Last February, "Commentary" asked Bernard B. Fall, Richard N. Goodwin, George McGovern, and John P. Roche to participate in a…
Last February, COMMENTARY asked Bernard B. Fall, Richard N. Goodwin, George Mcgovern, and JOHN P. ROCHE to participate in a three-hour round-table discussion centering on the question of whether the purpose of American policy in the Far East is to contain Chinese expansion or to halt the spread of Communism. The discussion, moderated by NORMAN PODHORETZ, editor of COMMENTARY, was entirely spontaneous and held before an invited audience which participated during the third hour. What follows is an edited transcript of the entire proceedings.
Norman Podhoretz: Unfashionable as it is at this moment to have a discussion of American foreign policy that doesn't focus specifically on Vietnam,1 I nevertheless think that there may be some value in trying to set the issues that concern all of us so urgently today into a somewhat broader context—the long-range conflict between the United States and China. In terms of that conflict, the war in Vietnam may perhaps be seen—and apparently is seen by the present administration—as a tactical element within an overall strategy. For despite all the official talk about preserving the freedom of South Vietnam, one gathers that what the United States actually thinks it is doing in Vietnam is containing China in Asia, much as it contained the Soviet Union in Europe from 1947 on.
The best brief statement I myself have seen of this particular interpretation of American policy was made by Adlai Stevenson shortly before he died, in reply to a group of writers who had appealed to him to resign his post at the UN in protest against U.S. policy in Vietnam. Here is what Stevenson said:
I would like to send you my reasons for believing that whatever criticisms may be made over the detail and emphasis of our foreign policy, its purpose and direction are sound. . . . The period from 1947 to 1962 was largely occupied in fixing the postwar line with the Soviet Union. It is not a very satisfactory one, since it divides Germany and Berlin, but the Russians respect it in Europe. So do we . . . .
We have no such line with the Chinese. Since they are in an earlier, more radical stage in their revolution, it may be more difficult to establish one. Should we try? And is the line we stand on halfway across Vietnam a reasonable line? Should we hold it? . . .
The line inherited by the Democratic administration is the 17th Parallel. History does not always give us the most convenient choice. . . . Since this is the line, should we hold it? The answer depends on the assumptions made about Chinese power. In the past, some Chinese dynasties have been aggressive, claiming sovereignty over wide areas of Asia, including all of Southeast Asia and even some of India. So far the new Communist “dynasty” has been very aggressive. Tibet was swallowed, India attacked, the Malays had to fight twelve years to resist a “national liberation” they could receive from the British by a more peaceful route. Today, the apparatus of infiltration and aggression is already at work in North Thailand. Chinese maps show . . . the furthest limits of the old empire marked as Chinese. I do not think the idea of Chinese expansionism is so fanciful that the effort to check it is irrational.
And if one argues that it should not be checked, then I believe you set us off on the old, old route whereby expansive powers push at more and more doors, believing they will open until, at the ultimate door, resistance is unavoidable, and major war breaks out. . . . My hope in Vietnam is that relatively small-scale resistance now may establish the fact that changes in Asia are not to be precipitated by outside force. This was the point of the Korean War. This is the point of the conflict in Vietnam. I believe Asia will be more stable if the outcome is the same in both—a negotiated line and a negotiated peace. . . .
Now interestingly enough, George Kennan, who, of course, was the architect of our containment policy in Europe, recently said in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam—Senator Fulbright's “teach-in,” as James Reston called it—that the same measures which worked in Europe could not, for a variety of reasons, work in Asia. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that President Johnson and his advisers do believe that, with certain modifications, China can be contained by a combination of military, political, and economic force. Vietnam, according to this reasoning, is Greece in 1947. It is also, one gathers from some of Secretary Rusk's pronouncements, Czechoslovakia in 1938. Thus, as Stevenson suggested, American policy toward the Communist world in the postwar period can be regarded as perfectly consistent—not only in itself, but in its continuous and unwavering determination not to repeat any of the mistakes of the 1930's which presumably led to World War II.
Now I would like to propose, if only for the sake of argument, that we agree here as to the ambitions of China in Asia, and that we further agree as to the fact that, for the time being at least, it is mainly American power that stands in the way of these ambitions. Once we have agreed on those two propositions, we can move on to the really difficult questions which have to be examined. First of all, should the United States be trying to contain China at all? Or, to put the same question in another way: is China really a threat to the United States? And if so, in what sense?
Secondly, can China be contained in Asia as the Soviet Union was contained in Europe?
Thirdly, even assuming that China both can and should be contained, does containment require absolute American opposition to a Communist regime in Vietnam, or Laos, or Thailand? Would such regimes necessarily pose a threat to the United States? In what sense would they constitute a threat to American national interests?
During the Dulles era, the rhetoric of American foreign policy was militantly, even religiously, anti-Communist. The assumption was that there existed an international Communist conspiracy directed from a single center, and dedicated to the overthrow of the West by any and all means. Since 1960—and largely, I suppose, in response to the fragmentation of the Communist world, the Sino-Soviet dispute, the growth of “polycentrism”—the rhetoric has changed. Communism is no longer spoken of in official circles, and certainly not in public pronouncements, as an absolute evil, or as a temporary aberration which is destined to fall of its own internal contradictions. That kind of inverse bolshevism is gone. But the irony is that our actions nowadays seem at odds with the assumptions behind the new, rather more sophisticated, rhetoric, and far more in tune with the assumptions behind the Dulles rhetoric than the actions of the Eisenhower administration itself were. And this, I think, is perhaps the major source of the general confusion over the issues we are going to try to throw some light on in this discussion.
Mr. Goodwin, as a former adviser to both Presidents Johnson and Kennedy, you are probably in the best position of anyone here to tell us whether the Stevenson statement I just read actually represents the thinking of our government.
Richard Goodwin: I don't believe that the United Slates government has a clear China policy. Over the next years, though, I think you will see one emerge. It is true, after all, that policies like the containment of Russia, or relations with China, emerge out of conflict and experience; they are not imposed on a situation in advance. China, although an immediate enemy in Korea, has not up until this moment been, or been felt to be, a physical threat—which is perhaps why a clear policy toward China has not yet evolved. But then we had no consistent policy toward the Soviet Union either until the late 40's, when, out of our experience in Greece and Turkey and other countries, we became clearer about what we felt were Soviet intentions.
I think it is important for us to try to get at the ultimate and very rarely answered questions of foreign policy, such as why we want to help the underdeveloped world, or why we want to contain the Soviet Union. These questions are rarely answered, and for a good reason, which is that they involve enormously difficult and chancy predictions about history—predictions that depend upon a whole series of assumptions and judgments which, like judgments about literature, are highly fallible. Any good foreign policy, therefore, has at least to observe two cautions. First, at every step you have to leave as many options open as possible and decide as little as possible; because you may be wrong, you have to leave yourself with opportunities to change your mind, to make different decisions in the future. Secondly, since almost all important policy judgments are speculations, you must avoid risking too much on the conviction that you are right. At the same time, while trying to do all this, you cannot allow yourself to be paralyzed in action; you still have to meet specific situations and circumstances.
Observing those cautions, let me take a quick look at the ultimate question of whether we want to contain China at all. What difference does it make to us if China takes Southeast Asia, and the rest of Asia for that matter? Why should we care if China takes Manchuria and Burma? Or, in the most extreme case, would it be in our interest to act if Chinese armies marched into India, and the Indian government asked us for help? Should we respond, or should we let China have India?
These are not easy questions to answer—although what our actual response would be is very clear: we would, of course, respond immediately and fight China in India. But whether or not we should, it seems to me, is a more difficult problem. What would the harm be to the United States if all or most of Asia fell to China?
Well, there is first of all the simple proposition that we don't want to allow people to be conquered by other people when ours is the only power that can prevent it. This is a motive with an idealistic basis, but it can't be overlooked as part of the answer. Secondly, a Chinese conquest of Asia would enormously strengthen elements hostile to the United States—I avoid the word “Communism”—in other parts of the world, and weaken our position in Latin America, Africa, and everywhere else, just as Soviet successes operated to weaken our position throughout the world for a period of time. It would put enormous pressure on the Soviet Union itself to move or else completely lose control of the Communist world. Therefore the likelihood is that were China to be left unchecked, we would be faced with a militant Soviet Union (unless the militancy were directed toward China, which is unlikely). Moreover, it would immeasurably strengthen a country which is already a nuclear power, and which within half a decade, or a little more, will also have intercontinental missiles and all the other paraphernalia of destruction, aimed at us, the declared enemy.
Perhaps most important, the impact on American society itself of such an enormous gain to a hostile power would be immeasurable. If the fall of China to Communism contributed to McCarthyism, or Soviet gains to the militarization of the United States, a victory of this scale by a hostile nation like China would, I think, seriously erode the civil liberties and non-military traditions of this country to an extent that we have never experienced before in our history. As a nation, we would be put very much on the defensive, and the result would be an undermining of the principles of our own society.
Those considerations are what lead me to think that it is essential, not to contain the Chinese—because to contain them means to stop them right where they are, and there are places, such as the Russian border, where we don't care about stopping them, and there are places, such as Tibet, where we don't have enough interest to try to stop them—but to keep China from absorbing all of Asia. The basic question for American foreign policy, then, is not whether, but how and under what circumstances.
Podhoretz: Senator McGovern, does it seem to you that we have a vital interest to defend in Asia?
