Middlebury, Murray, and the Problem of False Equivalence

Imagine, if you will, this scene. The university’s annual symposium has begun, an event that promises to advance the mission of the institution by tackling subjects of depth and complexity in the human condition. This year’s theme is “Remembering the Shoah: Saying ‘Never Again’ to Genocide,” challenging students and the university community to confront some of the darkest chapters of modern human history. And now, striding to the podium to deliver the keynote address, comes…David Irving. Irving’s presence was vehemently protested by numerous campus and community organizations, including Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League, but college’s president firmly believes that students should be challenged by opinions “outside their comfort zone.” To those students who protested the fact that a conference on the Holocaust was being keynoted by the most notorious holocaust-denier in the Western world, the local newspaper’s editorial board scoffed at their need for a so-called “safe space.” “The real world doesn’t always conform to your precious beliefs,” the newspaper editorialized; “you’d best learn that now.” One of the university’s professors defended the choice of Irving as a keynote speaker, declaring “nothing is more sacred than the right of free and unfettered academic discourse in the university. In this marketplace of ideas, bad ideas will naturally by subsumed by good ones-that’s how it always works.” 

Well, it’s a good thing something like this would never happen! I mean, really-the spectacle of Jewish students being lectured that holocaust-deniers were entitled to academic platforms, and that they had to sit and take it in the name of “free and open discourse?” That’s just beyond the pale.

Right?

Actually, it isn’t. Earlier this month, Charles Murray, a purported “social scientist” most widely known for being co-author of the widely-discredited pseudoscientific racist tome The Bell Curve, visited Middlebury College in Vermont. Invited by a student group with ties to the American Enterprise Institute-a conservative think tank where Murray currently enjoys a nice little sinecure-but introduced by the college’s president, Murray was unable to actually deliver his talk. He was shouted down by students, hustled from the lecture hall, and then things got violent. Conflicting descriptions-it was either students or non-students who acted violently, it was either security or the students who escalated the confrontation-make it difficult to point with precision as to who was to blame for violence, but a professor was injured and the talk was canceled. (But don’t feel bad for Murray; you can google his recounting of the evening and read how he ended up at a nice restaurant with an excellent bar where he was able to sip cocktails and lament the destruction of Western Civilization by Kids These Days™.)

Oh, look-here come the “gotta-hear-both-sides” hot takes.

Then, if one is to judge solely by the ensuing rhetoric, the entire American educational system imploded into a singularity of illiberal crypto-fascism and whiny, “PC” crusades against truth, justice, and eugenics the American way. The conservative media reacted the way in which one would expect: The Middlebury students “rioted,” acted like “thugs,” and [using Colonel Nathan Jessup voice] can’t handle the truth. The Constitution was dead, and the First Amendment trampled, in an orgy of liberal snowflake violence. But this pearl-clutching over Murray’s sacred, god-given right to a presidentially-introduced platform at any college he wants to speak at, dammit, was also upheld by large swaths of the comfortable white liberal press, too. Danielle Allen, for example, wrote a piece in the Washington Post  (Democracy dies in darkness!) that compared Murray’s ordeal to that of the Little Rock Nine. Yes, someone really had those thoughts and wrote them. The Atlantic, the New York Times, and various and sundry other outlets lined up to lecture us how colleges were the last bastion of free discourse in our democracy and that Middlebury students’ shouting down of Murray made them the moral equivalent of southern segregationists or modern-day Trumpism.

This line of reasoning is, to put it bluntly, wrong. It is also dangerous. It is based upon a staggering array of faulty assumptions and white privilege. It is blaming the victim rather than the criminal. It is also based upon naive and fundamentally incorrect ideas about the way that race, privilege, and power have intersected in our society.

First, the hand-wringing from both sides of the political spectrum assumes that the only party in this equation entitled to free-speech protections was Murray himself. Were the Middlebury students not entitled to free speech? The First Amendment, we all know, protects speech from government interference (although it’s usually interpreted more broadly than that)-it does not protect that speech from consequences. If I say something that constitutes a fireable offense in my job, for example, my university has the right to fire me as a result. Murray stands up for racism, he gets shouted down by anti-racists. Moreover, Murray’s constitutional rights do not extend to on-demand access to a platform; if an institution grants him that access, then members of that institution who disagree have an equal right to protest.

More problematic, though, is the way that a myth of false equivalence pervades this entire discourse. The condemnations of the students seem to be based upon the image of college as an Athenian lyceum, where Socrates takes on all comers, and ideas rise or fall on their merits. But that image rests on two erroneous assumptions: first, that both parties in the dialogue have equal power; and second, that all the ideas addressed in the dialogue possess merit. Neither of these is true in l’affaire Middlebury.

It is not a dialogue if one party to the conversation believes members of the other party are genetically “inferior,” perhaps even subhuman. I’m not here to relitigate The Bell Curve–read Adolph Reed’s review, or Stephen Jay Gould’s epic dismantling of Murrayism for that. But it seems important to realize that Murray’s entire public reputation is based upon his not only retaining, but doubling down on, assumptions that have been thoroughly debunked by an array of scientists and social scientists across a variety of disciplines. The Bell Curve’s entire argument is premised on the assumption that I.Q. is an objective and effective measure of something we call “intelligence.” It clings to the disproven idea that there is a genetic basis for the set of racial categories we operate with as a society, as if those categories have always been historically consistent (they haven’t) and are written in our DNA (they aren’t). It makes the same claims that an entire swath of eugenicists throughout American history, from Louis Aggasiz to the promoters of “Better Baby” contests, made. Put simply, Murray is a peddler in racist pseudoscience, the likes of which we saw in forced sterilization programs and Nazi medicine. He slaps a thin veneer of misapplied scientific language and thumb-on-the-scale statistical “analysis” onto Madison Grant’s arguments and asks us to bow down before “objective reason” and “Science.”

