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Transcript of George Will's Remarks at the Disinvitation Dinner

Thank you. Thank you, thank you very much, Roger, for that overly kind introduction. I’ve never been introduced before with an introduction that had a sentence that began like Aristotle, comma—which, your introduction proves that not all forms of inflation are painful.


Roger suggested there might need to be trigger warnings. I don’t think so with this group. Trigger warnings are for men paralyzed by an exquisite sensitivity and by women who are such frail flowers, they must, when they hear almost anything, they must pluck up their crinolines and repair to the fainting couch to experience the vapors—and I don’t see anyone like that in this room tonight.


I too want to thank Lauren Noble for the heroic work of putting this together. One would like to say that this is the first and last such dinner. I suspect not. And, I, in fact I think, the idea, I’m not sure we want to cure the current hostility to speech on campus if it means we won’t have more dinners like this.


In 2007, a young man named Keith Sampson—not so young actually, he was approaching middle age—he was working his way as a janitor through Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus, when he was accused and convicted without a hearing of racial harassment. Or, in the official words of the university, of openly reading a book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject. What had he done, openly reading?


He was reading a book called Notre Dame vs. the Klan. It was a book about a struggle, a great struggle in 1924, when the Klan was ascendant all across the country but particularly in Indiana, and Notre Dame students engaged in a ferocious battle against the Klan. The book he was reading had as its cover of its dust jacket a black and white picture of a Ku Klux Klan rally. Someone saw the jacket, someone was offended, therefore, historic non sequitur, therefore, someone must be guilty of something. I want to talk to you tonight about how we got here. And if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to take you on a mild seminar all the way back to 19th century Germany, but we’ll get to that in a minute.


First, I have a confession to make. In 1976, in this city, when Bill Buckley’s brother was the incumbent senator from New York, he was a friend of mine, and he was running against another friend of mine, who became my very best friend, Pat Moynihan. And the night they were both nominated in June 1976, Jim at his headquarters said I look forward to running against Professor Moynihan and I’m sure Professor Moynihan will conduct the kind of high-level campaign you’d expect of a Harvard professor. Over at Pat’s headquarters, a journalist said, Pat, Jim’s referring to you as Professor Moynihan. Pat drew himself up to his full and considerable height and said ah, the mudslinging has begun.


My confession is that I once was a professor. Because as was rather indelicately revealed I got my PhD from Princeton. That’s relevant because I believe the most important decision taken anywhere by anyone in the 20th century was the decision about where to locate the Princeton Graduate College. President of the University Thomas Woodrow Wilson wanted it down on the campus, integrated with the undergraduate college. His nemesis, Dean Andrew Fleming West, wanted it where it now is, up on a little hill overlooking the Princeton golf course. President Woodrow Wilson had one of his characteristic snits, resigned as president, went into politics and ruined the 20th century. I simplify a bit and exaggerate somewhat.


It was at the Princeton Graduate College that I got the PhD that got me to be familiar enough with campuses to be invited by Scripps—and in a win-win situation I didn’t have to go there to mingle with them and I got to come here tonight.


What I want to talk to you about tonight is the amount of intellectual ingenuity that is now devoted to rationalizing the disappearance of free speech. For forty years now, every bit of jurisprudential thinking about the First Amendment has been devoted to explaining how we can balance First Amendment freedoms against other competing and superior, we’re told, values, balancing away the First Amendment one bit at a time.


Thirty-five years ago, for example, a Stanford law professor wrote a paper of 31 one pages, 62 footnotes, and one supremely weird idea. And it was that Brown v. Board of Education, the desegregation decision of 1954, requires censorship of speech. Now you may not have read it that way, but let me explain. He said that the message of Brown v. Board of Education was that segregation transmits messages of inferiority. Therefore, it is constitutionally permissible, indeed required, to suppress racist speech. From which, it is of course a short step, what we’ve now already taken, that all speech offensive to traditionally subjugated victims can be, indeed, under the Brown doctrine as this professor understood it, must be, suppressed.

