By now, the prosecution of the campus PC wars has grown sclerotic and ritualistic, long since sundered from any intelligible moment in our collective cultural memory, much like the original cause of action in the Bleak House lawsuit. Can anyone honestly recall why the elite universities of the 1990s were convulsed with tail-chasing set-tos about canon formulation and dating codes? And what fair-minded onlooker can see the sainted principles of First Amendment freedom at play in the cynical campus flogging of Milo Yiannopoulos’s bigoted bad-boy brand—particularly when said brand has aged about as well the Culture Club comeback tour?
And yet, unaccountably, the zombie university speech battles—pitting righteously aggrieved right-wing defenders of traditional inquiry against firebreathing iconoclasts high on no-platforming autos-da-fé—continue to loom out of all sane proportion in debates over the course of higher learning in America. To judge by each new breathless dispatch about the havoc wrought by political correctness on campus, you’d never know that there was a calamitous student-loan meltdown, a political economy uniformly hostile to graduates not bearing a STEM credential, and a general, gleeful pillaging of anything resembling a humanities education.
A recent report from The Stanford Daily featured leaked email correspondence in which Niall Ferguson plots to discredit a campus student activist on the left.
One reason that the PC fracas has such a robust half-life is that it’s a career-building hustle—particularly for para-intellectuals on the right, who use the campfire-tales of PC run amok to rake in donor cash on an enormous scale while managing at the same time to pose as victims of PC inquisitors in the low-stakes battles of marginal bureaucratic advantage on campus. The recent poster boy for this clever bait-and-switch is Niall Ferguson, Thatcherite blowhard and author of countless potted histories hymning the genius of colonialist enterprise. A recent report from The Stanford Daily featured leaked email correspondence in which Ferguson—a longtime Harvard don who’s taken up a plush sinecure at Stanford’s Hoover Institution—plots to discredit a campus student activist on the left. Preposterously, Ferguson had been in control of a campus speaking program called Cardinal Conversations devoted—wait for it—to broaden intellectual diversity in the allegedly militant leftist agoras of Stanford. (That a university founded by a railroad robber baron, serving as a feeder school for the Silicon Valley managerial class, should be conscripted into symbolic service as a hotbed of left-wing militance is a species of fantasy we can’t presently dissect at great length, save to note that, as is usually the case in our most exuberantly puffed American Kulturkampf spectacles, political economy counts for precisely nothing.)
The appeal to intellectual diversity is an anodyne sop to traditional ideas of fair play —much like the fair-and-balanced refrain at Fox News (which the network only recently managed to summon the basic honesty to retire after a two-decade run). You don’t really need Ferguson’s oafish antics to indict the larger mission of Cardinal Conversations on its merits; just consider that this year’s fledgling Cardinal Conversation featured LinkedIn mogul Reid Hoffman “debating” the role of politics in tech with PayPal mogul Peter Thiel—i.e., a billionaire Democratic Party donor (and robust defiler of user privacy) facing off against a Trump crony capitalist whose idea of extending the range of intellectual discourse is suing media outlets he doesn’t like out of existence. Behold diversity, Stanford-style!
Nevertheless, Ferguson’s communiqués were revealing, if only in the way they’ve confirmed all one’s worst suspicions about the rancid bad faith of the right’s self-appointed interlocutors in official ideologically charged “conversation” on campus. In his official capacity curating said exchanges, Ferguson instructed two student Republican activists to target another student activist on the left, Michael Ocon, and to enlist eight founding members of Cardinal Conversations against him:
They should all be allies against O. Whatever your past differences, bury them. Unite against the SJWs. [Christos] Makridis [a fellow at a Stanford Christian publication called Vox Clara] is especially good and will intimidate them.
Ferguson’s comrade-in-arms, John Rice-Cameron (who, in the great interlocking-directorate style of the American oligarchy, is the right-wing son of former Obama administration official Susan Rice), was blunter still: “Slowly, we will crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure,” the eager young conversation-assister, sounding for all the world like a Bond villain, pronounced. Mentor Ferguson sounded a similar note after the group successfully staged a stunt own-the-libs panel featuring the race-baiting, eugenics-grade charlatan Charles Murray. “Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” this arch protector of free inquiry declared. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” When Ferguson proceeded to order up “some opposition research” on Ocon, his own research assistant snapped to the request like a good knight of the British Empire, vowing to “get on the opposition research for Mr. O.” toot suite.
Needless to say, the disclosure of the email threads forced Ferguson to resign his commission as Cardinal Conversor in Chief. “I very much regret the publication of these emails,” he said in a statement to the Daily. “I also regret having written them.”
