It all began with outbreaks of discontent in the villages.
Day by day bad omens began to appear in the poorer areas. An old farmer of Galenne saw the form of a fiery chariot in the sky. In Sareaux an ignorant old woman croaked out oracles couched in the purest Latin. Rumors went around of a cross in an out-of-the-way church which burned for three days with a green flame and was not consumed. Our Lady appeared to a blind peasant beside a fountain one night, and when the priests fed him wine he described the vision in scriptural language.
The faithful seemed to detect a kind of malicious joy fermenting throughout the winter in the dwellings of the accursed Jews.
Strange things happened. Bands of dark wanderers, huge and black as bears, appeared simultaneously in several places. Even educated folk could sense at times a murmur gnawing inside them. There was no peace to be had.
In Clermont, in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1095, Pope Urban II summoned the flocks of God to an expedition to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of the infidel, and to expiate their sins through the hardships of the journey—for spiritual joy is achieved through suffering.
Early in the autumn of the following year, four days after the end of the grape harvest, the noble Count Guillaume of Touron set out at the head of a small troop of peasants, serfs, and outlaws from his estate near Avignon and headed toward the Holy Land, to take part in its deliverance and so to find peace of mind.
Besides the blight which had afflicted the vines and the shriveling of the grapes, and besides gigantic debts, there were other, more immediate reasons which moved the noble Count to set out on his journey. We are informed of these in the chronicle of an extraordinary young man who himself took part in the expedition, Claude, nicknamed “Crookback.” He was a distant relative of the Count and had grown up on his estate.
This Claude was perhaps the adoptive heir of the childless Count, perhaps a mere hanger-on. He was literate and almost cultivated, though prone to alternating violently between fits of depression and enthusiasm. He would give himself over by turns, restlessly and without any real satisfaction, to ascetic practices and to the delights of the flesh. He was a great believer in the power of the supernatural: he kept company with half-wits, fancying he found in them a holy spark, and much-thumbed books and peasant women alike fired him with a wild desire. His excesses of religious fervor and gloomy melancholy inspired feelings of contempt and loathing in others and consumed his very flesh from off his bones, kindling an evil flame in his eye.
As for the Count, the Count treated Claude Crookback with sullen toleration and ill-suppressed rudeness. Some uncertainty, in fact, prevailed at court about the status and privileges of this young but silver-haired fellow who had, apart from everything else, a violent and ridiculous love of cats and who was a passionate collector of women’s jewelry.
Claude mentions in his chronicle, among the factors which prompted the Count to set out on his journey, certain events which occurred in swift succession in the course of the preceding year.
“At the beginning of the autumn,” he writes, “in the year of Our Lord’s Incarnation 1096, the sin of arrogance raised its head among the peasantry. There occurred on our estate several cases of insolence and insubordination, such as the destruction of part of the meager crop, motivated by anger at its very meagerness; daggers were stolen, the river flooded, barns were fired, falling stars were seen, sorcery was practiced, and mischievous pranks were played. All this within the confines of our domains, apart from numerous crimes in the neighboring districts and even across the river. Indeed, it was found necessary to oil the torture-wheel once again, and to put to the test several rebellious serfs, so as to quell the rising fever of violence, for suffering begets love. On our estate seven peasants and four witches were put to death. In the course of their torture their crimes came to light, and light purges all sin.
“In addition during the autumn our young mistress Louise of Beaumont showed the first signs of falling sickness, the very disease which had carried off her predecessor, two years earlier.
“On Easter Day the Count carried his drinking beyond all reasonable limits, and on this occasion he did not succeed in soaring above the state of tipsy rage to the heights of drunken joy. There occurred episodes,” continues the chronicler in a rather veiled tone, “such as what happened that night, when the Count smashed six valuable drinking-vessels, family heirlooms; he hurled these gorgeous objects at the serving-men in reprisal for some fault whose nature was not clear. Injuries were done; blood was spilled. The Count made reparation for his error with constant silent prayers and fasting, but the fragments of the shattered goblets could not be pieced together—I have them all in my keeping still. What is done is done, and there is no going back.”
Claude also writes as follows:
In the early days of the summer, in the course of the barley harvest, the Jewish agent fell under suspicion. He was put to death in consequence of his fervent protestations of innocence. The spectacle of the burning of the Jew might have served to dispel somewhat the anxiety and depression which had caught hold of us since the autumn, but it so happened that the Jew, as he was being burned, succeeded in upsetting everything by pronouncing a violent Jewish curse on Count Guillaume from the pyre. This terrible event occurred in the presence of the whole household, from the ailing lady down to the most ignorant servant girls. Obviously it was impossible to punish the wretch for his curses: It is in the nature of these Jews only to burn once.
In the course of the summer our lady’s condition grew worse and her life was in danger. Without grace even love is of no avail. It was a pitiful spectacle. So grievous were her agonies, so loud her screams in the night, that the Count was finally compelled to shut up in the tower the most delicate of the flowers of his garden. Therefore was the Son of God meek and mild when He bore our sufferings upon Himself, that we might know and remember that the finest harvest of all is when the hardest blade cleaves the softest earth in God’s world and this was a sign for us. By night, by day and by night, the Count gave orders for vigils of prayer at the cell of our ailing lady.
Our lady was young in years and her pale face seemed ever filled with wonder. Her limbs were delicate and she seemed completely transparent, as if made of spirit, not of base matter. She floated away downstream from us before our very eyes. Sometimes we could hear her voice raised in song; sometimes we secretly gathered up her tear-soaked handkerchief, and in the small hours of the morning we heard her cry out to the Blessed Virgin. Then her silence would rend the air. These days saw a severe deterioration in the affairs of the estate. The creditors were arming themselves, and even the peasantry nursed a muttering rebelliousness.
All speech was hushed in our halls. So frail and white-faced did our lady appear that kneeling at the foot of the cross, she seemed to us like Our Lady Herself. She was flickering and dying away. Meanwhile the Count withdrew into silence, and merely kept on buying more and more fine horses—far in excess of the needs of the fields and vineyards. He paid for them with parcels of woodland and orchards, since the money he had was being steadily eaten up.
Early one morning our lady suddenly heard the gentle sound of the bells of the village church. She put her golden head out through the lattice, and when the sun rose she was found gathered into the bosom of the Saviour. Her sandals are still kept in the chest in our hall, together with two tiny bracelets and a green cross of pearls which she wore round her neck, exceedingly fair.
The chronicle of this relative of the Count also contains some turbid musings, fraught with confusions, written in troubled and disconnected Latin. Some of them may be quoted here:
There is a secret sign-language which weaves a net between inanimate objects. Not a leaf falls to the ground without the action of some design. A man of the brooding type, such as my noble lord Guillaume de Touron, if he is but cut off for a while from the sphere of action, is immediately liable to come under the influence of the supernatural. If he is not found worthy of grace, it enters into his vitals like a gnawing poison, unseen, unfelt but lethal. Like the anguish of vast plains scorched by the noonday sun, without a single man to cast a shadow. Scents borne on the breeze. Woods, restful yet menacing. Perhaps the allure of the ocean. Or the tender, bitter silence of distant mountains. So a man of the finer breed, in the middle of his life, toward evening, as the wind drops, may suddenly pause and shrink back, shrink back listening with all his might, and as he listens he gnaws incessantly at his soul. For all these reasons, then, and for others which cannot be put into words, Guillaume de Touron set out for the Holy Land, bent on taking part in its deliverance and thereby also on finding inner peace.
Slumped in his saddle like a weary hunter, his features hewn of granite, his skull big and broad, the Count led his company up through the Rhone lands toward the town of St.-Étienne. There, at St.-Étienne, he meant to break the journey and stay for a day or two. Claude Crookback supposes that he wanted to spend some time at the Cathedral in solitary prayer, to ask the bishop’s blessing for the expedition and to buy fodder and arms. Perhaps he also intended to take on a few knights as mercenaries. The roads are fraught with danger outside the city walls; the sword must hew out a path for the forces of grace.
The Count rode his mare Mistral. His pace was still leisurely. This was not due to hesitancy, nor to that calm which follows the moment of self-dedication; there was simply a gradual gathering of momentum. The mare Mistral was a massive, broad-built creature, just like her master. At first sight she seemed like a work-horse. She could never be roused to the point of anger, thanks to a kind of feigned modesty which extended over all her movements, like a sort of inner deliberation—placid, ruminative, almost sanctimonious. But at a second, more penetrating glance—when one noticed, for instance, her capricious manner while being harnessed or unharnessed—one could see quite clearly that just as it was impassible to arouse her, so it was completely and utterly impossible to enforce total submission on this mare Mistral.
And everywhere could be felt the creeping, fawning intensification of the forces of autumn on the plains and in the hills. The odors of the vintage everywhere accompanied the expedition on its way. It was like a constant melody, soft yet at the same time penetrating and persistent.
The signs of the drought and the blight on the vines were everywhere plain to see. The faces of the peasants bore expressions of muted, ill-suppressed malice.
Even in times of plenty these districts ever gaze up to the gray sky with a tight-lipped look: mudspattered peasants, rotting roofs of thatch, clumsy crosses like the very faith of the region—blunt and strong, row upon row of black haystacks, and at dawn and at dusk there comes rolling from afar the sound of rustic bells, calling to the Saviour out of the depths.
At these twilight hours one could also make out the taut lines of powerful birds in flight—and the sudden screeching of these birds. In everything could be seen the mounting evidence of a heavy, thick reality—or, at a second glance, the slight impulse of some abstract purpose.