George McGovern: I think our greatest interest in Asia is in the prevention of a war with China. I would view a military conflict between the United States and mainland China as the worst possible catastrophe that could develop in the rest of this century, and in my opinion the prevention of that war ought to be the number one task of American statesmanship for as long as we can look down the road.
I think it's desirable to prevent Chinese military power from expanding across the face of Asia, but I don't regard that as the principal challenge China presents to the world today. There may be a stage as we move along when China will, in fact, become militarily engaged with our principal allies in the Far East, but I don't see that as an immediate probability. The greatest danger that it will happen, in my view, comes from the policy we are presently following in Southeast Asia and in other parts of Asia—that policy being one, first of all, which attempts to isolate China diplomatically from contact either with ourselves or with other great powers. We have used all the influence we could muster since 1949 to cut off diplomatic contact between China and the western world and the other countries of Asia. I personally think that has been a dangerous and ill-advised course for us to follow.
I have no idea whether or not at this point the government of China would permit us to install an ambassador and an embassy on their soil, but I can't think of any place in the world where we so desperately need a competent ambassador backed up by a good staff, as we do in China. One of the great problems about our relationship with China, and about discussions of this kind, is that we begin from ignorance. If we can imagine where we would be today with reference to the Soviet Union if we had had no diplomatic contact with that nation for the past twenty years—no conferences at the United Nations or in other assemblies where we had an opportunity to hear the Soviet point of view firsthand—we get some idea of the problems that we are up against when we try to carry on an informed discussion about China, and what her probable course of action will be.
I think, too, that it is not in our interest to try to boycott China economically. However belligerent, maddening, and—as some people would say—hysterical the Chinese leadership may be, I don't believe we contribute to a more moderate course of action on their part by trying to isolate them economically. For example, our policy of doing what we can to prevent normal commercial intercourse between the Japanese and the Chinese makes no sense at all. Japan is in a position to carry on an active trade with the Chinese, and to offer some degree of economic assistance that would be beneficial to both countries, and my impression is that there is a mounting tide of resentment within Japan itself over the fact that our policy has been lined up against that kind of development. The more diplomatic and economic contact there is between China and the outside world, the more likely it is that China will move in a less belligerent course.
In my opinion, we have no interest in Asia that demands our adoption of a unilateral containment policy. If we accept the argument that China needs to be contained, we should also accept the corollary argument that this should not and cannot be done unilaterally. We have no responsibility, we have no mandate, to take charge of Asia for the years ahead. What we do have is an obligation to work with other countries to preserve the peace. Certainly, with reference to China, that includes the close cooperation of other major Asian powers—Japan, India, Pakistan, and the other principal countries there, who presumably know at least as much about China and how to handle her as we do.
I think the course that we are now following is one that is calculated to aggravate all the worst features of the Chinese government and Chinese society. In addition, I fully agree with George Kennan, Senator Frank Church, and others who have said that trying to set up military strongmen on the borders of China is bound to increase Chinese pressure on those areas rather than to decrease it.
I would hope, then, that if we decide a policy of containment is in our interest, that it will be a broadly-based policy which does not rely excessively on military power, which does not rely on the creation of puppet regimes along the border, but which seeks to encourage strong and independent states wherever possible in Asia and elsewhere in the world. I would also hope that, insofar as possible, our efforts will be directed through the international community rather than unilaterally.
Podhoretz: Mr. Roche, Senator McGovern seems to believe that our present policies in Asia are not calculated to avoid a major war with China. Others have put the case even more strongly, saying that we are on a collision course with China, that war is almost inevitable. Do you agree?
John Roche: Let me try to get at the question under three headings. First of all, what are we dealing with? Second, has our policy toward the Red Chinese been sound in the past? And third, what options do we have?
On the first point, it seems to me that we are dealing with a red-hot, simplistic ideology composed in equal parts of traditional Chinese imperialism and messianic Communism. We are faced, also, by the largest underdeveloped nation in the world, which may have an absolute net decline in standard of living: that is, it may be—the statistics are very hard to get—that every year that goes by, the standard of living in China in terms of population declines. But whether or not that is the case, it is surely true in the relative sense: there is a greater and greater gap between China and the more advanced industrial societies—the Soviet Union, the United States, and so on. And we are faced, finally, by what amounts to a ferocious theological brawl—unlike anything that has been seen since the Reformation—between the Stalinist Soviet Union and the Trotskyists in China.
The Soviets, who are good Stalinists despite the fact that they are vilifying Stalin, are today in a profoundly isolationist phase, and have, in effect, imposed socialism in one country on the Chinese. The Chinese, standing on the principle of permanent revolution or, in Trotsky's phrase, combined development, expected the Russians to provide the technological base for the Chinese primitive accumulation of capital. That is, they expected the Russians to give them the means to jump from the pre-capitalist to the socialist phase of historical development. In short, the Chinese demanded socialism on the cuff from the Russians, and the Russians, who were doubtless appalled by the fantastic burden involved in this (which could, of course, destroy the internal priorities of consumer goods and the rising expectations of affluence within Soviet society), told the Chinese that they would have to earn their own way to socialism. As best as we can discover, the Russians have, in fact, given more economic aid to East Germany than they have to China.
The Chinese today, it seems to me, are desperate, and they are old (the average age of the Chinese Communist Plenum is around 66). They are old men, they are the men who came up inside. Now a great many suggestions about dealing with China are based on the assumption that these people can be bribed. I don't think that they are bribable. I think that they are driving ideologues who are not going to call off their offensive against American imperialism in return for, say, an annual subsidy of wheat or industrial goods from the United States. If Secretary McNamara had made the statement that war is a testing-ground for character, we would all be leaping up and down and shrieking, and yet this is precisely what Marshall Lin said in his statement several months ago. We are dealing here, in other words, with men who are ideologues and who are not subject to simple, old-fashioned capitalist bribery. In fact, I think they are the Anabaptists of the Communist “Reformation”; they are striking out wildly at all those who will not accept their own particular chiliastic vision.
On the practical level, the reason I don't panic much about the problem of China is that they seem to be almost utterly incompetent to deal with reality—which, of course, is a common characteristic among Anabaptists. One might indeed suggest that Mao and his followers be brought before the Committee on Un-Marxist Activity. If Mao were President of the United States, he would have been impeached six months ago for having been responsible, internally and externally, for one disaster after another, with Indonesia as the culmination. I think what has happened in Indonesia is probably the most important development in Asia since the fall of mainland China to Communism—and the turn of events in Indonesia was a matter of sheer bungling by the Communists. Mao, then, is no Lenin or Trotsky. Indeed, he sounds like a caricature of the Marxist tradition, a kind of Red Goldwater with a little bit of Billy Graham thrown in. I do not find the philosophical specific gravity of Chinese Communism any great threat to the West nor, for that matter (speaking strictly as a clinician), to the Soviets.
To come now to my second heading: Has our policy been sound? Before we can answer that, we have to ask what our policy has been. Since 1950, we have had about four competing China policies within the American government. There has been this phony issue of recognition, for example. If you look at the world as I do, you say that recognition does not mean recognition of the legitimacy of a government, it simply means recognition of its existence. I recognize the existence of the Red Chinese, and I think the American government's policy on this has been silly. But would any alternative policy that anyone could have devised have made much difference, given the driving, messianic quality of the Chinese? This seems to me the crucial problem. The same reasoning applies to the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. In 1954, at the Geneva Conference, when the time came to find someone to initial the Accords for the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Resistance Forces, the Hanoi man, Ta-Quong Buu simply said, “I'll sign for them,” and he did. The moral of the story, of course, is that legalistic approaches to the problem of the recognition of Red China, or the recognition of the National Liberation Front, are essentially diversionary. Whether we could have devised an alternative policy toward China, one with a strategic design, I don't know. It is clear that the policy, or several policies, we did design had no particular set of priorities (which, in a sense, undermines the notion that there is a great capitalist conspiracy at work).
Finally, what are our options? It seems to me that we have three options. They are the familiar ones: unilateral disengagement; escalation to the point of bombing China; a holding of the line. I want to make it clear that I am neither a hawk nor a dove; I am a slightly frightened robin who wants to avoid a war with Red China, as any sane man does. My basic position is that we have to play for time; that we cannot plot some grand plan for dealing with Red China, because we don't know the variables; that we should not attempt any great rollback of Red Chinese power, but on the other hand, that we should attempt to the best of our ability to maintain the frontiers essentially as they are today in Asia.
Podhoretz: Mr. Fall, do you agree that American policy ought to be dedicated to holding the frontiers of Asia constant?
Bernard Fall: The real question is whether Washington agrees. As we look at statements made by the administration over the last four or five months, there seems to be a new thread running through all of them. It started perhaps with the speech by Secretary McNamara before the NATO Council of Foreign Ministers a few months ago, when those good Europeans were treated to a rather surprising lesson in geopolitics which went back to Hearst's “Yellow Peril”—Europe is about to be overrun by hordes of Chinese, and it is therefore about time the Europeans woke up to their obligations in Southeast Asia. The same theme was sounded in a speech by Under Secretary George Ball a few weeks later, and then again in California by Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy: the Chinese are the real danger and it is they who have to be stopped. I am reminded by this of the manufacturer who was losing five dollars on every dress, but expected to make his profit on volume. We have a policy that doesn't work too well in Vietnam, but if we apply it to China and all of Asia, it might come out all right.
