In a talk given two weeks ago about her new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Duke history professor Nancy MacLean controversially postulated a link between libertarianism and autism, claiming that many of the ideology’s leaders “seem to be on the autism spectrum.” Her comments have since sparked outrage within many conservative and libertarian circles, including here at Duke. Duke Young Americans for Liberty—formerly known as Duke Libertarians—have specifically formed a petition calling for Duke University to publicly condemn MacLean’s statement. The petition has generated 74 signatures so far, but no official comment from the University has been released as of now.
Politics aside, the implications of MacLean’s comments have drawn fire from both sides of the aisle—and certainly not without reason. MacLean is an academic through and through; a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, and a doctorate degree holder from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has deservingly climbed up the ranks of the ivory tower to become a star faculty member within the history department at Duke. Consequently, it is hard to believe that, after more than thirty years in the world of academia, MacLean has resorted to uninformed, inaccurate name-calling in condemning her academic enemies. In short, her comments are a lazy form of political commentary that prove that both liberals and conservatives continually struggle with articulating proper, nuanced language to convey their ideas.
Other larger, bipartisan trends that MacLean’s comments exemplify are the demonization of autism and the pathologizing of political opponents. The former is a particularly dangerous issue that impacts those who are actually on the autism spectrum. By defining the disorder by “a lack of empathy”—just one characteristic that those with autism might potentially exhibit—MacLean only furthers the stigma and misunderstandings surrounding autism. Autism continues to be used within everyday parlance as an analogue to low intelligence and other negative personal characteristics, and MacLean has unfortunately bought into such misinformed stereotypes through her recent statement. Moreover, pathologizing political opponents only serves to shut down intellectual discourse. Attributing political views to mental illness or developmental disorders both implies a futility of any intellectual engagement and strips the opponent of any responsibility for their opinions and actions. Though valid critiques of the ethics of libertarianism exist, calling the movement’s founders “autistic” ignores and erases them from genuine political discourse.
MacLean’s ableism remains her responsibility to acknowledge and actively work through as a member of the Duke community, but that combined with her position as an academic also reflects broader, institutional flaws. The liberal ivory tower, though a self-proclaimed progressive institution, still evidently has a long way to go in terms of maintaining a more politically correct language towards sensitive issues like developmental disorders. What is truly concerning is MacLean’s position here at Duke: an educator, a role model and a scholar. MacLean, through her misinformed statement, has failed Duke’s autistic and libertarian students, as well as her mission as an educator to promote productive, intellectual discourse. Professor MacLean’s language has no place in this world—not in the mouths of either the right or the left, not at a book talk, and certainly not at Duke University.
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