Strict conformity of opinion is the enemy of intellectual liberty — and both conservatives and liberals fall into this trap. 

By Monte Bute


Regardless of one’s belief system, political creed or group affiliation, we are all susceptible to an intellectual short circuit — groupthink. Groupthink seeks conformity by stamping out dissent. The stronger an in-group’s loyalty, Irving Janis writes, “the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups.”

Nothing demonstrates this like presidential elections. Mark Twain’s 19th-century quip remains true today: “Men think they think upon the great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently; they read its literature, but not that of the other side.”

Devout conservatives religiously digest the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard, and watch Fox News; doctrinaire liberals faithfully consume the New York Times and Talking Points Memo, and watch MSNBC. Few in either camp are ecumenically inclined.

Stereotyping and scapegoating flow from groupthink. Reactionaries pummel the poor, immigrants and women. Progressives torch Wall Street capitalists, fundamentalist Christians and white males. The irony is that while both factions astutely call out their antagonists’ faulty generalizations, each remains oblivious to its own.

What’s the remedy? First, one must recognize having fallen prey to group thinking. This insight often occurs with the disturbing experience of cognitive dissonance — the mental discomfort caused by holding two contradictory ideas at the same time. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald put it best, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

In the last half of the 20th century, the eminent economist Albert Hirschman best exemplified Fitzgerald’s definition of “a first-rate intelligence.” In the midst of the Reagan counterrevolution, liberals sought to grasp the conservative mind. Hirschman, himself a liberal, did not limit his inquiry to the contemporary scene. Instead, in “The Rhetoric of Reaction,” he returns to the French Revolution and examines 200 years of conservative rhetoric opposing social change.

Hirschman discovered three perennial rhetorical strategies pursued by reactionaries.

  • The Perversity Thesis— radical social change will result in outcomes that only worsen the condition that progressives seek to alleviate.
  • The Futility Thesis— pursuing social transformation is futile because the laws of social order are immutable.
  • The Jeopardy Thesis— as desirable as a reform is “in principle,” the practical cost or consequence will endanger previous accomplishments.

Had Hirschman ended his book there, he would have won universal applause from his liberal allies for exposing conservative groupthink. Fortunately, he had a “propensity for self-subversion.” He explained: “Skepticism toward other people’s claims … is, of course, not a particularly noteworthy characteristic. It is, however, more unusual to develop this sort of reaction to one’s own generalizations or theoretical constructs.”

To the chagrin of his liberal colleagues, Hirschman had a moment of self-subversion as he was finishing the book — reactionaries have no monopoly on this sort of intransigent rhetoric. He realized that he and his friends inhabit a parallel universe of groupthink and added a chapter on the symmetrical theses of progressive rhetoric.

  • The Desperate Predicament Thesis— the old order is irreparable and a new order must replace it, regardless of possible unintended consequences.
  • The History Is on Our Side Thesis— inevitable historical forces, which are futile to oppose, justify progressive action.
  • The Imminent Danger Thesis— inaction will result in disastrous consequences.

I contend that the most significant obstacles to independent thought are not the usual suspects, such as governments and corporations. The danger is closer to home. Our friends are often the enemies of our free thought. People suppress contrary perceptions and opinions when they must take a public stance in the presence of fellow group members.

There is one liberty that no group (libertarians included) really wants its members taking to heart — intellectual liberty. Intellectual liberty is not free. On the contrary, freedom of thought is like a sown seed, requiring a citizen to nurture it.

Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University.



No one who knows Monte Bute, a firebrand of a sociology professor, would say he’s afraid of speaking his mind. In just the past year, he has accused his employer, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU), of pandering to corporate interests and turning its relationship with faculty into a “Greek tragedy.”

But now Bute, 70, is stepping away from his official role as a faculty union leader so he can REALLY let his opinions fly.

“I have never been known for being appropriately politic,” says Bute, a onetime antiwar activist who once served time in the Red Wing boys’ reformatory. But, he admits that he’s been asked to tone it down on occasion during his past four years as state action coordinator for the Inter Faculty Organization (IFO), the union representing thousands of Minnesota state university instructors.

Last week, he notified union officials that he would not seek another term, after his last one expires today, “in order to write and speak without restraint.” He signed the e-mail: “Your crazy uncle, Monte.”

As action coordinator, his main job was to mobilize the members behind important issues — “Sort of an agitator in chief,” he says. But his sometimes blunt talk wasn’t always appreciated, especially about MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone. (Bute has referred to him as “the archbishop of MnSCU.” Rosenstone has declined to comment).

“He’s been exceptionally valuable to the union,” says Jim Grabowska, the IFO president. But he suspects that Bute chafed against the internal constraints. “That’s Monte,” he said.