This is not the hill I want to die on for academic freedom, and no one else should head to those barricades, either. Murray’s ideas are the literal equivalent  of inviting a flat-earther to lecture on geography, or an alchemist to teach your Physical Chemistry lab, or…inviting David Irving to keynote a holocaust conference. These are not “controversial” ideas, they are wrong. Not “wrong” in the subjective sense, but “wrong” in the we-have-empirical-evidence-that-these-ideas-are-full-of-shit sense. Yet we have to listen to sanctimonious purveyors of liberal opinion tell us to get “outside our comfort zones” and “listen to people with whom we disagree.” Well, fuck that. I know the earth is round.

The myth of false equivalence, then, not only ascribes a worth to Murray’s ideas that simply does not exist, but it assumes that these ideas exist in a wondrous vacuum, where power imbalances and social inequality don’t matter. None of these pearl-clutchers defending Murray’s right to harangue students about pseudoscience would suggest that parents of disabled children should listen to a lecture on why their kids ought to be sterilized in the name of “improving the race.” So why do they insist that students, many of whom are people of color, sit down, shut up, and listen to a lecture delivered by someone who argues that they are subhuman-an argument based upon no scientific evidence and delivered by a guy who literally burned a cross during the civil rights movement? And, don’t forget, this comes accompanied by all the implicit sanction and wink-wink approval that’s conveyed by a personal introduction from the college president. This is a far cry from the idealized lyceum where ideas compete with one another on level intellectual playing field in a pure, abstract meritocracy. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: far from being a generation of entitled snowflakes, today’s college students are under siege. They have less funding, less support, learn in more dysfunctional institutions, and live in  an environment that is more fractured and polarized than ever. They work more hours at more jobs than any previous generation of students, deal with more issues related to anxiety and mental health than any of their forebears, and face a postgraduate economic landscape so bleak that the Baby Boom generation is in full-on denial of its very existence. All this, and they are mocked by generations that had it twice as good about how it’s all their fault.

In this context, can we really be surprised that students aren’t really down with being lectured to about their supposed “inferiority,” especially by someone like Murray? And what are their options? The president seems OK with all of this, the college is giving the charlatan a platform and security-it’s like they were determined that Murray would have free rein to proselytize for eugenics while they as students had to sit and take it. And before you hit me with the “let the bad ideas get exposed; good ideas will always take them down” argument, consider that we now live in a country where Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are in the White House and Steve King is a powerful member of the ruling party in Congress, where purges of non-white people seem to be the political order of the day. Then try to tell me with a straight face that there’s an ideological meritocracy that will protect people of color from racism if we only talk things out in the marketplace of ideas.

So why such solicitude for Murray, and such disdain for the Middlebury students? Part of the answer, of course, is the violence that ensued-violence, I would argue, that could have been avoided by both sides. But there’s more to it, I think. Murray has legions of defenders. His ideology permeated the Clinton-era policy approach to crime, culminating in the disastrous crime bill. Andrew Sullivan has been smitten with Murray for decades. He gets welfare checks from the AEI. What Murray does, I think, is give white racists an easy way out. He cloaks what they really think in pseudoscientific language and makes it look respectable. He has advanced degrees and institutional affiliations. He has, lamentable as it may be, a degree of academic street cred that makes racists think that maybe there is hope for their worldview. But make no mistake; as Adolph Reed put it so well after the publication of The Bell Curve:

“Murray has always been the same intellectual brownshirt. He has neither changed over the past decade nor done anything else that might redeem his reputation as a scholar. And it doesn’t matter whether he is a committed ideologue or an amoral opportunist. Nazis came in both varieties—think of Alfred Rosenberg and Paul de Man—and in real life the lines separating the two are seldom clear.”

As Kelly Baker reminds us, white supremacists wear suits, not just sheets, and all too often that seems to get them a free pass. Whether it’s ignorance, implicit bias, laziness, or something more sinister (or a combination of these), Murray gets access to places and platforms to such a degree that the idea of a meritocratic marketplace of ideas becomes laughable. I’m reminded of Bomani Jones’s wry observation, so appropriate in this instance: #gtbw

But Murray’s arguments are bad ones, wrong ones, scientifically-discredited ones. He’s the equivalent of a weather forecaster who divines climate patterns by looking at the entrails of a recently-sacrificed goat. And yet he’s treated, from people who really ought to know better, as if he’s got a divinely-ordained right to academic and public platforms with unquestioning and respectful audiences. If there really was a marketplace of ideas that functioned as these avatars of “academic freedom” say it does, Murray would have been ejected from that space long ago. If we really could so thoroughly discredit bad ideas through respectful competing discourse, then Murray wouldn’t be anything more than a greasy splotch on the academic landscape after Stephen Jay Gould got through with him. Yet, here he is. Still. He’s outlived Gould. He keeps getting paid. Colleges and universities keep lining up to give him a platform and an administrative slurping, and the rest of us are told be patient-answer his bad ideas with good ones and he’ll go away.

Nah.

I know the earth is round, I know that lead can’t become gold, and I know that eugenics is racism, not science. I know that freedom of speech applies to students as much, if not more, than it does to psuedoscientific cross-burning hacks, and I know that using “academic freedom” to defend the indefensible is a slap in the face to everyone who cares about the integrity of higher education. I know that I’m done listening to feeble excuses about why racists should get equal time to teach us eugenics when my students, me, and the institutions in which we live and work are under assault. I know all too well what the problems we face in higher education are. And I know that Charles Murray being shouted down is most emphatically not one of them.

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