David Bernstein responds to Matthew Yglesias’ suggestion that righties have an “unhealthy obsession” with oddball groups on university camps, and in so doing, jumps off the rhetorical deep end. It turns out that the takeover of the universities are just “a step in the authoritarian radical Left’s broader agenda.” And that agenda? Government-enforced authoritarianism, just like they’re successfully introducing in Canada. Yes, that’s right. Canada. Bernstein bolsters his argument with a quote from a professor in Western Ontario, who describes Canada as a “totalitarian theocracy” ruled by the “secular state religion” of political correctness.
Now I’m all for occasional doses of overheated language to enliven our political discourse, but Bernstein’s rhetoric verges on the bizarre. Canada has adopted some (relatively moderate) free speech restrictions in its Charter, but by most reasonable definitions of the word, it isn’t an authoritarian society. Nor is it likely to become one anytime soon. There’s a rhetorical slippage in Bernstein’s argument, between government-enforced restrictions on free speech and political authoritarianism/totalitarianism. They’re rather different things. States can have some restriction on free speech and remain democratic. France and Germany have done it for fifty-odd years.
Bernstein’s hyperbole gets in the way of his argument, which is perfectly defensible. It’s not unreasonable to oppose government restrictions on free speech. However, lurid denunciations of these restrictions as creeping totalitarianism, or as initial steps toward implementation of the radical left’s master plan are … odd. I don’t think David Bernstein is a candidate for the tinfoil hat brigade. I don’t agree with most of what he has to say, but he seems fairly rational, and occasionally indeed thoughtful. Which is all that any of us can aspire to being. But this time, he’s gone over the top.
Update: David Bernstein responds with a comeback that he seems to think is a gotcha, but which (a) rests on a rather strained interpretation of Canadian law, and (b) doesn’t really address my criticism. I’m not asking whether or not Canada’s legislation on free speech is a good idea; I’m questioning whether it’s appropriate to describe it as theocratic totalitarianism. And so far I’m not seeing anything to convince me that he’s right.