Niall Ferguson is liberalism’s favorite apostate. He is not predictably conservative. He is reliably contrarian but the liberal mind savors a little intellectual frisson, especially if it is put across in an erudite way. He is not crude or doctrinaire like that low-rent bounder Alex Jones.
Plus, whatever happens he has got, the Oxford gun and they have not.
Liberals are attracted to their own kind, especially aspirationally, and the patina of class, status and education can help put renegade opinions in a proper perspective. It’s like the two main PBS stations in my home city of Boston. The second-in-line World Channel, produced in cooperation with the flagship station WGBH, does the heavy lifting of pushing a Left agenda with a lot of identity politics themes. That leaves the flagship WGBH to run Downton Abbey and other high class Brit offerings. So a spoonful of Marmite helps the medicine go down.
It also helps, in being contrary, to pick one’s fights. Take free speech, the subject of a column last year by Ferguson in the Boston Globe. Ferguson describes himself as a free speech absolutist and my strong hunch is that a lot of liberal Globe readers think of themselves more or less the same way. Liberalism has long been one the great defenders of free speech. So a stirring defense of free speech such as the one presented in his column does not have to be a provocation to progressives. They oughtta like it, if history is a guide.
The problem of course is that history has taken one of those odd turns that it is famous for, and the Left is now more often on the wrong side of the free speech issue than is the Right. At least that is the gist of Ferguson’s column, and he is IMHO totally correct. If the column traffics in Ferguson’s famed contrariness it does so in the most clever of ways–by attempting to drive a subtle wedge between his readers’ old instincts and their newfound alliances.
Ferguson has enough sense to start out with the ritual Trump-bashing that is obligatory nowadays even if you are aiming to stick it to progressives in the rest of the column.
(T)he worst thing about the Trump presidency is that its failure risks opening the door for the equal and opposite but much more ruthless populism of the left. Call me an unreconstructed Cold Warrior, but I find their tyranny a far more alarming — and more likely — prospect.
He then moves on to what he considers the white hot center of anti-free speech energy: the college campus.
Almost every month this year has seen at least one assault on free speech on an American college campus. In February the University of California, Berkeley, canceled a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, the British “alt-right” journalist and provocateur, after a violent demonstration. In March students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down the sociologist Charles Murray and assaulted his faculty host. In April, it was the turn of conservative writer Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna and pro-Trump journalist Ann Coulter at Berkeley.
No problem here. I have posted a lot on free speech and have mostly focused on higher education, where the problem is acute. Some of that is due to the excess passions of the young, especially the elite-in-training at wealthy private colleges. Some of it is due to the excess of postmodernist thinking among a blinkered faculty, especially in the humanities.
Ferguson quotes NYU’s former vice provost Ulrich Baer:
“The idea of freedom of speech,” wrote Baer, “does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.”
BTW Fenster used that same quote by the hapless Baer in a post here at UR last year.
So yeah I agree with Ferguson that the problem comes from the Left more than the Right and that has been until recently most apparent on campuses. Still, I think there are limitations to this kind of campus-based analysis.
Much has changed in the year since the column appeared. A number of events in the recent past suggest that opposition to free speech has jumped the firewall between the hothouse of the academy and the real world. There was, for instance, the firing of James Damore at Google. That was on an issue of concern to the Left (women and technology) but do you really think that the senior managers at Google that fired him are actually practicing postmodern masters?
Andrew Sullivan wrote a few days ago about the hiring by the New York Times of Sarah Jeong:
(W)e all live on campus now.
And that’s true too. But I don’t think it is sufficient to look at the assault on free speech as fundamentally about postmodern concepts like intersectionality and privilege being adopted sincerely in the real world.
What has been happening just in the past few months, weeks and days is arguably a lot worse. The big social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are now openly and actively trying to curb speech. They all came down at once on Alex Jones’ conspiratorially-oriented website Infowars. That is bad in itself. Jones is erratic and publishes some theories without backup but he is no threat to the republic. Meanwhile those same sites leave up all manner of cuckoo stuff by Islamists preaching the killing of Jews and blacks demeaning whites. And without a pause to take a breath after suppressing Infowars the heads of social media companies have started the purge of normals.
So the real, tangible threat to free speech is coming not from the academy but from social media. Are the two connected? Sure. It is the Right that is being throttled by social media not the Left so of course the problem is, as Ferguson writes, arising more from the Left than the Right.
But I do not think the heads of these multi-billion dollar social media companies are animated by the kind of academic postmodernism that Ferguson correctly decries and puts forth as the driver of the action. The opposition to free speech in the real world, while still pushing Left over Right, has morphed from ideology-driven passion into a calm management technique employed to secure the interests of the censors.
In the 20th century the communists and fascists came to power with idealistic notions rattling around in their heads. But human nature is what it is, and when you give large institutions unfettered power it will be abused. So I don’t think social media curbs presage a Left utopia, or that that is even the aim.
Throttling speech is much more likely to result in an old fashioned centralization of power for its own sake. If and when the custodians of that power want to turn their attention to pesky campus social justice warriors those warriors will go down next. Whatever gets in the way.
Note: here is the rogue leftie publication Jacobite pointing out that Sarah Jeong’s racist tweets are mostly an exercise in power. I agree. She is probably a careerist first, and if in her formative years she’d been fed a different bowl of tripe and told to regurgitate it she’d be doing that now. A racist of convenience.