Charles C. W. Cooke:
Less than an hour elapsed between Ted Cruz’s announcing that he would be running for the presidency and the beginning of the oh-so-predictable “McCarthy!” taunts. On Twitter, the comedian Bill Maher sardonically endorsedCruz’s candidacy, asking, “What’s not to love about a guy who acts like Joe McCarthy and sweats like Richard Nixon?” On MSNBC, meanwhile, Chris Matthews revived his old critique, charging that Cruz was “deliberately channeling McCarthy again today.” This, alas, is a line that has been trotted out before.
All is fair in love, war, and politics, and as illiterate as the comparisons to McCarthy may be, I suppose I would almost be disappointed if someone, somewhere, did not choose to advance them. But for the more serious-minded among us, it is truly peculiar to see the specter of McCarthy dragged into quotidian party politics when it is so desperately needed elsewhere. Certainly, Cruz’s style can rub the wrong way. Certainly, his debate-champion mien is occasionally inappropriately deployed. But the truth is that if Arthur Miller were writing The Crucible today he would likely be less interested in effusive senators from Texas and more interested in the more modern pathologies that the Cruzes of the world tend typically to disdain. Presumably, Miller would look at our universities and our media, at our malleable “speech codes,” our self-indulgent “safe spaces,” our preference for “narrative” over truth, and at our pathetic appeasement of what is little more than good old-fashioned illiberalism, and he would despair. Ted Cruz, frankly, wouldn’t enter into his thinking.
Over the weekend, a Purdue-based doctoral student and teacher named Fredrik deBoer took to Twitter to rail bitterly against the toxic climate that the advocates of “tolerance” have created on his campus. “Students,” deBoer wrote, are “very quick learners,” and they have realized that they can use our present hysteria to advance their interests. Indeed, far from helping to educate, deBoer added, our current penchant for hyper-sensitivity is having a deleterious effect on the quality of the critical training he is expected to provide. “If you question even the most obviously dishonest and self-interested invocation of trauma/triggering/etc,” deBoer lamented, “you will be criticized severely.”
And if you don’t? Well, then the growing cast of hecklers is permitted its intellectual veto. “The chilling effect is very real,” deBoer confirmed in frustration, “and I hear that from my very large network of academic friends across the country. It’s real and powerful.” How powerful? Certainly powerful enough that deBoer admits that he has taken to “self-censoring.” “The terrible job market leaves everyone in fear of accidentally giving offense,” he fretted, and so, afraid of losing his job, he now avoids teaching “anything that might be remotely triggering . . . like discussions of genocide, racism, or historical violence.”
To sum up, then: Because his students insist that they are not to be challenged in any way, deBoer is unable to teach what he needs to teach for fear of losing his job. And he can’t criticize this arrangement because to criticize it is . . . to risk losing his job.
Welcome to Salem, 1692.
Writing anonymously on the “White Hot Harlots” blog, a “passionate leftist” friend of deBoer’s painted a disquietingly similar picture. “Saying anything that goes against liberal orthodoxy,” he declared, “is now grounds for a firin’.” Indeed, “even if you make a reasonable and respectful case, if you so much as cause your liberal students a second of complication or doubt you face the risk of demonstrations, public call-outs, and severe professional consequences.” You will note, perhaps, that it is not Ted Cruz who is causing these problems. Quite the opposite, in fact. “I would not get fired for pissing off a Republican,” our anonymous friend insists. Rather, “liberal students scare the shit out of me,” for:
all it takes is one slip — not even an outright challenging of their beliefs, but even momentarily exposing them to any uncomfortable thought or imagery — and that’s it, your classroom is triggering, you are insensitive, kids are bringing mattresses to your office hours and there’s a twitter petition out demanding you chop off your hand in repentance.
For a prime example of this tendency in action we need look no further than the weekend edition of the New York Times, in which Judith Shulevitz offers up a bizarre story about a Brown University senior named Kathryn Byron who sought to involve the university’s authorities when she thought she might have to hear arguments that contradicted her beliefs:
When she heard last fall that a student group had organized a debate about campus sexual assault between Jessica Valenti, the founder of feministing.com, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian, and that Ms. McElroy was likely to criticize the term “rape culture,” Ms. Byron was alarmed. “Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” she told me. It could be “damaging.”
Ms. Byron and some fellow task force members secured a meeting with administrators. Not long after, Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, announced that the university would hold a simultaneous, competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.
Later in the piece, a fellow student of Byron’s is shown condensing this peculiar attitude into an almost impossibly perfect sound bite. At college, she complained, she was “feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”