Everything, even the silent, baffled docility of the plump peasant girls who paused to gaze from a safe distance at the company of men on horse-back—everything was somehow open to several interpretations.
Had Guillaume de Touron considered the possible interpretations? If so, he did not show it on the surface. His few, brief words of command bore witness to an inner remoteness. It was as if he were sunk deep in a problem of logic or preoccupied in the checking of books which would not balance. Our chronicler, Claude, who frequently noticed his lord’s silences, was sometimes inclined to attribute to him abstract speculations or spiritual exercises. In short, it was sometimes felt that the Count omitted to answer questions, or answered without being asked. “Come here!” he would say, or “Leave it!” “Now!” “Fetch it!” “Forward!”
Those who heard these orders might easily have imagined they were uttered by someone who was about to fall asleep, or who was struggling to rouse himself from a deep slumber.
Nevertheless, the man surrounded himself with a cool ring of lordliness, which needed neither effort nor stress; a strong, inborn quality, compelling fear and silence even while he slept, a crouching wolf.
An inborn quality. In Claude’s chronicle one can read a short description of the appearance and bearing of the Count at the start of the expedition, and also a comparison which—after the manner of the chronicler—is rather fulsome:
Truth to tell, the bearing of Count Guillaume de Touron was not only extremely natural and composed, but entirely free from doubts and excitements. It was like a gentle stream, which wends its way calmly among the meadows of a plain. Placid and leisurely it flows, never tearing at its banks or throwing up waves or spray, but everything which falls into the current is swept constantly on by a force which is neither friendly nor yet timid—a peaceful, inexorable stream.
At dusk on the third day of their journey the band of believers reached the gates of St.-Étienne. They handed over their weapons to the officer of the gate, they paid all the dues, sacred and secular, they submitted to a personal inspection at the hands of the guards, lest there should be found among them an invalid or a Jew, and finally the Count and his men were permitted to enter the city. The ignorant folk stroked and chewed their beards at the sight of such plenty of women, priests, traders, and merchandise.
In the square behind the Hospice of the Sacred Heart, Guillaume de Touron reviewed his men. He gave orders for the horses to be well fed, set guards over the baggage and animals, distributed two pieces of silver per head, and gave the men leave to disperse around the town until daybreak the next day, “so that they might satisfy their needs with women and drink, and also purify their souls with prayer.”
The Count himself, after a slight hesitation, chose in the first place to make his way to the Cathedral. Above all he sought peace of mind. As often happens to men who are looking for something the nature of which is unknown to them, he felt a kind of vague physical unrest, as if his body were rebelling against his soul and defiling it with evil vapors. His body was tough, massive, and compact, his head held slightly forward, as if the weight of the world hung more heavily upon him than upon the mass of ordinary believers.
On his way to the Cathedral there passed through his mind the forms of the death of his two wives, the second and also the first. He contemplated the forms which death had taken like a man looking at the shapes of icicles in the winter. He felt no sorrow for these women, the second or the first, because neither had presented him with a son and heir. But he saw quite vividly that their death was the beginning of his own death. He visualized his death as a far-off place to which one must go, climbing perhaps or breaking through by force, and he joined together with a blind and stubborn bond the words “to redeem,” “to be redeemed,” “to set fire,” “to go up in flames.” Summer by summer, almost day by day, he felt his blood running colder. He did not know the reason, but he silently yearned for simple elements—light, warmth, sands, fire, wind.
Meanwhile Claude Crookback went down to a house of ill-repute on the edge of the town. He found a woman of easy virtue, dressed her up in his clothes and put his cloak around her, and handed her his knife. Then he stretched out on the ground for her to trample on him and begged to be tortured. While writhing with her, drenched with sweat, Claude screamed and laughed, cried and talked continuously. In the confused account which he composed that same night in his cell in the Hospice of the Sacred Heart he does not wallow in the details of his sin but limits himself to an enthusiastic description of the eternal power of grace. Does not the sun deign to be reflected even in pools of mire without withdrawing its reflection?
The worthy bishop of St.-Étienne, a small, rotund, simple man, was sitting motionless in his study, contemplating his hands stretched out before him on the table, or perhaps contemplating the table itself, and cautiously digesting his dinner. Guillaume de Touron’s expression as he suddenly entered the study, half-blocking the doorway with his bulk, was—as the bishop himself later described it in his diary—“clouded in a manner which implied either abstraction or concentration, two states of mind which are far harder to distinguish by their outward indications than is commonly supposed.”
After Mass the bishop and his guest sat down to a meal. They permitted each other a small drink, after which they closeted themselves together in the library. The light of ten great candles in copper candlesticks wove intricate patterns on their faces, on the curved outlines of the objects in the room. It exaggerated every movement and translated it into a language of gloomy shadows. Here the bishop and his guest conducted a brief conversation which touched on the subjects of the quality of humility, the City of God, horses and hunting dogs, the hardships of the journey and its chances of success, the Jews, the price of woodland, and the varieties of signs and wonders.
The knight soon fell silent and let the bishop of St.-Étienne talk on alone. The bishop, as we read in the studied Latin of his diary, “was delighted by the intelligent and thoroughly polite, yet extraordinarily restrained attentiveness” of his guest.
Finally, well after midnight, by the failing light of the candles, Count Guillaume de Touron requested and received from the bishop of St.-Étienne a general and absolute remission of sins. The bishop also bestowed on his guest some useful information on the state of the roads, the subtlety of the Devil and the stratagems by which he can be circumvented, the sources of the sacred river Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, the gold of the Jews, the abominable acts of the Greeks and the means of preserving oneself from them. It was an hour of shadowy silence. Out of the depths of the silence came a slight rustling, as if there were someone else in the Cathedral, nursing a different intention.
The guest entrusted to the servant of God a donation for the use of the church. Then he took his leave. He walked out into the warm darkness, into the realm of the night.
Before retiring to his chaste bed, the bishop made a point of adding a few lines to his diary, which took the form of a rather remarkable observation, even allowing for the late hour.
“I am prepared to swear on oath now,” writes the pious cleric, “that the man did not utter more than a hundred words in the course of the four hours which he spent with me in this holy place. It is amazing, almost uncanny, that we did not remark this extreme silence until after the man had taken his leave and departed. His silence succeeded in disguising itself completely. This is the first time since we entered on our vocation,” the bishop writes in astonishment, “that we have granted remission of sins to a believer and even blessed his journey without his having felt himself obliged to confess to us even one slight sin of the many sins of which this world is so regrettably full. Worse still, the very strange and suspicious secretiveness with which Count Guillaume de Touron treated us remained concealed from us until after the man had left our presence. Naturally we could not chase after him and bring him back out of the darkness. We are obliged, then, even post eventum, to exercise to the full the faculty of strict justice, and to conclude here that it is likely that we have for once been deceived in a sly, calculating, distinctly un-Christian way.
“On the other hand, we are equally obliged to exercise the quality of mercy, and to record herein that his silence, in common with certain other signs of suffering which we fancied we observed on the countenance of Guillaume de Touron, may be interpreted as indications of humility and of spiritual suffering. And are not these two, humility and suffering, outstanding Christian virtues? May God have mercy upon us.”
The expedition set out from St.-Étienne and turned eastward toward Grenoble. It crossed the river and streamed through dense autumnal forests. For the autumn was cautiously gathering strength, as though first testing the powers of resistance of the river, of the hills, and of the forest before falling on them.
At the outskirts of the villages stood rugged, bowed peasants, gazing motionless from afar at the passing procession. The Jews, as though forewarned, abandoned their hovels and disappeared into the undergrowth before the approach of the expedition. Out of the darkness of the woods they seemed to be rousing the forces of evil against us by muttering spells and incantations.
How unaware we are, mere creatures of flesh and humors and blood, of the unseen, powerful web of God’s actions around us!
Guillaume de Touron knew this, and so he told Claude in camp one night: Sometimes the curse of God comes like the caress of a woman’s hand, and sometimes His blessing comes like a knife in the flesh. The appearance of a thing or its effect is not its essence. Take the curse and the wrath which God unleashed against the Jews. See how God’s curse has refined this tribe. These people are fine and subtle; even our own language when it comes from their mouths is somehow suddenly turned to wine.
The thought of the Jews excited an inner panting in Count Guillaume de Touron—a strong, dark purpose, gloomy and filled with cold joy.
Claude Crookback, for his part, was idly musing about the wives of these Jews—warm, moist, brown velvet bitches.
The Jews, thought Guillaume de Touron, are stealthily nibbling away at us, like water eating away iron. This is the soothing touch, which melts unseen. Even the sword—our sword—passes through them as through a mass of turbid water which will slowly consume it. Gracious Lord, have pity on Thy flock, for the forces of defilement rage enflamed all around us, and temptation encircles us, trying to break in. And the faith in our hearts is upright and cold, barren and very sad. Is it possible perhaps that a Jew has insinuated himself into our ranks by stealth?
Guillaume de Touron was suddenly overpowered by this suspicion, and he found himself waking out of his slumber. A warm thaw started to move inside him, and made him feel better. Perhaps he had been granted a sign or a hint. In his heart he seemed to say “here,” “there,” “now.”
The appearance of the expedition was distorted when reflected upside down in the streams, or when seen from afar. Water and distance had the quality of turning any movement to utter mockery.
Along the lines of hills whose green grew ever darker appeared first of all three knights on horseback, wrapped in white cloaks. A rough black cross was embroidered on their cloaks in front and behind, as if they had been run through with swords and the wounds had long since turned black. They rode on tall, brown horses. From a distance it seemed as if the hooves of the horses hardly touched the ground.
