Let’s start with what actually happened. Earlier this month, the American Enterprise Institute Club at Middlebury College invited Charles Murray to speak on campus. Murray has been the right’s version of a useful idiot for decades. In Losing Ground (1984) he’d argued that the social programs of the 1960s and ’70s aimed at improving the lot of minorities and the poor had done more harm than good. Ten years later, in The Bell Curve, Murray and co-author Richard J. Herrnstein claimed standardized-testing data proved that the differing fortunes of blacks and whites in America were explained not by racism or economic factors but by blacks’ being innately less intelligent. His 2012 book, Coming Apart, depicts the white working class as now falling prey to the same social pathologies he’d previously found among non-whites.
The event was co-sponsored by Middlebury’s political-science department. Allison Stanger, a political-science professor, agreed to act as Murray’s interlocutor “because while my students may know I am a Democrat, all of my courses are nonpartisan, and this was a chance to demonstrate publicly my commitment to a free and fair exchange of views.” Middlebury president Laurie Patton, who introduced Murray, said that, although she “profoundly disagree[s] with” many of his views, the “very premise of free speech on this campus is that the speaker has a right to be heard.”
Instead, as soon as Murray began to speak, a large proportion of the audience stood up, turned their backs to the podium, and began reading a statement that declared “these are not ideas that can be fairly debated,” followed by loud chanting. When it became clear the demonstration was not going to stop, Murray and Stanger repaired to another room, where, despite the noise from inside and outside of the auditorium, they had a conversation that was broadcast via livestream. Emerging from the building, Murray and Stanger found themselves surrounded by protesters who attempted to prevent them from leaving the campus. In the ensuing melee, Stanger’s hair was pulled, injuring her neck. Murray’s car was blocked, pounded on, and rocked back and forth, but as he finally pulled away from the crowd, he might well have found it difficult to credit his luck. Thanks to the crowd at Middlebury, a man justifiably regarded as a pariah has been transformed into a martyr for free speech.
So perhaps the first thing to note is that, despite the epidemic of hand-wringing, Murray was not in fact deprived of his free speech. Curious readers can find the full video of his hour-long conversation with Stanger on Middlebury’s website.
Which doesn’t excuse the attempt to silence him. As Bill McKibben pointed out, “Murray is a professional troll—‘Milo with a doctorate,’ as one observer described him.” In both cases, their campus tours are designed to provoke, not to enlighten or educate. But in responding to their provocations with violence, whether at Berkeley last month—when university authorities canceled a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos after protesters smashed windows and set fires—or at Middlebury, their opponents are playing right into their hands. And into a narrative that depicts college students in general—and liberal campuses in particular—as privileged enclaves filled with spoiled, out-of-touch, intolerant “snowflakes” more concerned with maintaining their own ideological cocoons than with making change in the real world.