Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Middlebury, I scarcely know ye

Middlebury College
In my blog entry entitled The Obamas of Europe the other day I mentioned in passing that when I was a freshman in college we had a single black member of our freshman class and we elected him president.  I tossed that off without comment, assuming my readers would understand I was poking fun at white guilt and the inclination of liberal progressives to bend over backward sometimes to prove they are not the bad guys – in this case, the racists of America keeping black people down.

An old friend from my home town, who happened also to get her B.A. at Middlebury College in Vermont, wrote me to suggest that Ron Brown – she remembered his name – I hadn’t – was elected not because he was black but because he was the kind of guy who was obviously going places.

Retrospect is a wonderful teacher.  Ron Brown went on to become Secretary of Commerce under President Clinton.  Whether his colleagues in my freshman class saw that coming or not, he obviously had potential.  Ron Brown died in a plane crash in Dubrovnik, Croatia in 1996 while on an official trade mission with the Clinton administration.  Before that he had been influential in Bill Clinton’s successful presidential run in 1992, and before that he had worked for Ted Kennedy.  Like I said, going places.

Middlebury today is one of those places the political right has in mind when they speak of how thoroughly “the left” has seized power in this country.  It’s a hotbed of lefty intellectualism, in other words.  A New England liberal arts college which almost any of America’s elite progressives would be happy to send their kid for a college education, as many do. In 1958, when I made the great leap away from home for the first time, a bundle of youthful hope and excitement, naivete and insecurity, it was not as exclusive as it is today, but it was up there.  And I was a fish out of water.  A kid from a working class home from a small river town of the industrial revolution in New England, not a suburb of Boston, not a product of the many prep schools that fed into Middlebury like Exeter or Andover or Deerfield or Choate or Groton.  I didn’t have enough money to ski and joined those who sneered at Middlebury as a kind of “great white hell.”  The snow on the ground went on for what seemed like forever.   I spent what little social time I had with people who derided the campus with names like Mibbledairy or Diddlemerry.  Most of the time I became pretty much a bookworm, since I didn’t have the requisite disposition to join a fraternity, as most of my classmates did.  Ron Brown, incidentally, joined Sigma Phi Epsilon.  They first proposed that he join them as some kind of “associate” member, since the national fraternity had a no blacks clause.  Brown refused and in the end Sigma Phi broke away from the national fraternity and embraced him fully.

I just learned these facts about Ron Brown in the past couple of days.  And they only add to my admiration for Middlebury, now grown considerably since my days there as a social misfit.  I can see now what a solid grounding I got in study skills and intellectual inquiry.  The times when Robert Frost dropped in to "say his poems."  And when I sat at Pardon Tillinghast's family table and watched his children name the monarchs of England in reverse order.  Tillinghast taught a course called "Intellectual History."  I didn't have the courage to take it.  Have wished ever since that I had.  What I learned there was the foundation ultimately for an eventual PhD from Stanford and a university professorship.  And more importantly for a life in which ideas are as essential to the meaning of life as any of the other appetites.  Despite some very rich friendships and experiences, I missed out on much of what Middlebury had to offer, in large part because my self-loathing as a gay man at the time prevented me from presenting myself authentically.  But I am proud to tell people that I went to Middlebury.

Yesterday I came across an article in The Atlantic about the ugly reception accorded Charles Murray   at Middlebury last Thursday night, March 2.  Murray had been invited by the student American Enterprise Institute club to discuss his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, but no sooner was he introduced than he was shouted down.  For about forty minutes – the entire event is available on video – students shouted slogans like:
Middlebury students turn their backs on Charles Murray

·      Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away.
·      Your message is hatred. We cannot tolerate it.
·      Charles Murray, go away. Middlebury says no way.
·      Who is the enemy? White supremacy.
·      Hey hey, ho ho. Charles Murray has got to go.

I watched in increasing discomfort.  The very first thing that struck me was the number of black students in the crowd (only students were permitted in the auditorium).  Progress, I said.  Brave new world.  Long way from the days of the single precocious black kid that opened the inevitable question about tokenism.  The next thing I noticed was that, while the majority of kids were white, they alternated the chants above with “Black Lives Matter!”  Proud again.  That’s my alma mater.  My people.  White liberals, the kind of people I surround myself with.  (And, by the way, that includes one of Murray’s four children, a daughter who graduated from Middlebury with the class of 2007.)  But it wasn’t long before I realized they were shouting things that were in fact questionable.  “Racist”?  Well, possibly.  This is the author, one of them, of The Bell Curve, after all.  The book that caused a major ruckus twenty years ago because it claimed that white people had higher I.Qs than black people.  Never mind what Murray (and Herrnstein) concluded from those results.  Just the fact alone was taken as a demonstration of racism.

