From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
When Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Christina Hoff Sommers: The Threat to Free Speech
Must-Reads from Magazine
A different president; a normal foreign policy.
President Trump delivered his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, and it was a triumph.
The speech offered the clearest sign yet that the administration has parted with Steve Bannon and other Breitbart types who wanted to use Trump as a bulldozer against liberal order. At Turtle Bay, Trump recommitted Washington to the defense of a U.S.-led world order. He also called out forcefully the rogue states that seek “to collapse the values, the systems and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom.”
Trump praised the founding of the U.N. and the Marshall Plan, based on the “noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent and free” and the “vision that diverse nations could cooperate to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security and promote their prosperity.” Robert Kagan couldn’t have said it better.
Turning to specific global security challenges, Trump similarly telegraphed a return to the GOP’s postwar foreign-policy traditions.
- On Iran: “We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities [in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen] while building dangerous missiles. And we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program . . . Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever. The day will come when the people will face a choice: Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror? Or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture, and wealth, where their people can be happy and prosperous?”
- On socialism in Venezuela and beyond: “The problem in Venezuela isn’t that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba, to Venezuela; wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”
- On U.N. reform: “Too often, the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process. In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution’s noble ends have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them. For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
- On the threat from revanchist regimes in Moscow and Beijing: “We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
And so on. This wasn’t the rhetoric of a pinched, narrow nationalism a la Marine Le Pen. She and other European illiberals loathe American leadership. They see it as American imperialism disguised as rules-based world order. For all their talk of sovereignty, they don’t want to see Washington confront Moscow’s bullying in Eastern Europe or Tehran’s in the Middle East. And Trump’s talk of upholding postwar “systems and alliances” can’t have gone down well at the Front National’s base in Nanterre—or at Breitbart HQ.
If your default vision of liberal order looks like Barack Obama- and Angela Merkel-style transnationalism, you were probably disappointed with Trump’s speech. The features of the Obama/Merkel model are endless diplomatic processes for their own sake; the expansion of transnational “norms” and institutions, usually at the expense of democratic self-government; and a general disdain for anything redolent of nationhood and nationalism and particularity. It has angered voters–think of Trump’s election and Brexit–and triggered a crisis of liberal-democratic legitimacy across much of the developed world.
There are other, more humble ways of conceiving international order. It can be liberal—that is, rules-based and tending toward liberty—without setting itself up against nationalism. The nation-state isn’t going away anytime soon and, indeed, “remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” as Trump noted.
Liberal order can acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s people are religious believers. Therefore, the effort to force every nation to follow the Netherlands on gender and sexuality is both wrong and likely to invite a backlash. And it can recognize that evil is a root fact of the life of individuals and nations, and therefore sometimes diplomacy and multilateralism must give way to the sword.
This alternative vision of liberal order would have looked familiar to a Ronald Reagan or a Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Judging by his best foreign-policy speeches—in Riyadh, Warsaw, and now New York—it is also the vision the administration has adopted. Those of us who worried about Bannon’s themes should cheer, and give credit where it is due.
"Drummed in your dear little ear."
America is lurching toward a civic crisis. The symptoms are most evident in America’s youth who, in their rash intemperance, are apt to say aloud what their elders are clever enough to imply. Subtly or overtly, the message is the same: Violence is coming.
The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell provides only the latest evidence that the next generation is eagerly discarding the standards of civil decency that have kept us from lunging at each other’s throats. She reports on a a survey of undergraduate college students at four-year colleges, conducted by University of California, Los Angeles professor and Brookings Institution Fellow John Villasenor and funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, that offers no reason for optimism.
The survey found that a plurality of students, 44 percent, believe the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech,” whatever that is. It revealed that a majority—51 percent—believe it is acceptable to shout down and drown out “a very controversial speaker” who is “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” The definitions of controversial, hurtful, and offensive are subjective. Understanding that, however, is indicative of a bygone era when one utilized self-awareness to prevent even the most censorious Americans from overreaching. Finally, and most disturbing, the survey revealed that nearly one-fifth of college students believe it is acceptable to engage in violence to silence a speaker with whom they disagreed.
