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Monday, April 30, 2018

The insidious conspiracy to provoke college students into saying silly things

Michael Simkovic has a blog post describing and denouncing a plot by “a network of organizations funded by wealthy conservatives and libertarians including the Koch Brothers” to discredit universities. [UPDATE: At Professor Simkovic’s request, I emphasize that Professor Simkovic uses the term “network,” not “conspiracy,” in his post]. Simkovic’s critical piece of evidence is a speech by that master Conspirator, Eugene Volokh, who gave a talk in New York City sponsored by a libertarian think tank, the Institute for Human Studies. In his talk, Volokh advised speakers (in Simkovic’s words) to express “controversial conservative and libertarian views on campus, draw the ire of their university administrations and progressive students, and document the incidents for him so that he could publicize them through his blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, which was then distributed by the Washington Post.” By video-recording studnets’ disruptive antics, these conspirators intend to “discredit universities in the eyes of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates.”

According to Simkovic’s post, the problem with these conservative speaking events is that “[m]any lectures about ‘free speech’ are not really about ‘free speech,’ but rather are intended to provoke a reaction that will discredit universities.” Simkovic advises students and journalists not to take the bait: Do not attend the events, and these agents provocateurs will just go away.

Both Simkovic’s juxtaposition of “free speech” with provocation and his tactical advice strike me as misguided. Using speech to to provoke a foolish reaction from an audience is a core purpose of free speech. Moreover, encouraging students to boycott speakers who provoke them into silliness is a bad idea, because it conceals a problem that needs to be solved: Many of our students cannot tell the difference between an epithet that deserves to be shouted down or boycotted and a reasoned argument that requires a reasoned response.


Consider, first, why insincere speech that reveals an audience’s bad values is useful. Obtaining information about what an insular group really thinks is difficult to the extent that such groups obfuscate with vague abstractions when broadcasting their views to outsiders (“Down with racism!” “Crush the patriarchy!”) To gauge the specific content and intensity of such groups’ views, one has to confront them with a specific position and see how they react. Consider, as an example, the IWW organizer Frank Little’s reading the Declaration of Independence in Spokane in order to provoke the police into arresting him. Little’s goal was not to provide information about the Declaration of Independnece (presumably widely available in print in 1910) but rather to provide information about the vicious bullying of Spokane law enforcement. Revealing this information is an important purpose of public expression: Sometimes the information that one wants to elicit with one’s speech comes from the audience, not the speaker.

A conservative speaker who offers an anodyne opinion in order to provoke an unreasonable reaction is likewise providing a useful service in revealing the current sad state of students’ stunning incapacity for reasoned argument. For instance, Josh Blackmun provoked some CUNY students into mindless “four legs good, two legs bad” chanting simply by showing up on campus, apparently because Josh had earlier criticized DAPA/DACA’s legality. For the record, I believe that both DACA and DAPA constitute exercises of proper prosecutorial discretion. But the question is a close one: The depth of these kids’ immaturity is starkly revealed to the world when they respond to Josh’s past criticism of DACA/DAPA only by shouting “shame on you!” in unison. Revealing that ignorance/indifference to intelligent argument is not an insidious conspiracy: It is an important public service.

Simkovic’s tactical advice, therefore, strikes me as misguided because it papers over rather than addresses the problem of students’ intellectual immaturity. The deepest problem with those chanting students, in my view, is not that they interrupt speakers. (Josh was not interrupted for very long, after all). The deeper problem is that they cannot distinguish between a Milo Yiannopoulos and a Josh Blackmun: These students’ tastes in argument are so debased that all views different from their own sound the same to them. White supremacist gibberish and reasoned opinions about the scope of the President’s executive powers all get the same treatment, because the students simply cannot tell the difference. Telling students to boycott everyone who offends them does not solve this problem: It merely conceals it.

So here’s some alternative advice. When someone like Josh comes to campus, how about sitting quietly during the talk, waiting for the Q&A, and then asking him an intelligent question about how he distinguishes between DACA/DAPA and all of the past Presidents’ issuing of work authorizations to unlawfully present people? (I guarantee that you will get an answer: Josh is not shy about sharing his views). Invest the time that you would otherwise spend on poster-making to read up on Article II and prosecutorial discretion. Save the chanting, posters, or boycotts for people who have nothing to say.

