On Monday, the sixteenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, leftist campus culture reached a new low. Students at Amherst College took it upon themselves to use that sacred day of remembrance as an opportunity to affix a shocking anti-war message upon the school’s Valentine Dining Hall. The banner, posted anonymously and penned in capital letters, evoked a quote attributed to Howard Zinn: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”
Worse still, added below were the words; “In honor of those killed and displaced by America’s so-called ‘war on terror.’” The location of the banner was a clear effort to undermine this year’s iteration of a noble tradition: a 9/11 memorial erected yearly inside the Hall by the Amherst College Republicans—the only student organization that acknowledges the attacks in such a manner.
Thus, this week’s event sent the rural New England campus reeling, and the student body’s response divided along ideological lines, with many students taking to social media to defend the banner and flagrantly condemn American foreign policy. Under mounting pressure, the college eventually denounced the banner as “insensitive,” while citing “free speech” in stressing its right to remain. The school’s spokeswoman proceeded to laud Amherst for being “an institution that champions academic freedom and free expression.”
Free speech advocates might find the school’s response reassuring. But I see things differently. That the culture of the college and the area in which she resides—the town of Amherst does not fly the American flag, but that of the United Nations—would lend itself to such an unnerving and indecent display must be cause for concern.
The very reason that leftism has found a haven in academia is because, once upon a time, academic institutions were unique in tolerating unpopular ideologies. Now, however, liberals have won the culture wars, so open dialogue is supposedly no longer needed. In the left’s eyes, without institutional assistance—whether it be from either the government, a university, or both—progress will be stayed and intolerance perpetuated. Yet, history bears out something quite different.
It stands to truth that, over the years, the most vile and offensive of ideologies have met their demise when no longer cloistered and repressed. “Sunlight,” wrote Justice Brandeis, “is said to be the best disinfectant.”
We must remember that it is precisely because of the free exchange of ideas that radical leftists are allowed to parade around great institutions like Amherst and threaten every aspect of the latter’s identity.
Indeed, if institutions had, once upon a time, taken to censorship, the left would enjoy no fora for the dissemination of its views, no venue for the propagation of its creed. All of this seems to be lost amidst the left’s thirst for intellectual dominance—for controlling the dialogue, right down to the very words through which we express ourselves. Brandeis’ sunlight has been obscured, and we are all adversely affected by the impending darkness. All this is to say that “free speech” is a narrow, legal ideal—and one far too often conflated with freedom of ideas or expression.
Take for example Amherst College on Sept. 11, 2001. Only hours after the twin towers collapsed, Amherst held a rare all-school assembly, where the then-president and several radical professors used the occasion to blame American “imperialism” and gratuitous killing for the 3,000 lives lost that day. One now-prominent conservative journalist led a score of his fellow, disgusted students in a walk-out, unwilling to stomach what was a de factor endorsement of radicalism by the school’s administration. Here, free speech was not abridged, but would we blame the students for their reaction?
The left likes to speak of “microaggressions,” and so we might appropriate that term for our own use here. Assaults on free expression appear in academia on smaller scales on a regular basis. Over the years, several of my professors have condemned conservative ideology in the classroom. One brazenly called me out for being a Republican, and proceeded to lecture me on how the GOP needs to be more “progressive” on a particular issue. (He claimed he was merely “empowering” me.) Despite agreeing with his argument, I walked out. Whether intentionally or not, he was, I later told him, stifling dissent. We both exercised our free speech, but what of free expression?
Some honest reporting over the last few years has revealed the protest culture that has swept our universities. But despite this press coverage, the focus always rests on issues of free speech and other civil liberties—and not enough on the culture that has allowed such intolerance to fester in the first place. In other terms, we focus too much on form, and not enough on substance, but we can do better. And, unfortunately, Amherst has reminded us why we must.
The despicable poster hung this week marks a new low for campus culture across the nation. There is clearly no depth of indecency and Anti-Americanism to which leftists–both within and without academe–will not sink. It is the responsibility of every honorable American both to expose and reject this scourge of intolerance and viciousness.