The results, of course, are rather curious, because you also find in every one of those speeches some repetition of the well-known fact that the North Vietnamese hate the Chinese, and that only in the very worst of circumstances—circumstances, as I myself would say, that can only be created by our military pressure on North Vietnam—will the Chinese come in; and if they ever should come in, the North Vietnamese will receive them with the greatest of misgivings.
So you have here an inherent contradiction in the whole official American approach to China, which in large part is a consequence of the “capture” of Washington by Red Chinese propaganda. If there is anyone in the whole world who actu:ally believes that the Chinese are likely to overrun Asia militarily, it's Washington; at the same time, Washington believes that China is hated by all its neighbors. But if the Chinese are so aggressive—they certainly say aggressive things—why do they allow most of their aggressive schemes in Asia to fall apart without even the slightest reaction?
Obviously, for example, the Chinese have not done very much to help the Pathet Lao. American aircraft operate quite openly all over Laos, and there has been very little evidence of Chinese retaliation on the ground—say in the form of shipments of effective anti-aircraft artillery to the Pathet Lao. Nor have the Chinese tried to pick a fight with the United States over Quemoy. If the Chinese want to win a cheap victory over the United States, all they have to do is to try to occupy Quemoy, which they can do any day of the week. Nor have they intervened against American aircraft carriers in the Tonkin Gulf, which operate in an extremely narrow sea area, about ten or fifteen minutes by jet from Hainan.
Then came the great disaster in Indonesia. Indonesia, after all, has—or had—the largest Communist party outside the Sino-Soviet bloc. The Chinese have stood by in stony silence while upward of 100,000 Indonesian Communists were being slaughtered. To abandon a major Communist party in that way obviously bespeaks either self-control or fear—fear of American retaliation.
I do not doubt for an instant that the Chinese have ambitions in Southeast Asia. So do the French have ambitions in Latin America, which only indicates that the word “ambition” by itself doesn't mean very much. Some ambitions may be welcome. For example, if the Chinese would like to run a few rice-growing programs in some of those countries or would like to build railroads, as they are doing in North Vietnam, that would be unobjectionable. But what about the kind of ambitions that are going to hurt us—the West—in Southeast Asia?
Well, take the case of Burma. Burma is a small country, about 23-24 million people, directly abutting on China. Now the Burmese and Chinese had some border problems, and about five years ago they sat down and literally traded off border areas, and we haven't heard of these problems since. The Burmese government, moreover, proceeded to eliminate its Communists by the normal methods of fire and sword, but there is no evidence that the Chinese sent major forces into Burma to liberate their oppressed fellow party members.
Then there is the case of India. Here again the record will show that the Chinese attacked in India only after a long, embroiled border dispute about which any fair-minded person must agree that they are right. The MacMahon Line was a British-imposed boundary which no Chinese government ever ratified. The Chinese could have taken an additional piece of territory which was abandoned in panic by the Indians, but after moving in, the Chinese moved right back to their proper boundary; they didn't even hold the advance tracts which they could have held, let's say, for negotiating purposes.
This leaves, of course, the Korean War, where there certainly was Communist aggression. Of course, Chinese propaganda will tell you very loudly that the Russians put them up to it. The Chinese didn't lose 900,000 casualties in Korea lightly, just one year after winning their own war on the mainland: they fought the war with Russian equipment and Russian instructors and Russian training. So even in Korea, you have a slightly ambiguous situation if you are talking about Chinese adventurism.
All we can say when we look at the record, in other words, is that the Chinese undoubtedly have ambitions in Southeast Asia, and that they may, beyond a certain point, intervene in Vietnam—there is no question in my mind about this—but I don't think they are quite ready to do so. Interestingly enough, General Maxwell Taylor, who is not exactly uninvolved in the area, recently said just that: he didn't believe the Chinese were going to intervene in Southeast Asia for very good military reasons.
I have flown over the area often enough: it looks like the Creation-plus-seven-days—wild, impassable, no roads, no anything. How can you bring in and feed 500,000 troops under American aerial interdiction?
Let me, then, come back to the basic point. Speaking in Realpolitik terms, I think the United States can very well interdict Chinese penetration or Chinese influence or Chinese ambitions on the island parts of Asia and on India. But to pretend, as Under Secretary Ball has done, that the Chinese have no historical claims in Southeast Asia, is to fly in the face of history. Even the French at the height of colonialism recognized that the Chinese did have historical claims in the area—the French in 1885 fought a war with China merely to get China's signature on the annexation treaties with Vietnam. If what we want is not only to keep the Chinese back from their “outside” ambitions, but to push them back beyond their own “legitimate” claim line, then, of course, we are preparing ourselves for the kind of imperial wars that the French and the British fought for a hundred years, successfully at certain times, less successfully at others. If the decision is that the Chinese must be contained on the Southeast-Asian equivalent of the Polish-Russian border, that, of course, is a policy—I don't say it is the best, but it is a defined policy. But the policy of containing the Chinese deeper in Southeast Asia would, in my opinion, have a better chance. Suppose, for example, that the Kennan containment policy of 1947 had meant pushing Russians back to the Soviet boundary, with American troops being stationed in Warsaw. I am sure this kind of containment wouldn't have worked as well as the policy of stopping them at the border of their “natural zone of influence.”
Just a last anecdote. When I was in North Vietnam in 1962—that is one of the residual privileges you have as a Frenchman here and there—the North Vietnamese very proudly showed me their national museum, which contained a room with a permanent exhibit on the theme of the heroic historical struggle of the Vietnamese people against the Chinese invaders. As I went through it, I saw a whole class of first- or second-graders with little red scarves, being marched through and shown how their country had for two thousand years held off the Chinese. The sight of these children reassured me considerably as to the future fate of Southeast Asia.
Goodwin: I don't think it's true that the United States has been obsessed with preventing the Chinese from moving, or with the Chinese threat. The United States has, in fact, been much more obsessed with the Russian threat, and even with the Cuban threat, than with China throughout most of the postwar period, and even today. Interestingly enough, for example, most people in the American government once accepted the fact that Indonesia would soon fall under the domination of a Communist party closely allied with, or sympathetic to, Peking, and yet there was, as far as I am aware, no intention of stopping that internal movement because we knew of no way to stop it short of invading Indonesia. And no one contemplated doing that.
It may be a legitimate position, logically, to say that it is perfectly all right for Russia to dominate Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and East Germany, because of some abstract conception that we call a sphere of influence, and that by the same token it is legitimate for the Chinese to dominate Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, etc. I don't see that myself, and I don't think that the people of those countries, or the governments of those countries, would agree that they were naturally within the Chinese sphere of domination; nor, for that matter, do the people of Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. feel that they naturally belong to the Russians. So far as Chinese ambitions are concerned, we know what they say, we know what other nations which have been aggressive have said. We don't know whether they mean it, we don't know whether they will do what they say, but I think that at least we ought to take them seriously.
I don't think the word containment is accurate in describing our policy. Resistance to Chinese expansion would be a better description. And that policy simply says that we will oppose the Chinese if they move under certain conditions. Clearly, an invasion of India would be opposed by the United States; or if the Chinese sent an airborne division into Indonesia, I have no doubt that we would feel it necessary to act. But the resistance to Chinese expansion does not have to rest on a firm belief that they are going to overrun Asia and try to take it over. If they move into a given area, we have to decide whether we should respond, and in what ways.
Podhoretz: But the difficult question is that almost any insurrection anywhere is interpreted as an instance of China on the move. It seems to be assumed that the war in Vietnam is a case of Chinese expansionism; it seems to be assumed that any kind of uprising, whether clearly dominated by a local Communist party or not, is to be taken as an act of Chinese expansionism. Isn't that the problem?
Roche: I don't know any serious observer of the war in Vietnam who has argued that this is a Chinese operation. The argument is that what you are dealing with here is an indigenous, North Vietnamese Communist imperialism, which would presumably implicate the Chinese if we went North on the ground.
Podhoretz: Yes, but then the question becomes, in what sense is an indigenous North Vietnamese Communist imperialism any concern of the United States?
McGovern: I would like to comment on that. I think John Roche's interpretation of American policy is overly optimistic. I remember being disturbed a year or so ago about the confusion on this very point that exists in our government. After a flurry on the Senate floor in which a number of Senators were involved, we were invited to discuss administration policy with some high officials in the government, to give us a better understanding of the policy. In the course of that discussion, I asked one of these men—who, I can assure you, is very high in our government—if we were involved in Vietnam primarily because we wanted to stop a Communist take-over on the part of the National Liberation Front, backed by North Vietnam, or because we feared Chinese power in the background, pulling the strings on this and other “wars of national liberation” that are supposed to develop in different parts of the globe. After thinking about it for awhile, this official said that he felt our primary purpose was to stop a Communist take-over from whatever source, to preserve the possibility of freedom of choice by the people of South Vietnam against Communism, whether installed by the National Liberation Front, or Hanoi, or China.
That very night, I asked another equally high, maybe slightly higher, official in our government the same question: whether we were there to prevent an internal Communist take-over in Saigon, or whether we were concerned about Chinese military and political aggression in that area. He said: There is no question about it—if not for China, we would not be involved in Vietnam at all; we are there because if we don't hold the line against China's technique of “national liberation” in South Vietnam, we will have to face the same Chinese-inspired activity in Laos, in Thailand, Cambodia, and so on, until eventually the threat becomes so great that we are confronted with World War III.
