Tenuous Reality: The Age of Reason is Dead


There was recently a hub-bub at Middlebury College in Vermont—near my corner of the universe—in which a controversial invited guest speaker was protested and harangued by students and faculty to the point that his presentation was never really successfully orated. Uproar commenced concerning the right of free speech and the free expression of ideas, especially at an academic institution, with people either lamenting the immature behavior of the protestors or alternatively lauding the gumption of the students to defend themselves, the institution, and the community from the vileness of the message and its messenger.


I think, perhaps, the dialogue that has ensued, as opinionated and heated as it might be, is actually more important than the discussion and material that never got its 15-minutes of fame. A community having a debate about one of the tenets of American freedom—freedom of speech—and what it encompasses and entails, seems much more important at this particular political juncture in time than debating the merits of a tenuously-supported and empirically-shady social ‘scientist’ who has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an individual supporting white supremacist ideas.


Some background: A conservative student club on the campus of Middlebury College decided to invite Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve to give a public forum presentation on campus…


“The speaker, Charles Murray, was invited to the college by the student run American Enterprise Institute club 1 and co-sponsored by the department of political science. Murray is best known for his controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, in which he and a co-author wrote about racial differences in intelligence. His book, Coming Apart, is about class division in the United States.

“Murray has also been identified as a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The lecture sparked campuswide (sic) protests. Six hundred students and faculty signed a petition condemning Murray’s invitation to speak. The event location was changed to a 400-person capacity auditorium and limited to Middlebury College ID holders.

“The number of people lined up to get inside exceeded the available seats and many were turned away. Hundreds of protesters turned out.” 2


First off, it must be assumed that as a college-advocated club with an academic advisor, that the advisor and/or department approved the selection of the guest speaker, and also that money budgeted for the club had to have been allocated for the guest’s presentation fee and travel expenses. MONEY. FROM THE COLLEGE BUDGET. FROM THE POCKETS OF STUDENTS PAYING TO ATTEND THE COLLEGE. WHO DON”T NECESSARILY BELONG TO THE CONSERVATIVE STUDENT CLUB. Tax payers have a right to demand what their taxpaying dollars are being attributed towards. And students paying some of the largest academic fees in the nation at a private college have a right to demand what their academic fees and funds are supporting. If the academic institution is participating in the allocation of funds that elementally disturb the convictions of a segment of its student financial supporters, it seems to me that those students have a right to express their dissent against those allocations. The event was hosted by the department of political sciences. That particular academic department ought to know better than any other department that the will of the people counts for something.



Further, those who were disappointed that the guest didn’t have the opportunity to speak lamented that students were incapable of decorously listening to the presentation and offering polite rebuttals and rejection of the speaker in a respectful manner. So here’s the thing…


These disappointed folks talk about the incident as though some core value of American democracy has been lost through the effort to silence the speaker at a public auditorium presentation—as though the elemental right of freedom of speech was rescinded and denied to this particular individual. There are several things absolutely wrong with this presumption:


(1.) The presumption neglects to assign the attribution of freedom of speech to more than the single individual speaker. In other words, people who lament that Murray was not allowed to present his ideas neglect to acknowledge that the students were exercising their own right to freedom of speech as well. Just because they were successful at expressing their freedom of speech in this particular instance doesn’t mean that freedom of speech was murdered for all citizens. The forum was not set up under a set of parliamentary procedures—no one was offered the “right” to the floor to make a case. It was a public forum of citizen-students. And those students wished to make their voices and opinions heard.


(2.) The speaker’s opportunity to present his ideas were not confined to the presentation podium at Middlebury College, nor were they the first time he’d had to offer new ideas or rhetoric. We don’t live in colonial America…there is no town hall at the church nor a soapbox in the town square that are the only forms of dispersal of ideas available to citizens, whether of a minority opinion or not. Today, ideas can be espoused in any of several media forms, most notably via the World Wide Web and Internet, but also through thousands of publication routes, periodicals, podcasts, and a host of other media forms. It’s also extremely easy for people to search and find information and ideas that are publically dispersed. That’s what search engines are for, and there is a whole information technology philosophy about the democratization of information through algorithmic crowd-sourcing and interest. Democracy is different today than it was when the country was born—one need only look at the most recent elections since the age of the Internet to understand that the electorate is a different animal now, conditioned by online information and manipulation.