That is just a bit of evidence for my thesis tonight, which is this: that free speech has never been, in the history of our republic, more comprehensively, aggressively, and dangerously threatened than it is now. The Alien and Sedition Acts arose from a temporary, transitory fever and were, in any case, sunsetted and disappeared. The fevers after and during the First World War and in the early Cold War era also were eruptions of a distemper rooted in local conditions and local issues bound to disappear, which they did.

Today’s attack is different. It’s an attack on the theory of freedom of speech. It is an attack on the desirability of free speech, and indeed, if listened to carefully and plumbed fully, what we have today is an attack on the very possibility of free speech. The belief is that the First Amendment is a mistake.


I will have something to say later on about a phenomenon yesterday. Yesterday, the Democratic Party, the oldest political party in the world, the party that guided this country through two world wars and is more responsible than any other for the shape of the modern American state—the Democratic Party’s leading and prohibitively favored front-runner candidate for the presidential nomination announced four goals for her public life going forward. One of which is to amend the Bill of Rights to make it less protective. It’s an astonishing event. She said that she wants to change the First Amendment in order to further empower the political class to regulate the quantity, content and timing of political speech about the political class—and so far as I can tell, there’s not a ripple of commentary about this in the stagnant waters of the American journalistic community.


Well, the belief that the First Amendment is a mistake and that the real right that people have regarding speech is the right to avoid speech that annoys them. The column that got me here tonight, for which I am grateful to admit, contained the following sentence, and this is the one that got me into trouble. Roger mentioned it. I said: Colleges and universities are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous and when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims will proliferate. And to ensure that they proliferate, we have amended the doctrine of micro-aggressions and to the idea that one has an entitlement in our entitlement society to a cocoon of serenity everywhere.


Well, as proof of this, I give you the following: I mentioned the Princeton Graduate School. No one at the Princeton Graduate School pays a dime of their expenses. They are by any measure the top one one-thousandth of one percent of the most privileged people who ever lived on this planet. And a few of them, the Black Graduate Caucus, the Latino Graduate Student Association, and Graduate Women of Color recently sent the following protest note to the Princeton administration because Princeton has shuffled their diversity and multicultural and sensitivity bureaucracy by adding two new people. Their protest said this: Princeton University has deepened the anguish and intensified the alienation of its graduate students of color. Stop laughing this is serious business. Students of color are constantly besieged by the racism at Princeton. Surviving Princeton for students like us is more than a struggle. It is a battle for one’s life and sanity for the dignity of one’s nonwhite flesh. Now, how did we get here?


To explain that, I’m going to draw a little bit on my academic background. I am a faculty brat. I grew up around the campus at the University of Illinois where my father was a professor of philosophy. And before I turned to journalism, or as my father said, before I sank to journalism, I was briefly a professor because on leaving Oxford I applied to a distinguished law school and to Princeton in philosophy and chose to go to Princeton because it was midway between two National League cities. It gives you fair understanding of my intellectual seriousness.


But I want to give you a little tour of the intellectual history that brought us here. As Lauren said in addressing us earlier this evening, ideas matter. When the conservative movement and Bill Buckley where young in the late 1940s and early 50s, Richard Weaver published a book called Ideas Have Consequences. The longer I live around politics, and I’m now in the second half of my fifth decade in Washington, the more I believe that only ideas have large and lasting consequences. We are living today with the consequences of two bad 19th century ideas that were imported like much of progressivism from Germany. Consider some of the consequences.


