Tales From The Safe Space, Part 36 – Michael Bloomberg’s University Of Michigan Commencement Address

Michael Bloomberg delivers a college commencement speech worth hearing

While it is true that a generation of university students – the product of our therapeutic culture and “you can’t say that” attitude to political debate – is now being indoctrinated into the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics with alarmingly little resistance from the educational establishment, there is at least one graduating class which has been sent out into the world with a rather more inspiring (and small-L liberal) message ringing in their ears.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was invited to address the University of Michigan’s graduating class of 2016, and from the first word of his speech he tore into the culture of safe spaces, trigger warnings and all of the other illiberal symptoms of this new orthodoxy.

From Bloomberg’s speech:

The most useful knowledge that you leave here with today has nothing to do with your major. It’s about how to study, cooperate, listen carefully, think critically and resolve conflicts through reason. Those are the most important skills in the working world, and it’s why colleges have always exposed students to challenging and uncomfortable ideas.

The fact that some university boards and administrations now bow to pressure and shield students from these ideas through “safe spaces,” “code words” and “trigger warnings” is, in my view, a terrible mistake.

The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations — not run away from them. A microaggression is exactly that: micro. And one of the most dangerous places on a college campus is a safe space, because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views.

We can’t do this, and we shouldn’t try — not in politics or in the workplace. In the global economy, and in a democratic society, an open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess.

Think about the global economy. For the first time in human history, the majority of people in the developed world are being asked to make a living with their minds, rather than their muscles. For 3,000 years, humankind had an economy based on farming: Till the soil, plant the seed, harvest the crop. It was hard to do, but fairly easy to learn. Then, for 300 years, we had an economy based on industry: Mold the parts, turn the crank, assemble the product. This was hard to do, but also fairly easy to learn.

Now, we have an economy based on information: Acquire the knowledge, apply the analytics and use your creativity. This is hard to do and hard to learn, and even once you’ve mastered it, you have to start learning all over again, pretty much every day.

Keeping an open mind to new ideas is essential to your professional success — just as it’s crucial to our collective future as a democratic society.

Note the loud booing quickly drowned out by cheering when Bloomberg talks about the inherent intellectual and academic danger of a “safe space” – while his remarks were warmly received, there is clearly a very vocal group of students who did not want to hear this message, and who will step forth from the University of Michigan with very warped views about how political debate (and even ordinary interpersonal relationships) should be conducted.

Bloomberg then turns his attention to the presidential race and the state of American democracy in general:

Democracy in action can actually produce a lot of inaction, which we see every day in Washington and other levels of government, too. When governments fail to address the needs of the people, voters in both parties get angry and some politicians exploit that anger by offering scapegoats instead of solutions.

If we want to stop demagogues, we have to start governing again, and that requires us to be more civil, to support politicians who have the courage to take risks, and to reward those who reach across the aisle in search of compromise.

Here, Bloomberg is almost channelling Andrew Sullivan, who makes his incredibly welcome and sorely needed return to political commentary in the New York magazine with these words:

An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.

(I’ll be blogging a response to Andrew Sullivan’s piece separately in due course).

Bloomberg closes with this warning:

Think about this: In 1960, only 4 to 5 percent of Democrats and Republicans said they would be upset if a member of their family married someone from the opposing party. In 2010, one in three Democrats and one in two Republicans said they would disapprove of such a marriage. In 1960, most people would never have believed that interparty marriage would attract such resistance, while interracial and same-sex marriage would gain such acceptance.

For all the progress we have made on cultural tolerance, when it comes to political tolerance, we are moving in the wrong direction — at campaign rallies that turn violent, on social media threads that turn vitriolic, and on college campuses, where students and faculty have attempted to censor political opponents.

As durable as the American system of government has been, democracy is fragile — and demagogues are always lurking. Stopping them starts with placing a premium on open minds, voting, and demanding that politicians offer practical solutions, not scapegoats or pie-in-the-sky promises.

This is a message which many students will not want to hear, but which needs to be transmitted nonetheless – and not only by commencement speakers, refreshing though it is to hear the likes of Bloomberg take up the cause.

University administrators and professors must also absorb and embrace this message and change the way they approach issues of free speech and academic freedom, for while they are not entirely responsible for the censorious and emotionally fragile nature of new students entering their institutions, they do represent the last and best hope of turning those students into robust and resilient young citizens by the time they graduate.

Michael Bloomberg delivering a crowd-riling, viral-ready commencement speech just as students are about to graduate cannot be our only firewall against the onslaught of this new illiberal movement. We must erect meaningful defences and interventions much earlier in the learning process – rather than simply bowing to the excessive demands and exaggerated sensibilities of perpetually offended students – if we wish to prevent our workplaces and government from going the same way as our university campuses.


