The Middlebury Controversy: Points of Orientation

March 20, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


Middlebury College students turn their backs on Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, during his lecture in Middlebury, Vermont, March 2.
Middlebury College students turn their backs on Charles Murray during his lecture in Middlebury, Vermont, March 2. His book, The Bell Curve, not only justified a whole history of vicious racist persecution of whole peoples, it very directly served a present-day program of demonization, criminalization, and incarceration of those peoples coupled with a gutting of any programs designed to overcome some of the effects of that historical and ongoing oppression and the imposing of severe cutbacks in the institutions of education, health care, etc. that served those peoples. (Photo: AP)

On March 2, students at Middlebury College in Vermont disrupted and shut down a speech by Charles Murray. A Middlebury College student group, the American Enterprise Institute Club, invited Murray to speak on Campus. Murray co-wrote The Bell Curve, a very influential book in the mid-1990’s that argued that Black, Latino, and Native American people are innately inferior in intelligence. This book utilized racist pseudo-science to make its arguments—“science” that had long since been refuted over and over again and which was refuted yet again when this book came out and was made “the flavor of the month” in U.S. intellectual life.1 In addition to being utterly wrong and absolutely spurious, these ideas had a long and ugly history, especially but not only in the U.S.—works essentially like Murray’s had been used to justify slavery, the restriction of immigration (even of European immigration during a period when it served the ruling class in this country to classify southern Europeans and Jews as inferior “races”), and the sterilization of people who did not do well on IQ tests.2

Yet this did not prevent the book from getting a huge amount of promotion in the media and academia. Indeed, the specious racism that under-girded and suffused the entire book was actually WHY it got that promotion. The Bell Curve not only justified a whole history of vicious racist persecution of whole peoples, it very directly served a present-day program of demonization, criminalization, and incarceration of those peoples coupled with a gutting of any programs designed to overcome some of the effects of that historical and ongoing oppression and the imposing of severe cutbacks in the institutions of education, health care, etc. that served those peoples.

Since the shutdown, there has been a great controversy and a lot of criticism—directed not at Murray, or toward the college group which brought him there and gave him a platform, but against the students themselves. And there has been a lot of unclarity among progressive and even radical people in the face of all this. So it’s important here to clearly demarcate right and wrong.

1) It is absolutely correct to protest, shut down, and attempt to drive off campus someone like Charles Murray, who is infamous for The Bell Curve. The Middlebury students who shut him down are now in the midst of great controversy for their righteous actions and are being sharply criticized. They should be upheld and defended!

This is NOT a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution actually states the following:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

These students did not make a law prohibiting Murray from speaking. They did not try to imprison him. The students have no state power. There is no need to “protect” a reactionary like Murray from the students’ free exercise of their right to protest and reject his spreading and legitimizing concretely harmful reactionary ideas.

But the students, who have no real power and no backing from powerful institutions, do need to be defended and protected against reprisals, and this is very important now.

2) Those who argue against the students say that students, and everyone else in society, must have the chance to learn and evaluate all sorts of concepts and positions through the free contestation of opposing ideas, by “comparing and contrasting,” and including through having the chance to hear a wide variety of opposing viewpoints put forward by their most articulate and ardent advocates. On that basis, they argue, wouldn’t it have been better to “hear out” someone like Murray and then engage and critique him rather than summarily roust him?

This point, most famously made by John Stuart Mill, is indeed very important as a matter of principle, but it cannot be treated or applied as an “absolute” that is paramount in all situations and circumstances. Most especially, this principle is critically important for the dissemination and critical evaluation of poorly known and/or unpopular ideas in general, and especially if these are ideas which the dominant forces and relations of society (including the ruling state apparatus) do not favor, and actively work to discredit, contain or actively suppress.