The larger culprit in Ferguson’s apologia, as it always is in the culture-war fairytales of the right, was the dangerously left-leaning groupthink of the American academy itself.
Though in a later, and typically self-enamored, op-ed for the Boston Globe, Ferguson made it plain that the conservative mantra of personal responsibility didn’t really apply in his case. The closest Ferguson came to contrition was owning up to the “juvenile, jocular tone” of his emails. He notes that nothing came of the bid to produce “opposition research” on a tuition-paying Stanford student, claiming that the daily onrush of academic life swamped this project out of view—while strangely failing to note that his own research assistant did not appear to regard Ferguson’s orders as any sort of joke at all. (In this, as in most of the particulars surrounding this bathetic set piece, Ferguson and his lackeys replicate the general self-exculpating rhetoric of the Trump White House: the Great Leader’s various lies, vendettas, and tantrums are all held to be other-than-serious pronouncements, while the daily horror of executive policy-making shows otherwise.)
No, the larger culprit here, as it always is in the culture-war fairytales of the right, was the dangerously left-leaning groupthink of the American academy itself. Get out your crying towels, readers, because a real conservative wail-fest is coming on:
This fiasco might have been avoided if conservatives at universities did not feel so beleaguered. There is a debate about how far free speech has been restricted on American campuses in recent years. I have no doubt that Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens are right: It has. Middle-of-the-road students live in fear that a casual remark will be deemed “offensive” or “triggering” by the progressives and that social media will be unleashed to shame them. Conservative students have to decide whether to remain in the new ideological closet or come out and fight a culture war in which they are hopelessly outnumbered.
It’s entertaining to consider how the same structural cultural alibi can be applied to many of the identitarian left formations Ferguson routinely scorns. Would Ferguson assiduously defend the civil rights of, say, the LGBT community on the grounds that without full rights of sexual expression “social media will be unleashed to shame them”? (Because I have news for you, Mr. Rightwing Samizdat Hero: It definitely has, and will. Something tells me, though, that Ferguson will remain unmoved on this issue.) Will NFL players protesting police violence be granted robust speech protections, despite the way that their actions have been deemed “offensive” and “triggering” by our great grifting Snowflake-in-Chief and his legions of quisling pseudo-patriots? (Oh, and as for Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens bravely documenting the terrifying enclosure of speech rights on campus? Um, sorry, no.)
Amid all this predictable first-order hypocrisy, though, it’s easy to miss the larger fallacy of Ferguson’s dismal self-justifying argument: in a diatribe about the supposed inattention to right-wing ideas, he has been shown to have zero interest in the ideas of his opponents—one of the fundamental conditions of any conversation, cardinal or otherwise. One can quarrel with the tactics of the Murray protesters at Stanford and elsewhere, but it is not in fact the case as Ferguson glibly asserts in the Globe, that “I had satisfied myself that their antipathy to Murray was not based on any reading of his work.” (As someone who has had the singular misfortune of reading Murray’s work, I can attest that it likely was.) Charles Murray has devoted a significant stretch of his career to enabling the continued reign of white supremacy in America, and in protesting that legacy, his campus detractors are taking his ideas seriously.
Niall Ferguson, meanwhile, can barely stir himself to engage with anything more than the most grossly caricatured version of left intellectual inquiry. This inert Manichean outlook also permeates his published work as a historian. As Pankaj Mishra noted in a 2011 review of Ferguson’s teeth-grindingly fatuous study Civilization: The West and the Rest, Ferguson will never engage with a complex or demanding historical dilemma when a brisk morale-boosting slogan or two will suffice:
To explain the contingent, short-lived factors that gave a few countries in Western Europe their advantage over the rest of the world requires a sustained and complex analysis, not one hell-bent on establishing that the West was, and is, best. At the very least, it needs the question to be correctly put. To ask, as Ferguson does, why the West broke through to capitalist modernity and became the originator of globalisation is to assume that this was inevitable, and that it resulted basically from the wonderfulness of the West, not to mention the hopelessness of the East.
In other words, as is forever the case in the American campus culture war, the core question here is woefully mis-specified. Rather than asking just how a beleaguered truth-telling defender of Western values like Niall Ferguson should go about defending his honor from legions of bloodthirsty PC undergrads, we should be asking just why and how an incurious imperialist hack and serial author of crude agitprop tracts like Niall Ferguson ever got to be esteemed as an upholder of Western values in the first place. Somehow, though, Stanford and Harvard never get around to sponsoring that sort of conversation.