I met Felix—that’s Seligman, I called him in our conversation—on the twenty-third of December, 1966. I remember the date because it was the date of my wedding. A blizzard had hit Virginia about ten in the morning, so when Felix walked into my parents’ gold-papered hallway, he was splattered with snow-flakes, lugging a suitcase with one hand and holding a wet gone-out cigar in the other. He’s a big man, you know, but the girl he ushered in with him was smaller than I am. Abby wore a black dress. This disturbed me, though later I learned it ought not to have: black is not the color of mourning among Jews.
Felix was our best man. He’d been best friends with my husband since they were both ten years old in Flatbush. In 1966 Felix was one year into the business of getting a divorce from his wife, who, as Ezra explained it to me, had quit sleeping with him six months after they were married, because he’d given up his sales job in order to become a cameraman. He started out nonunion, of course, and earned about fifty dollars a week. Now Felix makes in the neighborhood of fifty thousand a year, but now he screws around with heroin. Anyway, the marriage, his marriage, lasted for five years, and then his wife locked him out one night and he moved in with my husband for a while and then he met Abby. Abby is gone from the scene these days, too; I mean, neither Felix nor I see her, but by her choice. But she was pretty and dark and pretentious, and I liked her. My parents also liked her, and adored Felix on sight, and if they’d insisted beforehand that no unwed couple was going to stay overnight in one room in their lovely house that they’d worked all their lives for, as soon as they set eyes on this good-looking pair of people, they changed their minds, and whispered to me that it was okay. I should have been so attractive—the world would open up, don’t kid yourself. Only Felix and his Abigail didn’t stay, after all, because they could afford to be appalled at the prospect of being stranded in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia.
If even I can’t mistake the crossness that has crept into my tone of voice, it is because what I am trying to tell you is that so long ago, in that instant when Felix stepped into the house in Richmond, with Ezra grinning from ear to ear, so easily triumphant, with me in a state of panic, I knew I wanted to go to bed with him. Knew is maybe not quite the right word. I didn’t acknowledge the notion, didn’t dwell on it, but it was there, there in my body if not my brain, even as Ezra took him aside and handed him the thin white-gold band that would be urged onto my finger in a few hours. But you won’t read this rightly if you don’t recognize that both Ezra and I were well-taught children of the Age of Liberalism, prone to psychoanalysis, magnanimously tolerant of fantasy. Why not? Our fantasies were private and could not possibly wreak any effect on a world as incurious or unconcerned as we’d early enough concluded ours was. So the sensitivities of my own rather severe bosom could scarcely disturb my equilibrium, and when Felix flattered me or mocked me with a low drawl, it was only a game. Three years went by before I saw it’d sneaked up on reality. The night was cold, it was late February in New York, and after dinner—chicken breasts in a wine-and-mushroom sauce; how helplessly pleased I was with myself for having learned to cook at last—over coffee, my husband and Felix, each interrupting the other, broached me with the suggestion that I spend a week with Felix at his place in upstate New York. My husband said I needed a vacation. “It will be good for you,” he said, “to get away from me for a while.” My hands trembled. When I looked at Felix, he reached for the celery sticks: hungry and blithe, he was, seemed oblivious. But Ezra stiffened and I was afraid of the fast smile he challenged me with. He confused me. I didn’t know whether to be insulted that I was so sexually harmless, or alarmed at my own ungovernability, or suspicious. My husband was so clever at uncovering guile in others that I assumed he was not incapable of a certain deviousness himself.
Two hours earlier, in the kitchen, as Felix was hanging up his coat, Ezra had caught me by the elbow. Because now that I write this, I remember it was not late February; it was Valentine’s Day. That’s marvelous. I suppose you had thought to discover in this letter some secret by which to interpret me, content me, but now you see that I am no more than the contemporary female forced by circumstance to deny her inclination toward sentimentality. But you are arrogant and I do not love you. “Happy Valentine’s,” Ezra said. The present he gave me was a beautiful little Greek vase copy from the Metropolitan Museum; I have kept it still. But the card read, “Will you be mine?” And when you opened it up, it asked, “Or must I take you by force?” I kissed him for the vase. Then I asked him what the card meant: haltingly. He only laughed. “It seemed appropriate,” he said. I quickly put them away before Felix returned. It was dinnertime.
We sat in the living room, lamplight reflecting from the snow mounded on the windowsills outside, the aroma of red wine running from the bowl of bones on the table. Felix stretched out in the armchair that had been my husband’s before we were married. Was it too ostentatiously that I curled up on the couch next to Ezra and tried to hold his hand? But his face had gone black and he rose to fetch a story I’d done, a story in which the young husband painted his pregnant wife orange. The scene stemmed from Ezra, as so many of my story ideas were his. He showed the story to Felix. I occupied myself with cleaning up, clearing the dishes, while Felix read it, his giggles and snorts exaggerating Ezra’s uncharacteristic silence, paining my ears. This story was set in his farmhouse in upstate New York; that had been Ezra’s doing too.
“You don’t really have the feel of it,” Felix said. “You haven’t been there often enough.”
Three weeks later my husband was still at me, wanting me to go up there, and that was one reason I agreed to the separation when he instead suggested that. There were other reasons that played into it. Ezra, who’d been himself pretty much raised by his analyst, had been sending me to a psychiatrist at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, a fat and bearded dullard determined to abide by the rulebook to the point where we wasted fifteen minutes each session until I volunteered some stupid matter for discussion. “It’s cold out,” I said. He said, “Tell me why the cold makes you uncomfortable.” But the weather was what we ought to have had in common. I was lonely, and he merely made me lonelier. So I said to Ezra, “Enough. If I’m sick, this is no way to get well.”
He said nothing at first. He put a cigarette in his mouth, reached for my lighter; the flame swelled up like a volcano and a tremor ran up his arm and he dropped the lighter. I jumped for it, smothered the fire with my boot. “Goddamn you,” he cried, “it’s our one chance, don’t you see that?” He’d cursed me before, but always we met in bed. I was crazy for his energy, which fed me, and this night was no different from the others. But in the morning, a letter came from my parents, addressed to us both, and he opened it first. It pointed out that if I worked a few months in Richmond, living with them, I could give Ezra the extra year he wanted in New York. “It’ll give us time to think in,” he said, “and they won’t have to know the real reason behind the separation.” Well, it fairly kills my soul to admit that the first thing I thought of was the midterm coming up in the night school Greek lit class I was taking; I wasn’t prepared for it, and this would be a way out. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t terrified. “I’ll go back to therapy,” I said. “Anything.” He called my parents and told them I was coming home that night. Then he called the airline and made a reservation, and called a taxi, and packed my things, and took me there, and sent me off. I swore and said he was an efficient bastard. But when we were picking up the ticket, a black woman with a child stood in line in front of us. “Thirty-two fifty,” the clerk told her. “All I has got is thirty dollars,” she said. She started to weep. Ezra dug the difference out of his pocket and put it on the counter and smiled at her. I was heartbroken.
