Whenever American civil society has been under great stress, if not, indeed, falling apart, self-appointed champions of the conventional wisdom and traditional values have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies to blame for the crisis.
In the 1690s, it was the witches, hysterical women and girls whom Puritans said had been taken by Satan. In the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, who were said by a presidential candidate to be besotted with “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” In every decade before and since then, it has been feral Negroes. In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds, and pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was American Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960sm, it was hippies, riotous blacks and traitorous opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 2001, it has been American Muslims and, in 2003, it was critics of the Iraq War.
Now a new cohort of crusaders has found a new internal enemy: coddled, petulant college students and some of their professors, who, we’re being told, are forcing university administrators to silence and punish others who exercise freedoms of inquiry and expression in ways that offend and hurt the complainers.
We’re also being told that these “cry-bullies” of “political correctness” are winning such protections by perpetrating what one of their supposed, much-ballyhooed, victims, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, calls a “creeping totalitarianism” on our nation’s campuses. They’re destroying the freedoms of expression and open inquiry that a liberal education should cultivate in students, not protect them against.
If this new paroxysm has a manifesto, it’s "The Coddling of the American Mind,” with a scarifying subtitle: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.”
It was written by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and Jonathan Haidt, a business psychologist at New York University and, like Lukianoff, an itinerant preacher of their jeremiad against over-protective parenting and pedagogy that, although neither man likes to say it explicitly, is “liberal” in the colloquial and pejorative sense of that term.
Literally millions of American college alumni have fallen for this account of where the threat to liberal education is coming from. The Atlantic rode the tidal wave of the 500k-plus shares that “The Coddling” yielded, following up with a videotaped conversation between Lukianoff and the magazine’s then-editor James Bennet (now the New York Times’ editorial-page editor); with brief accounts by Lukianoff and Haidt of how they’d come to write the essay; with an essay by Yale Child Psychologist Erika Christakis, who had become one of the FIRE’s supposed martyrs, silenced by rampaging hordes of the politically correct on the altar of free speech.
The more closely I’ve looked at this new “enemy” of free speech on campus, the more I’ve been drawn—and invite you to come along with me—to look at the self-professed defenders of individual rights in education who’ve been warning us about this scourge. Lukianoff has been a tactically brilliant point man for a larger, conservative campus campaign of which the FIRE is decidedly a part by virtue of its funding, many of its personnel, and, most importantly, its strategy and tactics.
I’ve begun this examination briefly today (Sept. 3, 2016) in the New York Times, but there’s only so much one can report in 900 words. So, here goes.
Lukianoff has been indefatigable, almost manic, rushing from the foundation’s lavishly appointed suites on Walnut Street in Philadelphia to campuses and green rooms across the country. Piously he brandishes First Amendment arguments to portray politically correct students and the administrators who indulge them as serious threats to open inquiry and expression.
But I, on the other hand, having witnessed the discrepancy between what the FIRE chose to highlight at one of those campuses, Yale, and what was actually going on there in a huge, college-wide reckoning with race and other matters, found Lukianoff to be more a propagandist and provocateur than a tribune of individual rights in education.
How Paroxysms Work
Let me say first that the more I’ve looked at crusades of this kind, the more I’ve been struck by similarities between this one and the earlier paroxysms I’ve mentioned:
- Always—and no matter whether the orchestrators of public spasms against internal traitors sound their alarms impulsively and demagogically or coolly and strategically, they get tons of support from less-talented and fortunate people who are frightened, too, by a sense that their society is unravelling. Witch-hunters, lynch-mobs, McCarthyite anti-Communists, white supremacist “militia” members, and cheerleaders and apologists in the media emerge in great numbers, out of nowhere, as the paroxysms approach their peaks.
