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Boardman writes: "That CNN headline on May 30 typified news coverage of the Harvard College commencement speech offered by former New York Mayor and continuing media mogul Michael Bloomberg, but it's a headline that pretty much distorts the reality of Bloomberg's speech, while accurately focusing on Bloomberg's own political/ideological distortions."

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (photo: AP)
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (photo: AP)

Bloomberg's Banal Bloviation Makes McCarthyite Headlines at Harvard

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

03 June 14


“Bloomberg: Universities becoming bastions of intolerance”

hat CNN headline on May 30 typified news coverage of the Harvard College commencement speech offered by former New York Mayor and continuing media mogul Michael Bloomberg, but it’s a headline that pretty much distorts the reality of Bloomberg’s speech, while accurately focusing on Bloomberg’s own political/ideological distortions. But who’s going to write a headline along the lines of this: “Friendly Billionaire Septuagenarian Gives Long Banal Speech With Unsupported Accusations of Leftist McCarthyism Thrown In”?

What would have been more accurate than what the New York Daily News used:

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg slams
intolerance by liberals on college campuses
during fiery Harvard graduation address

The “fiery” speech lasted about 24 minutes and opened with this challenge to orthodoxy: “I’m excited to be here, not only to address the distinguished graduates … but to stand in the exact spot where Oprah stood last year. OMG.”

The newly-minted Dr. Bloomberg followed that joke with a series of traditional, pandering, self-deprecating, “humorous” remarks, including a blown joke about “academics to go along with your academic programs” [corrected in the transcript]. This introduction peaked at the 3:30 mark with a flattering-if-not-fiery truism: “Harvard remains what it was when I first arrived on campus 50 years ago: America’s most prestigious university. And, like other great universities, it lies at the heart of the American experiment in democracy.”

That line served as a transition into more abstract but commonplace generalizations about freedom and tolerance. He asserted that those values are threatened by “the tyrannical tendencies of monarchs, mobs, and majorities … both on college campuses and in our society,” no specifics offered (and no explanation of where those monarchs lurk, outside his speech writer’s alliteration).

The mayor stood for principle and property rights in 2010

In sync with his self-referential opening remarks, Bloomberg here gave a brief exegesis of his own heroism as mayor, defending constitutional freedom of religion even when faced with the prospect of a mosque near the World Trade Center site. And for this he deserves the credit he gives himself, if not perhaps in his own hyperbolic terms: “The idea that government would single out a particular religion, and block its believers – and only its believers – from building a house of worship in a particular area, is diametrically opposed to the moral principles that gave rise to our great nation and the constitutional protections that have sustained it.” This was a big applause line for the Harvard audience.

Returning to his litany of largely undisputed platitudes about freedom and tolerance, Bloomberg gratuitously invoked the 9/11 attack on New York and, even less relevantly, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. With no apparent irony, he called both these events attacks on “freedom and tolerance,” without giving a glimmer of the reasoning that led him to that conclusion. There’s little question the 9/11 attacks led, at least in the short term, to restricted freedom and tolerance in America (the Boston bombing, not so much, it seems). But he didn’t talk about that part of the story.

At the 8-minute mark he introduced the claim – the false perception, the ignorant assertion, the lie? – that would grab him headlines, claiming that at American universities in 2014, “the forces of repression appear to be stronger now, I think, than they have been since the 1950s.” He did not offer any supporting evidence for such a sweeping claim. The baseless idea of repressive colleges is currently part of the conventional wisdom and got hesitant applause (after Bloomberg said, “Yes, you can applaud”) from the Harvard crowd.

It got weird as Bloomberg plunged down a rabbit hole of history

In the next few amazing moments of his speech, Bloomberg tacitly admitted that he could – and should – know better than to repeat this right-wing talking point, at Harvard of all places. But he didn’t hesitate as he wove the falsehood further. He acknowledged, even as he minimized its scope, that:

McCarthy’s Red Scare destroyed thousands of lives…. But he was right about one thing: Ideas can be dangerous. They can change society. They can upend traditions. They can start revolutions. And that’s why throughout history, those in authority have tried to repress ideas that threaten their power, their religion, their ideology, or their reelection chances….