Of course, this alternative strategy will require students to be able to distinguish between an argument and an epithet. But that inability is precisely the problem that conservative campus speakers have revealed. Covering the problem up with a boycott might make the students look less ridiculous, but it will not make them more discerning.

Posted by Rick Hills on April 30, 2018 at 10:53 PM | Permalink

Comments

Comparing IWWs getting beaten by armed officers of the state to heckling of Josh Blackman? As clueless as your views on free speech in the PRC.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | May 1, 2018 1:17:50 AM

The respectable author of the post ,argues , justifiably , that :

Simkovic’s tactical advice, therefore, strikes me as misguided because it papers over rather than addresses the problem of students’ intellectual immaturity. The deepest problem with those chanting students, in my view, is not that they interrupt speakers. (Josh was not interrupted for very long, after all). The deeper problem is that they cannot distinguish between a Milo Yiannopoulos and a Josh Blackmun: These students’ tastes in argument are so debased that all views different from their own sound the same to them. White supremacist gibberish and reasoned opinions about the scope of the President’s executive powers all get the same treatment, because the students simply cannot tell the difference. Telling students to boycott everyone who offends them does not solve this problem: It merely conceals it.

End of quotation :

But , that is what Simkovic also argues ( although rather implicitly done ) and that is in fact the subject of his attack ( that such nets, underme universities ) here I quote :

“Get them when they’re young. . . . The prefrontal cortex[50] is not really developed until you’re 25 . . . especially those parts that deal with controlling your impulses and thinking long term. . . . That’s a good thing . . . That’s really important. . .”

And more :

“Young people believe in change. . . . If we want someone to devote his life to [the libertarian] cause and to alienate . . . friends, teachers, parents, and siblings . . . [we must present] libertarianism [as] a radical philosophy that challenges the powerful and the vested interests . . . all those who . . . want to tell us how to lead our lives. . .”

End of quotation :

So , their tactics , if factually correct , is not causing surly , those students , to have better Intellectual capacity or rhetoric , but on the contrary !

But to the more important underlying view of Simovic :

Finally , he claims , that such nets or tactics , contradict the very philosophy or destiny of universities . One can imagine , that surly such protests or gatherings and recordings and debating so , wouldn't enhance either intellectual capacity ! It would rather typically , be more similar to " pissing contest " of who shouts better , over intellectual debate .So how can it help ??

Thanks

Posted by: El roam | May 1, 2018 7:29:22 AM

just to quote him , concerning my last argument in my comment above :

Those who feel they must protest should do so in a quiet, gracious manner that emphasizes human dignity and mutual respect. Universities should strive to welcome those with different values and avoid even a hint of political coercion.

Thanks

Posted by: El roam | May 1, 2018 7:45:24 AM

I appreciate Rick's post's point that even on its own terms Simkovic's post is wrongheaded, but let's keep in mind that Simkovic's claim that there is some broad Koch-sponsored plot to provoke students into fits of irrationality by having them go to universities and defend free speech is delusional.

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 1, 2018 10:17:33 AM

Uh, you realize your advice does not actually solve the problem, right?

It's a great outcome for when the speaker _is_ a Josh Blackman...but what happens when the audience shows up and sits down respectifully to listen to a Milo Yiannopoulos? You...just left that hypothetical entirely out.

What will happen is that the audience will listen to maybe ten minutes of his speech, rightly conclude he is who he is, and get upset and disruptive and not let him continue, which is _exactly_ what a Milo wants. In fact, he'd probably rather have a mob inside his speech yelling at him than protesters outside.

As Simkovic explained, the only way the system of 'speakers at universities' can work is if Milos stop showing up, and the only way to get Milos to stop showing up is to stop giving them an incentivize to show up, and the only way to do that is to utterly ignore them.

And since it seems unlikely that individual students are going to be able to figure out who is a Milo in _advance_, the only logical advice to them is for them to ignore all possibly controversial speakers.