I’d come home from an interview at Midlothian High School, where the principal queried me on my opinion of Catcher in the Rye and asked how long my husband, doing his doctorate “up there,” wore his hair. My own, I’d cut short for the sake of this interview. I knew Ezra wouldn’t’ve approved, but in the Southern sunshine I was living in, all life seemed simpler and earthier, more practical, than he would have it. Now I went into my room, put my purse down on the ingenious, long desk my father had built so willingly across one wall, and the telephone rang. It was Ezra. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “This is my plan. Come back to New York, find a job, take an apartment of your own, undergo intensive, long-term therapy. I’ll work part-time and pay our bills. If you can become financially and emotionally independent of me, a self-sufficient adult, then it is possible that at some later time we may try living together again.” He must have memorized it, and the self-righteousness and the vanity of it stung me to the quick. “No! No! No!” I screamed. My voice flew out of me as if it had been caged. “Oh, God, no.”
“Then you want a divorce,” he said, still matter-of-fact.
“Oh, God, no,” I screamed again, but I could hardly believe that it was I whose shrillness filled the room. I cried and pleaded and he hung up. I laid my head down on the desk next to my purse.
My parents are musicians; my mother’s hands are rough, the fingertips callused, but her bones have a graceful precision, a long, fine line I still would like to have learned. Gently she knocked on the door. “I think,” she said, “you’d better tell us what’s wrong, now.” What Southern delicacy! . . . Insisting I should assume the subordinate position I wanted. What outrage followed, when they learned what was going on. But I would not listen to them. I called Ezra back and told him that I submitted to his plan. “It’s too late,” he said. “You don’t really care about me.” Nor did all my tears avail.
Then I wrote to his analyst, a careful, honest letter that he never acknowledged. I called my own analyst, who said, “If that’s the way the man feels about you, I can’t change his mind.” I called Ezra’s brother and sister-in-law. They had been my closest friends in New York: “We don’t want to mix in,” they said. “Our only part in all this is to offer moral support to Ezra.” I called Abby. “Men,” she said, “they’re all nuts.” But Abby never called me.
The sole person from that hub of the world who was troubled to get in touch with me was Felix, and he, in his monosyllabic manner, with that hip shrug I could see long-distance, assured me that I was not, indeed, “no ‘count”—the mockery was discreet—nor was I so uselessly deluded as Ezra had said or so bothersome as I feared. He wrote me a letter which I saved, since it took off from divorce in general and sailed into a description of his current summertime ménage à trois in Woodstock and concluded with a dream sequence wherein he seduced some gaunt lady roundheels from Larchmont, an attorney’s wife, mounting all his loathings and his fears on her apocalyptically avocado-carpeted floor. I welcomed that letter for its friendliness, and resented it too, because it confined me so closely to the arena of simple friendship. We talked a few times on the telephone. He was in favor of my returning to New York. But that was all. And I accepted the indignity of his disinterest, for if I was guilty of adultery, that sin was not only not palpable, a slight waywardness of the imagination, but had been committed not with him but with the composer in Russia whom I’d once promised to marry. I’d broken that promise in order to marry my husband. Then perhaps the adultery was done with my husband in violence upon the pledge, even upon the very outlandishness of the pledge, I’d contracted in a cemetery in Riga to my brilliant and sentimental Russian, who, sick with music and hope, loved me more truly than I felt free at the time to give him credit for, disbelieving his intent because I knew I wasn’t worth it. In this way one succeeds in wondering whether Ezra hadn’t failed to trust me out of his mistrust of himself, but I can recognize a rationalization when I see one; and surely that kind of melancholic twisting and turning is so far from being true that it was instead the locus of the sickness my husband, probing my psyche even more assiduously than the recesses of my body, stirred in me. In any case, I saw Felix just once right after I returned to New York. Oh, he was hugely altered. His hair was shaggy and unruly, he’d lost thirty pounds, he was dropping acid, he was filming subtle and arch little obscenities for distribution by Evergreen, and if he was in bad shape, I was in worse, and we met at the Esquire on Broadway for breakfast and went our separate ways.
Sickness: I am and have always been at the core dogmatic as hell and pitted against the rest of the world but baffled by how ever to make that definition visible, much less viable. You said I am not a woman. You should be able to do better than that. If the accusation is true, it holds for every one of us, including your wife, and if it is true, it is also tired, a ploy, and a threat. “Look here,” this man tells me; “you’re not a woman until I acknowledge you as one.” You can take your sanctions, sweetheart, and shove them. I don’t need them. Nor will I allow you to equate my existence with a generality, I am not the womb but only contain one, and my problems are particular and only resemble those of my sisters. Let me tell you something. I went underground quite consciously when I was seven or so; it seemed the only way to preserve one’s sanity in a family which was utterlv charming, bright, and dedicated to doom. My husband, Ezra Solomon—his father was a small-time judge riddled with ambition—tried to tutor me into an anger with them that should have freed me, but, you see, they are likeable. Just as he was. And what none of them—he because he believed in “love”—would understand or even accept was really me, is that I simply did not feel the need for any radical reconstruction of our mortal souls. I still don’t for the life of me understand why people should not be permitted to feel hatred and sexual desire and ambition and envy and guilt and sentimentality and any other thing they care to feel, since what is conveyed is all that has any effect, or maybe here what I do mean is affect.
I believe in manners. In appearances. In superficiality, if you will.
But this passion is off the point and incoherent to boot. What I started to say, to tell you, is that I am depressed when I see myself aging, and whether I look fifteen or not is beside the point because I know where the wrinkles are and I know where my limbs are losing elasticity and I know how the chances for childbearing daily decrease: when I see myself aging and yet retaining some undefeatable, some so help me almost unavoidable, childlike incapacity to translate what I know into how I reason. How easy it would be if I were only faced with translating what I think into what I do, but the problem is deeper, and shows even in a certain translucence of the eye, which I spotted in my mother ages ago and answer to now in the mirror, a certain openness which reveals not, haplessly, vacuity, but an incredibly crazy knack for tolerating anomaly after anomaly, if that’s the word I want, for sustaining contradictions without end. And in fact if I do have any talent at all it is reducible to this, that I can assume any number of personalities on paper, which has been my means of survival, and is also the deathtrap in which that core of dogmatism, me at age seven hearing God in my head telling me to put aside all argument and go about my work, which was prophecy (I never told that to my bearded friend; it’s too simple to analyze away), has locked itself. Don’t you dare choke on this. You asked for my letter. “I am waiting,” you said.