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Quote For The Day

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“Be yourself. Do your work. And they will find you. And serving those readers is all the reward you need.”

– Andrew Sullivan, at the time of his recent retirement from blogging.


This blog will continue to provide rigorous, semi-partisan political commentary through the remainder of the 2015 British general election campaign and beyond.

(I will be live-blogging the election results on Thursday night, here).

This blog will never serve as cheerleader for any one political party, but will continue to proudly champion the interconnected causes of personal liberty, economic freedom and national sovereignty – and give credit where credit is due to any party or politician who is willing to pick up the tarnished torch of liberty in an increasingly hostile environment.

Many thanks to all those people who include Semi-Partisan Sam in their daily internet reading – both those who have recently discovered the blog and those few who have been reading since Day 1.

The June Fourth Incident

Tiananmen Square Protest June 4 Lego


In the West, knowledge of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in Beijing is so commonplace that 25 years later, even an allusion in Lego is instantly recognisable, conjuring memories of the time, the place, the victims and the perpetrators.

In ‘modern’ China, it could not be more different.

So successful have the Chinese censors and curators of false history been that reportedly only 15 out of 100 university students in Beijing have any knowledge of the event or recognise the iconic “tank man” image from that bloody day. The fact that the day is referred to and known in China as “Internet maintenance day” says everything that one needs to know about how this feat has been accomplished.

In Britain, America and elsewhere in the West there are certainly momentous issues to be debated, elections to be fought and leaders to be held to account. This is important work. But on the twenty-fifth anniversary of a day when hundreds of people were brazenly murdered by their government in the open air for the crime of engaging in political speech, let us be thankful for the relative safety in which our debates take place, and ever vigilant that we do not squander, barter away or tolerate the curtailment of our precious right to free speech.

Andrew Sullivan has curated a good selection of commentary and reflections on the Tiananmen Square protests anniversary here.


Image: Tiananmen Square, Mike Stimpson

The Establishment Rounds On UKIP


It is neither astonishing nor controversial to observe that the British political establishment – politicians and their client political journalists alike – have only animosity and contempt towards the UK Independence Party and the 30 per cent or more of the British electorate who are likely to vote for them at the European Parliament elections later in May.

From their attempt to pre-ordain the outcome of the recent Nick Clegg vs Nigel Farage debates on Britain’s place in the EU to their laser focus on UKIP’s lunatic fringe, the British media has not been shy to express its negative opinion of euroscepticism or those who in any way seek to change the status quo of Britain’s place sulking at the periphery of EU decision-making.

But there are few examples of this bias – borne out of desperation to discredit the insurgent party and a refusal to engage on any issues of real substance – more telling than the BBC’s latest ‘interview’ with Nigel Farage. Nick Robinson asks the questions, and the thrust of his interrogation is this: because Farage employs his wife, a German citizen, as his personal secretary, UKIP’s arguments about unrestricted European immigration causing downward pressure on wages and reduced employment of indigenous workers are hypocritical, and that Nigel Farage is therefore totally discredited and borderline corrupt himself.

A couple of observations to start. Firstly, this blog is in agreement with the need to curb the persistent practice of politicians (be it MPs or MEPs) hiring family members purportedly to serve as ‘staff’. Sometimes it seems as though absolutely nothing was learned as a result of the parliamentary expenses scandal, when various relatives of politicians were found to be on official payrolls with nominal job titles but no demonstrable evidence of working to earn their money. Though the ideal of competitive and non-discriminatory hiring practices for political staffing jobs may never be reached, we could at least stop politicians from overlooking genuine talent in order to hire gormless relatives. That being said, there is no indication or suggestion that Nigel Farage’s wife is anything other than competent and qualified.

Secondly, this blog supports a liberal, open immigration policy. That is not to refute the various arguments on immigration made by UKIP, or to endorse them; whatever the net effect of unrestricted European immigration on wages and unemployment of British-born workers, it is best debated on other pages. But this blog sees only benefits to making it as easy as possible for skilled and talented people from all over the world to come and to contribute to Britain.

Back to the interview.

Not content with asking his simplistic question – “how can you claim to defend British jobs when you employ a German secretary?” – one time, Nick Robinson indulges himself with a lengthy Jeremy Paxman-style grilling, repeating the insinuation of hypocrisy and scandal (in his trademark bemused and facetious manner) in various different permutations:

You’ve warned about Europeans taking British jobs. Your wife is German! She is your secretary. She’s paid for by the British taxpayer … Was your wife taking someone else’s job then?

