Here’s the latest in the assault on liberal democracy. It happened more than a week ago, but I cannot get it out of my consciousness. A group of conservative students at Middlebury College in Vermont invited the highly controversial author Charles Murray to speak on campus about his latest book, Coming Apart. His talk was shut down by organized chanting in its original venue, and disrupted when it was shifted to a nearby room and livestreamed. When Murray and his faculty interlocutor, Allison Stanger, then left to go to their car, they were surrounded by a mob, which tried to stop them leaving the campus. Someone in the melee grabbed Stanger by the hair and twisted her neck so badly she had to go to the emergency room (she is still suffering from a concussion). After they escaped, their dinner at a local restaurant was crashed by the same mob, and they had to go out of town to eat.
None of this is very surprising, given the current atmosphere on most American campuses. And protests against Murray are completely legitimate. The book he co-authored with Harvard professor Richard Herrnstein more than 20 years ago, The Bell Curve, included a chapter on empirical data showing variations in the largely overlapping bell curves of IQ scores between racial groups. Their provocation was to assign these differences to both the environment and genetics. The genetic aspect could be and was exploited by racists and bigots.
I don’t think that chapter was necessary for the book’s arguments, but I do believe in the right of good-faith scholars to publish data — as well as the right of others to object, critique, and debunk. If the protesters at Middlebury had protested and disrupted the event for a period of time, and then let it continue, I’d be highly sympathetic, even though race and IQ were not the subject of Murray’s talk. If they’d challenged the data or the arguments of the book, I’d be delighted. But this, alas, is not what they did. (I should add up-front that I am friends with both Murray and Stanger — having edited a symposium on The Bell Curve in The New Republic over two decades ago, and having known Allison since we were both grad students in government at Harvard.)
But what grabbed me was the deeply disturbing 40-minute video of the event, posted on YouTube. It brings the incident to life in a way words cannot. At around the 19-minute mark, the students explained why they shut down the talk, and it helped clarify for me what exactly the meaning of “intersectionality” is.
“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. At least, that’s my best attempt to define it briefly. But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.
It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.
Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.
It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.
And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged. Then they recite a common liturgy in unison from sheets of paper. Here’s how they begin: “This is not respectful discourse, or a debate about free speech. These are not ideas that can be fairly debated, it is not ‘representative’ of the other side to give a platform to such dangerous ideologies. There is not a potential for an equal exchange of ideas.” They never specify which of Murray’s ideas they are referring to. Nor do they explain why a lecture on a recent book about social inequality cannot be a “respectful discourse.” The speaker is open to questions and there is a faculty member onstage to engage him afterward. She came prepared with tough questions forwarded from specialists in the field. And yet: “We … cannot engage fully with Charles Murray, while he is known for readily quoting himself. Because of that, we see this talk as hate speech.” They know this before a single word of the speech has been spoken.
Then this: “Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact.’” This, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the question — not that the students shut down a speech, but why they did. I do not doubt their good intentions. But, in a strange echo of the Trumpian right, they are insisting on the superiority of their orthodoxy to “facts.” They are hostile, like all fundamentalists, to science, because it might counter doctrine. And they shut down the event because intersectionality rejects the entire idea of free debate, science, or truth independent of white male power. At the end of this part of the ceremony, an individual therefore shouts: “Who is the enemy?” And the congregation responds: “White supremacy!”
They then expel the heretic in a unified chant: “Hey hey, ho ho! Charles Murray has got to go.” Then: “Racist, Sexist, Anti-gay. Charles Murray, Go away!” Murray’s old work on IQ demonstrates no meaningful difference between men and women, and Murray has long supported marriage equality. He passionately opposes eugenics. He’s a libertarian. But none of that matters. Intersectionality, remember? If you’re deemed a sinner on one count, you are a sinner on them all. If you think that race may be both a social construction and related to genetics, your claim to science is just another form of oppression. It is indeed hate speech. At a later moment, the students start clapping in unison, and you can feel the hysteria rising, as the chants grow louder. “Your message is hatred. We will not tolerate it!” The final climactic chant is “Shut it down! Shut it down!” It feels like something out of The Crucible. Most of the students have never read a word of Murray’s — and many professors who supported the shutdown admitted as much. But the intersectional zeal is so great he must be banished — even to the point of physical violence.
This matters, it seems to me, because reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy. We need a common discourse to deliberate. We need facts independent of anyone’s ideology or political side, if we are to survive as a free and democratic society. Trump has surely shown us this. And if a university cannot allow these facts and arguments to be freely engaged, then nowhere is safe. Universities are the sanctuary cities of reason. If reason must be subordinate to ideology even there, our experiment in self-government is over.
Liberal democracy is suffering from a concussion as surely as Allison is.
Meanwhile, of course, President Trump continues his assault on the very same independent truth — in this case, significantly more frightening given his position as the most powerful individual on the planet. He too has a contempt for any facts that do not fit his own ideology or self-image. That’s why the lies he repeats are not just moments of self-interested dishonesty. They are designed to erode the very notion of an empirical reality, independent of his own ideology and power. They are an attack on reason itself. A fact-driven media has to be discredited as “fake news” if it challenges Trump’s agenda. Equally, a bureaucracy designed impartially to implement legislation has to be delegitimized, if its fact-based neutrality challenges Trump’s worldview. And so the “administrative state,” in Steve Bannon’s words, has to be “deconstructed.”
Likewise, a health-care bill must be passed through committee before an independent CBO can empirically score it. The overwhelming conclusion of climate scientists — that carbon is warming the Earth irreversibly — is simply denied by the new head of the EPA. The judiciary can have no legitimate, independent stance if it too counters the president’s interests. A judge who opposes Trump is a “so-called” judge. Equally, intelligence-gathering can have no validity if it undermines Trump’s interests. It suddenly becomes “intelligence.” It can be ignored. Worse, the intelligence agencies are maligned as inherently political, rather than empirical. Last week, Trump went even further, claiming, with no evidence, that the Justice Department colluded in a criminal wiretap with the previous president to target Trump’s candidacy in the last election. Maybe this was designed merely as a distraction from the accumulating lies of his campaign surrogates about their contacts with Russian officials. Maybe it was another temper tantrum from a man with no ability to constrain his emotions by reason. But I tend to think Peter Beinart’s take is closer to the mark. Trump was delegitimizing the Justice Department so that he can reject the conclusion of any investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia as politically rigged:
No one lives on Mount Olympus. Government lawyers, judges and journalists are all fallible. They are all vulnerable to bias and self-interest. But prior presidents have generally given them the benefit of the doubt. Prior presidents have assumed, absent contrary evidence, that they are motivated by professional standards, not rank partisanship. Trump does not. He has questioned the integrity of Judge Gonzalo Curiel and of vast swaths of the press. And now he is preparing to question the integrity of the career officials investigating his Russia ties.
They are all corrupt. They are all agents of the opposition, part of the massive conspiracy to deny Trump his rightful triumph. And thus, the independent standards by which they judge his actions are a sham. There are no independent standards. There is only the truth that comes from Trump himself.
This is the vortex we are being led into by the most reckless, feckless, and malevolent president in this country’s history. It is a vortex where reality itself must subordinate itself to one political side; where facts are always instruments of power and nothing else; where our entire Constitution, designed to balance power against power to give truth and reason a chance, is being deliberately corroded from within. It’s been seven weeks. And the damage done to our way of life is already deep, and deepening.