Shutting down a speaker, or a professor, or a book with which you strongly disagree is nothing new. Indeed, if there’s anything really new about Brandeis’ disinvitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it’s that they invited her at all, no matter how briefly. I was amazed and (briefly) encouraged. Could it be, I wondered, that Brandeis, of all universities, was offering an honorary degree to someone so totally out of step with multiculturalism? So I tip my hat to those who pulled it off, it took real intellectual courage. You can be sure that they’re in plenty of pain these days. They are stuck in Waltham, while Ayaan is comfy down the road in Cambridge, surrounded by security guards ever attentive to the possibility that some day some one will attempt to carry out one of the many death threats she receives.
Of course they were rolled, and if the other honorees had any real integrity, they’d cancel. If the school’s donors took freedom seriously, they’d cancel their contributions. But the key to understanding Brandeis is that it has been this way for half a century. Banning Ayaan is indeed the fulfillment of a famous call to censorship by one of the most famous leftist philosophers of the last century: Herbert Marcuse, a Brandeis professor who in 1965 published a vigorous defense of ideological repression called “Repressive Tolerance.” Here’s how he sums up the thrust of his essay:
The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period–a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.
Marcuse didn’t like American liberal bourgeois society, and he was infuriated by its popularity, which he blamed on a combination of bad education and powerful media (advertisements particularly alarmed him). What to do? He despaired of convincing a majority of Americans that we needed a communist revolution, so he called for censorship. Just ban the ideas on which the country rested.
He neatly anticipated the anti-free speech campaign now waged against those who challenge the current orthodoxy, whether in science, politics, or entertainment. If you can’t beat them, silence them:
The toleration of free discussion and the equal right of opposites was to define and clarify the different forms of dissent: their direction, content, prospect. But with the concentration of economic and political power and the integration of opposites in a society which uses technology as an instrument of domination, effective dissent is blocked where it could freely emerge; in the formation of opinion, in information and communication, in speech and assembly.
Ergo, in order to get “really free” thought, you must destroy free speech: “the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions…”
It’s a seductive mantra. Silencing one’s opponents has long appealed to those to whom skepticism is a four-letter word, and without skepticism, toleration has no meaning.
Marcuse was one of the great culture heroes of his time, and acquired quite a substantial following “Repressive Tolerance” was dedicated to his Brandeis students, and one of the most infamous of them–the Communist leader Angela Davis–did her best to translate it into practice.
The silencing of Ayaan carries on that old Brandeis tradition, and no doubt Herbert Marcuse is celebrating it as best he can. He must have been horrified when she was invited in the first place.