The University of Wisconsin in Madison has always been a bit strange. I ought to know. I was there during the wave of radicalism that crested in the Sixties; I watched as demonstrators carrying North Vietnamese flags stormed the school’s administration buildings, burned this country’s flag and finally closed the place down to protest the Vietnam War and just about everything else Americans value. The protesters celebrated violence and bloodshed as long as it wasn’t their own; the morning after radical terrorists blew up a building and killed a graduate student, I won 50 dollars. I bet a skeptical liberal friend that if we visited the student union, within 15 minutes we would hear fellow students arguing that the student deserved to die for the crime of, well, being in the building when the bomb went off.
There were conservatives on campus just as there are now, but most of them stuck to their books lest they be singled out and attacked for disagreeing with the radicals among them. When a group of them banded together to form an alternative to the school’s left-wing student newspaper, their “fake news” offices were targeted and one barely escaped as leftist protesters tossed Molotov cocktails at him. I was foolhardy enough to form the first Young Americans for Freedom chapter on campus. In those days, a campus group had to recruit a faculty “sponsor” and we quickly discovered that no one wanted to be in any way associated with a bunch of conservatives who admired “extremists” like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. We eventually found a faculty member who was no longer actually teaching. He agreed to serve as our co-sponsor only after our public disclaimer that he was accepting the position not because he agreed with us, but because he believed university students should be free to examine even those ideas with which they disagreed.
Taking such a position today at Wisconsin or any other major American university might prove more problematic than agreeing with conservatives. Today’s leftist “progressives” specifically reject the idea that they should ever be exposed to any ideas they might find disagreeable. The left today works overtime to keep individuals and groups that might express even mainstream mid-American views off our campuses. Wisconsin leftists, always a step ahead of others, were early to conclude that the proper way to deal with dissent was to ban it or to attack the dissenters. Madison radicals were early believers in denying speakers they didn’t like a campus forum..
While I was a student, someone decided to host a debate on some obscure and perhaps forgotten aspect of the Vietnam War and asked me if I would be willing to debate a left-wing activist so highly regarded that he would later be elected to the Madison City Council. With 600 or more students in attendance, I won the coin toss and spoke first. When I finished, my opponent, an admirer of Cuba, Hanoi and Moscow, got up, looked over the audience and announced that though he wouldn’t dignify anything I had said with a rebuttal, he could promise that come the inevitable revolution, people like me would be lined up and shot. He received a standing ovation from an audience who shared his view of the uselessness of free speech and tolerance.
Things haven’t changed in Madison in the decades since although today’s radicals have boned up on the finer points of the way their Communist heroes dealt with deplorables like me. As time passed, Moscow, Hanoi and Havana relied less on the still ubiquitous firing squads and more on re-education camps for the heretics and non-believers.
Last week, a group of today’s radicals began beseeching fellow Madison students to sign a petition demanding that the campus YAF chapter I started be denounced as a “hate” group, disbanded, and consigned to the outer darkness for inviting speakers the left considers obnoxious to campus. The petitioners apparently feel that being exposed to the ideas of others disrupts the learning experience. Their petition demands that members of the YAF chapter be sentenced to “intensive” diversity training.
The petitioners didn’t say whether their re-education would take place in Gulag-like concentration camps, but given the left’s admiration for the methods of their heroes, one shouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what they have in mind.
Ideas, however, are hard to kill. A South Vietnamese anti-Communist friend showed up in Washington a decade after the fall of Hanoi. He presented me with a pipe he had buried before going off for 10 years of re-education in one of Ho Chi Minh’s concentration camps. When his captors released him as “re-educated,” he joined those fleeing the workers’ paradise and, remembering that I had been a pipe smoker, brought me the pipe.
I still have it.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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