n March 2, the libertarian social scientist Charles Murray appeared on a stage at Middlebury College in Vermont to give a speech on the themes of his 2012 book, Coming Apart, which deals with class stratification among white Americans. But Murray did not deliver his remarks from the podium. He was denied that opportunity by a mob of students who turned their backs on him, jeered, catcalled, and hurled invective. “In some cases,” Murray wrote later, “I can only describe their eyes as crazed and their expressions as snarls. Melodramatic, I know. But that’s what they looked like.”
When it became clear that Murray would be unable to speak as planned, the college administration moved him to a room elsewhere in the facility where his conversation with political scientist Allison Stanger was broadcast online. The mob followed, shouting, pulling fire alarms, and banging on the door. “The din never stopped,” Murray wrote. After the conversation was over, Murray, Stanger, and Middlebury’s vice president for communications, Bill Burger, attempted to leave the building.
The mob was waiting. Two security guards escorted the three of them through the pulsating crowd with “Allison and Bill each holding one of my elbows, the three of us plowing ahead, the security guards clearing our way, and lots of pushing and shoving from all sides.” Murray is 74 years old. He was afraid he might fall to the ground. At one point an assailant grabbed Professor Stanger’s hair. She had to wear a neck brace to recover from the injury.
Eventually the party reached its car. The mob surrounded it, “banging on the sides and the windows and rocking the car, climbing onto the hood.” They escaped and drove to a dinner for students and invited guests. But the meal was interrupted and its location moved when Burger discovered that the protesters had learned of Murray’s whereabouts.
What happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury was an affront to academic freedom, democratic norms, freedom of speech, and basic manners. The mob action was, in a word, fascistic—extrajudicial, intolerant, irrational, violent, rooted in a politics of identity. Such incidents on university campuses have become a microcosm of disturbing trends in American society at large. All the vectors of our culture are fissiparous. “In the mid-1990s,” Murray wrote, “I could count on students who had wanted to listen to start yelling at the protesters after a certain point, ‘Sit down and shut up, we want to hear what he has to say.’” Now the intellectually curious are afraid to speak up. Unwelcome guests are run out of town.
And the coverage of all this has been terrible.
Murray’s hometown paper, the Washington Post, ran stories of the episode that accepted the radical worldview of the mob. The night of the attack, the Post carried an AP story with a headline that read “College students protest speaker branded white nationalist.” The unidentified correspondent wrote that “hundreds of Vermont college students have protested a lecture by a speaker they call a white nationalist.” Not until the second paragraph did the reader learn that this “white nationalist” was Murray, who has occupied a prestigious chair at the American Enterprise Institute for decades, written not one but three hugely influential books (Losing Ground, The Bell Curve, and Coming Apart), and has long argued for a classically liberal society in which every individual is subject to the impartial administration of justice. To equate Murray with the neo-Nazis of Stormfront or the ethnocentrism of Richard Spencer is not only baseless. It’s defamatory.
On March 4, the Post carried a subsequent AP story. The picture accompanying this article was captioned, “Hundreds of college students on Thursday protested a lecture by a speaker they call a white nationalist.” The lead ran as follows: “A libertarian author who has been called a white nationalist said college students who protested his lecture this week were ‘scary.’”
So much is wrong with that sentence. Notice the evasion implicit in the use of the passive voice. It’s not AP calling Murray a white nationalist. No, AP is just reporting that he has been called that. Notice how the reporter defines deviancy down by referring to “college students who protested.” What happened at Middlebury wasn’t a protest. It was an assault. And notice how the reporter, from the safe space of anonymity, uses scare quotes to trivialize Murray’s characterization of the mob as frightening. Maybe the reporter would be scared too if he or she were an invited guest of a student group who had to escape from an Orwellian orgy of hate under threat of physical attack by masked men. Just a thought.
Murray has been called a racist since the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994. The claim is based on the 17 pages of that 917-page book that explore the relationship, if any, between race, heritability, and IQ. What did Murray and his coauthor, the late Richard Hernnstein, conclude? “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue.” [Emphasis mine.] Moreover, “If tomorrow you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the cognitive differences between races were 100 percent genetic in origin, nothing of significance would change. The knowledge would give you no reason to treat individuals differently than if ethnic differences were 100 percent environmental.” Murray’s profession of agnosticism and reassertion of the principle of equality under the law have been studiously ignored ever since the book’s publication. The hate-sniffers at the Southern Poverty Law Center can write that Murray uses “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women, and the poor,” and the vapid assertion is parroted by the AP, published by the Washington Post, and quoted in the New York Times.
“For two decades, I have had to put up with misrepresentations of The Bell Curve,” Murray wrote a year ago. “It is annoying.” Not until 2017, however, did these misrepresentations become physically hazardous. Enemies of public discourse are using the rise of Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right—both of which Murray opposes—to brandish targets as “white nationalists.” In this the advocates of political correctness are aided by an economically reeling and intellectually feeble media largely made up of recent college graduates who know only what they learned from their gender studies professors and The Daily Show. To expect these writers to be familiar with the 20-year-old debate surrounding The Bell Curve, much less to have read the book on their own, is foolish. A since-deleted Tweet about Murray by the executive editor of Vox.com revealed the progressive left’s openness to debate: “If Adolf Hitler flew in today,” he wrote, stupidly paraphrasing The Clash, “they’d say the real villains are the people who protested his on-campus speaking appearance anyway.” Here is what a Harvard degree gets you: the ability to liken eminent scholars to Hitler.
And yet it would be wrong to overstate the media’s power. The social fragmentation so ably described by Murray has also limited the ability of institutions like the Washington Post or Vox.com to enforce their preferred narratives. The disturbing nature of what happened at Middlebury was there for all to see on the Internet. Murray himself provided the most definitive account of events in an online essay. Twitter and Facebook were the venue for students opposed to the mob. Social and digital media offer a multiplicity of perspectives and opinions, which is why censorship of them is to be opposed. There is still hope for free speech. But there is little hope for our universities.