Magann: Against Freedom

Illiberalism on the left empowers the alt-right.

by Matthew Magann | 2/2/18 12:15am

Who hasn’t heard of the campus left, those illiberals who shut down speakers, protest Halloween costumes for allegedly being oppressive and cast offensive speech as “discursive violence”? Countless writers have covered the movement, some in a critical light. After all, the current trends in campus activism can border on the surreal. But is it really so bad? For all their authoritarian rhetoric, campus movements have a noble goal in targeting discrimination. Besides, right-wing illiberalism just elected a president. Isn’t the alt-right a greater threat to liberal values than some fringe campus movements?

Let’s first define our terms. When I refer to liberalism, I don’t mean left-of-center politics. I mean liberalism as the value set of a liberal democracy. Liberalism champions freedoms of expression, worship and association. Political liberalism rests on the premise that a state cannot decide which beliefs are correct and instead should create a framework in which all can believe as they wish. America was founded with liberal values in mind, and most of the political mainstream supports liberal principles.

We find illiberals outside the mainstream. America’s most prominent opponents of liberalism are actually President Donald Trump and his followers. The alt-right has little sympathy for liberalism, as shown by Trump’s threats to tighten libel laws in order to target the news media or his campaign trail promise to consider shutting certain mosques down. Trump’s movement pays lip service to liberalism, but it shows few qualms about restricting the rights of those it dislikes.

For all of Trump’s concerning antics, though, the far left hasn’t gone away. It came to national prominence in 2015, after student protests at Yale University over offensive Halloween costumes blossomed into a wider campus movement. This movement had some positive aspects: It uncovered long-simmering racial issues and forced America’s colleges to acknowledge the injustice within their campuses. But the movement went too far. At Yale, protesters demanded the firing of a professor who defended the right of students to wear “offensive” costumes. This was not a professor who held racist views, nor even one who wore an offensive costume. This was a professor who dared suggest that, yes, the right to free expression applies even to offensive expression. Her belief in that simple liberal value made her a target, and by the end of the school year, she and her husband had both resigned from their positions as faculty-in-residence. This was no victory for racial justice. Rather, this was silencing.

The parallels with the alt-right are clear. Trump supports freedom — except, of course, when Muslim Americans or the media use that freedom to criticize him. The college protestors wanted everyone’s voice to be heard — except, of course, the voices they disagreed with. Opposing views, in the students’ minds, were not sides in an argument, but enemies to be eliminated.

While smaller than the alt-right, the campus left still poses a threat. For one, because the campus left’s ideology propagates at universities, it has a disproportionate impact on the future leaders of society during their formative years. It also threatens the social progress it supposedly champions. The liberal project entails fighting identity-based discrimination, but by infusing social justice with illiberalism, the far left toxifies the subject. Consider the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve all heard about the shootings of unarmed black men by police. No one can watch that video of an officer repeatedly shooting Walter Scott in the back and not see injustice. Yet Black Lives Matter is controversial, largely because the movement has accepted the presence of more radical thought. This past September, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters at the College of William & Mary shouted down a speaker from the American Civil Liberties Union because they opposed the ACLU’s defense of free expression, arguing that universal free speech advantages white supremacists. This sort of illiberalism alienates those who would otherwise side with racial justice. By rejecting liberalism, the campus left damages the cause of equal rights and isolates many potential supporters.

Yet the worst impact of the campus left isn’t the harm it has done to the fight against injustice. It isn’t the professors forced to resign, nor the silenced discussions. Rather, it is the fuel that it provides to the alt-right.

As of press time, a cursory search through Trump’s tweets, including retweets, reveals 18 mentions of the term “politically correct,” five of “PC” and three of “political correctness” — and that’s just since the start of his presidential campaign. So-called “social justice warriors” make the perfect bogeymen for the alt-right. While Trump’s movement often dismisses free expression for its opponents, it casts itself as a defender of free speech on campus. The alt-right doesn’t do that out of any devotion to liberalism, instead co-opting the issue to gain legitimacy by demonizing its foes. This job is made easy by campus left’s violation of civil liberties, which provides propaganda to the alt-right. In the end, it seems that some progressive enemies of the alt-right stand for similar regressive policies.

Of course, we ought to criticize both extremes. The alt-right influences our current president, and its associations with white nationalism make it particularly dangerous. Yet in our critique of the alt-right, we cannot ignore the campus left. Though the movement is less influential than the alt-right, illiberals on campus have become a national political issue, provoking concern among both liberals and conservatives. By rejecting liberalism, activists do more than just threaten civil liberties and undermine social justice; they also feed into the propaganda machine of the alt-right.