Students and faculty who were opposed to Charles Murray speaking on campus had unfathomable resources at their disposal to preview and read the ideas offered by Charles Murray. Being an educated class of people, they have every right to formulate opinions of the efficacy, soundness, and health of Mr. Murray’s work, and its viability or threat for the community at large on their campus. In fact, I personally feel that those students and faculty ought to be congratulated for their ability to use discernment in the review of Mr. Murray’s perspective and material and formulate an opinion worth publicly voicing.


Anyone disappointed that they didn’t have the chance to hear Mr. Murray speak live, also had ample opportunity to read his books and other published material, as well as rebuttals and reviews by peers and experts in the social sciences field. If those individuals are so bereft at not having the chance to get Mr. Murray’s autograph, write him a damned letter and ask him your questions directly. No one’s stopping or preventing you from your right to free association with the man.


VTDigger.org article reader comment

A reader of the VTDigger.org story about the Middlebury College protest comments with spot-on observation…


In the Afterward of his own book, Charles Murray, contemplating the effect of public opinion on his book, made a caustic defense of his own material by attacking those who criticized it:


“The reaction to “The Bell Curve” exposed a profound corruption of the social sciences that has prevailed since the 1960s. “The Bell Curve” is a relentlessly moderate book — both in its use of evidence and in its tone — and yet it was excoriated in remarkably personal and vicious ways, sometimes by eminent academicians who knew very well they were lying. Why? Because the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it.”


Does this somehow sound familiar? When you can’t stand to be wrong or accept criticism, might as well blame someone else, or even better, blame the social ills that are obviously “corrupting” real data. Donald Trump and this guy apparently studied under the same tutor; they seem cut from the same cloth.


What is further disturbing to dissect from this statement is that Murray gaslights the community that he claims to be a part of: “…the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality…” Accusing academic social scientists of conspiracy and a slack grip of empirical evidence in their research seems…well, a bit like transference. He might just as well have said, “Nobody knows social science like I know social science…I am the greatest social scientist ever to live and breathe on the planet. Believe me. Social scientists never win…they never win… because they’re corrupt. We need to drain the swamp of corruption in the social sciences, people. We’re going to make the social sciences win again; we’re going to make the social sciences great again. We’re gonna lock up the corrupt social scientists, and then we’re gonna take back America…”


Trump Cartoon: Trump fires Reality


More ironically, Murray accuses “empirical reality” as having been misrepresented by the social sciences, when in fact, several experts in the field have pointed out Murray’s own manipulation of empirical data to the benefit of his own theories of race differentiation and its impact on IQ and testing results:


“In his essay [in the Brookings collection, “Race, Genetics, and IQ,” by Richard Nisbett, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan], Nisbett reviews all the studies that might weaken Murray and Herrnstein’s beloved thesis that blacks, taken as a group, are less intelligent than whites, taken as a group. He reviewed studies of skin color, blood group indicators, reported white ancestry, mixed-race children, adoption studies, and, most intriguingly, a study of the children of American soldiers and German mothers in post-war Germany. (The cohort of the children of black soldiers had the same IQ as the cohort of the children of white soldiers, indicating that the relatively depressed IQs of American-born blacks are an artifact of an environmental factor—the intractability of white American racism, maybe?) Like any prudent scientist, Nisbett admits when his evidence is vague, incomplete, or contradictory. But on one score he was unequivocal: ‘By conventional academic standards, Herrnstein and Murray’s review of the evidence on the heritability of the IQ difference between blacks and whites is shockingly incomplete and biased.’” 3


