Underground at Brown

(Glenn Nagel/Dreamstime)

In the current issue of National Review, I have a piece called “Underground at Brown.” What’s it about? I’ll tell you. In fact, I’ll blow that piece out — i.e., expand it — here in Impromptus.

At Brown University, in Providence, R.I., there is a secret forum in which students may discuss potentially controversial issues freely. Let me say that again: At Brown, there is a secret forum in which students may discuss potentially controversial issues — or anything they want — freely.

Yes, there is an underground group whose purpose is to allow kids to say what they ought to be free to say above ground.

As David Frum remarked on Twitter, when he read the magazine piece, What is this? Warsaw 1983 or America 2015?

‐The group came about in this way: Last year, Brown was to host a debate on the issue of campus rape. In one corner was Jessica Valenti, a radical feminist, and in the other was Wendy McElroy, a radical libertarian. It was suspected that McElroy would deny there was a “culture of rape.” And this was intolerable to some students, who protested mightily — in advance, mind you.

The debate came off, to Brown’s credit. Not so the speech attempted the year before by Ray Kelly, who was New York’s police commissioner. At Brown, he was to give a lecture called “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” The kids at Brown, or some of them, were not interested in what he had to say — so they forced him off the stage, denying everyone else the right to hear him.

Needless to say, the protesters and censors accused Kelly of racism. His policing practices were racist, they charged. Of course, those practices — especially “stop and frisk” — saved countless lives. And most of those lives were black or brown. But this sort of thing is trivial to the “social justice warrior.”

Anyway, Kelly was not permitted to speak, but this Valenti-McElroy debate came off. Brown had taken some mollifying steps, however.

The university’s president announced that she opposed McElroy’s view — and scheduled a lecture for the same time as the debate. The lecture, by a Brown psychiatry professor, was called “The Research on Rape Culture.” Evidently, it was not enough that the debate would be just that: a debate, a clash of views. There had to be a separate event, without a debate, without a clash, without a disagreement.

Also, students set up a safe space for those who might attend the debate and be shaken by something they heard. A “safe space”? Yes. This space, in the words of Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times, was a room “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

I am not springing a parody on you. This sort of room is set up at Brown and other colleges and universities around the country.

One student fed up with this atmosphere of illiberalism, fear, and nuttiness was Chris Robotham, a sophomore from Scituate, Mass., majoring in computer science and math. He created a Facebook group called “Reason@Brown.” You can set up three types of Facebook group: Public, Closed, or Secret. This one is secret. It provides a safe space (to coin a phrase) for the free exchange of ideas, online. A member can simply express his views without being condemned as a heretic or villain. Without being shouted off the stage. There is actual argument.

‐Now a junior, Chris grew up arguing with his father — having debates with him. “He and I spent a lot of time in debates about all sorts of issues,” Chris tells me. “I was used to it, and I was disappointed to come to Brown and find that these debates were almost impossible. That could not be more antithetical to the mission of this university, or any university. What happens is, a view that questions the dominant view has to be bulldozed over.”

Was it really necessary for Reason@Brown to be secret? “I am willing to put my neck on the line,” says Chris, “and if people want to say I am some kind of ist, or a violent oppressor on account of my white masculinity, etc., that’s fine, that’s their prerogative, but I think there are a lot of people, including my freshman-year self, who would not be comfortable putting their neck on the line but who, to be perfectly frank, deserve to have the intellectual discussions promised to them in Brown’s advertising and for which they may be paying some six-figure amount.”

(Yes, Christopher Robotham really does talk in such long and excellent sentences. Sentences pour out of him speedily and impressively.)

Reason@Brown started when Chris asked five or so friends whether they would be interested in joining. Those students, in turn, asked others. Members have the right to invite others in. So, the group grows on this basis of referrals. It now has just over 100 members.

They are a diverse bunch, too, says Chris, meaning that they hold all sorts of views. What the members have in common is that they are willing to air and debate those views. Chris says that there are members supporting presidential candidates from Sanders to Trump. A majority of the members will vote Democratic in 2016, he guesses. “But they’re more conservative than the general Brown population, which isn’t saying much.”

Chris goes on to note that, if censorship and intimidation were coming from the right, rather than the left, membership of this secret forum would be more liberal.

‐When I say “freedom of speech,” Chris chimes in with something interesting: “I tend to say ‘free inquiry’ instead of ‘free speech,’ because the cop-out from the censors is, ‘We support free speech at the constitutional level, just not within our confines.’” Along with “free inquiry,” Chris will use the phrase “academic process.”

