There was an uneasy energy in Harvard Yard as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the attempt to stifle conservative voices on college campuses at Harvard and across the nation a modern form of McCarthyism.
“There is an idea floating around college campuses — including here at Harvard — that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice,” he said. “There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.”
I was there on May 29 as he delivered the commencement address, which was met by mostly tepid applause, and sometimes by an uncomfortable silence.
It was not the address most of us were expecting, at least based on the response of the crowd, as he called out the “tyrannical tendencies of monarchs, mobs, and majorities.”
For those of us who are concerned with the direction of freedom of expression on college campuses, the effect was electrifying. Here he was, on the most elite Ivy League campus, calling out the professors and students who have effectively drowned out the voices they disagree with by opposing their right to speak on campus or by yelling them down when they do speak.
That there is a political bias amongst professors is obvious — Bloomberg cited Federal Election Commission data from the 2012 presidential race that showed “96 percent of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama.”
“There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than there is among Ivy League donors,” he said.
His words bring to mind some of the recent actions of professors in Connecticut, including the University of Connecticut professor who shouted down Christians who were trying to do outreach on campus. And there was the Eastern Connecticut State University professor who went on an anti-Republican rant during class.
After lambasting the faculty for a while, Bloomberg then gave the liberals in the crowd something to cheer about as he spoke about guns and climate change.
Gun owners might find Bloomberg’s emphasis on freedom ironic given his vocal and committed advocacy to making gun ownership more difficult.
Many of our modern political debates hinge on our different conceptions of freedom, and how much of it we should surrender as members of a civil society. How much of our economic freedom, our individual liberties, do we surrender to benefit the greater good?
There are those who are ideologically rigid — anarchists, communists, and staunch libertarians — who are confident on where they stand on the issue of liberty and government. Some would see us surrender all to the will of the state, some almost nothing, and then there are those who see no place at all for a prevailing political authority.
The rest of us fall somewhere in between these extremes, trying to find a balance between giving up some freedom for the good of all, while maintaining the individual rights and liberties we cherish.
Our personal prejudices come into play when we decide what freedoms to restrict and what freedoms to champion.
We live in a state where a teenaged girl is deemed mature enough to handle the psychological and physical effects of an abortion without parental consent, but we won’t let our high school students see political websites on school computers.
Our prejudices are exposed as we decide what information we will listen to and what we will ignore. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy showed his own prejudice as he openly criticized gun manufacturers at the same time that he celebrated the opening of a new microbrewery, to add to the “Connecticut Brewery Trail.”
In 2010, guns were used in the deaths of about 35,000 people in the United States, and about two-thirds of those deaths were suicides. A new study published by the Center for Disease Control says alcohol use is to blame for about 88,000 deaths a year, but we haven’t heard our lawmakers calling for a registry of alcohol owners (nor am I advocating for one).
Every time our government grows and expands, every time a new law is passed, our freedom is restricted a little bit more. Sometimes those laws and regulations are necessary, but when there is a lack of clarity about a law or a regulation’s effects, we should err on the side of freedom.
As Bloomberg said, “Standing up for the rights of others is in some ways even more important than standing up for your own rights. Because when people seek to repress freedom for some, and you remain silent, you are complicit in that repression and you may well become its victim.”
Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.