Many examples of these distinctions could be given. Do climate-change deniers, Holocaust deniers, Nazis and KKKers, anti-abortionists, white supremacists, creationists and so on... do they really need to be provided additional platforms and extended respectful invitations to spread their views? Under prevailing norms in this society and under this system, they already enjoy plenty of platforms and material and ideological backing from powerful and influential forces and from the whole tradition of dominant ideas in the United States. Did Middlebury need to give Murray extra help to get his message out?

Someone like a Charles Murray is the furthest thing from someone who has to struggle to “even just get a hearing” for his ideas: his books are published and promoted by big mainstream publishers, he has entree into all sorts of academic and other institutions, and it is a fact that the ideas put forward in The Bell Curve were very widely disseminated—again, this book was part of, and used extensively as an ideological basis for, attacks by powerful ruling class forces (mainly grouped in and around the Republican Party) for vicious moves to cut social programs, cuts which had deadly, even genocidal implications—and the spurious arguments in this book have been extensively engaged and, yes, also critiqued and soundly refuted by many.

Bob Avakian wrote at the time of The Bell Curve that “One after another, all kinds of ‘theories’ and ‘studies’—claiming to show that there are innate and unchangeable differences between races and genders and other groupings in society which explain why some have and really should have a privileged and dominant position over others—are spread and legitimized throughout the mass media. This, it is claimed, provides the ‘scientific explanation’ for why programs that purport to overcome such inequalities are doomed to failure and must be gutted. What it actually provides further scientific proof of is the utter bankruptcy of a system and a ruling class that is abandoning even the pretense of overcoming profound inequalities and instead is inventing ‘profound reasons’ why they cannot be overcome. And in all this, while the ‘Liberals’ have a role to play, the initiative belongs to the ‘Conservatives.’” (from Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones—We Need Morality But Not Traditional Morality”)

Is this any less true today?


Debunking Murray’s societally harmful and very false unscientific claims (in The Bell Curve) might, for instance, be perfectly appropriate in the context of college classrooms or even a forum debunking white supremacist and eugenicist claims. But this is not what was going on at Middlebury, where, even if a professor and some students intended to challenge him on stage or in a Q&A, what was mainly going on was that this reactionary white supremacist promoter of genetic inferiority of oppressed nationalities was being invited as a welcome and respectable (even if controversial) guest speaker, and in this way being LEGITIMIZED.

Once more, his harmful reactionary ideas have been given lots of platforms and lots of official and unofficial “backing” for years. This is not at all the same thing as when a speaker with controversial or unpopular or poorly known ideas, or ideas that are opposed by the powers that be, has to fight an uphill battle just to be heard and engaged. This is not the same thing as when students from New Trier High School try to organize a forum on civil rights and it gets attacked by a group of reactionary parents who are espousing the kind of reactionary ideas that are currently being given lots of “backing” by the dominant power structures in society and demanding “equal time” for such ideas. In that New Trier situation, it is the students and teachers who are struggling to get a hearing and organize their program who need to be defended and protected so they can in fact proceed.

It would be a different situation if Charles Murray, in the years since its publication, had REPUDIATED all the viciously harmful and demonstrably false arguments he promoted in The Bell Curve. If he’d said “I was really off on all that. I was wrong and I regret it, and I’m doing all I can to undo the harm it created, but today I’d like to come talk about something else... this new book of mine on a different subject.” IF he had done that, that would be a different situation. But he has not. He has, in fact, 20 years later insisted that his findings are backed up by science. In “‘The Bell Curve’ 20 years later: A Q&A with Charles Murray” on the American Enterprise Institute website, Murray said of what he’d put out in The Bell Curve: “Those were our confidently stated conclusions about the black-white difference in IQ, and none of them was scientifically controversial.”

Three Strikes...

