Late last week, Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth took to The Wall Street Journal to advocate “The Opening of the Liberal Mind.” He lamented that liberals on college campuses cannot fathom why conservatives think the way they do, and so many lash out against free speech itself. Roth championed free speech, but he argued that conservative ideas need a kind of special treatment in order to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
“Simply relying on the marketplace of ideas isn’t enough,” Roth argued. “We need an affirmative-action program for conservative, libertarian and religious modes of thinking.”
This sounds generous, but it is also rather patronizing, especially coming from a college president in Connecticut. Does Roth think conservative, libertarian, and religious ideas are inherently weaker than liberal ideas and therefore unable to compete unless they are officially supported by institutions steeped in big government ideology? Indeed, his logic seemed to suggest as much.
“If you are on the right, you might call this a remedy for political correctness; if you are on the left, you might prefer to call it the ‘new intersectionality,'” the university president explained.
The term “intersectionality” refers to the idea that various liberal identity politics groups — racial minorities, women, LGBT people, indigenous people, et cetera — are oppressed together in “patterns of oppression.” The existing power structures were created in order to keep these groups oppressed, making each group’s victimization “intersect” with the others.
The idea that conservative, libertarian, and religious ideas are part of “intersectionality” implies that identity politics oppression extends to the Right as well as the Left. The problem with this should be obvious to anyone who truly believes in the classical liberal tradition of equal rights, private property, and limited government.
Intersectionality is inseparable from identity politics — from the idea that certain groups deserve special legal status and recognition from the government. Conservatives and libertarians attack this idea as a return to “status,” a wide-ranging term for the old world organization of society as a group of castes: royals, nobles, businessmen, workers, and slaves.
The rule of status had separate laws for separate people based on their social position. Classical liberalism — what is today referred to as “conservatism” or “libertarianism” — pushed against this, fighting for the rule of law which applies equally to everyone, regardless of their station or closeness to the crown, or ultimate seat of government.
Today’s big government “liberals” are pushing for a kind of return to status, in order to equalize historic oppressions. The problem is, the more special rules a society adopts for specific types of people, the more certain excluded groups will demand their own privileges. Laws become complicated, and freedoms decrease.
By contrast, the conservative and libertarian push for fewer rules and regulations to increase freedom and allow human ingenuity to unleash progress enriches everyone. It may come to the rich and powerful first, but in a free market, those benefits expand to reach the poor and needy as well. Government mandates that everyone have the same measure of wealth, by contrast, hold back progress and make everyone poorer — from the top of the social ladder to the bottom.
This is the fundamental reason why the United States beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The unprecedented wealth and prosperity enjoyed by millions across the world today — from running water, to abundant food, to smart phones — was unleashed by free markets, not government mandates.
But most college students do not learn this history, because big government liberals do indeed hold the reigns of power in colleges and universities across America. Roth is not wrong to say that the powers that be are holding these ideas hostage, and the attacks on free speech against Charles Murray, Heather MacDonald, and Ann Coulter illustrate just how vehement the opponents of the Western tradition can be.
The Wesleyan University president argued that the issue “isn’t wether the occasional conservative, libertarian or religious speaker gets a chance to speak.” Instead, campuses need “to create deeper intellectual and political diversity.” The “full range of conservative ideas and traditions … seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.”
Here, Roth hit the nail on the head. Because of an emphasis on the evil of slavery in America, many college students seem to think America invented slavery. Stanford students infamously rejected a Western Civilization course. Students at Yale signed a petition to remove the “major English poets” like William Shakespeare from the English curriculum, because these poets were mostly white males.
Identity politics has gotten out of hand in American higher education, and Roth is right to call for true intellectual diversity. Liberals need to study conservative ideas, and conservatives need to study liberal ideas. But just as affirmative action for racial minorities lowers the standards for people in those groups, so an attempt to privilege conservative ideas might end in failure, and even more closed-mindedness.
It is not enough for colleges to teach conservative, libertarian, and religious ideas. In the politically-charged culture of many campuses today, such classes would likely turn into examinations of how these ideas oppressed the favored groups — women, minorities, LGBT people.
Liberals would hardly be introduced to new perspectives if they study Western history as the story of rich white males finding new ways to oppress minorities. They could even study the “Great Tradition” of Western philosophy through an identity politics lens.
This might well be an improvement over rank ignorance of Western history and ideas, but it would hardly open the liberal mind. The true robust intellectual challenge today’s closed-minded liberals need is a full-throated defense of conservative, libertarian, and religious (especially Christian) ideas as good, freeing, and enlightening.
In many liberal circles, conservative Christians are seen as anti-science rubes who are driven by hate, not belief or reason. Libertarians are seen as insular hoarders unwilling to give their taxes for the benefit of the poor. Conservatives are seen as deniers of science, oppressors of women, and all-around evil people.
Democrats and many media outlets are also responsible for cementing these false caricatures as fact, and the result is President Donald Trump. Had liberals taken conservatives seriously, the anger of the Alt Right might have been avoided.
Roth is right that liberals need to learn conservative ideas — but they don’t just need to learn them in a way that cements their own biases. They need to be truly challenged to see how free markets, limited government, and Christian churches and charities have benefited the world. They need to understand how science arguably came from Christian foundations, and how the human rights they treasure are the product of groups they consider hateful bigots.
The president of Wesleyan University deserves praise for his article, even though it is patronizing. It is refreshing to see liberal educators understand just how closed-minded their campuses are. But when liberals call for intellectual diversity, they need to be open to the real consequences of it — they need to open their minds to the possibility that the very ideas and people they see as the ultimate villains might be a true light of the world.