College protesters aren't the real threat to America's liberal values. Rabid Islamophobes are.
Over the past several weeks, protests against racism and sexism have swept many American college campuses. The tone of creeping "illiberalism" detected in these protests have intensely worried many centrist and liberal writers and pundits, from New York's Jonathan Chait to The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf to The Week's Damon Linker.
They worry that today's college students represent a new political movement that is abandoning classic American values of free speech and debate in favor of a repressive grab for power, or a push to protect overly sensitive young people from any offense. As my colleague Damon Linker put it:
Whereas the campus unrest of the 1960s began with a series of protests at the University of California, Berkeley in defense of free speech, campuses are erupting today for the opposite reason — because a shockingly large number of current college students (51 percent in a recent poll) believe speech and expression should be curtailed in the name of keeping those students safe from emotional harm. [The Week]
Other critics go further. Chait argues that the protesters are taking their cues from Marxism, while The Wire creator David Simon spent several days arguing with Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottam that fascism was the proper comparative marker.
Reality check: America's insane debate over Syrian refugees this week really ought to put these complaints about liberal students in perspective. Since the attacks in Paris, America has broken into a frenzy of Islamophobic political hysteria. The leading Republican presidential candidate has proposed a raft of literally Nazi-esque policies, and tiptoed up to even more. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill ordering a "pause" in the admittance of new refugees. (President Obama has promised a veto.)
Donald Trump is the worst offender, of course. Mainstream pundits have been predicting his demise for months now. But as Greg Sargent points out, it's pretty clear what's driving his support: anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bigotry. And in the last couple days, he has wildly ratcheted up the proposals for political repression of refugees and American Muslims, and simultaneously increased his lead in the polls:
What's really striking is how the ante keeps getting increased with abandon. First Trump said he would "strongly consider" closing some mosques in America in response to the attacks. Then that morphed into the suggestion that we would have "absolutely no choice" but to take such steps. Trump continues to say that President Obama wants to bring 250,000 Syrian refugees to the United States, and when pressed to justify this claim, he brushes off such queries by attributing the number to a "pretty good source." Trump also says Republicans should be willing to stage a government shutdown fight to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees here. [The Washington Post]
Yahoo's Hunter Walker published an interview with Trump in which the candidate promised to deport any Syrian refugees currently in-country (about 2,000, mostly children and elderly people), and would not rule out the idea of forcing all American Muslims to wear special identification or be registered in a nationwide database. "[S]ecurity is going to rule...we're going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago."
That would be violently unconstitutional. And it's reminiscent of some very dark times. Close their religious institutions, force them to wear special identification? I think I've heard of that before somewhere.
I submit that the fact that the consistent Republican frontrunner is flagrantly stoking anti-Muslim bigotry with a program of outright religious persecution (with the rest of the field only slightly behind him) is a bit more of a threat to America's liberal values than college protests where a photographer got jostled.
Now, that's not to say that college protesters are completely without sin when it comes to civil liberties. I certainly find some of the rhetoric a bit overheated, and as Freddie de Boer points out, creeping corporatism at American universities interacts with demands for "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" in troubling ways.
But as Cottam writes in a smart response to Simon, fascism was above all a state project. The tiny handful of campus activists have no mass base and no program to capture political power through violent nationalism. Their suspicion of the media is not unjustified (though their tactics at Mizzou arguably went too far). Conversely, Chait's convoluted attempt to discover secret Marxist roots to the campus radicals' philosophy is no more convincing than any of his other instinctive red-baiting.
Ordinary political demonstrations sometimes get rowdy or even badly out of hand. But let's keep our heads on straight here. Nobody was beaten up by organized packs of thugs. No ballot boxes were stuffed, no churches burned, and nobody was lynched.
However, a couple days ago an Ethiopian Christian taxi driver was assaulted when a drunk passenger mistook him for a Muslim. A presentation of plans to build a mosque near Fredricksburg, Virginia, was shut down when two men wouldn't stop shouting things like "I'll do everything in my power to make sure that does not happen...every Muslim is a terrorist." Fully 27 percent of Republicans think closing down all mosques would be a good idea (and a further 35 percent are unsure). Trump's security goons have now blacklisted at least two journalists.
Tell me, what sounds like the bigger threat?