’s views would require reading his books and mastering his arguments—a step that very few appear to have taken.

The Mystery of Professor Stanger

Allison Stanger, the faculty member who was injured by protesters when she and Dr. Murray were attempting to leave campus, posted an account of the evening on Facebook, March 4. It is a helpful explanation of the prelude to the protest. Professor Stanger said she agreed to participate with Dr. Murray “because while my students may know I am a Democrat, all of my courses are nonpartisan, and this was a chance to demonstrate publicly my commitment to a free and fair exchange of views in my classroom.”

Her account of the protest itself, however, veers away from the evidence of the YouTube video. In the video, Professor Stanger is repeatedly seen smiling and apparently having a good time during the protest, which she eventually joins by clapping and chanting along with the other protesters. But in her Facebook post, she wrote,

I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community. There were students and faculty who wanted to hear the exchange, but were unable to do so, either because of the screaming and chanting and chair-pounding in the room, or because their seats were occupied by those who refused to listen, and they were stranded outside the doors. I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture. All of this was deeply unsettling to me. What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters.

These words are wildly discrepant with the video. Professor Stanger on tape does not look the least bit “unsettled” or like someone who feels “dehumanized” or “demonized.”

Did Stanger Really Condemn The Protest?

Apparently nobody noticed her appearance on the video until I drew attention to it, at which point Professor Stanger had already been anointed a hero for her brave actions in defense of free speech.

As a consequence, I heard from several Middlebury faculty members and alumni who valiantly tried to explain away her actions recorded on the video. One faculty member, for example, wrote:

All I can say about Allison is that you’ve misread it. She was the ONLY member of the faculty who publicly and repeatedly defended Murray before during and after the even as a serious social scientists. She was totally courageous. Clapping was clearly part of her saying, “I’m really sincerely with you on Black Lives Matter.” I’m still in awe of your putative ability to interpret the meaning of a broad smile. And you are just factually wrong in your claim that she said nothing to stop the protest. Watch it again. She took the podium and told the students she had really tough questions and they should let the event proceed so she could answer them.

I’m inclined to say one picture is worth a thousand words, and we have more than one picture. Professor Stanger’s smile may be as inexplicable as the Mona Lisa’s, but it is plainly not the affect of someone in distress. Clapping and chanting in a room with hundreds of others doing the same thing cannot plausibly be construed as a way to win over the mob. That Stanger was saying, “I’m really sincerely with you,” seems right. Being “sincerely with” a mob that has just spent the previous 20 minutes silencing a speaker is a message very much at odds with decorum and common sense.

Stanger is very well liked at Middlebury, and I give her full credit for being willing to defend Murray’s right to speak when so many others sought to silence him. That she was the victim of a violent assault stemming from her willingness to defend free speech does testify to her courage. But people are complex and their motives are often mixed. Courage at one moment doesn’t preclude clouded judgment at another.

Middlebury Tries To Regain Its Reputation The Wrong Way

Middlebury faculty and administrators are worried about the damage the Murray shout-down and assault on Stanger may do to the college’s reputation. One step towards damage control is a three-page document, “Useful Information Regarding Charles Murray’s Middlebury Visit”: sent by the dean of admissions, Greg Buckles, and the special programs coordinator, Joanne Leggett, to alumni. The document advises alumni how to talk to prospective students about what happened. First and foremost, Buckles and Leggett want those prospective students to know that Middlebury College didn’t invite Murray. It was a student group that did it, and the College in no way endorses Murray’s views.

This is astonishing. Even after the national attention Middlebury has received for suppressing free speech, the dean of admissions is at pains to put as much distance as possible between the college and the speaker.

No one in the outside world assumes that the presence of a speaker on campus represents an endorsement of that speaker’s views. To go to such lengths to disclaim any endorsement of a speaker is, in effect, to endorse the views of those who dislike or disparage him. That’s an especially troublesome position to take when, as in Dr. Murray’s case, his views have been grossly paraphrased and misrepresented by opponents who are more interested in using him as a bogeyman than in considering what he actually has to say.

Buckles and Leggett also provide a summary of the actions that Middlebury has taken, including Patton’s letter saying that she is focused on “both accountability for the protesters’ behavior as well as community-building to help repair a large campus divide highlighted by these events.” We are also informed that the Middlebury Police Department is investigating. But matters of social justice will not be forgotten: “We will recognize critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity, and other factors that too often divide us.”

How To Address Disruptive Conduct On Campus?

By coincidence, just days after the Middlebury incident, the University of Chicago released a new Faculty Report on University Discipline for Disruptive Conduct. It is a welcome step for all of American higher education. Mostly it restores to the campus authorities charged with maintaining order the tools they need to do their jobs. For shorthand, let’s call it the DDC report.

DDC is the other shoe dropping after Chicago’s well received but incomplete 2015 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, now called the Stone Report (for its author, Professor Geoffrey Stone). The Stone Report provided an eloquent reaffirmation of the importance of free speech in higher education but said nothing about how the university should respond to those who violate others’ rights to free expression.

