Magazine June 2, 2014, Issue

The Devil and Larry Summers

It seems that the Satanists at Harvard have chickened out. Students had planned to hold a black mass, with the New York–based Satanic Temple acting as consultants. A black mass, in case you didn’t know, has some mythic roots in the late Middle Ages but is basically a 20th-century bit of fakery, intended to mock Christians, particularly Catholics.

Reports as of this writing remain sketchy, but it seems the students hadn’t planned on a backlash, or for that matter nailed down a reliable venue, so when things got too heated, they ended up having drinks at a bar rather than conduct their ritual, which reportedly would have included a sacramental chalice full of semen.

I doubt many are stunned that the same students who thought this was a nifty idea in the first place turned out to be unskilled at event planning (never mind the question of whether they were up to filling that chalice). Everyone knows that Mammon and Baal worshipers snap up the really sharp kids, because they have better parties.

While reasonable people can disagree about how stupid these Leading Devil Worshipers of Tomorrow were (the debate runs from “very” to “extremely”), a more interesting debate is whether Harvard was right to permit this offensive buffoonery in the first place. President Drew Faust issued a statement condemning the black mass, which was nice of her. But then she went to the storage room and lugged out a big box of dusty old clichés and dumped them on the page. “Freedom of expression, as Justice Holmes famously said long ago, protects not only free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate,” she wrote. “But even as we permit expression of the widest range of ideas,” she continued, “we must also take responsibility for debating and challenging expression with which we profoundly disagree.”

It’s at moments like this that I wish Peter Falk could magically appear to reprise his role as Columbo and ask, “Just one more thing.” To wit: Ms. Faust, didn’t you get your job as Harvard’s president because your predecessor, Lawrence Summers, expressed himself in ways that Harvard profoundly disagreed with?

Recap: At an academic conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Summers was asked to speak on the question of why there aren’t more tenured female professors in the hard sciences. He warned that in the spirit of zesty dialogue, his remarks would include “some attempts at provocation.”

His attempts succeeded beyond his wildest dreams when he pointed to well-documented research that the distribution of cognitive ability is more varied among men than among women (translation: There are more male idiots and more male geniuses, while the typical woman is smarter than the typical man). The usual excitable feminists got the vapors, fell to their fainting couches, and, when fully recovered, demanded Summers’s head.

Of course, it’s not Faust’s fault that her predecessor was canned because Harvard’s tolerance for “expression we hate” doesn’t cover informed analysis of data by one of the world’s leading (liberal) economists before an audience of some of the world’s leading scientists and science educators — but does cover semen-drenched mockery of Christians by a bunch of undergrads.

Yet it is ironic.

And it raises an exasperating contradiction in how liberals talk about free speech. They claim to defend to the death the right of Americans to spout unreasonable things. This, of course, is something of a lie; I very much doubt Harvard would let students burn a Koran or stage Voltaire’s Mahomet. Yet when it comes to other kinds of extreme speech — boutique sex shows masquerading as transgressive assaults on the patriarchy, vitriolic denunciations of the U.S. military — this sort of unreasonable speech must be defended.

And here’s the thing: Many of the very same liberals go AWOL when the right to say reasonable things is questioned. You can always count on the ACLU to defend the Ku Klux Klan’s free-speech rights, or to ensure that Nazis’ liberty to march past Holocaust survivors remains unfettered. But where are they on Brendan Eich and his exile from Mozilla? The Fausts are downright poetic about the need to protect, literally, Satanic speech. But ask them to stick their necks out to defend Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Charles Murray, Condoleezza Rice, or even IMF chief Christine Lagarde (just dumped as a speaker by Smith College), and then, suddenly, “balancing tests” between tolerance and free speech are rolled out like medieval siege engines intended to fend off any efforts by reasonable people to cross the moat.

The biggest irony? One of the staple arguments in that dusty box of free-speech clichés is that we must protect extreme speech because doing so expands the boundaries of permissible speech. Move the borders farther out into the frontier, goes the theory, and you create more security for the heartland of liberty. Except that theory is empirically false. The barbarians have been inside the perimeter for years.

These campus Caesars celebrate themselves as liberators for their bold victories over censorship way out on the frontier of acceptable expression, even as they ruthlessly crack down on speech that might pose a genuine threat. You see, reasonable conservatives might actually persuade people that the liberal thought monopolists are wrong, and that makes them dangerous. But Satanists? They must be defended to maintain the myth of the open-minded regime. Call it the Faustian Bargain of American liberalism: Celebrate the rights of the absurd and the wicked in exchange for the power to silence the reasonable and the persuasive. As with all Faustian bargains, it may cost American liberalism its soul, but for liberals, such power is cheap at any price.

In This Issue

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Politics & Policy

Tall Cotton

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Books, Arts & Manners

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A Christo Garland

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The Week

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Poetry

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