Repressing free expression is a natural human weakness, and it is up to us to fight it at every turn. Intolerance of ideas – whether liberal or conservative – is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship.

Now there is an idea floating around college campuses – including here at Harvard, I think – that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern form of McCarthyism.

Harvard sat politely as the speaker made stuff up

Bloomberg’s version of reality is insupportable as a description of contemporary America. It is insupportable as honest history. In a neat trick of rhetorical deceit, Bloomberg had reduced the state machinery of American repression to the machinations of one drunken senator and unnamed “others;” and he had falsely equated the police state apparatus of America in the 1950s and 1960s to “an idea floating around college campuses.” It doesn’t get much more Orwellian than that. And the Harvard gathering received it without an audible murmur.

Bloomberg didn’t argue that professors in America now must sign loyalty oaths as they did in the fifties. He didn’t argue that they are called before congressional committees to explain their political beliefs. He didn’t argue that academics are blacklisted, as they were then. He didn’t argue that the state prosecutes teachers and sends them to prison for their beliefs, not their actions, as the state did then. He didn’t argue that teachers are spied on by agents of the state or excommunicated by their institutions. He made no case whatsoever for the present national climate, or even just the academic climate, being in any meaningful way as threatening to freedom and tolerance as the state sponsored and private witch hunts of the Cold War.

Bloomberg didn’t make that argument because he can’t. There’s no serious evidence to support it. He can’t make that argument because it isn’t true. There is no assault on academia in any way similar to our earlier combined governmental and right-wing ideological effort to destroy academic freedom for the sake of intellectual conformity. The biggest such threat – and it’s miniscule – still comes from the right (Campus Watch, Daniel Pipes, Students for Academic Freedom, David Horowitz, the Dartmouth Review, and their ilk) as illustrated by the baseless accusations of Young Republicans at Santa Rosa Junior College in 2005.

A traditional right-wing trope supported with typical non-fact “fact”

Bloomberg echoed this longstanding right-wing refrain and added his own baseless charges. What was his first exhibit to demonstrate that “the forces of repression appear to be stronger now than they have been since the 1950” (an applause line, remember)? He reiterated this ex cathedra assertion and then proffered a supposed fact:

Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League. [Applause]

In the 2012 presidential race, according to Federal Election Commission data, 96 percent of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama. Ninety-six percent. [Light applause] There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than there is among Ivy League donors. [Scattered laughter]

Hearing such a preposterous argument, an intelligent audience might just walk out, or some of its members might at least shout a few critiques of the Bloomberg drivel along the lines of: “Contributing to a campaign isn’t the same as repressing ideas, Dr. B!” or “Your statistic is meaningless, bro!” or “Red baiting is so McCarthyite! And a Bloombergian cheap shot!”

Assuming the statistic is accurate in a Mark Twain sort of way, it is still meaningless. There is no inherent connection between a political donation and the way a teacher teaches. The statistical cohort here is a mix of “faculty and employees,” and we don’t know the proportions, so even if there were a teaching connection, we couldn’t measure it meaningfully. The ultimate meaninglessness of this statistic is its absent context: how many Ivy League faculty and employees are there? There must be thousands? How many gave? Are we talking about 96% of 50,000 or 5,000 or what?

Bloomberg’s bogus “fact” breaks down to nothing, or less

As it turns out, Bloomberg’s “fact” is a widely circulated right-wing talking point, a chestnut from the fall of 2012, circulated by the Daily Caller and other partisan outlets, as if it were meaningful in and of itself. It’s not. According to a “Campus Reform investigation,” there were 2,872 Obama and Romney donors from eight Ivy League schools. Of these, 112 Romney donors (3.9%) gave almost 10% of the total amount donated. Fewer than 3,000 Ivy League donors appears to be a very small percentage of all “Ivy League faculty and employees” as Bloomberg put it. Cornell says it has “more than 10,000 faculty and staff” (of whom 293, less than 3%, were political donors). Yale reports 4,171 faculty and 9,469 staff (13,640 total, of whom 412, or 3%, were political donors). According to Brown, it has 4,450 (including 1,223 faculty) employees (of these 130, less than 3%, were political donors). Not all the Ivy League schools have as easily accessible statistics, but the pattern so far is clear – Bloomberg’s got nothing, and he uses it dishonestly.

