Charles Murray was not met with riots when he showed up to speak at NYU last Friday, as he had been at Middlebury College a few weeks before. Still, his reception hardly served as a model for campus discourse. Security was beefed up, and his hosts, a student group affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, had to restrict access to the event. A small crowd showed up to protest Murray’s presence — and to hurl insults at attendees and the university itself.
In response to what occurred at Middlebury, the speech’s venue was moved to an underground room in NYU’s Torch Club, and tickets had to be reserved ahead of time, angering many who had hoped to gain admission in order to protest.
The protest was an unimpressive showing. Demonstrators numbered about 20 and brandished signs with such inane slogans as “No Eugenics on Campus — Fight Fascism.” They chanted about Murray but also directed opprobrium at NYU for permitting his visit. Pairing Murray’s alleged prejudice with that of the university, a chant of “How do you spell ‘classist’? N-Y-U!” rang out as I stood waiting to get through security, and many signs accused Murray of racism. Indeed, NYU’s Faculty of Color Caucus wrote a letter indicting Murray’s talk as “hate and fear under the guise of scholarship and free speech.”
The strongest condemnation of Murray focused on his supposed view of the poor as an underclass deserving of their situation. One student, Shirish Sarkar, told me: “Charles Murray is the latest in a long line of people that have been pushing this sort of eugenics-based poverty myth, where there’s a correlation between intelligence and poverty.” The Faculty of Color Caucus summarized Murray’s book Coming Apart, on which the talk was based, as “[blaming] poor whites for their own poverty.” Those of us who listened to what Murray had to say in his talk in fact heard him sharply reprove the out-of-touch elite that had smugly abandoned the working class and poor to their fate.
As Murray entered the Torch Club through a side door, flanked by security, his talk began with shouts of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” faintly echoing from above ground, outside of the restaurant. He referred to the hullabaloo only with an opening joke that it was all wasted on a talk that will make listeners think, “That’s it?”
Murray’s searing indictment of elitist disdain for middle- and working-class Americans might have surprised and confused many of those chanting protesters. This was hardly someone harboring class prejudice and defending white supremacy.
Murray grew up in a working-class family in Iowa, and as he mentioned in the talk, changes in Ivy League admissions favoring SAT scores were his ticket to Harvard. This is part of a macro-level trend that Murray has discussed in his writing: that because of IQ (a quality that is largely heritable) a cognitive elite now has the ability to attend the best universities and thereafter associate almost entirely with one another. They network, make friends with, and marry people who are in this “new upper class,” cloistering themselves off from their fellow countrymen in a way that the smartest Americans were previously unable to do. He told the crowd that this would certainly be an option for most of them: “You could do what the upper class does — go to zip codes where people are most like you. I think you would shortchange yourself.”
A true classist would hail such fragmentation as positive. Murray, however, concluded his speech with a story about a couple in the high echelons of finance who read Coming Apart and decided to move out of their elite New York enclave. They discovered happiness in a middle- and working-class Connecticut neighborhood. Murray told the audience, “Being in touch with your fellow countrymen enriches your life. Maybe, just maybe, if you choose this, you’ll love it.”
Meanwhile, students outside seemed to treat ignorance about Murray’s writing and libertarian and conservative ideas in general as a badge of honor. Signs that read, “F*** your free-speech” and “No free speech for racists” leave no room for discussion.
One woman advocated restricting Murray’s speech on the grounds that exercising free speech is how the Nazis rose to power. In fact, “Nazi” proved to be a popular word. Taking a page from Samantha Bee, another protester accused your humble correspondent of having a “Nazi haircut,” and others exiting the talk heard similar insults directed at them. A flow chart going from “Charles Murray” to “audience members must be Nazis” would be a doozy.
Unsurprisingly, the protesters were unable to pick one theme to rally around. Some said that they affirmed AEI at NYU’s right to host speakers, but they nonetheless condemned the decision to invite Murray. One group of protesters constituted a mix of those supporting and opposing free speech as a principle, and they saw no inconsistency in joining forces against Murray’s ideas. Among them, one student expressed doubt about the wisdom of blaming Hitler’s rise on “free speech”: “Campus activism should not be using language against free speech,” this protester cautioned. ”I think that is dangerous because it can quickly be used against the campus Left.”
After denouncing Murray, these students peacefully left together to attend a meeting of NYU Students for Justice in Palestine.
The wannabe revolutionaries would learn a lot from engaging Murray’s ideas. For one thing, his scholarship describes steps to combat the trend of “coming apart” that threatens society’s most vulnerable, whom the protesters claim to support. Murray would argue for a healthy marriage culture, respecting different viewpoints, and a host of other values from which these members of the NYU bubble could learn. Beyond ideology, students would have benefited from hearing Murray speak with the precision of a true intellectual and the kind and respectful demeanor of a leader.
His denunciation of classism was more clear-eyed than theirs or their authoritarian professors’. It’s a shame they didn’t get to hear it.