- Always, these spasms of fear and loathing grip the public precisely when the conventional wisdom is unraveling on its own account, not because of any serious damage done to it by the groups being targeted. The scapegoating works because it diverts an increasingly nervous public’s attention from deeper, broader dangers that most people fear to face head-on—dangers inherent in the blunders and deceits of the conventional wisdom’s own champions, who most of us have a stake in believing and following at least some of the time.
So the crusaders and their followers find an almost seductive, even thrilling relief and release in assailing the more-vulnerable targets being presented to them. Some even find the prospect of naming, sighting, and punishing the enemy so thrilling that they go right out and join the hunt for prey that can be held up plausibly as proof of the disloyalty and danger: Sacco and Vanzetti as anarchists, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Jewish Communist spies, Willie Horton and O.J. Simpson as feral blacks, and so on. It works in the tawdry, predictable ways that leaders of these rituals understand only too well.
- Once a public paroxysm has been exposed to sunlight and has begun to subside, many people begin to regard its chief witch-hunters, commie hunters, and prurient scourges of decadent youth as more hysterical, sinister, and destructive of their own society than their scapegoated prey ever were.
That new clarity can prompt regret and even penitence among the scapegoaters. One Sunday in 1697, seven years after the last execution of a witch in Salem, Massachusetts, Judge Samuel Sewall, who'd presided over the trials, stood silently, head bowed, in Boston's Old South Meeting House as the pastor, Samuel Willard, read aloud a note from him confessing his "guilt contracted... at Salem" and desired "to take the blame and shame of it, asking... that God... would powerfully defend him against all temptations for Sin for the future...."
Senator Joe McCarthy never asked forgiveness for brandishing his largely fictitious lists of “Communists” in government and universities and for ruining so many lives and striking terror into many others, but he fell apart under scrutiny. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, hard-driving architect of a war in Vietnam that began with the largely fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident and continued with fraudulent warnings of danger to the Free World, confessed tearfully in “The Fog of War” that the war was undertaken with deceit and delusion. Republican political operative Lee Atwater, whose television ads hyping feral blacks helped cost Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis the 1988 election, begged forgiveness from African-Americans on his deathbed.
My reading of Greg Lukianoff, the new paroxysm’s ring-master, is that he’ll end up giving us a sad demonstration of the same. In the course of this essay, I’ll suggest several reasons why, and why the paroxysm about political correctness is doomed.
Principles vs. Provocations
In November 2015, Lukianoff was invited to Yale by Roger Kimball, chair of the board of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program there and a member of the board of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, one of the substantial funders of Lukianoff’s FIRE. Also inviting Lukianoff to Yale that day were Professor Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika Christakis, “free speech” crusaders who’d already hosted Lukianoff at Harvard when they’d taught there in 2013, when the FIRE named Harvard one of the ten worst colleges for free speech in America.
At Yale last November, Erika Christakis had just ignited a free-speech controversy with a public letter to students in which she criticized the university’s council of cultural-center advisors for cautioning against wearing culturally offensive Halloween costumes, such as those involving wearing blackface or feathered Native American headdresses. To Christakis, this was bureaucratic overreach, but hundreds of students signed an open letter condemning her for underestimating the sensitivities of those who might be offended.
I’ve described this controversy at some length on AlterNet, but it’s worth noting that all of these open letters affirmed everyone’s rights to free expression. As Matthew Frye Jacobson, a professor of American studies, history and African-American studies at Yale, told the New York Times, the FIRE’s spin, and the subsequent storm of media coverage, was “a complete misconstruction of what happened. The cultural affairs committee made its statement about Halloween costumes, The Christakises critiqued that; the students critiqued them. Then everyone in the world criticized the students. From beginning to end, it was never a matter of [suppressing] free speech.”
No one at Yale was censured or punished by any government agency or by any administrator, faculty committee or, as far as I know, any individual faculty member.
