The recent Charles Murray-hounding, fellow-academic-abusing incident at Middlebury College has unleashed a veritable landslide of irrepressible rectitude on both the left and the right. When I first read of the ruckus, in which an assemblage of uncollegial ignoramuses verbally, physically and inexcusably assaulted two lives of the mind, I braced for the inevitable avalanche of punditocratic indignation. Rare indeed are opportunities for the nation's leading commentators to exhibit unassailable virtue of bipartisan harmony. Thus when such an opportunity presents itself, as did the Murray Affair, it must be exploited through maximum, preening outrage.
The Vermont melee advanced a noncontroversial topic on which, accordingly, both sides of political readership vastly agree: Neanderthalic censorship and aggravated assault are less than desirable features of any civilized society. To be sure, there exist fringy pockets of disagreement: coddled, intellectually cloistered leftists and alt-right neofascists who confuse physical violence with honorable, cerebral conviction. In short, crackpots. But though crackpots have always been with us, we can be thankful that their numbers are small. Quite small.
This statistical reality does nothing to attenuate the commentariat's outrage, however. Only in passing do the upright acknowledge, as the always-upright Frank Bruni does, that "only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved." One might think that his condemnation of the students' boorishness would be commensurate with the students' numbers. Yet one would be wrong. "We’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call," he continues, "because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education."
Good luck in attempting to reconcile a "small fraction" of students with university-wide "conformity." (If there's a legitimate, broad fault to be found here, it lies in the gutlessness of university administrators who tolerate antechambers of student intolerance, especially of the violent sort.) Bruni goes on to lament that "In too many instances, the groves of academe are better at pumping their denizens full of an easy, intoxicating fervor than at preparing them for constructive engagement in a society that won’t echo their convictions the way their campuses do." What I read in Bruni is an easy, intoxicated fervor of overgeneralization. One specificity does leap out, however: The columnist doesn't at all like what (he says) is happening on our campuses — for how could intellectual righteousness do otherwise?
On the right, George Will, as I noted yesterday, is similarly outraged: "Some academics … relish progressivism’s hegemony on campuses, and [they] equate critical thinking with disparagement." Some. Yes, some do. Others don't. So as far as any generalized assessment goes, this academic dichotomy tells us — what?
Returning to the left, Jonathan Chait has for years bemoaned, George Will-like, that "hegemonic control" of "political discourse" lies within America's leftist academia, which long ago "gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size." Again, this is an easy, and quite believable, charge to make. But what empirical data on its outsized influence is offered? How has such influence been measured and quantified? It hasn't, because it can't be. Nevertheless, the charge floats around as an everybody-knows-this-is-true kind of thing. It is of course possible that Chait is correct; it's just that I'd like to see some proof before I enter a state of David Horowitzian despair.
And then we come back to the quasi-right, i.e., the most recent writing of Andrew Sullivan: "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." Well, Andrew, when I was in grad school a mere 15 years ago at a major public university I would often argue, in seminars, a Devil's-advocate conservative position. To my recollection, not once was my argument belittled or dismissed as "immoral." Since this topic of academic censorship appears to revolve only around anecdotal evidence, I believe this personal observation is admissible.
I could be wrong, on the whole. Perhaps intolerance and censorship are indeed sweeping free-thinking university life into the wretched dustbin of history. But before I join the intellectually sublime in outraged opposition to this damnable development, I'd prefer to see some actual, universal evidence of it. Is that wrong?