Sexist?  Really?  Murray is a libertarian.  He doesn’t spend a lot of energy supporting political programs that foster feminist causes, for sure.  But whether that constitutes sexism is up for further inquiry and debate.  And anti-gay?  Well, it so happens they’ve got that wrong.  Murray has always been a conservative at heart.  He argues that societal stability depends on a strong family structure, thinks religious faith is a good thing, and he measures social decay in such things as out-of-wedlock births.  He’s often cited as the generator of scientific evidence that the family should be headed by a male, and that marriage should focus on children and be between a male and a female.

Problem is, Murray is a real intellectual.  And that means he clearly believes that when facts change, he should change his mind accordingly.  Four years ago, The New Yorker published an article about how Charles Murray upset the CPAC audience he was addressing in 2013 when he declared that he had come to believe he was wrong in opposing same-sex marriage.  Not only did gay people make good parents, he said.  The gay couples he knew with children not only made good parents, they made “excruciatingly responsible parents.”  

So anti-gay?  No.

When Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray came out with The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, I immediately bought a copy. That was 21 years ago, in 1996.  A colleague spotted it on my shelf and challenged me.  “What are you doing with that book on your shelf?” he asked.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “It’s a best-seller.  I wanted to see what it was all about.”  “Well, you should not have contributed to the fortunes of that bastard,” he said.

I’d like to say I studied the volume, chock-full of data and graphs to tie you up for weeks, if you took it seriously, but I never found the time to do much more than a brief scan.  I did far more reading about the political fuss that ensued, including the heavily critical stance taken by Stephen Jay Gould, who called the book “anachronistic Social Darwinism,” and the more ambiguous one by the the American Psychological Association who ended up saying, essentially, that we don’t know enough yet to seriously address the differential between black and white IQ scores.

But I don't want to get distracted here by the quality of Charles Murray’s research and miss what I think is the more serious issue at hand – the matter of free speech.  At the surface level, these Middlebury students I am inclined to look at so fondly as the third generation of the alums of my day, people I see as “my people,” are engaging in a seriously counter-productive exercise.  They are name calling instead of listening to an intellectual argument.  On their own college campus.  And just as our misguided political leaders have fed the beast that is ISIS and the Taliban by invading a Muslim country and killing millions of innocents, these well-intentioned young souls, with their hearts in the right place, have provided the right-wing with a clear and vivid example of PC gone wrong.  Free speech, the liberals cry.  But only if you agree with me. They have enabled the right to take the focus off of the injustices they perpetrate by giving them one to shame the left with.

This is a repeat of the mess at UC Berkeley recently when rioters shut down the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos, the provocateur.  Not just anywhere, but in the heart and soul of the Free Speech Movement of the 60s. 

A brief aside here:  There may be evidence that the people responsible for actual violence (the professor who was to spar with Murray after his talk ended up in the hospital after a scuffle as Murray was making his exit from the campus) were outsiders.  Some dressed in black and wore masks – the same uniforms as the people were wearing who shut down the Berkeley event.  But that’s another story for another time.

Murray is an example of how difficult it has become to separate ideas from politics.  The conservative Witherspoon Institute fostered the work of a Texas catholic* sociologist, Mark Regnerus, for example, bypassing the usual kinds of peer review and getting out the false message that gay people could not raise healthy children.  Once serious academics tuned in, including Regnerus’ own department head and the American Sociological Association, which found his study “fundamentally flawed,” they blew his argument out of the water.  The lasting effects are still there, however, and the right continues to pretend the study had merit.  And here we are again, with Charles Murray, whom many have criticized for sloppy methodology, misuse of statistics, and the like.  There is a difference, though, between the two.  Murray is addressing some powerful questions.  Even if you find his conclusions offensive, the questions still get to be asked.  Is society going downhill?  Is America getting dumber?  If so, what are we to do about it? Are we making a mistake fostering the birth of children who will be raised in poverty and ignorance?  And is that what we are actually doing?

I have to jump in here.  I'm with the students in being offended by this line of thinking.  I think the notion that you should not support a poor woman's child because that might encourage other poor women to have children is beyond obnoxious.  It's cruel and heartless and I understand the desire to scream at this man and tell him I don't want him to speak.  But I'm with Middlebury's president, who insisted (to no avail, alas) that Middlebury's code follows the first amendment's purpose in protecting obnoxious speech - non-obnoxious speech needs no protection.  And that the only proper response to speech is more speech. Questioning, debate, refutation.  Not shouting.  And certainly not violence.

