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There Are No Safe Spaces

By: Ken Masugi
November 23, 2015

A self-ordained professor's tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow….

In my years as a Claremont McKenna College undergraduate (‘69) I double-majored in political science and philosophy and sought out provocative professors of contrary views at Pomona, Scripps, and Pitzer. I attended talks by socialists, black nationalists, religious zealots, Howard Zinn, Walter Berns, and Elizabeth Anscombe, among others. I worked on the five-College newspaper with future journalists Bill Keller, Tom Livingston, and Doug Montgomery. I knew black activists John Doggett and John Payton, who went on to notable legal careers. One year my roommate later became an indefatigable nuclear arms negotiator, one from another year a state judge. All this besides my key profs Martin Diamond, Harry Jaffa, Harry Neumann, and Leo Strauss added up to quite a start at an education.

I wonder what sort of education the current undergraduates are getting, viewed in light of the violent battles of the 1960s that plagued my time in Claremont. Along with CMC President Hiram Chadosh, the newly-appointed Dean of the Faculty Peter Uvin encouraged the demonstrators in an email and also added as a PS:

PS. Please know that while even aggressive and hurtful statements are covered by the First Amendment, any threats of violence are illegal, violate College policy, and trigger immediate investigation and strong discipline. Please contact us immediately if you experience or observe any such threats.

This afterthought comes off as almost laughable in light of the past violence that the protesters dine off of. The President and his Administration are the virtual sons and daughters of the terrorists of the ‘60s. The extremists are free to bypass violence because they are now the possessors of the campus. Does anyone doubt that the Administration will deny any significant demand, however devoid of rationality?  

This generation of students and Administrators would benefit from Professor of Government Emeritus Ward E. Elliott’s reflections on historian Kevin Starr’s commissioned History of CMC. Elliott succinctly expands on Starr’s description of  the February, 1969 crisis.  

CMC's Story House fire, supposedly caused by a hot radiator pipe [hah!], was one of 25 fires and three bombs which went off on the Claremont campuses. The Story House fire itself took place six days after a black militant from Pomona, demanding the endorsement of ethnic quotas and black studies courses, had asked the CMC faculty, "Do you want this campus burned down this summer or next summer?" Scripps President and Claremont Provost Mark Curtis was hauled out of his office to answer to an angry crowd of students and faculty. Anonymous phone callers inquired by what route his children went to school. One of the bombs maimed and partially blinded Mary Anne Keatley, wife of Robert Keatley, a CMC football player.

(Elliott also gives an instructive account, which I as a witness can vouch for, of how ROTC cadets saved the ROTC program and managed to make demonstrators look foolish. One of the protest organizers, Pitzer professor Russell Ellis, would later write me a letter of reference.) To Elliott’s brief account of the bombings, I add further details: The bomb he notes exploded in a Pomona College faculty mailbox as it was being removed by a secretary. Curtis was not the only faculty member to receive threats about themselves and their children. A few of us students went to CMC President George Benson to urge special protection for the Jaffas. One of the fires blazed up in Marks Hall, forcing at least one sleeping resident to break a second-floor window and leap out. I recall patrolling the hallways of then-Claremont Hall (the northernmost high-rise) to look for obvious flammable materials, which I once found.  Following the Story House fire, black students left the campus for a few days. I never heard of any violence against any minority student. Later in the spring, as a stunt of sorts, black students began to ask for canned goods (supposedly to aid the poor)—a request intended to provoke fears of a lengthy sit-in. One student tartly responded that he had never heard of canned watermelon. Which student would be disciplined today?

I was present at the “when will Claremont burn” faculty meeting mentioned by Elliott. (I just walked in, at the suggestion of Harry Jaffa.) There we heard one black student declare that he had been to Vietnam and knew what a bullet could do. The CMC Administration clamped down on the bad publicity. Many years later registrar Katherine Lowe (by then Katherine Benson) mentioned to some alumni that another bomb had been found in a CMC restroom. The episode was never disclosed.

The most insightful interpretation of those 1960 events and their aftermath in Claremont can be found in Jaffa’s monograph The Reichstag is Still Burning: The failure of higher education and the decline of the West: a valedictory lecture (1989), which will soon be available once again on the Claremont Institute’s website. Years later, in 2004, when news of a spectacular racial and anti-Semitic hate crime burst upon the Claremont campus, Jaffa immediately denounced the “crime” as a hoax—which it was, leading to a year in prison for the disturbed perpetrator, who was the alleged victim. A classmate of mine recently remembered the ‘60s events chiefly for Jaffa’s “courage and steadfastness” in the face of amoral behavior.    

The hard despotism or terrorism of the 1960s exposed the weakness of a relatively conservative Administration which would not defend itself. Perhaps it rationalized that someone might get killed. And that would be bad publicity. Today’s soft despotism differs in that the Administration actually encourages excited, contradictory student demands for both security and freedom. These demands would obliterate the constituents of human happiness. This gentle tyranny turns out to be not only the petty ones imposed by diversity officers and sensitivity trainers; after all, the Dean of Students lost her job. The unnecessary and ignoble acceptance of her resignation resembles more hard than soft despotism, especially in light of President Chodosh’s effusive praise of her achievements and her manner of departure: an Orwellian moment distilling decades of bowing to the ideological winds

The current Administration appears hell-bent to turn a preeminent liberal arts college into a reeducation camp. Perhaps unclear on the difference between the two, many student parents and alumni may hail the new order, while hundreds of students dissent. A lament might conclude by quoting Yeats on the center not holding or Eliot on the world ending with a whimper and not a bang. But that would mischaracterize the current events as tragic. It is more fitting to compare President Chodosh, who seems to favor everything, with the declaration of Marx on college administration—Groucho Marx, the President of the constantly evolving Huxley University, who is simply “against it.” This Administration, with the Board behind it, has managed to produce a higher education farce that defies caricature.