Felix and I talked on the phone occasionally during the year. After October, it was always I who called: October was when he informed me that my husband had flown to Mexico, compliments of his brother’s money, and obtained a divorce from me. I was divorced for a week before I knew it. Felix tried to placate me, saying, “What good is living with someone who doesn’t love you? You’re better off out of it. Come on, luv,” he said, and giggled, “be a big girl and roll with the punches.” But I went on bawling and he said he was sorry. Then after a while, along about March, when Ezra married again, I stopped calling Felix, and it wasn’t until almost summer that he rang to say he’d seen my husband who was full of crap and how was my love life. I was surprised. But not entirely. I had, after all, mailed him a poem I’d done about him, which I hoped would set up some echoes in his head. It did, though I knew muse-baiting was an inferior sport. He suggested that we get together sometime. Oh, dear Jesus, was I nonchalant. “Sure,” I said, as a year of lukewarm affairs had taught me to hold my tongue in these matters. But that, you see, didn’t stop me from glancing at the telephone every time I walked past it.
Then the following week he did phone, and he was in town, and again I met him for breakfast—this was June, and the Esquire had gone out of business and we met at Stark’s on 90th—and we went back to my place and turned on with some stuff I had stashed there and then drove to Riverside Park and 96th, where a five-year-old boy black as the Queen of Spades was peeing over the railing. I was too high to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, so whenever I pulled myself back from watching the remnants of cloud that skirted the sun, I found my hemline inching up. Felix climbed a tree. We went somewhere for lunch. I forget where. On the way we passed a young girl selling hotdogs on the street; she was sitting on a stool, and Felix, with the privileges that he was entitled to as a bright and beautiful male making it in Fun City, bent over and patted her knee, but I just smiled at her right alongside him. In the restaurant he said, “Come to the country for a couple of days.” He added, “After Bonny leaves.” I asked him who Bonny was. “She’s been living there,” he said, “and she has this kid I’m crazy about. You should have had a kid.”
“Are you living with her?” Because one never knew for sure.
“Goddamn! Living? Living with her? I call living with someone when you live with someone for a few years and have a goddamn kid by someone.”
He was shaking his head as if he’d like to shatter the air around him, and the motive for his fury escaped me. “What happened between you and Ezra?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
But he was deeply hurt because my husband refused to countenance his interest in yoga and the I Ching, my husband the arch-rationalist, direct descendant of Elijah Gaon of Vilna who never slept and burned the bad books of the Hasidim, and he felt that my husband was throwing away twenty-some years of friendship. “Christ,” Felix said, “friends are for arguing with, aren’t they?” Tentatively, I nodded my head, but he wasn’t looking at me. “I love him,” he said, “and that doesn’t seem to mean anything.” I would have liked to ask him about Ezra’s second wife, but was afraid to. I figured, you see, that he’d just been divorced from my husband and was getting back at him by going to bed with me, but loathed myself for thinking this because it is the kind of deviousness built on self-contempt that I am afraid healthy people don’t operate on.
As a matter of fact, when I was seventeen and at New Mexico Tech, a misfit if ever there was one, my closest friend was an older man named Will who said to me that he thought I might someday be the single real woman he knew of if I could rid myself of my deviousness. That is the kind of thing I always took to heart, took to bed, and brooded over. Will later gave up mathematics, it was topology or something, for bear-hunting in Alaska. So I tried to lay psychology aside and came on very friendly but calm and Felix was stunned when back at my apartment I seduced him.
It was that, because, like any man, his view of relationships resists expansion, and if I was his surrogate, I was still his ex-best-friend’s ex-wife. He knew only what he wanted to do, not what he was willing to do. But for God’s sake, accept this much about me: I knew that it was too late to wound Ezra by sleeping with Felix. Both Felix and I, in our different ways, had early on transgressed the things that Ezra only toyed with, and we hankered after some conventionality which seemed forever just beyond our reach. Felix sat in my line of sight, across from me, at the desk, licking the edge of a reefer he was rolling, and he has a small wart tucked into the side of his nose that is unaccountably attractive. “What I do like about you,” I told him, “is the way you move. It’s masculine.”
He was as flattered as the most innocent of savages. And why shouldn’t he have been? It was sincere enough. He giggled. “I always thought my best qualities were really kind of feminine,” he said. “Effeminate.”
“Oh, they are.”
I sat on the bed. “Why not bring that thing over here,” I said, and if I wasn’t elegant, at least I wasn’t coy. So we sat together on the bed, smoking another cigarette, and the speckles of dust that swam in the sunlight washing over us from my windows grew as enormous as planets. “It’s the Milky Way,” I laughed, because I was in the one place where the shadow of my mother’s smartness couldn’t reach me. I was in the one place where no man’s wit or coldness could tyrannize me: it’s been years since I broke the first taboo, and since then no man can put out my fire. The heat of my body is sufficient to support the cosmos, yes, damn you, to generate stars and suns. I might have spoken aloud, “Try it, Felix, try to pin me down here, try to swing your weight over me and beat me down here, the way you do with your shrugs and your girls and your dope. The way Ezra did with words.” He would not even have heard me. He was lost in space already. First I kneaded his thighs, slowly, slowly, and then I sucked the skin of his shoulders, making moons, and touched my tongue to his small teeth, and I revolved around him like earth’s solitary moon, slowly, gazing on his blue, glassy eyes until they closed.
He was good, the best I’d ever had, and when we’d done, he kissed my throat, and said, “Well, it was worth waiting for.” Such gentleness took me off my guard. I stroked his face. All my energy was spent, and oh lord, oh lord, I knew for how little. I wanted to take it all back, gather it up in my hands, put it to some intelligent, real use. But it was useless, and always was; my energy derives from a stingy source which will not allow a long-term investment. These metaphors were a misery to me, and I turned away from Felix, but not before he caught the cloudiness on my face, so that he held me in his arms for a moment. Then, “I have to be going,” he said.
“Right on,” I said.
He hugged me.
I had cut a religion class I was supposed to be sitting in on, a doctor appointment, and that was also the first day since I started tutoring her that I begged off on a session with Valerie. She’s got cerebral palsy—well, you know—a radiant face, dark brown hair blown around her face like the emblem of our era, and I was wrong to skip our session because she has been to me no less than what the child on the farm was to Felix. When Felix repeated that he wanted me to come up to the farm, then, still full of his hug, I soared. Even when he explained that it had to be worked in between when Bonny, the current girl, was taking off for Mexico, and the following weekend, which was the Fourth of July and he was going to Woodstock to drop an anniversary tab with the girl of last summer, or girls, I said you bet and was tickled to death at being listed in the stable of a hopelessly inarticulate but perfectly fine moviemaker. He did a film of the subway strike so lyrical, so lovely, it would break your heart to see it. I showed him out the door and stood in the doorway and he touched my cheek. His fingers were as swift as rain.
