Protecting the Intellectual Atmosphere in Academia

Today it is a given that communists, even Stalinists, dominate faculties. The result has been a climate of political correctness that has stifled Socratic debate, and thus educational standards, and has in turn created a generation of those who assign more value to what one thinks rather than how one thinks. For those of this generation who have joined faculties the vicious cycle is assured.

Fifty years ago, an academic warned that just such an occurrence would happen if liberals didn’t devise a way to fight it.

In Heresy Yes–But Conspiracy, No (1953), Sidney Hook, that rare breed even then of anticommunist and professor, offered a blueprint for liberals to fight against tenured radicals whose modus operandi was, when confronted, to cloak themselves in First Amendment protections they would in other circumstances gladly overthrow. According to Hook, a philosophy professor at NYU, university liberals could and should fire such radicals.

Hook first established what liberalism was not. It was not “the philosophy of invariable compromise or the comforting notion that it is always possible to find a middle ground” (here Hook used the analogy of a victim giving a mugger half of their purse).

Instead, he argued that liberalism could be about curtailing some freedoms in order to preserve what he labeled “rationally preserved freedoms.” Quoting Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he argued that the cut-off point for free expression of ideas was when “their likely effects constitute a clear and present danger to public peace or the security of the country.”

Hook prescribed a distinction liberals could make that both protected free speech while at the same time protected the health of the university. Heresy, which he defined as an honest expression of unpopular ideas that should be championed by liberals. But ideas that masqueraded as liberal while advocating as their goal the overthrow of democratic society should not be.

For him, heretical ideas welcomed an honest debate. Conspiracy, on the other hand, did not. It depended upon “false labels,” ones designed to acquire liberal support, while at the same time plotting in the dark to overthrow the government.

Heretical ideas were clearly defined by its supporters, and thus played by the rules of democratic society by being upfront. Conspiratorial ones, on the other hand, did not; it used any and all things to advance its goals (Lenin advocated using bourgeois freedoms to burrow into the government). Heretics took to the podium; conspirators worked to infiltrate and then own liberal groups.

Read today, one could argue that Hook was negating the idea that “freedom means saying what people do not want to hear.” And the common libertarian riposte to any assertions that free expression and academic freedom should be limited is to warn that these prescriptions, if implemented could one day be turned against people like Hook.

Indeed, when one looks at the current academic climate today that is exactly what has happened. Professor Ronald Radosh, because he dared to write a book asserting the guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was the victim of an attempted blacklisting by faculty members; they, in short, tried to deny him a livelihood because of his politics. Conservative speakers are drowned out by strategically placed radicals who chant and boo,  and when that doesn’t work, block audiences from seeing the speaker (this happened recently with conservative David Horowitz at Emory University).

But Hooks’ arguments were defensible from his vantage point. Consider the context of 1953. The Iron Curtain had descended across Europe whose sovereignty, specifically with regard to Poland, now a communist satellite, the US and Great Britain had fought World War II over. In a staggeringly short time Russia acquired the A-Bomb. One could find these events traceable to Soviet spies who had infiltrated the American government under the guise of being good liberals. Alger Hiss advised FDR at Yalta, all the while leaking to Stalin the American positions on key issues such as the sovereignty of Poland. On a wider note, his transmission of secret documents throughout the 30s and 40s, allowed the Soviets to break the US diplomatic code. The Rosenbergs had run a spy ring with a reach into the Manhattan Project which provided Stalin with crucial information to accelerate the development of an atomic bomb.

At first glance, comparing the damage to national security done by government spies with those of academic radicals who had burrowed into colleges seems strained. One is compelled to ask how professors, without access to atomic secrets or position papers, could harm the nation.

The Cold War, however, had spawned a different kind of internal enemy. In the past, extremists publicly extold their views. Socialists and Nazis had no qualms about stating what they were and what they believed before Congressional committee tasked with investigating them. But communists never did. Instead they either took the Fifth Amendment or tried to cloak themselves in the liberal flag of defending free speech.

What Hook feared was that the intellectual atmosphere would be damaged. Today, he is certainly correct. From the toleration of communist professors who have moved into positions of power that has allowed them to stack faculties with their own, A case in point was what my old mentor, John Patrick Diggins, once recounted to me. He lamented that liberals like himself in the early 1960s had hired Marxists on the faculty in order to provide balance: but this favor was not returned when a decade later, Marxists hired only Marxists. As a result, liberalism was outnumbered—a clear prediction of what Hook wrote five decades ago.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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