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The US and Canada now practice “subsidized” rather than “free” speech at universities, schools, media and private companies. What is needed to return to “free speech” is not more regulations, but for governments to withdraw their heavy hands from education and the media. Here is the sequence of events that brought us to the present situation, recent cases being just the tip of the iceberg.
Academia in the US grew to its elephantine scale, emulated later in the rest of the West, with the best of intentions. The 1958 National Defense Education Act started the massive expansion, which was a hysterical, badly executed reaction to the 1957 launch of Sputnik – though the US needed to catch up quickly in technology and sciences with Communist Russia.
Within a few years, the student population exploded from 3 million to 9 million. The addition was not so much in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but in humanities and so-called “social sciences.”
Subsidies do not create massive numbers of kids and faculty possessing mathematical and scientific aptitudes. Instead, they result in the creation of obscure jargons, in buying time for mediocrities (and far below) to have free time and publish nonsense and worse, pretending the new fields of study shed light on people’s behavior. This became evident quickly, but it did not result in adjusting the execution of the Act.
Universities proceeded with massive hiring of faculty at compensations exceeding what the private sector was paying at the time. This new faculty had to conform to academia’s practice of “publish or perish.”
Not being scientifically inclined, and with a limited number of academic journals, they could not produce research to fit these journals’ standards. To accommodate, subsidies created hundreds of journals, conference volumes, university presses with dubious, if any, standards, and were rarely if ever cited. Yet faculties used the publications for promotions toward jobs protected for life.
Over decades, this resulted in complacent, vain, echo-chamber faculties specialized in jargon – which some predicted would happen 60 years ago – and giving certifications in the vastly expanded “education” and “communication” departments, backed by nothing.
Their members passed such teachings on to their mediocre (and below) students, in vastly expanded education and communication departments in particular. It resulted in the present-day academic-certification Ponzi scheme, with graduates penetrating the media, education, and government administrations.
Combined with the mistaken exemption of tech-media companies from legal doctrines that prohibit censorship, the transition toward “subsidized” speech spread rapidly.
There was no danger of this happening in STEM: The vast majority of students did not apply to those faculties, and if some unqualified people did, they failed quickly. STEM faculties knew that lowering their standards and certifying innumerate and illiterate youth as engineers would have resulted in immediately observable collapsed bridges and planes falling from the sky.
Here is a tip-of-the-iceberg example in Canada.
Diversity and Inclusion Minister Ahmed Hussen awarded C$133,800 (US$103,000) to a certain Laith Marouf at a group called the Community Media Advocacy Centre (CMAC) to “build an anti-racism strategy” for Canadian broadcasting.
Some Canadian journalists promptly quoted from his writings: “You know all those loudmouthed bags of human feces, aka the Jewish White Supremacists; when we liberate Palestine and they have to go back to where they come from, they will return to being low-voiced bitches of their Christian/secular White Supremacist Masters.”
A good example of the level of anti-racist academic discourse these days – though as shown below, Harvard in 1968 was no better.
What happened then shows the consequences of complacent faculties interacting with the new masses of brainwashed, mediocre students and not much better faculties, 10 years after the passing of the US National Defense Education Act. Alexander Gerschenkron, a Russian-born Harvard economic historian, gave a lecture on April 11, 1968, reacting to riots on the campus two days before.
On April 9, hundreds of students carried “Fight Capitalists – Running Dogs” banners, shouted “Sieg heil,” demanded the abolition of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, occupied University Hall renaming it “Che Guevara Hall,” and shoved faculty and administrators down stairs while shouting expletives – already reflecting the new levels of discourse.
Harvard’s president called the police. The students attacked the officers, who made 200 arrests at University Hall. The events prompted an emergency meeting of Harvard faculty, where Gerschenkron delivered his speech, broadcast uncensored on the radio.
“Force and crime must be met by force,” Gerschenkron said, giving full support to Harvard’s president and the police. “I hear all this talk about the imperialist war machine, but any man in reasonable possession of his reasonable powers must understand that this is all bunk, this is mendacious low, political talk….
“This faculty is not the proper guardian of academic freedom…. Sixteen, 17 years ago, when academic freedoms were threatened viciously” by Senator Joe McCarthy, “it was not the faculty who stood up against the threat. The faculty was subdued, scared.
“There are many reasons for that,” he continued. The faculties “are buried in research and don’t want anything to do with the wider world.… They are the middle-aged popularity kids who have done considerable damage to the university. In addition to popularity seekers, they are fearers of unpopularity,” especially “in the atmosphere of terror – fear of boycotts, of reduction in election in their courses.”
Now, 50 years later, the situation has become far worse as false language penetrated media, and its practitioners infested the entire education system and government bureaucracies.
Gerschenkron finished his speech by citing a Hans Christian Andersen tale about a king’s promise that whoever does “the most incredible thing” will win his daughter’s hand in marriage and half his kingdom.
The contest’s judges agree that a young entrepreneur earned the prize with a clock showing 12 performances, one for each hour. The performances were reminders of myths and foundations of Western civilization, from Moses’ commandments, Christianity to basic pleasures of everyday living.
At the award ceremony, a young man swings an ax and smashes the clock, saying: “I have done the most incredible thing.” The judges agree, and he gets the award (a decision rhyming with the present state of criminal justice).
The fairytale ends happily, though, as the clock reappears on the wedding day. The characters in the 12 performances come to life, send the lout into oblivion, and the clock-making man gets his rewards. Andersen concludes that while works of art may be shattered, their spirit can’t be broken.
Gerschenkron is more circumspect, adding that the university is a fragile creation that louts can destroy unless “the faculty rises and smashes all this criminal nonsense that is going around in this country.”
Indeed, the veneer of civilization is thin, and the combination of bad execution of an act of legislation and badly applied laws can destroy the mazes of institutions that uphold them – confusing subsidized speech with free speech being one of them.
This article draws on Brenner’s publications of three decades ago. “Making Sense out of Nonsense,” “Sciences of Political Lies,” and “Extracting Sunbeams out of Cucumbers” were among the very few that forecast today’s situation; updates appear in his Force of Finance (2002) and “Accelerate Education” (American Affairs, 2017).
Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council’s prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society. More by Reuven Brenner