Bute says he has no plans to retire as a professor at Metropolitan State University. And he’ll continue to crusade against what he calls the “corporate takeover of higher education” — turning colleges into training grounds for private businesses.

 “Eventually, if unchecked, [it] will destroy the meaning of higher education in Minnesota,” he said. “It will be little more than a hiring hall.”

After writing several novels, in 1832 Balzac conceived the idea for an enormous series of books that would paint a panoramic portrait of “all aspects of society.” . . . Although he originally called it Etudes des Mœurs (Study of Mores), it eventually became known as La Comédie Humaine, and he included in it all the fiction that he had published in his lifetime. (Wikipedia)

Pere Goriot

Balzac transposes the story of King Lear to 1820s Paris in order to rage at a society bereft of all love save the love of money. This example of the French realist novel contrasts the social progress of an impoverished but ambitious aristocrat with the tale of a father, whose obsessive love for his daughters leads to his personal and financial ruin. (Amazon)

Eugenie Grandet 

In a gloomy house in provincial Saumur, the miser Grandet lives with his wife and daughter, Eugénie, whose lives are stifled and overshadowed by his obsession with gold. Guarding his piles of glittering treasures and his only child equally closely, he will let no one near themHere Grandet embodies both the passionate pursuit of money, and the human cost of avarice. (Amazon)

The Human Comedy: Selected Stories

Characters from every corner of society and all walks of life—lords and ladies, businessmen and military men, poor clerks,  unforgiving moneylenders, aspiring politicians, artists, actresses, swindlers, misers, parasites, sexual adventurers, crackpots,  and more—move through the pages of The Human Comedy. (Amazon)


Six police officers to be criminally charged in Freddie Gray’s death

“I heard your call for no justice, no peace,” the state’s attorney said.

Read more:

My Dear Friend,

The Baltimore uprising has prompted you to ask, “How is rioting and looting going to solve the problem?” My colleague Jeff Langstraat offers a concise answer: “No, burning down a CVS won’t solve the problem. Neither does focusing solely on the folks burning down the CVS, to the exclusion of other protesters, or to the simmering issues of economic disinvestment and ongoing police brutality.”

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King.

Many public officials and a majority of Americans still think that African Americans themselves are the problem. You argue that riots and looting “are an insult to human intelligence and dignity.” That assertion is one that only privileged bystanders have the luxury of making. Perhaps you need to re-examine your idea of what is an insult to dignity. For those who are murdered, brutalized, humiliated, exploited, and segregated by American Apartheid, riots are the terrifying scream of a people living in 21st-century bondage. Think of these actions as latter-day slave revolts.

You speak of “human rights.” In these times, that concept is an empty abstraction. In occupied and oppressed urban neighborhoods, mere survival is the first order of business. These riots are the visceral voices of a long-silenced people. Remember, you cannot solve a problem until the majority population and public officials recognize what the problem really is—and it ain’t rioting.

The last time this centuries-old problem was officially acknowledged was during the 1965-68 riots in Watts, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Tampa, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., Baltimore, etc. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission. Its report was scathing: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

What Martin Luther King said in a 1968 speech, “The Other America,” still echoes true today.

“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence . . . But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.

“These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Make no mistake, I neither condone nor condemn the Ferguson and Baltimore riots. I seek only to awaken the sleepwalkers among us. As the Old Testament’s Jeremiah admonishes us, “Now hear this, O foolish and senseless people, Who have eyes but do not see; Who have ears but do not hear.” When called upon to seek justice, all too many of us have a self-satisfied response—I am not my brother’s keeper.

Your steadfast friend, Monte


Six police officers to be criminally charged in Freddy Gray’s death

“I heard your call for no justice, no peace,” the state’s attorney said.”


Historic street battles took place for four days during the May 1972 antiwar protests at the U of Minnesota. Britt Aamodt of KFAI interviews two who were there: A reporter, Bill Huntziker and an activist, Monte Bute. Her outstanding 27-minute radio show has great stories of riot police, helicopter tear gassing, National Guard troops and, most importantly, 5-6,000 determined antiwar activists. Save it to listen later.



The year is 1970 and the disastrous Vietnam War keeps escalating. Protests are erupting all over U.S. campuses. But in Minneapolis, word that the national Red Barn Restaurant chain wants to erect a new fast-food franchise in old, venerable Dinkytown, the “war at home”  takes a different turn. This stunning documentary chronicles the unprecedented 40-day, 40-night continuous Dinkytown “Occupation” to prevent construction of an unwanted hamburger joint.

From film programmer-turned-filmmaker Al Milgrom, the story is recounted by seven participants whose varied reminiscences about defending the neighborhood becomes a microcosm of the memorable ‘70’s Generation. Music featured in the film by Bob Dylan, Willie Murphy.