Thursday. A week has gone by since I began this, and I still don’t know what you hope to gain by it. Or I do—you in your unoffensively assertive suit, laced shoes, peeking through this keyhole into the drug culture, I detest your compartmentalizing, long to do the same. “Tell me,” you said, “why you feel guilty about being unhappy.” That was the most splendid excuse I had ever heard: I wanted to pick it up and raise it like an umbrella over our heads and with the rain pitching down on all sides I’d let you kiss my hands and face at least until the sun shone again. Well, as my father used to say, we’ll see. Three minor incidents keep urging themselves onto this paper, and you may as well have them too.
The first is that a few days ago I received a note from Dan Atkinson, a writer whom I knew rather formally in Greensboro. He’s thirty-one, married, has two little boys, and from what I gather off the grapevine, conducts his life with a bit more honor than most of us who were there at the time. I thought him a good writer; and he’s the only one of the bunch who has had less success than I. To his note he added a postscript: “I keep on sending stories out, but each time they sit on them just long enough for my hairline to recede another one-sixteenth of an inch, and then they send them back without any comment.”
It’s a struggle for power. When we were in Greensboro, I wrote a story, still unpublished, titled “Portraits.” The hero was Jakob, a Dutch painter of ambiguous aims. I’d always pictured my Jakob with blond spun-out hair, a pool of hazy sunshine. One night in Brooklyn, my husband, who is as dark and mole-pocked as any Mediterranean nomad, showed me that nowhere in the story did I indeed specify the color of Jakob’s hair. Ezra was smiling when he pointed this out to me, but it was not a malicious smile, or at least I didn’t think it was, but it was one which delighted in recognizing something I hadn’t, and sometimes still, on the subway or in the store, I think I see his thick lips pulled down like a drapery of flesh over an unspeakably vast and verboten abyss. He loved to link things which I would otherwise see as disparate, until it seemed he was weaving a web around my mind, and it was hopeless to argue or struggle against it.
The third thing is not unrelated, though it has to do with Jamaica. Of course I thought about you in Jamaica, in August, but I had an affair there, with the twenty-one-year-old Hindu who managed the hotel in-bond store. His name was Johnny, and except that he had no chin, he was the image of my husband. But the only reading matter in his apartment was a paperback titled Married Men Make the Best Lovers, and a stack of comic books, and he knew almost nothing about sex and approached the subject with a scientific mien that was ofttimes unnerving. But he was a nice youth, and he bore me no grudge, and I loved the excellence with which he ran his shop. We stretched out on the sand of the public beach, crossing our legs over each other, listening to the static on his transistor radio. John Crow zeroed in close over our heads, and our heads were buzzing from the ganja. I burrowed my fingers in the sand while he explained to me that the necklace he wore was given to him by his widowed mother in Kingston: it bore the image of a guru and kept the bad spirits away. He carried me back to the hotel on his scooter about one, and when I got into the room I switched on the lamp between Valerie’s mother’s bed and mine, because I thought I might do some reading. She sensed the light was on and reached up to turn it off, but she was full of sleeping pills, and when she reached up, her pillow slid off, and then she began to slide out from bed after the pillow. She fell asleep again in the middle of all this action, and there she hung, suspended between the bed and the floor, between, I vow, time and space. So I went over and picked her up and swung her back onto the bed. I tucked her in and then started to slip the pillow under her. Suddenly she raised both her arms, her wrists making little clasping motions, and her face was so white and expressionless that in an instant my position was transformed, and I was guilty, I was responsible, I was that damned survivor the corpse clutches at in the hour of silence. What dreams we have. When I was nine and not yet brainwashed by civilization, I dreamed of an ancient wooden house. The outside staircase climbed to the attic. I stood at the foot of the stairs, grasping the banister, and as I stood there, I saw my family in their various stations along the staircase shed their skin in flakes like flakes of snow, until to my huge, crying sorrow their bones showed and shimmered, turning in the pale, courteous light of the stars as if they were semiprecious stones.
Here is why I tutor Valerie: I make her laugh, my innocence, as she is pleased to call it, amuses her. Here is why I do not understand the books you patronize me with, Kierkegaard and Saint Augustine and the rest. All arguments convince only a believer. To the nonbeliever, the universe is discrete, insane, purposelessly proliferous, vain and futile. Say that last word with a long i. Every burst of flower, shock of aroma, every high mass sung or thought conceived or love survived, is made irredeemably ugly, is made disgusting, by the death of a child, and every death is the death of a child. There is no time in the world alone. There is no trust, because nothing is trustworthy, nor is there any sharing. Pessimism is the only intelligent response to fact; and the only fact is the fact of evil. But what I’m trying to say is that if you ask me to define God in twenty-five words or less, I’m game, and I say that what God is, is the possibility of goodness. The possibility. But it is alas the perception of that possibility which without reflection commands us, binds us in covenant, wrenches us from our natural posture, and sucks up our energy in an unending effort to bring into being what can never endure until the End of Days, or if you will the Day of Judgment, and that is what profound is, for without personality there is no morality. Somewhere God and Eros meet. (But it is not in Dr. Freud’s room. I was there and I can vouch for that.) In return for our unholy anguish we receive hope, history, and once in a blue moon, communication, but this tension, this covenant, is the bleeding hardest bargain anybody ever drove; selling your soul to the devil and being sued for gypping him is easy by comparison, and sometimes I just really wish to hell that somebody would bother to say this without whitewashing it into terms of conviction or faith or whatever. What it is, is revelation, and having consented to recognize the revelation, there is no answer open to you but yes. Maturity? Maturity is for people who don’t have the good goddamn sense to tremble with terror every blessed moment of their existence, who don’t recognize the enormity of the debt of gratitude we owe to God.
So I went upstate, and Felix met me at the bus stop in Hudson, which is not far from Tangle-wood.
Too bad for me, he’d got things ordered in his head before I got up there, and as soon as I stepped off the bus he cut me down by asking what I was doing wearing city clothes. We picked up his laundry and when we got to the farmhouse I changed into my jeans and a T-shirt and work shoes. He was wearing wonderfully filthy white pants and the new moustache that made him look down and out in Paris and London. The first thing we did of course was light up and go for a walk in the meadow. “You have to watch out for the gopher holes,” he warned me, “you could break a leg.”
The sun was bright, the grass was green all over, that gorgeous air sinks in deep. I was glad to see Happy Jack Dog again, and said so. “Son of a bitch killed a gopher last week and brought it in by its neck. Don’t want nobody to call him Happy any more,” said Felix. I tripped. “I told you, you got to watch out for four-legged dangerous dogs.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” I said.
“Sure I do.”