No one, at any time, demanded or even suggested that Erika Christakis stop teaching her popular course on early childhood education. At one point in the controversy, though, an angry, black-led student group, Next Yale, posted a list of demands on President Salovey’s door and others who confronted Nicholas Christakis in the courtyard at midnight, among them a demand that the Christakises be dismissed as heads of one of Yale’s residential colleges. That demand was echoed vituperatively by an immature student who yelled it right into Nicholas Christakis’ face in an open confrontation in the residential courtyard.
Salovey promptly reaffirmed his faith in the Christakises’ “deep dedication to undergraduates,” and the demand that they be dismissed as heads of their residential college died. But they took leaves of absence and cancelled their spring courses as their friend Lukianoff and the FIRE constructed and dramatized a false narrative, peddled by many in the media, casting Erika Christakis as a martyr to political correctness on the altar of free speech.
I’ve told the truth about that narrative before at AlterNet and won’t do it again in this essay. (In an address to Yale’s freshmen this year, President Peter Salovey, too, assailed what he called “false narratives” about freedom of speech at Yale and other colleges, although he didn’t mention any one by name.) Since then I’ve learned more about Lukianoff’s involvement in generating such narratives, and now is the time to share and assess it, the better to help today’s paroxysm wind down.
At the Buckley Program’s free-speech conference, Lukianoff delighted a pre-registered audience by quipping that, to hear recent student denunciations of Erika Christakis’ defense of the right to wear blackface and Native American headdresses on Halloween, “you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.”
According to a student who’d registered for the conference because he was interested in freedoms of speech but had no conservative preconceptions, the tone for the audience’s response had already been set by its mostly older, conservative Yale alumni members—decent, angry, somewhat clueless men whom the speakers engaged by preaching to the choir, their implicit message being that “We all know what we all know has happened to this college.”
By making “what has happened” explicit, Lukianoff’s quip prompted a burst of laughter that released a pent-up anger because his listeners were relieved to hear someone say what they, hemmed in by habitual decency or inhibition, had been afraid to say themselves.
But then a student who’d slipped into the audience without registering got up and demanded to know what was so funny about genocide. He put up some posters he’d been carrying around campus urging students to “stand with women of color.”
As he was escorted out by security, the other student I’ve mentioned posted Lukianoff’s remark about wiping out an Indian village on Facebook’s “Overheard at Yale” page, where it was read by some Native American students meeting elsewhere on campus. They and some others converged outside the conference, shouting, “Genocide is not a joke” and brandishing signs.
Apparently eager to face them was one of the alumni in the Buckley audience, Scott C. Johnston, Yale ’82, a self-described “conservative, data geek, blogger, adjunct professor, prediction-market maven.” With the air of a man finding what he’d come looking for, he’d leaned over to another alumnus as the lone student protester was leaving and said, “This isn’t over.”
Now, as the other protesters converged outside, Johnston leaned over again and said, "They're here." Who “they” were is explained on his blog, The Naked Dollar: “Out of curiosity,” he writes disingenuously (clearly, it was more than curiosity), “I went out to look. There were perhaps twenty students, in high dudgeon, trying to get in to disrupt the conference (did I mention it was about free speech?). I engaged them, which was probably silly. ‘Why are you here?’
"’We are Native Americans and you are talking about burning down Native American villages.’ (They looked about as Native American as Elizabeth Warren—were they appropriating a culture?)
"’You realize, right, that no one in there is advocating burning down villages, Native American or otherwise? That it was merely an analogy to describe something bad?’
“Apparently they did, but that didn't matter. We said the words, and that ‘trivialized’ genocide, and that was the offense. I said, ‘You do realize that you don't have the right not to be offended, right?’
“How wrong I was about that, I later reflected. That may be true,Constitutionally, but I was in a ‘safe space’ where these delicate orchids are protected from hearing unpleasant things. The right not to be offended now always trumps the right to free speech.”
