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.