Come, ye philosophers, who cry, ‘All’s well,’ / And contemplate this ruin of a world.” So wrote Voltaire in his poem on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which destroyed the city and claimed the lives of up to one-fifth of its population. The disaster, which occurred on All Saints’ Day, ruined the faith of many, and shocked the European mind. It became an occasion for critiquing the philosophical optimism of Leibniz, Pope, and other thinkers of the day.
Similarly, the 2016 election of Donald Trump was a political earthquake that became an existential crisis for many Americans, especially those on the left. In our universities, it caused some scholars to question their faith in liberalism and in the unending progress of American democracy. This was apparently the case for Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, a pair of academics who agonize over this American earthquake in their new book, It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom. They are anxious to understand “how to reconcile a version of history that moves steadily in the right directions (if sometimes two steps forward, one step back) with one in which a nation’s history can be so easily hijacked.”
Bérubé and Ruth “have long been involved with the AAUP” (the American Association of University Professors) and claim to be “deeply committed to academic freedom.” Now, they question their previous liberal principles and believe that academic freedom must be revised to enshrine critical race theory.
As they explain, “We (here, we literally mean our two selves) are classic examples of the white left-liberal stunned by Trump’s election and by wave upon wave of police and vigilante killings of Black men and women into thinking much more critically.” Further, “the advent of Trumpism, and the increasingly open expressions of fascism and neo-Nazism in the United States, place unbearable pressure on liberal shibboleths about how the so-called marketplace of ideas actually works in reality.” In response to these events, they have immersed themselves in critical race theory and now believe that “a robust theory of academic freedom must be premised on an equality that goes beyond formal equality, one that is not devoted to a false universality but rather sees color, gender, differing ability, etc.” Their central argument is that academic freedom should be redefined to exclude white supremacists.