Features Australia

Truth, meet error

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

Recently at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, new university president Lawrence Bacow was blocked from giving his speech on universities and the economy. Some thirty ‘Divest Harvard’ supporters surged to the dais with placards. ‘Disclose! Divest! Reinvest!’, they demanded. Other attacks targeted the university’s money-management.

Six climbed on stage and sat between Bacow and his audience. Unable to begin, Bacow and a co-speaker from the Education School were spirited upstairs by the Kennedy School dean to a small fourth-floor classroom.

Before being led out, President Bacow said above the din, ‘Harvard has never in recent experience had a speaker not allowed to speak. I hope this will not be the first time tonight.’ The Dean asked the disrupters to leave the stage for the back of the hall, but he did not insist on it.

As the speakers left the gathering with some audience trailing after them, the protestors celebrated: ‘Who Shut it Down? WE SHUT IT DOWN!’. Such eloquence, perhaps they are English majors.

Previously, Bacow had made the claim ‘never before not allowed to speak’ in writing (without ‘in recent experience’). But tonight he was furious.

All this is not new on Harvard’s lovely campus, old brick buildings nestling among gnarled trees. On 29 March, 1971 a huge crowd gathered in Sanders Theater for a ‘Teach-In’ favourable to Washington’s Vietnam policy. The four speakers – from the White House, a Brandeis University professor, Thai and South Vietnam diplomats – tried to begin. Each sentence was cut off by shouted insults.

‘You can’t destroy freedom,’ croaked law professor Archibald Cox from the chair. ‘It’s the best protection we have.’ Loud voices shouted him down. Panelists tried to speak but could not. Dozens of times, Cox, later famous as Special Prosecutor for defying Nixon over Watergate sackings, begged for the meeting to begin. But Sanders Theater emptied. I was present, a faculty member at the time. ‘If you view tonight as a political demonstration,’ I wrote in my diary, ‘it was effective. If you view it as a human act, it was depressing.’

Next day student Elliott Abrams (today, he spearheads Trump’s Venezuela policy) wrote in the student newspaper Harvard Crimson: ‘An ultimately successful effort was made forcefully to eliminate free speech at Harvard.’ He criticised Cox’s plaintive appeals: ‘We must refuse to beg for free speech at Harvard. We must insist upon it.’ This month, the Kennedy School dean did not do so.

In 1971, I was in a minority opposed to the Vietnam intervention (which dwarfed Iraq tenfold), yet wishing to hear the pro-War speakers. ‘With a certain logic,’ my diary reads, ‘the chanting youths have come around to Hanoi’s position on freedom; they don’t believe in it.’ John Stuart Mill’s words in On Liberty, ‘Truth is burnished by its collision with error,’ died in Sanders Theater.

Today, in the US and Australia, universities regularly muzzle visiting speakers with conservative ideas. Worse, a one-sidedness hobbles the daily torrent of opinion on political and social issues, from outside speakers and faculty alike. Highly-qualified Bacow correctly says Harvard generally  protects civility of discourse; 1971 is history now, he may say. But a left-of-centre echo chamber is not a marketplace of ideas, where left and right both enjoy civility. If a left-wing speaker is forceful, she is praised for her ‘no holds barred’ courage. If a conservative is forceful, she is ‘hard-hearted’.

After George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies held a panel, ‘Bush’s Foreign Policy in Asia in his Second Term.’ The five panelists were all liberal Democrats. No Republicans were asked (I noticed the omission as I was advising Vice President Cheney on China at the time.) Leaving aside unfairness, it was pedagogically flawed to omit a Bush supporter. Surely such a panelist could offer clues to Bush’s plans not seen by Asia scholars who despised Bush?

A similar example—shocking to Mill’s principle—came last year when Asia Center and Fairbank Center mounted a panel ‘Trump and Asia’. No one from Trump’s staff or appointees was on the panel. Titters or giggles met mention of the president’s name. As a result, the booming Trump economy’s impact on Asia, for good and ill, was not broached. No panelist foresaw Trump’s tackling lop-sided dealings with China, or his stunning breakthrough on North Korea. You don’t need a gag order to keep Harvard leftist; the lecterns and mikes do the job.

To be sure, Bacow’s job is difficult, given sincere student idealism and professors made zealous parrots by Vietnam. Perhaps he cannot fail to tilt left. But please don’t don a cloak of even-handedness, as he and others do. Under his predecessor, Drew Gilpin Faust, radical demands were met by appointing a cascade of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ officers vigilant for ‘victims’. It was appeasement. The word ‘Freedom’ hardly got a mention in Faust’s hundreds of speeches.

Happily, faced with recent students’ cry for ‘Divestment’ from companies of which they disapprove, Bacow made a refreshing remark never heard from Faust: ‘One thing you have to understand about me is that I don’t respond to demands, I respond to reason.’ A good sign. Harvard is a terrific university. It will remain one only if ideas reign and ‘truth’ and ‘error’ contend.

After his humiliation, Bacow crunched his tormentors: ‘Their behavior tonight does not incline me to meet with them again.’ An unhappy escalation? Maybe not. Bacow will probably make concessions; he’ll sit down with the angry ones. Yet economics professors could demonstrate in ten minutes the futility of what the Divestors’ seek: ‘social justice’ is not an available lever for investors.

If Bacow does give in, ‘intersectionality’ will plague him and causes will multiply. The offence of fossil fuels and investing in building prisons; racism; gays who lack ‘recognition’; fragile flowers terrified of men and as such can’t distinguish smiling from raping. But some of Bacow’s multiplying administrators and a majority of Arts and Sciences professors will resist him if he assails this nonsense. Harvard is fortunate to have a large endowment, but scores of lesser colleges will go bankrupt by turning themselves into ‘social justice’ tech-schools.

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