Behind them rode the Count, surrounded by his retinue, mounted and clad in helmets and coats of mail. The Count himself was dressed in hunting-gear and leaned in the saddle on his mare Mistral as though he found it exhausting to ride. Was he, as Claude says, already somewhat ill at this stage of the expedition? The question is a foolish one. Almost everyone knows that illness is a configuration of inner possibilities too numerous to count.
Claude, by contrast, was easily recognizable, both by his deformity and by his flashy yellow shield, glinting like false gold.
Behind the Count’s retinue hurried some three-dozen men on foot. In the rear guard trudged mules laden with provisions, wagons rolling on wooden wheels, slaves and camp-followers, a few women who had attached themselves to the expedition, two cows plundered from farmers along the way, some goats, and at the tail end of the procession and on both its flanks dozens of dogs, skinny, misshapen, malicious mongrels, aimlessly darting hither and thither.
The motley cavalcade flowed past mournful autumn fields as if irresistibly drawn by some invisible lodestone.
The autumn was folding everything into the embrace of a thick mist. The gathering dampness spread over everything. It seemed as though the autumn were being malevolently formed according to a careful plan: a damp, dark condensation in the woods; a gray vapor in the valleys; a tense calm projecting quivering forms on the horizon. And still the rains held back.
The days, the nights, the hours of twilight in between, were like a dream-journey in which the distance becomes a malleable substance, always prone to be distorted. Even the wild shouts of joy of the rough good-for-nothings around the camp-fire at night were immediately absorbed into the distance and reflected back purged by the alchemy of autumn and melancholy, far slower and deeper sounds than when they left the mouths of those base fellows.
Sometimes toward dawn, before the camp was woken out of its slumber by the clatter of iron pots, by the jangling of spurs and the neighing of horses, Claude would be flooded with piety and would rouse his lord for matins. Then, at the hour of prayer, the world would show itself and would overpower everything with its unbelievable peace. This was a gloomy peace, the sadness of barren hills which are no longer hills but the very soul of the hills, the earth arching up in longing to the clouds in a seductive gesture which no satisfaction will ever eradicate.
And in the depths of the silence, the body itself began suddenly to yearn for its own extinction. Fine vapor, it was felt, was the proper consistency. And the prayer struck home to the man at prayer.
A few times it happened that darkness fell while they were still in the depth of the forest. Then they would light a great fire in the middle and surround the camp with a close circle of small bonfires for fear of vampires, wolves, and demons.
If one looked upward one could see how the light of the fire was broken by the thick ceiling of leaves. Round about wolves howled, foxes’ eyes glinted, an evil bird screeched and shrieked. Or was it the wind? Or sinister imitations of the sound of fox, bird, and wind? Even the rustling of fallen leaves hinted perpetually at the certainty of another, a hostile camp whispering round about, encircling. The forces of grace were being besieged.
The first signs of an approaching conflict were concrete enough. Dogs would go mad now and again and have to be put down with an arrow or a spear-thrust. A horse suddenly broke its halter in the night and galloped off into the wild darkness as if it had chosen to turn wolf. One of the whores who had attached themselves to the army burst into shrieks and did not stop screaming for two days and three nights, under the influence of some spell or incubus. In the end they were compelled to abandon her to the devil who had seized hold of her. One day the Christians came to a spring, and, being parched, they drank and let their horses and servants drink, not realizing that the water was tainted. The water inflicted humiliating agonies on man and beast alike. Surely a Jew had mingled with the Christians in disguise, was walking along the way with us, and cursing us.
Even the villagers received them grimly. The travelers were compelled to extract provisions, women, and drink from the stubborn peasants by force of arms. Once or twice stiff skirmishes broke out in the villages and Christian blood was spilled in vain. The parsimony of these districts was coarse and sullen. Even for an expedition of knights traveling in the name of Jesus Christ to deliver the Holy Land, the villagers would not open their fists without a stroke of the sword to extract charity by force from their clenched grasp.
And yet in several villages there were women who came of their own volition after dark and silently offered their bodies. These village women were huge and strong as horses. Their silence during the act, their stiff and solid submission, was open to several interpretations—pride or modesty, dullness or rebellion. Claude, assailed by glimmerings of fevered fanaticism, would try his strength by admonishing these peasant women. He would get up and stand in front of them and speak with ecstatic piety of the Kingdom of Heaven, the corrupt nature of the flesh, of the happiness in store for those who give all with a cheerful spirit, “for to him that giveth shall it be given, and compassion shall be shown to him that hath compassion on others.”
Who can tell the number of those scattered villages on the fringes of the forest, in valleys without so much as a name, in great gorges swathed in mist, in the winding courses of forgotten brooks and streams? “It is God’s will,” writes Claude in his chronicle of the journey, “to scatter His flock to the ends of the earth so as to gather to His bosom once more on the day of judgment the few, the elect, the truly deserving.”
As for the Count, he drove his men just as he drove his mare Mistral. He did not give them his attention, yet his presence could not be forgotten for a moment. In his heart he was lonely. Remote from his fellow men. Remote from his surroundings, a stranger to the forest, ice-cold. And now, in its remoteness, this soul would converse with itself on the necessity of love. To love, to be loved, to belong, to be—Guillaume de Touron felt a wild desire to overpower or crush some obstacle whose nature was hidden from him until the day when he would be permitted to be born anew. His shattered thoughts played with various images of death, of alienation, breaking through. Like a drowning man struggling with his last reserves of strength to free himself from the grip of the water. But he did not know what the water was or how far the water stretched.
Outwardly he merely seemed silent and watchful. Straining his senses to the utmost, in the hope of hearing a voice. Afraid to open his mouth and speak, lest he should miss the voice: one cannot speak and listen at the same time. And yet Guillaume de Touron was endowed with a strange power over others. Despite his silence, he overran and choked everyone around him like a great creeper. Without intending to, he grasped and clung to everything, leaned on it with all his weight. It was a false impression that Count Guillaume de Touron, as often happens to men of his class, was a withdrawn and hesitant master, showing no reaction when his servants ran wild. A second glance would show that the reeds on which he leaned bent beneath him, while he, by the mere force of his character, twisted and crushed them unawares.
From time to time he would conjure up an image of Jerusalem, drawing ever closer, but he would dismiss these inner visions, for they did not satisfy him.
In camp, at prayer, as they drank from the cask or from mountain streams, Guillaume de Touron would cast a gloomy eye over each man in turn, trying to detect the hidden Jew.
By now his first suspicions had turned to utter certainty, as happens sometimes to a man who seems to hear in the distance a vague, menacing tune which makes him wonder whether or not it is really there. After a while, from the effort of listening, the tune begins to lead the listener astray, to come suddenly from inside him, from his very innards.
He surveyed his men, every single one of them, their expressions and gestures, eating, at play, in sleep, and on horseback. Is there any reason in looking for signs in the sensible sphere? And what is Jewish in a Jew?—surely not any outward shape or form but some abstract quality. The contrast does not lie even in the affections of the soul. Simply this: a terrible, a malignant presence. Is not this the essence of treachery: to penetrate, to be within, to interfuse, to put out roots and to flourish in what is most delicate. Like love, like carnal union. There is a Jew in our midst. Perhaps the Jew has divided himself up, and insinuated himself partly here, partly there, so that not a man of us has escaped contagion.
Once, when the army had halted toward evening beside a Roman ruin whose remains were being eaten away by decay and strong roots, the Count turned to Claude Crookback with a question: Is it not written in one of those books that a wolf can insinuate himself so successfully into a flock of sheep that even a hunter cannot recognize him?
Claude’s reply, perhaps in a slightly improved version, appears in his chronicle:
I replied to this question from my lord the Count by means of a simple parable or allegory, in the spirit of the ancient wisdom. The sweetest apple is always the first to turn rotten. A wolf in sheep’s clothing would naturally exaggerate his disguise. This is a sign for us: Who was it who embraced our Saviour and kissed His cheek and reveled in honeyed words and signs of love, if not he who had sold Him for thirty pieces of silver, the traitor Judas Iscariot? The Devil is cunning, my lord, cunning and insidious, and we Christians are men of innocence. Without the grace of heaven we are trapped, every one of us, in the snare set at our feet.
Among them there was a piper, Andrés Alvárez by name. He was devoted to the slaves and outcasts and harlots and believed in the power of his music to soften even the most unruly spirit. He even experimented with the horses and dogs. He had forsworn meat and wine, and wore a heavy stone on a chain around his neck to humble himself to the dust, for he thought of himself as “meek and lowly.” Perhaps he was trying to purge his body of some sin he had committed or had intended to commit a long time before. He called himself “worthy of death,” and wanted to be killed on the road to Jerusalem. Suspicion fell on this man. He was ordered to pass his hand through the fire so that it could be ascertained what he was. Because of his terror, and perhaps indeed out of joy at the purifying ordeal which lay ahead, he was seized with great excitement and was bathed in sweat. When he passed his hand through the fire, it was as wet as if it had been soaked in water, so that he was only slightly scorched and the verdicts were divided. But, seeing that this Andrés pleaded with the Count to have him put to death because he was tainted with impurity, they spared him and let him live so that he could be kept under further observation.
There were also three Celts who were half-brothers. They were the sons of one woman by three different fathers. These three displayed an unwholesome disposition to burst into horrifying laughter at things which were no laughing matter, such as a dead fox, the stump of an oak struck by lightning, or a sobbing woman. They were also in the habit of lighting a small fire of their own at night and huddling around it secretively, talking all the time in an unknown language, full of harsh consonants.