In about few weeks, certainly by the end of June, the Supreme Court session ends, the Supreme Court will add another a chapter to our constitutional law of license plates. Now, you may not be aware that there is such. There is, and it works like this. We’ve had some cases some people didn’t like, in New Hampshire it says Live Free and Die, the question was did they have to drive around with this compelled speech on their car. Texas, not alone, but Texas among other states has what they call a specialty plate program. The state raises revenues by selling people the right to put slogans on their plates. You can say I’d rather be golfing, or I’m a Korean vet, or eat Whataburger. You can do anything you want on them. Then along came, a few years ago, the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who wanted their logo on the license plate and their logo contains the stars and bars of the confederate battle flag. This was struck down by the, this was refused, their application by a committee of the ideological police of the Texas Department of Transportation that said they would not have a design, quote, if the design would be offensive to any member of the public. Well, you can’t have a swastika, and you can’t have a lot of things, and the Supreme Court, I guarantee you, is going to say by the end of June, get out of the business, Texas, because if you start editing the messages you’re trespassing on unconstitutional grounds. But the great state of Texas, robust men and women down there in the great southwest, would forbid a license plate message offensive to anyone. One-person veto in the great state of Texas.


University of California at Irvine, recently some students voted to not display the American flag because it conflicted with their mission which was to promote student safety. And they said, and I think this is probably absolutely right, these students, that this was an uncontroversial scholarly point and has drawn admiration nationally from much of the academic community. I’m sure that’s true.


In 2007, a distinguished senior professor at the aforementioned and altogether deplorable Brandeis University was disciplined for harassment. He was teaching a course on Latin American politics and explained, just explained, the origin of the term wetback. Some student complained. An assistant provost was then assigned to monitor his classes and he, a senior man, nearing retirement, was forced to undergo anti-discrimination training.


These examples and others that I shall give you come from the book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of America Debate by Greg Lukianoff, who is the head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and a genuine hero of our times. In his book, for example, you will learn that the Tufts University conservative newspaper was itself guilty of harassment according to the University when it did two things: it accurately quoted the Koran and published a verifiable fact about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. Davidson University has forbidden patronizing remarks. Texas A&M has announced that there should be guaranteed freedom from indignity of any type. Drexel University has proscribed inappropriate laughter. That’s what you are doing is inappropriate.


Of course free speech zones are now common around the country. Some of us thought that James Madison of the great class of 1771 of Princeton University, that James Madison established a free speech zone coast to coast. Not true. At Texas Tech, which has an undergraduate enrollment of 28,000 people, the free speech zone is actually, and I’m not making this up, I couldn’t, it’s a free speech gazebo that is 20 feet wide.


On September 17th, which is Constitution Day, I being a strict constructionist and believing in the enumerated powers I believe Constitution Day is unconstitutional, but, leaving that aside, on Constitution Day at Modesto Junior College in Modesto, California, a decorated American veteran was disciplined for handing out copies of the Constitution outside the free speech zone. Now, how you might wonder do these odd behaviors trace their pedigree to 19th century German philosophy I will now explain with pitiless length.


Two things: in the 19th century, history became a proper noun. History with a capital H. And second, consciousness, the make up of the public mind became a political topic and a political project. First as to history. In the 19th century, history became a dynamic, autonomous actor. A proper noun with its own unfolding laws and its logic of development. Progress was to follow in the van of history. How many times have we have the president assure us that we have no recourse but to accept X or no need worry about Y because X is part of the progress of history and Y is out of step with history. Well, once you believe that history has an internal logic and historical inevitably is to be discerned and acquiesced in, then you need a clerisy equipped to discern the unfolding laws of history and to be a vanguard of understanding of history with all the rights and responsibilities that come with being a vanguard of understanding. These are the possessors of true consciousness and they live to extirpate what Marx and others called false consciousness.


Remember during the 2012 presidential campaign the President was campaigning in Roanoke, Virginia and he said if you have a business, you did not build that business. What he meant was, what he meant was a banality, which is that everything occurs in a social context, the context includes an infrastructure, roads, and education and all the rest that society provides, therefore, he said, and this is the fundamental progressive argument, all wealth is, has a social component, therefore all wealth is socialized, and because the government is the organizing and creative instrument of our society, the government has a right to whatever it decides is its contribution to the creation of wealth.


