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Permission to Speak Freely

A new crusade aims to protect conservative students from left-wing professors. But the real victim is robust debate?on campus, and beyond.

Censorship is inexcusable; instructors ought not use classrooms as recruiting stations, and any serious institution must guarantee appeals against arbitrary punishment. But Horowitz’s academic bill of rights invites legislatures to rush in where conservative students fear to tread. Do the crusaders realize how patronizing they sound—and how reckless? Should lawmakers who bean-count the political loyalties of the faculty really serve as proper judges of intellectual integrity? Whatever happened to small government?

Suddenly gone is the creed of personal responsibility. Vanished is the insistence on measuring people, as Martin Luther King Jr. urged and conservative academic Shelby Steele seconded, by “the content of their character.” If you withhold your views of affirmative action or the war in Iraq, whether in class or a dorm bull session, the thought police are to blame. Erased is the conservative allergy to “defining deviancy down,” as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably put it, against the West Side Story premise that if you’re depraved it’s only because you’re deprived. Banished is the belief that moral virtue (and vice) belong to the person—not to some diffuse alibi called “the environment,” not to peer pressure or other symbols of dependency, but to the irreducible, staunch, stubborn insistence (or failure) of the individual conscience saying, with Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Vital debate always needs sustenance. Some conservative students sincerely fear retribution. But there’s something deeper at work when the selfsame agitators who, a decade ago, were irate at calls for “hate speech” bans and sexual-conduct rules now portray student victims of Big Leftie Brother as needing special protections. That this turnabout is hypocritical goes without saying. But it also requires an explanation.

Beneath the conservative outrage and bravado I detect a whiff of fear—and the thrill of it. For the cultural right’s moment of political triumph in Washington is tinged by its relish for persecution. Martyrdom stirs them, as in the gospel according to Mel Gibson. Fear is their catnip. To stay energized, they lash themselves into insurgency. Like the Trotskyists who welcomed the Permanent Revolution, they can’t win for losing (and some of them are not like Trotskyists, they are the Trotskyists of the ’60s, a few decades later). Their strategic hope is to convert fear into bravado, just as George W. Bush parlayed fear of militant Islamists into a justification for the war in Iraq. This is the psychological maneuver that Bush pursued in converting a sub-mediocre presidency into a reason for reelection: First, be afraid; second, trust me.

But why should right-wingers tremble in the age of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Tom DeLay? The crusade against campus ideologues harnesses an overblown political fear to a more sweeping American fear of controversy itself. For all that the media cultivate a bullying nastiness that passes for debate, we are still awfully muffled in our everyday talk. Division is, well, divisive, a breach of etiquette. Let sleeping contentions lie. In the unofficial civility that prevails where most Americans live, niceness trumps freedom of thought. Friction causes pain, and pain is taboo. To be isolated in opinion invites banishment—or so the minority fear, which induces their silence. To argue politics or religion, in many parts of the country, suggests bad manners. At a time when shouting passes for debate, many people prefer to clam up entirely. Thus does the retreat from politics—and from vigorous conversation altogether—coexist with the polarization of politics.

Timidity about political expression betrays a collective infantilization unworthy of Enlightenment principle. In a mature society, people know not only their minds but each other’s—surely a prerequisite for democracy. That’s why it is especially worrisome that the fear of open debate has gripped even the campuses, where it ought to be scarcest. To school younger generations in the necessary work of deliberation, not to mention self-government, we can’t afford to water down the standards for full-bodied speech. While it may not follow that revitalization on campus will automatically animate the rest of society, it is surely true that a withered life of the mind on campus deprives the world of intellectual energies it sorely needs.

As conservatives say, it is indeed the instructor’s obligation to see that unpopular views can be expressed—not simply prated, but sharpened and defended. It is out-of- bounds to ram home one’s conclusions and grade them accordingly. A teacher must establish an atmosphere in which students try out unpopular views. But it’s still the students’—and the citizens’—obligation to try them out. That’s where character comes in. You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.

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