Every Sunday the three half-brothers would celebrate an esoteric rite. Piling up heaps of stones, they would wring the neck of a bird and pour out its blood into a fire which they had lit in the hollow of the stones. Perhaps they used to conjure up by this means the soul of their mother.
The Celtic brothers were also gifted with extraordinary powers of marksmanship, which did more than anything else to attract to them the icy glances of the Count. Expertly they would amuse themselves by firing an arrow into the air and piercing it with another in mid-flight. Several times they hurled a stone in the dark and brought down a night bird in pitch darkness, guided by the sound of its wing-beats alone.
One evening Claude Crookback was sent to tell them to moderate their laughter, as befits men on a holy mission, to stop talking among themselves in their pagan tongue, and to allow him to inspect their baggage. In addition, Claude resolved inwardly to find a suitable opportunity to examine each of them while they were passing water so as to make certain that none of them was circumcised.
Claude, it must be admitted, loved these errands, because he felt himself humiliated by them. For the humble shall be exalted and the lowly of spirit shall be raised up.
From Grenoble the expedition continued to move slowly eastward.
The Count chose to keep away from the main roads. He was attracted to forgotten regions. Sometimes he even decided to abandon the lanes and to cut across the heathland and forest. It was not the shortest route that he preferred, but the most forsaken. In practice, Guillaume de Touron set his course afresh every morning: he simply rode in the direction of the sunrise, and continued riding until the rays of the setting sun struck his helmet from behind. He put a simple explanation on the laws of nature: Whoever moves toward the light moves toward the Holy City. Insofar as it was granted to this weary soul to feel love, he loved Jerusalem. He firmly believed that in Jerusalem it is possible to die and be born again pure.
And so, while the autumn beat on their backs with fists soft as a caress, the travelers crossed the foothills of the mountains, felt their way through misty glens, and gradually advanced down the slopes toward the valley of the River Po. There was not a man among them who had ever seen the sea. Perhaps they imagined that the sea would appear to them as an exceedingly broad river, that if they strained their eyes they would see the opposite shore and discern the suggested outlines of towers, walls, lofty steeples, a high halo of light, a holy brightness hovering over the City of God on the other side.
Meanwhile, all along the way, they sustained themselves on what the villagers offered them at the sight of the sword. They made detours around the towns and the estates of noblemen, as if they were constantly avoiding an outstretched net.
Several times on the way they met other companies of knights also making their way to the Holy Land. The Count was not willing to join those who were greater than himself and would not condescend to annex to his band those who were smaller. As they had set out from their own land, so he wanted them to arrive at the Holy City: few but pure.
One day they were almost compelled to hew their way by force of arms. Near a small village by the name of Argentera, beside the well on the way into the village, Guillaume de Touron was surprised to come across a heavy force of crusaders, at least three times as large as his own band. These were Teutonic knights with a large crowd of followers, and at their head was a young knight, beautiful in appearance and haughty of mien, Albrecht of Brunswick by name.
This was a magnificent expedition: respectable matrons borne in litters curtained with silk, a company of elderly lords in costumes of scarlet, gold-buttoned, a company of, young lords wearing long, pointed helmets tipped with a silver cross, attendants decked out in velvet liveries, banners and standards borne by scar-faced standard-bearers. There were also crowds of priests, jesters and easy women, beasts and animals. All this great abundance was carried in broad wagons the like of which has not been seen in our country. The sides of the wagons were painted all around with detailed scenes from the lives of our Lord and His Apostles, all of whom the artist had chosen to portray with stern expressions.
Albrecht of Brunswick deigned to dismount first and present himself to the lesser lord. He delivered himself of a long succession of greetings in florid Latin. He also uttered words of enticement. It was clear that he proposed to take this smaller party which had crossed his path under his wing. But when, after the formulas of greeting were finished, Guillaume de Touron maintained a frigid reserve, and refrained from fulfilling the obligations of Christian fellowship, even responding to the greetings as though they were also farewells, the German smiled a faint smile and gave orders to unseat the stranger from his horse and to annex his band by force.
Before he had finished issuing the order there was a clatter as every sword was drawn. Horses began to rear and neigh and their skins rippled like pools of water in a breeze. A great movement took hold of the men, and glittered on spears and helmets. Instantly the band raised their instruments and started to play with fierce joy. Wild yet spectacular was the sudden melee of horses, banners, and accoutrements, dust, shouts, and war-cries, as if a colorful dance had suddenly broken loose on those gloomy plains. Even the cries of the first casualties of battle resembled from a distance the clamor of reveling merrymakers. Everyone, even the dying men, clung faithfully to a certain style and would not depart from it by a hair’s-breadth.
And so, quite soon, the knight from Brunswick said, “Stay,” and the herald called, “Stay.”
At once Guillaume de Touron, too, raised his visor. The music stopped and the fighting died down. The men stood where they were, breathing heavily, trying to calm their quaking mounts. Soon they began to drink, and to offer one another German ale and Avignon wine from hairy flasks. The musicians, of their own accord, immediately began to play a different tune. While the officers were still busy separating the last hot-blooded skirmishers, laughter had spread all around, the warriors blasphemed and laughed.
Among the Germans there was a holy physician. He and his assistants went through the battlefield and picked out the wounded from the dead. He tended the wounded on both sides and the dead were cast all together into the well, after sufficient water had been drawn for everyone’s needs. The casualties numbered fewer than a dozen dead, all from the lower elements on both sides, and their death did not mar the feelings of brotherhood which quickly sprang up of their own accord around common campfires. To those who forgive shall it be forgiven. As evening fell the priests celebrated a great mass, and in the night both sides together slaughtered cattle, said grace, ate, and drank. Toward dawn they exchanged women servants.
And so, toward dawn, Claude Crookback, drunk and foam-flecked, was sent to appease the knight from Brunswick with fifty pieces of silver as a toll and the price of peace, since Guillaume de Touron and his men were the smaller party.
Later, as the sun rose, Christian knight saluted Christian knight and both groups went their separate ways, holding high their banners and waving adieu. If sins had been committed, surely blood, prayer, and silver had made atonement. And the rain which came late in the morning, a very light and gentle rain, wiped away everything with its transparent fingers.
Next day they came upon a Jewish peddler by the wayside. He had a pair of goats with him and on his back was a knapsack. As the horsemen came downhill toward him he made no attempt to hide. He doffed his cap, smiled with all his might, and bowed three times, each time lower than the last. The procession drew to a halt. The Jew, too, stopped and laid his sack on the ground. The Christians were silent. The wayfarer, too, kept silent and did not dare utter a word. So he stood, by the side of the road, prepared to buy or to sell, to be slain or to deliver a polite reply to any remark which might be addressed to him. And he smiled with extreme concentration.
Claude Crookback said: “Jew.”
The Jew said: “Greetings, travelers. May your journey be blessed with success.” And immediately he tried again in another dialect and in another language, for he did not know which was their tongue.
Claude Crookback said: “Jew, where are you going?”
And without waiting for a reply, he added in a honeyed whisper: “The sack. Open that sack.”
Before he had stopped speaking the three Celtic half-brothers suddenly burst into shrill, loud laughter, very wild but entirely free from malice, as if they were being tickled under the armpits. The peddler opened his sack, bent down, and drew out an armful of knicknacks and gewgaws of the kind which are made to amuse small children, and said very happily: “Everything cheap. Everything for coppers. Or we can arrange an exchange, for things no one wants anymore.”
Claude asked: “Why are you traveling, Jew? What makes you go from place to place?”
The Jew said: “Are we alone in the world, gracious knight? Can a man choose for himself to go or not to go?”
Thereupon there was a silence. Even the Celtic brothers fell quiet. As if of her own accord, the mare Mistral moved forward and carried the Count into the center of the ring of horsemen. The smell of the horses’ sweat spread around, pungent and menacing. The silence became more and more intense. A secret terror suddenly seized hold of the two goats, which were held by the Jew on a rope in his hand. Perhaps the stench of the horses brought them a premonition of evil, and the goats were alarmed. A twin bleating broke out, piercing and shrill as the ripping of cloth, as if a baby were being scorched by flames.
At this, restraint was shattered. The Jew kicked one of the goats sharply and Claude kicked the Jew. The peddler suddenly began giggling with all his might, his mouth gaping open from cheek to cheek. Then, radiating a politeness which was not of this world, he wiped his eyes dry with his sleeve and entreated the knights to accept everything, the goats and the merchandise, as a free gift in perpetuity, because men of every faith are ordered to love their fellow men, and there is one God over all of us. So he spoke, and his smile beneath his beard showed red as a wound. Count Guillaume de Touron made a sign with his finger that the gift should be accepted. The goats were taken, the sack was taken, and silence fell once more. Claude slowly raised his eyes toward the Count. The Count was gazing at the treetops, or through them to the patches of sky beyond. A whisper passed through the trees, thought better of it, and instantly fell quiet. Suddenly the Jew thrust his hand into the folds of his clothing and brought out a small packet.
“Take the money, too,” said the Jew, and held the packet out toward the Count. The knight took the packet with a weary gesture, closed his hand around it and concentrated his gaze as if trying hard to discover what hint the shabby cloth held for him. There was a remote sadness at that moment in Guillaume de Touron’s gaze. It was as if he were searching for something in the depths of his soul while being gradually shrouded in darkness. Perhaps he was filled with sorrow for himself. Finally he spoke, and he said with suppressed pain verging on warmth: “Claude.”
Claude said: “This is a Jew.”
