Madam President, I am truly saddened that I must rise today to address what I am afraid is a growing threat to our democracy: the silencing of political debate by totalitarian mob violence on college campuses.
I was not in Burlington, Vermont, last Thursday to witness what happened at Middlebury College, but I’d like to read from the accounts of two people who were. They were the targets of the mob’s violence – their names are Allison Stanger, professor of political science at Middlebury College, and Charles Murray, author of several groundbreaking books, including the controversial Bell Curve, and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. America deserves to hear their story.
On Saturday, two days after the incident, Professor Stanger wrote on her Facebook page:
“I agreed to participate in the event with Charles Murray, because several of my students asked me to do so. They are smart and good people, all of them, and this was their big event of the year.
I actually welcomed the opportunity to be involved, 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 in my classroom.
As the campus uproar about his visit built, I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgment on Dr. Murray’s work and character, while openly admitting that they had not read anything he had written. With the best of intentions, they offered their leadership to enraged students, and we all now know what the results were.
I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community. … I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written, join the effort to shut down the lecture. All of this was deeply unsettling to me.
What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters….
When the event ended, and it was time to leave the building, I breathed a sigh of relief. We had made it. I was ready for dinner and conversation with faculty and students in a tranquil setting. What transpired instead felt like a scene from Homeland rather than an evening at an institution of higher learning. We confronted an angry mob as we tried to exit the building.
Most of the hatred was focused on Dr. Murray, but when I took his right arm both to shield him from attack and to make sure we stayed together so I could reach the car too, that’s when the hatred turned on me.
One thug grabbed me by the hair and another shoved me in a different direction. I noticed signs with expletives and my name on them… For those of you who marched in Washington the day after the inauguration, imagine being in a crowd like that, only being surrounded by hatred rather than love. I feared for my life.”
The next day, on Sunday, the American Enterprise Institute’s website published this account from Dr. Charles Murray, who wrote:
“If it hadn’t been for Allison and Bill Burger, Middlebury’s Vice President for Communications, keeping hold of me and the security guards pulling people off me, I would have been pushed to the ground. That much is sure. What would have happened after that I don’t know, but I do recall thinking that being on the ground was a really bad idea, and I should try really hard to avoid that. Unlike Allison, I wasn’t actually hurt at all….
“In the twenty-three years since The Bell Curve was published, I have had considerable experience with campus protests. Until last Thursday, all of the ones involving me have been as carefully scripted as kabuki: The college administration meets with the organizers of the protest and ground rules are agreed upon. The protesters have so many minutes to do such and such. It is agreed that after the allotted time, they will leave or desist. These negotiated agreements have always worked. At least a couple of dozen times, I have been able to give my lecture to an attentive (or at least quiet) audience despite an organized protest.
“Middlebury tried to negotiate such an agreement with the protesters, but, for the first time in my experience, the protesters would not accept any time limits. If this becomes the new normal, the number of colleges willing to let themselves in for an experience like Middlebury’s will plunge to near zero. Academia is already largely sequestered in an ideological bubble, but at least it’s translucent. That bubble will become opaque.
“Worse yet, the intellectual thugs will take over many campuses. In the mid-1990s, I could count on students who had wanted to listen to start yelling at the protesters after a certain point, ‘Sit down and shut up, we want to hear what he has to say.’ That kind of pushback had an effect. It reminded the protesters that they were a minority.
“I am assured by people at Middlebury that their protesters are a minority as well. But they are a minority that has intimidated the majority. The people in the audience who wanted to hear me speak were completely cowed. That cannot be allowed to stand. A campus where a majority of students are fearful to speak openly because they know a minority will jump on them is no longer an intellectually free campus in any meaningful sense.”
Madam President, I suspect that most of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are not fans of Charles Murray. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m confident that they, at least, would be honest and self-respecting enough not to condemn any scholar’s work without ever having read it, like many of Middlebury’s faculty members did.
But more importantly, I’m confident that my Democratic colleagues would join me in denouncing the violence of the Middlebury campus protestors seeking to silence Dr. Murray. On countless occasions I’ve heard my Democratic colleagues come to the Senate floor to condemn violence in all its forms – why would this time be any different?
We do not agree on everything, but I’m confident if Dr. Murray were invited to testify here on Capitol Hill, my Democratic colleagues would eagerly join in an open and respectful debate. I am confident that they would reject any effort to silence or do harm to those with whom they disagree.
Madam President, I know tensions are high in America today. I know what it’s like to be on the losing side of a bitterly fought presidential election.
But that does not give anyone the license to shout down a fellow American – let alone physically assault them - just because they hold a different opinion. Democracy and freedom depend on an open, tolerant, and civil political discourse. And sustaining our democratic freedoms is the sole purpose the federal government subsidizes institutions of higher education in this country.
It is embarrassing that teachers and students at an elite college like Middlebury should need reminding, but: Speech is not violence. Violence is not speech. And the totalitarians who fail to recognize this core fact of decency and tolerance are goosestepping into some of the darkest corners of the human heart.
If there’s anything that should unite us in these polarized times, it’s that the kind of violence we saw on Middlebury’s campus last week must not not be tolerated. That is why I commend the 44 Middlebury College professors who have signed a “Statement of Principles” on “Free Inquiry on Campus.” I hope more Middlebury professors join them.