Farage’s response – that in his particular case, the hours and demands of the work (late nights at his house) made the secretary role particularly well suited to a spouse, making her the logical choice – did not satisfy Robinson, who continued:

You try to turn everything into a joke. You have a campaign that says that Europeans are taking British jobs. You employ a German woman to work in your office. She happens to be your wife. She happens to spend many hundreds of thousands of British taxpayers’ money. How do you justify it?

Nick Robinson knows full well that Farage’s (and UKIP’s) argument about British jobs being under threat – whether it is a legitimate concern or not – refers to the lower end of the job market, the low-skilled positions, and not to more highly skilled or specialised political staffers. But acknowledging this basic fact would undermine the attack on Farage’s credibility, and so Robinson declines to recognise the distinction.

Farage also points out that Robinson is singling him out for hiring a relative, something that is regrettably common and largely unremarkable in Westminster:

One in four MPs at Westminster employs a close family relative, but actually what’s happening the past two weeks, of 73 British MEPs, I’m the one who is being singled out, and [the press is] saying “goodness me Mr. Farage, you’re costing the British taxpayer an awful lot of money.”

At least one disaffected member of the public spoke wisdom, shouting “What about economic policies?” in the background. Quite right too – what about economic policy? What of the genuine economic costs and benefits of continued British EU membership vs a negotiated secession? The BBC was clearly not interested in following these important lines of enquiry. or asking about specific policy prescriptions.

Gazing on the scene from his adopted home in America, Andrew Sullivan (whose British political acuity has diminished with his years of absence) actually saw Nick Robinson’s glib attempt to concoct a scandal as an example to praise and emulate:

The idea that they [Washington press correspondents] would wreck their access by asking a politician questions that he really doesn’t want to answer – “Isn’t your wife German?” (see above), “Can you give us evidence for your crazy pregnancy stories?” – is preposterous.

So I give you the above video, by the intrepid BBC political reporter, Nick Robinson. Watch him go for the jugular, and watch him not release his grip until the prey is whimpering, near-lifeless on the ground. 

Nick Robinson, intrepid?

This really speaks more about the parlous state of political journalism in Washington D.C. than it does about anything else. So deferential are the Washington press corps to those in power – and Sullivan rightly refers to the recent annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner – that any hounding or questioning of a party leader must in itself seem dedicated and fearless. A closer attention to the specific question being asked, however, would have shown that Robinson’s approach was far from being brave or principled. Sullivan is right about the non-deferential tone of British political interviews being a positive thing, but dead wrong in singling out this particular establishment hatchet-job as  the pinnacle of good journalism.

The BBC had a golden opportunity to ask some real questions of Nigel Farage, to delve into policy differences with the other parties or at least to engage in a bit of speculation and expectations-setting with regard to the upcoming European elections. But they weren’t interested in the policy discussion (the noble option) or in analysing the polls (the political infotainment option). They went instead for the classic hatchet job, the interview ambush that neither educates the informed viewer or grabs the attention of the casual viewer, serving instead only to give David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg some weak ammunition for their negative anti-UKIP political ads.

This was the cheap and tawdry approach taken by a news organisation (if this interview and other recent form is anything to go by) that is becoming increasingly lazy and only comfortable discussing the European Union debate through the existing lens of Labour vs Conservative, more Europe vs a little bit less Europe. The alternative – an end to British membership of the EU – is seen as so radical and threatening to the establishment that it must simply be ignored, or (when feigning ignorance is no longer possible) loudly ridiculed and discredited.

Polling day is on Thursday 22nd May. Soon we will know whether the Nick Robinson strategy has been enough to save the British political establishment from electoral humiliation.

How Should The West Respond?

Predictably, Andrew Sullivan has some of the best coverage of the unfolding situation in Ukraine, with a longer post detailing his fuller thoughts due tomorrow. Worth reading and following.

The Dish

Russian Anti-War Protesters Detained In Moscow

I’m still absorbing all the information I can, and hope to post something at length tomorrow. But this much seems clear to me: Putin has panicked. To initiate a full-scale war with Ukraine, after effectively losing it because of the over-reach and corruption of Yanukovych, opens up scenario after scenario that  no prudent Russian statesman would want to even consider, let alone embrace. That doesn’t mean he won’t continue to over-reach or that we should be irresolute in confronting this aggression; just that we should be clear that the consequences of further escalation will be deeply damaging for his regime – and certainly far graver for him than for the West.

Obama and Putin spoke on the phone last night. Here’s what Leon Aron wishes Obama had said:

Ideally, the conversation would have been one in which the American president was speaking not only for the U.S., but also for…

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