I think, in fact, that we have been following the so-called domino theory in Southeast Asia, that we have seen China in the background manipulating the strings, that we have blamed them for what's taking place in South Vietnam, and that we would not be there were it not for what I regard as an exaggerated fear of Chinese danger to our interests in that part of the world. I quite agree with most of what Bernard Fall said earlier: we have exaggerated the extent of the Chinese threat to our interests, and we have grossly underestimated the force of nationalism in Asia.
Nationalism, in my view, is the strongest single force operating in Southeast Asia, and everywhere else in Asia as well. While we may be primarily motivated by a fear of Communism, the greatest dislike of the people of that area—their greatest fear and the thing they most want to get rid of—is outside control from whatever source. When we identify with regimes that have little national support and are opposed to revolutionary change, we do so at great peril to our own interests.
Roche: I believe the problem of Chinese power is remote at the moment; it's still ten or fifteen years away. In the meantime, all kinds of things can happen in China. A whole new generation can come along, the bureaucratic complexion of the Chinese Communist party can change—already it is apparent that there are conflicts between the army in China and the party people. They fired one Minister of Defense because he suggested that the generals knew more about fighting wars than the political commissars did, and apparently right now they have another dispute going between the Norman Vincent Peales, who are saying that people armed with sickles can fight off the imperialists, and the generals who are saying: No fellows, those guys have got real bombs.
My theory is that by and large the last twenty years have indicated that the Communists are better at making big mistakes than we are, so we should stick to making small mistakes, and let them make the big ones. That means essentially a policy of playing for time and holding on.
Podhoretz: Holding on to what?
Roche: Well, the perimeter—essentially Japan, Taiwan, India. The problem in Vietnam is confused, as Professor Fall knows far better than I do, by the fact that you have there an autonomous Communist imperialism, which is itself interested in taking over the former borders of French Indochina. Wouldn't you say that that is the objective of Hanoi?
Fall: That's right.
Roche: As a consequence, I don't think the problem of China in Vietnam is an imminent problem—unless we should invade North Vietnam, which at the moment is about as remote a contingency as I could conceive of.
Goodwin: I disagree with a little bit of what Senator McGovern said. I don't think we went into Vietnam because of China. I think we got into Vietnam almost by accident. A commitment grew because at every stage we were under the illusion that we could buy a very cheap and easy victory there. In fact, I doubt if you will find China mentioned in the statements of any American President on Vietnam until the last six or eight months. It was a forbidden word.
Fall: It certainly isn't now.
Goodwin: No, it certainly isn't now, because at the present level of commitment, China proves to be the only rational reason for our presence there at all. Whether or not it is a rational reason, there is no doubt that the Chinese are much more aggressive in Vietnam today than they were, the Russians are much more aggressive in Vietnam than they were, and we are much more aggressive, because the issue has begun—very unfortunately, I believe—to transcend Vietnam itself. It has become a testing-ground of American power and will in that country and that part of the world. But I don't think this was at all the initial impulse that brought us there.
Podhoretz: What I would still like to know—and maybe the question I have asked is not a question that can really be answered, especially from the vantage-point of Washington—is the exact nature of American interests in Southeast Asia.
Fall: Well, that again brings up the contradiction I was talking about earlier. The build-up in Southeast Asia—the air bases in Thailand, the so-called enclaves in Vietnam, the deployment of 200,000 and ultimately even 400,000 more troops—is obviously not intended simply to crush 200,000 guerrillas and break even with the North Vietnamese. I am very much afraid that definitely now, whatever the case was in the past, Washington does look at China as a very serious potential factor in the conflict.
Roche: In 1950, Walter Lippmann wrote: “It would be an intolerable settlement, of course, if the North Korean army conquered South Korea, but it will not be a decent settlement if at the end of the Korean fighting, the American army finds itself at the 38th Parallel, and is invested for the indefinite future with the task of defending South Korea. There is no use pretending that South Korea, as we know it, can be set up again and maintained as even a quasi-independent state. But on the other hand, there are too many other things to do in the world to wish to govern an Asiatic dependency and to tie up three or four American divisions.”
Yet, fifteen or sixteen years later, we have got what is a pretty workable solution in Korea. There is, in fact, a quasi-independent, viable South Korean state which within a year or two will hopefully reach the economic take-off stage. We simply have to realize that sometimes you get caught in situations. I don't like the idea of fighting a war in Vietnam, or anywhere else for that matter. But the fact is that at this point, as George Kennan recently said, withdrawal would be intolerable. So the question then becomes: what are the real options? The real options are a big war, or a limited war. If we can achieve in Vietnam a solution which involves no “liberation” North, and no rollback South, I think that it would work probably about the way the Korean thing is working, and I think that is the best we can hope for in the circumstances.
McGovern: I hope we can all agree that there are some other lessons to be learned from our experience in Korea, and one of them is not to be too reckless about these so-called “limited engagements.” I assume that we went into Korea sixteen years ago to reestablish the 38th Parallel. The trouble is that when we got to the 38th Parallel, we kept going.
Roche: Over my objections, among others.
McGovern: Well, I hope that that lesson hasn't been forgotten, because while it may, as John Roche has said, only be a remote possibility that we will invade North Vietnam on the ground, we are already attacking her from the air, which certainly is a form of invasion, and one that is not calculated to produce forever a limited action on the part of Hanoi. In spite of our intelligence estimates, we did involve China in the Korean conflict. It cost us many thousands of casualties, and in the end, we finished with about the same kind of settlement we could have gotten had we stopped with a limited objective at the 38th Parallel.
Podhoretz: Senator McGovern, what is your impression of sentiment in the Senate, both about the Vietnam war, and about the longer-range questions that I have been raising—that is, the question of the extent to which American interests are actually involved, and the extent to which we are either trying, as Mr. Goodwin put it, to resist Chinese expansion, or whether we are carrying on what is essentially an anti-Communist crusade?
McGovern: It is my own judgment that strong support does not exist in the Senate for the policy we are now following in Southeast Asia, if for no other reason than the fact that the repeated predictions of what was going to happen, which have come to us from top officials in the government, have been consistently wrong; and each time those predictions have proved wrong, we have simply doubled the prescription of what we were doing. Consequently, there has been a growing disenchantment in the Senate about our Vietnam policy. I would say that certainly a majority of the Senate is opposed to any further escalation of this war.
Podhoretz: An actual majority?
McGovern: Yes, an actual majority. I think that perhaps ninety out of the one hundred Senators think that we made a mistake in ever becoming involved in the first place. There are a good many Senators who will say that privately, but who will then say, “Here we are, so mistake or no mistake, we have to see it through as best we can.” Certainly, some of those Senators who have been advertised in the press as great hawks are among those who think that it was a disastrous mistake for us to have ever become involved in a combat role in Vietnam. Our involvement there actually goes back to the end of World War II, almost twenty years ago, when for some reason or other, we decided to back the French in their efforts to reestablish their control in Southeast Asia. We didn't make that mistake in most parts of Asia. We recognized the force of revolution, we recognized the power of nationalism, and we identified our policy in most parts of Asia with the revolutionary currents that were moving there. We urged the British to get out of Malaya and the Dutch to get out of Indonesia, we encouraged the liquidation of the British hold on India, and we ourselves got out of the Philippines. But when it came to Vietnam, for some reason or other, we threw in with the French, in what turned out to be a losing effort. I think that we have been on a losing course there ever since.
Fall: I have done quite a lot of research into this particular question, and frankly, I still don't understand why the United States backed the French at the last moment. In 1946, the U.S. sent a rather interesting mission under Major-General Philip E. Gallagher to Ho Chi Minh, and the French got pretty well perturbed. Then, out of a clear blue sky, there was a literal disappearance for about three years of any American effort in Vietnam. Just think, however, of the fascinating “might-have-been” of an American position in Vietnam consistent with American policy in Indonesia, Malaya, and India. Ho Chi Minh would have been president of all of Vietnam since 1946. This is why the North Vietnamese feel that the Americans are actually attempting to turn back the clock of history.
I would be the last person to guarantee that Ho Chi Minh would have become a Tito under these circumstances. I have spoken to the man himself, and to all his associates. I don't know whether Ho Chi Minh would have “turned Tito,” but what I do know is that he has been anti-Chinese ever since the Chinese arrested him in 1941 and kept him in the stocks for eighteen months.
Goodwin: If I can get back for a moment to the longer-range possibility of Chinese expansion, and the possibility of resisting it, I think that one of the great lessons to be learned from the European containment is that it was not basically military; it was economic and political, through the Marshall Plan and so on. I think we have to pursue that kind of policy in Asia as well. Some time within the next five or ten years, China will be able to hold the major cities of North America hostage to nuclear power, and this is bound to increase the degree of risk they may be willing to take. To prepare for that, we need to make a massive and very large-scale effort to try to build-in India, in Pakistan, in the Philippines, in Southeast Asia—viable states which can stand on their own economically and which have some capacity to resist internal threats. We will also have to be willing to come in at least against an immediate invasion. At the same time, we have to make an effort to open up relations with China, if only to get a greater knowledge of what they might do and of their capacities, and to give them a greater knowledge of us: I think their ignorance of us is one of the great problems in their approach to the world. In addition to all this, we also have to work with the Soviet Union so that eventually we can get into the position of acting together on what is in fact a common interest—the containment of China. I don't believe that this is a possibility at the present time, but it may become one as the seriousness of the Chinese threat and the concomitant seriousness of the common interest grows. I think only if we pursue all these tracks at once—which, of course, leaves open the question of what China might actually do, but prepares us for any contingency—is there any real hope of containing China.
