Frary: The Academic Rot


My friend and fellow conservative M.D. Harmon wrote a June 13 column
in the Central Maine papers entitled “Something Rotten on Campus.”
This rot a growing hostility to over-free free speech, i.e., to speech
which escapes the ever-narrower boundaries set by prevailing leftist
opinion. The column’s description of campus free speech restrictions
draws on testimony from liberals, e.g., from several popular comedians
never associated with conservative views, to a liberal journalist
famous for explaining why he hated George W. Bush, and to a couple of
vulnerable liberal academics.

As it happens I am just now reading Kirsten Powers’ The Silencing. How
the Left is Killing Free Speech. Powers cites all the testimony quoted
by Mr. Harmon except for Jerry Seinfeld’s scornful remarks about ignorant
undergraduate parrot talk. Seinfeld spoke on the subject after Powers
finished her book.

The Columbia Journalism Review has called the author an “outspoken
liberal journalist.” She has written for such leftish outlets as and the American Prospect. Naturally the fact that Powers is
a Fox News commentator and has written for the Wall Street Journal and
the New York Post will discredit her in the eyes of some readers. They
will use those “unsavory” associations to blot out her attempt to
uphold what she was brought up to believe was the liberal position on
free speech.

In chapter one Powers describes a Fall 2014 Smith College alumnae
meeting in New York City which discussed free speech and the liberal
arts. Smith president Kathleen McCartney introduced a panel titled
“Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil
Discourse and the Liberal Arts” with some familiar remarks about
encouraging “fearless encounters with new ideas.”

Panelist Wendy Kaminer, a former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
board member and liberal advocate of First Amendment free speech
rights condemned academic speech codes designed to stifle language
which might make people uncomfortable. She criticized those who would
ban Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from the classroom because of the
racial epithets in its dialogues. Panelist Jaime Estrada objected that
“it has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.” Kaminer
replied “You all hear the n–ger in your head? See, I said that,
nothing horrible happened.” Estrada persisted, arguing that something
horrible happens inside the heads of some listeners. Nevertheless, the
discussion remained civil, and ended politely.

This is how the Mount Holyoke News later reported the encounter:
“Students, faculty, and alumnae of Smith College were shocked this
past week to find out that a Smith graduate made racist remarks when
speaking at an alumnae panel in New York City.” The college’s campus
newspaper, The Smith Sophian covered Kaminer’s outrageous attack on
African-Americans under this headline: “Backlash follows Use of Racial
Slur at NYC Panel.” The Sophian printed a transcript of the panel
discussion prefaced  by co-called trigger warnings. These are intended
to prepared tender minds for encounters with mean and nasty thoughts:
I quote in full.  “Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs,
ableist slurs, antisemitc language, anti-muslim/Islamophobic
sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence,
references to antisemitic violence.

Kirsten Powers found these warnings puzzling since the newspaper’s
censors created a gunless trigger by redacting every explosive word in
the text. She makes fun of the fact that at one point the transcript
has President McCartney saying “We’re just wild and [ableist slur]
aren’t we?’ The redacted ableist slur was “crazy.” “Crazy,” you see,
is used to stigmatize people as incompetent workplace liabilities
simply  because they think  they are Napoleons, or canaries, or
crystal paper-weights, or enlightened politically correct liberals.
Such stigmas are routinely used to deny people censorship jobs and
other forms of employment.

It’s hardly necessary to add that President McCartney paid a heavy
penalty for not immediately denouncing Kaminer for sounding out all
six letters in the dread n-word.  Some young idealist chalked “Impeach
Kathy” outside her home. Smith students donned black and observed a
moment of silence a moment of silence on the campus lawn. The silence
(oh blessed silence!) promptly gave way to a manifesto against
racialized violence, criminalization of black bodies, failed
institutional memory, microaggressions, and the vast and even
unnamable issues that “work against people of color every day.”

The Sophian’s opinion editor pointed out that McCartney had permitted
Kaminer to speak “uncensored,” allowing the meeting to turn into an
act of explicit racial violence.” The Social Justice and Equity
Committee ‘14-‘15 bleated that the president had “implicitly suggested
that hate speech was permissible at Smith.” She “failed in her
responsibility to speak up when another white person says something

In contrast, five hundred Colby College, most of them white, rallied
against hate on April 16. They were driven to this by an outbreak of
“Yik Yak hate.”  This thing called Yik Yak  to serve as a bulletin
board accessible to subscribers in a five-mile radius. Colby’s version
came alive with negative comments responding to a minor Colby Hate
Hating Festival about racial injustice and cops shooting unarmed
Blacks. Since this allows anonymity the protesters had no way of
knowing if the haters were white, apart from their conviction that
they themselves were not racist, or not very racist, or fighting
against their innate white  racism, or ashamed of their whiteness or

President David A. Greene acted decisively to immunize himself against
the accusations that have beset his liberal colleagues, Kaminer and
McCartney. He did not explicitly advocate censorship although he did
lay down the rule that  “Bigotry and targeted hatred have no place at
Colby.” His more subtle self-defense was to walk among the indignant
crowd to denounce himself for benefiting from societal attitudes about
race that give him, as a white man, privileges he did not earn,
telling them “I walk through TSA lines in airports without being
searched. I drive my car without fear of being stopped,” he wailed,
“I’m never followed in stores. Cabs stop for me when I hail them”, he
sniveled, “I never want to forget that the color of my skin, the size
of my wallet, shapes the way I see and I experience the world.”

I can offer David A. Greene my consoling reassurance that he shares
the countervailing contempt I instinctively confer on almost all
contemporary American college presidents. This is no great burden, but
it’s the best I can do.


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