Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Taking Down Jim Sleeper

So, I haven't posted in a while. Frankly, I've just been too busy doing real-world things. But when the New York Times Sunday Review takes a shot at you, it's time to carve out a few minutes. It won't take longer than that to dismiss Professor Sleeper.

It started with a New York Times front page article last month called, "College Students Protest, Alumni's Fondness Fades and Checks Shrink." The gist of it is in the title: that alums are getting wise to some of the full-on craziness going down on campuses. I was quoted a bit, saying, among other things, "this is not your daddy's liberalism," and "I don't think anything has damaged Yale's brand quite like that," referring to the widely-viewed video of "Shrieking Girl," which can only be properly appreciated by viewing it yourself:

Two weeks later, a Yale professor named Jim Sleeper wrote a piece for the Sunday Review called, "Political Correctness and its Real Enemies." He started out by repeating a few of my quotes...

NEW HAVEN — Last November, Scott C. Johnston, a 1982 Yale graduate, was attending a conference organized by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at his alma mater when student protesters disrupted it. Soon after, he watched an online video of a black Yale student hurling imprecations at a professor who headed her residential college for failing “to create a place of comfort and home.”

Such protests have prompted Mr. Johnston and other alumni to cease funding what they see as coddled children and weak-kneed administrators. “I don’t think anything has damaged Yale’s brand quite like that” video, he said. “This is not your daddy’s liberalism.”

The article, as you will see, is an incoherent mess. Had I tried to turn this in as a paper in high school, it would have been handed back dismissively with the word "rewrite" scrawled in red ink. I urge you to read it yourself to see if you can figure out what the hell he's trying to say.

But let me try.

Sleeper said...

"What the video didn’t show were the hundreds of white students having their first frank conversations about race with minority classmates."

First conversation about race? Seriously? Is anything else discussed on campus these days? Identity politics trumps all.

"A thousand students of all colors joined a vibrant campus “march of resilience” — I know, because I was on campus last fall."

Well, Sleeper, so was I. I was at that conference, the one progressives tried to shut down, the one Sleeper neglects to mention was a conference on free speech. Oh, and he also leaves out that as we were leaving, some of us were spit on. But he manages to get in that we were there for the Buckley Program. Read: it's just a bunch of crazy right-wingers, so discount anything they say. He goes on...

"Free speech and open inquiry are alive and well on campus."


(Sorry, can't help it.)

Sleeper, of course, is talking about colleges in general, not just Yale. So, why then would the University of Chicago feel the need to explicitly state that they won't ban speakers? Why is it that all speakers who are banned are conservative? Why is it that a friend, who has a son at Yale, recently told me that conservative undergrads have learned to keep their mouths shut? You see, Sleeper lives in a bubble where open debate consists of sparring shades of progessivism. He thinks debates between Code Pink and the Progressive Student Alliance on whether Donald Trump is the devil or merely evil constitutes "free speech and open inquiry."

"But it isn’t the protests per se that damaged open inquiry and expression, but the frenzied way they have been portrayed by the right."

Frenzied? Frenzied was Professor Christakos being surrounded by shouting students because they were upset about the mere concept of insensitive Halloween costumes (think Frito Bandito), and then being hounded out of Yale altogether. Frenzied was 200 students trying to physically break up a free speech conference and then spitting on attendees. (You can read my full account here.)

Frenzy is the default condition of the Left these days, having elevated the emotion of outrage to a virtue. The Right, on the other hand, is about as frenzied as a garden club meeting. We have day jobs.

"What motivates (conservatives) is not the defense of free speech, but an ideology that condemns “politically correct” activists and administrators and dubiously recommends “free markets” as the best guarantors of such rights."

Okay, I confess I have no idea what Sleeper is talking about here. Free markets are great, but he seems to conflate them with free speech. Hey Professor, they're both good, they're both necessary, but they're not the same.
"If anything, the real threat to free inquiry isn’t students, but that same market imperative that First Amendment defenders claim to hold dear. Most university leaders serve not politically correct pieties but pressures to satisfy student “customers” and to avoid negative publicity, liability and losses in “brand” or “market share” — terms that belong in corporate suites but appear, increasingly, in deans’ offices."

