Inside Every Liberal Is a Totalitarian Screaming to Get Out: The UC’s Assault on Academic Free Speech

The consequences of the Left's "long march" through higher education.

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a series of articles that will center on the Frontpage motto: “Inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out.” Each piece will examine recent examples of leftist overreach and expose the totalitarian mindset animating these excesses. To view the first article in the series on The Death of the Neighborhood, click here

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Since ancient Athens free speech has been at the heart of political freedom. “Free men have free tongues,” as Sophocles said, for freedom depended on citizens empowered to speak freely in the public deliberations about policy and the laws through which they governed. That’s why the Founders wrote the First Amendment, to prevent force from trumping law by silencing dissent. That’s also why the enemies of political freedom always try to destroy free speech.

Violence or force has been the usual instrument for controlling speech, whether by murder, torture, incarceration, burning books, or shutting down presses and Internet sites. Today a more subtle form of censorship is being practiced, especially in American universities. By succeeding in their “long march” through higher education, today’s progressive professors and administrators have created an academic environment, abetted by vaguely written anti-discrimination laws, that internalizes censorship through shaming, intimidation, and threats of legal sanction. The effect is the same as the more brutal techniques of totalitarian states: dissent is driven off campus, making it easier for progressives to indoctrinate and mold to their own ends the susceptible and undeveloped minds of students.

The University of California, which has nearly a quarter of a million students and a $27 billion budget, recently issued a document that illustrates the illiberal ideology that drives the university’s squelching of free speech. Entitled “Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages they Send,” the document originated with UC President Janet Napolitano, the one-time head of Homeland Security who had no experience as a university professor or even administrator before UC made her president. Thus it’s no surprise she would endorse practices that violate the central canon of academic freedom.

The “microagressions” the UC identifies are in fact ordinary, innocuous statements only the hypersensitive or neurotically insecure would turn into a racist or sexist “message.” “Where are you from or where were you born?” according to UC in fact means, “You are not a true American.” Asking a foreigner how to say something in his native tongue means “You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.” That one is particularly hypocritical, since the cult of multicultural diversity permeates the campus and ensures minorities remain “perpetual foreigners” by asserting the superiority of their “culture” over America’s. “Wow, how did you get to be so good in math” is code for “People of color are generally not as intelligent as Whites.” Given how innumerate most college students of any color are, this could be just a genuine plea for help.

Worse are the statements that once comprised the canon of the Civil Rights Movement, but are now considered “microagressions.” “When I look at you, I don’t see color” actually is the command to “Assimilate to the dominant culture.” So much for Martin Luther King’s dream that someday his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” “There is only one race, the human race”––a favorite of my black high school chemistry teacher–– and “I don’t believe in race” now really are messages “Denying the individual as a racial/cultural being.” No, they are denying that everybody is just a “racial/cultural being,” that an individual’s heart and mind are more important than the color of his skin or the culture of his antecedents. In short, these “microagressions” are objectionable because they challenge the illiberal multicultural orthodoxy that the collective wholly defines the individual.

Then there are true statements that progressives find offensive for ideological reasons. The historically demonstrable observation that “America is a melting pot” is now a way of “Denying the significance of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience and history.” Wrong: It’s a reminder that American identity is not predicated on “blood and soil,” but on fealty to the ideas of individual rights and political freedom enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the principles that create the national unum out of a myriad of ethnic and religious pluribus. To say “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job” is code for “People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race.” Of course, ignored is the fact that minorities are given “unfair benefits” based solely on their race. Just ask the thousands of Asians denied acceptance into Harvard. An Asian student has to have an SAT score 450 points higher than a black applicant’s, which means that a black applicant is indeed given a “benefit” of 450 SAT points based on his race.

Most egregious is the claim that saying “America is the land of opportunity” is really a slur against minorities, who “are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.” No, it’s a reminder that the equality of our political system is the equality of opportunity, not the equality of result. It is the chance for all to rise as far as their individual talents, virtues, and hard work can take them, what Plato calls “proportional equality,” which is “giving due measure to each according to nature.” But of course, the social and cultural determinism of the progressives loathes such equality, for they endorse a view of human nature that holds all people as absolutely equal. If they are not in fact equal, it’s because of unjust racist and sexist institutions that bestow “white privilege” and hinder minorities from succeeding. Tell that to the 12 million illegal aliens, most of them “people of color,” who risk their lives to reach what is in fact a “land of opportunity” compared to the countries they have left.

This fatuous document is obviously pandering to the diversity cult and the grievance industry. Such ideas anywhere are an embarrassment, but they are particularly shameful coming from the world’s largest system of advanced education. The university’s mission is supposed to be the creation of independent, critical minds trained as such by the exposure to what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically." The latter clause is an exact description of what today the progressive orthodoxy of our universities is training students to do––“follow staunchly but mechanically” progressive dogma.

Today’s campuses, then, have abandoned what once was known as “liberal education,” which Alan Bloom defined in terms that directly challenge the multicultural identity politics the UC document serves. “A liberal education,” Bloom wrote, “means precisely helping students to pose this question [what is a human] to themselves, to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serious life in which this question is not a continuous concern . . . Liberal education provides access to these alternatives [i.e. answers to the question], many of which go against the grain of our nature or our times. The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.” In contrast, the UC document bespeaks an ideology––multicultural identity politics–– in which the answer is “obvious,” “easy,” and “preferred,” and the “alternatives” that “go against the grain of our times” are attacked and censored.

Finally, the UC document inculcates self-censorship and obeisance to the progressive “easy and preferred answers,” which in turn requires imposing limits on free speech and censoring what Arnold called “the free play of the mind on all subjects.” For the ideal Bloom describes requires the university to be “the model of true openness” in which there is an “absence of legal constraints,” one necessary for the “freedom of the mind.” And in the end, that’s what academic freedom is supposed to serve: training people to have free minds so that political freedom can survive and flourish. The opposite sort of education, the one embodied in the UC document, is an instrument of totalitarianism––a “micro-totalitarianism,” as Thomas Sowell puts it, to be sure, but still an enemy of freedom in its assault on free speech and thought. For as Bloom points out, “The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable.”

That is the tyranny lurking behind the UC’s “microaggression” gospel. It’s not about protecting “snowflake” students who are so fragile that banal comments or opinions can send them scurrying like preschoolers into “safe rooms.” It’s about what totalitarianism is always about: the monopolization of power in order to reshape human nature for its own collectivist ends. It is scandalous that taxpayer funded universities, by acting as the enforcers of censorship rather than the promoters of free speech, should be the instruments of tyranny rather than the liberators of the mind.

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