Rejecting Murray as a bigot is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  He's much more than his bad ideas and he's got a bunch of really interesting ones.  More relevant to the modern day are the conclusions Murray was trying to discuss in his talk at Middlebury.  His first book, Losing Ground, argued we are barking up the wrong tree in trying to fix social problems through welfare. It’s intelligence we should be looking at, since it’s a much better predictor of things like income, job performance, pregnancy out of wedlock or crime.  That’s what gave rise to claims of sexist and racist bias on his part.  People ran with the conclusion without respecting the devil in the details.  The Bell Curve only solidified the anger and resentment against him as a scholar, again by and large by people who had not read his and Herrnstein’s contribution to the field of intelligence as legitimate inquiry rather than as political advocacy.  It doesn’t help that he’s a member of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank which counts among its present and former members the likes of Dick Cheney, Dinesh D’Souza, Paul Wolfowitz, Newt Gingrich, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Antonin Scalia, any one of whose names gives me serious indigestion.

His third book, which came out about five years ago now and which he came to Middlebury to discuss, is, I think, an even more stunning book, Coming Apart.  In it he details what we all know from anecdotal evidence to be true, that there has been a dumbing down in America, that the country has bifurcated and there is now a wealthy comfortable upper class and an ever more insecure and not well-read underclass.  We live in gated communities – whether actually gated or simply divided by neighborhood housing prices.  Unlike when I was growing up and going to school with classmates from every point on the social scale and from every educational and economic background, I now live almost entirely with people of the same social class, people of my own culture.  What I know about the really poor I know from reading and the movies, and not from rubbing elbows and sharing meals on a regular basis.  What is challenging is the notion race is not a significant determinant of the social polarization we are experiencing in the U.S. today.  Instead, Murray claims, it’s all about class, and the fact that the lower class has become increasingly dysfunctional.  Again, Murray attributes these changes to the loss of religious observance, what we’ve come to call traditional marriage, the work ethic and sense of community.  The solution, he says, is not to take money from the wealthy and give it to the poor, but to seek ways to change the culture through raising awareness of what we’ve lost.

And here’s the rub.  Murray, like most members of the educated elite, is horrified at the Trump phenomenon and considers the man and his administration dangerous. Here's what Murray has to say about President Donald Trump, according to the speaker who introduced him last Thursday night:
 In my view, Donald Trump is unfit to be president in ways that apply to no other candidate of the two major political parties throughout American history. As far as I can tell, Trump has no character. He is a bully with subordinates.  He does business in ways that good business people despise, and he's not even very good at that. He says things about people that are so obnoxious, that calling them obnoxious doesn't come close to how awful they are.  He constantly lies about things that can be checked, he brags incessantly, but he doesn't even brag about things that he could apparently be proud of. 
And yet, what’s almost certain to happen is that people will read Murray’s conclusions as a white supremacist pitch for making America great again.  What needs to happen is people have to break out of the simplistic good guy/bad hombre shorthand we work with these days.  And that requires nuanced thinking and an honest detailed analysis of ideas.

My first inclination was to feel shame for what went down last Thursday night at Middlebury.  But, just as was the case at Berkeley with Yiannopoulos recently, I came to see that the problem we're facing here is an old one, the inclination of some people to resort to thugishness.  Middlebury, in the person of its president Laurie Patton and Allison Stanger, the professor caught in the hassle, both of whom made clear they had serious differences with Charles Murray yet tried their best to make space for him to speak, did itself proud.

Don't sell Middlebury short.  Don't judge it by the small number of people in masks shutting down discourse (that's me, talking to myself.)

Wait till you've read the conclusions of Charles Murray's research.

And then get seriously depressed.

*Correction, March 9.  I originally identified Mark Regnerus as an evangelical, insinuating that his unfounded anti-gay conclusions were based on religious prejudice.  He is, in fact, a convert to Roman Catholicism. Because he has been cited as declaring that one's religious faith should guide one's research (see Mark Oppenheimer's article on the subject in the New York Times), I believe the suggestion was still appropriate, if not necessarily warranted, but I apologize for getting the facts wrong.  I have now corrected the text.

photo credits: Middlebury Collegeprotest showing Murray: protest showing only students 


1 comment:

Alan McCornick said...

I call your attention to a statement by Professor Allison Stanger, which I find a useful follow-up to this story. She is still wearing a neck brace and recovering from the whiplash following the event. Her statement appeared in the opinion pages of the March 13 New York Times.


Two comments in particular sum things up :

1. “I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgment on Dr. Murray’s work and character without ever having read anything he has written. It wasn’t just students: Some professors protested his appearance as well.”
2. “Americans today are deeply susceptible to a renunciation of reason and celebration of ignorance…People from both sides of the aisle reject calm logic, eager to embrace the alternative news that supports their prejudices.”