Thursday, June 5, 2014

John Stuart Mill, Michael Bloomberg, and Joseph Smith

Michael Bloomberg:

A week ago the former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, spoke at Harvard’s commencement ceremonies. His address briefly stirred up the liberal media. Headlines such as: “Michael Bloomberg bashes liberal bias at Harvard commencement address” (The Washington Post), “...Bloomberg slams intolerance by liberals on college campuses...” (The New York Daily News), give a little flavor of the furor. Despite the hoopla his address merits a close read. My version of the headline would have been: “Bloomberg Reminds Harvard Graduates of Fundamental American Ideas and Ideals.” The speech is not long but embodies important principles and examples about the purpose of universities and the American values of freedom and tolerance.

Bloomberg acknowledged “...this has not been a traditional commencement speech, and it may keep me from passing a dissertation defense in the humanities department, but there is no easy time to say hard things.” He began by asserting that Harvard is
America’s most prestigious university. And, like other great universities, it lies at the heart of the American experiment in democracy. 
Their purpose is not only to advance knowledge, but to advance the ideals of our nation. Great universities are places where people of all backgrounds, holding all beliefs, pursuing all questions, can come to study and debate their ideas – freely and openly. 
Today, I’d like to talk with you about how important it is for that freedom to exist for everyone, no matter how strongly we may disagree with another’s viewpoint. 
Tolerance for other people’s ideas, and the freedom to express your own, are inseparable values at great universities. Joined together, they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society.(1)
From there he discussed evidence that freedom and tolerance are vulnerable and at risk in America’s cities and on America’s college campuses due to “ the tyrannical tendencies of monarchs, mobs, and majorities.” His first example of the danger to freedom and tolerance came from his own NYC following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 01. Almost immediately afterwards there was a furor because some Muslims wanted to build a mosque a few blocks from the site. Bloomberg said that movement was resisted because: “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.”  It was precisely the values of freedom and tolerance that those who attacked New York feared. To them we were a godless country. “But in fact,” Bloomberg observed, “there is no country that protects the core of every faith and philosophy known to human kind – free will – more than the United States of America. That protection, however, rests upon our constant vigilance.” He went on, “If you want the freedom to worship as you wish, to speak as you wish, and to marry whom you wish, you must tolerate my freedom to do so – or not do so – as well.” [Emphasis added.] A bit later he stated, “We cannot deny others the rights and privileges that we demand for ourselves. And that is true in cities – and it is no less true at universities....”

He went on to talk about the problems of political intolerance on American university campuses and some ideals which should be in place.  Here is a summary of a few things he pointed out:
  • There is an idea 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-day form of McCarthyism.
  • 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. ... [By the way, Bloomberg supported Obama, which wasn’t often mentioned in the liberal reviews of this talk!] 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.
  • When tenure was created, it mostly protected liberals whose ideas ran up against conservative norms.  Today, if tenure is going to continue to exist, it must also protect conservatives whose ideas run up against liberal norms. 
  • The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues – without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views.
  • This spring liberals “silenced a voice–and denied an honorary degree” to people deemed politically objectionable who were invited to give commencement addresses at Brandeis, Haverford, Rutgers, and at Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins last year.
  • A university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.
  • If university administrations do not defend freedom and tolerance for all students, they will graduate with ears and minds closed and the university will have failed both the student and society.
John Stuart Mill:

These are ideas and ideals liberals constantly claim in their own defense.  However, many liberal political activists and ideologues in the guise of university professors and administrators have forgotten a fundamental principle of free expression.  Bloomberg turned the attention of the Harvard graduates to the writings of John Stuart Mill:
I’m sure all of today’s graduates have read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.But allow me to read a short passage from it: ‘The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.’ 
He continued: ‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’ 
Mill would have been horrified to learn of university students silencing the opinions of others. He would have been even more horrified that faculty members were often part of the commencement censorship campaigns. [Bold emphasis mine.]
Bloomberg concluded these observations with this comment which sensationalists and scandal-mongering reviewers touted: “For tenured faculty members to silence speakers whose views they disagree with is the height of hypocrisy, especially when these protests happen in the northeast–a bastion of self-professed liberal tolerance.”

Joseph Smith

Rather than an excoriation of liberals, I find much that is fair and truly liberal here and view this address as a much needed restatement of fundamental principles which should apply to all political parties. The remarks of Bloomberg and Mill reminded me of two very important statements of Joseph Smith. Regarding the threats to religious freedom he said:
I am bold to declare the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.(2) 
And he added the following as a revelation from God, binding upon his people:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge....(3)
Joseph Smith was so committed to the principles of free agency, tolerance, and the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, that Mormonism was never set on the path of either restricting what people could hear or forcing its religious message upon them. The gospel was to be presented and people were free to accept it or reject it. Joseph Smith believed the principles of the fullness of the Gospel could hold their own in the marketplace of ideas. This approach of dispensing the gospel not only honors the agency of mankind, it also accepts the justice and fairness of God. This is a position that both major branches of Christianity, Islam, and other religions have not always understood or honored.

In the same sermon Joseph Smith also laid down what was to become a fundamental principle of Mormonism regarding the search for truth. He said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”(4) This perspective suggests that Latter-day Saints should be open, tolerant, interested, and engaged in the search for truth–the “fairest gem that the riches of worlds can produce.”(5) 

Sometimes we Mormons are tempted to restrict the expression of the ideas of others and are not as open and valiant in our search for truth as our ideals teach us to be, but I am grateful for those ideals and the man who promulgated them as well as for other like-minded men such as Michael Bloomberg and John Stuart Mill. I am confident those ideals, when properly upheld and pursued, are our best personal and collective approach to political and religious freedom–and progress–in this great land.

Let’s think together again, soon.


1. See, Michael Bloomberg, commencement address, Harvard University, 29 May 2014.
Available online at:  Accessed 4 June 2014.

2. Joseph Smith, TPJS, p. 313, 29 July 1843.

3.  D&C 121:41-42, 20 March 1839.

4. TPJS, p. 313, emphasis mine.

5. Parley P. Pratt’s poem, “Truth,” in LDS Hymns, p. 272. John Taylor's view of Mormonism and truth is captured in this 1867 statement:  "Our religion is more comprehensive than that of the world; it does not prompt its votaries with the desire to 'sit and sing themselves away to everlasting bliss,' but it embraces all the interests of humanity in every conceivable phase, and every truth in the world comes within its scope."  John Taylor, JD 11:354, 6 April 1867. 

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