Johnston’s observations so far are reasonable, or at least arguable. But soon they become the conservative “free speech” campaign’s oft-repeated talking points. As Johnston’s ideology and rhetoric got the best of him, he began to soar:
“Teachers are now widely afraid of their own liberal students, because the slightest slip—the absence of a trigger warning, for instance—can result in accusations of micro-aggressions, racism, sexism, cisgenderism, whateverism, and that can result in getting tossed from tenure track. The administrators who make these decisions are afraid of the students, too, because fundamentally, the left has become a mob, and mobs are dangerous. These are the bullies of our time.”
Johnston wasn’t soaring alone. His post went viral on conservative sites under headlines like “Regressive Liberalism,” and when Lukianoff appeared on Washington, DC’s Diane Rehm show, a listener posted this comment:
“Professors should tell these sensitive darlings to go pound sand if they don't like what they are hearing. What do they expect when they graduate and enter the real world of work, and find out their boss and co-workers don't give a darn about their 'feelings'? Or if they are discussing politics or sports around the coffee pot? And God forbid these babies ever read, or engage people on, this comment board. Microagressions galore! Their heads will explode!”
This is the language of white men who are nostalgic for youths they don’t clearly remember—they might wince to recall some of the things they did and said at 19. Some of them may be feeling marginal in their own country and are determined to do something about it—or to have somebody else do something about it. In "The Authoritarian Personality Revisited," Peter F. Gordon recalls Theodor Adorno’s and colleagues’ construction of “a distinctive attitudinal structure, called ‘authoritarianism,’ which consisted of nine characteristics,” including a “tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.”
Whatever the merits of categorizing personalities that way (Gordon questions them), Johnston displayed that tendency energetically, and Lukianoff soon gratified it even more when he and Nicholas Christakis, with whom he was staying while visiting Yale, walked out into the courtyard of Christakis’ residential college to meet a group of black and Latino students who were returning from a wrenching confrontation with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway.
It was then that one of the students, a roughly 20-year-old black woman, flushed with the anguish and excitement of the campus upheavals, instantiated anyone’s fantasy of a “cry-bully” by hurling imprecations into Christakis’s face, accusing him of failing “to create a place of comfort and home” and, in practically the same breath, shouting, “Who the f**k hired you?”
Video-cam at the ready, Lukianoff caught the outburst, which was posted quickly by Tucker Carlson’s conservative “The Daily Caller” website under a headline, "Meet the Privileged Yale Student Who Shrieked at Her Professor," with photos of her and her parents' suburban Connecticut home and a note about its $700,000-plus assessed value. Needless to say, the video went viral, bringing the student death threats that drove her to seek police protection and go into hiding.
The conservative free-speech campaign has drawn many other prurient scourges of the decadent young to prowl campuses seeking the thrill of sighting a specimen of the enemy who has become so vivid, so haunting, in their imaginations.
Chasing the specter, they can forget about the Iraq war, the 2008 financial meltdown, the mass killings, the road rage, the gladitorialization of sports, the degrading, ever-more intrusive marketing, and Donald Trump’s stampede through conventional herds of sacred political cows, all of these horrors discrediting the neo-liberal paradigm within which the hunters have lived and moved and had their beings. Finally, they can find a target.
Given its First Amendment absolutism, FIRE’s engagement with Yale was even more ironic, because no government official, university administrator, faculty committee, or, as far as I know, individual faculty member ever threatened or effectively chilled the Christakises’ or anyone else’s opportunity to speak and teach freely.
The only “threats” that the FIRE could cite—and did cite loudly and vividly enough to provoke more of them—came from the angry black students who posted their demands on Salovey’s door and confronted Nicholas Christakis in the courtyard. But should it really be so hard for Lukianoff and Johnston to imagine that a young black woman undergraduate, seeing an upsurge of racist violence and racist disenfranchisement tactics off campus, might cry out for the refuge, caring, and resources to reckon with injustice that her college’s own marketing promised her?
Of course, she shouldn’t be coddled but challenged to reconcile her overwrought perceptions with complex realities. But if any of her critics could pause to imagine how he might feel as a white student in a 93% non-white student body, on a campus most of whose custodial and dining hall staff were white and where most street crimes near campus were committed by whites, mightn’t he assess a few black students’ histrionic student reactions with a little more nuance and, frankly, a little more heart?
