Radical Rhetoric on Somebody Else’s Dime

Students at public universities should have the right to invite whom they want to speak on campus. But they shouldn’t demand that other students (or taxpayers) subsidize speakers who appeal to only a very narrow slice of the student body.

If the campus Pathetic Losers Club wishes to invite an irrelevant, retread, third-rate Communist “thinker” like Angela Davis to speak to them, then they should be able to—with their own money. And the university should provide a place where she can speak, as well as address any security needs. The university, particularly public universities, should be places where all sorts of ideas are expressed freely. (There are some limits, of course; extreme obscenity, desecration of national and religious symbols, incitements to commit violence come to mind.)

But when Angela Davis actually spoke at North Carolina State last Thursday, Sept. 17, she came, not at the invitation of any individual club, but at the invitation of the university itself, through the Union Activities Board. And her $15,000 speaking fee came directly out of the mandatory fees students are forced to pay each semester.

Angela Davis won notoriety in 1970 when she purchased the guns for an attempt to free a Black Panther on trial for the attempted murder of a prison guard; a judge was kidnapped and killed in the attempt. Davis became a fugitive and was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Eventually acquitted (she admitted during her NCSU speech that this was due to political pressure ), she has never expressed any regret for her involvement with the Black Panthers.

She went on to a long career in academia, and recently retired as professor of the “history of consciousness” at the University of Santa Cruz.

Ches McDowell, a junior political science major, was not happy about paying for Davis’ appearance. As soon as he found out on the day of the speech, McDowell, the president of the school’s Republican club, he wrote a press release outlining his objections, including:

The line needs to be drawn when students are forced to support a communist and radical exhibitionist with our student fees who advocates for closing the prison system and abolishing American values. Angela Davis represents all that is wrong with the leftist mentality of using violence to solve problems, clearly shown when she purchased guns used to kidnap a federal judge and evaded law enforcement numerous times.

McDowell was also not happy about the lack of publicity of Davis speech beforehand. He said in a phone interview that if he had known about it before the day of the speech, he would have taken further action in protest.

He said that the Republicans are bringing Mike Adams, a controversial conservative professor from UNC-Wilmington, to speak. “I don’t expect people who believe Mike Adams to be offensive to pay for him to come here. We’re paying for him ourselves.”

While there might have been limited publicity in the usual places on N.C. State’s website, others were aware of it. Many students from North Carolina Central University were in the 600-plus person audience. There also appeared to be many non-students as well.

So how did this decision get made? Davis was invited by the Ideas and Issues committee of the Union Activities Board. Committee chairman Matt Woodward, a sophomore majoring in applied sociology, insisted that the decision to bring Davis to campus was made by the entire committee, but he was very enthusiastic about her appearance. “I’m really excited to have Angela Davis speak on civil rights,” he said in a phone interview. He also was quoted in an article in the Technician (N.C. State’s newspaper) as saying, “She reached out to the younger generation to get involved.”

So what exactly was she trying to get them involved in?

Basically, she encouraged involvement in radical politics and an attitude of contempt for mainstream American traditions and ideals. “You should applaud the fact that I was on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list,” she said.

Predictably, the lifelong communist—she was once the U.S. Communist Party candidate for vice-president—called for a variety of redistribution schemes. She suggested that “economic rights” be considered as a fundamental to citizenship, and that every person be guaranteed a job. These are some of the main ideas behind socialism—they have never worked anywhere. A couple of more ideas she threw out along the same theme: “We need socialized medicine,” and “Students need subsidies. Every student should have access to a free education.”

Along with the endorsement of socialism, she painted the United States as some sort of criminal, an idea popular in radical circles. The U.S. has “a horrible history,” according to Davis. “It is a “stolen land,” and “it’s almost as if we participate in a continual kind of genocide,” she said.

She also did not lack her old revolutionary fervor, offering clichéd 1960s radical-style calls to action: “We need … to make communities of struggle, to make communities of resistance.” And she took an obligatory cheap shot at one of her favorite targets, white males. “It’s not that I have anything against white males, per se,” she said in a manner that elicited laughter from the audience.

However, the main thrust of her philosophy these days is prison reform, or rather “abolition” of prisons. She is in favor of doing away with them altogether. In her talk, she linked slavery—involuntary servitude of innocent people—with incarceration for the commission of crimes. In fact, she equated the act of putting people in prison—“criminalization”—with “racism” and “anti-communism.” They “all draw on similar types of emotional reservoirs,” according to Davis.

When one audience member yelled out “non-violent drug offenses”—apparently contending that imprisonment should be abolished for such offenses—she corrected him. Even hardened criminals who commit horrific crimes—“monsters”—must be allowed to go free, she said. “We put them in prison to absolve ourselves of the need to figure out what kind of society creates monsters.”

She recommended that we “use the money for prisons to create a wonderful education system,” suggesting that a lack of education explains criminal behavior. She also suggested that permitting the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners to vote would improve the government, at the very least by tilting the scales in favor of Al Gore over George Bush in 2000.

She was preaching to the radical choir, and to the confused and naïve. Anybody expecting sensible discourse from an unrepentant radical like Davis is delusional. The problem is not so much what she said, but why was she brought to campus?

The answer lies in how decisions are made by the UAB. It is not a student organization in the sense that other student organizations are. Ordinarily, students with a common interest form an organization on their own and then seek university sanction.

The UAB, however, is an arm of the office of Student Affairs—yet its decisions are made by students. The film committee decides which films come to the UAB’s cinema series, the Leisure and Entertainment committee brings non-film acts to the campus, and the Ideas and Issues committee has historically invited speakers. Because these activities are intended for the entire student body, they are expected to be broad-based rather than for fringe groups with very narrow interests. And because the invitation comes from the university, it serves as an endorsement, perhaps not of the specific views, but of the legitimacy of the speaker as a person of substance.

While it might seem sensible to have students run such things, it appears that many of their decisions are execrable or self-serving, as illustrated by the UAB showing of “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell”. And because not many students want to get involved, an individual or small group of individuals can get control of a function and conduct their own agenda.

According to Rick Gardner, a UAB staff member who administers bringing the speakers and movies to the campus, the eight-member Ideas and Issues committee decided that this year’s events were going to have a theme of “social issues,” hence the invitation to Davis. Although he insists that the Davis invitation was a group decision by the committee, Woodward, the committee chairman, was an ardent enthusiast. “I think she [Davis] has really contributed to our sociological understanding of our society.”

Gardner said he provided the Ideas and Issues Committee with a list of potential speakers, but neither of the two eventual choices were on that list. The other major speaker scheduled for this term is Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Tom’s Shoes. Tom’s Shoes makes footwear patterned after shoes made by Argentine farmers. For every pair sold, he donates another pair to a third-world country. While Mycoskie is not known to be a radical like Davis, and he makes a living through the profits of his company, his appearance hardly provides the sort of powerful conservatism necessary to balance a left-wing extremist such as Davis.

That balance has been sorely absent from the N.C. State campus, according to Ches McDowell of the Republican Club. He said that all the high-profile speakers have been left-of-center since he arrived on campus. He cited Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, who spoke on separate occasions, and Bill and Chelsea Clinton (also on separate occasions). “We had the chance to get Sarah Palin, but the university dragged its feet,” he said.

Angela Davis is in another league altogether. The university demeaned itself by inviting her, but take money out of the pockets of unwilling students to pay her to voice her bizarre and spiteful theories is just plain wrong.