I wasn’t looking forward to Michael Bloomberg’s speech at my daughter’s Harvard commencement last week. As an active New York City Republican, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the former mayor, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent and prominent social liberal. While I admired his successful anti-crime policies, I was less enthusiastic about his nanny-state hectoring on public health and driven to distraction by his instinctual reliance on (and seeming obliviousness to the bias of) liberal “experts” on a range of other issues. And, though I agree with many of his positions on gun control, I’ve always been put off by his morally superior tone, which can make him sound as if he’s blaming gun violence on law-abiding gun owners in the flyover states and the outer boroughs. In short, while the billionaire mayor did some great things and left New York City a better place, he often seemed to me the very embodiment of a “limousine liberal.” And it was this Michael Bloomberg that I expected to show up at Harvard. “It’s going to be all guns and trans fats,” I joked to a conservative friend of my daughter’s the night before the speech. The mayor, I assumed, would play it safe, and play up to his liberal audience.
I was splendidly wrong. Speaking at the epicenter of academic leftism, Bloomberg forcefully challenged growing intolerance and ideological rigidity on campus—which he bluntly called “modern day McCarthyism”—and declared that “a liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism.”
He set out his main themes early in the speech: that “great universities . . . lie at the heart of the American experiment in democracy” as “places where people of all . . . beliefs [can] debate their ideas freely and openly”; that “tolerance for other people’s ideas, and the freedom to express your own, are inseparable values” that form a “sacred trust” undergirding democratic society; that this trust “is perpetually vulnerable to the tyrannical tendencies of monarchs, mobs, and majorities”; and, pointedly, that “lately, we have seen those tendencies manifest themselves too often, both on college campuses and in our society.” Perhaps to reassure his audience, Bloomberg picked a conservative cause—opposition to the so-called Ground Zero mosque—as his first example of this tendency. But he quickly tied his defense of the mosque back to his central point: “We cannot deny others the rights and privileges that we demand for ourselves. And that . . . is no less true at universities, where the forces of repression appear to be stronger now than they have been since the 1950s.”
Bloomberg alluded to a recent proposal in The Harvard Crimson to jettison academic freedom in favor of an Orwellian concept of “academic justice” that would shut down “research promoting or justifying oppression” or “countering” the supposed “goals” of the “university community” to oppose “racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” The proposal echoed similar proposals at other elite universities. Bloomberg warned his liberal listeners of a new McCarthyism of the Left paralleling the Red Scare tactics of the fifties:
There is an idea floating around college campuses—including here at Harvard—that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern day form of McCarthyism.
Bloomberg cited as evidence of this new intolerance the recent spate of disinvitations and forced withdrawals of conservative (or insufficiently liberal) commencement speakers and honorees, including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at Rutgers, and the shouting down of former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly by students at Brown last fall. In each case, Bloomberg said, liberals silenced a voice they deemed politically objectionable. “Isn’t the purpose of a university to stir discussion, not silence it?” he asked. “What were the students afraid of hearing?” And pointedly, in the case of Kelly: “Why did administrators not step in to prevent the mob from silencing speech? And did anyone consider that it is morally and pedagogically wrong to deprive other students of the chance to hear the speech?”
Bloomberg stressed the striking lack of ideological diversity on college faculties that is both a sign and a cause of intolerance. “Conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species,” particularly in the Ivy League, he warned, noting statistics showing that 96 percent of contributions from Ivy League faculty and administrators in the 2012 presidential race went to Barack Obama. “There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo,” he observed wryly, adding more seriously that “when 96 percent of Ivy League donors prefer one candidate to another,” even Obama supporters like himself “have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a great university should offer.” Academia’s narrow and obsessive focus on “diversity of gender, ethnicity, and orientation” misses the mark, he suggested. While these are important, “a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogenous.”
The concluding passages of Bloomberg’s speech brought the audience back to more comfortable ground, with familiar attacks on conservative ideas about guns, evolution, and climate change. But this only served to make his principal attack on the Left more effective. And lest anyone lose sight of that central thesis, he concluded by noting, “I know this has not been a traditional commencement speech, and it may keep me from passing a dissertation defense in the humanities department, but there is no easy time to say hard things.”
My only quibble is with what Bloomberg didn’t say. The left-wing McCarthyism he decried is at its most virulent on hot-button cultural issues, and particularly on gay marriage—on which even CEOs have been forced from their positions for thought “crimes.” Bloomberg did allude to this: “If you want the freedom to worship as you wish, to speak as you wish, and to marry whom you wish, you must tolerate my freedom to do so—or not do so—as well.” But I wish that the former mayor, as a leading gay-marriage advocate, had addressed it more explicitly.
Defending the rights of traditional marriage supporters would probably have been a bridge too far for Bloomberg at Harvard, though. The speech was still magnificent, and crucially important. Bravo, Mr. Mayor.