Roche: This brings up a very important point that is easily overlooked—namely, the extent to which the containment of China is really a Russian problem more than an American one. After all, the Chinese already have maps that show large sections of Soviet Central Asia and so on, as part of China. I think the Russians are probably going to be confronted with Chinese power on the ground much more realistically than we are confronted with it at this point.
I suspect, by the way, that one interesting byproduct of the last year has been that the American obsession with Vietnam may have helped in our not getting mixed up in Indonesia. In other words, we were so busy worrying about Vietnam that our cloak-and-dagger men didn't get a chance to monkey around in Indonesia.
McGovern: Isn't there some clue in that? Where the Chinese have intervened in a heavy-handed way, they got a bad reaction; and where we are intervening in a heavy-handed way, things are going badly for us.
Roche: There is one difference: the Chinese can't walk on water. In other words, the geographical situation of Indonesia is such that the Chinese could not possibly come to the rescue of the PKI there, whereas in Southeast Asia, on the mainland, they are in a position to intervene.
But I would like to make a point on this business of creating Titos. In 1947—the time, as we now know, when the Yugoslavs and Russians were engaged in really rough inside fighting, which led eventually to the split—the United States was practically at war with Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs had shot down our airplanes, and we were issuing ferocious pronunciamentos. But as far as anybody can discover, the fact that we put the arm on Yugoslavia in 1947-48 did not have the slightest impact on the internal dynamics of what was, in fact, a theological dispute; our behavior had no influence one way or the other on the split. If you want to play these games, you can argue, then, that the best way to turn Ho Chi Minh into a Tito would be to put more and more weight on North Vietnam. North Vietnam would then turn to China and ask for help. The Chinese would say, “We're sorry, we can't help you because the Americans will bomb us.” The North Vietnamese would then ask the Russians for help, and the Russians would say, “We're very sorry, we're too busy putting a basketball team in space.” At that point, the leaders of Hanoi would decide that since they couldn't get any help from their loyal allies, they might as well make a deal.
Now I am not favoring this scenario nor suggesting it: I am simply saying that in terms of the logic which is going around these days on the care and nurturing of Titos, this is a perfectly valid position.
Podhoretz: Mr. Roche, you've been talking a good deal about theology as though there were only one set of theologians in this whole picture. But isn't there a good deal of theologizing going on in the United States in relation to the Communist world? What I mean is this: so long as it was possible to believe—and so long as this belief more or less corresponded to reality—that there was a monolithic international Communist conspiracy which operated in various ways and through various subterfuges which were not always easy to identify as aggression (internal subversion and the like), an anti-Communist foreign policy obviously made some sense. Under those circumstances, stopping the spread of Communism could be taken as within the American national interest. But just at the point where it is no longer possible to speak of a monolithic international Communist movement, we do seem to be pursuing an anti-Communist foreign policy, not because the advance of Communism—which today really means Communisms, in the plural—is demonstrably against the concrete interests of the United States, but almost as though we were fighting a religious war in which the goal is to prevent the opposing religion from spreading to any other country. Nobody in the government talks in these terms any longer, but this is how they seem to be acting.
Roche: Of course there is a good deal of chiliastic rhetoric on the anti-Communist side. But don't identify anyone who takes a hard liberal anti-Communist line with Senator Goldwater or with people who say that we are fighting a holy crusade. I myself, for example, was among those who argued against the concept of a monolithic Sino-Soviet bloc as early as 1954.
Nor do I think that a fair view of American foreign policy suggests that a holy crusade has actually been the decisive motivating factor. For example, President Johnson has made it perfectly clear that we are not interested in a rollback in Vietnam. That is to say, there is to be no “liberation”—we are not living with Dulles and the notion of “liberating” Communist countries. Johnson has, in effect, said that we will settle for a status quo at the 17th Parallel. The North Vietnamese will maintain their Communist state, and even though we don't like it, we are not attempting to overthrow it. This is anything but messianic anti-Communism. I think it is, in fact, a perfectly legitimate horse trade.
Fall: Well, granted, then, that America isn't pursuing an anti-Communist policy, can we speak of a straight anti-Chinese policy? You could, for example, have a straight anti-Russian policy, in other words, if Russia were ruled by the Czars, we might still oppose a Russian move into Greece. Similarly with the Chinese in Southeast Asia. The Chinese may be misruling Tibet—they have always misruled Tibet—but so are some people misruling Mississippi. This is no reason for calling it “aggression.”
Roche: But in fact some people do call it “aggression.” That is precisely the point. In Mississippi, a great many of us have been out there trying to stop it, whereas to my knowledge there have been no “Freedom Riders” in Tibet.
Fall: Still, if the U.S. had wanted to follow a straight anti-Communist policy instead of a straight anti-Chinese one, then South Vietnam should have been made a fortress as soon as the 1954 Geneva Accords had gone by the board—a full-fledged fortress like Formosa, in 1956; with 200,000 American troops right off the bat, and the place militarized exactly like South Korea. At the same time North Vietnam might have been bought off. Washington could have said, “All right, we're sorry, we won't hold elections, you know Diem won't hold the elections, but if you need a half-million tons of rice, you can have a half-million tons of rice.” But the truth is that nobody has really made up his mind in Washington as to whether it is a straight Chinese expansionist threat that has to be contained, or whether it is militant Communism that has to be contained. This perhaps explains why the Vietnam problem is such a muddle.
Goodwin: I don't think that's accurate. How can you speak of an anti-Communist policy, in the old sense of the term, when we are trying to expand East-West trade, and trying as much as we can in the present situation to move forward in our relations with the Soviet Union?
Fall: Anti-Chinese, then.
Goodwin: No—it isn't anti-Chinese, it is opposed to Chinese expansion. That is a very different thing. I don't think the policy is to overthrow the government of China.
Fall: Would you say the Chinese can't expand because these people hate them?
Goodwin: I didn't say that they hate them. I don't know how they feel about them at all, and I don't know whether that is even relevant. It's possible for the Chinese to expand into areas where the people hate them.
Fall: I think it was Jerome Bonaparte who said that you can do almost anything with bayonets except sit on them. The Russians proved this in Hungary.
Podhoretz: I think it's time to open the floor to questions.
Trumbull Higgins:2 I wonder if I might ask the speakers to consider the possibility of an irrational explanation for the American intervention and the presumed Chinese hostility. That is, the U.S., having blundered into this war in Vietnam contrary to most expectations, now must engender a Chinese hostility in order to justify the evergrowing war. In short, is not an irrational explanation perhaps more valid here than the desperately rational explanations the speakers are looking for to account for our policies toward China?
McGovern: I for one agree with that interpretation almost one-hundred per cent. I think Mr. Goodwin hinted at it earlier in our discussion, when he said that at no time did we make a calculated, clearly-defined decision on what our policy in Southeast Asia should be. We did become involved, for reasons that aren't clear to me, in backing the French effort out there from 1946 through 1954, but from there on out, I think the policy emerged pretty much along the lines that Mr. Higgins has suggested. As more and more American forces were committed, and the results of those efforts proved more and more disappointing and more and more frustrating, our policy makers began to depict a larger threat in the form of China as the reason for our heavy involvement. I think that helps to explain a lot of the confusion about why we are there.
Podhoretz: That's like Macaulay's explanation of how the British acquired their Empire. He said that they did it in a fit of absent-mindedness.
Roche: Well, I don't want to inject an empiricist note into this discussion, but the reason we got involved in Indochina, in a word, was Korea. We were playing around the edges until the Korean War broke out, and then at that point we began to commit ourselves more and more heavily to anti-Communism in Indochina. Whether it was rational or irrational, is a question I don't think we want to discuss at this point, but that's how it happened.
Fall: I would like to be able to agree with you on this, because it would make things neat. But the fact is the United States did recognize the Bao Dai government on February 6, 1950 which was six months before the Korean War, and the American MAAG Mission to Vietnam was appointed on June 12th, also before the Korean War. You are perfectly right, though, that the real effort, the $485 million-a-year effort, only began after the Korean War broke out.
Maurice J. Goldbloom:3 I want to talk about this matter of the parallel with Greece and Yugoslavia. It is important to recognize that the Communists in Greece never had more than about a quarter of the population, and Greece was a country in which there were very strong traditional political forces of the kind that France prevented from ever developing in Vietnam. That is, there were always real alternatives with mass popular support there. The second thing is that although the Communists in Greece were dependent on and received far more material aid from Yugoslavia than the South Vietnamese ever got from North Vietnam, we made it a point to avoid any crossing of the Yugoslav border, or any attack on Yugoslavia during the entire period of the Greek civil war. I think that if we had bombed Yugoslavia, or if we had trained guerrillas to go into Yugoslavia, as we trained them in South Vietnam to go unsuccessfully into North Vietnam, that might have had a very important effect in tying Yugoslavia to the Soviet Union, in forcing her to accept Soviet dictates.
Roche: I agree with that. That's why I opposed the bombing of North Vietnam.