He talks about 96% of Ivy League donors supporting Obama, but doesn’t mention that that’s 96% of only 3% of his chosen Ivy League population. That’s literally next to nothing. What these numbers actually suggest is that 97% of all Ivy League faculty and employees gave NOTHING to Obama or Romney. Isn’t that evidence that these people are non-partisan? It’s hardly confirmation of Bloomberg’s frightening “forces of repression.” But the Harvard audience didn’t have the benefit of an instant fact check, which left Bloomberg free to double down on his lie:

When 96 percent of Ivy League donors prefer one candidate to another, you have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a great university should offer.

The best enemy to have is an imaginary one

Having rhetorically established the straw man of widespread campus repression, Bloomberg went on for another 13 minutes defending institutions of higher education from this imaginary liberal attack. He did not mention any of the well-established, easily identified right-wing assailants of a liberal arts education and the intellectual freedom that makes it possible. Later he would say that “people don’t listen to facts that run counter to their ideology,” giving no hint that he understood just how well that applied to what he’d been saying.

He flattered Harvard for allowing a Colorado state senator to speak to the Harvard School of education despite objections. Bloomberg quoted a Harvard dean, saying of that incident, that “differences should be explored, debated, challenged, and questioned.” Neither of them noted that such engagement is exactly what cannot happen with a commencement speaker.

Bloomberg cited six other commencement flaps from the past two years, falsifying at least two and blaming “liberals” for all of them. He did not choose to address the substance of these conflicts. That would have meant engaging the speakers’ behavior that included using excessive force on peaceful protestors, promoting torture, lying the country into war, and applying economic depredations to impoverish millions of people around the world. These are not issues Bloomberg has ever much cared to address, certainly not at a commencement. Bloomberg was a quiet Republican in war and peace till 2007.

The public issues Bloomberg did choose to address were all Harvard audience-pleasers wrapped in smug and easy Washington-bashing. He took Congress to task for banning research into gun violence. He took South Carolina to task for writing the Bible version of evolution into law. And he mentioned climate change denial. He said, “On every issue, we must follow the evidence where it leads,” having just provided egregious examples of arguing from bias and falsehood. He said, “there is no easy time to say hard things,” as if he’d said anything both hard and true. He concluded by urging graduates to stand up for what they believe is right, “especially when it comes to defending the rights of others,” as if that were something he was known for.

What qualifies Bloomberg for an honorary Doctor of Laws award?

Harvard conferred on Michael Bloomberg an honorary Doctor of Laws, for being an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and former mayor of New York (he “helped our biggest burg to bloom”) and generously ignored Bloomberg’s more intimate and much uglier relation with the law. This is a guy with a net worth of $33 billion or so who has been happy to impinge on other people’s rights and freedoms:

Bloomberg had no problem bulldozing the law that would have barred him from running for a third term as mayor.

Bloomberg had no problem allowing his police department to bulldoze the rights of minorities with a stop and frisk policy that alienated neighborhoods, produced no significant benefits, and was eventually ruled illegal.

Bloomberg had no problem bulldozing the rights of all Americans with his support of the Patriot Act and other repressive legislation.

Bloomberg had no problem with official racial and religious profiling that bulldozed the rights of blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and any other inconvenient minority that came along.

Bloomberg had no problem bulldozing the rights of American Muslims, using Red Squad tactics to spy on and infiltrate even out-of-state mosques.

Bloomberg had no problem with his police bulldozing the rights of peaceful demonstrators with violence and mass arrests during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Bloomberg had no problem with his police bulldozing the rights of peaceful demonstrators with violence and mass arrests during Occupy Wall Street in 2012.

Bloomberg has had no problem using the threat of terrorism to bulldoze American freedoms: "The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry, but we live in a complex world where you're going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will ... our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change."

So Harvard gives an honorary Doctor of Laws degree to this person who urges Harvard grads to defend the rights of others. Harvard still has a sense of humor.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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