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22.12.2015 Feature Article

Totalitarianism Is Infecting Elite Collegiate America

Totalitarianism Is Infecting Elite Collegiate America
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Trigger warning: Totalitarians will be deeply offended by this column. If you lean totalitarian stop reading now. Although this makes me guilty of a thoughtcrime I shall call it what it is: straight up totalitarianism infecting American elite collegiate culture.

Even a sandbox totalitarian uprising such as this is ugly. While it does not represent “The End of Western Civilization As We Know It” there is a moral and a practical imperative to stand up to it. While Forbes.com‘s John Tamny makes a smart case that growing illiberalism in collegiate America is “much ado about nothing” while admiring his sang froid I beg to differ.

A group at my alma mater, Amherst College , once-upon-a-time-and-perhaps-still a lovely bastion of the liberal arts, has moved to the front of the totalitarian movement infesting America’s college campuses. CampusReform.org sums it up bluntly: “Students at Amherst College are demanding that the school’s president accede to a list of demands that would effectively eliminate free speech on campus.”

Katie Zavadksi, writing perceptively and rather bravely at the left of center Daily Beast, headlined Amherst Students Protest ‘Free Speech,’ Demand ‘Training for Offenders :

Students protesting at Amherst College have issued a list of demands to administrators that includes making them apologize for signs that lament the death of free speech.

A group calling themselves the Amherst Uprising listed 11 demands they want enacted by next Wednesday. Among them is a demand that President Biddy Martin issue a statement saying that Amherst does “not tolerate the actions of student(s) who posted the ‘All Lives Matter’ posters, and the ‘Free Speech’ posters.”

The latter posters called the principle of free speech the “true victim” of the protests at the University of Missouri .

Going further, the students demand the people behind “free speech” fliers be required to go through a disciplinary process as well as “extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”


"President Martin must also apologize for the college’s 'institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism,” the Uprising says."

The full statement by the “Amherst Uprising” may be found here . Let it be noted that the students who posted All Lives Matter signs were pro-life advocates attempting, as they later explained on Facebook , to add their perspective.

#BlackLivesMatter is an important perspective. That said, it is part of the progressive cultural hegemony and, thus, privileged. Voices committed to protecting the lives of unborn children are marginalized by that same hegemony.

This is is a defining moment for Amherst College. President Biddy Martin, a distinguished academic and herself, as author of Femininity Played Straight: The Significance of Being Lesbian , presumably is uncontaminated by such thoughtcrimes as heterosexism. I am proud to note that President Martin has stood up as both a profile of sensitivity to real issues and also of true liberal courage.

As reported by the New York Times, With Diversity Comes Intensity in Amherst Free Speech Debate :

“We can’t guarantee that their points of view aren’t going to conflict,” Carolyn A. Martin, Amherst’s president, said in an interview in her office. “We can’t guarantee that they’re not going to hear things that we really wish they didn’t have to hear or endure.”

Dr. Martin said she was eager to listen to and work with the protesters, but was not in a position to apologize for the sins of history or institutional forces she did not control.

Does free speech matter? And why should a “tempest in a teapot” matter?

The recent series of collegiate uprisings recall George Orwell’s concepts, stated in Nineteen Eighty Four, of Newspeak, thoughtcrimes, and the Thought Police.

What is Newspeak? According to Wikpedia :

It is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state Oceania as a tool to limit freedom of thought , and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom , self-expression, individuality , and peace . Any form of thought alternative to the party’s construct is classified as “ thoughtcrime “.

Thoughtcrime ?

A thoughtcrime is an occurrence or instance of controversial or socially unacceptable thoughts.

Prosecuted by the Thought Police:

The Thought Police (thinkpol in Newspeak ) are the secret police of the fictional superstate, Oceania , in George Orwell ‘s 1949 dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four .

We we are now seeing, on campus, Thought Vigilantes. Unless they are stopped it moves us closer to Thought Police, with which the prevailing Progressive PGR +0.00% cultural hegemony already appears uncomfortably comfortable.

In the appendix to 1984, “ The Principles of Newspeak ” Orwell wrote:

The word free still existed in Newspeak, but could only be used in such statements as “The dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds.” It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free,” since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.


As we have already seen in the case of the word free, words which had once borne a heretical meaning were sometimes retained for the sake of convenience, but only with the undesirable meanings purged out of them. Countless other words such as honour, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science, and religion had simply ceased to exist.

Without free speech many cultural axioms will be lost.

Almost two years ago, I here asked the question, Are Today’s Progressives Actually Totalitarians? My answer:

Much of what appears baffling in American politics today is more easily understood if one grasps the unspoken progressive axioms that drive so much of our national conversation. Confusion comes because many axioms that underpin many Democratic and left-wing claims are veiled. Unveiled, the Democratic agenda begins to gain coherence. For classical liberals, that coherence is ominous.

If governing progressive axioms, unveiled, are totalitarian in substance it would explain the baffling assault by progressives on the Constitution. There is an ongoing, relentless, assault aimed at the governance structure of the Constitution, against the civil liberties explicitly protected by the Bill of Rights, and directed at those who take a stand for the classical liberal, small-r republican, political order.


Let us take to heart what George Orwell wrote, in a letter dated 18 May 1944, talking about the world situation:

“the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. … Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side.”

The illiberalism — a too-weak euphemism for totalitarianism — arising on campus was condemned by, among others, leading left wing honest liberals such as New York Magazine’s consistently splendid JonathanChait, who in Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now? observed:

In recent weeks, UCLA , Wesleyan , and Yale have seen left-wing student activism aimed at shutting down the expression of contrary viewpoints.


The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. …

American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state. The continuous stream of small-scale outrages it generates is a testament to an illiberalism that runs deep down to its core (a character I tried to explain in my January essay ).

The scene in Columbia and the recent scene in New Haven share a similar structure: jeering student mobs expressing incredulity at the idea of political democracy.

Collegiate America would do well to recall Yale’s 1974 Woodward Report championing free speech:

The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.

What we are seeing on campus now is not mere “political correctness.” It is not mere illiberalism. It is totalitarianism. And let us call to mind the prison writings of the brilliant Antonio Gramsci , a leader of the Italian Communist Party who spent the last ten years of his life imprisoned for his anti-fascism by the Italian fascists.

Gramsci, among other shrewd insights recorded in his Notebooks and in letters, later published, famously called for taking over many small civic groups, such as colleges, to create a beachhead for a later government takeover. Firmly taking a stand against collegiate totalitarianism matters.

Amherst College President Martin demonstrates a nuanced, courageous, championship of liberality against totalitarian assault. Other collegiate leaders would do well to follow her example. And President Obama would do very well to award President Martin the Presidential Medal of Freedom .

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