Cancel culture is successful because of two basic assumptions. One is that all enlightened people within a certain community believe in the same things and that anyone who disagrees with any of the current leftist orthodoxies about politics, race, or sex is a heretic who must be shunned, shamed, and driven out of polite society. The other is that the cultural consensus is so strong that no individual or group of individuals can resist it.
Armed with these factors, outrage mobs — particularly on college campuses — are generally able to overwhelm their victims without too much trouble. All it usually takes is an accusation, a circulated letter, or a demonstration of some sort, and the woke usually get their way. Fearful lest they become the next targets to be labeled as racists, transphobes (or, even worse, Trump supporters), most university administrators obey the cancel mob and punish whoever has been deemed to have stepped out of line.
That’s not the way it went at Stanford University last month, however. There, a recent virtual meeting of the Faculty Senate devoted to an auto-da-fe of three prominent conservatives and the Hoover Institution that shelters them did not produce the desired results. Despite a months-long campaign of demonization directed at Victor Davis Hanson, Niall Ferguson, and Scott Atlas — amplified with support from The Stanford Daily — the assault ended without condemnation of the trio or Hoover.
Stanford Provost Persis Drell and Condoleezza Rice, one of Hoover’s directors, were asked to present a report to the body later this year about “increasing interaction” between the university and the think tank. This outcome was far from what the outrage mob at Stanford wanted, and likely won’t be the end of the assault on Hoover. Still, it is discouraging to the group of professors who organized the effort to censor Hanson, Ferguson, and Atlas and to drive Hoover out of Stanford.
Cold Comfort for Most Conservatives
As much as this is a rare victory for rationality over woke culture, any satisfaction at this outcome should be tempered by an understanding of the exceptional nature of the circumstances. This story isn’t a victory for academic freedom over the forces of groupthink repression. Rather, it’s a demonstration of the vulnerability of the vast majority of scholars who dissent from leftist orthodoxy and aren’t ensconced in a well-funded independent institution.
The presentation attacking Hanson, Ferguson, and Atlas from four Stanford professors is a compendium of baseless accusations about the “ideological rigidity” and “partisanship” of its target. It is long on irony and short on rigorous thinking. Although they claim to be defending academic freedom, the accusers’ document amounts to an indictment of Hoover for fostering scholars who disagree with the rigid leftist groupthink of Stanford.
While the accusers claim to have nothing against opposing views, that they seem to think disagreement with leftist conventional wisdom on any topic is inherently unscholarly and should be denied the imprimatur of a Stanford address. Indeed, they are either unable or unwilling to see that their complaints show their rigidity and partisanship.
‘Conformity and Intimidation’
Hanson, Ferguson, and Atlas have written a spirited defense of their conduct that constitutes an important statement defending freedom of speech. Rightly, their article denounces the quartet of professors who attacked them for demonstrating the “stale breath of conformity and intimidation” that permeates the Stanford campus.
The claim that Hanson, a renowned classicist and respected columnist, had written articles that “form the backdrop to an insurrection” as well as to an assault on “constitutional democracy” is laughable. He raised reasonable concerns about the integrity of the election results and associated issues.
The attack on him is a piece of rank partisanship that illustrates the desire of many on the left to brand anyone who raises questions about the current administration’s policies as an “insurrectionist.” Rather than seek to defend democracy, the goal is to silence opposition.
Ferguson is accused of intimidating left-wing students, but the true story is very different. All he was guilty of doing was attempting to promote an open discussion of issues on Stanford and to oppose students who wished to silence that effort.
Atlas’s crime was to raise well-founded doubts about the efficacy of lockdowns as a coronavirus response. Worse than that, he advised the Trump White House, which opened him up to outrageous and utterly unscholarly claims that he was responsible for the deaths of COVID-19 victims. Delegitimizing him and his analysis of the coronavirus disaster was a matter of treating all those who have any connection with the Trump administration as criminals, something that could only be accomplished by blatant misrepresentations of his views and statements.
In a different academic setting, any one of these charges would have been enough to finish the accused. But not at Stanford.
The Hoover Institution, initially founded in 1919 as a library by Stanford alumnus Herbert Hoover —a titan of business and philanthropy and a future president — has a $450 million endowment and a $50 million annual budget. Although part of the university, it has an independent board of overseers, giving it the independence it needs to be a rare academic source of thought and inquiry. While the conservatism of its scholars makes it an outlier at Stanford and academia, as one of the world’s most prestigious think tanks, it’s an important asset to the university.
A Rare, Atypical Victory
Thus, it was unsurprising that university officials had no sympathy for efforts to purge Hoover from their campus and spoke to this effect before the Faculty Senate. That left Hoover’s opponents decrying their failure as a “tragic day.”
Their arguments against Hoover scholars and the claim that colleges are to blame for an “insurrection” because they have not been even more uniformly dedicated to delegitimizing the Trump administration is risible. But they’re right to describe their failure as a function of the desire of the Stanford administration not to drive the Hoover Institution away from its home in Palo Alto.
Absent the kind of financial protection and the independence that Hoover offers scholars, they wouldn’t stand a chance of keeping their places in almost any other academic setting. The almost uniform intolerance for conservative views in academia is not in question.
But in recent years this totalitarian spirit has spread from the academy to the rest of society. Woke mobs in newsrooms like those of The New York Times and Politico now play the same role as university senates and student protest movements with even more ruthless dedication to silencing opponents, with even more success.
The result is a growing bifurcation of the press, with only avowedly conservative media being a safe place for those who question modern leftist orthodoxy. Similarly, only conservative think tanks provide opportunities for a range of dissident thinkers.
Rather than celebrating the victory of the Hoover scholars over those who have done so much to defame them on the Stanford campus, this story only further highlights how isolated conservatives are in the academy. The effort to promote genuine diversity of opinion on campuses that don’t have well-funded enclaves like Hoover remains a forlorn hope.