3) These ideas are not just “controversial ideas” in a vacuum. Exactly because these types of ideas have so much “backing” from the traditional and longstanding institutions of society, they very concretely serve to reinforce and encourage all sorts of very concretely harmful social policies. You cannot step over the reality that white supremacy and the notion of the supposed “not quite fully human” status or inherent turpitude or overall genetic inferiority of Black people especially (as well as non-whites more generally) has been a defining and characteristic marker of U.S. society and its ruling institutions throughout its ENTIRE history, starting with the days of slavery and continuing through the era of Jim Crow and all the way up through today in the era of the New Jim Crow and now the literal fascist regime which, on a daily basis and as part of a whole strategic program, is aggressively working to reassert and intensify the notion that “white, male, native-born and Christian” is, and must remain, the core of the American national identity and “greatness,” and that anyone who doesn’t readily fit into that category needs to be either seduced or coerced into accepting those terms, or alternatively face intensified degradation, dehumanization, and outright violence.

There is a direct line to be drawn between the false ideas in a book like The Bell Curve and the official backing given to the promotion of the idea that basic Black people and Mexicans are more inclined to be “thugs and criminals,” that they are more likely deserving of incarceration or deportation than education and employment, and of course that such things like affirmative action, after-school programs, Medicaid, and various other social safety net programs should just be slashed and eliminated, and so on. A DIRECT connection! And the more things go down that path, the easier it becomes for fascists to start to go down the Final Solution road. Again, there is already a whole history in this country of forced sterilizations of minorities and of the promotion of all sorts of eugenicist schemes, which in fact directly inspired the Hitler Nazis... and all this can lead right into a view that society would be better off by altogether exterminating such “defective and dangerous parasites.” THIS is what the vile pseudo-science of a Charles Murray feeds into ultimately (and in some ways not so ultimately).

So no, this is not just about the “free expression of ideas” disconnected from harmful societal consequences. And yes, it is therefore absolutely correct to not only protest the appearance of someone like a Charles Murray at Middlebury but to chase him right off campus!!

4) Further, it is quite wrong to think that the free contestation of opposing ideas and the ability for people to engage in critical thinking and “compare and contrast” can ONLY take place through orderly respectful engagement: In cases where, in the face of disproportionate power, influence and official backing of one side of the contestation (e.g., Murray backed by the university administration and ultimately dovetailing with the prevailing ideas of the dominant institutions of society), the other side (in this case the relatively powerless students) choose to roust rather than engage in a respectful and orderly way, this can actually lead to MORE and quite vigorous engagement with the contested ideas in the period following. In other words, isn’t it possible that when such a controversy erupts as what happened at Middlebury, that many people who weren’t even there or didn’t know a thing about Murray’s views would feel compelled to inform themselves and dig into the issues, including by comparing and contrasting, in order to better discuss and evaluate the relevant issues with friends, professors and so on? Of course they would! A correct protest can definitely fuel further engagement and contestation, and it is a myth that this just serves to “suppress” ideas!

5) On the argument that now more than ever we must listen to those who disagree with us: yes and no. There must be broad investigation, discussion, debate, and theorizing over the causes and character of the problems we face and the solution to those problems; this is a life-and-death matter, of great and even extraordinary urgency right now. But there can be no tolerance for ideas that have been proven over and over again to be utterly incorrect and, moreover, the tools of a virulent fascism bent on consolidating itself as you read this. (And we cannot ignore the reality that such ideas overall reinforce the vicious oppression of whole peoples that has been the foundation of this country for centuries up to the present.) We need in fact to sharply confront those caught up in such ideas, and what was done at Middlebury needs no apology whatsoever—let alone condemnation.

1. Some key refutations of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve include Stephen Jay Gould in Mismeasure of Man, R.C. Lewontin in Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature and a collection essays in a book titled The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America by Steven Fraser.

It should also be noted that Charles Murray argued that women are inferior to men—that  men are better at abstract thinking than women. In an essay written in 2005 titled “The Inequality Taboo,” he said: "No woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world's great philosophical traditions.” [back]

2. Study after study have shown the IQ test to be unable to test a non-quantifiable, multifaceted, and non-static quality of “native intelligence” (a category itself which is meaningless) and culturally biased. The only thing measured by an IQ test is the culturally-determined training of a specific individual to take that test on a specific day. [back]


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