Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, April 28, 2017 7:02 pm

What colleges and universities DON’T owe would-be speakers

I’m one of those weirdoes who thinks that, once invited by a Berkeley student group in good standing, Ann Coulter should have been allowed to speak at Berkeley, or at least given the same consideration and attempts at accommodation as anyone else so situated. And it should go without saying that all groups at any college should be treated equally in this regard, but Imma say it anyway.

I’m weird like that.

And I don’t approve of disinviting someone from speaking at a college once they’ve been invited to speak by someone with the standing to issue such an invitation. Absent genuine safety concerns, which may or may not have been present in the case of Coulter at Berkeley, rescinding a speaking invitation seems the coward’s way out. By extension, if you’re in a position to invite a speaker, you need to do your due diligence on that speaker before issuing an invitation (and I’ll talk more in a bit about what that due diligence should include).

But there’s another angle to Coulter Agonistes that I haven’t seen explored much.

No college, private or public, is legally, morally or ethically obligated to provide a venue to just any speaker who wants one. But more importantly, colleges are the most important bastions of free speech in the country and the shapers of future participants in our civil life. As such, I would argue, they have a special duty to do their due diligence to pick carefully the people to whom they give a venue. Specifically, they have a duty to pick people, irrespective of their viewpoint on any particular issue, who have a track record of exemplifying speech that illustrates, supports, and, ideally, enhances free speech and the free exchange of ideas in this country.

OK, so what does that look like? Glad you asked.

First and foremost, colleges should look for speakers who trade in objectively verified and verifiable facts and only the best-supported theories, unless the speaker is pushing a theory for the specific purpose of engendering more disinterested research into whether it is supported and supportable. I don’t mean that speakers should limit themselves to reciting facts, of course; opinions can be just as enlightening. But colleges should be looking to provide speaking venues only to people who have a record of proceeding from objectively verifiable facts and premises, and who have a record of opining on the basis of objectively verified and verifiable facts and premises. The Earth is round (or, at least, an oblate spheroid), the Confederacy was about slavery, human carbon combustion is responsible for global climate change, vaccines do not cause autism, cutting taxes on the wealthy does not consistently — and might not ever — increase government revenue, the Democratic National Committee did not steal the 2016 nomination from Bernie Sanders, and colleges have an affirmative duty to screen out speakers who (absent, let’s say, breakthrough, peer-reviewed new research of their own into climatology or vaccinations) claim otherwise.

This is critical because shared information — shared factual, verifiable information — is fundamental to civilization. It is critical because, as one obscure blogger has observed, reality will not ignore YOU, and society must deal in reality to solve its problems and achieve its goals. And providing resources to help support and enhance civilization and solve society’s problems is at the core of what colleges do. (On a personal level, I find dealing with delusional people really fucking annoying, but that’s neither here nor there as regards my larger point.)

Second, colleges should vet speakers for their adherence to the rules of logic, because facts alone aren’t enough and facts alone can be dangerous, particularly in isolation and without context. At the very least, colleges should avoid providing venues for speakers who routinely engage in the most common logical fallacies. They key word there is routinely; pretty much every speaker engages in the occasional logical misdemeanor. But colleges and universities have an affirmative duty not to squander their venues and forums on people who routinely trade in ad hominem attacks without also engaging with their victim’s arguments, people who trade in straw-man argumentation, and so on.

Third, colleges should provide a venue only to speakers who argue in good faith. That sounds subjective, I grant, but it can be understood as an outgrowth of points 1 and 2, combined with this standard: Does the speaker appear to sincerely believe what he/she says? One cannot read a speaker’s mind, of course, but speakers who sincerely believe what they say tend to frame their arguments in ways that speakers who don’t do not. To return to Ann Coulter, she frequently says things she manifestly does not believe, simply to get a rise out of people (consider these examples); if she actually believed these things, she would behave differently from how she actually behaves. I will refrain from speculating on why; I simply will observe that she makes a good living doing it. Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart editor, is another example; “I hope to offend every reader,” he told Business Insider, which is manifestly untrue because if he actually did offend every reader, he’d have no readers and thus no money. I realize that sincerity is considered childish in an era in which irony is king, but if civilization is to benefit, colleges must limit their venues to those speakers who advocate honest ideas honestly (or who, if they trade in irony, do so in service of a larger truth, e.g., Stephen Colbert).

