2015: The Year of Self-Criticism for Leftist Speech Codes?

The New Left's monstrous movement turns on its own -- but it may be too late to reverse course.

In 2015, leftists in the media and academia began criticizing the leftist mobs seeking to shut them down.  Kirsten Powers, the left-of-center commentator at Fox News, came out with a book titled, The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech

Northwestern University film professor Laura Kipnis, after being slapped with a Title IX lawsuit for her essaySexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” made it to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “2015 Influence List.” The 1972 law was intended to protect against sexual discrimination and misconduct.  Kipnis’s crime was to criticize new consensual-relations codes governing professor-student dating.  For opining that the codes infantilized students and increased the power of administrators, she was accused of creating a hostile environment and was greeted by mattress-carrying protestors (following Columbia art student, Emma Sulkowicz who claimed an ex-boyfriend raped her).

After the kangaroo court proceedings, Kipnis wrote “My Title IX Inquisition” for the Chronicle, expressing surprise that students would protest someone like herself, a feminist who hadn’t sexually assaulted anyone.  Kipnis had assumed that “academic freedom would prevail.”

“The whole thing seemed symbolically incoherent,” she mused, claiming that most of her academic colleagues, including “feminists, progressives, minorities, and those who identify as gay or queer,” live “in fear of some classroom incident spiraling into professional disaster.”

This rang true.  A piece in Vox titled “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Students Terrify Me” by an anonymous professor had gone viral.

Kipnis noted, “It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years. Emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.”

Todd Gitlin, proud veteran leader of the 1960s “youth movement,” also criticized the youth, after some students at Columbia had proposed that syllabi contain “trigger warnings.”   He told them “You Are Here to Be Disturbed.”  By “here” he meant the college classroom, a place where many veterans of the 1960s campus takeovers found themselves comfortably ensconced with tenure.  Gitlin himself is at Columbia.  In character with those of his generation, he referred back to the “changes for good” they had instituted, including recognizing that speech acts can lead to a hostile environment and accordingly changing word usage, for example, replacing “girl” with “woman,” and “Negro” with “African-American.”  But, Gitlin warned, that does not justify “censorious policy.” 

Kirsten Powers, who was born at the height of the “youth movement,” in 1969, believes the grizzled veterans, and writes, “While watching the illiberal left in action, it’s easy to forget that it was the political left that championed free speech in America.  During the Vietnam War era, the targeting of left-wing anti-war activists at the University of California-Berkeley for their dissent launched what came to be known as ‘The Free Speech Movement.’”    

Powers takes the self-defined “free speech movement” at Berkeley as true to its name,  perpetuating myths promulgated in school lessons and in the media—by veterans of the movement, Todd Gitlin, being one of the most influential.  What we are seeing today as we close out 2015 with the forced or attempted ouster of insufficiently politically correct faculty and administrators, is a continuation of the policies of the 1960s New Left.

“Silencing” is in the DNA of the New Left and its progeny, today’s student protestors.

Mario Savio, the Berkeley student credited with beginning the free speech movement, admitted that the issue of “free speech” was a “pretext” to “arouse the students against the existing role of the university.”  That existing role is the search for truth through reasoned debate and evidence, and the appreciation for higher and beautiful things. 

The acquiescence to Savio’s demands to use university space for political mobilizing led to waves of student protests.  But “debates” were conducted through bullhorns.  Negotiations were conducted by commandeering buildings and taking hostages.  Scientific labs and scholarly papers were destroyed.  People were hurt, sometimes killed.     

The goal was to subvert the academy, and its methods, and make it into an adjunct for activism.  Todd Gitlin easily segued from leader of the largest student activist group, SDS, to teaching a self-glorifying history of the SDS.  History professor Howard Zinn did the same.  Today, City University history professor Angus Johnston describes himself as both a “historian and advocate of American student organizing.” 

In his recent article in the Chronicle, “Student Protests, Then and Now,” Johnston attributes the resurgence of student protest to racial discrimination, sexual assault and harassment, and rising tuition and debt.  He and the student protestors, however, give little empirical evidence of discrimination or harassment.  He states, “The origins of today’s student complaints are deep and in many cases intractable, and the more accustomed activists become to protesting, the more readily they will mobilize in response to new provocation.”  Indeed.

