Universities, once supposedly the great centers of American “liberalism,” have spent decades working their way toward becoming totalitarian monocultures in which only one approved set of political opinions is tolerated. And now they have arrived at their goal.
Last week at Emory University in Atlanta, person or persons unknown went around campus late one night chalking messages on sidewalks in support of Donald Trump for president. It’s an example of perfectly normal campus political activity during an election year, except that there is no such thing as normal life on a contemporary campus any more.
The usual suspects went berserk, with a coterie of protesters marching on the administration building and demanding a meeting with the university’s president, James Wagner, and that he denounce Trump and any pro-Trump students. As one protester complained, Trump “is being supported by students on our campus and our administration shows that they, by their silence, support it as well.” Another declared that the administration is “supporting this rhetoric by not ending it.” Nothing less than full censorship will purge the university of the stain of Trumpism.
Instead of giving these students a good talking to about freedom of speech and the need to toughen up and get used to a world in which other people don’t share their political opinions, Wagner issued a pathetically mealy-mouthed statement, including this great evasion: “During our conversation, they voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation. … [T]he students with whom I spoke heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.” He talks about what they “perceived” or the message they “heard,” without evaluating whether any of it was rational or defensible.
It’s pretty obvious what’s wrong with all of this, and the Emory protesters were subjected to fairly widespread ridicule, including from many on the left. The universality of the reaction indicates, thankfully, that we don’t need to waste a lot of time bothering to examine why the student protesters’ reaction is hysterical and illiberal. It is a commentary on the state of mainstream “liberalism,” however, that some people have felt the need to spill a lot of electrons parsing it out in excruciating detail, as if it were a deep and difficult question.
Which brings us to the only really interesting question: if this is so obviously ridiculous, why did it happen?
Take a look at the protesters’ main line of attack. Aiming their protest at the university administration, they shouted, “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!” And then consider Wagner’s response, which amounts to declaring that any feelings his students have must be automatically valid because they have them. (Or rather, any feelings they have are valid, if they represent the right campus pressure groups.)
All of this is exactly the template established last fall at the University of Missouri and Yale. At Mizzou, protesters got a university president fired for failing to grovel to them quickly enough; at Yale, they got a university official demoted for daring to mention such outrageous concepts as freedom of speech, tolerance of opposing views, and the university as an “intellectual space.”
If you want to know why Emory’s president didn’t shoot the protesters down immediately and give them a lecture about toughening up, that’s all you need to know. Student protesters on other campuses have already made an example of those who don’t kowtow to their will, and administrators know that when this happens, nobody is going to stand up for them.
Check out a cross-section of the reaction among Emory administrators, and see what I mean. It’s easy to laugh at the “special snowflakes” who whine about being traumatized by chalk. But there’s still some hope for these kids. Someday they will no longer be 19 years old, and many of them will go out into the real world and have a chance to grow up and learn better. What is not a joke is all the 50-year-old administrators who take the 19-year-olds seriously, and the grizzled professors who taught them whole theories about how the political speech of others is a threat that must be expunged.
And there’s one new twist that Emory gives us:
The University will review footage “up by the hospital [from] security cameras” to identify those who made the chalkings, Wagner told the protesters. He also added that if they’re students, they will go through the conduct violation process, while if they are from outside of the University, trespassing charges will be pressed.
It’s official: the campus is now a one-party surveillance state. If you support the wrong political candidate, the security apparatus of the university will be harnessed to unmask you and prosecute you for hooliganism. University totalitarianism has arrived.
As my readers know, I have no love for Trump or what he represents, and the most disturbing part of this story is how it fits into a wider story about the sick symbiosis developing between the authoritarian strains on both sides. If Trump wants to be a strongman threatening unfriendly newspapers with libel laws reshaped to make criticism of him a crime, then these campus protesters are the flip side. It reminds me of the way leftist protesters have begun targeting Trump rallies, deliberately baiting the sucker-punching brutes who are there to support Trump. This is happening because each side wants to be fighting the other, because the existence of the bad guys on the other side can be used to justify their own bad behavior.
But the universities have a 50-year head start in their slide into totalitarianism, and they have just taken a big leap downward in this race to the bottom.
Follow Robert on Twitter.