These sentiments are not novel. A 2015 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 71 percent of freshmen believed that colleges should “prohibit racist/sexist speech” and 43 percent of incoming freshmen agreed colleges should “have the right to ban extreme speakers.” Those ideas trickle down. A 2011 poll of faculty conducted by that institution revealed that nearly 70 percent of female college staff and almost half of their male counterparts thought universities should “prohibit” speech deemed racist or sexist.
“Here’s the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants ‘safe spaces,’ or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech,” Rampell writes. Indeed, this observation has been proposed by those who have watched the storm clouds on the horizon for years now (cough). Rampell should, however, not limit her critique to colleges. These authoritarian ideas didn’t dawn on these teenagers like an epiphany ex nihilo. They were imparted.
In the modern age, the intellectual foundations needed to transform even murderous violence as an understandable, if not entirely acceptable, response to provocation were laid years ago by a frustrated class of activists trapped in ivy-covered cages on campuses. It was an impulse that began to seep out into the national consciousness when the editors and cartoonists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered by the Islamist terrorists they deliberately offended. We were treated to a series of hand-wringing treatise from earnest liberals lamenting the effects of a society that “perversely” “valorizes free speech for its own sake.”
Even former Secretary of State John Kerry gave credence to this ideal. Following the bloody November 2015 attack on various locations in Paris, Kerry called the violence senseless—unlike the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. The Charlie Hebdo murderers, he said, had “a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’” That same logic can been seen today in the cowardice of adult men and women who scold their young charges for inviting the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Condoleezza Rice, Christina Hoff Sommers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Charles Murray, or any number of pop culture figures, intellectuals, and conservative authors onto campus. Don’t they know they’re just asking for it?
“When someone calls a black person the ‘n’ word out of hatred, he or she is not expressing a new idea or outlining a valuable thought,” read a 2012 editorial in the Harvard Crimson. “They are committing an act of violence.” These sentiments were menacingly echoed by the editors of Wellesley College’s student-run newspaper in 2017. “[I]f people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted,” they wrote, cryptically advocating “appropriate measures” be brought to bear. These and many other misguided students who have used their right to free speech to advocate its repression are merely observing their elders.
In an April 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, New York University vice provost Ulrich Baer put a thin whitewash over rank anti-intellectualism when he claimed that some speech should be suppressed due to the asymmetry between the speaker and offended student. Appropriating the Holocaust to make his claims, he noted that the unduly derided “snowflakes” who display more sensitivity toward their peers’ discomfort than free speech advocates. Pure free expression, he noted “conflicts with the community’s obligation to assure all of its members equal access to public speech.” For some reason, Baer has convinced himself the right of “minorities to participate in public discourse” is under attack. Given that delusional construct, aggression isn’t just warranted but necessary. Denying offensive speakers a “platform,” e.g., preventing invited speakers form honoring their invitation, is a moral imperative.
On Inauguration Day, as agitators set fires and destroyed storefronts in the name of opposing Donald Trump, one of the alt-right’s most vile agitators—the white supremacist organizer Richard Spencer—was hit in the face. The nation was treated to a fatuous display of special pleading typified by media outlets exploring the virtues of this attack as if assault amounted to a weighty philosophical conundrum. “What are the ethics of punching Nazis?” The Guardian asked. “Is it O.K. to punch a Nazi?” the Times pondered. Nine months later, with white supremacists emboldened by the tense climate and a president conspicuously cautious about offending them, Nazis are still appearing in public and getting punched in the face. Why wouldn’t they be when the authors of this violence are getting pats on the head from their elders?
Wearing a Nazi armband, wrote City University of New York Professor Angus Johnston, is “not just a speech act. It’s a test.” Not a test of civic norms, but of the ability of the onlooker to suppress the subconscious checks on the impulse to lash out violently. “It’s street harassment,” he wrote. He rattled off a variety of other situations in which he thought it was okay to perform an act of preemptive violence, made a rough moral equivalency, and implied that anyone who felt differently is a closeted Nazi sympathizer. Modern academic ethics perfectly crystallized.