The peddler said: “I have given you everything and now I shall go happily on my way and bless you.”
Claude said: “Now you shall not go and you shall not bless us.”
The peddler said: “You are going to kill me.”
He said this without fear and without surprise, but rather like a man who has been searching in vain for a complicated solution to a complicated problem and suddenly discovers a simple solution. And Claude Crookback replied softly: “Thou sayest.”
Once again silence filled the air. In the silence birds sang. Infected with the autumn the land stretched to the furthest distance, quiet and broad, quiet and cold. The Jew moved his head up and down a few times, concentrating, contemplating, looking as if he wanted to ask a question. And finally he asked: “How?”
“Go,” said Guillaume de Touron.
A moment later, as if mistrusting his voice, he wearily repeated: “Go.”
The Jewish peddler stood as if he had not heard. He began to speak, and thought better of it. He raised his arms wide, and let them drop. He turned. He walked slowly downhill as though he still carried the heavy sack on his back. He did not look around. Then he cautiously quickened his pace. Then, as he neared a bend in the road, he began to run, slowly, cunningly, bent. forward, dragging his feet like a sick man about to stumble and fall.
But when he reached the bend he gave a sudden bound and redoubled his pace, disappearing now with amazing speed, tracing with great care a zigzag course, and he did not stop running in zigzags even after the arrow hit him and lodged in his back between the shoulders. Then he stopped, twisted his arm around behind him, drew the arrow out of his flesh, and stood rocking backward and forward, holding the arrow before his eyes with both hands, as if a careful inspection were demanded of him. He stood staring at it until a second arrow dislodged the first from his grasp and pierced his forehead. Even now he stood where he was, and the arrow in his head stuck out in front, so that he looked like a stubborn ram, lowering his head to butt, his feet set firmly in the dust. Then the Jew uttered a single cry, not long and not very loud, and, as though he had finally decided to give in, he collapsed and fell on his back. He lay there without a tremor or a shudder.
The procession began to move on. Andrés Alvárez, the piper, traced a large cross with his finger over the fields and the forest and the expanse of sky. The women who followed the expedition stood for a moment beside the body, now growing cold, and one of them bent down and covered his face with the hem of his robe. Blood clung to the palms of her hands and the woman began to sob. Claude Crookback, who had moved for once to the rear of the procession, was overcome with a terrible compassion and walked behind the woman, comforting her in a soft voice with pious phrases, and so the two of them found some peace. In addition, that night they opened the peddler’s sack and among a mass of old rags they discovered bracelets and earrings and women’s sandals the like of which had never been seen in the region of Avignon, extraordinarily beautiful, which could be fastened and unfastened by means of a perfectly charming and fascinating yet simple little catch.
Autumn, a gray and patient monk, sent out silent, icy fingers and smoothed the face of the land. Cold winds began to blow down from the mountains to the north. They penetrated every covering, and the flesh stiffened at their touch. In several places toward dawn a fine, clear crust of ice had already begun to coat the surface of the water. The men’s breath froze; their lips turned blue and cracked.
But the heavy rains of winter still held back, and the Count still hoped to reach the coast before all the roads became waterlogged. The sea held out the promise of a change, of some kind of break. He looked forward to beholding in the sea the reflection of the Holy City, bristling with tall, insubstantial towers, glowing white as warm snow, ringed around with rocky crags and deserts, bathed in bright sunlight—and behind this light another light.
And yet sometimes the heart is smitten by a strange hesitation: Does Jerusalem really exist on the face of the earth, or is she perhaps nothing but a pure idea, which anyone who sets out to find in the substance will lose altogether?
They were passing through a monotonous gray landscape, like a long, low corridor. The melancholy of the frozen orchards around the villages was silent and terrible. To the outward eye all these plains stood open on every side as far as the horizon. And yet it was all blindly shuttered, and the travelers traveled on and on, and there was no way out.
Everything was overpowered by the fall. Sometimes the expedition marched for hours and hours on a moldering carpet of dead leaves. A venomous gloom took hold of men and beasts alike, a hidden, desperate gloom from which death itself would have come as a blessed relief. This soft, foul carpet, made up of rotting apple leaves and decomposing fodder, rustled crisply underfoot, producing a dull, monotonous melody which, after a few hours, imposed on knight and peasant alike a mood of silent madness.
So, like an inexorable nightmare, a silent procession advanced day after day over vast tracts of imaginary desert which at every gust of wind and every footstep sighed and murmured. The soul’s life-blood was on the point of shriveling and disintegrating.
No one now doubted the hidden presence of a Jew in the company. In camp at night servants and knights alike kept watch on one another, feigning sleep, starting at each footfall, craning to catch every sigh or whisper, crying out in their sleep, striving to decipher the cries of other sleepers. There were occasional brawls, and some took the precaution of sleeping with a knife clutched in their hand. Secret conspiracies were formed, allegations were made, and everyone girded himself with silence. A few vanished in the night and never reappeared. A servant slit the throat of another servant, was betrayed and beaten to death. Andrés Alvárez played on his pipe, but even his cheerful tunes tore at the heart and heightened the mood of despair.
All along the way there rose the stench of squalid villages. The cloying scent of a horse’s rotting carcass or the tainted odor of a man’s corpse decomposing in a field. Overhead stretched low, thick skies whose grayish hues strained toward a deeper shade of black.
In this envenomed world even the echo of distant bells was turned to keening. Such solitary birds as still remained stood motionless on the tips of wet branches, as if being gradually absorbed into the realm of the inanimate.
They crossed overgrown graveyards, trampling over gravestones coated with moss and lichen, sunk into the embrace of the heavy earth. At the head of these stones stood rough, crooked crosses, two sticks of wood held together by a wooden rivet. These moldy crosses would crumble at a slight touch.
When the expedition halted by water-holes to draw water, those who peered into the depths of the water might have caught sight of an element which was not water.
Far, far away on the steep mountain slopes one could see, for an instant, between patches of streaming mist, the vague outlines of stone-built castles—lingering monasteries, perhaps, or the remains of ancient fortifications ruined even before the coming of the faith. Below them the river and its tributaries rushed furiously in their tangled courses, as if they too were desperately trying to escape.
Over everything there came at dusk a desolate, sinister power of incredible malignity, the screeching of birds of prey or wildcats. These regions were gradually being coated in rust, rotting with it to the point of death. And so Jerusalem ceased to be regarded as a destination, as the arena of glorious deeds. A change took place. Men would break the long silence to say, “In Jerusalem.”
And one man among them began to realize, with the gradual dawning of an inner illumination, that the Jerusalem they were seeking was not a city but the last buttress of a guttering vitality.
This chapter of Claude’s chronicle bears unambiguous witness to the force of the destructive powers which continuously emanated from the hidden presence of a malicious element that had insinuated itself among the crusaders. No longer content with an external watch, they now appointed an internal watch as well. A few knights were detailed to eavesdrop unobtrusively. Other knights were instructed to keep watch on these. Claude Crookback was in a position to keep those whom he mistrusted away from the Count’s presence and to surround him with those who met with his favor. Conspiracies, false accusations, and secret intrigues were rampant. In this thick, dank atmosphere of suspicion and malignant terror Claude blossomed and flourished like some swamp plant. And yet he too was infected by the thickening fear.
There is a stranger in our midst. Every night as we all call on the name of Jesus Christ one of us calls with a false voice and that man is Christ’s enemy. One night in the third watch a hidden hand extinguished all the fires, and in the darkness there came a shout in a language which was not the language of Christian men. An enemy of Christ is concealed among us, a wolf among God’s flock. That same hand which put out the fires in the night is also killing our horses, which are dying in agony one after another from an ailment which is completely unknown where we come from. As we approach the villages the villagers are warned in advance to conceal their provisions, their women, and their horses in the forest. The Jews everywhere sense our approach, and the countryside, which is hostile to us, shelters them. There is an evil in our midst. Someone among us is not one of us. He has been sent to deliver us up to the forces of defilement. O God, have mercy upon us, grant us a sign before we all perish, body and soul. Is it not for Thy sake that we walk this path of hardship and suffering? Is it not to Thy city that we are journeying—and if we do not end there, where shall we end?
The spirit of our men is already weakened by fear of the intrigue which is being fomented in our midst, and there are some on the fringes of our contingent who seek to turn back the remaining horses and return home empty-handed. Our lord Guillaume de Touron now rides all alone some way ahead of the party and no longer looks around, as if it is all one to him whether the others are still following him or not, as if he is traveling on alone to Jerusalem.
Three mornings ago the Count drew up all the travelers in a row, beginning with the knights and concluding with the servants, the hangers-on, and the women, and subjected everyone to a penetrating scrutiny. He ended by suddenly calling on the Jew to fall to his knees at that instant, in that very spot, whoever he might be. Then, in total silence, he turned his back on the men and mounted his mare, slowly, as if he were ill. At first light the next day one of the women was found with her throat cut and with the point of the cross which she wore round her neck buried in her breast. It was I myself who closed her eyes and drew the pointed cross out of her flesh, without wiping the blood off it. O God, where are You leading Your flock, and what will become of us tomorrow and the day after?
And again Claude writes in his chronicle, in a spirit of humility and submission to divine judgment:
In the course of this morning my lord the Count summoned me to follow him to the other side of the hill. When we were out of sight of eavesdroppers my lord said to me, ‘Claude, you know; why do you keep quiet?’ And I swore in the name of Christ, and in the name of my lord’s late sister, who was my father’s wife before he married my mother, I swore that I did not know, and that I was very much afraid. Then my lord the Count continued in a voice at whose memory my heart is rent with love and terror, ‘Claude—are you really Claude?’
