It’s a fitting coincidence that on the same day Middlebury College announced the end of disciplinary proceedings against the student mob that attacked American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray and Middlebury political-science professor Allison Stanger in March, Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground for asking a question about health-care reform.
According to Middlebury administrators, 67 students received punishments “ranging from probation to official college discipline, which places a permanent record in the student’s file” — in other words, wrist slaps at worst. No students were suspended and none expelled, despite the physical attack on Murray and Stanger, the latter of whom was left concussed and in a neck brace. Administrators shrugged, saying that they were unable to identify the actual perpetrators of the assault.
The Middlebury mob was just one example of a tendency toward violence that has become alarmingly typical on the left. From Middlebury on the East Coast, to Berkeley on the West, a great many self-styled progressives — especially younger ones — have decided that the appropriate reaction to points of view with which they disagree is to riot. That such behavior has gone effectively undisciplined is sure to encourage more of it.
Now, across the political aisle, we have the disgraceful spectacle of a Republican congressional candidate resorting to violence to rid himself of an inconvenient journalist. According to a Fox News crew who were present for the incident, as Ben Jacobs tried to ask Greg Gianforte a question, Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him . . . then began punching the reporter.”
Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault. Nonetheless, certain partisans leapt to excuse the attack. Laura Ingraham suggested that Jacobs was a schoolchild who got “his lunch money stolen” and ran “to tell the recess monitor.” Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Center, tweeted: “Jacobs is an obnoxious, dishonest first class jerk. I’m not surprised he got smacked.” Polling-site reports suggest that at least a few local voters are more enthusiastic about Gianforte in the wake of the episode.
Politics is always a fractious affair, but our politics is at present particularly nasty. Elements of both the Left and the Right have seen fit to dispense with the pieties of free speech and reasoned dialogue and substitute swinging fists. Each side validates its decision by proposing that its victims are, in fact, the aggressors: Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald (hounded off the campus of Claremont-McKenna College in California) are “racists,” threatening the “existence” of minority groups; the media are “elites,” condescending to “real Americans” and using their sway to entrench their own power. Each side is getting even with its “enemies.”
Politics is always a fractious affair, but our politics is at present particularly nasty.
But they are jettisoning more than pieties. The sine qua non of our constitutional political order — “liberal” in the traditional sense — is the inviolable dignity of every human being. No one is a means to an end, valuable only insofar as he is useful to this or that project, disposable when his utility is exhausted. Every human being as such is valuable. For our political order to endure, this principle must be non-negotiable; the alternative is some form of tyranny, in which one group wholly determines the fate of another.
The ever-present temptation to dehumanize and to dominate is especially strong when traditional means of recourse appear to break down, as many on the left and right would agree has happened recently. But the response should be to redouble our efforts to repair those mechanisms, not to destroy them altogether. Without an alternative for securing the dignity of individuals against infringement, the latter is a quick route to a political order held together by nothing more than brute force.
We are obviously a long way from that dire scenario. Our constitutional order has proven astonishingly durable. But the impulses are there, and those acting on them, or condoning them, seem not to have given much thought to exactly what is at stake.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.