DDC fills that gap by calling for a centralized disciplinary system; improvements in event management including authorizing the “dean-on-call” to take action when faced with disruptive conduct; including outside visitors to campus under the rules; making sure students understand their responsibilities; and amending the university’s old procedures (“Statute 21”) to take account of the new tactics often employed by disruptors.

A key change is the recognition that disruption these days is seldom the act of a lone individual but rather a coordinated act by a group of individuals. Each member of the group may stop short of committing an act of major disruption, but by concerting their actions, the members of the group can create havoc.

How To Persuade And Control College Students?

If Steve Hayward is right, the Chicago statements are too little, too late. In “Free Speech Is Not Enough,” he argues that the protesters are immune to appeals for the importance of free expression because that is an ideal they have discarded. In its place they have embraced the idea that America is so profoundly corrupt in so many ways that free speech is nothing more than another “tool of oppression.” In its place, they have put their peculiar idea of “social justice,” to be obtained by collective use of force.

Those who embrace this doctrine, formulated by the sixties Marxist Herbert Marcuse, cannot be persuaded or shamed to allow their opponents to speak. They mean to get their way by main force, or as they sometimes put it, “by any means necessary.” Hayward cites Stephen Carter’s essay, “The Ideology Behind Intolerant College Students,” as a fuller tracing of Marcuse’s influence.

The Marcusian ideology has been present in American higher education and on the leftist political fringe at a low dosage for decades. Angela Davis was a student of Marcuse. But Marcusian conceits are wrapped into the rationales of many violent leftist radicals who never sat in the philosophy professor’s classroom. Judith Clark, the getaway driver in the in the 1981 Brink’s armored car robbery in Rockland County, New York, in which a guard and two state troopers were murdered, went to prison unrepentant and convinced of the justice of her cause.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently commuted Clark’s 75-year sentence, making her eligible for parole. She may soon be on college campuses lecturing like her fellow Weather Underground terrorist and partner in the Brink’s robbery, Kathy Boudin, paroled in 2003 and now a professor at Columbia University.

The Marcusian Movement Has Led Us Here

The Marcusian movement has plenty of innocent blood on its hands. Bryan Burrough’s recent book, “Days of Rage,” which traces in detail the bombings and other attacks orchestrated by the Weather Underground and other such groups in the 1970s, is a helpful reminder of what happens when fully radicalized students carry their premises to their logical conclusions. What happens is lawless violence.

It isn’t just Marcuse’s ideas that are responsible for the close-mindedness of today’s student rioters. Harry Boyte points out that a generation of political organizing has accustomed students to hatred of opponents. Boyte says that millions of young people in the last two generations have been organized by groups such as Citizens for a Better Environment and the Public Interest Research Group to canvass—“paid staff going door to door on an issue, raising money, and collecting signatures.” The canvass trained them to hate their opponents:

Today’s generation has learned a Manichean formula for making change: find an enemy to demonize, use a script that defines the issue and portrays those on the other side in good-versus-evil terms, inflames emotion, and shuts down critical thought, and convey the idea that those championing the victims will come to the rescue. … the Manichean model of the canvass polarizes civic life and erodes our common citizenship, communicating politics as warfare.

PIRG and its cohorts provided the basic training; now their army is going to war.

In that sense, perhaps Stanger got off lightly. It is doubtful that the Middlebury thugs have thought through where their nihilistic doctrine will eventually take them. They are still thug-lets, enjoying the sensation of power that participation in a successful mob action has given them. For many of them, that sensation will wear off. But perhaps a few will continue down the path that leads to what Stanger says she saw in their eyes: dehumanization.

Perhaps Trustees Can Help Protect Free Speech

There are clearly many liberals, as well as others further to the political left, who see the dangers posed by a radical movement that rejects the principles of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression. One danger, in their eyes, is that the left’s near monopoly in higher education could be jeopardized if state legislatures started to take seriously the need the need to maintain fair-minded exchange of ideas on college campuses.

That movement has already begun in the form of model legislation put forward by Stanley Kurtz, James Manley, and Jonathan Butcher in connection with the Goldwater Institute. I’ve included some similar proposals to amend the Higher Education Act in the National Association of Scholar’s Freedom to Learn Amendments.

But liberals seem to be even more exercised by the direct danger to themselves and to all of higher education by a movement that avidly attacks the very basis of intellectual inquiry. The worry is sincere and, in many cases, eloquently expressed. But it is also a loose sail, flapping in the wind. Few of the worriers have proposed any practical solution. The University of Chicago Faculty Report on University Discipline for Disruptive Conduct comes closest. It at least provides a plan of action when protesters disrupt an event. It is, however, silent on the origins of those disruptions in an ideology that legitimizes the effort to silence opposing views.

Appointing a Wyatt Earp as campus president is unlikely to solve the problem. The faculty members who promote the Marcusian line and its variants are often tenured and will not change their ways.

What then? The best approach I’ve seen is Thomas Klingenstein’s idea of trustees creating their own committee on free expression to keep a closer eye on these developments. The trustees of a college have the power, should they choose to exercise it, to change the character of a campus culture. They seldom exercise that power, but Middlebury provides an exemplary case of why they should.