Instead, the calculated, viral distribution of the video of a confused and belligerent student made it hard to avoid the impression that a sick system is eating its young. Like Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca, the “free speech” campaign wants us to be “shocked, shocked” that some students are as intemperate as the Republican presidential nominee and that some colleges accommodate them.
If Lukianoff’s video was meant to correct the politically correct, it had the contradictory effect of chilling the freedoms of expression that the FIRE and Scott Johnston claim to defend even in highly offensive speech. (“You do realize that you don't have the right not to be offended, right?”, Johnston had said to the Native American students. And Erika Christakis, in her open letter on Halloween costumes, had asked, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”)
No, universities haven’t become places of censure and prohibition, at least not before Lukianoff took out his video-cam and used his own rights to shut down someone else’s, a good example of what the conservative “free speech” campaign is doing. That video and the angry Native American students were enough to make Johnston, like alumni of other colleges that have had similar demonstrations, some led by black and Latino students, decide to stop funding what they see as coddled undergraduates and weak-kneed administrators.
“This is not your daddy’s liberalism,” Johnston told the New York Times. “I don’t think anything has damaged Yale’s brand quite like that” video of the black student shouting at the professor.
A college has more than a brand. It has a mission to teach the young the arts and disciplines of open inquiry and democratic deliberation. That mission is sometimes compromised by immature students who disrupt civil discourse and violate other students’ rights, even while demonstrating against racism or sexual assault. Some professors do peddle propaganda and impose orthodoxies instead of stimulating free inquiry. Some deans do “guide” social life with rules that infantilize and tribunals that short-circuit due process. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights has bureaucratized such “guidance” in ways, beyond my scope here, that only make it easier to deny due process in order to advance feminist strictures. Political correctness can be dangerous if it dominates students’ politically and intellectually formative experiences.
But I, too, was at Yale last fall, teaching a political science seminar on “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy,” and although I saw “that video,” little else that I saw would have damaged Yale’s “brand” or liberal education’s mission had it not been so badly, willfully misrepresented. Hundreds of white students had their first intimate conversations about race with classmates of color. A thousand, of all colors, joined a vibrant campus “March of Resilience.” Another thousand convened in the chapel, where I saw them hear classmates and professors speak from their deepest humanity, without malevolence or duplicity. As the author of Liberal Racism and a journalist who lived among and wrote about angry black New Yorkers for years, I know gratuitous racial “theater” when I see it. I didn’t see much of it at Yale.
“I was disturbed by the discrepancies between what was actually happening on campus and how it was being portrayed in the media,” said one of my students, a young white man of classically “establishment” bearing. “It wasn’t exactly a protest. It was a moment of education. The entire campus was confronting collective emotions and challenges in a way I’d never experienced. It was beautiful. And it needed to be emotional—so it was."
Yet what many Americans know about such “moments of education” is what they’re being shown by a campaign that’s peddling antipathy and an ideology that condemns earnest, even if immature, students and protective administrators but that touts “free markets” as better guarantors of individual rights. Are they?
Morals and Dollars
“Our colleges and universities, though lavishly funded and granted every perquisite which a dynamic capitalist economy can offer, have become factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity,” thundered Roger Kimball, board chairman of the Yale Buckley Program, board member of the Sarah Scaife Foundation (one of the FIRE’s important funders), and author of "Re-taking the University—A Battle Plan" at a black-tie dinner the Buckley Program sponsored last year in New York’s Hotel Pierre.
But videotaping protesting students and putting others into tuxedos in elegant hotels can’t disguise the truth that the more market-driven a college, the more anxious it is to restrict free speech. Most deans and trustees serve not politically correct pieties but pressures to satisfy student “customers” and to avoid negative publicity, liability, and losses in “brand” or “market share.”
