Several days ago Penn State, a top-ranked U.S. research university, known for its football team and its programs in engineering, business, and marketing, began trending on social media for something entirely different.
The university had scheduled an event organized by a nonprofit organization called Uncensored America, which describes itself as “dedicated to fighting for freedom of speech” by hosting “honest and fun conversations with controversial figures to fight censorship and cancel culture.”
The event was to feature Gavin McInnes, cofounder of the right-wing organization Proudboys and comedian, provocateur Alex Stein. Student opinion was very strongly against allowing these individuals to speak, and violent protests developed.
The spit heard round the world
The students gathered, not simply to demonstrate against the event, but to prevent it from taking place. Although the university initially issued a statement firmly upholding the principle of free speech, when demonstrations seemed to be getting out of control, it ended up canceling the event “in the interest of campus safety”.
“While the past statements and actions of these speakers are alarming and can elicit strong reactions from our community, we must continue to uphold the right to free speech — even speech we find abhorrent — because Penn State fully supports the fundamental right of free speech. To do otherwise not only violates the Constitution but would erode the basic freedom each of us shares to think and express ourselves as we wish.” –Penn State
It is no great surprise that provocateur Alex Stein sought to provoke the crowd. It was more of a surprise that so many of the crowd allowed themselves to be provoked–not just a little provoked—but to the point of becoming what can only be called ‘frenzied’.
Angry students waved signs, shouted death threats and hurled insults. The culminating moment came when one enraged demonstrator let fly a dramatic gob of spit aimed at Stein’s face but which landed on his shoulder.
What is the larger context?
The students at Penn State are right about one thing. The far right is on the rise. This is especially true both in the U.S. and in Europe where parties of the extreme-right that have been fighting to gain prominence for years have recently been winning significant representation in national leadership positions.
In Italy, the new Prime minister Giorgia Meloni is an articulate and talented orator (in multiple languages) whose carefully constructed discourse sounds uncannily like that of the main character in the comic film Look Who’s Back.
In the recent presidential elections in France, the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate Eric Zemmour was defeated. However, the more serious far-right party, the National Rally, previously the National Front, whose image has been softened by a long PR campaign of normalization, won significant representation in parliament. It has been edging steadily closer to real power.
In Germany, land of strict hate speech laws, the far right AfD party is rising in the polls.
Waves of populism
In addition to these organized political parties, a more loosely knit and informal network of online ultra-right influencers have appeared on the scene. Populist unrest occasionally bubbles to the surface in movements like the Yellow Vests in France, the truckers protests in Canada, or the January 6 riot in Washington, D.C.
The territory is ripe for demagogues
In the U.S. the stage is set for the appearance of an authoritarian demagogue who, unlike Trump, may have a serious political agenda. When this person steps onto the scene, as they inevitably will, they will pose a far more serious threat than the narcissistic Trump, who for the most part, just pretended.
So we turn to the left–where is it, what is it?
Against this rightward trend we have these students at Penn State and their ilk at other universities across the country, so full of misplaced energy and angry intolerance. They sadly embody what is now mistakenly called the left. Behind their banner of diversity lies a profoundly puritan, authoritarian worldview. A worldview which focuses on identity politics rather than material reality and has elevated the need to control language as its primary concern.
One of the great ironies of our time is that this intellectual current, the woke left, exemplified by these Penn State students, has more in common with certain strands of fundamentalist Christianity than traditional leftism. Yet, it still goes unrecognized as the profoundly regressive ideology it has become.
It is no accident that this religion has captured the elites of academia, the HR departments of all major corporations, the bureaucracy of government and the recruiting departments of the security state precisely because, in every way that counts, it serves power rather than challenges it.
For the woke left, identity politics is everything. No need to fix our planet, transhumanism will provide technological fixes and we’ll just populate Mars when our own planet is used up.
No need to solve material issues underlying long term racism and bigotry; we can just endlessly exchange accusations in social media struggle sessions.
Transgender ideology, the raging tiger in the room, has become the core tenet of the new religion that preaches to its adherents that they can find happiness with incantations of magic formulae that deny biological reality. And whatever you do, do not say otherwise.
Like other fundamentalist religions of the past, the new religion must enforce its language codes to affirm its own worldview–on its adherents as well as on outsiders. Seventeenth century Puritans would recognize its propensity to issue strict punishments for any transgressions.
Yet, in spite of the woke preoccupation with policing language and deplatforming right-wing provocateurs, there is no evidence that suppressing speech is an effective way to fight fascism.
The historical record shows exactly the contrary.
The Weimar Republic failed when it tried to do it in the years before 1934.
France and Germany, both of which have strict hate speech laws, are spectacularly losing the same battle today.
In the U.S., suppressing speech on college campuses and on social media serves only to entrench the status quo, increase popular frustration and push people to the right.
Apathy on the left toward material concerns
To its shame, today’s left leaves arguments for free speech to ultra-conservatives and then cries fascist when someone on the left speaks up for the most core and time-honored leftist positions.
So who won at Penn State? Hint: Leftists: x Fascists: ✓
Censoring ideas you don’t like, crying ‘harm’ at every word that you find displeasing, and deplatforming anyone who expresses ideas with which you disagree is not a path to achieving leftist goals. It is, on the contrary, the most sure way to fuel the rise of the very ideas you find the most abhorrent.
Performative protest is the Opium of the People
Unfortunately the Penn State students, and others like them, are our leaders of tomorrow. While preparing for their eventual job interviews with Goldman Sachs, Raytheon or the CIA, they can play-act leftists. Meanwhile, instead of focusing on material solutions that might gain adherents, their political activism rests on performative demonstrations whose only goal is to suppress opposition speech.
That the university gave in to the student demands for deplatforming these speakers ensures that future student efforts to censor unwanted speech elsewhere will be even more energized and inspired by the success at Penn State.
Instead of a banal event which could have been accompanied by a walk-out or some form of dignified counter-event that might have worked as a teaching moment, the ‘progressive’ protestors confirmed every right wing stereotype of the left and created a fascist recruiting event that will keep on giving for years.
Penn Students: Thanks, but no thanks!
Video of Penn State protests
Penn State cancels Proud Boys founder’s speech, citing the threat of violence
Three primary issues people are concerned about
(pages 16, 17, 18)
CIA recruiting video