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Liberal Intolerance and Naomi Riley's Firing

Liberal Intolerance and Naomi Riley's Firing

By Cathy Young - May 15, 2012

There is much handwringing today, both from liberals and disaffected conservatives, about the deplorable intellectual climate on the right: blinkered ideology, disdain for facts, demonization of opponents. Sure enough, such behavior is depressingly common. But does the left behave differently when its sacred cows are being gored?

For a stark reminder that "liberal intolerance" is real, look at the brouhaha over Naomi Schaefer Riley's ejection from the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, Brainstorm. A moderately conservative journalist and author, Riley joined the site's left-dominated roster of bloggers in early 2011. On April 30, she made a post titled "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." The piece was prompted by a recent Chronicle cover story lauding a new generation of black studies Ph.D., with a sidebar profiling the first five students in Northwestern University's six-year-old black studies doctoral program. Riley offered sarcastic summaries of three of their dissertation topics, describing them as "left-wing victimization claptrap."

It was a shot heard 'round the blogosphere. Riley was denounced as a purveyor of hate speech. Sixteen Northwestern black studies faculty members joined a guest post on Brainstorm lambasting her comments as "cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education."

Chronicle editor Liz McMillen initially stood by Riley, defending her piece as an invitation to debate and allowing her to respond to critics. A few days later, faced with a deluge of angry mail and an anti-Riley petition with over 6,500 signatures, she reversed herself. A May 7 "Editor's Note" stated that Riley's post "did not meet The Chronicle's basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles" and that Riley had been asked to leave Brainstorm. McMillen also apologized for initially treating Riley's post as "informed opinion" and "for the distress these incidents have caused."

The conservative media picked up the story, portraying Riley's dismissal as an egregious case of speech-stifling political correctness and cowardice. One might think most liberals would agree, on the principle attributed to Voltaire: "I disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Yet most left-of-center commentators who have weighed in -- such as Atlantic editor and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates and Center for American Progress fellow Eric Alterman -- have condemned Riley and defended her firing. Their argument is that, while Riley has a right to her opinions and criticism of black studies is not racist, her post was so "lazy," "sloppy" and "ignorant" that such "know-nothing hackery" has no place on the blog of an academic publication. That's because Riley freely admits she did not read the dissertations she lampooned but relied on The Chronicle's summaries (not, as some have mistakenly claimed, the titles alone).

Is this a sloppy approach for a 520-word blogpost? First, let's turn the political tables. Suppose a left-wing academic blogger had poked fun at stupid Ph.D. dissertations from conservative Christian colleges arguing that homosexuality can be cured or that teaching evolution undermines students' morals -- and based her post on a magazine's summary of the thesis topics. Would those tut-tutting at Riley's laziness demand actual perusal of such works?

Second, let's look at The Chronicle's general standards of quality in blogging -- standards that Alterman suggests were lowered for Riley in order to appease the right by hiring a conservative.

There is Laurie Essig, a Middlebury College sociologist whose posts -- mostly unrelated to academia -- tend to be fact-free, muddled rants on the "white privilege" underlying the campaign against child-murdering Ugandan warlord Kony, the heterosexual oppressiveness of the happy endings of "Harry Potter," or the merits of an attempted pie assault on Rupert Murdoch. One Essig post decries the "hysteria," "racism," and "class warfare" of concerns about unwed motherhood, making the unsupported claim that children of single parents fare no worse than their two-parent peers when they have similar resources. Another asserts that Americans "hate black women" but love Oprah Winfrey because she supports the values of "white supremacy" (by emphasizing individual choices) and "fulfills white longings for Mammy."

There is also Dave Barash, a University of Washington biologist and psychologist, who a month ago made a post titled "Major League Baseball Takes on the First Amendment." In it, Barash deplored the suspension of Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillén after he professed love for Fidel Castro, and his subsequent apology. So much for intellectual rigor: one need not be a constitutional scholar to know that a private company's decision to sanction an employee for offensive public speech is not a First Amendment issue. Shockingly, Barash's dedication to free speech does not seem to extend to Naomi Schaefer Riley.

Finally, what about the factual diligence displayed by some of Riley's media critics? Alterman -- who writes that "conservative journalists specialize in attacks that ignore traditional standards of fairness and professional competence" -- repeatedly makes the inaccurate claim that Riley slammed the thesis projects because she "didn't like their titles." He also throws in an aside about her earlier authorship of a Wall Street Journal column which "sought to blame women who dressed provocatively for 'moronic behavior' that allegedly invited rape." Alterman's source, however, is not Riley's column -- which never mentioned provocative dress -- but a left-wing website's angry recap. (Riley's actual point was that it's not smart to get so plastered at a college party that you can't refuse, or even remember, unwanted sex.) Surely, relying on a hostile summary to attack an op-ed column -- which can be found and read in a few minutes -- is sloppier than relying on a sympathetic summary to attack a dissertation.

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Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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