...which, incidentally, means that people who actually know who they are and that they _aren't_ Milos can go and see them just fine.

Posted by: DavidTC | May 1, 2018 12:44:52 PM

"unlikely that individual students are going to be able to figure out who is a Milo in _advance-"

Students who are unwilling or unable to do the minor amount of work involved in distinguishing a Milo for a Blackman shouldn't be protesting anything.

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 1, 2018 2:40:58 PM

So let's recap this so far:

You claim that the actual problem is that students are not emotionally mature to tell speakers apart, and your advice to fix this to have them attend non-Milo speeches.

And I point out that they _can't_ do that, because they mostly can't tell them apart in advance (Which, to repeat, is literally your premise.). This means they would be attending everyone's speech, and when they attend Milo-ish speeches, they'd be giving the Milo-ish speakers exactly what they want.

At which point you...decide to repeat what I just said as if it proves some point? Yes, we _know_ most students aren't smart enough, or at least not knowledgeable enough, to know not to what to protest. That is understood by literally every person here. Me, you, Simkovic, we all agree. College students are easily lead into dumbass protests.

But the problem is if students are not going to pay attention enough to be able to tell Milo and Blackman apart, and if we all agree they _really really_ shouldn't be attending Milo's speeches because it gives morons like Milo political power and coverage, then saying 'They should learn to tell them apart by attending Blackman' is utterly paradoxical.

How do they know which speeches to attend? Well, by having attended the correct one already, I guess?!

Posted by: DavidTC | May 1, 2018 5:10:23 PM

And instead of complaining about how students don't bother to do their research, how about, instead, you complain about how Republican groups have poisoned the well _of_ Republican-invited college speakers, by a decade of inviting Milos, to the point that students now _expect_ all Republican-invited speakers will behave in that manner?

These groups and speakers managed to do this so well that now they can just invite speakers who are not racist, but merely giving a constitutional discussion on a government policy that has racial implications, and dumb college students will overreact.

As Simkovic points out and you didn't address, Blackman's actual lecture was poorly attended, and because even at a law school obscure constitutional issues do not draw much of a crowd. The _actual_ reason he was invited appears mostly so that he would be wrongly called a racist by college students, and then handed a bunch of platforms where he can complain about how the left wrongly attacked him.

Anyone who is actually serious about addressing and fixing the 'intellectual immaturity' of college students and how they Pavlovian respond to anyone on the right talking about specific topics can't ignore the fact that, for longer than any student's has currently been in college, the right has been sending speakers to hit college students with sticks.

And they should perhaps wonder if any of _that_ is to blame in how the students react to people who may be (But are actually not) holding sticks.

Posted by: DavidTC | May 1, 2018 5:24:02 PM

David Bernstein writes: "...Simkovic's claim that there is some broad Koch-sponsored plot to provoke students into fits of irrationality by having them go to universities and defend free speech is delusional."

But see:

https://www.snopes.com/ap/2018/04/30/koch-george-mason/

Documents Reveal Koch Foundation Influence on George Mason University
The president of Virginia's largest public university said agreements with the conservative donors "fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect."

Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.

The release of donor agreements between George Mason University and the foundation follows years of denials by university administrators that Koch foundation donations inhibit academic freedom.

University President Angel Cabrera wrote a note to faculty Friday night saying the agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” The admission came three days after a judge scrutinized the university’s earlier refusal to release any documents.

The newly released agreements spell out million-dollar deals in which the Koch Foundation endows a fund to pay the salary of one or more professors at the university’s Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The agreements require creation of five-member selection committees to choose the professors, and grant the donors the right to name two of the committee members.

The Koch foundation enjoyed similar appointment rights to advisory boards that had the right under the agreements to recommend a professor’s firing if he failed to live up to standards.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | May 1, 2018 8:38:38 PM

I’ll bite. How do KF donations to the GMU Econ dept show there is a Koch funded conspiracy to provoke students into fits of irrationality by sending speakers to universities to speak about free speech? This wouldn’t pass even the minimal standards of FRE 401.