March 20. 2015

Monte Bute

At age 16, I stood outside my local high school and extended my left arm, displaying my middle finger in salute — I was dropping out. That act of defiance, coupled with a history of petty crime, led to my being sentenced me to a juvenile prison.

After graduating high school at the prison, the state paroled me early. While I was working in the Twin Cities at a couple of mind-numbing jobs, someone suggested to me the harebrained scheme of going to college.

I called up my father and told him of my latest delusion of grandeur. He was unimpressed; college was not on my family’s radar screen. I asked if I could temporarily live at home to earn some tuition money. He was skeptical: “Do you remember how badly things went when you last lived with us?”

Eventually, he relented. When I arrived home, there was only one job opening, and I soon discovered why. The job was at the local turkey factory. My job was to pull the live turkeys out of the delivery truck, lift them upside down and hang them eye-high by their feet as they went in on the conveyor belt for the kill.

I persevered, and within a couple of months I landed at Austin Junior College. Even for a longshot like me, it was a bet worth taking. They had open admissions, and tuition was the semester equivalent of $7.50 per credit hour. I had enough of a bankroll to pay tuition, rent a $7-a-week room and find a part-time job.

It was, at best, a mediocre school with maybe 250-300 students and 15 faculty members. Perhaps appropriately, the college occupied the third floor of the local high school.

Nonetheless, it was a college — something that had seemed unattainable just six months before.

Even here, I was badly overmatched. I always had a textbook balanced on one knee and a college dictionary draped over the other, as I navigated a rudimentary understanding of American and European history, literature, psychology, and humanities. At the end of my first term, I received a B- and two Cs. Truth be told, it was close to Christmas and those two C grades were gifts.

Despite that early lack of promise, I soon became the reclamation project of Rod Keller, an erudite sage with contrarian impulses. He saw in me a potential that had escaped the notice of my parents, my K-12 teachers and, most importantly, myself.

He prodded, he cajoled, and he flattered: after a couple of years, the liberal arts awoke me from my slumber. I came to realize that for my first 18 years, I had been little more than a sleepwalker: The lights had been on, but nobody was home.

Looking back, that junior college experience reminds me of the cataract surgery I had at age 60. Suddenly the gray, speckled fog that hung over the world metamorphosed into a brilliant, and almost blinding, array of vivid color.

After a long circuitous journey, I eventually became a professor at a public university. Today my students work far too many hours, usually at low wages, face conflicting family obligations, take more credits than they can handle and, given the hyper-inflation of tuition, end up with debt that seems as insurmountable as that of Greece.

A good share of these students fit Saul Alinsky’s social category of the “Have-a-Little, Want Mores.” Even though the odds are against them, most will get through and some will flourish. However, America also has millions of “Have-Nots.” Many in this lowest stratum will never get the chance for a post-secondary education.

Income inequality in the United States today is the greatest since 1928. Given that the “haves” dominate policy debates, legislation redistributing income is hardly possible today. The only politically feasible means of reducing inequality is making higher education more accessible and affordable. That said, the have-nots need skin in the game as well. Increased educational opportunity is meaningless unless the students are also all in.

Fifty years ago, I was hardly college material. Rock-bottom tuition rates gave me a chance to develop my aptitude. That was true for many in my generation. We made it because our government made an investment in us. In turn, we made significant personal investments in our own education. The dividends of that joint venture were substantial — both for ourselves and our communities.

We should do no less for our children and our children’s children. In America, higher education should not be limited to the more fortunate. We need to believe, once again, in the redemptive power of community colleges.

Monte Bute teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University


Faculty, leaders end feud over MnSCU reform plan

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2015 – 4:43 PM

After a five-month standoff, faculty and administrators have agreed to settle their differences over a controversial plan called Charting the Future to reform Minnesota’s 31 state colleges and universities.

The two sides announced Tuesday that they “have agreed to move forward cooperatively and collaboratively” in a way that appears to give a bigger role to faculty and students on the planning teams.

Since October, two faculty unions have been in open revolt against Chancellor Steven Rosenstone over his handling of Charting the Future, a fledgling master plan that is supposed to modernize and streamline operations at the sprawling system with 410,000 students on 54 campuses.

Faculty critics had accused Rosenstone of ignoring their concerns that sweeping changes might harm the quality of education. Within a matter of weeks, the faculty groups at all seven Minnesota state universities passed no-confidence votes against the chancellor.

The feud had threatened to cost the system tens of millions in potential state funding, which it has been seeking to extend a tuition freeze. In January, Gov. Mark Dayton said he would not recommend any extra funds for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) until the two sides made peace.

Last week, Dayton signaled that the dispute was nearing an end, and that he would restore some MnSCU funding in his upcoming budget.