Fall: By the way, I don't know how many people remember the very eloquent speech made by Adlai Stevenson in 1964, after the British retaliated against Yemeni guerrillas for having ambushed a British column in Aden. Stevenson said that even under provocation a major power should not retaliate against a weaker country. The then Senator John F. Kennedy also condemned the French in 1958 for bombing a Tunisian border city from which they had been shelled in Algeria, and the then Senator Humphrey at that time demanded that all American aircraft be withdrawn from the French Army. So there has been a great change in the last few years in American attitudes on retaliation against neighboring countries.
Hannah Arendt:4 Mr. Goldbloom just knocked out Greece and Yugoslavia as a parallel: I too am a little worried about this parallel business, because it runs like a red thread through the justification of American policy in Vietnam. If you think about the other parallel which was mentioned here, the third one, Czechoslovakia in 1938, the absurdity of the whole business can be shown very clearly. It is as if France or England would have tried to stop Hitler, not by making war on him, but by making war on Slovakia as being somehow in collusion with the Nazi government against the Czech government. They would have started bombing Bratislava and intervening in what could only have been a civil war in Czechoslovakia. If anyone in 1938 had thought that this would have helped to stop Hitler, he would not have been very realistic. This is true for all such parallels. Once you really pursue them, they explode. If we say we want to contain China, then we have to take the problem in its own terms; no parallels will help, we have to look at China itself.
There is a second point I would like to bring up. I think it was Mr. Goodwin who mentioned the possible boomerang effects of defeats or victories in Asia. I am perfectly sure that this is a very serious question, and even one of the most serious. Not even our own military experts today talk about victory any longer. It used to be said that there was no alternative to victory, but in our time there are many alternatives, and victory is one of the worst. But I want to ask Mr. Goodwin what he thinks the boomerang effect on this country will be if we have to fight a six-year war of attrition. Also, taking into consideration the so-called domino theory, what will the boomerang effect on other Asian countries be when they see what can happen to a country once America intervenes?
I am glad that this discussion has centered squarely on the containment of China rather than on the war in Vietnam. I am against the war in Vietnam, I don't see how any good can come from it whatsoever, but I would agree that China is going to be one of the major problems of American foreign policy in the next thirty years. But to pursue this policy in Vietnam of all places, in Indonesia of all places: this is not to see the reality of the whole situation. It is very significant that the Chinese went back voluntarily after they established their old boundaries in India. I doubt that anybody in China even thinks of attacking India. What shall they do with India? They have enough headaches. Should they take India when they already have 700-million people, and as Mr. Roche pointed out, a declining standard of living? That is true, of course, of India as well, and of all these countries because of the population explosion. The Chinese, I recently saw in the papers, are trying to institute birth control, and very cruelly. They simply don't want to give ration cards to every third or fourth or fifth child born. If they actually do that, they will become the strongest nation in Asia, which today they are only potentially. But if we think about China in these terms—that is, the terms in which they themselves must think—isn't it obvious that the real danger zones are Siberia, which is underdeveloped and underpopulated, and perhaps Australia?
Goodwin: I agree fully on the question of parallels. I don't think that any of the historical parallels, Munich and the rest, are meaningful at all. As Miss Arendt said, you have to take China on its own terms. I would even carry that a step further by saying on the other side that you can't talk about polycentrism as the wave of the future—in this case using Eastern Europe as the parallel—in order to show that inevitably these countries, once dominated by the Chinese, will then become independent or nationalistic. They are very different societies from the societies of Eastern Europe. They are much thinner at the top, as underdeveloped countries tend to be, and therefore the overthrow of governments comes a lot easier. Moreover, the long-run structural forces within a country that make for nationalistic stability don't exist to the same degree: we see this very clearly in places like Latin America. Beyond that I don't think the domino theory in its crudest sense applies in Asia—or anywhere else, as a matter of fact.
Nevertheless, serious American defeats in parts of Asia would, in my opinion, have an impact on other countries: they would strengthen forces which are hostile to the United States and close to Communist China, and they would tend to weaken those forces which are trying to maintain governments of another kind. What this would mean in any individual country is very hard to say. There is no doubt, for example, that Cuba did give an impetus to Communist movements in Latin America—though that has died out considerably by now.
I think the Chinese are basically hostile to the United States. They may not be able to do anything about it. They may not have the military force for a long time to do anything about it, or even after that, the skill. But they are supporting revolutionary movements in Latin America, for example. I have talked to students in Latin America who have told me that they are receiving funds from the Chinese. In other words, there is a movement, or an effort, going on.
Miss Arendt, I think, is right. Russia does have the most to fear from China in terms of immediate territories. It is by far the most logical target for Chinese expansion. However, we also at least have to keep in the back of our minds the possibility that they may not act rationally. It is often pretty hard to tell what the people in our own government are going to do, much less what Mao Tse-tung is going to do. I don't think the Chinese will invade India, and of course it isn't logical for them to do so, but that doesn't mean they won't, and you have to take that possibility into account in shaping your own policy.
Roche: The immediate cause of the Chinese invasion of India was the border dispute, but I don't think that was the sufficient cause at all. I think that what the Chinese did there was a political-military masterpiece—it was out of Lenin by Clausewitz. Essentially what they did was at one blow to destroy India's standing as a first-rate Asian power. You will recall that this was after the Russians refused, as we now know, to give any nuclear guarantee to the Chinese at the time of the Quemoy crisis. The Russians were then going to have some kind of summit meeting to which Nehru would be invited, and it was at that point that the Chinese decided to destroy India's standing as a first-rate power, which they did in two weeks. Obviously, they didn't invade India to conquer it. They simply wanted to destroy its reputation as a power, and that they did successfully.
Goodwin: In my opinion, what has done most to prevent World War III in the last twenty years has not been the pursuit of rational self-interest, but fear: and I am not sure that the Chinese share that fear to the same degree as we and the Russians. That, I think, is the danger.
McGovern: I think Miss Arendt put her finger on what may be our most crucial blunder in recent years, and that is our tendency to try to use the same course of action in Asia in the 1950's and 60's as we used in Western Europe at the end of World War II. The conditions, of course, are entirely different. In 1945, in Europe, there was a group of Western countries with a background very similar to ours, with a common fear of Soviet encroachment, and a desire to rebuild their economies and reestablish themselves as independent powers. Whereas in Vietnam, it seems to me, we intervened on the side of a political force in Saigon that had very little popular support, and no common heritage with us; we intervened against a popular political leader, Ho Chi Minh, who, at the time we first went in there, had, according to President Eisenhower, eighty per cent of the people of the country behind him. That in itself draws the distinction between Munich and Vietnam. Unfortunately, while those of us around this table can readily discard the Munich parallel, the Secretary of State doesn't draw that distinction. He continues to talk as though we were standing at Munich, and as though all will be lost if we don't continue what we are doing.
Roche: It's curious that the only statement by President Eisenhower that the American Left has ever taken seriously is the one Senator McGovern just quoted.
Podhoretz: That, and his farewell speech about the military-industrial complex.
Frank Armbruster:5 I would just like to draw attention to a point Dr. Fall made, which is, I think, a very valid one and has a lot to do with what has happened around the periphery of China. He mentioned the very primitive areas on the perimeter of China to the South, but this is also important when people talk about a Chinese attack on Russia. You really have to look at the areas they are claiming and look at what their logistic capability is over there. I think it's wrong to say that China didn't want India because of economic reasons. You could make the same argument about Tibet. I don't really think these things fall in that way. Without getting into theology, there is a dynamism which goes along with this type of Communism, and it has to do with vacuums, if you will, on the borders of Communist countries. The Chinese did pull out of India—that is, they pulled out of the Assam plain area. They had one small division down there which, with the snowfall coming in the mountains, would have been trapped there all winter, and so they went back. But in the Ladak area they did not go back. They kept the road which went through the traditional caravan pass that connected Tibet with Sinkiang.
If we are going to talk in geographic terms—and it always comes down to that when you talk about Chinese military capability—you really have to look at a map: I couldn't agree with Mr. Fall more. If you look at a map, you will see why they aren't taking the Russians on in the area that is in dispute.
So far as Vietnam is concerned, I don't think it's a question of Chinese expansion in that area; Ho Chi Minh also has a drive that is drawn, at least to some extent, from Communist ideology. But China counts too, simply by virtue of the fact that it is there, a large power to the north with a feeling of kinship. To get back to Czechoslovakia—even though the Secretary of State has been much belabored for making the parallel—the reason the Sudeten-German leader, Henlein, felt strong had a lot to do with the fact that a large Nazi state existed to the North. This is not a matter of sending troops necessarily; it has to do with the drawing of power. So that a large dynamic force like China in the North does, I think, lend strength to Ho Chi Minh even though he doesn't like the Chinese.
Senator McGovern said earlier that he believed a conflict with China would be the greatest disaster that could happen in the rest of this century. Yet the Chinese simply don't have any capability to expand; I just can't see this great danger. On the other hand, I just came back from Europe recently, and it was pointed out very clearly to me by the Germans—these were students, government people, businessmen—that our military commitments in Southeast Asia are being watched very closely by people in Europe to see how we live up to them. They are very anxious that we be efficient down there. In other words, there could be a domino effect in Europe. The domino theory also works, at least in part, in Asia. There is no military threat from China to speak of, but we still have to worry about the people in Asia taking an attitude such as Cambodia says it has today. Cambodians tell you point blank that they see the trend, and therefore they have to be neutral and sort of pro-Communist in order to make sure that when the Communists take over they won't have been in sharp conflict with them. Now if we wish to avoid that kind of thing, there is something to be said for America living up to its commitments.