I note for the record that all three of these standards are agnostic with respect to location along the Left-Right political spectrum, to the extent that that concept even has any meaning.

At a minimum, colleges should use these three standards in determining to whom to extend speaking invitations. Would use of these standards solve all our problems? Nah; probably not. I suspect a number of people to the left of me politically would claim, for example, that internal arguments over whether a prospective speaker deals in facts or avoids logical fallacies would inevitably be resolved to the detriment of more marginalized voices. And I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think that this approach would work far more often than not and certainly is preferable to opening college venues to people who willfully and intentionally use lies and flawed logic to try to exert influence over public discourse and, by extension, public policy. Such people are rhetorical grifters, and neither any self-respecting college nor any self-respecting citizen owes them so much as a moment’s attention.

Free societies require informed, rational, logical discourse to function and to progress. It is a mission and a duty of colleges to provide it, and they can only do so by imposing behavior-based standards on speakers who would speak under their aegis. And that, and not any argument about the First Amendment, is what is so important about who gets to speak on our campuses.

UPDATE:  In light of The New York Times’s hiring of Bret Stephens to be its newest op-ed columnist, I’m going to argue a little further that the same standards I’m recommending for colleges should apply to any curators of esteemed speaking platforms … like, oh, say, The New York Times op-ed page.

Stephens is a climate-change denier. He thinks that if a lot of college women are getting raped, then maybe women shouldn’t go to college, a bit of “logic” that defies not only law but also basic common sense. He denies that 1 in 7 Americans are food-insecure, in the face of unassailable government research to the contrary. He dismisses Black Lives Matter’s issues in favor of the discredited “all lives matter” argument and argues for the existence of the nonexistent “Ferguson effect,” which even the Fraternal Order of Police has dismissed.

And what did Marc Lacey’s national editor of The New York Times, have to say about Stephens’s hiring? This:


That is some weapons-grade stupid right there. It leaves us with the well-supported belief that the national editor of the most widely respected news outlet on the planet is dumber than my cat’s chewed-up catnip toy. Lacey is asking us to believe that freedom of speech is synonymous with a six-figure gig on his paper’s op-ed page. He is asking us to believe that supporting freedom of speech requires not just tolerating falsehood and willful ignorance but lucratively rewarding it. He is further asking us to believe that the most qualified candidate for a coveted spot on that op-ed page is a bigoted dudebro who pulls “facts” out of his ass.

Since Trump’s election, the Times has been selling a lot more subscriptions, based on the belief among prospective subscribers that the Times will be a reliable and insightful source of news, analysis and opinion. If the Times doesn’t want to worry about trafficking in accurate information, maybe it will want to worry about the fact that climate scientists are canceling their subscriptions in protest.

Friday, April 14, 2017 3:07 pm

Report of sorts on the town hall held this morning by my congresscritter, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC13

First, a bit of background for those who aren’t from ’round here.

The congresscritter: Freshman GOP Rep. Ted Budd of the newly redrawn 13th CD of North Carolina. Ran a gun shop before getting elected. In a GOP-leaning district, the political newcomer emerged almost literally out of nowhere from a crowded GOP primary field mainly because he got a boatload of Club for Growth money. Club for Growth is a 501c4 that represents the tax-cuts-for-the-rich-and-steal-middle-class-wealth-by-any-means-necessary wing of the GOP, which is to say the party mainstream.

The district (into which I was placed recently after having spent almost 30 years in NC06): Encompasses about the southwestern third of Guilford County, along with Davie and Davidson counties and most of Iredell County. All but Guilford are heavily Republican (and I cut my reporting teeth in Iredell almost 35 years ago writing about Ku Klux Klan activities there); Guilford was the only part of the district Budd didn’t carry. N.C. districts were redrawn after the 4th Circuit threw out the pre-existing congressional districts on the grounds that they’d been racially gerrymandered, targeting African American voters “with almost surgical precision.” The districts redrawn since still gerrymander to the enormous benefit of Republicans; their constitutionality is in question, too.

