Michael Roth, a longtime president of Wesleyan University, is not one to bow to political pressure. He leads a university whose brand is emphatically left-wing. But in 2013, when the American Studies Association pledged allegiance to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, Roth said that the boycott was “a repugnant attack on academic freedom.” Many university presidents rejected the boycott. But Roth’s rejection stood out for its clarity and force.
So when Roth opines that higher education has a special duty to “step up” as “anti-fascist,” I assume he means it. That’s unfortunate because, as noble as it sounds, the idea that universities should oppose fascism in the way Roth suggests is corrosive.
What does Roth mean by anti-fascist? Fascism, he argues, varies in character but shares some “core ingredients.” It “promises the return to a mythic greatness and an escape from the corrupt, weak and feminized present.” It “creates an enemy or a scapegoat whose elimination or domination will allow for those true, full members of society to thrive.” It “attacks ideas, science and education in the name of a deeper, pure belonging.” Let’s stipulate to Roth’s characterization. Being anti-fascist, then, means actively opposing fascism so understood, and not, as Roth makes clear, joining the antifa movement.
Universities, when they stick to their principles, are naturally inhospitable to fascism. In principle, university communities are distinguished by their willingness to follow arguments where they lead and to be ruled by the better argument. Without being closed to the value of myths, they aren’t friends of the “mythic.” In principle, university environments welcome inquirers of every kind. They aren’t friends of scapegoaters. In principle, universities are homes of science and education. Without being closed to the possibility that science does harm, they aren’t friends of the enemies of science. If, as the philosopher Jason Stanley has said, fascist politics is about “smashing truth and replacing it with power” universities, as friends of the truth, stand against fascism when they go about their business.
But when Roth says that universities should be antifascist, he means more than that. Now is no time to support “free inquiry and expression in the abstract” because “peaceful protesters are being beaten and gassed.” We “need to do more.”
A lot hangs on who this “we” is. If “we” means professors and staff members as human beings who haven’t ceased to be citizens, then perhaps some of “us” should “take to the streets” or “mobilize people to participate in local, state and national elections.” But if “we” means professors in their roles as scholars, or universities as institutions, then no, “we” shouldn’t mobilize people to vote at all. And “we” certainly shouldn’t mobilize people to vote against Trump and his allies, as Roth’s argument implies we should.
Part of this is a matter of prudence. If the university stands for a particular politics, there is no reason for the trustees and boards of regents that govern universities not to impose their own politics on universities. The university’s claim to academic freedom is precisely that it is a “non-partisan institution of learning.”
But there is also a principle at stake. There is no greater freedom than freedom of the mind. That freedom can be compromised by illiberal forces. Thinkers can be threatened, or arrested, or murdered. And colleges, universities, and academic associations should speak up against legislation, or movements, or, gingerly, politicians who threaten academic freedom. But these ways of standing up are secondary to what universities, their many aims notwithstanding, uniquely stand for, freedom of the mind that transcends the demands of the here and now.
In arguing against the academic boycott of Israel, Roth argued in a manner consistent with that aim. Moreover, he was self-consciously arguing against people who characterize Israel’s actions as genocidal, which is an argument against those who regard the boycott as an emergency measure that requires universities to set aside their devotion to inquiry. There is always such an emergency pressed on us by conservatives or liberals: a war, climate change, socialism, and so on.
Those who press those emergencies on us explain that not to act on them is to be complicit. By refusing to let Wesleyan be an instrument of BDS, the argument goes, Roth was complicit in the suffering of Palestinians. In 2013, Roth said no to that species of argument. Now, he says that to “take the posture of the apolitical, is . . . to take the posture of complicity.” Roth here sacrifices coherence for a pretty sentence—he doesn’t really think complicity is a “posture.” More importantly, he forgets that there is a truth worth pursuing that transcends politics, a truth that is not a matter of positioning.
I’m sure that, in Roth’s case, this forgetting is incomplete and temporary. But that’s a hell of a thing for a university president to forget.