Peter McPherson, one of the best presidents Michigan State has had in recent years, told me once that when he was a student at MSU, there was a controversy over whether to allow a Communist to speak on campus.
This was back in the early sixties, we were at the height of the Cold War, and the administration didn’t want to allow a perceived enemy of America to speak. Eventually the Communist did get to speak… and the students who went found him mind-numbingly boring.
Today, on many campuses, the problem is the reverse; students have been shouting down and attempting to stop right-wing intellectuals from speaking. That happened last night at the University of Michigan, when some students did their best to drown out Charles Murray, the author of the controversial bestseller of the 1990s, The Bell Curve.
They played loud noises on their cell phones, projected the words “white supremacist” on the wall behind him, and a student identified in the press as Bryan Ransom jumped up on stage and argued with Murray without really giving him a chance to explain his arguments.
Well, guess what, Mr. Ransom: You and the other protesters made Donald Trump and those who support him very happy last night.
You played the role assigned you with all the subtlety of a cartoon bull who charges a red flag Daffy Duck holds out and then crashes into a stone wall. Your enemies want to portray you as intolerant, spoiled, elitist and uncivil, and you did exactly what they wanted.
Do you think you earned any sympathy or won any support from those who never could afford to go to Michigan or those who wrongly think pampered and coddled minorities are why their standard of living has been slipping?
Thirty years ago, I interviewed Charles Murray at length, but by myself, in a newspaper office. It was before The Bell Curve, and he had just published what was actually a far more important book, Losing Ground, a book that used very subtle arguments to argue that all welfare programs were a mistake. This provided conservatives, and racists, with an intellectual fig leaf to cut or eliminate welfare programs entirely.
I thought then and think now that Murray’s books have been used by those with malevolent intentions. But they were powerful, because not everything in them was wrong, though I think their ultimate policy conclusions were. My guess is that none of the protesters know that Murray himself came from humble origins, spent time in the Peace Corps, and married and had children with a disabled Asian woman he met in Thailand.
If you know anything about the Great Depression, it is clear how wrong the idea is that all government assistance is inherently bad. The best intellectual refutation of the subtext of The Bell Curve is a Harvard law graduate named Obama. But as with the works of Karl Marx, Murray’s books put forth ideas worth considering.
Last night Charles Murray told the protesters “the reasons universities exist is so we can have calm, logical exchanges about differences,” and added “what you are doing is betraying the reason this place exists.”
His theories may be wrong.
But when it comes to free speech it was he, not the protesters, who was very right.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.