The Chicago Way

There was a reception on campus yesterday afternoon in honor of John Boyer, our newly reappointed Dean of College. I have been back in the classroom for two weeks, but since coming out for Milo this was the first function I have attended where I expected to see a fair number of my Chicago colleagues.

I was nervous, to say the least. Would they talk with me? Would they shun me? Would I find myself standing awkwardly in a corner, the cynosure of all eyes?

Yeah, right. Are you kidding me? This is Chicago. We eat Nobel prize winners for lunch. Mere provocateurs barely raise eyebrows.

Or maybe I am just really, really good at being a Happy Warrior. After all, I've been training with the Master these past six months.

See? I'm stuck now, not sure how to explain. It was all so...normal. For Chicago, that is.

One colleague admitted to seeing Milo's interview with Bill Maher, but smiled and waved me off when I tried to explain how Milo chose his outfit for the occasion. (It was highly significant!) But, no, my colleague was far more interested in my opinion on the faculty searches upcoming for our department.

Another told me bluntly that he disagreed with my position (unspecified) but that he did not like engaging in arguments by email (as had some of our colleagues when my Sightings piece came out) and thought that I had not been given a fair hearing. I agreed. We then talked for a bit about how important it is to be able to listen to arguments like Charles Murray's without having them shut down.

I asked my colleague whether he had read Murray's recent book. “No,” he admitted, “but I know what he says from the reviews that I have read. He has replaced poor black people with poor white people as the bad guys.” (I paraphrase.) When I explained what Murray actually says in Coming Apart--that poor whites are suffering from the breakdown in their communities as a consequence of losing their professional elites to the coastal bubbles--he acknowledged with some surprise, “That's not what I had heard. That sounds worth thinking about.” And then he smiled at me and said, “You enjoy being a provocateur!”

A third admitted to me that he used to read National Review when he was a teen-ager and even wrote a fan letter to William F. Buckley, so he appreciated where I was coming from.

There was one awkward moment better unmooted, but most of my colleagues seemed to have no idea that they were supposed to shun me. (Full disclosure: those who have written most strongly against me weren't there.)

After Dean Boyer gave his usual uplifting speech, I beetled over to our president Robert Zimmer and told him: “I have to thank you for making my life here so boring! Think how different it would be for me if I were at Berkeley or Middlebury or UCLA.”

He agreed: “It is even worse out there than many people realize.” In his own words, from a talk he gave last week at Colgate:
Cultural reinforcement or cultural change is a long process that needs long term commitment and long term focus as a high priority. How many institutions are willing and able to undertake this? We shall see.
Am I optimistic that the trend we see now can be reversed? There are some hopeful signs. Until recently, it was frankly difficult on many campuses to even discuss these issues. Areas where many would not tread are now being openly discussed. There are many more statements coming out in favor of free expression. But there is a long way to go and the outcome, frankly, is not certain. As always, this will come down not simply to what institutions say is good, but to what trade-offs they are willing to make and what they are prepared to do.
To stifle free expression and open discourse and suppress speech that you don't like is just an invitation for others to do the same. Accepting this behavior sets universities on a path that is antithetical to fulfilling our highest aspirations. For the sake of our students and their future success, our faculty and their capacity to develop original and impactful research, and our country remaining a magnet for the most talented from around the world, all this suppression needs to be resisted.
As I explained back in September, I started following Milo's Dangerous Faggot tour after Dean Boyer and Dean Ellison wrote to our incoming freshman about what to expect at Chicago. No intellectual “safe spaces,” no trigger warnings, no controversial speakers being banned. “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

Throughout his tour, Milo held up our institution as the shining example of what it means to be a university dedicated to open discussion, free speech, and academic inquiry. Institutions would have to choose, he cautioned. Would they be like the University of Chicago and stand up for academic freedom? Or like Mizzou and watch their enrollments plummet?

It was dismaying, to say the least, when my article for Sightings--intended for my colleagues in academia at large--excited the responses from my colleagues on campus that it did. What would happen if I brought Milo to campus? Would Chicago live up to its professed ideals?

After yesterday, my guess is yes, if in fact the only colleagues upset with me are the ones who have already made their opinions known.

Let us hope I am right--for all our sakes. Elsewhere, as President Zimmer has warned us, the lights are going out.

Without Chicago, shall we see them lit again in our lifetime?

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