Nowadays, given what liberalism has become, I frequently reminisce about what it was when I was in high school in the 1950’s. The disparities are so glaring that it almost seems to be an entirely different belief system.
Back then, the ravages of World War II were fresh in the minds of my teachers. The Holocaust had touched the lives of many of those I knew and hence they were eager that we never repeat it. This meant that it was crucial we never emulate the Nazis.
One of the practices we students were specifically warned against was book burning. Hitler’s bullyboys had seized materials contrary to their beliefs and tossed them into roaring infernos. This was to make it plain that ideas hostile to National Socialism would not be tolerated. Beliefs associated with Judaism were explicitly forbidden.
This ritual horrified my instructors. They considered themselves intellectuals and cautioned that suppressing marginal thoughts was the express path to tyranny. If we were ever to learn the truth, we had to tolerate philosophies contrary to our own. This was the only way to compare opinions and figure out which were correct.
Fast forward to today. I am sure that contemporary liberals would also condemn book burning. They too would tell us that this is an anti-intellectual travesty that would set us squarely on the road to medieval superstition. Only reactionary troglodytes condoned any such thing.
And yet liberals are in the forefront of exactly this sort of behavior. Not long ago the political scientist Charles Murray was scheduled to give a talk at Middlebury College. He was going to discuss his recent book Coming Apart, which explains why middle and lower class Americans are dividing into antagonistic camps.
In fact, Murray never got to give his address. He was shouted down. For over an hour, a room full of young people booed and hissed. They called him vile names and were impervious to appeals to hear him out. They even jostled him physically when he attempted to leave.
These mostly students would, I am sure, have described themselves as “protestors.” They would also claim to be upholding their constitutional rights. The first amendment would subsequently be cited in support of this contention.
But let me quote from that amendment. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Is this what happened at Middlebury?
I submit that it was not peaceful protest. Nor were the perpetrators asking for a redress of grievances from the government. What occurred was that a mob abridged the freedom of speech of a scholar they loathed. Because they mistakenly believed him to be a racist, they refused to let him speak.
This was intimidation, not a defense of freedom. It was not intended to protect of a marketplace of ideas, but to engage in a fascist power play. Yes, I know that “fascist” has become an overused epithet. Those on the left are now remarkably fond of characterizing conservatives in this way.
Nonetheless, look at what took place. This was an updated version of book burning. It was an exercise in using violence to shut down free speech. We should all be terrified, not only of what occurred, but that it was justified in the name of moral principles.
Left wing activists claim to be compassionate. They tell us they are seeking to protect the downtrodden. But then again, Hitler told us he was protecting the much maligned German people from oppression. Was his, however, the best way to go about it?
Murray is pessimistic about what this trend portends. He has a right to be frightened. I am sure that those who hate him for the supposedly racist things he once wrote in the Bell Curve never read the book. It was over twenty chapters long, but they so fixated on one small piece of a single chapter that they rejected the whole out of hand.
Is this what intellectualism has become? Is this type of intolerance what we transmit to the young in what is euphemistically called “higher education?” If it is the new normal, our civilization is in grave jeopardy.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University