I started this blog entry early last week, before the horrifying events in Portland in which two men were murdered and a third grievously injured in an altercation on public transit. The three victims were trying to intervene while the alleged perpetrator was harassing two young women. I don’t have words.
It’s spring, and when students turn their speakers outward toward the quads I often hear the music of my youth. Occasionally I hear the distinctive guitar lead-in to the hit song Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Today’s undergraduates are the children of people born about the time “Ohio” came out, so they will have to ask their grandparents about the events that inspired the refrain “Four dead in Ohio.” I was a 20 year old junior at Brown when four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State and I remember it well.
I went to many peace demonstrations, but none that turned violent or were suppressed with batons and tear gas. At Brown, classes were suspended and final exams cancelled in the spring of 1970. This course of action was decided at a faculty meeting, held in a building facing the college green. There was a public address system set up, and loudspeakers were placed out on the quad so all could hear the proceedings. It was a beautiful spring day. I remember it well. Eventually we chased ROTC off campus, a decision that Brown, like many other universities, came to regret. Students were given time off in the fall of election years to participate in the political process. I don’t know if that tradition endures to this day. Nobody I knew was sorry to miss final exams.
In other places demonstrations turned violent and many were suppressed by force. There was a major riot at Columbia. The events that inspired the CSNY song began with a riot in which the ROTC building was burned down. One reporter’s memories of the disaster at Kent State can be found here. The reporter was a Marine veteran, and his memories of the 60s are starkly different from mine and and those of many, if not most of my friends. He writes:
That some people today manifest a nostalgia for the Sixties ( which actually covered the last half of that decade and the first of the next) amazes me. It was a dreadful time. American society had come to resemble a shattered mirror still in its frame, the fissures between hawk and dove, left and right, old and young, black and white threatening to widen until the pieces fell out and broke into bits. The worst year was 1968: the Tet Offensive, one hundred thousand U.S. casualties in those twelve months; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the convention riots in Chicago, which had been rocked just months earlier by the race riots set off by King’s death, with half the west side destroyed in orgies of arson and looting, accompanied by gunfire.
By the time I got to Berkeley violent demonstrations had become commonplace. I remember looking for an apartment in the fall of 72. People who showed apartments invariably commented on their proximity to the “riot corridor.” If you were looking at an apartment with a really good location, you’d be told “You won’t get any gas here in the spring,” where “gas” meant tear gas. I remember once being told “There’s a bit of gas, but not too bad.” The riots and tear gas were a sign of the coming of spring, like the robins and the pussy willows. That’s what I heard, anyway, but by then things had quieted down. In my time at Berkeley, there was no tear gas in town.
Now we are again seeing riots on campuses, with windows smashed and fires set. This is not easy for me to comprehend. Do we have a half million uniformed Americans in harm’s way, for no easily articulated reason, in a hostile, far-away place? No? Then what is it that leads to people to resort to violence of a sort that reminds an old guy like me of the days of the Vietnam war?
The riots have been provoked by speaking invitations extended to Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, representatives of the political right wing. The riots, or threatened riots, have led to withdrawn invitations and discussions of the legality and wisdom of limiting speech on campus in these cases. I don’t know anything about Mr.Yiannopoulos. I used to read Ann occasionally, many years ago, until I got bored with her. I read her columns because I had friends who were fans.
Attempts by one faction or another to suppress speech on campus are not new. During my time at Berkeley, the Associated Students of the University of California, or “ASUC” as the student government was known, proposed to have somebody monitor every class at Berkeley to make sure there was no teaching of “Shockleyism” or “Jensenism.” William Shockley was a professor of physics at Stanford and a Nobel laureate who embraced eugenics late in his career. I never knew who Mr. Jensen was. Whatever their positions, it was never made clear how to decide what constituted Shockleyism or Jensenism, but I thought at the time that it was possible that some ASUC-appointed monitor would sit in the back of the math class in which I was TA and examine what I said. Looking back on it, it’s clear that I needn’t have worried, but it was Berkeley in the early 70s, and you never knew anything for sure.
There was also a bit of a controversy on campus surrounding an incident in which a student was thrown out of a class on “Theory of Revolutions” for being disruptive. From the reporting in the Daily Californian, it appeared that the student probably was disruptive. The instructor’s side of the story was that the student was expressing an incorrect view of some particular doctrine, and that “academic freedom is a bourgeois concept” anyway. You can’t make this stuff up.
I believe strongly that the bounds on acceptable speech on campus should be set very wide. Attempts to restrict speech at Berkeley never came close to success. At Brown, I remember listening respectfully to a government official who came to speak in favor of continued US military involvement in Vietnam. I doubt he convinced anyone, but we heard him out for his entire talk.
I don’t know about Milo Yiannopouos, but I see no reason to exclude Ann Coulter from campus discourse. She was U. MI law review and knows how to construct an argument. The university community can be trusted to decide whether her arguments are sound, whether she has quoted facts correctly and whether she has omitted important considerations. We’re not even talking First Amendment here. We’re speaking to the mission of the university to explore ideas and their consequences in every aspect.