This is where Sleeper really leaves the rails. He's (apparently) saying that the threat to free speech isn't from the students who specifically want to place limitations on it, but from we evil people on which the university relies for donations. Here, he's seizing on my use of the word "brand," implying that somehow those of us who work in, and support, market economies are somehow subverting universities' missions of free inquiry.

You see, those of us who are the most vocal about free speech on campus are really, deep down, the ones trying to subvert it, all to feed our corporate agenda. Got that? Professor Sleeper: I could just as easily have said "reputation" instead of "brand." Might that have spared us the tortured logic?

"Today wealthy donors back groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute: the Bradley Foundation, the Scaife family foundations and the Koch brothers’ DonorsTrust ( for donors who don’t want to go public) that funnel money to, among others, the David Horowitz Freedom Center... and Campus Watch..."

When you're starting to lose even your leftie audience, shout "Koch brothers!" It's Pavlovian. Follow Sleeper's logic here: there are people - Kochs! - who give money to universities who also give money to conservative causes, and therefore college administrators dance to their tune.

For anyone paying the faintest attention to campus politics these days, the notion that administrators are doing anything - anything at all - conservative, is risible. If there were truth in this, things would be a whole lot different, starting with the status of Professor Sleeper's tenure.

"(Conservative's) selectively legalistic “free speech” strategy helps turn collegial contentions into rhetorical battlefields by hyping and even provoking progressive offenders."

So, by defending free speech, it is we who are the bad guys, not Shrieking Girl and her friends. Sleeper thinks we need to be more sensitive...

"...freedom requires self-restraint and respect for others."

Translation: we need more safe spaces, trigger warnings, micro-aggression training, and banning of insensitive conservative speakers. (I am getting good at translating from the liberal.)

"The reason is that conservatives’ yearning for ordered liberty is being debased not by liberals but by the casino-like financing and predatory lending and marketing of a “dynamic capitalist economy.'"

Whaaaaaat? Stop, please just stop, before you teach again.

"If collegiate civil societies are lurching into ditches as often now as the “free speech” campaign claims, that’s partly because the larger society is, too. Yes, some students are as intemperate as the Republican presidential nominee, and some deans accommodate them. Their behavior may not be your daddy’s liberalism, but what their outraged critics are selling isn’t his conservatism, either."

And, yes, there it is kind readers. In a singular act of logical gymnastics, Sleeper's big close manages to wedge in Donald Trump, ignoring the fact that all the "intemperate" students, like "Shrieking Girl" and the would-be expectorators, are on Sleeper's side of the aisle.

The New York Times should be embarrassed that they run pieces like this, but it's what we've come to expect.


  1. To see what I've actually reported about Scott Johnston, see the much longer, companion column I posted the same day as I did the 900 words in the NY Times: "What the Campus 'Free Speech' Crusade Won't Say." Almost all of what I add there about you, Scott, comes straight from "The Naked Dollar."

    The completely false charge that I misrepresented Greg Lukianoff's distribution of the video has been ballyhooed by the predictable fixtures in the conservative noise machine, thereby only proving my point about Lukianoff's provenance and agenda. I've reported four times that it was not Lukianoff but Tucker Carlson's The Daily Caller that posted the video with the student's name and photo; I reported it even in the column that the Times accepted but then cut by one-third for space at the last minute, changing the wording. I explain this in "The Battle Between Sleeper and Lukianoff": , which also has a link to the long essay with a fuller account of Scott's participation in the events at Yale.

    Sorry, Scott, but you'd be better off leaving it at that. Probably you won't, and I'll be surprised -- but I'll have to give you credit -- if you even post this comment and its link to my response. I'll leave to others the question of whether the Times column is an "incoherent mess."

    1. I'm glad to hear from Prof. Sleeper that his NYTimes piece suffered from extensive last-minute editing, as that may explain why it was so difficult to follow. Instead of petty, personal, and prejudiced name-calling, I had hoped for a more logical, direct, and substantive commentary on the merits from a Yale professor.

