Berkeley Ablaze: The New Civics in Action
On February 1, protesters at the University of California Berkeley rioted outside an auditorium in which Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak, forcing the cancellation of his talk. They set fires, broke windows and assaulted bystanders.
President Donald Trump responded with a Tweet: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
Trump’s tweet was taken by some as a declaration he would move to rescind all federal funding to the university. That’s implausible, and the question mark surely suggests a question, not a policy decision. There may well be some discretionary federal funding that should be open for reconsideration when universities are unable to secure the basic condition of the free exchange of ideas on their own campuses.
UC Berkeley’s Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, does not come off in this affair as blameless. He properly upheld the right of the Berkeley College Republicans to invite Yiannopoulos to speak, and he firmly rejected the call from student activists and faculty members to cancel the event. His rejection of it, however, warrants attention. He declared: “The U.S. Constitution prohibits the University of California Berkeley as a public institution from banning expression based on its contents or viewpoints, even when those viewpoints are hateful or discriminatory.” He also said that Yiannopoulos is “a troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior.”
These are not exactly words that are likely to calm an agitated community. They amount to saying that an odious individual is coming to campus and there is nothing we can do about it—officially. Berkeley added extra police protection for the event, but as it turned out, far less than was actually needed.
The riot was orchestrated and organized. A substantial number of the rioters showed up wearing face masks and equipped with incendiary devices. Anarchists advertised and coordinated a plan of attack online.
Were the police caught by surprise? They shouldn't have been. It was not as if the preparations were hard to spot.
On January 31, a student, Mukund Rathi, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Californian announcing the time and place for students to assemble to “show our unwillingness to allow our campus to be used the spread Yiannopoulos’s vile bigotry.” Rathi rather bizarrely cited the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1963-1964 as a precedent. Apparently, in Rathi’s reading, the Free Speech movement wasn’t about free speech, but about “nonviolent direct action” on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement. Or, as Rathi puts it, “It wasn’t just about the right of unrestricted free speech.”
Yes, the speech of that era had actual content and was not just an expression of loyalty to an abstract principle. But it is remarkable to see how easily the Berkeley students of today jettison the principle altogether. In this reading, the Free Speech Movement was about gaining power, and that’s all that matters. In their view, Yiannopoulos and those who wanted to hear what he had to say possess no right of free speech at all.
This reversion to thuggery has been widely remarked as characteristic of the new campus activism and is not novel enough to warrant further comment. But there are several elements here that do deserve more attention. First, the arson. The Berkeley riot is an escalation beyond Mizzou, Yale and the hundred-some campuses in which student groups issued manifestos as “Demands” for assorted racial reparations and “social justice”-spiced emoluments. The unruliness of the protests has now gone beyond vituperation, trespassing and intimidation.
Will there be more escalation? I fear the answer is yes. This sort of movement generally has to burn itself out. It will almost certainly end up killing people before public revulsion expels it from our midst.
Second, the equivocation. Chancellor Dirks was part of the problem. A great many of our public and private colleges and universities are led by similar people who speak in favor of “free speech” or “academic freedom,” but who eagerly validate the views of the protesters and, in effect, give permission slips for students to engage in outrageously aggressive behavior. Think again of Mizzou and Yale. What Berkeley adds is that the equivocation doesn’t stop with the riot. Afterward, Berkeley’s Public Affairs Department deflected any responsibility from the university and its students:
The violence was instigated by a group of about 150 masked agitators who came onto campus and interrupted an otherwise non-violent protest.…Campus officials added that they regret that the threats and unlawful actions of a few have interfered with the exercise of First Amendment rights on a campus that is proud of its history and legacy as the home of the Free Speech Movement.
Who, one wonders, were behind those masks? Students from Hillsdale College?
Third, the anti-Trump connection. Yiannopoulos is, among other things, a Trump supporter and an employee of the pro-Trump website Breitbart.com. The activists who rallied against him at Berkeley drew a direct line between Yiannopoulos and Trump and urged students who had protested “against the inauguration of hater-in-chief Donald Trump on January 20” to “continue defending solidarity on our campus” by turning out for the protest against Yiannopoulos. This is not altogether new, but it marks the merger of the inchoate protests against all-and-every-form-of-injustice with anti-Trump hysteria.
Behind all three of these unwelcome developments we should see the outlines of what I’ve called “the New Civics.” A few weeks ago, I went with my colleagues from the National Association of Scholars to Washington, D.C. for the launch of our new study, Making Citizens, which documents the quiet rise of this national movement to install political activism as the central liberal art. The New Civics has nothing to do with civics in the old sense of learning how our self-governing republic actually works. Instead, it focuses on recruiting every possible student to the politics of protest and—to capture the word of the moment—resistance.
New Civics, your time has come. We see you taking your selfies in the light of arson-lit fires in Berkeley. President Trump, I’m glad you noticed. What we do next is indeed a question. But clearly, the status quo in higher education cannot stand.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.