American academics are rightly alarmed by the ascendance of the alt-right and its entrenchment in American politics. The alt-right includes nativists, conspiracists, isolationists, Putinists, white nationalists, and masculinists. The alt-right is pessimistic about the ability of people of different races and religions to live together, and is hostile to both legal and illegal immigrants. Alt-right websites warn against the dangers of miscegenation and criticize the pro-life movement as “dysgenic” because it encourages breeding by “the least intelligent and responsible” women.
But American academics have been slow to acknowledge how dependent the leaders of the alt-right are upon playbooks that they learned on university campuses. These leaders are not southern Klansmen. The president of the National Policy Institute graduated from the University of Chicago. The founder of American Renaissance graduated from Yale.
The Rise of Identity Politics
Over the past 50 years, universities have replaced the Enlightenment ideal of a common humanity with a vision of an America divided into warring races and classes. They have purged their schools of the Enlightenment liberals (“dead white males”) who trained earlier generations to defend universal values over tribal values.
Today, students on college campuses are much more likely to read identitarians like Lani Guinier and Marxists like Howard Zinn than to read John Locke, Adam Smith, and David Hume. In this environment, working-class white men have come to see themselves as an economically and politically marginalized tribe.
Had colleges and universities stood up for liberal concepts such as free speech and our common humanity, the alt-right would not have gained a foothold in our culture. Instead, our universities have become cesspools of identity politics, censorship, and moral relativism. For a generation now, American academics have been punishing any hint of identitarianism on the Right while defending even the most hateful tribal, identitarian movements on the Left. Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos writes, “It was this double standard, more than anything else, that gave rise to the alternative right. It’s also responsible, at least in part, for the rise of Donald Trump.”
Political correctness has trivialized the concepts of bigotry and racism so that they have lost much of their stigma. When a sombrero and tequila party can get you punished as a racist, then racism becomes a meaningless concept. Leftists who label Mitt Romney and John McCain as racists lose the moral authority to label anyone a racist. Activists who demonize white cis-gender men weaken the stigma against demonizing other groups.
The debasement of intellectual life in the American academy was demonstrated by a hoax that New York University physicist Alan Sokal performed on his colleagues in 1996. Sokal submitted an article entitled, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to Social Texts, a leading, peer-reviewed journal of cultural studies. His paper claimed gravity is merely a social construct, an instrument of phallocentric hegemony. Social Texts published the article, exposing its editors to national ridicule.
They “liked my article,” Socal explained, “because they liked its conclusion that the content and methodology of postmodern science . . . supports the progressive political project.” In the past 20 years, Sokal-inspired sting operations have succeeded in getting dozens of spoof articles published in dozens of leading academic journals.
Campus Assaults on Free Speech
Colleges and universities facilitate extremism when they promote illiberal and unconstitutional speech codes that punish students and faculty for controversial speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has compiled a list of 316 speakers who have been disinvited from college speaking engagements because some members of their communities have objected to their points of view. On the list of the disinvited are Condoleezza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christine Lagarde, John Brennan, Kathleen Parker, and Jason Riley. Talented comedians like Chris Rock no longer perform on college campuses because of the censorious campus culture.
In October, Yiannopoulos was disinvited from speeches he was to deliver at Columbia and New York universities because the universities feared attacks on LGBT and other minority groups. Yiannopoulos calls this rationale “garbage.” Yiannopoulos is openly gay, ethnically Jewish, and has never promoted violence. “The only person really at risk at any of my talks is me,” Yiannopoulos said.
In 2010, an Association of American Colleges and Universities survey found that only 16.7 percent of faculty members strongly agree with the statement that they “feel safe to hold unpopular views on campus.” Witch hunts against academics who express any kind of heterodox views have become routine on college campuses.
In February 2015, for example, Northwestern University’s feminist film professor Laura Kipnis wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing Title IX policies. The university subjected Kipnis to hours of grilling about her essay and the ideas underlying it. Kipnis was not permitted to have a lawyer present during her hearings, but she was allowed to have a colleague present. Kipnis chose Stephen Eisenman, the head of the Faculty Senate. When Eisenman told the Faculty Senate that he believed Kipnis’s investigation was a threat to academic freedom, Eisenman was brought up on charges of violating Title IX as well.
Kipnis wrote, “It is astounding how aggressive . . . assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years . . . Most academics I know— feminists, progressives, minorities, gays—live in fear of some classroom incident spiraling into professional disaster.”
In September 2016, NYU implemented a bias reporting hotline by which students can anonymously report professors and classmates for perceived speech offenses. NYU professor Michael Rectenwald writes that this turned “every classroom encounter into a potential infraction and figures students as Soviet-style monitors of ideological conformity.”
Shouting at People Isn’t Persuasive
This year, when students who support Donald Trump started chalking Trump’s name on campus sidewalks, schools responded by comparing the chalking to mass murder. At the University of California at San Diego, for example, the provost sent an email to students threatening the school’s “fullest sanctions” against the chalkers. Never mind that UCSD’s policies explicitly state chalking is permitted “on sidewalks of the university grounds that are exposed to weather elements.”
The Left’s tendency to shame and silence its opponents is ultimately self-defeating, “When has anyone been persuaded by being insulted or labelled?” British comedian Jonathan Pie says. “That’s why people wait until they are in the voting booth. No one is watching anymore. There’s no blame or shame, and you can finally say what you really think and that’s a powerful thing.”
If academics are concerned about the degraded state of American politics, they should begin engaging, debating, and discussing politics with their political opponents instead of setting up echo chambers where only progressive points of view are allowed. The American experiment in human liberty depends upon universities that transmit to future generations respect for free speech and open and honest debate. To sustain our republic, we need desperately to recover the healthy intellectual habit of learning from opinions that we find offensive. A people that ceases to educate in freedom will cease to live in freedom.