A great strength of our country is that most vital debates concern freedom: its uses and abuses, efforts to limit and expand it.
So it is with the racially charged unrest that has erupted on college campuses, most recently at the University of Missouri. Those events – and similar instances at other schools and communities across the country – are both hopeful and disturbing. They reflect the flowering of freedom and powerful efforts to suppress it.
First, the good news. The African-American-led protests at the University of Missouri, which spurred the system president to resign amid accusations of insensitivity and foot dragging in response to racial incidents, contain hopeful signs.
This can be hard to see unless the protests are connected to other developments, especially the national Black Lives Matter movement and debates over the Confederate symbols across North Carolina and the South. At the heart of these controversies – which involve many gnarly, hard to resolve questions – is the empowerment of long dampened voices and perspectives.
Many citizens, especially African-Americans, have been troubled for decades by the place of pride given to symbols of the Lost Cause and the often contentious relationship between the police and minority communities.
Until a series of shootings – including of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and worshipers in Charleston – their perspectives were downplayed or dismissed by the larger society.
Role of social media
Thanks in part to the rise of social media, which allow more people to more freely express and broadcast their views, and to cultural trends that have made more Americans receptive to them, their voices are being heard.
Because change is hard, some are discomfited by this. But, in the big picture, laying aside whether one agrees or disagrees with their views, it reflects a vibrant democracy. It also belies claims that our politics are ruthlessly controlled by a Citizens United-fueled oligarchy.
Unfortunately, this flowering of freedom is occurring as broad forces strive to strangle speech. Ironically, college campuses are also Ground Zero for the growing intolerance seeking to muzzle the free flow of ideas.
The parade of horribles has been building for years. Recent additions include the growing movement by students, including at Duke, to cancel speeches by mainstream figures with whom they disagree; the University of Missouri communications professor who called for “muscle” to “get this reporter out of here” as he tried to cover the protests; the Yale student embroiled in a racially charged dispute who wrote, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
The student newspaper at my alma mater, Wesleyan University, had its funding cut by more than half by the student government after it ran a banal opinion column questioning the attitude of the Black Lives Matter movement toward police. This followed an abject front page apology by the paper’s editors for committing the sin of journalism.
A headline of a recent article on the liberal website Vox captured this chilling atmosphere: “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.”
But that headline is not entirely accurate. The assault on free speech is not happening just on campuses and it is not being perpetrated by liberals. It reveals, instead, the rise of the left in America.
Classic liberalism arose in opposition to the aristocracy and other forms of entrenched power. It sought to empower individuals by offering protections – including freedom of assembly and speech – against oppressive forces that demanded conformity in the name of king and country.
Leftists also speak of freedom, but it is in the context of what their leaders decide is best for the group. They see robust debate that questions their methods and aims as a threat. This is why every Marxist government has turned to thuggery and repression.
College campuses are incubators of the leftist thought that is becoming more prevalent in elite circles in America. We also see evidence of this every day in newspaper editorials and columns that do not seek to engage but to delegitimize opposing viewpoints. They brand opposing ideas as ridiculous and absurd, rather than incorrect; they cast those who offer them as racist and corrupt rather than misguided. How can you engage such folks?
These are not the tactics of true liberals. Instead of embracing freedom, they are betraying it.
Freedom will prevail, but it cannot be taken for granted. It must be secured by each generation.
J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@ jpederzane.com.