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March 18, 2016+Gerard Alexander
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Free Speech Won, But...

Charles Murray is the latest target for disinviting a speaker from campus. Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) think tank, is scheduled to talk at Virginia Tech later this month, and some activists are critical that he was invited at all. They call him a “white nationalist” and say that he argues that “poor people, women, and especially black and brown peoples are genetically, psychologically and intellectually inferior to upper- and middle-class, white men.”

Tim Sands, Virginia Tech’s president, responded by defending the invitation, but in terms that remind us why free speech works best if it is accompanied by greater viewpoint diversity. In an open letter to the VA Tech community, Sands cites Murray’s “controversial and largely discredited work linking measures of intelligence to heredity, and specifically to race and ethnicity – a flawed socioeconomic theory that has been used by some to justify fascism, racism and eugenics.”

That reinforces the impression that Murray focuses on race and genetics and operates at the fringes of American discourse. You’d never know that Murray overwhelmingly researches topics other than race, and is at least as well known for Losing Ground, an influential critique of welfare policy that traced destructive long-term dependency to the incentives created by government programs – the very opposite of “blaming the victim.” You’d never know that The Bell Curve, the book in which Murray and co-author Richard Herrnstein discussed race, was devoted to worrying that America was being increasingly sorted by cognitive skill level into a socioeconomic elite and disadvantaged lower classes. A single chapter was devoted to race, and Murray and Herrnstein made clear that issues of IQ had no implications for the moral worth of individuals. And you’d never know from the Virginia Tech commentary that Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart, highlights the widening divide between America’s classes. That book deliberately focuses on whites in order to make clear that downward mobility is not an African-American phenomenon alone. Each of these books is clearly distressed about these developments, and isn’t celebrating or justifying them.

Sands deserves kudos for defending Murray’s appearance at Virginia Tech. The problem is that Sands is defending the appearance of a Murray that doesn’t exist. Activists reduce Murray to a caricature of one chapter of one of his books. Outside of that censorious echo chamber, Murray can easily be recognized as a thinker well within the American mainstream, who if anything is unusual in his distress over the fate of America’s downwardly mobile citizens. If university life were more intellectually diverse, Sands would have known that, instead of suggesting that Murray is “repugnant, offensive, or even fraudulent.” As it happens, Murray can defend himself and plans to go ahead with his talk.

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