This litany focuses on the left because leftists offer more material to parse. Cosseted, well-compensated soft revolutionaries are busy penning hagiography to thugs who commit acts of terror in the name of “anti-fascism.” Respectable left-wing journals like the Nation, Mother Jones, and the New Republic have found themselves in the rank agitation business. Right-wing violence is not imaginary, but the legitimization of it in respectable circles—including, arguably, in the White House—is newer. For example: “Several high-profile rallies transformed into brawls between black-clad Antifa and conservatives who sometimes claimed membership in new anti-Antifa organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, a wing of the Proud Boys, itself a group founded by Rebel commentator Gavin McInnes,” the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported. We’re not talking about National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the professorate at Hillsdale College.
It is tempting to blame young people, who neither understand nor treasure the enlightened values for which generations of Americans have fought and died. But these young men and women are mimicking illiberalism by example. You have to be carefully taught.
Podcast: Exit, stage left.
In John Podhoretz’s absence, Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman take the helm in the first of the week’s podcasts devoted almost entirely the liberal anxiety at the Emmy Awards. Why are so many Americans tuning out of awards shows, movies, music, and sports programming? Could the answer be divorced from displays of liberal politics? The hosts also discuss the self-deluded antipathy toward “normalizing” a president, which is now inexplicably being directed toward his former press secretary.
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100 years of confusion.
Ben Steverman of Bloomberg News has an article up entitled, “Why American Workers Pay Twice as Much in Taxes as Wealthy Investors.” In it, he shows how an emergency room doctor with an income of $300,000 and an investor with the same income from capital gains and dividends would have tax rates respectively of 34 percent and 14 percent.
This is either sheer demagogy or Mr. Steverman thinks the corporate income tax is paid by the tooth fairy.
In fact, it is paid by some combination of higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers, and lower dividends and stock prices for stockholders. The exact distribution between the three depends on the particular economic circumstances for each industry.
But let’s assume our investor is wholly invested in Amalgamated Widget and Congress decides to eliminate the corporate income tax (as it should, but won’t). The tax is currently at 35 percent, the highest rate in the world. Amalgamated Widget’s after-tax profit would instantly rise by 35 percent. This would translate almost instantly into both higher dividends and a greatly improved stock price.
Why are dividends taxed at a lower rate than wage income? Because they are paid out of after-tax profits. In other words, a tax of 35 percent has already been levied on that money. Bond interest, on the other hand, is considered a business expense, so bond interest is paid out of pretax income. That’s why interest on bonds is taxed at the full rate. Eliminate the corporate income tax and dividends would properly be taxed at the full rate as ordinary income as well.
Why are capital gains taxed at a lower rate than wage income? Again, stock prices (a function of perceived future profits) would be much higher if not for the corporate income tax, so taxing capital gains on stock at the full rate would, again, be double taxation. More, capital gains are not indexed for inflation (they certainly should be). So if our theoretical investor had bought 1000 shares of Amalgamated Widget in 1967 for $100,000 and sold them today for $1,000,000, he’d owe a capital gains tax on the “profit” of $900,000. But there’s been a cumulative inflation since 1967 of 635.1 percent. So his real profit is only $264,913.
The Supreme Court had struck down a personal income tax on the wealthy in 1895. In 1909, President William Howard Taft, a very gifted lawyer, devised the corporate income tax as a clever means of taxing the income of the rich anyway, as corporate stock at that time was almost all owned by the rich. But when the 16th Amendment was passed in 1913, and a personal income tax quickly levied, no attempt to merge the two income taxes was made.
The result has been 1) a century of ever-increasing tax complexity as tax lawyers and accountants played the two taxes off against each other to avoid taxation. And 2) a century of liberals screaming that the rich are not paying their fair share when that has often not been the case, as in the examples given by Ben Steverman.
Better things to do.
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reappeared last night, of all places, on stage at the annual Emmy Awards. All smiles at this gathering of television celebrities, the former chief spokesperson for Donald Trump performed a variety of self-deprecating antics and mocked his own preposterous appearances before the lectern in the White House briefing room. In essence, he turned in a good-natured homage to his caricature as portrayed by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. Those who don’t share Spicer’s politics were not amused.
The Washington Post rounded up a herd of shaken liberal influencers who were horrified to see the Emmy Awards “normalize” a former White House press secretary. McCarthy herself may not have appreciated the reverence. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, she shared her anxiety over Spicer’s efforts to reclaim this satire with absurd self-seriousness. “No,” she described her thoughts hearing Spicer mockingly threaten to push his podium toward adversarial reporters in the White House briefing room. “That’s not your joke to make.”
