Column: Hanlon Abandoned Free Speech, History

For the Valley News
Friday, September 01, 2017

As Valley News staff writer Tim Camerato reported Monday, more than 100 active members of the Dartmouth College faculty have denounced a statement made by Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon and posted on the college website on Aug. 21. In this statement, President Hanlon reprimands visiting professor Mark Bray for endorsing violence. As an emeritus member of the Dartmouth faculty, I too find President Hanlon’s statement deplorable.

In condemning “anything but civil discourse” while insisting that “Dartmouth embraces free speech and open inquiry in all matters,” President Hanlon not only contradicts himself. He also reveals his ignorance of history — above all the history of Dartmouth College.

Has President Hanlon ever taken a good look at the famous murals painted by José Clemente Orozco in the Reserve Books Room of Dartmouth’s Baker Library? One of them depicts an armed Mexican peasant resembling Emiliano Zapata, whose discourse was anything but civil: He led a revolution against imperialist oppression. But when Orozco was asked whom the armed peasant represented, he did not say, “Zapata.” He said, “It is Mr. Hopkins! It is humanity!” (This and all other quotations are from Charles E. Widemayer, Hopkins of Dartmouth, University Press of New England, 1977.)

Ernest Martin Hopkins, one of the wisest presidents Dartmouth ever had, never led an armed rebellion. But throughout his presidency, he steadfastly fought against every form of oppression — especially every effort to silence expression, whether verbal or visual.

When the Orozco murals were completed in February 1934, Dartmouth alumni attacked them with more bitterness and vitriol than Hopkins had ever seen provoked by any other policy or action of the college. Orozco, the alumni charged, was not only a leftist but also Mexican and therefore un-American. (Sound familiar?) Furthermore, they argued, these specimens of “grotesque modernism” had no place on a New England campus distinguished for its Georgian architecture. No doubt many alumni believed at the time that “Dartmouth values” included both Georgian style and xenophobia.

Facing down this reactionary vilification of the murals, Hopkins steadfastly defended them — including the one depicting a champion of revolutionary violence.

Just as importantly, Hopkins himself championed the right to take up arms against the single most oppressive force of the mid-twentieth century: fascism. After first witnessing the effects of Mussolini’s fascism during a trip to Italy in 1936, he told reporters that he was most struck by “the danger that fascism posed for the democracies.” Thereafter he did all he could to fight it. In the face of the pacifist, anti-war isolationism that swept college campuses including Dartmouth in the mid-1930s, he urged this nation to intervene. In the late 1930s, he argued that we should not only send arms to France and England but also prepare ourselves for the inevitability of entering the war. History proved him dead right. In September 1938, the “civil discourse” that Neville Chamberlain tirelessly deployed in three meetings with Hitler did nothing but postpone the inevitable.

I do not mean to argue that President Hopkins considered either war or violence inherently good. But he clearly believed that armed force was sometimes necessary — when all other means of resistance, including “civil discourse,” have been exhausted. Hopkins also unequivocally defended freedom of speech — above all on college campuses. “There is nothing,” he wrote, “more detrimental to the atmosphere of an educational institution than anything approximating censorship, repression or control.”

Consider those words in light of what President Hanlon has just done. In charging that Professor Bray’s public comments “do not represent the views of Dartmouth,” he implies that all Dartmouth professors think — or should think — exactly alike, that they are all just so many outlets for one institutional, indivisible mind. Also, in reprimanding a Dartmouth professor for endorsing “violence,” President Hanlon makes no distinction between launching a violent attack and physically defending oneself against it. Against the present-day heirs of fascism Professor Bray condones only the latter — for the very same reason that President Hopkins urged us to join the war against the original Fascist regimes. Can anyone doubt what he would have said about President Hanlon’s attempt to silence what has now become a leading voice against the virulent fascism of our own time?

James Heffernan is an emeritus English professor at Dartmouth College.