BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Closing of the Liberal Mind’
Colleges and universities are at the forefront of a trend toward a more close-minded, intolerant, and “illiberal” liberalism, according to Dr. Kim Holmes, a former US Assistant Secretary of State and a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
In his latest book, "The Closing of the Liberal Mind," Holmes traces the transition of the American political left from its origins as a philosophy rooted in the classical liberal ideals of free speech and unfettered discourse to one that increasingly relies on censorship and intimidation to silence dissenting opinions.
The contrast is particularly pronounced within academia, where the supposed intellectual heirs to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s are today demanding to be ensconced in “safe spaces” devoid of potentially upsetting ideas, even as they constantly narrow down the scope of what they consider acceptable speech.
“I grew up in the 60s, so to me Bernie Sanders is just a throwback to the hippies of that era, and here we are now with people thinking this is something new,” Holmes told Campus Reform. “The strange thing about the Left in the universities is that they expropriated the idea of diversity in the name of conformity, and tolerance in the name of intolerance. They claim to be open-minded, but only to the extent that you agree with them.”
The most direct example of this mentality can be seen in the proliferation of “speech codes” that confine expressive activities to certain areas of campus, require students to secure administrative approval before demonstrating or displaying signs, and even impose penalties on students who demonstrate “bias” in their words or actions.
“It’s just a great irony that the New Left started in 1964 with a movement called the Free Speech Movement. That’s supposedly where campus radicalism began, because back then they thought free speech was the best way to challenge the establishment,” Holmes remarked. “Now that the liberals are in charge, they want to suppress free speech that might challenge their views.”
Just as the FSM students challenged prevailing orthodoxies in the 60s, though, the anti-speech mentality among contemporary university officials has inspired its own backlash among conservatives, many of whom have begun to test the limits of what passes for acceptable speech.
On many campuses, for instance, students have participated in a social media-driven campaign called “the chalkening” by writing messages supporting Donald Trump on the sidewalks and free speech walls of their campuses, prompting institutional responses ranging from police investigations to offers of counseling services for students “triggered” by the sight of Trump’s campaign slogan.
Similarly, a number of conservative provocateurs have emerged in response to the illiberality on college campuses, most notably Milo Yiannopoulos, whose “Dangerous Faggot” speaking tour routinely reduces progressive students to sputtering tantrums accusing him of “hate speech.”
Observing that “there’s a bit of a ‘fight fire with fire’ mentality” behind such provocations, Holmes opined that there is a danger that this approach could actually end up reinforcing the belief among liberals that conservative views are not worth considering.
“I don’t think the answer is to go in and act like a caricature of what they believe about conservatives,” he said. “I think the answer is to go in and tell people the truth in a respectful way, and if they try to shout you down at that point, you have the moral authority to call them out on it.”
At the same time, though, he also argued that “preventing somebody from expressing themselves is absolutely absurd,” adding that “just singling out one candidate and preventing [students from supporting them] is borderline fascism. I don’t know what else to call it.”
Holmes points out in his book that state and federal courts have repeatedly refused to countenance restrictions on so-called “hate speech” put forth by elected officials, but says advocates for such policies have met with far greater success on college campuses, where they have managed to use a combination of social pressure and student conduct codes to stifle the expression of potentially upsetting ideas.
“Racism is now used as a weapon against political opponents, to the point where it has become almost meaningless,” he told Campus Reform. “Part of the problem is that a lot of people get confused by the terminology and the narrative that the Left uses. Who wants to be a racist? Unless you’ve really thought it through, there is a tendency to self-censor.”
Holmes provides a poignant example of this phenomenon in the book, relating the story of Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College in Massachusetts, who was forced to issue a groveling apology for innocently including the phrase “all lives matter” in an email expressing sympathy with students who said they experienced “emotional trauma” in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson protests.
“The environment where this kind of thing is institutionalized is in the universities, and it’s not only ruining the quality of education, it’s creating a socially dysfunctional environment for young people,” Holmes told Campus Reform. “They’ve been teaching multiculturalism and the other things for decades, and students, being what they are, take things literally.”
Yet Holmes also sounded a note of optimism, suggesting that students can reverse the trend toward illiberalism by educating themselves on both classical liberal philosophy and their rights as American citizens, and then standing up for those rights and ideals confidently.
“If all students know is what they’ve been taught in college, they’re going to be confused … [but] once you have the confidence, from that confidence comes the courage to stand up for yourself,” he said, adding, “Freedom of speech is basically the civil rights issue of the young generation. If young people don’t fight for their free speech, I don’t know what will happen to this country in 20 years.”
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