My journey to the dark side and back
My generation— the leading edge Baby Boomers born in 1946-52 — is greatly responsible for the messes that the world, our country and education are in today.
Early on, I contributed a small bit to these messes, but for decades I’ve been trying to atone and set things right.
This comes to mind now because this month marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the mess: The Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California, Berkeley that spread to colleges around the country. On Oct. 1, 1964, it began with a 32-hour stand-off between students and campus police enforcing UCB’s anti-free-speech policies.
The FSM morphed into opposition to: the Viet Nam war, The Establishment, capitalism, middle-class values, The Man, Law and Order, etc. It spawned “Political Correctness,” environmentalism, and all manner of coercive collectivism — in short, The Movement, as we called it.
Sol Stern, now a respected writer and then New Leftist who was part of the FSM, notes that its noble goals of freedom and intellectual diversity have greatly been perverted by The Boomers to become the rigid, smelly PC orthodoxies on today’s campuses.
He writes: “Every undergraduate undergoes a form of indoctrination with a required course on the “theoretical or analytical issues relevant to understanding race, culture, and ethnicity in American society” administered by the university’s Division of Equity and Inclusion.”
“How did this Orwellian inversion occur?” he asks. “It happened in part because the Free Speech Movement’s fight for free speech was always a charade. The struggle was really about using the campus as a base for radical politics.”
In 1964, I was a high-school sophomore and Barry Goldwater fan in Illinois who had been raised with love and good values by my parents. The call for free speech resonated with me, but most of what followed did not — at least, at first. Although I was one of the few well-known conservatives elected to the University of Illinois Student Senate in the spring of 1968 as a college freshman, my downward slide had begun. I returned home for the summer wearing a Gene McCarthy for President button.
My descent of the slippery slope had begun, and it continued with me losing by 12 votes in 1973 as a liberal Democrat candidate for the Urbana City Council. (Imagining what a different life path I would have followed had I won, I’m thankful for that loss.) Things reached their nadir three years later when, as a university energy research engineer, I was the founder of the consumer/environmental opposition to the local power company, its rate hikes and its proposed nuclear power plant.
That role led me to be a founding director of the statewide Naderite/Alinskyite radical umbrella group, the Illinois Public Action Council. My fellows in that venture included the Chicago radicals who later nurtured Barack Obama as a “community organizer”.
Before you judge all this too harshly, recall what Winston Churchill said: “Any man who hasn’t become a socialist by 25 has no heart. And any man who’s still a socialist at 30 has no brain.”
I hit bottom and began to rebound at 27 at the group’s founding convention. As a nerd even then, I was peddling modest levels of low “lifeline” electric utility rates based on arcane economic theory applied to conditions that were unusual and fleeting. As I finished my presentation at the meeting, a labor organizer called me a piker, saying we should demand huge levels of residential service greatly subsidized by businesses for no reason other than we wanted it. A true Saul Alinsky disciple!
In that moment, I realized that most leftists, the PC, and other statists completely lack any real principle and are instead motivated by greed, selfishness, arrogance, narcissism and aggression. Like Stern about the FSM, I understood that leftist claims about compassion, justice, fairness, etc. are a charade: People strutting, posturing and preening to claim they are morally, intellectually and humanly superior to the rest of us. It’s a claim based on predatory political action, not actually reaching into their own pockets or giving their own hard work to really help the poor or whatever cause. Better me wise late than never, though.
Although I had turned the corner, I needed another dozen years as a working professional and San Francisco yuppie plus two turns in graduate school before I was finally cured. My longest, deepest and last identity as a lib was as a green-weenie limits-to-growther and alternative energy shill. Ironically, the second turn at grad school — at Stanford, which is quite PC itself — was essential to opening my eyes. Mostly, they opened because I continued to read, think, learn and grow and thus got over all that and began to atone as a limited-government conservative.
Meantime, the left-wing PC statist Boomers had taken over higher education, many state and local governments and the federal government. So UCB’s official observance of the FSM has been a travesty of Political Correctness that is antithetical to true free speech, intellectual diversity and rigor, and any real principle. Sadly, that cancer has spread to the majority of our colleges and universities and much of government and politics.
Ron Knecht of Carson City is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.