The campaign to deflect this reality began in 1951, when William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale urged alumni to roll back professors’ godless socialism. In 1953, Buckley helped found the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which trains students to counter “liberal” betrayals of “our nation's founding principles—limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy,... ideas that are rarely taught in your classroom.”
Again, though, universities are among the few places where “founding principles” are discussed often and rigorously enough to show that, in practice, some principles subvert others. For example, Lukianoff speaks often and everywhere of reinvigorating "the marketplace of ideas," but ideas in a university (and a healthy democracy) emerge from a culture of open inquiry and expression based in mutual respect, not market exchange values.
“You can't build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture," said Sam Tanenhaus, biographer of the American conservative icon Whittaker Chambers, now writing a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr., in a lecture in 2007 at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Tanenhaus’ observation about the tension between today’s capitalism and democratic or republican culture is anathema to the ultra-conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Family foundations, the Earhart, John Templeton, Koch-Brothers’ DonorsTrust (a conduit for donors for grants not made under their own names), and other foundations that sustain conservative think tanks like the AEI and a myriad of campus-targeting organizations—including FIRE, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The David Horowitz Freedom Center (whose “Academic Bill of Rights” would mandate more hiring of conservative faculty and would monitor professors’ syllabi for “balance”) and Campus Watch (which tracks and condemns liberal professors’ comments on the Middle East). These organizations stoke public anger against political correctness as a threat to academic freedom and to the free market economy that they keep insisting enhances it.
Their “free speech” campaign is really a culture war and a class war carried out on several fronts by a much larger network of organizations that are also funded by the very same foundations. The phrase “right wing” is thrown around so often that I was surprised to learn just how “right-wing” the funders of the FIRE and the other groups really are.
Harry Bradley was one of the original charter members of the far right-wing John Birch Society, along with another Birch Society board member, Fred Koch, the father of Koch Industries' billionaire brothers and owners, Charles and David Koch.
Richard Mellon Scaife, progenitor of the Scaife Family foundations, attended Deerfield Academy as a boy and got thrown out of Yale after a year. He developed a passion for advancing a conservative agenda and was an avid funder of efforts to impeach Bill Clinton. He wrote a check to FIRE for $150,000 in 2013, having donated similar amounts in 2012 and 2011, according to tax documents posted on the foundation's website. (He died in 2014, but the Sarah Scaife Foundation, with Roger Kimball on its board, continues his work, as do the other Scaife family foundations.)
The Bradley Foundation is one of the most aggressively, unapologetically racist grant-makers of any great substance in America. Not only did it help Charles Murray (with a $100,000 grant) to finish writing The Bell Curve when even conservative groups were distancing themselves from that project; in 2010 Bradley contributed $10,000 toward putting up voter suppression billboards in black neighborhoods of Milwaukee that depicted a black man behind bars above the message, “Voting Fraud is a Felony.”
But, even putting politically correct sensitivities aside in deference to First Amendment rights, there is something so thoughtless and clueless—or else subliminally provocative—in Lukianoff’s analogy to “wiping out an Indian village” quip and in the distribution of “that video” of the overwrought black student that one can’t help but wonder if he and his funders just slip opportunistically into targeting angry non-whites because that boosts their campaign’s appeal to people looking for scapegoats, or if they’re conscious racists themselves. You certainly don’t see many or any people of color holding any staff positions at the FIRE or in the other organizations in its network.
The foundation has won more than a million dollars from Bradley and half a million dollars from DonorsTrust, It had $7 million in revenue and $6 million in assets in June of 2015. Yet, basing its tax exemption on its commitments to addressing “censorship, freedom of speech, and press issues,” it deflects liberal and leftist criticism of its agenda by fighting draconian campus speech codes and other constraints on freedoms of expression. It has even defended Israel-bashers against some colleges’ efforts to silence their protests as anti-Semitic hate speech, because, as FIRE reminds us, the First Amendment protects it, at least in public universities.