This outrage is, of course, selective. No one evinced much agitation when former Press Secretary Josh Earnest became a political analyst despite advancing the myth that Barack Obama’s was “the most transparent” White House in history. None of Jay Carney’s three Hilary Rosens objected when he joined Amazon.com Inc. Robert Gibbs famously admitted that Obama asked him to mislead the press about the nature of the drone program. Woe unto McDonalds Inc. for normalizing that behavior, right?
Fortunately for the apoplectic celebrities who suffered through the briefest of humanizing interludes featuring Spicer, they had a comforting rationalization to which they could appeal. As the Post noted, some traumatized celebrities were relieved to learn Spicer’s self-effacing appearance on the program might also have been a subtly subversive assault on President Trump’s credibility. Unfortunately for the viewing audience, the rest of the program was much less subtle.
The actress Lily Tomlin called Trump “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” The program’s host, Stephen Colbert, jabbed at Trump’s legitimacy by noting that, unlike the United States, the Emmy Awards honor the popular vote (they don’t). “At long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy,” said Alec Baldwin while accepting an award for his portrayal of the president on Saturday Night Live—a line the New York Times described as “one of the night’s best zingers.” The most coveted award of the evening went to the streaming service Hulu for their adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has become “a symbol of anti-Trump resistance.” Indeed, with only 5 percent of respondents to a Katz Media Group survey having ever watched the show, more Americans are likely familiar with the Handmaid-inspired performance art than the show itself.
If this sounds to you less like an award show and more like a repellent therapy session for frazzled liberals, you’re in voluminous company. Though adjustments may change the preliminary verdict, this year’s Emmys are set to underperform even last year’s all-time low ratings. Maybe the politics on display were irrelevant; maybe the rise of streaming services has made traditional broadcast television a dying product. Maybe. But the Emmys misfortunes are of a familiar sort. This tune out is starting to feel like a trend.
In August, at just 5.4 million viewers, MTV’s Music Video Awards turned in their lowest ratings of all time. Occurring just days after a white-supremacist terrorist attack on peaceful demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, that event was explicitly political. But it was hard to avoid the impression it would have been political even absent events in Charlottesville.
Awardees delivered homilies praising NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for refusing to stand for the American national anthem and the network played a song titled “f*** Donald Trump” into breaks. For the first time, MTV presented an award for “Best Fight Against the System.” Host Katy Perry, a prominent member of Hillary Clinton’s squad of celebrity surrogates, displayed blinding originality when she joked about appearing in “Handmaid’s Tale” regalia and added that the VMAs was “one election where the popular vote actually matters.”
For months, liberal media outlets have contorted themselves into pretzels to support the claim that the sports network ESPN is not liberal, and conservatives who perceive it to be are addlebrained conspiracy theorists. Nevertheless, ESPN’s former personalities and even its regular viewers—according to a study commissioned by the network—don’t agree. Meanwhile, the network is laying off employees in droves, advertisers are panicking, and its ratings are cratering—the second quarter of 2017 was its least-watched Q2 in four years. Last week, ESPN John Skipper was compelled to admit that the network’s politicization is not a figment of conservative imaginations. “ESPN is not a political organization,” he wrote in a letter to his employees. “ESPN is about sports.” He continued, “we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.”
Even Hollywood is feeling the crunch. The summer of 2017 was the worst performing summer for domestic box office releases in years. “Without a film debuting widely over the Labor Day weekend, Box-office Media predicts the film industry will end the summer of 2017 with sales down by up to 15 percent,” Bloomberg reported. Contrary to some recent revisionism, the films that were released this summer were well-regarded and scored well among reviewers. It’s possible this collapse is unrelated to an epidemic of performing artists lecturing America on its lack of a “moral foundation,” the “cancer” afflicting its politics, and the deteriorating race relations. But what if it’s not?
Movies, cable and broadcast television, music; this tune out isn’t entirely about cord cutting. This is something broader. Any attempt to divorce politics from the public’s waning interest in entertainment media cannot compel without addressing the ubiquity of liberal political messaging permeating the products artists produce. Of course, no one can or should compel an artist to sacrifice their values for commercial viability. Nor, however, can you force consumers to endure a scolding they’d rather avoid.