Originally published by Salon on December 7, 1998.
Huey Long was once asked whether he thought fascism could ever come to America. His answer was “Yeah, but it’ll come calling itself anti-fascism.” America isn’t close to such a future, but I couldn’t help thinking about Long’s comment in connection with an episode that occurred recently at my alma mater. The occasion was a conference at Columbia University, scheduled by a conservative organization called Accuracy in Academia. The conference title was “A Place at the Table: Conservative Ideas in Higher Education” and its purpose was to highlight the lack of intellectual diversity in the highly politicized environments of academic institutions like Columbia. Among the announced speakers were two university trustees, Ward Connerly and Candace DeRussy, as well as Dinesh D’Souza, the urbane author of “Illiberal Education.” The ceremonies were to begin with a Friday evening dinner, addressed by Connerly, who is currently heading a national civil rights campaign. Connerly was coming off an important victory at the polls Nov. 3, when Washington state became only the second (after California) to ban racial preferences. According to Accuracy in Academia president Dan Flynn, 140 students and professors attended the dinner, which was held in the East Room of Columbia’s Faculty House. But guess who else came to that dinner? The mere presence of Connerly, who expresses ideas the campus left doesn’t want to hear, was enough to rouse 100 raucous radicals into action. They threw up a picket line outside the dinner and hurled obscenities and racial epithets at those entering the building. Keep in mind that these students, like Columbia itself, had previously welcomed such rabid antisemites and racial demagogues as Khalid Muhammad, and had honored unrepentant Communists like Angela Davis, who in a recent appearance at Michigan State told students that the main problem in the world was white people. Columbia not only welcomes such race-haters, but pays them handsomely out of student funds to propagate their bigotry. By contrast, the conservative conference featured no rabble-rousers, no hate-agendas, and actually paid the university $11,000 to hold its event on campus. In a healthy academic environment, a university administration might be expected to respond to the outrage that took place at Columbia by disciplining students who abused the free speech privileges of others, and who posed a threat to public safety. But these days, such thoughts are far from the minds of university administrators whose profiles, as Peter Collier has observed, are a cross between Saul Alinsky and Neville Chamberlain. In fact, the decision taken that very night by Columbia’s president, who is also chairman of the Association of American Universities, was exactly the opposite of what it should have been. President George Rupp’s solution to the problem created by the presence of the demonstrators was to ban those who had registered for the conference from attending the sessions the following day. As security guards were placed at the entrance to Columbia’s Faculty House, its director, John Hogan, piously explained that the action was wholly consistent with free speech because only the audience — and not the speakers — were subject to the order. It’s a nice distinction: You can talk, but nobody will be allowed to listen.
Evicted by the university, the event organizers decided to move the conference to neighboring Morningside Park, but the Ivy League mob followed them there. The first speaker, D’Souza, was shouted down by chants of “Ha! Ha! You’re Outside/We Don’t Want Your Racist Lies.”
Demonstrators held up signs that read: ACCESS DENIED, WE WIN: RACISTS NOT ALLOWED AT COLUMBIA, and THERE’S NO PLACE AT THE TABLE FOR HATE. Which shows just how out of touch the protesters were with their own reality. But then so was the Columbia administration. An official brochure tells visitors that “Columbia University prides itself on being a community committed to free and open discourse and to tolerance of differing views.” Orwell couldn’t have said it better.