Well, something similar has been said for the last two centuries about the mind of the individual and the mind of a nation. Because our minds are made up in a social context, we really have no minds of our own. The minds are social constructs. This is a kind of totalizing way of looking at the world and it leads, as night to day, to totalitarian impulses.


Recently, the National Association of Scholars, a wonderful outfit of right-minded and therefore small group of academics, published a wonderful report, that you all should read, or you can read Will’s distillation of it in tomorrow’s column, on the religion of sustainability that has now taken over our campuses. The doctrine of sustainability, as the world implies, postulates that we live in a world of grinding scarcity and increasing fragility, therefore, we live in a world that requires total control and a permanent crisis. Once you postulate, as sustainability advocates do – did you know that Cornell has 403 sustainability courses, including the ethics of eating? Don’t laugh Yalies, you’ve got hundreds of them, seriously, they’re listed as sustainability courses. Well, once you postulate that the world is teetering on an ever more grinding scarcity and the planet itself is as fragile as a potato chip, you live in a state of constant crisis, and as has been well said, never let a crisis go to waste. Well, if you can control the promptings of the social environment, you can therefore, according to this view of the world, control minds. And you can, if you are sufficiently rigorous in controlling the social environment, you can end false consciousness, which brings us back to Woodrow Wilson.


Wilson was, of course, the first PhD to be president. He was the first president of the American Political Science Association, and he was the first president to criticize the American founding, which he did not do peripherally, but did root and branch. His complaint was with the separation of powers itself, and with the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence, in the bright light of which the Constitution must be read and construed. He said, in so many words, do not read the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. They are, he said dismissively, Fourth of July sentiments. As well he should have. Progressives should believe that. Because the Declaration’s first two paragraphs say, as we all know, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creators with certain unalienable rights and governments are instituted among men to secure those rights. Not to give us our rights, but to secure those rights. The Declaration in the light of which the Constitution being construed is a charter of limited government, limiting the government to protecting natural rights.


Well that was not good enough for Woodrow Wilson. Progress for him meant progress up from the founders. Science was in the air at the time: Edison, Ford, Marconi, the Wright Brothers. And political science had its own day. He was present at creation, indeed he was the creator, of the academic study of administration, which represented his worship from afar of Bismarck’s Prussian bureaucracy. In 1912 during the campaign, Woodrow Wilson said the history of liberty is the history of limits on government power. Ah yes, he meant the history of liberty, not the future of liberty. The future of liberty, he said, would be a much more energetic government emancipated from the restraints of the Constitution. He said the Constitution was all right once, of course, he said, when we were a nation of four million free souls living within twenty miles of Atlantic tidewater. But now, he said, we’re a nation united by steel rails and copper wire and we need a more robust, energetic, and centralized, and regulating administrative science to bring us into tune with progress. Our old Newtonian Constitution of limiting, balancing, rivalrous institutions must yield to a Darwinian Constitution, a living, organic, evolving, and permissive Constitution.


This of course was taken up by Herbert Croly, one of the founders of the late and altogether unlamented New Republic. In 1910, Croly published The Promise of American Life, as one of the few books, I can think of no other actually, published in 1910 that is still in print. It was given, it was a sensation of the day, it was given by Brandeis to Theodore Roosevelt who was off in his post presidential safari to shoot large animals in Africa. And Teddy read it over there and was transfixed. In it Croly said the problem with the unregenerate citizens of the United States – his phrase – is that the, and I quote, average American is morally and intellectual inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities. National life, therefore, said Croly, must be a school. Government is the principal, stern but caring. Quote, said he in his book, the exigencies of such schooling frequently demand severe coercive measures, but what schooling does not, he said. Unregenerate Americans can be, and again I quote, saved many costly perversions if official schoolmasters are wise and the pupils neither truant nor insubordinate. So in this, still the canonical text of American progressivism, there is a statement that the American citizen should be treated as perpetual pupils. Hence the doctrine that the infantilization of American young people and their parents is stipulated quite clearly in the great text of progressivism.