“You said you could break a leg in one of these holes. They’re mouseholes,” I said, “holes in the earth. I’m up on holes because I’m doing ‘Notes from Underground’ with Valerie.”
“I have this feeling, well, I do, that she must be beautiful,” he said.
“I read Dostoevsky once. But I wasn’t sixteen, I was younger yet. My mother thought she’d improve my mind by checking out books from the Brooklyn Public Library.”
“I never realized you had a mother.”
“I’m a son of a bitch.”
I said, “It’s true you’re much too tough for me.”
We took off our shoes. The pressure of the sun pushed our feet to the earth. Happy Jack Dog nuzzled my feet. “Scram,” Felix said, and Happy Jack ran for the woods.
“You’re a mean one,” I told him, when I tried to kiss him and he pushed me away.
“People drive by, even on this dirt road. You got to watch out for people.”
“I know, I know. They’re two-legged dangerous dogs.”
“If you call him Happy again, I’ll strangle you. I used to love him, and that’s what you don’t understand.” He put his big hands on my neck and we walked back to the house. . . . Which is beautiful.
It’s fifty bucks a month and he did the insulation himself. A fireplace, a potbellied stove, a darkroom and an upstairs, and the entirety so fragile you feel like you’re living on the ground and the whole thing so sturdy you can stay there the year through. Hell, yes, I was there a year. Maybe it was the weed, but I like grass: it is usually fun and it is sensuous and the ritual in its use is peace-making for the mind, even when you are alone. I grant you, I never heard of anybody’s getting a good idea on it; but you do sometimes stumble onto interesting notions if you’re smoking with someone, because the way conversation works when you’re high is that statement A is satisfactorily coherent, statement B is coherent, but B picks up one word or image from A and replies to that, not to the sense of the sentence as a whole. It’s like shooting at ducks tangentially.
But Felix and I didn’t talk much. Everything we might have said to each other would have rung in a third party, Ezra’s ghost. So he loaded his rifle and went out again, this time to take a couple of potshots at rabbits, and the blasts shook me as I rocked in the rocking chair in the living room. There are different kinds of long weekends, and I knew by now that this one was going to be longer than most. My grandmother would have said, “Trouble always comes in three’s.” My mother says, “When trouble comes, it comes in spades.” As soon as I’d entered the house that morning, I saw the book on Cézanne, and knew by the tear on the slipcover that it was my ex-husband’s. Felix had left it on the coffee table. He must have known, I think, or ought to have known, that I would recognize it; he knew the slipcover was torn when I hurled the book at Ezra the day he sneered and said my taste in art was “literary.” I retorted: “It’s not me who’s doing a hubristic paper on lithos of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, of all things.” Our battles were very intellectual and straight. But I at least knew that for, or in, all his puffed-up rationalism, he saw himself less as King Solomon and more as the handsome and clever Joseph, Mann’s lovable unlicked cub, purely oblivious to fleshly lures which would evilly sway him from his righteous administration. I knew that when Potiphar’s wife, who would be running to a shameful fullness, but harsh with herself, not promiscuous, not oversure, but frightened and bored, said, “Dear young boy, I am sick with the weariness in my womb and desire to teach you the pleasures that are already beginning to graduate from me,” Joseph answered without mercy: “What have I to learn from you?” He would not risk Potiphar’s sword; neither would he leave Potiphar’s house in peace. And with his soft looks and scowl, his curls that whispered when they brushed against her sleeve in the dusk, he drove that woman into madness.
I turned my mind inside out for him, combing all the crumbs of ambivalence from my imagination. When I was clean, he walked away.
The screendoor slammed on Felix’s entrance. He had with him some stuff from the pot plants he cultivates in between the cucumbers. He’d dried out the tops of some of the plants the day before, and that stuff especially was strong. We smoked it and started to mess around and then he sort of maneuvered me outside into the bushes next to the garage. I didn’t altogether comprehend the reason for his grin, since I’d gladly screw in the sunshine any day of the week, but I was afraid to say anything. I could smell his body and it was like the ground. He’d brought the rifle with him and set it down by the inflated plastic mattress we lay on. He knew his way around the country, all right, the route was mapped. We stripped, not touching each other, and the sun sparkled on the hairs of his legs. For the first time, I paid attention to the freckles on his chest; they wiped me out. I wanted to say something nice to him, then, because he was so defenseless against the sky, rooted there like a sapling, bending over me as if compelled to by the wind, but the sun kept shifting, striking first here and then there, so that I was at a loss, I was losing ground. The sun burned up my insides; he stoked away at me as if I were a furnace. His mouth was a glowing coal, I could scarcely catch my breath. The sun beat on the backs of my thighs, and the world kept turning over and over, and then I came, and couldn’t stop coming, and for what seemed like forever I had everything I’d ever wanted, because I forgot myself, forgot who I was, forgot him, and was ready to die.
As though it were a rose, he plucked from the nearest bush a straw hat with a short brim and set it on the back of his head. “Oh,” I said, “that looks wonderful.”
“It belongs to Ezra’s wife,” he said.
I looked at him in terror. Then I opened his fist and put my mouth to his palm.
“It’s too bad, isn’t it,” he said, “that it doesn’t mean anything.”
Supper was foul: soup made of radishes, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, I think, and a salad of unadorned lettuce leaves. I suppose had a girl tried to get me to eat that I’d have laughed at her and fixed myself a hamburger, which means Women’s Lib still has some work to do on me, but on the other hand, who needs a hassle. You should have tasted the bread he’d baked, the boy’s not going to put Sara Lee out of business. I swallowed what I could, wishing I dared to assert myself, lay claim to the kitchen and bake a blueberry cake. But to my left hung the pegboard Abby had contributed, and the flowers on the table were from the border she’d seeded when Felix first bought the place; or they may have been Bonny’s flowers. So I kept myself to myself, and afterward, in the living room, I waited in a corner while he taped himself on a dobro, drums, and the harmonica. He majored in composition at New York University, and he knows rhythm, but somewhere along the line he has lost track of what music was meant to be, or maybe he is shy of it these days, and he pounded on those instruments until the echoes in my head mightily ripped it apart. But that is not right, I am being much too crude here. He was hunched over the bongos, the cymbals, the dobro, balling himself into one long roll of sound, and if I felt he’d banished me from the scene, it was my own fault, because he handed me a brass flute, and said, Pan tempting Midas to profane Apollo’s godly playing, “Hey, chicken, goof on this with me.” I was afraid. I was always afraid. Eventually we went upstairs to sleep.
The silence of the country oppressed me.
In the morning, Felix wanted to find a Sears store, so we got into the car and toked up and started off. We weren’t thinking too clearly and soon discovered we were headed toward Albany. It seemed to make sense to continue toward the destination we had evidently begun with.
