Charles Murray. George Will. Condoleezza Rice. And now…
Harvard’s decision to retract its offer to the former soldier-turned-leaker-turned-woman — who had until recently been promised a visiting fellowship at the Kennedy School — is the latest in a long stream of embarrassing capitulations. “We did not intend to honor her in any way or to endorse any of her words or deeds, as we do not honor or endorse any Fellow,” Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of the Kennedy School, told the New York Times — apparently forgetting that Harvard bestowed the same honor on Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski just a week earlier. When he announced this decision during a phone call with Manning and her associates, one of her assistants asked him to justify this double standard. Elmendorf meekly responded that the latter pair had something to offer the university’s students.
It is highly unlikely that any Harvard faculty member endorses a single thing Spicer has ever said, spat or screeched, and unlikelier still that axing Manning had anything to do with patriotic fellow-feeling. The decision probably stemmed more from the fact that several fellows at the Kennedy School threatened to resign the moment her invitation was announced. Though Harvard later clarified that Manning would still be allowed to speak, the reasoning here could easily have been used to revoke that, too. Elmendorf’s groveling concession to the hecklers’ veto almost makes our own administration appear brave by comparison — and after the Yale Alumni Magazine bragged about removing a “hostile” carving from Sterling Memorial Library, that is truly saying something.
Yet, in defending Manning, and Murray and Milo, free speech advocates have tended to conflate two very different issues: who should be granted an institutional platform and who should have their platform taken away.
Manning’s staunchest champions have generally assumed that answering the first question will shed light on the second. Take Trever Trimm, for instance, who argued that, because Manning’s leaks constitute a “powerful, influential and important contribution” to American political debate, she retains a legitimate claim to join the Kennedy School. What he does not say — but what his position implies — is that if Manning did not live up to these “public-spirited” values, she would no longer have any right to complain about having her invitation rescinded.
That view echoes a line of thought popular among student radicals: namely, that the proposition “we should not have invited X” entails the proposition “we should be allowed to withdraw our invitation to X.” It is a curious paradox of campus discourse that free speech crusaders often end up endorsing precisely this inference when they attempt to rebuff would-be censors: “Charles Murray should speak because his perspective on inequality is valuable; Condoleezza Rice, because she has interesting things to say about government.” Such claims have the unwelcome effect of suggesting that the retraction of an invitation is justified so long as its targets don’t have anything useful to contribute — something disinvitationalists already believe by definition — and asserting otherwise does little to pacify those who have been trained to regard disagreement as sign of moral backwardness.
Resting the anti-disinvitation case on pure credentialism, then, makes it nearly impossible to resist the vicissitudes of public outrage. And, in a world where “racist” is defined as “that which the Southern Poverty Law Center dislikes” — and in which “traitor” lacks an agreed-upon referent — allowing outrage to proscribe debate means giving up on debate entirely. It doesn’t matter whether Manning should have been invited to Harvard in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether she’s a whistleblower, a charlatan or an enemy of the state. What matters is whether the proverbial peanut gallery should be able to decide which views — and which people — are beyond the pale.
Diversity of thought is the bedrock of liberal education. But, if the past two years have taught us anything, it is that the campus-industrial complex seldom has liberal education’s best interests at heart. We should oppose disinvitation in all its forms, not because the disinvited “deserved” their platform — Manning almost certainly didn’t — but because every attempt to take it away from them inevitably chips away at the university’s core mission.
To that end, let me close with a suggestion. Every year, Yale’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program hosts a “Disinvitation Dinner” for speakers forced to withdraw from pre-arranged engagements. Unsurprisingly, most attendees are on the political right, a natural consequence of the left’s vice-like grip on campus culture.
What better way to stand on principle — and above politics — than to invite Chelsea Manning to the dinner? Her presence would send a clear message that intellectual diversity is nonpartisan. It would shatter Buckley’s reputation as a front for campus conservatism, elevating the program to an unassailable moral high ground. It would make Yale the free-speech capital of the Ivy League.
And it would drive Harvard crazy.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.