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Thursday, May 2, 2024

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Authoritarian Personality Comes to College

Less than 24 hours after my last post, dissenting political opinion faced violent suppression on both coasts of the United States.  In New York, Columbia's President called in the NYPD to take control of Columbia's campus.  In Los Angeles, UCLA did little  to prevent violent thugs from attacking the divestment encampment with fireworks, chemical agents, and clubs, all while spewing hate speech at the protesters. Police, when they arrived, did little to stop the attacks for at least an hour.  (for video see) Then on May 1, the UCLA administration called in the police  to remove the encampment, something they accomplished through force--including flash bombs, batons, rubber bullets--in the morning of May 2.  We are left with the example of the leaders of two leading universities either calling for, or implicitly accepting, state and right wing violence against free speech.

As I indicated in my last post, the current suppression of divestment encampments and the mobilization of anti-Semitism against them (despite the many Jewish alumni, faculty, and students who participate in and support the the divestment movement), must be seen against the years long right wing attempt to destroy higher education as source of independent thinking.  As is often the case, Chris Rufo helpfully made this point clear in his recent tweet on the difference between Columbia and the University of Florida, where he praised the latter because as he put it: "This is a leadership cascade: @govGovRonDesantis sets the vision, @BenSasse enacts the policy, and the aptly-named Steve Orlando reproduces the tone.  Coordinated Movement. Clear incentives.  Perfect contrast with Columbia."  It is hard to find a clearer description of state controlled education than that.

But with all of that said, yesterday marked something different.  The combination of police violence and vigilante activity directed against dissenting speech was outrageous.  To be sure, this combination is not new in the United States as Steven Hahn has recently reminded us.  Nor can we be shocked that campus administrations have turned to force to control their space. There was another danger this week.  For years, free speech warriors and nattering nabobs of neutrality have been complaining about the heckler's veto.  I share those concerns.  But this week we saw the result of one of the largest heckler's vetoes in recent history: as two universities responded to violence and condemnation of protest by shutting down the protest itself.  No clearer message can be sent to those who disapprove of both dissent and American colleges and universities that their aggression will get them what they want.

We need to be clear that when the campus administrations declare the encampments unlawful or in trespass, they are marking them as objects for violence.  This action is not some purported neutrality.  Instead it casts them out of the community and imagines them as outside the law.  The violence--both state and mob--is a failure of leadership at the highest levels of both universities.  Chancellors, Presidents, and Governing Boards share in the responsibility.    


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