I record here the words with which I have cried out to God all day: O God, behold us: We are being consumed by evil. Deliver us, O Lord; Thou hearest and Thou canst prevail. Sinners though we be, have compassion upon us. Are we not journeying toward Thee day and night?
Happy is the man who pours his heart out in his prayer: Even if he cry out of the depths his prayer is answered.
A few days later, when the expedition had made a detour around the walls of Tortona and was pressing on eastward, the plague left the horses and even the weather grew slightly warmer. The farmers yielded large numbers of horses which sufficed for riding until better ones could be found. In one of the villages the three Celts succeeded in sniffing out great hoards of good provisions, cheeses and rye and fodder, all in one cellar, with hardly any bloodshed. Along the way we came upon two mule drivers carrying casks of wine, and we enjoyed the wine for several days. We also met a mendicant monk who sprinkled us with holy water and renewed the blessings of the Church.
And so it seemed as if our fortunes had taken a turn for the better. We did not stint our prayers and thanksgivings. Even the winter rains did not only continue to hold off, but even receded into the distance; for four days a benevolent sun shone down upon us. The Count distributed silver coins. The sound of singing was heard again as we set out in the morning, and Andrés Alvárez, the piper, played us merry tunes on his pipe. And at the same time we began to draw nearer to communities of Jews.
We began to draw nearer to communities of Jews, and our days grew brighter. Activity brought with it a new spirit: Discipline improved, and industry and inventiveness reappeared among us. Some of the blazes we lit fired our hearts with joy, and the thrill of the hunt roused our slumbering senses.
We were not too ambitious. We left the Jews of the towns to stronger contingents. Count Guillaume de Touron merely passed through the remoter districts, clearing, as it were, the outer extremities of the ground—the Jews of a forgotten village or a wayside inn, or a mill hidden in a valley. Thus there fell into his hands small bands of Jews of the runaway or wandering variety. Even so, the expedition did not interrupt its eastward progress, and did not turn aside to track down fugitives or to scent out booty. They ploughed a single, straight furrow, not too broad. They did not even pause to look back and see what had been accomplished and what remained to be done. The Count imposed a strict discipline on his men, and refrained from bloodlust. That is not to say that they avoided plunder, only that the Count forbade his men to take pleasure in it—and the suppressed pleasure whispered seductively.
Claude mentions in his narrative one Jewish woman, resembling a she-wolf, who, with her baby, was rooted out of her lair in the depths of a haystack. She snarled, and her fangs were whiter and sharper than human teeth. She hissed violently, as if she meant to bite or spit venom. Her breast heaved under her brown dress with a turbulence such as Claude had witnessed before only in the throes of physical ecstasy or in women who had seen a vision of a saint demanding that they throw themselves on the fire.
This Jewess even managed to keep at bay the ring of Christians which had closed around her. Not a man dared to approach within reach of claw or tooth. She stood alone in the center, and her face wore an expression which resembled a yawn. A second glance showed that this was no yawn.
She began to wheel around slowly, bent over, the baby clutched in the claws of one hand, the other held out in front, the fingers hooked like the talons of a bird of prey. Her movement suggested that of a scorpion or a crab. Even if Claude imagined that this Jewess was about to pounce and tear out their eyes with her nails, she did not do so. Instead, she suddenly hurled her screaming child into the arms of the youngest of the three Celts, and threw herself down, rolling in the dust as if she had already been slaughtered. She did all this in complete silence, without pleading or crying, but in a fierce convulsion. Claude Crookback struggled with all his might to suppress the sobs rising in his throat. A blind, feverish urge almost forced him to fall to the ground and roll in the dust like her and kiss the soles of her feet and be trampled on by the soles of her feet. This urge burned in his veins like a flaming fury, and yet it was not fury. Hot tears ran down his beard as he put this she-wolf out of her misery with a short, sharp blow, thus sparing her the agonies of a long drawn-out death and relieving her of the ugly sight of the crushing of the child’s head, a sight both sordid and distasteful to a sensitive soul.
The region was dotted with Jewish communities. There were some towns here which had opened their doors wide to them, in defiance of the ancient curse. These Jews had put down deep roots to drink the innermost sap, and were flourishing vigorously. They were endowed with prodigious powers of suckling and growing. In these villages numerous families of Jews had spread, buying and selling, hiring and letting. They had a total monopoly of the oil and flax. Slowly, calculating and relentless, they were expanding into wool and wax, putting out feelers toward perfumes and ales, timber and spices.
Outwardly they were calm, but a closer inspection would have betrayed a nervous muscular spasm in their faces, like the ripples on the skin of a deer standing in feigned repose, poised for flight. Our language flowed from the mouths of these Jews as smooth as oil. Our silver seemed to pass into their hands of its own accord, following the natural tendency of things to roll downhill.
Thus the Jews were past masters at gathering and hoarding, exchanging one thing for another at a favorable moment and concealing one thing inside another in times of apprehension. They seemed devilishly dexterous, evasive by the very nature of their breed. The very ground seemed to become pliant under their feet, and they exuded over everything around them a kind of sticky, transparent resin. They could arouse sympathy or confidence, terror or amusement in the Christians at their will. They were the pipers and we were the pipe in their hands, we were the dancing bear.
Many peasants in these regions put their faith in the Jews. Knights enticed followers to accompany them to Jerusalem with silver borrowed from the Jews. The wounds of our Lord and Saviour opened anew at the sight, and His blood spilled afresh. Even great lords, even priests and bishops were accustomed in these parts to invite Jews into their very hearths, and unawares they slowly sold their souls. Some even trusted the Jews with power. So it happened that hereabouts certain Jews had risen to such heights as to be able to exercise power behind the scenes, and to pass on moral contagion to the Christians. Twice Guillaume de Touron’s band was met on the way by armed guards or even tainted priests, their swords raised as a barrier between him and the Jews, setting at nought God’s curse.
In short, these Jews had raised up a shadow-Judea at the foot of the Cross, spreading all around, extending the reign of hostile forces into Christian lands. To borrow a simile which reappears several times in Claude Crookback’s chronicle, the Jews were like a band of strange minstrels wandering noisily through a primeval forest. Undoubtedly there was some sweet and desolate enchantment in their music, but the forest had a music of its own, deep and dim, and it would not tolerate for long another tune.
One day Guillaume de Touron rode at the head of his men into a group of hovels, on the edge of a small village called Ariogolo, which were inhabited by Jews.
As often happened, they had scented what was coming and had escaped into the forest. A single spokesman came to meet the knights, to negotiate a ransom, and to obtain sympathy. He also wanted to rescue from the fire a house full of old books, some of which, he claimed, were a thousand years old. Jewish books, written backward.
This man was lean and lanky; his beard was fair and his shoulders strong. Even in his manner there was nothing to suggest his base origin. His movements were few and economical, he seemed calm, and he spoke in the measured tone of one who loves words and is their master. He came out of the house toward the leading horsemen and inquired who was in command. Before they had time to speak or move his glance rested on the Count and he said, “He is the one.” Then he strode boldly between the horses, almost brushing them with his shoulders, took up his stand in front of our lord Guillaume de Touron and said: “I was looking for you, my lord. This is your expedition.”
The Knight squinted, weighing with his glance the figure before him, and immediately perceived the strength of his determination. He twisted his lips and said: “You were looking for me.”
“I was looking for you, my lord.”
“What are you offering, Jew, and what do you want to take?”
“A houseful of holy books. And if you are in great need of money then all the rest of our houses. Payment in cash.”
A faint smile, grim and rare, passed over Guillaume de Touron’s face and vanished. For an instant a peasant-like expression, full of greed and loathing, played around his lips. Then his glance froze. Coldly he said: “Gold. Copper coin has no currency in the places to which I am going.”
The man said: “Great quantities of gold.”
Guillaume de Touron said: “You, Jew, stand on the house which you want to save from the fire, and the fire, by God’s grace, will choose what to consume and what to leave untouched.”
The Jew said: “Very well. You set fire to the southern side. The wind is blowing from the north. By God’s grace there is a broad stream in between. The fire, as you say, will choose, by God’s grace, what to consume and what to leave untouched.”
The Count paused. Once again a dry smile flitted across his face. Then, twice as stern, he said: “My dear Jew, you are not afraid. Why are you not afraid of me?”
As though in sudden sympathy the Jew uttered a short, bright, laugh, carefully modulated by a deep insight, and answered: “I give, my lord, and you want to take.”
“And if I take and then kill and burn.”
“But you will swear, my lord, in the name of your Saviour. Before you swear you shall not see the gold.”
“And if I take by force, Jew?”
“You and I, my lord, are in the hands of a power which is greater than you or me.”
“Well then,” said Guillaume de Touron, in a dark tone of voice. “Well then, give me the gold. Right away. You have spoken long enough. Give it to me now.”
As the Count uttered these words the nearest horsemen began to touch the Jew lightly with the tips of their lances, as if testing the thickness of the bark on a tree trunk.
The man said: “The gold is buried in the field and the spot is buried in my heart.”
Guillaume de Touron said: “Then get up and go to the place. Now.”
The Jew shook his head in resignation, as if disappointed at the clumsy narrow-mindedness displayed by his interlocutor. He said with exaggerated deliberateness, in the tone one would use with a stubborn peasant: “But my lord, I have not yet had your lordship’s oath. Your time is short and your way is long.”
“Go,” said the Count. “Go and lead me to the house you spoke of.”
