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  • Corey Lee Wilson

Illiberalism and the Role of Herbert Marcuse’s Ideology

While some aspects of the campus assault on free speech are new, the ideological assumptions used to justify this level of intolerance are not per Campus Reform. Their philosophical roots can be traced back to similar waves of unrest during the 1960s that emerged in the course of protests against the Vietnam War.

A significant component of our current political discourse derives from the ideology of what at the time was known as the New Left. It was called a New Left because its followers considered the traditional Left—not only mainstream political liberals, but even socialists and communists—as having failed to provide the appropriate theoretical and practical leadership for overthrowing 20th century economic and social institutions and their power structures.

Then as now, groups of students and faculty claimed the right to silence ideas considered to be false and reactionary. They saw themselves in the possession of truth and therefore entitled to impose this truth upon the rest of the academic community and eventually upon society as a whole.

Herbert Marcuse, an immigrant from Germany who taught at several American universities, held a key place in formulating the ideology of the New Left. Marcuse had been a member of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research.

Universities Are Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Increasingly, leaders of our nation’s colleges and universities are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to confronting controversial speech on campus and the reactions of the New Left.

Administrators who voice support for free speech only when a controversy arises are accused by outraged students of supporting the underlying message. If they fail to mention their First Amendment obligations during such a controversy, however, other critics are quick to remind them that they must uphold the free speech rights of their students and faculty.

One of those other critics is President Trump who signed an executive order in 2019 protecting freedom of speech on college campuses. At the signing, he was surrounded by student activists who have said conservative views are suppressed at universities.

Trump said he was taking “historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege” when he announced March 21, 2019 that he would make federal funding for universities contingent on assurances of free speech. Trump: 'People who are confident in their beliefs do not censor others'.

Trump strongly defended free speech on campus two years earlier after police at the University of California at Berkeley canceled a talk by the far-right agitator and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos amid intense protests by masked Antifa activists, who set fires and threw stones.

The order does not, on its face, make dramatic changes. But it was welcomed by people who say universities are fostering an unbalanced, liberal indoctrination of students—and condemned by those who say freedom of inquiry is a fundamental tenet of higher education, one the government should not be defining.

The president declared it the first in a number of steps the administration would take to defend students’ rights. Universities have tried to restrict free thought and impose conformity, he said. “All of that changes right now,” he added. “We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars.” Trump told the students that people can have different views, “but they have to let you speak.”



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