Roche: I suspect that wherever Asian statesmen meet today, they talk about the inscrutable Americans. In 1955 or thereabouts, Sihanouk of Cambodia went to see Dulles and asked whether he could depend on American protection in case of trouble. Dulles said no. So Sihanouk took out insurance. Now, of course, Sihanouk is getting all kinds of hell for his quite rational policy, and he is probably rather upset because we changed the rules. This going back and forth by us has made life very confusing for people caught on the periphery.
McGovern: In response to Mr. Armbruster's comment on what I guess you would call our credibility in Western Europe and other parts of the world, my own impression from what limited observations I have been able to make and what I have read, is that there is very little enthusiastic support for the course we are on in Southeast Asia. I don't see that we have had substantial concrete support from our allies in Western Europe for our policy in Southeast Asia, nor have we had any great clear-cut moral support for our position in Vietnam, either from the Europeans or from countries in Asia. Our ambassador in Japan has indicated that there is great apprehension there about our policy. We know that kind of apprehension also exists in India, Pakistan, and other important countries in Asia and Western Europe. So I fail to see where American prestige would suffer if we should do what George Kennan suggested in his statement to the Fulbright Committee—that is, to liquidate some of these untenable positions.
Armbruster: Of course, Kennan was not suggesting that we pull out of Vietnam.
McGovern: I'm not suggesting that either, except after acceptable negotiations. I'm suggesting that our current policy has not improved our prestige either in Western Europe or anywhere else in the world.
Sidney Morgenbesser:6 I would like to ask Mr. Roche whether he disagrees with Mr. Fall's analysis of what Chinese action has actually been, not what it might potentially be. If he doesn't disagree, why does he think we need a special foreign policy in relation to the Chinese? After all, the policy he advocates—holding the line and playing for time—is what we generally should do everywhere. I take it that behind all this “wait and see,” there is a special foreign policy toward China. . . .
Roche: No, no, I was speaking specifically against the background of the great recent emphasis on China.
Morgenbesser: But do you think Mr. Fall's description of what the Chinese have actually been doing is right?
Roche: I think it's essentially right.
Morgenbesser: If it is right, why do we need a special foreign policy for China?
Roche: The discussion here is about China.
Morgenbesser: But what in your view is unique about China?
Roche: I think because the issue has been raised in such stark terms, that we should de-emphasize the immediate threat of Red China, that we should cool off our ideological blood pressure, so to speak, on the subject of China—in short, that we should play it cool. That's what it comes down to.
Ernest van den Haag:7 Do the members of this panel think that the recent change in Indonesia would have come about if we had not pursued pretty much the policy we have pursued in Vietnam?
Fall: All I can say is that the Indonesians very efficiently murdered another set of Communist leaders in 1948 without the United States being present. In other words, where there is internal pressure, it is bound to erupt regardless of what the United States does. It's like the man who marries the boss's daughter. No matter what he does on his own initiative, it will always be credited to the fact that he married the boss's daughter. That seems to be the case here. I would say that the American presence in Southeast Asia, which does, in fact, give the Asians a certain amount of comfort is probably not the presence of forces on the ground; it is the presence of the Seventh Fleet. Two hundred thousand American troops and six hundred thousand South Vietnamese troops bogged down in a fight against lightly-armed guerrillas, is not exactly a demonstration of power. But the Seventh Fleet is another matter.
van den Haag: But what about resolution?
Fall: I don't see how the American presence increases the resolution of Indonesia, unless the Indonesians believe that the Americans are ready to land in Indonesia.
Roche: Now wait a minute. First of all, until quite recently the number of American troops that have actually been engaged in combat operations in Vietnam was not very great. Also, although I opposed the bombing of North Vietnam last Spring—mainly because I find it hard to believe anything the Air Force tells me—it is my judgment, based on some research into the question, that while it hasn't had anywhere near the effect it was supposed to have on the military situation in Vietnam, it did play a very significant role in Indonesia in stiffening the will of the generals against the PKI.
Joseph Starobin:8 Could I ask the members of the panel to venture an opinion as to the source of China's hostility to the United States? What is eating these fellows? It seems to me that in any discussion of containing China, one has to arrive at a certain estimate of what it is that makes the Chinese act as they do. The Secretary General of the UN, who is Burmese, suggested the other day a sort of psycho-political interpretation of their behavior, and I think it behooves us before we contain them to find out what it is that is bothering them. Is it that they don't like our long noses? Are we the white foreigners? Is it that they expect somehow to overthrow the United States and isolate us? Do they really intend to land troops anywhere near our borders?
McGovern: Well, keeping in mind Mr. Goodwin's warning that it is difficult to know what is motivating our own government, let alone what motivates the Chinese, I think there are certain considerations that might shed some light on the question of what is bothering them. It begins with our very real effort to prevent the Chinese Communist success in their own country. We failed in that in 1949, but only after we had invested a considerable amount of aid and military equipment trying to keep them from coming to power. I suppose, then, that they took over with a rather sour attitude toward us at the very beginning, and that resentment, it seems to me, was then further compounded by the policy of diplomatic isolation of China that we tried to put into effect after 1949. My memory is that there was some serious consideration given to recognizing China, either late in '49, or early in 1950, but then came the Korean War. The Chinese warned that if we approached their frontier they would intervene. We chose to ignore the warning and they did come in. Everyone knows that the war seriously embittered the Chinese toward us, but it worked the other way too. Those many thousands of American casualties poisoned American public opinion toward China. From that time until this, there has been very little effort to bring China into the family of nations. Professor John K. Fairbank of Harvard thinks that the fact that the Chinese, a proud people, have been treated as outlaws and as gangsters has a lot to do with the enraged attitude they have toward the United States and some of the other Western powers. For all these reasons, I would hope that, rather than a policy of containment as defined in the traditional sense of that word, we will work on a policy of reconciliation that is designed to face up to some of these resentments which the Chinese feel.
Goodwin: I don't think you can explain Chinese hostility wholly on the basis of their exclusion from proper society. I think there are a lot of other important drives. One is clearly ideological. If you are really serious about building some sort of Communist world, then naturally your greatest enemy is the great bastion of imperialism and capitalism, the United States. Secondly, the United States happens to be the only power which can oppose whatever ambitions or intentions the Chinese may or may not have in Asia. We had the same position in relation to the Japanese in 1941, which led them to attack us. The Chinese have stated what their long-run strategy is; whether they really believe in it or not is impossible to tell. But the Chief of Staff of the Chinese Army, Marshal Lin Piao, has said that they are going to encircle the United States through revolutions in Africa and Latin America, much as the Chinese Communists encircled the cities from the countryside. I don't think that is a very realistic strategy, or even one they intend to follow, but it is the one they have stated.
In any case, there is no doubt that the Chinese are engaged in supporting Communist revolutionary movements all over the world. They are funding insurgency groups and terrorist groups in Latin America and in Africa; that is one of the reasons they have been kicked out of a few African countries. They have been very heavy-handed about it, and very unsuccessful. But when I was in Latin America recently, I discovered that the Russian Communists have become the conservatives of the Left, and that among the young people and the students, if you believed that Moscow was going to help you, you were a sort of statusquo sellout, whereas if you believed in Peking, you could really belong to the new revolutionary generation. There is something going on.
Roche: Aren't the Russians financing movements in Latin America?
Goodwin: Oh, the Russians are active, but they aren't doing a very good job. They no longer have a hold on the imagination of the young. The Chinese have it much more; or even beyond the Chinese, there is a kind of nationalistic, anarchistic leftism coming into vogue.
Roche: There is one point I would like to make in this connection. One of the favorite occupations of people these days in talking about Vietnam is to engage in what amounts to an elaborate denunciation of history—of all the tragic and fearful mistakes we have made. But denouncing history is no substitute, unfortunately, for confronting its realities. I feel much the same way about these psychodramas. If you are interested in this, you might read the first edition of E. H. Carr's Twenty Year Crisis—not the second, which was modified a bit, but the first edition, which explains Nazism in terms of the paranoid drives that arose out of the feelings the Germans had of being trapped; it also represents Munich as a triumph of the peaceful solution of international differences. In other words, when U Thant gets through explaining the Oriental mind to us, I always want to ask, so what? The sins of my fathers burden me down, but they do not in one whit alter the objective structure of the reality that confronts us right now.
Steven Marcus:9 I would like to ask Mr. Goodwin what he thinks the effects on American society, on American morale, on American politics would be if this peculiarly brutal war continued for another three or four or five years? That is the first part of my question. The second part is, having made such a judgment and given the American temperament, do you think that America could go on with a war of attrition of this particular kind for three or four or five more years?
Goodwin: I'll take the second part first. I think it might be possible to sustain a low-keyed effort for a long time—low key not in the sense of numbers of troops, but in terms of numbers of casualties, numbers of American soldiers killed—without very serious effect on American society. If the war gets a lot bigger, of course, it will have a serious effect on American society, in the way that Korea did and World War II did.
Podhoretz: Could I rephrase that question? I suspect Mr. Marcus was talking about moral and spiritual effects, just as the French intellectuals did as the Algerian War proceeded. The idea is that this war is bad for us, morally and spiritually, quite apart from its political and social implications, and that it will get worse if it goes on.
Goodwin: No. It may have serious effects, but all war is brutalization.