The handsome Jew motioned with his chin.
“That is the one. The books are there.”
The knight raised his voice slightly, and calling to Claude Crookback he said: “Claude, have the house and all the houses burned, and see that the Jew is not killed quickly, but slowly and patiently, and meanwhile tell them to turn the horses out into the field to graze and to send the servants down to the river to wash themselves before Mass—yesterday they stank to high heaven.”
They began to beat the Jew at noon. Toward evening they branded him with red-hot irons. Then they soused him in salt water and asked him about Judas and Pontius and Caiaphas. They took him out of the salt water and crushed his testicles, as Claude had read in one of the books when he was a boy, and as it was written in the same book they made him drink the salty water in which he had been immersed. Later, when they were dealing with his fingers, they questioned him on the subject of the types and allegories of Jesus Christ of which the Old Testament is full. As the twilight came on they put out both his eyes, and then, finally, he opened his mouth and asked them whether if he showed them the place where the treasure was buried, they would promise to kill him instantly, and Claude Crookback gave his word.
In the dark the treasure was dug up, and it turned out that the Jew had not lied and the treasure was very rich indeed. Then the Count told Claude to carry out his promise. The hour, he said, was advanced and it was not fitting to delay any longer the time of evening prayer, because the fire, which had burned right through the village, was dying down and the smoke was interfering with their breathing and making their eyes smart. And so they thrust a lance through the tortured body from back to chest. But the Jew went on crawling blindly hither and thither, and his blood spurted out, and he continued murmuring. So they beat him over the head with an ax-haft and called him dead. The Jew, however, was not dead. He sighed deeply through the hole in his lungs and large pink bubbles came out of him and burst. Then they stabbed him again in the chest, but apparently they missed his heart. The broken relic of a man raised a leg in the air and kicked about furiously. The people who were crowded around him wiped the sweat from their brows and consulted with one another, then ordered the servants to throw the tortured body onto the smoldering fire.
But the ignorant serfs were already seized with superstitious panic, suspecting witchcraft or portents, and stubbornly refused to touch it.
Finally Andrés Alvárez, the piper, drew near, he who carried always a heavy stone tied around his neck to mortify his flesh. Alvárez fetched a long beam and pushed and rolled the remains of the palpitating body into a shallow pool. The spokesman of the Jews lay in the water gasping out bubbles. Even after the evening prayers he had not given up the ghost.
The Count gave orders to put off halting for the night and to ride on by the light of the moon, for the moon had come out, yellow and round and of enormous size. I gave my word, thought Claude, and I did not keep it, because the task did not lie within human power, and if it was the hand of the Almighty, then who am I? Not a leaf falls to the ground without the action of a purpose, and it is not for us to know what the purpose is. So it was by God’s purpose that our Saviour died on the Cross, for it was God’s will that the traitor should betray Christ so that the Saviour should bear our sin and carry our afflictions.
For four days more Guillaume de Touron and his men continued to plow the wild earth with their faith and to root out the hostile forces from the world. And at the end of four days, with fists of ice fury, the great rains of winter began to beat down.
The great rains of winter beat down violently and smote the earth. The vault of heaven itself seemed to collapse as the gray fragments of lead came down. The storm howled wildly in the forest, uprooting ancient trees, shattering roofs, and whipping the surface of the lakes into a frenzy.
So furious was the gale that it caught up wild ducks and hurled them against the mountainside. The water, usually a mild and submissive element, suddenly clenched into a fist and rose up against the massive rocks, toppling them with a single blow. All the rivers ran riot, seething and storming their banks.
Lightning flashed frenziedly from horizon to horizon, drawing dazzling, drunken designs over the whole width of the heavens. The thunder, in its turn, responded with its weird and menacing amen.
Now the wind would wrest the steeple from a village church and sport with it, carrying it off entire. The airborne bell flew swiftly past, ringing high and forlorn above hills, rivers, and forests until it was lost in the distance.
In the midst of the maelstrom at least one sign of order or design could be dimly discerned: All these tormenting forces worked with one accord toward rendering everything round, eliminating and exterminating anything which was pointed with all the violence of their stream, bending mercilessly everything upright or projecting, tearing at whatever was angular and forcing it to become a curve.
The tempest eroded and rounded off the heaps of dust, the breakers on the lakes, the backs of men scurrying with their last strength to find shelter.
Those wild powers which had burst forth to subdue the whole land were totally hostile to cross, steeple, and lance, horse and man.
In the afternoon the wind veered round. The air was filled with large snowflakes. After the snow came the hail. By dusk the earth shone white. All night long the lightning played on the surface of the snow with a dazzling flame of blue. Next morning the snow continued to fall and piled up deeper still. Whatever the storm had left standing the snow rounded and curved. The whole land was silently subdued and transformed. Nothing could stand in the way of the hostile forces. A new power reigned over the earth.
In that pallid glare the whole battered company fell to its knees in the snow and prayed to the Saviour. Lost as they were in that luminous wilderness, shrouded in banks of gray clouds swept by the wind, perhaps there took shape in some of their minds a fleeting vision of Jerusalem.
They went on walking till dusk, seeking shelter from those simple elements which buffeted the flesh and penetrated deeper to conquer the sensitive soul: The pouring rain, the knife-edged wind, the blinding light, the silence. Everything was stripped bare. A handful of wandering fugitives. A long flight. A trap.
In the afternoon the wanderers found a roof to shelter them. This was a broken-down abandoned monastery, a stone fortress on the rocks of a remote mountain slope. Many years before, perhaps in times of plague, the last monks had fled to die elsewhere.
The building was constructed on an absurd, melancholy plan. A steeply-inclined wall, enclosing no other building but simply closing in on itself, in whose thickness were dug myriad low cells and warrens of winding passages, spiral staircases, recesses, doorways, underground vaults lost in darkness. There was also a gloomy chapel, disproportionately long, like a narrow, curved corridor leading nowhere but to its own end. The very form of the place was consumed with contradiction.
Neglect had eaten away at everything, at the crude stone walls and the Latin inscriptions, broken by cracks and crevices, which spoke darkly of the resurrection of the dead and the delusion of earthly delights.
On the door of the monastery one could make out a notice written in the local dialect addressed to would-be invaders, appealing to their religious feelings, cursing them violently and warning of the danger of plague. The writing was being eaten away by mold and rust.
Guillaume de Touron and his men broke down the door and went inside. The Count gave orders to unload, light a fire, and shelter here until the roads became passable. He was troubled or distracted as he issued his instructions, interspersing orders to ration provisions, take good care of the horses, and clean the tackle, with vague reflections on the subject of walking on water, urgent messages to the Greeks, remarks about sleep as a simple escape from space and time, adding an obscure comment on the blight which had affected the vines and the rotting of the lower layers of earth underneath the top-soil.
The men did not speak, but the walls began to make their voices heard. While the Count was talking, the passages, doorways, and recesses sent back a hollow echo. They re-echoed and amplified a word here and there to a suspicious degree. When Guillaume de Touron finished speaking, the building intensified the silence.
The walls were all in the grip of a gradual decay. Weeds burrowed in the crevices of the stone, nibbling greedily at the rot, their bloated growth forcing up the flagstones, and as they burrowed they almost seemed to squelch noisily, as if the building were composed of marrow bones at which the plants were lustily sucking.
And the smells. A pungent stench of ancient incense lingering in the cracks in the stones came and went by turns.
The servants dispersed into the recesses and passageways, not searching, not finding, startled by meeting each other suddenly in the twists of the tunnels, trying the echo and being filled with terror at the result, lighting fires in the hollows. The smoke spread out along the ground, disturbing scurrying insects and night birds or monstrous bats. At the end of several days it was impossible to count the men or keep them in order. One or two were stricken with silent madness, wandering in the dark passages without a torch until their shouts died down and they were forgotten. All count was lost of the days.
Outside the loopholes the realm of winter stretched to the far distance, endless tracts of snow on which the howling wind played a melody of darkness. The torrents of water had broken down all the bridges. Clearly there was no hope of escape until some change took place.
All day the men played dice. When it grew dark they lit a fire, which they fed by tearing off the doors and hacking away the framework with their axes. After that they burned the furniture and fittings of the chapel. Finally, they even began to break down the roof-beams to make a bigger fire to ward off the cold draughts which blew in through the roof that they were progressively demolishing.
These roof-beams were damp and musty. The fire drew out of them a venomous, gnawing effervescence, as if people were being roasted alive each night.
And so, subjected to the influence of idleness and boredom, the servants began to go to pieces. They began to degenerate at first from excess of ale, and when supplies of ale ran out they degenerated twice as fast from want of it. In the absence of farmers’ wives it soon became evident that the women who accompanied the expedition were too few. They were squabbled over and squabbled with until some of them were killed and the rest fled into the snow. One of them killed three of her companions before they found her hiding in an alcove and slit her throat.
Even after the women had left the men did not mend their ways. The sooty walls were covered with obscene drawings. Here and there, when no one was watching, a man would desecrate one of the crosses, until they had to make do with the crosses of iron and feed the flames with the remains of the wooden ones.
Only the divine office was observed by everyone with an enthusiasm bordering on the fanatical. Morning and evening they would emerge from their various hiding-places and gather together to pray ecstatically. On the days which they considered, according to their halting reckoning, to be Sundays they prayed devoutly half the day. The lower elements burst into noisy weeping as they prayed. Sometimes Guillaume de Touron would deliver a feverish, rambling address, exhorting his men to love him, to love one another, to love the horses which were perishing from the cold, to love their own flesh and their own blood, since their flesh was not their flesh, nor their blood their blood. Claude Crookback, for his part, was steadily amassing a power of his own. He encouraged some of the servants to come to him and confess their old sins, all of which occasioned him lunatic delight. His chronicle bears witness to a morbid fascination with the nature of the body and its peculiarities.
