Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg probably wouldn’t have appeared on a lot of conservative and liberal short lists for Outspoken Enemy of Political Correctness before last weekend. But there he was, giving the commencement address at Harvard, lowering the boom on the left-wing campus hive mind.
He was generally specific about calling out liberals for conducting vigilante patrols of campus headspace, too, although he threw in a few jabs against the Right, particularly with respect to his signature issue of gun control. Bloomberg compared liberal speech crusades to McCarthyism, and castigated faculty lounges for their left-wing conformity. Noting that 96 percent of campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama in the 2012 election, and taking care to mention that he himself supported Obama’s re-election, Bloomberg marveled, “There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than there is among Ivy League donors.”
Bloomberg noted that concepts such as academic tenure were developed to protect the freedom of speech, thought, and inquiry on campus, but those bulwarks against conformity don’t seem to be working very well these days. “Great universities must not become predictably partisan,” he declared. “And a liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism.”
He went on to list several recent instances in which speakers were driven from campus events by student mobs, lamenting the failure of administrators to protect academic freedom: “Isn???t the purpose of a university to stir discussion, not silence it? What were the students afraid of hearing? Why did administrators not step in to prevent the mob from silencing speech? And did anyone consider that it is morally and pedagogically wrong to deprive other students the chance to hear the speech?”
Perhaps some of Bloomberg’s ire was stirred by campus protests against his speech at Harvard, as well as the shouting down of New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly at Brown University last year, an incident Bloomberg referenced in his address. Also, while it seems odd for the famously authoritarian Big Gulp-banning former mayor to aggressively slam campus authoritarianism, it should be noted that Bloomberg was always more about controlling behavior and banning objects than suppressing free speech. Also, he criticizes student speech vigilantes and blasts campus administrators for failing to maintain order, which is not inconsistent with an authoritarian mindset, even as the end result is the sort of robust intellectual freedom that libertarians can cheer.
Of course, this being Michael Bloomberg, he had to go too far, by comparing campus totalitarianism to healthy (if often rancorous) political debate in Washington – particularly with respect to Bloomberg’s cherished gun control agenda, which he believes no one can oppose in good faith. He’s willing to speak up on behalf of the First Amendment, and quite effectively at that, but Bloomberg still hasn’t got much use for the Second. As long as we can embrace freedom of thought and expression, no debate is ever really over. Conversely, those who think great social issues that strongly divides the public can ever be permanently settled probably aren’t all that committed to freedom of speech.
Free people should cultivate a bottomless appetite for the clash of ideas. Judging from his Harvard address, Bloomberg understands that, and is prepared to explain it to young people. He earned the applause he received.