In Tuesday’s announcement, MnSCU officials, trustees and faculty unions agreed to include “increased input” from faculty, staff and students in the planning process. The agreement also appears to shift some of the control away from central headquarters to the campuses, noting that Charting the Future “will become a campus-based regional process.”

Monte Bute, a union activist and sociology professor at Metro State University, described the agreement as a victory for the unions. “This is what we fought for for 17 months,” he said. “It literally is taking Charting the Future out from under Rosenstone and out of the central office.”

But Kim Olson, a spokeswoman for MnSCU, said it’s a merely a way to get more input from the campuses. “Although we’ve had that in the past, I think you’ll get even more,” she said. “We’re just all really pleased that we’re going to be working together and moving ahead.”

Resistance from the start

Rosenstone had launched the Charting the Future project in 2012, saying that MnSCU had to change with the times to better serve students and help them graduate with less debt.

But the plan has run into resistance from the start. A first draft, in 2013, was blasted by the Inter Faculty Organization — which represents the state universities’ instructors — as a blueprint for “Soviet-style” central control of the campuses.

Last October, both of MnSCU’s faculty unions announced that their members would no longer participate in Charting the Future because they had lost trust in Rosenstone.

The dispute was fueled, in part, by the discovery that Rosenstone’s administration had quietly paid a private consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., $2 million to help jump-start Charting the Future. Faculty leaders complained that McKinsey was promoting a corporate mentality that would threaten the quality of education and cut programs and staff.

Rosenstone has said that McKinsey is no longer involved, and that he is seeking recommendations from a wide range of faculty, staff and students.

Some of the proposals floated so far would allow students to get credit for prior knowledge and experience, and to transfer among campuses more easily. Rosenstone has said that some programs or campuses could be consolidated, but that no decisions have been made.

I am way, way past my expiration date. That news has not always been meet with well wishes. I received this malicious and hateful letter last spring:

“Dear Monte . . .

I will be blunt and get right to the point. I have heard from several members of the Metro State community that there is a widespread belief that you have faked your illness for these many years. When I was told this by one person she said you had done it for all of the awards and recognition that you got because people thought you were going to die soon. When I asked another person about it, they said that everyone at Metro knew your illness was a lie for a long time. . . .

I am very sorry to tell you of such a thing, and to have to be anonymous about it. I hope you will understand that there are sometimes important reasons for this. And even though I know this news may hurt deeply, I felt you had a right to know about this.


A Friend”

After five years, I too sometimes forget that I was once near death. Yesterday I re-read a newspaper column that I had written about my illness in 2010. Here is a excerpt:

“Autumn and the Dying of the Light”

“T.S. Eliot thought that April was the cruelest month. I disagree. For me, spring is a time of rebirth and rejuvenation. I would argue that autumn is the most cold-hearted time of year.

Last fall I was afflicted with a mysterious neuropathy that baffled my neurologist. A couple of months later I had hip replacement surgery and a fortuitous x-ray revealed tumors on my lungs. They diagnosed me with stage 3 granular pulmonary lymphoma, a cancer so rare that there are only 500 to 600 cases in the medical literature. It turns out that neuropathy is a symptom of the disease. Who knew?

The prognosis is poor. The median survival from diagnosis is 14 months. More than [90] percent of patients die within five years. I completed chemotherapy in July and the cancer was in remission. However, within a month troubling symptoms appeared. I was increasingly short of breath, gasping after 15-20 paces.  Pulmonary embolisms formed. Most days I took two naps. I had no energy; the smallest tasks were beyond me. Walking became a precarious adventure.

Heart function is one potential victim of chemotherapy. Mine has declined to 20-30 percent. The neuropathy has also worsened. My legs are numb from the knees down and I have minimal feeling in my feet. The outlook is grim. For me, autumn is akin to what Dylan Thomas called ‘the dying of the light’.

. . . The cancer is back. It has re-appeared in my lungs and spread to my liver. I feel no urge to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ Nevertheless, I am not yet ready for a calm acceptance of the coming darkness. I will rejuvenate soon, in spirit if not body. I look forward to opening my cabin in the spring and watching the Yellow River flow, where one day my ashes will be scattered.”

Here is something I wrote for Minnesota Public Radio in 2011, and it’s still true today:

“I have been in remission for 10 months. While I appreciate this hiatus, I am also somewhat ambivalent. Remission from terminal cancer is, by definition, a temporary reprieve. I had made my peace with death, when suddenly I was expelled from the land of the dying. It is not easy to return to the land of the living and, once again, play an active role in the human comedy . . . But perhaps that is the point: None of us have anything more than a temporary reprieve from our terminal condition.”

Carpe diem . . .