The venue: 9 a.m.-noon today in a conference or dining room in the Marriott Hotel on North Greene Street in downtown Greensboro. (If you’re interested, Budd just opened a district office in Greensboro, at 4400 Piedmont Parkway.) For most of that time, between 100 and 200 people were in the room at once. Some came and some went, so I have no idea what total attendance was.

The town hall format: Other than the fact that there was decent free coffee, a clusterfuck. More on this below.

# # #

First, let’s give Ted Budd credit for even showing up. That’s a low bar, but it’s one a significant percentage of his GOP House colleagues so far haven’t cleared.

Second, let’s give him credit for being in the moment. He already had started talking to people when I arrived about 8:45, and he was still going (although he’d been warned by an aide that time was up) when I left at 12:10. During all that time, he was on his feet and talking to people without so much as 3-minute bathroom break. He shook hands, looked people in the eye, really seemed to be listening attentively, didn’t interrupt anyone at all that I recall, referred people to staffers if the issues they were raising were ones with which staff reasonably could be expected to assist, and seemed to treat everyone — Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated, male, female, etc. — pretty much the same, which is to say, in a word, courteously, and he did that whether each conversation ran to two minutes or 10.

It is here, however, that I pretty much run out of credit to give Budd.

Let’s start with the format. It was great … if you were Budd. For the rest of us, it sucked. Here’s what I mean.

When you think of a town hall, you generally think of a large room with the congresscritter down in front with a microphone and constituents in seats, stepping up one at a time (ideally to another microphone) to ask a question or state an opinion on an issue. The whole room gets to hear the question, and the whole room gets to hear the congresscritter’s response.

That’s not what this was. This was more like a cocktail party (without cocktails, sadly), with Budd holding serial one-on-one conversations with attendees. He did not use a microphone. He moved around the room a fair bit, surrounded by a cluster of people (often including TV people with large cameras) who wanted to talk to him and therefore were forced to move with him. Often, only Budd and his interlocutor could hear what was being said. There were almost no chairs in the room until some of the attendees prevailed on hotel staff to bring a few more.

The format favored the tall and the people who were fit enough to stand in one place for extended periods, who, probably not coincidentally, also were the most likely democraphic to be Budd supporters. I got close enough to take my turn with Budd several times but instead invited others who didn’t seem to be doing so well physically to go ahead of me.

It also made it very difficult — and I believe this was intentional — for others to record what Budd was asked and what he said in return. A lot of people, including me, tried, but based on what I was able to record, which wasn’t much, I doubt very many people got much that was usable. This deliberate strategy is intended to minimize the risk that a recorded statement, question, or possible gaffe by Budd could go viral.

Several attendees directly criticized Budd for this approach; he ignored them. A large number of us tried to encourage everyone else to sit on the floor and force Budd to address us as a group; the effort worked a little at first but then fizzled out. One large, loud guy (not me) on the edge of the scrum directly questioned Budd over everyone else’s head about health-care policy; the question got applause but Budd didn’t really answer it, so no progress there. (My friend and former colleague Joe Rodriguez of the News & Record captured that exchange on video; I’m hoping it’ll be up later at UPDATE: Here it is. His colleague Kate Queram also got some of it here.)

I would suggest to anyone going to such an event in the future that you try to organize the crowd to insist that the congresscritter speak to the crowd as one.

Finally, there was Budd’s substance on the issues, which was, by and large, deplorable.

The guy did, in fact, oppose the Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA), the would-be replacement to the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). The AHCA would have given the top 1% of this country’s earners a $3.8 trillion tax cut while removing up to 24 million Americans from the insurance rolls over the next 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office It also would have eliminated many popular and efficient provisions of the ACA, such as requiring coverage for mental-health care, allowing children to remain on their parents’ plans until age 26, requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions, and so on. But Budd opposed the AHCA not because it went too far in enriching the rich and fucking over the middle class and poor, but because it didn’t go far enough. And in at least one exchange near the end of the event, he was forthright enough to say so.