Somewhere on this side of it, a policeman stopped us, a young cop, skinny and hesitant. We must have looked freaky by that time, all right, anybody who could read the signs could tell we were bombed: I was wearing sunglasses and Felix’s fatigue jacket, and there was a tin of about a dozen reefers in the jacket, and Felix’s light brown hair curled out uncombed, and the stubble on his face gleamed with sweat. Felix got out of the car. The kid cop said, “May I see your license, please?”
Felix pulled it out of his pocket.
“I see,” the kid said. “And where do you live, Felix?”
Felix told him.
Then Felix asked if we’d done anything wrong.
“Oh, no, no. But we’re expecting a shipment of two pounds of hash soon, you see, somewhere in the vicinity. Ever use hash, Felix?”
“Well, I’ll tell you the truth,” Felix said, “now and then, but only by way of experiment.”
“That’s so. . . . Now I admit we may have toked up for our journey, just a little grass, but wouldn’t you?”
The kid snorted.
Felix said, “God knows it’s a long trip to anywhere.”
“Just a little pot?”
“That’s so, to be sure,” Felix said.
I held my breath as the policeman approached me, but he only said, “Excuse me, ma’am,” and searched the glove compartment in a perfunctory way. “Well,” he spoke again, turning back to Felix, “you know how it is. We don’t want any strong stuff coming in here, do we?”
“I should say not, to be sure.” I was going to murder him if he said “to be sure” one more time.
The kid smiled, then, and handed the license back to Felix. “Have a good trip, now,” he said, and beamed when Felix, cool Felix, gave him the victory sign.
We were approaching Albany. “This reminds me,” he said to me, “of a trip I took with Ezra when we were seventeen.” I knew the story already, but I didn’t forestall him. “Would you believe we drove way the hell up here from Brooklyn, looking for whores to lose our virginity with?” In Ezra’s mind, that search had assumed the parodic proportions of a 19th-century Brautshau. They’d piled into the judge’s car on a rainy night, flushed with success before it was theirs, and when they got to Albany, they’d combed every back alley the town had to offer. “We didn’t find any, of course; drove home as lily-white as when we left.” But Ezra thought that night was full of laughs, and reminisced about it often, or used to, because distance allowed him to treasure so rare a lapse into spontaneity which was not serious. “It made us blood brothers. My brother, Ezra,” Felix said. “I’ll bet he doesn’t even remember how it was. How else could he do this to me?”
“I told him he was acting the same way his old man acted, tyrannical. I thought he’d understand that kind of language. Psychological.”
“So? His second marriage won’t last, you know,” I said, shaking.
“What do you know about it? Do you know Susan Alexander? Hell, no, you don’t know about her. You’re talking through your hat,” he raged. “She’s a real fine woman.”
“I know he didn’t take any time after me to find out anything about himself.” It was a shot in the dark, but I had to defend myself.
“Oh, to be sure,” he mumbled. But when some time had passed, he said, “That mother was always blessed: even with his name; he could always cut the child in half and still have both halves. May he rot in hell.”
And that floored me. I’d always thought that if there was envy in their relationship, it must have been Ezra’s envy for this laconic, shuffling, successful man whose hands were so competent and flexible, who sat beside me, puffing away at a thin stick, the heavy smoke enshrouding my heavy head. I smirked. “Such an expenditure of energy, Felix; that’s not like you.”
He laughed. “No, it’s not. But it’s pretty funny, isn’t it, that after all these years I should come again to Albany, and with his ex-wife, at that?”
“Well, you wouldn’t understand. I’ve noticed one thing about you,” he said. “You get expectations about things. And when things don’t live up to your expectations, you feel cheated.”
He was right on target. There wasn’t much I could say, except, maybe, “No foolin’,” milking the South for all it was worth.
“Yeah, luv,” he said. “No fooling.”
We were in Albany, and we bought some peanuts and then asked directions to Sears and I went with him. The garden shop was a broad expanse of concrete wrinkled with potted plants and plastic swimming pools. Everywhere we walked, we passed these pools, brimming with stale water, and pretty soon we started running by them, weaving in and out around the plastic, which was red and blue and yellow, skidding, splashing our hands in the water, sprinkling the concrete with the water, until some clerk stopped us short, but deferentially. Straight people never know, not even you would know, and Felix came on grave as a churchman, and the clerk led him away to the tool department. I found my way back out to the car and let myself in and started to cry. I was crying because I was thinking about how Ezra had divorced me, and I was thinking about the divorce because of Felix, because the book, and the hat, and the blanket that had been a wedding present from my Aunt May, that I’d seen sitting on a shelf in the open closet in Felix’s bedroom, told me, no matter whether it was what Felix wanted me to hear or not, that my husband and his real, fine wife, Susan Alexander, had been living in the farmhouse as early as late last summer, all the time I kept hoping, not without encouragement from him, that he’d come to his senses and see what he was throwing away, me, and I was a fool. When Felix came back to the car, he’d charged about two hundred dollars worth of power equipment, everything he’d “always wanted,” he said, “since I was a boy in Flatbush.” I was still crying, but I had on my sunglasses, and anyway, he was too worked up over his drills and saws to notice. “Hey, Felix,” I said, “give me a kiss before we start.”
His eyes flashed, blue eyes, and he roared at me the way Ezra used to: “Goddamn!” he cried. “Goddamn! Sometimes . . . sometimes you really embarrass me,” he said, “sometimes you just about put me too uptight to take.”
I shivered and clutched at his coat; pulled it closer to my chest.
But I was too hurt not to fight back. I said, “It’s only a kiss. It doesn’t mean anything, and if it doesn’t mean anything, why should you mind?” I struck my knee with my fist. “You lie, Felix, you lie. You’re as loyal as Happy Jack, and you’re bruised all over, or else you wouldn’t work so hard at keeping your distance.”
“Sometimes,” he said, “I think you’re crazy. Ezra said you were sick. Oh, dear lord,” he moaned, “don’t you see, baby, don’t you see everyone walks around with his little bag of shit on his back, and you can’t just walk up to them, without any goddamn preamble, walk up to them without even introducing yourself, like you were God or somebody, and take away what’s theirs? My load is mine.”
It was drizzling, a cold, stupid rain. We drove in silence. When we were beyond the city limits, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned toward me and I gave him the victory sign he’d given to our kid cop. He giggled. “To be sure,” he said.
