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Trump’s executive order on campus ‘free speech’ is a gross obscenity that promotes censorship — here’s why

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- Commentary

In 1961, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh named Robert G. Colodny was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Colodny was just one of HUAC’s many targets, a list which included screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo and playwrights such as Arthur Miller. HUAC remained a fearsome and fundamentally anti-democratic means of intimidation and often professional ruin even after the height of the McCarthy era’s Red baiting. The professor drew suspicion after he innocuously referred to Cuban “agrarian reforms” in the Pittsburgh Press, which was enough for a local state representative to label Colodny a communist sympathizer. Shortly after, Congress and then the university itself launched investigations. This, it should be said, is what an attack on academic freedom looks like.

Part of what contributed to the professor’s new-found notoriety was that Colodny had been among those idealists and visionaries, including writers like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, who enlisted themselves in the army of the democratically elected government of Republican Spain, which in the late 1930’s was threatened and ultimately defeated by the fascist forces of the future dictator Francisco Franco. They were often tarred as “prematurely anti-fascist,” with historian Adam Hochschild explaining in Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 that for those fighters the conflict was “seen as a moral and political touchstone, a world war in embryo, in a Europe shadowed by the rapid ascent of fascism.” Franco received aid and assistance from Mussolini and Hitler, with the Luftwaffe’s brutal destruction of the Basque city of Guernica indeed a prelude to the coming horror of the bloodiest war in human history. Women and men like Colodny, who served in the international brigades, correctly believed that right-wing nationalism and international fascism should be countered on the battlefields of Spain. As Orwell would write in his 1938 account Homage to Catalonia, “I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” From 1937 until the following year, Colodny would fight in a battalion of volunteers known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the first integrated squadron of American soldiers, and one of over fifty international brigades composed of leftists who fought against the Spanish fascists. The future professor sustained a gunshot wound above his right eye which left Colodny partially paralyzed and blind. Despite his injuries, he’d later serve in the American armed forces, going onto receive a doctorate in history at the University of California at Berkeley, where he specialized in the philosophy of science.

Such were the vagaries of a fascinating, if unassuming, professional career until Colodny would be called to account for his anti-fascist record. After his congressional testimony, the University of Pittsburgh was under pressure to terminate Colodny’s appointment, but after six months of investigation they would conclude that the professor’s political opinions and service didn’t constitute a reason for dismissal. Pitt’s Chancellor Edward H. Litchfield wrote in his conclusion to the investigation, in a statement that deserves to be the canonical statement on academic freedom, that a university “embraces and supports the society in which it operates, but it knows no established doctrines, accepts no ordained patterns of behavior, acknowledges no truth as given. Were it otherwise, the university would be unworthy of the role which our society has assigned it.”

As moving and apt an encapsulation of the free inquiry that lay at the heart of American higher education as any that’s ever been written, and one that as of today is under serious threat by the machination of the Trump administration. On March 21st Trump signed an executive order with the anodyne designation of “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities,” a declaration that by name alone would be easy to assume is congruent with Litchfield’s idealistic argument of half a century ago. But the order’s language, which claims that we must “encourage institutions to appropriately account” for free inquiry in their “administration of student life and to avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives” lacks not just Litchfield’s poetry, but indeed means the exact opposite of that earlier defense. Trump’s order, fulfilling a promise to his right-wing supporters and their long-standing obsession with a perceived liberal bias in the academy, exists not to promote inquiry, but to stifle it; not to expand perspectives, but rather to limit them; not to encourage free speech, but to censor it.

Trump’s order was germinated out of the debate that has surrounded questions concerning the scheduling of fascist speakers at universities. Today’s order can arguably be traced back towards an incident at Colodny’s alma matter of Berkeley, which incidentally was also the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s. In 2017 violent confrontations between political groups, none of whom were affiliated with the university, led to the cancelling of one event due to security concerns. Importantly the university had approved this speaker’s visit, and indeed said the speaker was paid with student activity funds. At no point was the speaker censored or oppressed, despite his abhorrent views.

With his characteristic grammar, punctuation, orthography and enthusiasm for capitalization, the president tweeted on February 2, 2017 that “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Tallying the inaccuracies in a Donald J. Trump statement is a bit like searching for sand at the beach, but it should go without saying that neither Berkeley faculty nor its administration had enacted  “violence on innocent people.” Rather a hitherto invited right-wing speaker arrived with his own retinue of supporters that were countered by community groups not affiliated with the university itself, and unsurprisingly hate speech generated hate.

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The language of the March 21st executive order is nebulous, but seems to imply that colleges and universities will lose federal funds if there choose not to host certain speakers. This is, as should be obvious, the opposite of free speech. A university has every right to decide who will speak on its campus, and the community certainly has the right to object to certain speakers, who are normally paid from the budget generated by student activity fees. It’s unclear if such a federal order will be consistently applied, so that an evangelical college would be required to invite pro-choice speakers, or a Christian university would have to pay visiting atheist lecturers, but I’ll let you guess what the intent of the proclamation most likely is.