Lukianoff has also gone somewhat out of his way to post appeals to “Stand Up for Global Academic Freedom,” saying that it’s “under threat across the world from Turkey to China to the USA.” With all due respect to slippery slopes, it’s more than a bit slippery to lump American university bureaucracies’ encroachments on academic freedom with draconian crackdowns by governments abroad.
Ironically, FIRE has been silent lately about David Horowitz’s efforts to get state legislatures to enact his “Academic Bill of Rights,” which would use government power to monitor and shape academic freedom, in clear violation of the First Amendment. Yet David French, Lukianoff’s predecessor as the FIRE’s president, supported Horowitz’s project in public testimony.
It’s characteristic of Lukianoff’s modus that he tells everyone he’s a liberal Democrat and that he worked at the American Civil Liberties Union. Never mind that he left the ACLU to lead the FIRE, whose grants come from the tightly linked conservative foundations I’ve mentioned. His boards of directors and advisors include well-known conservatives such as George Will and T. Kenneth Cribb, assistant for domestic affairs to President Ronald Reagan and a former president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The Yale Buckley Program’s Roger Kimball is on the board of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, one of FIRE’s chief funders, according to tax documents posted on the foundation's website.
Even Lukianoff’s big book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, was published in 2014 by the conservative Encounter Books, which has published books by Kimball, William Kristol, and others in the conservative network. Encounter Books has been given at least $6 million by the Bradley Foundation.
What kind of liberal Democrat builds his work around accepting such grants, obligations, and associations? This kind: Lukianoff, invited by The Atlantic to explain how he’d come to write “The Coddling of the American Mind,” chose to explain that:
“In the winter of 2007-'08, I slipped into a deep depression. I had struggled with bouts of depression my entire life, many of them quite severe, but this was in a category by itself. I could not shake the feeling that any mistake I made in my professional life—anything short of complete success—would mean ruin; nightmare scenarios played continually in my head.
“In January 2008, after I moved from Philadelphia to New York City to be surrounded by family and friends, I started seeing a therapist who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy, and began to turn a corner. I eventually learned to question irrationally negative thoughts about myself, the people I encountered, the future. Since then, my battles with depression have become winnable skirmishes.
“As I was learning to identify distortions in my own thinking, I began to recognize them in the thinking of others.”
Lukianoff then cites instances of distorted thinking in campus sensitivity exercises.
In his conversation with The Atlantic editor James Bennet about the “tidal wave” of public reaction to the “Coddling” essay, Lukianoff says that, “A response to the Atlantic that nearly brought me to tears because it was so beautiful” came from someone who’d lost a sister who’d jumped off a building. The survivor later took a class where a similar thing was described in a work of fiction. According to Lukianoff, she wrote him that because the professor had offered no “trigger warning” about the description of suicide, “It was the first time she had felt normal in years” for being “treated like everybody else.”
This brought Lukianoff to tears? Missing from FIRE’s campaign is candor not only about his motives and modus but about his claim that protests, however puerile, about matters such as trigger warnings and Halloween costumes constitute serious threats to open inquiry and expression.
Undoubtedly that’s true in some of the disputes FIRE has publicized and some of the very few legal cases it has actually taken up. But we need a distinction between, on the one hand, defending the First Amendment against all encroachments and, on the other hand, defending it selectively, as the FIRE does, for ideological, propagandistic, purposes that can only weaken a citizenry’s ability to be vigilant in protecting the First Amendment itself. Yes, the FIRE has publicized, and in some instances litigated, cases on behalf of “liberals,” Muslims, and others who aren’t white libertarians. But, under Lukianoff, those have served increasingly as protective coloration for a “free speech” crusade claiming that it’s mainly liberal coddling and progressive cry-bullying that are chilling individual rights education.