‐One member of, or contributor to, Reason@Brown is Marie Willersrud, a junior from Oslo, majoring in business economics. She grew up in the social-democratic culture of her homeland, Norway — a culture that many Norwegians find stiflingly conformist. She looked forward to going to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. She looked forward to happy, unbridled discussion. And she went, of course, to Brown.

“Marie!” I say. “Didn’t you know that you were going to one of the least free and open pockets in the whole, vast United States! What were the other options? Oberlin? Reed? Bennington?” She laughs appreciatively.

“I have a lot of fun conversations with Americans,” she says, “except when it comes to politics. I find myself in a place where a large percentage of the student body wants to shut down debates that include unpopular opinions, and the university backs them. This is not what I signed up for.”

That phrase falls with special weight on me: “This is not what I signed up for.” I know just what she means, and I feel like apologizing to her, on behalf of America.

Marie was amazed, in her freshman year, that the police commissioner of New York was booed and shouted off the stage, not permitted to speak. And what she often hears from students is “but”: “I’m for free speech, but …” There is always some excuse that disallows it.

Incredulous and disgusted at the same time, I ask, “Can you really not talk here, except on Reason@Brown?” Marie says, with dead seriousness, “I know very well in what company I can talk freely about things and in what company I should keep my mouth shut.” Sitting next to her, Chris says, “I would second that.” Marie continues, “The number of times my freshman year I was told that I was being offensive …”

“You’re kidding?” I say. Marie is the politest and friendliest of students. “Offensive for saying what?” “Just for being blunt,” Marie answers.

There was a time when people prided themselves on being blunt and even offensive — they went out of their way to give offense. They wore it as a badge of honor. I wonder whether the pressure to conform has ever been so great as it is now. (Even in Puritan times?)

‐Because of some recent reporting I have done — including this visit to Brown — I’ve learned some of today’s campus lingo. To say something that others might disagree with is to commit “violence.” You are “invalidating,” “marginalizing,” or “erasing” them. And you of course are making them “unsafe.”

Also, students imagine themselves “oppressed,” when they are anything but. Recently, AAPI at Brown — this is a “collective” of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander students — issued a statement claiming that the school newspaper “privileges writers who continue in the legacy of white supremacy, further marginalizing students already systemically oppressed by the University.”

Oppressed! Systemically! I point out to Chris and Marie that Brown students, whoever they are, are among the luckiest people on the face of the earth. “In human history,” says Chris, correctly. What ingrates they are, I continue: to be at this renowned institution, on this beautiful campus, at the tippy-top of American society. Millions of people around the world would trade places with them in a heartbeat! “You can’t marginalize their suffering,” Marie chides me, with a twinkle.


‐That AAPI statement is worth looking at, if you can stomach it: here. It is like a compendium of current dogma and lingo. A distillation of The Problem. I don’t believe it’s a parody or satire. It is a genuine statement from scores of students at one of America’s most prestigious universities.

“… we aim to hold both The Herald’s staff and the University accountable for the violences they perpetuate against Native and Indigenous peoples, and broader communities of color at and around the University since its inception.” (The school newspaper is the Brown Daily Herald.)

“We also acknowledge that no apology can sufficiently rectify the violence enacted by The Herald in silencing, speaking for, and erasing Native and Indigenous students.”

And so on. Do you remember what Chris said, above, about “ist”s? Well, this is a sentence from the AAPI statement, and, again, I don’t think it’s a parody — I think it’s real:

“The Herald is obligated to amplify the voices of marginalized students, and obligated to ensure it does not provide a platform for ableist, classist, cissexist, heterosexist, imperialist, racist, and sexist content.”

Some schools, somewhere, should be sued, for rendering students unable to think or speak — for clotting their minds and tongues with absolute gibberish. “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” wrote Oscar Hammerstein (South Pacific). These kids did not come out of the womb thinking and talking like that. Someone, someones, taught them to do so — and did them a horrible, barely forgivable disservice.

‐Want some more? A Brown student said this to Judith Shulevitz, about Wendy McElroy, the radical libertarian: “Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences.” See what I mean about “invalidate,” along with “erase” and all the rest?

Here is another Brown student, speaking to Emily Shire of the Daily Beast: “I think freedom of speech in general is rhetoric that supports the erasure of minority students.” (Article here.)

Erasure. Invalidation. Marginalization. As in Orwell, there is a language that goes with an ideology — a kind of pseudo-language, a code in a club.