It is a wonder that left-wing professors should complain now that their intellectual progeny have turned the p.c. microscope on them, and increasing its magnification. 

The tenured leftists ignored or disparaged warnings of those like New York University Philosophy Professor Sidney Hook, who wrote in 1968, “If the university is conceived as an agency of action to transform society in behalf of a cause, no matter how exalted, it loses its relative autonomy, imperils both its independence and objectivity, and subjects itself to retaliatory curbs and controls on the part of society on whose support and largesse it ultimately depends.”   

Hook, in that same article, stated a truth that few dare utter today: “it is preposterous for callow and immature adolescents who presumably have come to the university to get an education to set themselves up as authorities on what research by their teachers is educationally permissible.” Yet, many of the 1960s student protestors retain their youthful arrogance into old age.   

One of these is Mark Rudd, leader of the Columbia takeover in 1968, co-founder of the terroristic SDS offshoot group Weatherman, and retired math professor.

 Writing in his 2009 memoir, Underground: My Life in SDS and the Weathermen, the then 61-year-old Rudd sees nothing wrong with his actions as an undergraduate student who refused to listen to professors who were refugees from Nazi Germany.  They pled for free speech as students planned to block CIA recruiters on campus.  Believing in the “’neutral’ and ‘objective’ character of the university,” the refugees “identified SDS’s antiwar activities with the actions of Nazi students at German universities in the thirties.”  

Rudd recounts, “This was a frightening image, even to us in SDS.  ‘What if every small group had the power to silence whomever they wanted—such as you?’ asked the old liberals.  ‘Isn’t there an absolute right to free speech?’” 

Rudd, however, aligns CIA recruiters with the Nazi SS, citing the Nuremberg Trials that “established that it is the legal and moral responsibility of the individual not to comply with orders that constitute war crimes.”  Blazing forward with the false analogy, Rudd bars further discussion.  The intervening decades have brought him no enlightenment or humility.

Like many of his generation, Rudd spent his career proselytizing to the young, captive audiences in his classroom.  He brags about it in his memoir.  His website features photos of his 1968 mug shot and the Columbia takeover, and description of his work organizing student activists for environmental justice, unionization, and Palestinian rights, and against “war and militarization.”

The eight-day occupation of Columbia University was repeated metaphorically in faculty votes in the ensuing decades. As dissenting professors like Sidney Hook retired they were replaced by hires who put up barricades to traditionalists. They even held workshops on how to get past the old “mossbacks” on hiring committees.  I experienced this as a graduate student at the University of Georgia in the 1990s.  The Chronicle of Higher Education gave space in the 1980s and 1990s to “Ms. Mentor” for a column in which she advised aspiring feminist academics on how to get through the academic gates with subterfuge that ranged from altering modes of dress to scholarly papers.  As a result, the humanities have been transformed.  History specialization that focuses on the environment, gender, and sexuality predominates.  My field, English, is now an auxiliary for gender and ethnic studies.

Ironically, on the Chronicle’s “influential list,” next to Kipnis, are such notables as “Trigger-Warning Catalyst” Bailey Loverin, “Sexism Fighter: Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett,” and “Silence Breaker: Concerned Student 1950.”  The last is a group that used megaphones to make “demands” at the University of Missouri, which spurred a nationwide rash of similar “demands,” so far at 73 campuses.  They forced out the president.  The clenched fist is their symbol.    

I must admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude as I read about leftist professors and administrators being in fear of their students.  As a traditionalist and an adjunct professor, I lived in fear too—of department chairs and administrators.  These fears proved real, when I was told no classes were available for me, after my dissenting views became known to higher-ups.   

In contrast, Kipnis, rather than losing her job, received kudos from fellow liberals. Conservative outlets came to her defense.  It was a conservative publishing house, Regnery, that published Kirsten Powers’ book.   

But without fundamental changes, we can expect to see more inquisitions.  Another inquisition is underway against Harvard University professors for daring to question the accuracy of a documentary about rape on campus.  But I wonder: Will liberal academics defend the free speech of conservatives and allow them on campuses? 

Or will the mobs of “callow and immature students” finally shut down the little fiefdoms that leftist academics have carved out for themselves?  I would not be sad about that.

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