Budd at least gave lip service to the notion of Congress as a watchdog on the executive branch. But in response to my asking him why he opposed an independent special prosecutor to examine Trump’s Russia ties, Budd continued to insist that a bipartisan congressional investigation is the best method for finding out the truth there. There is, of course, nothing in the past 16 years to suggest that congressional Republicans have the slightest interest in holding a Republican executive branch accountable, even when a president goes on live TV and admits to having ordered torture or begins violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause on his first day in office, and plenty to suggest that they’re eager to abuse the process if it can persecute a Democrat.

Budd strongly supports cutting off all federal funding to Planned Parenthood, even though federal law already bans spending federal dollars for abortion services and even though many poor women can only get primary medical care through Planned Parenthood. Budd argued that 1) because money is fungible, ANY money given to Planned Parenthood is helping pay for abortions, and 2) there are alternative outlets for available, affordable medical care for Planned Parenthood’s patients, although when challenged to name even one in Greensboro, he couldn’t do it. UPDATE: He apparently asked an aide to provide such a list for the constituent who asked him about it; I’ll be surprised if such facilities exist.

(And the thing about that fungibility argument is that it is, itself, fungible: I can use the same argument as a basis for saying I shouldn’t pay federal taxes because they’re going to enrich Trump by paying for his $3-million-a-week visits to his private, for-profit Mar-A-Lago compound. Indeed, I would have the better case.)

Budd believes with Trump that we need to spend even more on the military and less on government programs that help people. At this point, it is hard to think of anyone who still holds this position as anything other than a sociopath.

Budd believes the science of climate change has been, in his word, “politicized,” although he offered no proof. He argued that state, rather than federal, environmental control is best, even though (as I pointed out under my breath at the time) tainted air and polluted water cross state lines; much of North Carolina’s air pollution problem until recently was caused by coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. He argued that environmental regulations are “choking” businesses, even though 1) there’s little research to prove that and 2) we DO have research showing that most such research undervalues human life by a factor of about six.

Budd, an evangelical Christian, reiterated the old canard that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not to be found in the Constitution, a literal truth joined at the hip to a contextual lie: It ignores the existence of the establishment clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”

To conclude: Budd is polite and courteous enough, but he is a dangerous ideologue who will pursue measures that weaken the United States strategically, economically, spiritually and as the world’s last, best hope for freedom. He’s smart enough not to behave like a total dick (see, inter alia, Berger, N.C. Sen Phil) in one-on-one interactions. But when you’re a congresscritter, your votes are your morals, and his past votes (he has sided with the GOP all but once in more than 200 recorded votes to date, per one of his aides) put him squarely on the side of screwing the middle class and the poor, imposing a brand of Christianity on this country that tens of millions of Christians find appalling, and actively harming the people whom Christ called “the least of these.” Based on his stated positions, his future votes appear likely to ignore science to do the bidding of Big Carbon even at the expense of killing the Earth (or at least human civilization as we know it), and supporting agents of a hostile foreign power in the White House, to the detriment of U.S. freedom and the country’s global interests and those of its allies. Indeed, Budd seems to have no problem with a “president” who, as I type this, may be getting us into an unnecessary war with North Korea in which millions on the Korean peninsula alone could die.

And don’t even get me started on the gun industry.

Budd strikes me as a younger version of Howard Coble — not the Howard Coble you read about in the media, but the real one: a man who cunningly used an affable personality and nonpartisan affectation to deflect attention from his cold-blooded pursuit of a partisan and dangerous agenda with his votes. The 13th District Democratic Party needs to find at least one qualified candidate to run against Budd, and it needs to do it today.

UPDATE: Reporter Kate Queram also covered the event for the News & Record and was livetweeting it, starting here. Her story is here.

UPDATE: Jordan Green’s report for Triad City Beat is here.

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