The creeping totalitarianism that the FIRE and its enthusiasts warn about is coming not from the kids but from the system they’ve grown up in—neoliberal, corporatist dispensation, with its manifold and metastasizing encroachments on individual rights, on campus and off.
The Real Enemy of Free Speech
When the FIRE and the larger conservative “free speech” campaign assail university administrators for curbing individual rights, they often wind up exposing but then fudging an inexorable reality: The more market-driven a college, the more anxious it is to restrict free speech, because most deans and trustees serve not politically correct pieties but market pressures to satisfy student “customers” and to avoid negative publicity, liability, and losses in “brand” or “market share.”
The real enemy of open inquiry and expression is the over-financialized, corrupt investment that the FIRE and its funders never question and, indeed, are out to defend.
Today’s capitalism would appall Adam Smith, and it can no longer vindicate the old saying that “Free markets make free men.” What conservatives keep calling “free markets” don’t accomplish that any more. But their champions can’t let go of their determination to reconcile their commitment to ordered liberty with their knee-jerk obeisance to market riptides that are dissolving republican virtues and sovereignty before their eyes.
For example, the FIRE applauds the Citizens United ruling’s extension of First Amendment-protection of political speech to business and other corporations’ shifting whorls of anonymous investors. “If flag-burning and nude dancing [are protected by the First Amendment], why can’t it protect robust speech?” asked Theodore Olsen, former solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration and counsel for the Citizens United plaintiffs.
His subtext: Let the lefties rant, as long as the fiduciaries of shifting whorls of anonymous corporate shareholders can drown them out with big, expensive megaphones while the lefties get laryngitis from straining to be heard. Money and speech are being equated here, both in the sense that money can buy hired speakers and blast them to millions and in the sense that money-making is permitted to “speak” in public deliberations about how to regulate money according to human, social standards that should transcend money itself.
Yet the Citizens United ruling says nothing about the speech rights of workers within the very corporations whose political “speech” the ruling protects. Irony of ironies, a lot of campus political correctness is only a dress rehearsal for conformity to what most business-corporate human-resources departments demand of employees these days. Yet while the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education assails private universities for restricting students’ individual rights, it would never support the creation of a Foundation for Individual Rights in Employment in private businesses.
The campaign’s legalistic strategy to defend speech rights (and gun rights) on campuses can only provoke its own “progressive” targets to join it in accelerating the transformation of cultures of dialogue and collegial contention into rhetorical battlefields, using propaganda and provocations—a strategy that risks destroying the village in order to save it.
That leaves even the most fair-minded, savvy university administrators in a quandary: “I have never felt I had an adequate handle on how to reconcile the need to protect free speech and the desire to have a decent, caring community on the campus,” former Harvard president Derek Bok told me, “My worst fear was encountering both a body of hypersensitive students and another group determined to provoke and anger the vulnerable in any way they could. Fortunately, that situation never arose, at least in that extreme form.”
Conservatives are making it arise right now. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten how to hear themselves think. If they really cared about individual rights in education, they’d have to start by recognizing that the right has been dining out on the follies of American “liberals” for so long that it has forgotten how to cook for itself and has abandoned the kitchen to Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, who’ve hi-jacked the “free speech” campaign with Trump’s own attacks on “political correctness” and with the Senate’s lockjaw against holding open hearings.
Shining the klieg lights of national media on hyper-sensitive students’ over-reactions to the collapse of public discourse and the bureaucratic coping strategies of their campus elders punishes not only the students themselves but also the “no strings-attached” alumni generosity that, like Scott Johnston’s past donations, shielded academic freedom from donors with narrower interests and ideological agendas.
Yet FIRE tells those alumni, “Your Alma Mater is Listening: What message are you sending?” and tells them horror stories about campus controversies. It even adds: “In addition to—or in lieu of—a gift to your school, consider a one-time or continuing gift to FIRE. Your contribution will go a long way toward fighting for the free speech rights and other civil liberties of all college students.” If that’s not a subversion of liberal education, what is?