Salvo 06.04.2024 7 minutes

Not Giving Up Without a Fight

DeSantis at New College of Florida

The Left’s efforts against reforming New College reveal totalitarian impulses.

Back in the sixties, when fractious groups in the Eastern bloc bristled under Soviet influence, Leonid Brezhnev made clear just how far anti-socialist speech and action in Prague and elsewhere would be tolerated by Moscow. Brezhnev’s warning was clear: everyone must get in line—everyone. Socialism is an international movement, Brezhnev declared in November 1968, and therefore demands strict conformity around the globe: “The weakening of any of the links in the world system of socialism directly affects all socialist countries, which cannot look indifferently on this.”

A small protest in Czechoslovakia against the one-party state, for instance, would incur the wrath of every force in the Soviet sphere. The words and deeds of even the tiniest faction were to be handled as an existential threat. Loyalty was all-or-nothing. As Lenin said, “Each man must choose between joining our side or the other side.” No middle ground, no shades of gray. To a communist, a “loyal opposition” could not exist.

If this totalitarian attitude sounds familiar to you, you’re not imagining things. There is a strange glee on the hard Left these days, a delight in pronouncing no quarter to anyone to the right of them, with the brashest voices getting the most rewards.

When Ibram X. Kendi tells you that if you aren’t actively, vigilantly anti-racist then you’re racist, he allows no discussion—and MacArthur gives him a “Genius” grant. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed that an enemies list of Trump officials be created so that they won’t have opportunities later in life, she turns people on the other side of the aisle into untouchables—and she has a big megaphone to do that, having 13 million followers on X and eight million on Instagram. These influencers love to cancel, especially when someone in private life is caught committing a social sin and the thrill of surveillance/detection is added to the lust for penance.

The enforcement is absolute; that’s the woke dream. Leftists don’t just want to win—they want to annihilate all resistance. It’s not enough for them to dominate a field of action, to win the vote most of the time, or to outnumber their adversaries 10-to-1. The bare presence of one dissenter in the room is an offense, an injustice that needs to be quickly remedied.

Case in point: In January 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis appointed six conservatives, including me, to the board of trustees of New College of Florida in Sarasota. Many at the time hadn’t heard of the school because it enrolled a mere 680 students, smaller than the average public high school in the state and barely half of its intended capacity. The campus itself was a mess—rundown buildings, bad food, and spotty grounds. Financial problems had almost pushed the legislature to close the school a few years before. The ideological climate, too, was noxiously hard-left, salted with identity politics: “This campus is queer as f—,” howled one of the public commenters at a board meeting, “and it’s gonna stay that way!”

One wouldn’t think that this struggling microscopic institution would draw much attention after board members and new president Richard Corcoran arrived to begin a project of restoration. Immediately, however, the battle started.

Journalists descended on Sarasota, lawyers got involved, and academics far and wide tuned in. A GoFundMe page titled “Save New College & Defend Educational Freedom Fund” raised nearly $250K by August 2023. People lined up at public board meetings, taking turns at the podium denouncing us as vandals and fascists, while hundreds gathered outside with megaphones and placards. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran several pieces, one of them characterizing our motives as “destructive chaos.” The New York Times claimed our actions had “left students and faculty members at the tight-knit, progressive school reeling.” A Washington Post column charged that “Florida is trying to roll back a century of gains for academic freedom,” while another one was headlined, “Ideologically motivated college trustees try to fix what is not broken.” Dozens more attacks were published in outlets from Vanity Fair to Ms. Magazine to the Guardian. NPR ran several spots, one with the title “The Tiny Liberal Arts College at the Heart of the Culture War” (more on this headline below).

Professional associations weighed in as well. A statement signed by 33 guilds and societies, including the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and the American Academy of Religion, described the trustees as “would-be indoctrinators of views that undermine the purpose of higher education in a democracy.” A special investigation by the American Association of University Professors began with a quote from a Florida A&M professor: “What we are witnessing in Florida is an intellectual reign of terror.”

In May 2023, New College faculty voted to censure the trustees for various acts of supposed malfeasance, including financial failings. A few weeks before, a New College student group demanded our resignation. Governor Gavin Newsom traveled to New College to commiserate with those students, telling them, “I want you to know you’re not alone, you matter, we care.” Lots of lawfare was happening too, with lawsuits, nonstop FOIAs, and even a Biden Administration investigation over a complaint that the redesigned college website failed to meet disability requirements. In one deposition I had to answer questions for 90 minutes about every bit of New College “business” I’d conducted over the course of the year, the term “business” covering even a slight mention to a friend over the phone that I’d be out of town for a couple of days to attend a board meeting (so I was told by the attorney questioning me).

The point here is not to dramatize our experience. Chris Rufo, Matthew Spalding, Ryan Anderson, Charles Kesler, and the other trustees aren’t fazed by political conflict. Besides that, our adversaries were correct to fight back. We had indeed violated sacred dogmas of the academic Left. In January we fired the president and general counsel. And in February we ended DEI programs at the school. Later on, we turned down five professors who came up for early tenure in spite of having received faculty and provost support, and we also terminated the Gender Studies concentration. Throughout the year, we advised the administration on a new general education curriculum and spoke of Western civilization without a whisper of guilt.

I have written about some of these developments before, emphasizing the alarmist mood of the protesters and academics. Something still doesn’t make sense, though. It’s buried in what the NPR title highlights, the “tiny college” factor, which is easily overlooked. In fact, the relative status of New College and the powers mobilized to preserve it against conservative reform is a salient point in itself. The panicky reaction to the board’s intentions for this little enclave in south Florida is wholly disproportionate. Why should so much energy and so many words be launched in support of such a petite and failing college?

The Brezhnev situation explains it. What we see now in higher education is an update of a “warmer” mode of Cold War policy behind the Iron Curtain. Communist leaders defined the movement as universal, just as woke leaders do with their own movement. What happens anywhere affects everywhere. It doesn’t matter how small the challenge is, not when 100 percent compliance is the goal. Total control isn’t a tactic of leftist thinking; it’s essential to it. A woke believer doesn’t regard her belief as one political outlook among others—it’s the only one, or the only righteous one. You cannot separate the content of woke politics from the aspiration to totalize it. Twenty-first century leftism begins not with an idea (that is, class struggle, intersectionality, etc.). It begins with a protocol: we’re right, you’re wrong, and we don’t tolerate wrong-thinkers. They don’t want to argue, they don’t want to debate, and they certainly don’t want to share governance. 

The defenders of old New College see the loss of one acre of ground as a threat to left-wing spaces everywhere. No matter how dysfunctional that space may be, for conservatives to reclaim and improve it shakes their teleology and slows momentum. Their vision of progress allows no exceptions to the advance of humanity. The language of diversity, inclusion, and equity is but a front, a liberal sop to obscure the uniformity toward which they aim. Conservatives should realize what the progressives across the table have been thinking for decades now: “You guys have no future, not a minority one, not a miniscule one—we guarantee it.”

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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