Now infants have three things in common: they are fragile, they are easily frightened, and they require constant supervision. This is what has given us the very odd picture of today’s modern feminism. Modern feminism, as I understood it, began as an assertion, above all, of the equal moral agency of women. Now it is a postulate of the special fragility and vulnerability of women, who are because of their weakness exempt from their responsibilities. Hence the neo-Victorianism of the current brouhaha about sexual codes on campus.


But fragility is now a common, indeed, celebrated alleged fact about young people on campuses. After the grand jury in Ferguson refused to indict the officer involved and after a grand jury similarly did not indict someone in the Staten Island case this summer, Columbia Law School students were told they could postpone their exams if they were impaired because they were traumatized by the grand juries that did not indict.


A recent column in The New York Times Sunday edition mentioned how when Brown University invited a speaker who it was feared would dispute some of the current hysteria about the rape culture on campus, they didn’t disinvite the speaker, but they prepared for the terror of the speaker. They proclaimed and created a safe space for those who would be traumatized by the speaker’s appearance in Rhode Island. It was a space to recuperate, they said, from the experience. The space would be complete with, and again I’m not making this up, cookies, coloring books, play dough, calming music, pillows, blankets, and videos of frolicking puppies. And, specialists there who are trained to deal with trauma. Again, an embrace of the infantilization.


You’ve all heard the phrase helicopter parents. We’ve probably all had some. Those are parents who hover over their children relentlessly. Well the reverse of that is that some parents are now raising what is called with a mixture of wonder and awe, free-range children. Free-range children are children who are allowed to walk around the block by themselves. In Silver Spring, Maryland, not far from where I live, two parents of free-range children, age 10 and 6, were visited by the Child Protective Services of the great state of Maryland. And they now have a file convicting them of unsubstantiated child neglect. That’s the charge for letting their children walk home from the park together.


This is all a part of the luxuriating we now do in fragility, in threat, in menace, in unsafely. And it gives rise to the idea that we now enjoy, more important than freedom of speech, trumping the freedom of speech, the right to freedom from speech. It is as Mr. Lukianoff says, sensitivity-based censorship. It is the right to an emotionally, intellectually comfortable living. Just as in our physical lives we have, through the revolutions of pharmacology, conquered pain and pain management, we have now decided that as an analogue, we should work to similarly conquer emotional pain. Hence, a president of Barnard College said, quote, no Barnard student should be uncomfortable in any class. This, of course, is why we have trigger warnings.


Last year Oberlin, which could be expected to be in the vanguard of nonsense, Oberlin said the point of trigger warnings is to make classrooms safe. Safe from what? Safe from any disturbance of serenity.

Last year, you may recall at Wellesley University, someone made a statue of a man sleepwalking in his underwear. Now I can see lots of reasons to be disturbed by that. But the University was disturbed by it because it was, and I quote, a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.


Last year, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a feminist studies professor grabbed a pro-life protestor’s sign and tore it up. It was a sign that had a photograph of an aborted fetus, destroyed the sign, and shoved the right-to-life protestor. When she was brought up and reprimanded about this, she said not my fault, I was triggered by the images. Now note well: she is asserting that she’s not responsible for her behavior because she does not have moral agency when she encounters something that disturbs her, that her action was reflexive, no more her fault than her sneezes are.


Well we’ve been here before with speech. This was the origin of fighting words doctrine postulated mistakenly by the Supreme Court in 1942 in a case called Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. It said it is all right to censor, in effect, and punish and preempt either words that by their very utterance inflict injury – it’s not clear what that can even mean – or second, speech that incites an immediate breach of the peace. This of course puts in place what’s called the heckler’s veto. That anyone who claims to be provoked, has been provoked, and therefore, it’s not his fault, he’s been triggered.