Anti-Communism and Anti-Racism: A Final Word
By Bryan Caplan
There are two plausible positions here.
(1) The historic loyalty oaths were strict and would have greatly improved the free exchange of ideas in U.S. universities in the long-run.
(2) The historic loyalty oaths were mild and would not have greatly improved the free exchange of ideas in U.S. universities in the long-run.
I hold to (2). My friend seems to implausibly maintain that these mild measures would have made a big difference if maintained.
Though while we’re on the topic of salesmanship, it is probably much rhetorically much easier to decry Anti-Racism as “McCarthyism reborn” than to first convince people that academic McCarthyism was fine but Anti-Racism is as bad as people today falsely believe academic McCarthyism to have been.
On some of these issues, our disagreement is even narrower than Bryan implies. I agree that the loyalty oaths were likely too weak to have been all that useful. We need a much more robust system to exclude from universities those who would exclude unorthodox ideas. Hence, my proposal for an office of free speech. Such a system would still not be legitimately considered analogous to the “anti-racism” policies currently being imposed and is in fact necessary to preserve open discourse. Yet, I find that raising this point is routinely met with truly absurd charges of hypocrisy; just yesterday when discussing these issues I was told by someone who certainly should know better “You are just as bad as them.” These errors are why we must aggressively guard against even implying the false equivalences between the legitimate, if ineffective, efforts to preserve institutions that support individual liberties and the current, apparently successful, efforts to impose ideological conformity at universities and beyond. Thus I disagree with Bryan’s point on the rhetoric of the discussion. Following this path then means that even if we gain some temporary success in stalling the “anti-racism” plans and other forms of compelled speech and government funded indoctrination, we will never be in a position to actually effect positive change. Stalemate will be ripped from the jaws of victory, and those who explicitly advocate for turning universities into state funded political training camps will prevail.
We thus must acknowledge that academic freedom and free speech can only be maintained as reciprocal arrangements. When those who oppose such freedoms are given free rein to impose their ideas, and no one pushes back against them when the opportunity presents itself, the long-term outcome almost certainly involves handing control of institutions over to those most opposed to free expression. We can see this effect playing out now, as even Republican governors stand in the way of efforts to remove systematic racial stereotyping and related ills from public school curricula. These officials fall into the trap of confounding democratic oversight of the use of public funds for political purposes within schools with the completely unrelated idea of free speech under the first amendment. The idea that government bureaucrats have a right to dictate, with no democratic oversight, what is being taught to children, and that they can use that right to impose a novel theory of society with no empirical backing, is patently absurd, but the rhetoric that any pushback against such a situation in some sort of book banning or infringement of the rights of the bureaucrats seems to hold a great deal of currency even among those who will be the targets of the hate being taught in schools. Thus, we should be judicious in our rhetoric, not taking short-term gains of drawing false parallels at the cost of undermining the long-term institutional change necessary to restore open debate in our society.
If all actual members of murderous revolutionary Communist organizations had been excluded from U.S. universities, I can see things being slightly better today. But only slightly.
I think Bryan’s claim that excluding members of revolutionary Communist parties would be only a marginal improvement is a bit disingenuous. I was clear to include their supporters. Modern “anti-racists” are the direct intellectual descendants (e.g. Angela Davis) from the murderous Communists, and these “anti-racists” are now the dominant intellectual force on many campuses and are among the highest status and most well-compensated public intellectuals. We are no longer talking about some crazy grey-beard Marxists ranting in the corner of the sociology department. We are talking about people what have the institutional power to impose ideological criteria for hiring on all faculty positions in a state with unified Republican control of all branches of government and a Board of Regents appointed exclusively by Republican governors. In my brief experience with crossing one of these groups, I was explicitly warned that my career could be at stake because they have so much power within the University, an interesting irony for a group who assert that they are marginalized within the intersectional hierarchy of privilege. I suspect if I had been in the College of Liberal Arts instead of the Business School (another clue in case anyone is trying to infer my identity) I would have faced real consequences. Bryan’s position as a somewhat prominent public intellectual in one of the most institutionally bizarre and protected economics departments in the country insulates him from how much influence these people truly have at universities.
Yes, full-blown Marxist-Leninists are loud. But they are also few and low-status.
I am puzzled by what standards being a tenured professor at Northwestern Law counts as low status.
“Murderous” in the sense of advocating murder, or actually doing it? There are numerous examples of the former, but only a few of the latter.
I wonder what exactly is Bryan’s threshold for murderous-Communists-teaching-American youth, particularly at law schools and education schools. I would suggest that one example would be enough to suggest a serious problem with decision-making in academia. I seriously doubt many people would have reacted with this sort of equanimity if Timothy McVeigh had gotten off on a technicality and then been hired as a professor. I would certainly say that even half a dozen cases of murderous terrorists teaching at universities in the US strongly indicates a systemic problem; this one article documents five such cases, and it does not even include Angela Davis. Or maybe we are looking at the wrong numbers. Perhaps we should instead look at the fraction of murderous Communist terrorists in the US who did get positions at US universities, which seems higher than, say, the fraction of non-terrorist Americans who end up as college professors. Even if the numbers are small, do we really want Communist terrorism to be a positive on a faculty application? Arguably there is an endogeneity issue here, but there is at least a pretty strong indication of causation in this career trajectory.
Also, why draw such a strong distinction between people who wanted to murder others to bring about a totalitarian state and those who actually had the organizational ability to pull off such murders? Being bad a making bombs doesn’t provide moral absolution. Nor does squeamishness in actually following through and risking ones future. The fact that universities for decades have handed themselves over to people who, in principle, want to send their fellow citizens to reeducation camps, but maybe only half a dozen or a dozen or so actual murderers and co-conspirators ended up fully employed as faculty, does not give me comfort as to the people who have been tasked with training the American elite.