Anti-Communism and Anti-Racism Reconsidered
By Bryan Caplan
I respectfully disagree with Bryan’s recent post on anti-Communism and “anti-racism.” I believe he falls into a classic false equivalence trap; just because two things sound similar does not make them fundamentally similar. For example, slicing someone’s stomach open with a rusty knife to try to cure a cold is unquestionably a bad idea. Surgery in a sterile hospital to remove stomach cancer is, on the other hand, a reasonable treatment option. Colds and stomach cancer are both illnesses, and both treatment options involve slicing open one’s abdomen, but the similarities really end there.
Similarly, neither the problem being addressed not the proposed solutions discussed by Bryan have anything more than superficial parallels. The historic loyalty oaths and anti-Communist pledges were generally narrowly tailored and required people to affirm that they did not belong to an organization that sought to overthrow the U.S. government in favor of a totalitarian socialist state. Indeed, they only sought to exclude people who were actively seeking to bring about a system where no one who disagreed with that system would be allowed to express his ideas. There is little evidence that these measures, which were put into place in response to a now-documented effort to take over institutions by foreign influenced revolutionary organizations, were routinely used to exclude left-wing voices from universities.
Indeed, leaders of actual murderous revolutionary Communist organizations in the U.S. were hired at prestigious universities; Northwestern Law even hired such a leader who literally supported the Charles Manson murders. These people and their supporters in many cases then took the lead in suppressing any dissent from their ideas at universities. I do not think it is reasonable to malign those who anticipated this threat and tried to take steps that might have helped preserve universities as a place where free exchange of ideas was remotely possible.
The modern “anti-racism” movement, in contrast, seeks to exclude any ideas that reject their specific description of society and the policies that they seek to bring about in light of their views of how society works. They seek to exclude as “racist” anyone who rejects their fundamental tenets, and they seek to use state resources to support specific political advocacy. For example, our cultural diversity requirement can be satisfied through a class having a required “activism project.” There is no legitimate parallel between those who sought to prevent universities, particularly public universities, from becoming tools of an extremist political movement that sought to suppress all dissent, and those today who seek exactly to turn universities into such a state-funded political tool under the guise of “anti-racism.” Here at UT-Austin, in fact, we have just imposed a “Strategic Plan for Faculty Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity” that requires every faculty hiring and promotion decision to take into account and treat as a positive advocacy efforts for this ideological agenda.
It is absolutely crucial that people begin to understand and appreciate the importance of these distinctions. Any effort to reign in the excesses permeating state universities will lead to hypocritical cries of suppression of free expression and academic freedom. But, the “anti-racist” faction has claimed the right to dictate to every single school, department, and individual faculty member that promotion of this new ideology is an essential part of the job of every unit and employee of the university. Undoing this situation would be striking a blow for academic freedom, not suppressing it. University bureaucrats under pressure from faculty activists have no right to direct, say, the chemistry department to hire in part based on political advocacy. Individuals and even departments, however, have virtually no means to stand against such demands, since they come from the central administration and also come with thinly veiled threats of attacks from activists if the directives are questioned. Thus, trustees and where appropriate legislators have a responsibility to undo the current arrangement at universities, and false equivalences like those laid out in Bryan’s post make fulfilling that responsibility even harder.