Colodny’s brother-in-arms George Orwell would probably have something astute to say about the manner in which the Trump administration has commandeered the language of free speech so as to subvert free speech. At the very least you have to appreciate the smug arrogance of it. Such an executive order, which is red-meat to Trump’s base, is the culmination of two generations of neurotic, anxious, right-wing fretting about apparent liberal infiltration of colleges and universities. While it’s true that faculty, depending on discipline, tend to vote liberal, you’re as likely to find a genuine Marxist among university professors as you are to find an ethical member of the Trump administration itself. Furthermore, this concern over “political diversity” is only raised when conservatives feel threatened, and academe is simply the one small corner of society not completely dominated by the right. Ask yourself what insecurity encourages those who dominate the executive branch, dozens of state governments, business, and increasingly the judiciary to continually fulminate about academe, Hollywood, and the media?

You’ll note that the concern over the perceived lack of political diversity among faculty normally begins and ends at the social sciences and humanities, though more recently the natural sciences have also been attacked for daring to challenge the conservative ideological orthodoxy on issues such as climate change. Conservatives aren’t concerned about a lack of diversity among business faculty, or even more importantly among the trustees of colleges and universities, where every higher education worker knows that the real power is concentrated. For that matter, there is no equivalent hand-wringing about political diversity on corporate boards, though perhaps a socialist sitting in on a board meeting at the Bank of America could have all done us some good in 2008. Nobody in the Republican Party seems terribly concerned that other professions which hew to the right, be they law enforcement or investment bankers, don’t have a “diversity” of political opinions represented in their ranks.

That’s because today’s order obviously has nothing to actually do with free inquiry and diversity, but rather intends to stranglehold it. Terry Hartle, the senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education said in a speech that “As always in the current environment, irony does come into play. This is an administration that stifles the views of its own research scientists if they are counter to the political views of the administration… And the president vigorously attacks people like Colin Kaepernick.”

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It’s impossible to interpret much of what the administration does without an awareness of their own finely adroit sense of sadistic irony and mocking sarcasm. In such a context, Thursday’s executive order, whose full ramifications remain unclear, is far from a defense of free inquiry but rather a sop to those like right-wing activist David Horowitz, director of his own self-named and so-called “Freedom Center,” or the administrators of the website Professor Watchlist, maintained by the conservative group Turning Point USA. Trump’s executive order is an attempt to return us to the era in which Colodny could be fired for his progressive views, an age of blacklists and loyalty oaths.

Anyone attending a college, or has children enrolled, or who works in higher education, is amply aware that the state of the American university is troubled. The recent enrollment scandal whereby wealthy parents simply paid their children’s way into elite institutions (as cynically unsurprising as this may be) only underscores the malignancies which define too much of post-secondary education in America today. College is too expensive, too exclusionary, and its resources are misallocated. The academic job market is punishing, and serves not the graduate students who aspire towards a professorial job. Undergraduates take on obscene amounts of debt, and the often-inflated reputation of the Ivy league and a handful of other instructions still sets too much of the tenor of American social, political, and cultural life. But none of these problems are because the university is too “liberal.” To the contrary, American higher education could stand to move a lot more to the left in terms of admissions and employment. If anything, the current crisis in higher education is most closely related to the imposition of a certain business mentality upon institutions whose goal was never to be the accumulation of profit for its own sake.

Because despite its contradictions, American higher education has historically remained the envy of the world. There is a reason that international students clamber for a spot at an American college. Since the emergence of the American research university in the 19th century, higher education has been at the forefront of research and innovation. Even more importantly, democratizing legislation such as the GI Bill and affirmative action transformed American universities into the greatest engine of upward class mobility in human history. It’s not a coincidence that conservative attacks on higher education occurred right at the moment when it became available to the largest number of people, but the nature of these most recent attacks, making federal funding contingent on which right-wing agitator receives a hefty speaker’s fee, could have a chilling effect on education.

Sociologist Jonathan R. Cole writes in The Great American University that our system of higher education has been “able to produce a very high proportion of the most important fundamental knowledge and practical research discoveries in the world.” By intervening in the details of who is invited to speak on a college campus (which is of course separate from censorship), the federal government threatens the independence and innovation of higher education, by imposing an ideological approved straight-jacket upon that which has historically been our great laboratory of democracy. Colodny wrote that the goal of higher education was so that “some traditional holder of power feels the tempest of new and renewing ideas.” The man who currently occupies the Oval Office can’t abide either of those things, and so he’d rather burn it all down than spend a moment being threatened by institutions that actually enshrine free inquiry. The gross obscenity is that he’s self-righteously claiming the mantle of that same free inquiry to do it.

Ed Simon is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a regular contributor at several different site. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.  

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