‐In October, the Herald published a couple of controversial columns by a student writing under a pseudonym. These had to do with race, ethnicity, and that most radioactive of holidays: Columbus Day.

The editors removed one of the columns from the paper’s website. And they apologized abjectly for the publication of both of them. I believe the apology resembles a Mao-era self-criticism. Is that going too far? Here’s a swatch:

We as The Herald are part of a history of Brown that is founded on inequality and that is too often slow to change. Brown itself is built on land that belonged to the Narragansett and Wampanoag nations, and yet the University has no formal relationships with them. …

By failing to be more inclusive of marginalized voices, The Herald does not fully live up to its potential or our community’s expectations. We must continue to make active efforts to recruit and retain a diverse staff. Without this, we will continue to fall short and repeat our mistakes. To those who have been most deeply hurt, we ask you to share your voice with us and with the Brown community at large. Understandably, this is an unequal burden, but we cannot progress without help.

(To read the apology, or self-criticism, or editors’ note, in full, go here.)

‐A word about Columbus Day. In 2009, Brown, one of the most “politically correct” places in the country, abolished Columbus Day and replaced it with what they called “Fall Weekend.” But that’s not enough for the fevered Left, because, evidently, nothing is ever enough for that sort of Left. (Are they satisfied with North Korea? Too much dissent in certain quarters of Pyongyang?)

The push now is to transform “Fall Weekend” into “Indigenous People’s Day.” Or is it “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”? I’m sure the placement of that apostrophe is cause for hot debate, or would be, if the fevered Left were (more) literate.

Some days ago, I wrote about my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., “a small citadel of the Left,” as I’ve long put it. The city council has ruled that there is no more Columbus Day. Instead, Ann Arbor will have “Indigenous Peoples Day.” (No apostrophe, I believe.)

Ann Arbor is ahead of Brown in one respect and behind in another. They’re behind because it took them until 2015 to abolish Columbus. They’re ahead because, skipping “Fall Weekend,” they’re already at the indigenous business.

‐Back to Reason@Brown, and reason at Brown: The group is now outed, by virtue of my articles. Only two members’ names will be known. But the group’s existence will be known. Why now?

Because, as Chris Robotham explains, the atmosphere of censorship is getting no better; it’s possibly getting even worse. At the same time, people on campus are getting bolder about talking back to it (the censorship, that is). They are speaking up for free speech, or free inquiry: a genuine liberalism.

Maybe an awareness of Reason@Brown will embolden them further. Could it even disturb the consciences of the censors, a little? Might they be embarrassed at driving students underground, for the free interchange of ideas? A secret Facebook group? Or are they so convinced of their righteousness that they are incapable of embarrassment or shame?

Maybe free speech is an egg they feel they have to break, to make their ideological omelet?

‐ In October, three Brown professors and a senior lecturer — fairly gutsy souls — wrote a letter together. They rapped the university’s administration for “timidity and cowardice in the face of voices for censorship and the suppression of ideas.” At stake, they warned, “are the soul and character of a liberal and open university.”

‐Chris says that Reason@Brown should not have to exist — at least not in secret. “This is the administration’s fault for failing to endorse a culture of the free exchange of ideas. They are afraid of being in official opposition to various advocacy groups on campus. Their refusal to say no to these groups has created the need for Reason@Brown, which should otherwise be known as Brown University.”

If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a bully. These campuses are full of bullies. And it’s the job of administrators — of adults — to curb the bullies. Instead, the administrators seem to abet them. Sometimes are them.

I’m particularly impressed by another statement of Chris’s — I’ve never quite thought of it this way: “These ideologies rose to power because of the safe haven that the ivory tower afforded them. They were allowed to flourish on campus. Now that the adherents to these ideologies control the campus, they want the rules changed. They don’t want a safe haven for their critics. They climbed the ladder, and now they want to kick it away, before the next person can climb it.”

Chris recognizes that the outing of Reason@Brown might bring him “some grief,” as he puts it. But he is “not especially concerned about that.”

His hope is that, one day, there will be no need for Reason@Brown. He reemphasizes: “This should not need to exist. I should not be giving this interview. I should be in my dorm room right now.” But here we are.

‐Over the years, I have covered a lot of political dissidents in unfree countries. I don’t say that Chris Robotham and Marie Willersrud are in the same category. Far from it. But it’s impossible not to recognize certain similarities. And I admire these two more than I can say.


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