    2. Jim, you will note I did not even bring up the spat about who posted what. It didn't interest me, and there was an adequate correction in the NYT.

    3. One more small, but illustrative point. At your behest, I read your Alternet piece. In it, you quote Greg Lukianoff as saying, "You would have thought they'd burned down an Indian village.

      What Lukianoff said was "native American," not "Indian." In both my and Roger Kimball's recounting of the event, both of which you make it clear you read, we quoted Lukianoff correctly, and yet somehow, in your version, it becomes "Indian."

      I wonder why that is?

  2. Jim, you will note I did not even bring up the spat about who posted what. It didn't interest me, and there was an adequate correction in the NYT.

  3. Sleeper is used to debates where his side gets to ask the questions and to forums where his side does the editing. Note he tries to argue points about the inside baseball of publishing, rather than bolster or defend the inaccurate, jargon-based emotional claptrap he put forth in his Times piece. The worst parts of the Times screed were not the thinly veiled code words/phrases intended to discredit Scott's ideas before Sleeper's target audience--we've come to expect that of witless academic and media-types who can no longer compete on the ideas themselves. No, the worst part was that a man of his age and experience is reduced to defending the indefensible narrow-mindedness and intolerance that is thriving on campus today--often mixed with a timid and immature fear of conflicting opinions and free speech.

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  5. Prof. Sleeper,

    I’ve made my way through Scott’s piece, the NY Times piece and your “lengthier reply” at Alternet, which as you mention references a lot of material from Scott’s blog, with the implicit tease that his language would prove self-incriminating. Sorry in advance that that self-incrimination didn’t materialize for me.

    Like Scott, I’m busy with “real-world” stuff, although nothing could be more “real-world” than the way we choose to organize our society and its various systems, and the way we educate people about the workings of such systems.

    So I’m genuinely curious about your references to “free markets” which — sorry again if I got this totally wrong — you referred to using potentially suspicious undertones.

    For the record, I’ve been a big supporter of a number of the free market organizations you mention, again with these suspicious undertones. I’ll single out DonorsTrust for praise, if for no other reason that few organizations seem to take the idea of preserving donor intent as seriously as they do. They also help amplify the effectiveness of so many like-minded groups.

    To make any potential “Who is this guy?” wondering easier, let me say that I abhor the way today’s usage of the word “capitalism” has become synonymous in many circles with “free markets.” I’ll lay claim to beating some of the earliest drums about the distortion of the terms — and to writing about what is now more properly called "crony-capitalism." All of the free-market defending organizations you cite, and which I support, would agree with me on this.

    Here’s an article I wrote about that:

    (I suspect that I’ll be able to re-publish that article on November 9th and it will be perfectly up-to-date. But thankfully the term crony-capitalism is now much more commonplace.)

    One could wind up in some ivory-tower discussion about idealized systems and their pros and cons. But if we want to talk about what kinds of systems have best improved the human condition — in general, as we can both poke endless holes and provide endless exceptions — the evidence is pretty clear that individual liberty and truly free markets (you can’t have one without the other) has won hands down.

    I attempted to have that debate via another article, here:

    I’m curious as to what you’d want to see in place of the “free markets” as you see them these days, and more importantly, how they’d be implemented. Tracing it all back, I think you’ll wind up with most roads pointing at the simple question “Who Decides?” When as a society we increasingly fail to defend liberty and truly free markets, it turns out that “who decides” is increasingly “someone else.” This in turn causes and incentivizes the very obvious corruption of so many of our systems, distrust in the people associated with these systems, and by extension the systems themselves. It’s a viciously negative downward spiral, all with catastrophic costs to the human condition.

    And I’ve written a summary about all that, here:

    I applaud Scott for defending what has worked -- generally -- with unprecedented success, and by extension, for calling out what hasn't worked.

  6. Here's how I made my arguments (from the NY Times and AlterNet columns), more amicably, on a morning talk-show in Portland, OR. This aired for 15 minutes at around 7:30 am, "drive time" for some, kitchen-breakfast time for others.

    After clicking on (or pasting) the following link, click on left-hand white triangle to start the volume and drag the white ball to the right to 33.20, where the interview with me begins.