So it seems that Murray seems to throw accusation against the very thing he has corrupted himself—empirical data. Again, similarities with Donald Trump abound, as when Donald Trump tried to accuse the Clinton Foundation of corruption and mismanaged money, when in fact empirical evidence and tax returns proved that not only had the Clinton Foundation conducted itself as an exemplary fiduciary organization that achieved its mission of humanitarian support,… but that Trump’s own foundation was in fact guilty of corruption, mismanagement of donor money, and had broached several federal regulations and laws concerning use of foundation money. But it was the Clinton Foundation that suffered the majority of media haranguing and public distrust due to Trump’s false and misleading accusations. The same misguided attention seems to have affected public opinion regarding Murray’s findings—namely that the upheaval and distaste over Murray’s racist documentation has superseded his use of illogical and falsified empirical data. And when confronted by accusations of distaste from the public, he conveniently shifts blame (projects or transfers blame) in order to sustain his own megalomaniac ideology. The feeble-minded don’t bother to investigate on their own or to read reviews or rebuttals of the material, and so allow themselves to be led along for the gaslighting ride, cementing their opinion based on the authoritarian dictum of media buzz.


Trump Cartoon: inventing history creating lies


No where is Prudence or virtue of any kind taken into account, and sloth and apathy reign over popular opinion… welcome Trump and company… or welcome Charles Murray and his xenophobic world perspective that incites and empowers white supremacists to live their lives as though other people were intellectually inferior to themselves.


To view this case scenario from the perspective of the virtue of Prudence would instruct us to look at previous historical precedent when it comes to how well past segregation and racial discernment laws have succeeded in influencing citizens to treat one another equitably. Then Prudence would have us look forward and formulate situations where racial discernment might affect our relations with one another considering current social conditions.


So here is one scenario to contemplate… Would you really want your African-American daughter who was studying elementary education at Middlebury College to attend a public presentation by a racist xenophobe whose theories of race preclude an educational outcome, knowing that some of the statistical and scientific data presented were possibly compromised according to specialists in the field? Regardless of how smart your African-American daughter might be in rejecting such nonsense, if the popular crowd opinion were to give the speaker credence, might not the worm of insidious doubt enter her mind that African-American students are never going to perform as well as white students? And if that insidious information were to somehow color her social pedagogy, is it not possible that it might affect how she teaches her own eventual young students in her own classroom dependent on their skin color or race? If you are the parent of one of those young students, are you not concerned that the influence of that teacher’s social pedagogy all those years ago at Middlebury College might not affect the empowerment of your child to achieve all the intellectual potential that he or she is truly capable of? Are you willing to chance the outcome of this scenario? Farfetched? Hardly… If you don’t believe that people can be influenced by social populist ideas—you haven’t been paying attention to the American political landscape. WAKE. UP.


Perhaps the students protesting Charles Murray’s presentation at Middlebury College had the prudence and foresight to protect your child’s future education by preventing the racist and xenophobic and white supremacist ideas from ever entering the larger public forum in the first place… And instead of name-calling them privileged elitists, and begrudging them their ability to discern sound social science from megalomaniacal falsehoods and xenophobic ranting, perhaps you should thank them for saving the world…





[1]       Sourcewatch.org summarizes the American Enterprise Institute thusly:

“The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) is an influential right-wing think tank that advocates for lower taxes, fewer protections for consumers and the environment, and cuts to the social safety net. AEI describes itself as ‘committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.’

In 2014 The Washington Post wrote that under CEO Arthur Brooks, AEI had emerged as ‘the dominant conservative think tank,’ becoming more influential than the Heritage Foundation.

During the George W. Bush administration, AEI was regarded ‘as the intellectual command post of the neoconservative campaign for regime change in Iraq,’ Vanity Fair noted.

AEI had approximately 225 staff and an annual budget of more than $50 million in 2015.”


[2]       https://vtdigger.org/2017/03/03/middlebury-college-students-block-controversial-speaker/ (last accessed 3/4/2017)


[3]       http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2005/10/moral_courage.html (last accessed 3/4/2017)





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