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 1, 2018 9:37:17 PM

DavidTC: if that’s a parody, it’s very funny

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 1, 2018 9:39:19 PM

Steve Diamond writes:

“Comparing IWWs getting beaten by armed officers of the state to heckling of Josh Blackman? As clueless as your views on free speech in the PRC.”

When I first read this comment, I thought that it was merely drive-by snark not worthy of on-line response. But, after some offline discussion with Stephen, I have concluded that I might have been unclear about the point of the analogy. So let me rectify that possible error with what I hope is pedantically plain clarity, as follows:

1). I took Professor Simkovic to be arguing that conservative speakers’ visiting campuses and delivering bland speeches merely to provoke a reaction from demonstrators was blameworthy practice, outside the true purpose of free speech.

2). Assuming that Professor Simkovic is making such an argument, I disagree with it, because it strikes me that purely provocative speech, that is, speech without a lot of important content that is designed purely to elicit a response from an audience, has a lot of value.

3). The comparison of Josh to IWW speakers was intended to bring out this single and simple point: Provocative speech with little inherent content is valuable, because it elicits an audience response that is highly informative — not about the speaker’s beliefs but about the audience’s beliefs.

4). A word about analogies: Comparators in analogies are not supposed to resemble that thing to which they are compared, except in the single aspect that the analogy is intended to illustrate. If I write that “my love is like a red, red rose,” it is not an apt response to say, “your comparison of your love with a rose is as clueless as your views on China, because love is nothing like a red, red rose: Your love does not, for instance, photosynthesize and is not a tangible object and lacks pollen.”

Stephen’s remark initially struck me as misguided or confused about the function of analogies. I would not use the word “clueless,” as he did, because that’s an uncivil way for one prof to address another. But that’s another point altogether.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 1, 2018 9:55:52 PM

Point of order: the protesters at CUNY were law students, not college students. The “brain isn’t fully developed” excuse is even less compelling than its already low starting point.

Posted by: Brad | May 2, 2018 12:14:54 AM

The "brain is less than fully developed" argument isn't a defense of protestors.

It's a direct quote to a prominent libertarian thinker and Keynote speaker at the Atlas Network dinner, Johan Norberg, who advised libertarian groups to specifically target college students and those below the age of 25 precisely because they had poor impulse control for biological reasons related to their age.

This is Libertarian strategy straight from the mouth of a master Libertarian strategists.

Volokh pretty clearly said what he's reported as saying. There are video recordings of him saying as much, and he hasn't come forth to deny it.

Posted by: Brain | May 2, 2018 1:10:42 PM

The vast libertarian network has been amply documented in Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains, Jane Mayer's Dark Money, and in the academic sociology literature. There have been some nitpicky critiques of those works--mostly dealing with minor factual inaccuracies or questions of tone, but on the whole no one has refuted the overall sweep and conclusions of that work.

David Bernstein calling the existence of a libertarian network "delusional" is ironic, considering it happened on the same day influence buying by the Koch brothers at his own institution--after years of public denials that such influence existed.

Bernstein got one last dishonest denial in just before people saw behind the curtain.

Posted by: Libertarian Network | May 2, 2018 1:16:53 PM

Putting aside the fact that Democracy in Chains is a work of academic fraud, the idea that there is a conspiracy to discredit universities by provoking students into fits of irrationality by presenting anodyne defenses if free speech remains delusional, as does the idea that Jewish libertarian academic Josh Blackman is allied in this or any other conspiracy with anti-Semitic alt right troll Milo.

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 2, 2018 3:41:04 PM

DavidTC raises a good point about how students learn to distinguish the Blackmans from the Milos in advance, if the problem isn't available information online, but their judgment and discernment. A related point is, however, that if this can be solved, it would incentivize campus conservatives to bring in more Blackmans, so they'll be better attended and the message heard. If the campus activists treat the Blackmans and the Milos the same, and all the sponsors get out of it is the video of student meltdowns, then why not go for the most provocative to get the most of that?

So it's a concern worth addressing.

In my view, the professors could do a lot more to help that cause by themselves distinguishing between the Blackmans and Milos, and showing up to dialogue with the Blackmans and model civil discourse. And on that score, sadly, much of academia is doing horribly. Some are just as immature as the students -- without the excuse of under-25 brain development -- and many are so cowed by the loud kids and profs that they don't stand up for civility.