Marcus: That's not a proper discrimination. There are brutalizations and brutalizations. We all know that the brutalization that took place in Germany and Russia was different from the kind of brutalization that has taken place elsewhere. There are moral discriminations to be made.
Goodwin: I don't see any moral distinction between our involvement in this war and our involvement in Korea. But maybe there are other people who do.
Fall: I was in Vietnam last summer, and all I can say is that in the particular moral context in which Mr. Marcus speaks, the Americans are going down the same path as the French did. That is the kind of war it is. I was in the French underground for two years. As the “counter-insurgent,” you finally get frustrated, you get shot at from behind, you get shot at by people to whom you just gave candy. And you react.
And then, of course, there is the real and very serious problem of torture. You have to face up to it. For example, you catch somebody who has just planted bombs in a department store—this happened in Algeria. An officer told me: “Look, I knew the man had two bombs; one we found, and the other we didn't. I knew the bomb would explode at 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon and sixty-five women and children would get killed. What could I do? If I stood on my lily-white honor as an officer, and on the Geneva Convention, and didn't torture him, I would have sixty-five women and children on my conscience. If I tortured him, I could save sixty-five women and children.” You and I would just as soon not have to make such a choice. Of course, you could say that in Vietnam there are more lie detectors, so one doesn't have to use torture that often. They have sodium pentathol, the truth drug, so they don't have to use electrodes against testicles or on women's breasts. But it does happen. In Vietnam you get the Vietnamese to do it half the time, or three-quarters of the time, or even ninety-five per cent of the time, but the fact is that the man who has participated in this is not going to be the same. What happens when he gets home?
There is a wonderful book which was never translated, by a man I admire very much, Professor Paul Mus, who is a strong French liberal and whose son was drafted into Algeria. Young Mus didn't like it one bit when he went in, but within a year he had reenlisted. He had become a paratroop brute, the regular who shot civilians. His father was shocked. If this could happen to a boy from a nice liberal professorial family, what about all the others? So after his son was killed, Mus published his letters, in which you can see the very subtle change that progressively turned the boy into a brute.
There are some long arguments in Washington on the subject; people say it can't happen to Americans. That's nonsense. Of course it can happen. It can happen to anybody. If you get caught in a war like this for four or five years, that is what it will do to you.
Marcus: I agree. One cannot predict what is going to happen to the society at large when this kind of war is being fought, when there is knowledge, general knowledge, that this is the kind of thing that is done in the course of a day. I don't think one can predict the social, or moral, or personal, or cultural consequences of it.
Fall: In a way that's why I am in favor of using draftees in this kind of war. The difference between Algeria and Vietnam was that in Vietnam you had only the French professional army, whereas in Algeria, there were 500,000 draftees out of 760,000 men. When the French generals in Algeria decided to rise up against the government in Paris, the draftees, to the great disappointment of the generals, remembered that they were citizens first. Good citizens are very much needed now in Vietnam if you are intending to win back the Vietnamese as human beings.
Theodore Solotaroff:10 I would like to ask Mr. Roche how he proposes to arrive at a “Korean” solution of the Vietnam war without fighting another Korean War—a land war involving five-hundred, six-hundred thousand men. Such a war has already been fought once in that country by the French, with what results we know.
Secondly, how can we “cool it” with respect to Red China, without getting involved in a total reeducation of the American public about the realities of politics in the Far East while prosecuting this war? Yet as we have seen in the last year or two, the war has tended more and more to corrupt and pollute public opinion about these realities.
Roche: I would support, and do support, and indeed have supported, a planned action in South Vietnam on the order of 250-, 400-, or 500,000 men if necessary to achieve precisely a Korean solution. On the second point, the American people have what is without doubt the shortest historical memory in the history of man. It is one of our great assets that we are historical nominalists, we think that every problem starts at sunrise on the day we find out about it. After all, within three years after the end of the Second World War, we were rearming the Germans. The whole American attitude toward the Germans and also toward the Japanese had changed. So I don't think that this is one of these permanent poisons that is going to infect the American spirit. I might add here, by the way, that I share Mr. Goodwin's view that there is nothing sui generis about the violence in South Vietnam.
Goodwin: On this matter of public opinion, I think the resistance to relations with China is really overstated and that an American President could in fact recognize China, or even support their entry to the UN, with very little political kickback after the first thirty or forty days.
Podhoretz: Would you please tell that to Lyndon Johnson the next time you see him?
Goodwin: But I don't think it is politically or psychologically possible for that to happen while the Vietnam war continues.
McGovern: I think Mr. Marcus touched on an important problem here in mentioning the byproducts of this war. I think it is probably true that the United States has enough military power to defeat North Vietnam. But what does victory mean? It may be a very hollow victory indeed. If we commit four- or five- or six-hundred thousand men to a little country like that, we are going to destroy it. There won't be enough left to pick up the pieces.
One of the most dramatic—and yet I think most accurate—assessments that I have seen of the war, was by a Times reporter who was out there for about a year and a half. He said that when he went to Vietnam he didn't think the war could be won, but he thought it so important for us to win that it was worth trying. After staying there for a year and a half, he decided that we probably could win the war, but it wasn't worth the price we would have to pay. We would have to kill two or three innocent civilians in South Vietnam for each Vietcong soldier we could wipe out. A policy like that, he said, would make more sense if South Vietnam were the enemy instead of our ally.
Take the case of the Japanese. It is regrettable that we killed so many Japanese in World War II, but at least they were a clearly defined enemy, whereas the people who are going to get killed in South Vietnam are the people we say we are trying to defend. It seems to me that this is one cost that explains some of the moral concern that we feel here in our country. There are other costs we are going to have to pay, not the least of which is neglecting a lot of the things we ought to be doing here in the United States to improve the quality of our own life. We are also going to have to neglect such important problems as nuclear proliferation and our relations with Latin America and with the Soviet Union. Many of these things are going to get shoved into a secondary position because of the necessity of focusing our immediate attention on Vietnam.
Podhoretz: We have time for one last question.
William Phillips:11 My question is really addressed to Mr. Roche. He said earlier that he advocates a policy of biding our time and playing it by ear, and I kept waiting and listening for some concrete implementation of these general attitudes. If I read him correctly, he now seems to be saying that the implementation of these general attitudes consists of sending more troops into Vietnam, or into any troubled area. Is this his notion of what a viable and decent American policy might be?
Roche: I start out with the assumption that the war in Vietnam is not a Chinese war. I look on the situation in North Vietnam as North Vietnamese expansionism, or Vietnamese Communist imperialism. My position, as I indicated earlier, is that we should hold on in the South without going North, without enlarging the war, while attempting, of course, to use our military power in the South as a shield behind which to build the social and political and economic institutions which alone can make any kind of long-range solution viable. But I don't see any contradiction between this and playing it cool with China, because I am certain that the Chinese will not intervene in Vietnam unless we go North on the ground—unless we in fact do what we did in Korea, which was to threaten their control directly. I don't at all believe we are likely to do this.
Goodwin: I disagree with the assumption that I think both Mr. Roche and Senator McGovern have made, which is that victory in Vietnam is somehow possible. I don't think that victory in Vietnam is likely at all. A Korean-type solution would mean a total defeat of the Communist effort to take over South Vietnam, which is what the war is about. So to speak of that solution is only another way of talking about victory.
A half-million men may seem like a lot of men, but I don't doubt that we will have that many men or more in there very shortly. But you can't win the manpower game. There are 300,000-plus regular troops in the North Vietnamese forces. I have no doubt that those troops will come down, and that when we get a half-million men in there we will find that we haven't got anywhere near enough. Nor has the bombing of the North ever been shown to have anything but the most marginal military value in terms of interdiction of supplies. During the last bombing attack before the pause, there was still a constant build-up by the Vietcong guerrillas. The bombing makes it harder. It means they have to walk at night, it means they have to take ferries instead of bridges. But there are a lot of unemployed people in North Vietnam who can do repair work.
The administration doesn't talk in terms of victory. If we ever did push it to the point of victory, I think the Chinese might well come in. This is a very good argument against pushing it to the point of victory.
I think we are getting into an Alice-in-Wonderland situation in Vietnam. Rhetorically, almost everyone is beginning to agree with everyone else in opposing withdrawal, in doubting that we can win, and in wanting an intermediate position—and all the while the war steadily escalates. My own feeling is that it's going to escalate further. Yet no military expert has demonstrated that victory is possible short of completely obliterating that piece of the peninsula from the earth's surface.
1 This discussion took place on February 14, before the China hearings opened up the question of American policy toward China for the first time in many years.—Ed.
2 Mr. Higgins is a noted military historian.
3 Mr. Goldbloom in a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY and a former Foreign Service staff officer in Greece.
4 Miss Arendt is the author of, among other books, The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem.
5 Mr. Armbruster is an expert on military affairs and a member of the Hudson Institute.
6 Mr. Morgenbesser is professor of philosophy at Columbia University.
7 Mr. van den Haag is a well-known sociologist and social critic.
8 Mr. Starobin is a Senior Fellow at the Research Institute on Communist Affairs at Columbia University.
9 Mr. Marcus is associate professor of English at Columbia University and an editor of Partisan Review.
10 Mr. Solotaroff, formerly associate editor of COMMENTARY, is now editor of Book Week.
11 Mr. Phillips is editor of Partisan Review.
Containing China: A Round-Table Discussion
Must-Reads from Magazine
t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen 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.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.