Brown’s Budding Brown Shirts

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2001

Brown University in Providence, RI long has had something of a reputation for political correctness. In her most recent column for the online magazine Salon, the iconoclastic feminist writer and professor, Camille Paglia, described Brown as “the most viciously intolerant campus I ever visited as a lecturer.” This reputation has been reinforced recently by the reaction of some Brown students to an advertisement entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea–and Racist Too,” that appeared in the Brown Daily Herald, the university’s student newspaper. Protestors stole 4,000 copies from the paper boxes around the campus, then stormed the Daily Herald’s editorial offices. A group calling itself the Coalition of Concerned Brown Students demanded that the editors apologize for running the ad, donate space for responses, and give the money paid for the ad to student minority groups.

The disgraceful reaction of these students suggests that it might be time for a new name for Brown’s athletic teams. Instead of the “Brown Bears,” how about the Brown “Brown Shirts?” This name change would convey the essence of the dominant mindset afflicting campuses of “elite” institutions like Brown—that dissent from the reigning leftist orthodoxy will not be tolerated.

We should be grateful that not everyone at Brown believes in trashing freedom of speech. Demonstrating courage all too rare among both students and university administrators in the face of politically correct thuggery, the student editors stood their ground and refused to give in to the protestors’ shakedown attempt. The university administration initially showed some spine in backing the editors and criticizing the protestors, but subsequently “expressed concern” for the hurt feelings caused by publication of the ad.

Once upon a time, the essence of liberal education–education fit for free human beings–was understood to be an openness to reasoned debate. Even if an oppressive political orthodoxy reigned just beyond the campus walls, freedom of thought and speech prevailed in the university because of the belief that only toleration and intellectual freedom can generate the clash of ideas necessary to approach the truth.

Then came Karl Marx who taught that the only objective reality was the class struggle between those who owned the means of production and those who didn’t. Liberal political institutions and freedom of speech were for Marx merely part of the “superstructure” of economic reality by which the owners of the means of production oppressed the workers. In other words, there was really no such thing as free speech. Liberal notions of fairness merely served to conceal oppression.

The Freudian neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse refined this paradigm by means of his concept of “repressive tolerance.” According to Marcuse, liberal tolerance is repressive because the “privileged” ideas of the ruling class make it impossible for the oppressed to achieve true freedom. It is only a short step from here to the idea that if true liberation from the oppression of modern capitalistic society is to be achieved, classical liberal tolerance must be replace by a politically correct orthodoxy that represses non-orthodox ideas. Or as characters in George Orwell’s Animal Farm put it, “Freedom is slavery! Slavery is freedom!” Given that Marcuse was a major influence on the New Left, it is not surprising that political correctness became academic orthodoxy as 60s radicals carried out their “long march through the institutions.”

David Horowitz, who placed the ad in the Brown Daily Herald, knows all too intimately the intellectual drivel-mongers of the left. Press accounts merely describe Mr. Horowitz as a “conservative” but this description doesn’t do justice to his remarkable odyssey. Mr. Horowitz was in fact a leading light of the New Left during the 60s and 70s, a close ally and adamant defender of the Black Panthers, and the co-editor of the radical magazine Ramparts.

But repulsed by what he saw as the hypocrisy and evasions of the New Left and its hatred of the United States and its principles, not to mention the thuggery of the Black Panthers, Mr. Horowitz became a critic of his former colleagues on the left. His purpose in attempting to place the ad was to stimulate a debate that he believed could not take place given the pervasiveness of political correctness on most college campuses. By demonstrating just how pervasive political correctness is, the ad accomplished its intended goal.

Mr. Horowitz sent the paid ad to 52 college newspapers around the country. So far, 27, including those at Harvard, Michigan State, UCLA, and Columbia, have refused to run the ad. Two that refused, Notre Dame and Penn State, previously accepted ads by holocaust deniers. Papers at Arizona State and the Berkeley and Davis campuses of the University of California ran the ad, but their editors succumbed to intimidation by “multicultural” thugs and abjectly apologized. Brown, Duke and Wisconsin refused to apologize, but endured protests. Seven papers, including those at the University of Chicago, the University of Arizona, and Boston University ran the ad without incident.

What did Mr. Horowitz’s ad say that caused such a reaction? Did he defend slavery? Did he argue that slavery is not a stain on the American Republic?

No. He merely argued that the current call for reparations is an unjust response to the injustice of slavery.

Reparations are based on the idea that all whites gained from slavery and that all blacks were victimized by the institution. But this is an oversimplification. As Thomas Sowell argues, “nothing we can do in the 21st century can redress the wrongs done by people long dead against other people long dead. So we might as well put away these sweeping definitions of ’whites’ and ’blacks’ that extend back through history and talk about those particular whites, blacks and others who are alive today. As one of those black Americans, I consider it as ridiculous as it would be phony to pretend that I am worse off than if my ancestors had remained in West Africa and I had been born there. They themselves might well have been better off remaining in Africa, but they are not the ones who would get any reparations.”

One of Mr. Horowitz’s claims in particular has raised the ire of his adversaries: his suggestions that African-Americans owe a debt to America. He was not arguing that blacks benefited from slavery, merely that the creation of the United States established the principle upon which to question the morality of slavery. I made a similar argument in a column I wrote for the Providence Journal of July 16, 1997—”We have already apologized for slavery.”

Before the creation of the United States, the idea that some human beings were entitled to rule over others was the accepted principle of political action. This was a variation of the argument attributed by Thucydides to the Athenians at Melos: “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will; the weak suffer what they must.” Slavery was just one of many manifestations of this principle. As a worldwide phenomenon, slavery was an established feature of all cultures, including African culture. Advocates of reparations must confront the unpleasant truth that the Atlantic slave trade, which brought African slaves to the New World, could not have flourished without the active collaboration of African slave catchers and slave traders, who kidnapped and transported other Africans to the commercial ports on the West African coast.

The United States expressly repudiated the argument underlying slavery and other forms of oppression that some men are born “booted and spurred” while others are born with “saddles on their backs.” The American Republic was founded instead upon the principle of equality as articulated in the Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” The simple meaning of this famous phrase is that no one has the right to rule another without the consent of the latter.

This understanding of the Declaration is often rejected or ridiculed because Jefferson and many of the other founders held slaves. But Abraham Lincoln, for one, argued persuasively that the founders compromised on slavery out of necessity, not because they were believed it was right or even because they were hypocrites. Indeed, the founders understood clearly the conflict between slavery and the principles upon which the US was created. Jefferson decried the effects of slavery, not only on the slave, but also on the slave owner, and on the society that countenanced slavery: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Lincoln’s view of Jefferson and the other founders is supported by the most vociferous defenders of slavery, including John C. Calhoun: “[the proposition “all men are created equal”] as now understood, has become the most false and dangerous of all political errors….We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the declaration of independence.” Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy contended in a little-known and little-appreciated speech in March 1861 that the Confederate constitution, the “cornerstone” of which was the “great truth” of slavery and inequality, would correct Jefferson’s fatal error as identified by Calhoun.

There are two sides to the question of reparations. Professors and administrators at Brown and elsewhere who stifle debate on this or any other issue are not doing their students any favors. Defenders of liberal education and free and open debate owe Mr. Horowitz a debt of gratitude for raising the issue in the first place. They owe and even greater one to the courageous student editors of the Brown Daily Herald, who stood up for a principle when they could have taken the easy way out. As for the budding storm troopers who trashed the Daily Herald, they should be suspended until they have taken a sensitivity course on the principles of the American founding, the rule of law, and the First Amendment.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport. He can be reached by e-mail at