Look at the Amy Wax freakout. Rather than debate her points fairly, much of the law faculty joined in a temper tantrum. We can't expect much of the kids when the law profs can't distinguish a Wax from a Milo.

Posted by: Joe Cynic | May 2, 2018 4:24:32 PM

"Brain" writes: "Volokh pretty clearly said what he's reported as saying. There are video recordings of him saying as much, and he hasn't come forth to deny it."

If you watch the videos -- which I hope people do -- you will see that what he's saying is entirely innocuous and is taken quite far out of context.

I've also never heard of a "Johan Norberg," but if "Brain" says he "a master Libertarian strategist," who is anyone to question it.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 2, 2018 6:10:13 PM

Orin, If you watch the Josh Blackman video you might find that a myth is being propagated about whether he was, in fact, prevented from speaking. I took a look and wrote about it at the LUN.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | May 2, 2018 9:02:09 PM

Steve, read your post. Josh has spoken at dozens of law schools, and always records his talks (he records his class lectures as well). He never faced a protest before, and contrary to what you wrote, had no reason to expect one at CUNY. For that matter, I’ve spoken to sbout 100 student Fed Soc chapters and never faced a protest, or even a rude comment. You owe Josh an apology for suggest No he somehow provoked and expected the protest, and you should take the post down. And I still don’t see the relationship between the Koch Foundaion giving money to the GMU Econ department and Simkovic’s tin foil hat claim that there is an irgnized conspiracy afoot to make left-wing activist students look and act stupid.

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 2, 2018 10:12:35 PM

Steve, I watched it, but I was too intimidated by Josh's tall and muscular physique, towering over every one, to notice that.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 2, 2018 11:40:29 PM

Thanks for the suggestions, David, but I would prefer not to.

As for your confusion, here is a hint: it rhymes with Coke.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | May 3, 2018 12:10:17 AM

So you believe any made-up conspiracy theory and attendant accusations so long as someone alleges a tenuous connection to Koch? And you feel free to make scurrilous accusations against colleagues on that basis? I’d expect that from low-iq internet trolls, not distinguished law professors.

Posted by: David Bernstein | May 3, 2018 3:15:03 AM

David, Josh has now responded in the comments section of my blog. In light of how this event was used inaccurately by the right I have suggested he issue a statement that distances him from those efforts. He has not done so as of yet. I think the connection to Koch made by Simkovic is quite robust and certainly consistent with their efforts at GMU (about which you, no doubt, know much more than me or Mike).

Posted by: Steve Diamond | May 3, 2018 3:31:47 PM

Hey there, here's the link on Koch money and groups that invite hateful, racist, unproductive speakers to campus...

http://observer.case.edu/sleeper-free-speech-on-campus-has-a-hidden-agenda/

https://www.alternet.org/education/right-wing-billionaires-are-funding-cynical-plot-destroy-dissent-and-protest-colleges

...for the sake of creating controversies that white male conservatives can use to gain public pity for being a minority in one single aspect of their largely over-represented lives. It's a public relations issue, not really a free speech issue. Mr. Bernstein knows this, though, and as his employer GMU Law is embroiled in a major scandal involving the Kochs as I type, I ask why he didn't disclose his involvement in this scandal?
http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/44347-right-wing-federalist-society-shaped-hiring-and-admissions-at-george-mason-university-emails-show

For my part, I'll disclose that I am a co-founder of UnKoch My Campus, and I'm a major critic of the Koch foundation for its assault on academic freedom, turning professors into lobbyists and lackeys. I work for Greenpeace, so my time with UnKoch is unpaid.

Posted by: Connor Gibson | May 4, 2018 5:32:22 PM

Connor Gibson writes: “I'm a major critic of the Koch foundation for its assault on academic freedom, turning professors into lobbyists and lackeys.”

“Lackey”? That particular term seems so...1930s Comintern. I thought it had been retired circa 1989 along with “running dog” (走狗). But I’m now in China, where I spend half of my time nowadays, so I can ask around....

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 4, 2018 6:50:52 PM

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