The right’s antipathy to any protest that doesn’t feature at least one Confederate flag mounted on a Rascal scooter is wholly predictable. Once in power, it has no use for dissent, especially when it reaches the fever pitch it has under Trump. Slightly more puzzling is the disproportionate amount of negative coverage that protests receive from the center and center-left. These radical centrists came out in full force on the side of confused free speech advocates in response to a recent kerfuffle at Middlebury College. Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, arguably the most well-known case for eugenics since Mein Kampf, was scheduled to speak there earlier this month. The subject was not The Bell Curve but his 2012 book, Coming Apart, which blames increasing social stratification on a decline in morals among lower-class whites. While Murray’s recent work deals more in classism than racism, the subtext is glaring — low-performing whites can blame their woes on culture, something that can be remedied, but low-performing blacks are hopeless. In response, students “mobbed” Murray and the professors who invited him to speak. Murray instead had to livestream his presentation, and the night culminated in an act that will echo through the ages in its sheer brutality: Someone pulled a professor’s hair.
The center’s distaste for protester violence, from Berkeley to Middlebury, is ostensibly based on a deep-seated commitment to Enlightenment tradition. An obsession with decorum and logical debate, more than any longstanding concern with policy, defines modern liberalism. This assertion of relative sanity — of being the only adult in the room — has been wholly ineffective at maintaining Democratic power, but it makes for great thinkpiece fodder. In a deeply embarrassing essay for New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan castigated the student protesters for their response to Murray and used their actions to condemn the academic environment (paying special attention to the doctrines of intersectionality and privilege). He even admitted in the article that Murray is a close personal friend of his, which should set off alarm bells for anyone reading it. Sullivan, we must remember, drew fire in 1994 for publishing excerpts of The Bell Curve in The New Republic, of which he was the editor at the time. Sullivan may wax poetic on how “...reason and empirical debate are essential to the functioning of a liberal democracy,” but his actual position is that he believes Murray’s racist fictions to be true. He never says so explicitly, but it’s difficult to ignore the way his free speech defenses disproportionately apply to his eugenicist buddy and not to, say, the “free speech zones” created for opponents of the Iraq invasion he supported so passionately. The case he makes is less a principled willingness to defend an open intellectual marketplace and more a sneaky way of reintroducing long-since-debunked nonsense under false pretenses — the same method used to get intelligent design and climate-change denial into high school textbooks.
(As an aside, Sullivan errs by comparing intersectionality theory to Puritanism, and later, the student actions to The Crucible. He showcases his own isolated understanding of Puritan ideology, probably garnered entirely from Hawthorne — the imperative to cleanse society of sin was a major part of why Massachusetts was an early center of the abolitionist movement. Perhaps Sullivan, a conservative Irish Catholic, should confront why his own forebears were largely apathetic about or violently opposed to abolition.)
The center’s distaste for protester violence, from Berkeley to Middlebury, is ostensibly based on a deep-seated commitment to Enlightenment tradition.
Cosmopolitan’s Jill Filipovic also felt the need to weigh in on the Murray debacle, writing a defense of the old man’s right to speak. She wrote: “Free speech doesn’t mean that everyone deserves a platform to speak — the fact that Middlebury has never invited me for a speaking gig does not violate my free speech rights.” Okay, so far so good. She goes on: “No, shouting down a campus speaker doesn’t violate the U.S. Constitution. But it does violate a norm that every American should value: free expression, and tolerating the existence of speech and ideas you don’t like.” If shouting down a white supremacist looking to spread his ideology during a rash of hate crimes doesn’t violate the First Amendment, what does it violate? No one is quite able to answer this, instead dancing around a vague, ill-defined notion of “free expression.” This notion implies that all ideas, including the idea that nonwhites are not fully human, are perpetually up for debate. These debates can be won but never lost — no matter how many times neo-Nazis and phrenologists have their pseudoscientific racial hierarchies dismantled by actual, empirical science, they always want a rematch. Such is the recourse of the loser.
Certain voices on the left have also spent a great deal of time weighing in on the issue of protester violence. A common argument is that when an antifa teen maces a MAGA-hat frat boy or grazes Richard Spencer with a poorly aimed sucker punch, it sets a precedent that allows the right to retaliate in kind. The issue with this reasoning is that the far right will always find a justification for eliminating their enemies. If no liberal malintent exists, the right will invent it. This is especially true now, as the more subdued misdirection of the Bush administration has given way to Trump’s compulsive lying. He claimed that Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers even though immigrants commit fewer crimes than natural-born citizens. He claimed during the election that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering as the towers fell on 9/11. He claimed that Sweden has become an unlivable warzone after an influx of Muslim refugees. Muslims weren’t cheering on 9/11, and they haven’t burned Sweden to the ground, but it doesn’t matter. The “moderate Muslims” condemned 9/11 whenever they were asked, and Muslim-Americans fought in the War on Terror, but the far right will still create Muslim bans that block families from entering or leaving the country. It needs the specter of violent Muslims and violent immigrants and violent leftists to drum up support for the cause, and if there are no real-life examples, lies will do.
The other common criticism of left-wing student protest is that it amplifies the voices it seeks to silence. This stance was most common after Milo Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at UC Berkeley in February, where he planned to single out undocumented students in addition to his usual routine. That his media presence rose as a result of the protest was true, at least for a few days. The increased publicity the stunt brought to Yiannopoulos earned him a spot on Bill Maher’s show. That snowballed into him being invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, ostensibly a gesture of appreciation for unfettered free speech, which inspired a backlash from traditional conservatives. That backlash led to the publicization of comments Yiannopoulos made about the virtues of relationships between adult men and boys as young as 13. This was a bridge too far for conservatives, who then turned their backs on their supposed ideals once they realized his offensive speech was not directed entirely at Muslims and transgender students, but also at their own sexual ethics. He was disinvited from CPAC, forced to resign from Breitbart, where he had been a senior editor since 2014, and his upcoming book was cancelled by Simon & Schuster. If the Berkeley protesters who stopped Yiannopoulos from speaking were responsible for his increased visibility in the weeks after the incident, as was the common wisdom at the time, his subsequent downfall (at the very least) complicates this narrative.
It’s worth clarifying that I don’t take a stance on protester violence itself. Whether the punching of Richard Spencer or the macing of a College Republican or the pulling of a Middlebury professor’s hair are worthwhile tactics — whether these minor incidents set off a butterfly effect one way or the other — is none of my concern. They very well could be worthwhile, or they could be harmful to the cause. What I know for sure is harmful to the cause is the continued focus on these incidents by figures who would benefit from their own silence. Focusing the discourse on isolated acts of violence or property damage by the far left materially benefits the right, but the left stands to gain nothing by endlessly debating the tactical value of every action taken by overenthusiastic protesters. Every single public figure to the left of Hillary Clinton could condemn every single instance of a protester knocking over trash cans, and the right would continue to make overturned trash cans the face of the left. Repeated condemnations by the left of occasional property damage or fistfights, regardless of their adherence to principles of nonviolence, serve only to associate violent protest with the left. When violent protest becomes the public face of the opposition to Trump, the right rejoices. The way to not make it the public face of the opposition, simply enough, is to not make it the sole topic of conversation.
Alex Nichols is the social media editor at Current Affairs and a regular contributor to The Outline.