Politics & Policy

Cowardice at Berkeley

Anti-Trump demonstrators on the Berkeley campus, April 15, 2017. (Reuters photo: Stephen Lam)

We have had our differences with Ann Coulter over the years, differences that led to our eventually declining to continue publishing her work. She is charming and funny and sometimes brilliant. She is also a glib and irresponsible self-promoter. We suspect that she will not like having that written about her. We suspect that she might write something hostile in reply.

All of that will happen without the need for police supervision.

What has happened at Berkeley is an outrage. Coulter was invited to give a speech on campus, and left-wing terrorists threatened to use violence to prevent the event from taking place. The cowardice begins at the top, with the university administration and the Berkeley police department, who lack the courage and the commitment to principle necessary to discharge their official duties. But the Young America’s Foundation and the College Republicans, both of which withdrew their support for the event under duress, are not beyond criticism in this matter, either.

For those at Berkeley celebrating what they believe to be a moral victory, consider this: As much as you may detest Ann Coulter, she has never used violence or the threat of violence to keep someone from speaking. She is a better citizen than you are, with a deeper commitment to genuinely liberal and humane values. You may call yourselves the anti-fascists, but your black-shirt routine — along with your glorification of political violence and your rejection of liberal and democratic norms — suggest that the “anti” part of that formulation is not entirely appropriate. Perhaps you are only young and ignorant, but if you had any power of introspection at all, you would see that you are the thing you believe yourselves to be fighting. You are the oppressors, the censors, the violent, the hateful, the narrow-minded, the reactionary.

So, what now?

University of California system president Janet Napolitano should be dismissed. Napolitano used to head up the Department of Homeland Security. She had executive responsibility for keeping al-Qaeda out of New York and Washington, but she can’t secure a lecture hall on a California college campus? That beggars belief. The issue here is not an inability to act responsibly but an unwillingness to do so. She should go.

The Berkeley police department, which among other things has encouraged violent protests and cooperated with their organizers by offering to make “symbolic arrests,” also requires new management. It is engaged in systematic viewpoint discrimination in violation of federal law.

Public institutions should be expected to live up to their public duties; when they fail to do so, sanction is appropriate.

Congress, too, should consider ways to clamp down on this lawlessness. One possibility might be to make it costlier to colleges to censor than to uphold constitutional rights, perhaps by tying federal funding to their protection. Public institutions should be expected to live up to their public duties; when they fail to do so, sanction is appropriate.

As much as we are disgusted by the criminal antics in Berkeley, though, we also are more than a little embarrassed for the perpetrators. Mentally normal adults can have conversations about contentious issues without babysitters. The thumb-suckers at Berkeley and Middlebury and Yale cannot. But there is intellectual cowardice as well as physical cowardice, and in many ways the former is more debilitating than the latter.

This is a sorry show all around. The only person who emerges from this muck undiminished is Ann Coulter. But poetic justice for the prosaic is a high price to pay for the normalizing of political violence as an ordinary instrument of our public discourse.

Shame.

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The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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