We were still a far cry from home. I sat on my end of the seat. I was remembering the wedding blanket. Remembering how my husband and I used to lie under it back-to-back, with him reading Saul Bellow and me reading Thomas Hardy and each of us interrupting the other to quote nice sentences. We’d have to turn the temperature down—the blanket was electric—when we made love and then had to turn it up again because he was always as cold as I was. His black hair, wired in an Afro, spiraled above me like some wild flower sprung from hell, an orchid accidental, improbable, violent, intended for the tropics; when we made love, he held himself apart from me, the veins of his arms swollen and thick, gorged, and if I cried out, he never did. But afterward he’d shiver, he was cold, and he was afraid to go to sleep unless I left the light on for him. Oh, yes, I knew he suffered, and I will not have you say he didn’t, or that I didn’t know it, because if I renounce that knowledge, I am no better, no more sensitive, than he is, and I must, I shall, be better. But I was stoned. I said to Felix, “Am I better than your other girls?” Which was a silly mistake, the kind of thing I should have learned not to do long ago. He laughed. “You’re all of you different,” he said, “so how can I compare?”
“You’re such a sweetheart,” I said, and was surprised at how truly tough it sounded.
“Ah, but the loveliest girl of all is Mary Jane.”
Dusk had fallen; had dropped over the dirt road we now entered, the fields, the Berkshires behind us, the garage.
I was depressed. “Felix,” I began, “I’m riding a bummer.”
“Do you want to talk to me about it?”
He was sitting at the kitchen table, puffing away at a pipe, and at once the way he switched, from cigar to cigarette to pipe, lacking any discrimination, bugged me terribly, and I said, “No.”
“Then why did you have to tell me about it in the first place?”
That was only too fair, so I went into the living room and put an old Jefferson Airplane on the stereo and smoked some hash. He had a sewing basket on the bookcase; there was grass in it, and hash, and roaches, and pills, which I have never gotten in to, and a couple of hundred caps, and envelopes of the white horse that he said was pleasant to pet and fondle. The only thing he wasn’t doing was mainlining, and maybe he was doing that. “You’ve got quite a stash here,” I called. There was no answer from the kitchen. He was reading the I Ching, reading with such utter earnestness that I felt sorry for him. I knew the book: Decay augurs sublime success and the advantage of crossing the great river. What has happened once will surely happen again. . . . When darkness falls, the Superior Man goes within and rests peacefully. There was a mattress on the floor of the living room, which I sat on, and when the record was over, I played the flip side. Felix came in.
“Want to see some films?” he asked, shortly.
“From last winter.”
He set about putting up the projection equipment—he had equipment for this and that, for everything—and I kept to my place on the mattress. And then out of the blue he crossed the room and bent over me and kissed me on my ear, a friendly kiss, a light kiss, an uncomplicated kiss, and looked into my eyes and danced away back to the other end of the room, astonishing us both; and in the hush that ensued, I heard the Jefferson Airplane flying high, out of sight, winging at full volume that insufferable, that brilliant, driving, last stanza to “White Rabbit,” which is Alice’s song:
And the white knight is talking backwards.
And the Red Queen’s all in her head. . . .
Remember what the Dormouse said:
Keep your head!
Keep your head!
I forced myself to focus: it was fifteen minutes of filmed water he showed: spring water, sea water, rain water, winter water. Ice floes split and crashed and crumbled; at the shoreline, crystals of ice reflected each other like a hall of mirrors. The sun on the screen sugared the snow, and I felt the chill settling on my legs going numb. In the final shot, snowflakes fell, and I fell with them, falling, falling past the projector’s light that grazed Felix’s face, falling past Felix, spinning, hurtling through space, far past the sun’s edge, far out to the outer reaches of the mind’s eye, where I can see still before me my darkling father at his polished red-gold violin. When he turns to me, there are tears looped along his lashes, and the tendons of his hands blacken in pain. He needs me, he is calling to me, and I will hasten to him. I run, I ran, toward him, and from his mouth there gusted over me a river of lava, and the current of that so brutal heat blasted me back and forth among all the various worlds, ringed and unringed. How I detested my father then, hated him, as he gathered the space around him like leaves of manuscript inadvertently let loose, shutting away his sorrow, confounding me, and abandoned me to this other, deadly, cold, cold void. Oh, yes! Oh, yes! I did cry for myself, and cry for myself today, and I am not ashamed, beloved, because this I knew in the beginning: that if I fail to do the very thing on my own behalf, there exists no one else who can.
I left Felix and went upstairs to sleep. I was cold. I went to the closet and removed the quilt that lay atop the wedding blanket, thinking, He won’t know whether I recognized the blanket and did not care, or did not recognize it at all; he won’t know whether he succeeded. But I was still cold, so I wound myself in the sheets and the quilt and went to sleep with my sweaters on. After a while, he came up too, and I woke up and listened to him shed his clothes. He peeled the quilt and the sheets from my back, and I heaved upward in spite of myself, loathing my flesh for its willfulness, its tyranny; his flesh slicing into mine was wounding me, and when mine closed over his, sealing it in like a throbbing sore, I was feverish. I pitched over, and he was moving in and out, beating on me, inflaming me, the skin of his chest igniting me like a flint, balls of wool from my sweaters sticking like ash to his chest and armpits. I ran my fingers down his spine over the small of his back. His waist was as defined as a girl’s, the fullness of his buns angered me. “Oh, Jesus,” he said, “I like to ball.” He said, “Anything. Man, woman, beast.” I dug my nails in. He laughed. “That’s the spirit,” he said. Sweat dropped from his forehead onto my face and rained on my clouded eyes and after ages we went together into a cadence of twitching, groaning, speeding, skidding past each other, shooting. “Felix, Felix, Felix,” I wept, “I hate you!” He buried his head under my sweaters, his cheek on my breasts, and asked me why. I wanted to say: because of the loneliness you taunt me with. But the words filled up my mouth like feathers and refused to fly free. I pushed him away and reached for the grass sprouting like an oasis by the side of the bed.
“By the way,” his voice followed me, “are you on the pill?”
I began to hit him then, slapped his face forehand and back, pummeled him with my fists, choked and coughed, and I was crying when he caught my wrists and held me still.
“No,” I said.
“I see,” he said.
“What do you see?” I answered, because I was calmer now. “I’m not likely to get pregnant. And if I were to become pregnant, it would not be your business but mine.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“No.” How could relationships be that rigidly defined, when Valerie’s so softly burnished beauty so plainly showed me that I was her keeper. Ezra never knew her.
“Did you want him to knock you up?”
“And he wouldn’t.”
He lit a candle. He held it up to my face and set it down again.
“I said to Ezra, ‘Let’s have a kid,’ and he looked at me as if I were crazy, and said, ‘If we have a kid, you’ll make me wipe its nose, you’ll make me stop in the middle of my work and drive the kid to his piano lesson.’ Would you believe that, Felix? The kid might have turned out tone-deaf, for all we knew. Whenever Ezra got into a car, he crashed. Finally I said I didn’t care, didn’t care so long as I could have him. He said it was too late.”
