The kerfuffle over Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at UC Berkeley brings me back to my college days. And not in a good way.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, campus life featured a depressing sequence of actions and reactions by the right and left on the subject of race. A right-leaning student or group would say or do something bigoted and ignorant. (Though “right-leaning” may overstate the degree of ideological coherence that these juvenile outbursts entailed.) Left-leaning students, faculty, or administrators would respond by trying to restrict free speech. In 1987, the University of Michigan reprimanded students working at the school radio station for broadcasting racially insensitive jokes. In 1990, after Stanford students painted a picture of Beethoven black, and added big lips, the university passed a speech code that prevented “personal vilification of students on the basis of their sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation, or national and ethnic origin.” In 1991, George Mason punished fraternity students for dressing in blackface before being prevented from doing so by a federal judge. In 1993, African-American students at the University of Pennsylvania protested a student columnist’s denunciations of Martin Luther King by dumping 14,000 copies of The Daily Pennsylvanian in the trash. Later that year, Penn tried to punish a white student for yelling “Shut up, you water buffalo” at a group of largely African-American sorority sisters who were making noise outside his window. Between 1990 and 1991 alone, the number of codes restricting “hate speech” at American universities rose from 75 to more than 300.
These controversies made national news in the early 1990s for a reason. Conservatives, suddenly deprived of their familiar Soviet adversary, were refocusing their anxieties on the enemy within: the post-1960s left. “Now that the other ‘Cold War’ is over,” wrote neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol in 1993, “the real cold war has begun.” The new enemy was a “liberal ethos” that had “ruthlessly corrupted” almost every “sector of American life.” Since that ethos was particularly strong at universities, it was a logical place for conservatives to direct their outrage.
For leftists, by contrast, frustrated by the conservative politics of the Reagan-Bush era, universities offered an arena in which to try to continue a civil-rights struggle that had stalled nationally. But despite their relative liberalism, white-dominated universities still proved alienating and even hostile environments for many minority students. The result was that both right- and left-wing students often considered themselves victims. And the resulting clashes frequently showcased the worst of each side.
Twenty years later, something similar is happening on the subject of Islam. In recent weeks, Maher has gained national attention for making the kind of sweeping, derogatory generalizations about Muslims that campus conservatives gained national attention for making about African Americans a couple of decades ago. In the 1990s, campus conservatives presented African-American crime and poverty as a product purely of cultural pathology, ignoring white America’s centuries of racist violence and injustice. Today, Maher presents Muslim terrorism as purely a product of religious pathology, ignoring the tremendous ongoing violence the United States and its Western allies commit in majority-Muslim countries.
And today, as then, leftists are responding by trying to restrict free speech. Last week, students at Berkeley launched a petition aimed at preventing Maher from speaking at the university’s commencement this December. “Too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities,” its authors explained. This spring, a protest prevented the Somali-born critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, from speaking at Brandeis. More recently, Muslim students tried to restrict a speech of hers at Yale.
Once again, campuses are witnessing a clash of the supposedly victimized. Maher paints himself as a man bravely violating politically correct orthodoxy to tell truths about Islam that many American liberals fear acknowledging. Muslim students on campus want their campuses to be a refuge from what many consider the demonization and persecution of Muslims in post-9/11 America. And once again, the clash is bringing out the worst in both sides.
Underlying all this is the fact that, since 9/11, the United States has spent billions of dollars fighting wars in majority-Muslim countries. Thousands of Americans have died and America has killed many more. Yet more than a decade later, the United States is weaker and the countries in which we’ve fought are even more chaotic and violent. Neither Maher nor the Berkeley students who don’t want him to speak have much hope that this will improve. And until it does, America’s campus “debate” over Islam probably won’t either.