In the ancient days, before we had 15-minute outrages over controversial tweets, we had year-long outrages over controversial books. Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, wrote a book that is doomed to be forever more read about than read. The great irony of his literary life is that, having written what is surely the 20th century’s most famous book about intelligence, he is doomed to endure the eternal rage of people uninterested in employing any of their own.
Murray was invited by Middlebury College to give a talk about the ideas considered in his second-most famous book, Coming Apart, in which he explores the role of factors such as family, marriage, and work ethic in the divergence between the white upper class and the white lower class. He concludes that changes in how we live (especially in how and whether we marry) since the 1960s have led to a situation in which the upper classes and the lower classes live in effectively separate cultures.
Of course there was going to be a protest. Charles Murray is used to protests: If he opens a box of Cracker Jack, there is no prize at the bottom, just some angry Haverford College sophomore calling him a racist. If he were protested any more widely, he’d be the Vietnam War. But, usually, he is also permitted to speak, free speech being a two-way street.
Not at Middlebury. The Middlebury protesters made it clear that no one would be permitted to hear what Murray has to say. It is worth considering that this is an act of intellectual violence not against Charles Murray but against those Middlebury students with genuine intellectual curiosity about other points of view. Charles Murray knows what Charles Murray thinks, but the average Middlebury sophomore does not. There was the usual chanting and hooting and sundry jackassery. After a period of trying to wait out the protesters, Murray went to Plan B, retiring to a secure location to stream his talk over the Web and to take questions via Twitter. The Middlebury students responded by trying to drown him out with chants and pulling fire alarms.
Afterward, when he was leaving the campus to have dinner with his hosts and a few of the better students, he and his party were attacked by a mob, with one professor suffering neck injuries that sent her briefly to the hospital. After arriving at the restaurant where they were to have dinner, they were obliged to flee, the mob having caught wind of their whereabouts. Murray, in his usual good spirits, noted with gratitude that the second restaurant, unlike the first, was provided with a full bar.
This is a remarkable story for two reasons. The first is that the Middlebury administration behaved admirably, which is, unhappily, not normally the case. The administration invited Murray, kept the invitation in the face of protest, provided an alternative arrangement, and appears to be, at the very least, committed to investigating the violence that was done to its professor. That is more than most colleges can say. The second remarkable feature is the implacable stupidity and thuggishness of the Middlebury students. Perhaps inspired by Berkeley’s incendiary protests against an alt-right provocateur invited to that campus, Middlebury’s mob of little suppressors shows a campus culture in which the Left is dedicated not only to eliminating the expression of dissident points of view but also to physically punishing such expression.
That leads me to two critical questions for which I have no empirical answers: What is the percentage of tenured faculty on American campuses who are still unambiguously on the side of free intellectual exchange? What is the percentage of them who are willing to express that position openly? I am confident that the answer to the first question is still far greater than fifty percent. But what about the answer to the second question? My reading of events on campuses over the last few years is that a minority of faculty are cowing a majority in the same way that a minority of students are cowing the majority.
The Boston Globe reports that “students and professors at Middlebury College were ashamed and embarrassed” of the episode, as they should be. The question, then, is: What are they going to do about it?