“He won’t be having any kids with Susan. She’s forty years old.”
“She’s Potiphar’s wife, Felix. Didn’t you know that? He tried to get me to play Potiphar’s wife, but I was too dumb to catch on.”
“If you’d known, would you have done it?”
“Nobody knows. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” he sang. He touched me. “You’re a lot like me,” he said.
I didn’t see how.
“When I got married,” he said, “we had a caterer and a photographer. The whole scene. Did Ezra tell you?”
“Is she married again?”
“I tried and tried, but, yes, she’s married again. She was such a cold damn. . . .”
And the man began to cry. He was out of practice, and his face pinched up and twisted, unaccustomed to that posture, seeming alien and worn in the candle’s unforgiving flame. I held his hand and asked him if he were doing any filming and he said No and asked me if I were writing and I said No. “I think I’ll go to England,” he said, “see what’s happening over there.”
“Do you want to marry again?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he wept, “yes, yes, yes. It terrifies me.”
I circled my arms around his neck. “I think I’m going to be able to convert to Judaism at last,” I told him; “or at least come to some kind of truce with God. I’m working out an agreement.” I was whispering. “Don’t you want to know why?”
“It’s all the same, sweetheart,” he said, but then after a while he said, “Well, I won’t knock it. I don’t know, nirvana makes more sense to me.” He pressed me to him. “Beautiful nirvana.” He giggled. “Nirvana’s all right, a real good lady. She’s got golden hair, magical golden hair, and your Ezra and I spent one night together in Albany, years ago, looking all over town for her. I wonder where she’d gone,” he said, and sighed. It struck me that he was a simple man, much simpler than Ezra, and I was grateful to him for that. He moved over to the opposite edge of the bed and asked me to snuff out the candle. I did. I got under the covers and closed my eyes. I thought it was all over, there would be nothing more.
But he pulled me to him, and said, “Put your arms around me, baby, please.”
What tenderness was in the way he cradled himself in my arms, I cannot tell you, nor how happy I was and privileged. So the wind moved through the trees beyond our window, music in the air, and I rocked him easily to sleep.
The next morning he drove me in to the bus stop. I had asked if Happy Jack could come along with us, and Felix let him, but he had to stay in the car while we stood un-stoned in the clean air. The bus came. “Hey,” said Felix, shuffling his feet and nervously punching my arm. He would drive to Woodstock that afternoon. “I’ll call you sometime. Well, you know, sometime when the wheel rolls around, and it’s time.”
How could I hurt this gentle person? But also, how could I let him hurt me? Calling on that convoluted, wrung humor that my family taught me, that Northerners do not commonly grasp, that serves me from time to time, I said to him, “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” and waited for him to kiss me goodbye.
He didn’t. I got on the bus, and our bus driver, may his soul be blessed for ever, let me off on the Upper West Side without making me go all the way in to Port Authority. I let myself into my apartment. The bed was unmade, my old stories that I’d been justifying myself with were strewn around the room, my tongue was thick, my eyes kept drooping, and I kept seeing, wherever I looked, old Aunt May’s wedding blanket in the closet in Felix’s bedroom. I swallowed some Seconal and lay down, until once more I went to sleep.
Aunt may is my mother’s eldest sister. She was a librarian, wed late in life, and thereafter has largely devoted her life to covered-dish luncheons sponsored by the Presbyterian church. She’s built like the Rock of Gibraltar, and has always looked on our branch of the family with grave mistrust. Her husband, Harold Flagg, made and lost more money in oil and oranges than the rest of us have ever seen, but wound up quite comfortably off; even so, Aunt May with her drawstring mentality was capable of giving my brother, who was then fifteen and very hungry for all the things boys want, a pants hanger for Christmas. Her marriage present to my mother—they despised each other and never forgot their manners—was a meat grinder.
May bore Harold three children. The girl, a kleptomaniac Girl Scout leader, married a Cadwallader from Cocoa; the last I heard from her, she was eager to remove her own daughter to Belgium for a year that she might learn French before the “mimic-center” in her brain closed off at the age of six. The elder boy, Rick, is retarded. May and Harold have set him up with a Seven-Eleven store in Florida; but May, though she is at least seventy by now, has to do all the bookkeeping for him.
Their younger son, Oliver Bob, was my age. The year we lived on a farm outside Richmond, they all came to visit us, and I was humiliated to discover that Oliver Bob played the piano much better than I did. And he had wit even then; I couldn’t help liking him, though I tried. We fashioned a tree house in the woods that veered off from the side of the farm; and we bicycled down the hill. He went on to a small college where he majored in Sacred Music, and then, after twenty-one years, he fled the South. Aunt May and Uncle Harold saw no recourse but to employ detectives; but that’s usual enough. When they located him, he was renting an apartment in New York City, done all in white with white wall-to-wall carpeting, and he wore a diamond ring on the little finger of his left hand.
They cut off his money and brought him home. He went to work with his brother Rick for a while, stowing groceries in brown bags and taking inventory, and then one day during the dog days he sat down in the armchair in his parents’ living room and put a pistol to his temple and blew his brains out. It was Uncle Harold who found him; he picked up the telephone and dialed Aunt May at her church and said, “Mama, I think you might better come on home right now. Babe’s in bad trouble.” When she asked what was wrong, the old man said, “Babe’s in bad trouble, Mama; he won’t talk to me. Come on home now, you hear?” She went home.
So sad an excuse for a woman, my Aunt May, torments me, because, for all her paucity of imagination, for all her ill-disguised resentment toward the world, that eternal Mississippi Protestant, like my mother she grew up with, knew enough to know that when your niece marries a Yankee Jew, the only decent thing to do is to send a wedding present; and she had so help me God somewhere in her stubborn heart the humanity to choose for that present a wool, electric blanket dyed to a muted mustard, the same hot sweet shade of the strip of sand that used to line the coast from Biloxi to on beyond Pass Christian before the hurricane, I think it was Camille, ripped it all to hell last year. It was one beautiful blanket, believe me, far lovelier than ever my husband dreamed or understood, nor was it ever meant for Susan Alexander to lie under. It was never even meant for Felix. Ah, baby, sweet baby, so in your heart are you covenanted to your wife. Like it or not. Whether I love or have loved you or not.
Whether it’s daytime or nighttime.
This fool heater is on the blink again and my fingers are blue. Last week Valerie looked at me, we’d done with tutoring for the night, and said, “I’m leaving, I’m going to a school in Maine.” I wanted to tear the smile from her face and shove it down her throat. Then she smiled again and this time I wasn’t angry. Or mad. Who can dare that effrontery? Even God, spurned by his own loveliest children, set aside for the sake of a mere image, was moved to repent and restore the two tablets of the law that we might live long in the land of our enemies.
Covenant A Story
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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.