A Speech That Should Be Punished

Much has been written about the attacks on free speech, especially at universities and colleges. Speakers with conservative viewpoints are routinely banished from important venues, denied attendance, picketed, or subjected to the “hecklers’ veto.” At the University of California Berkeley and other campuses where conservative speech has been met with disorder, activists have justified it because, they claim, “speech is violence.” Gone is adherence to the maxim of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “If there be time to . . . avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Speakers must be held accountable for their words, to be sure. But sometimes “accountability” is ideological and unfair. Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers discovered this when, at an academic conference in 2006, he speculated about the preponderance of men working as professors of mathematics and physical sciences at elite universities. Although Summers acknowledged that women confronted barriers such as discrimination and disproportionate family responsibilities, he hypothesized that there might be other factors, like men’s superior performance in tests measuring mathematical ability. Summers was vilified and ridiculed, and eventually resigned.

Another example of caving to mob rule at Harvard was the law school’s decision to strip law professor Ronald Sullivan, Jr., of his position as faculty dean of a college residence hall. The reason? Some students felt “unsafe” because Sullivan represented Harvey Weinstein against charges of sexual misconduct. As Sullivan put it, “Unchecked emotion has replaced thoughtful reasoning on campus. Feelings are no longer subjected to evidence, analysis or empirical defense. Angry demands, rather than rigorous arguments, now appear to guide university policy.”

Harvard is not alone. In 2015, Erika Christakis, a highly regarded Yale University lecturer in early childhood education and an administrator at a student residence, was hounded into leaving the faculty for having the temerity to suggest that there could be negative implications if students were to cede “implied control” over Halloween costumes to “institutional forces.”

Christakis was responding to a directive from the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale that warned students it would be insensitive to wear costumes that could imply cultural appropriation, like feathered headdresses, turbans, war paint, blackface or redface, or costumes poking fun at certain people. In that response, in effect, she predicted her own destiny: “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”

Now we are faced with statements—from a Harvard dean, no less—that deserve but appear to have escaped widespread condemnation.

As described by Heather Mac Donald in a superb, infuriating Wall Street Journal op-ed last month, dean of students Rakesh Khurana took the opportunity at graduation (“Class Day”) to make assertions that are offensive, anti-American, and worst of all, wrong. This passage (as Mac Donald related) is illustrative:

The “capitalist ethos,” according to Mr. Khurana, tells us that “we deserve to win because of our skill, our hard work, and our contributions.” Mr. Khurana—who is also a professor of business and of sociology—claimed to be “mystified by that belief

We are also mystified—by Khurana, who went on to rail about “structural inequities” such as “inherited privilege,” the supposed myth of the self-made person, and the meaninglessness of “deserving.” This sophomoric claptrap is from a professor of business at Harvard?

Could Khurana possibly be unaware that people like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergei Brin, Ben Carson, Herman Cain, Larry Page, Barack Obama, and innumerable others, inherited little and yet have been wildly successful? Privilege played little part in their success compared to their accomplishments. What has become of the famous dictum of Francis Bacon that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands?”

While Khurana credits chance with the lion’s share of “real” success, he completely misses the reality: The primary luck we all have is where and to which parents we are born, the level of brain power we are gifted with at birth, the culture in which we are immersed from early childhood—and, to some degree, also our race and ethnicity.

Much as Khurana (and many other progressives) may want to believe it, we do not all benefit equally from the genetic lottery. “Nurture” can overcome some limitations and stifle some abilities, but our core selves and parentage cannot be changed. The question is, what we do with what we have. This is the essence of personal responsibility and free choice. And in America, we enjoy vastly more freedom to make the most of what we are given than in most any other place on earth.

Different places in this world respond differently to the accident of birth. To this day, India remains partially mired in the caste system. In other countries, those unlucky enough to be born to disfavored minority ethnic groups may face death or permanent relegation to deprived circumstances. In America, we are always striving to eliminate disadvantages of geography, race, religion, gender, and culture, sometimes to a fault. That is “who we are.” That is why we are the Land of Opportunity.

As Mac Donald points out, the family unit seems to be highly influential in nurturing success. Asian families tend to be very close-knit, and as we see in the United States, their offspring tend to be high achievers. Out-of-wedlock births among African Americans number almost three out of four, and many of those children seem to require more than the typical public-school education to thrive and replace some of what is missing on the family side. It is not “privilege” to have a constructive family culture; it is the luck of who your parents are. To this extent, “chance” sets us up for a greater or lesser probability of future success.

The great leveling factors in our society, however, are precisely those that Rakesh Khurana dismisses: skill, ambition, hard work, and achievement. Not everyone has every skill, though many can be taught within the inherent limitations of their intellectual capacity. Not everyone will develop a personality suited to every opportunity.

It is the opportunities afforded in American society for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to coin a phrase, that removes many (though not all) of the constraints that might limit us. Khurana’s views are antithetical to what it means to have the opportunity to succeed because his conception of “chance” seems to confine us. Why strive for anything when the roll of the dice might be more important?

Given the insulting, shallow, and grossly misguided content of Khurana’s speech, he should be relieved of his administrative position and, thereby, held accountable for his speech. The precedent at Harvard is certainly well established. His is a far more serious offense than Larry Summers’ musing about a potentially useful avenue of research. Khurana should not be allowed to poison the minds of any more students at what is supposedly one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world.

Harvard, enough is enough.

Photo Credit: Dean Khurana

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About Andrew I. Fillat and Henry I. Miller

Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.