Days and weeks went by. The last of the better elements in the party were disappearing into the snow to find their own way home. Those who remained battled with hordes of ravens which had also taken refuge there from the cold. They brought them down with arrows and stones, but others kept coming until the soul grew weary with them.
Outside, day after day, the soft, slushy snow piled up on the ground, and at night the wind beat relentlessly at the walls, dislodging loose stones and beams.
Worst of all, the Count was changing. Compassion took hold of him day by day. Something strange, a kind of hesitancy, tenderness almost, suddenly came over him.
He would wake from a long sleep (he dozed for long periods of the day and night), get up, and begin to perform acts of kindness. In the first place, he shook off all his old suspicions and seemed to take pride in the handful of men who were accompanying him to Jerusalem. Secondly, he sought opportunities of exercising forgiveness. If he saw one of the men weakening, he would lay a hand on his shoulder and speak briefly and softly against sin. He began to address some of the more despicable characters as “my brother.” From time to time he would pay frenzied visits to his mare Mistral, give her water to drink from his own cupped palms, and groom her with his fingers. On one occasion he assembled everybody in the broken-down chapel, held a kind of Mass, and solemnly adopted Claude Crookback as his son. If Claude had not restrained him, he would have gone on to adopt several more of those present. To judge by his appearance he was a sick man, but in terms of physical strength he was stronger than any man there, the three Celts included. It occurred to him to erect a sort of dais at one end of the chapel, and for several days he moved stones and fetched heavy planks. Then he suddenly stopped, and instead tried to induce the most ignorant men to learn Latin, and give up speaking “those Jewish languages.” Once he fell to his knees, took off his shirt, and wrapped it around the foot of the oldest of the three Celts, a remarkable action, since the foot, though naturally unwashed, was in no way injured.
He demanded the constant companionship of Claude Crookback. At first he implored Claude to regale him with extracts from the writings of the ancient sages. After a time, he would wake up in a panic and call for Claude, and eventually he was unable to fall asleep without resting his head in Claude’s lap. Claude, as was his wont, would talk on and on, and since he met with no rebuke he talked even more than usual. Day by day, authority passed from the Count to his adopted son, so that soon he could starve or flog men at his own discretion as the fancy took him. In his chronicle he wrote: “Earth, men, snow, suffering, death, all of these are but an allegory of the Kingdom of Heaven, toward which I am going, in a straight path, turning aside neither to right nor to left, and with a joyful spirit.”
Then the snow stopped, and once more the winter rain fell day and night, in a tedious, unrelenting downpour. The snow began to melt on the hilltops. Thick mud covered the countryside. The cold became damper, a fetid, poisonous frost. Here and there traces of the road reappeared, winding among the hills. The road was waterlogged. Even in moments of despair, it was impossible to consider resuming the journey.
Within the ruined monastery supplies of food began to fail. Once or twice knives were drawn when the rotten rations were distributed. A humiliating disease broke out, causing all of them unbearable sufferings and torments.
One night a pack of wolves stole in, wild with hunger. Silently the wolves swarmed through the dark and winding passages, broke into the cellars, and tore the last remaining horses limb from limb. If the scent of the wolves had not roused the three Celts from their slumber, we should all have been in danger of our lives. The Celts leaped to their feet and fell on the beasts of prey with lances, torches, shouts, knives, and stones. In the firelight even the men’s expression seemed wolflike.
After this incident Claude Crookback instituted a night watch. The men would gather together at night to sleep surrounded by heaps of glowing embers. The guards prevented the wolves from creeping in again, but they were powerless to prevent the terror caused by the howling which was borne in on the night wind, piercing the very marrow of the soul. And the soul contracted and responded with an inner howling of its own.
Early one morning, they caught sight in the distance of a dim form moving across the snow. It was a traveler, moving past slowly on the horizon, holding himself erect, feeling his way, a tall man wrapped in a black cloak, his head hidden by a black cowl. A wandering ascetic, perhaps, or a mendicant monk. The form did not respond to our cries and did not alter its course. The stranger passed before our gaze, pressing on slowly through the soft snow toward the opposite horizon. Perhaps he was deaf, or bound by a vow of silence. Besides him no human form appeared all through the winter.
The cold grew more and more intense, stretching to the very limits of its strength. The men’s bodies were covered with chilblains. Those horses which had been rescued from the fangs of the wolves perished in one day. Their flesh was eaten half-raw, because there was hardly any fuel left to feed the fire.
A spirit of rebelliousness gradually reared its head, restrained as yet but menacing. Servants, their eyes inflamed, whispered together in corners. If Claude Crookback walked past they would suddenly fall silent or hasten to roll their dice. Whispers stalked about in the night darkness.
One day Andrés Alvárez risked his life climbing to the top of the crumbling belfry. He succeeded in setting the great bells to rights and in fitting them with new ropes. He believed in the power of the bells to drive out the spirit of defilement and to put new heart into the men. But when Andrés slithered down from the belfry and pulled on the ropes, the chimes which rang out were broken, ailing, blood-chilling. And from every corner of the tumble-down monastery arose waves of echoes, hoarse and pitiless.
And so they abandoned the bells and bade Andrés Alvárez, the piper, pipe away and still the murmurs of the silence.
Andrés’s playing could stir the heartstrings. His melodies caressed his hearers like a hand. Something stirred and softened within them. The firelight flickered gloomily on the circle of shadowy faces, coarse-featured and shaggy. As the notes rang out, a kind of spasm or passing shudder played round those cracked lips. The tenderness was almost more than they could bear. Like stones frozen in a sheet of ice, the slightest touch of warmth would shatter them. Andrés Alvárez roused in them a kind of craving, a repressed yearning. Suddenly someone in the circle of listeners would burst out screaming as if he had been stabbed. It was the scream of a wounded man who recovers consciousness and all of a sudden becomes aware of his pain.
His tunes were simple ones, such as one hears in the country in summertime, and from time to time Andrés would break into a soft, warm song, like the songs which peasant girls sing when they fancy that no one is listening. Some of the men joined in and sang with Andrés as if their lives had reopened with the song. Even Guillaume de Touron was stirred. This dwindling man sank his chin on his chest, and a last light passed through him.
He remembered his wife, not the lady Louise of Beaumont, who had died that summer of falling sickness, but his first wife, Anna Maria. She was only a child when she was brought and presented to him, and he too was a mere lad. She was beautiful but silent as he first saw her standing in the gateway, he looking at her, she looking down at her slippers or at the ground. And he recalled now, in this twilight, how he took her hand and led her out onto the estate, to the orchards and vineyards and pastures, and then into the woods, as his forefathers before him had been accustomed to lead their brides on their arrival. He recalled her dress, the color of oleander, and the startled look in her eyes, and the ripples of panic racing over her skin as over that of a quiet young filly. He recalled her prolonged silence, and his own silence, and the singing of the birds, the tree tops dyed by the rays of the sinking sun, the blossoms in the orchards with their scents, for it was spring, and the tranquility of the streams was caressed by the scents of evening. Anna Maria walked behind him, and he let go of her hand, which was trembling. Then, in a frenzy, he suddenly determined to make her laugh. He started neighing like a horse and howling like a jackal, went down on all fours and imitated a deer in flight and a bear in pursuit, then suddenly threw himself from a high rock into the stream below, emerged dripping wet, and fell panting at her feet, giving a perfect imitation of a dog begging to be petted. How pure was that distant silence! Then, giving in, she laughed and touched his hand with her fingertips, and he, a wet, fawning dog, nuzzled her hand with his face. As his lips touched her fingers it happened, and Anna Maria said, “You, you, you.”
Guillaume de Touron closed both his eyes and gazed blindly at Andrés Alvárez, the piper. His heart told him that this place was strange and that even Jerusalem was not the goal of this journey but of another journey, no journey at all, no City of God, and perhaps Andrés is the hidden Jew, or perhaps not Andrés but he himself, for truth is so pure and only the eyes are blind, fire is not fire, snow is not snow, stones are thoughts and the wind is wine and wine is silence, prayers are fingers, pain is a bridge and death is home, is the touch, is the warm tinkling song “You, you, you.”
Outside, as a counterpoint to Andrés’s melody, snow and despair once more fell softly, smothering everything with a kiss of unbelievable tenderness. So it was that Count Guillaume de Touron stopped the music and said:
“Claude, this piper is not one of us.”
“Father, have you not known Andrés from his youth? Did his grandfather not dandle you on his knee when you were a child?”
The Count said:
“Claude, why do you insist on shielding this Jew from me? He is hounding us, and it is his fault that we are lost.”
The Count, deep in thought, said sorrowfully, as if from a distance:
“Andrés, you are dear to me, you are a dearly-beloved Jew Andrés, and I must kill you so that you die.”
Andrés Alvárez did not plead for his life, but curled up with his head between his knees and did not move. The Count rose, took up his spear, and stood beside Andrés. He leaned on the spear, his eyes closed. He was pondering or hesitating. He leaned harder on the spear, and a sigh escaped from his throat. He leaned harder still, the spear passed through his body and, as if clasped in an invisible embrace, he collapsed and lay still.
After the Count’s death there were two more flights into the snow. Most of the servants vanished, taking with them what little food was left. Claude Crookback, leader of a party of nine crusaders, wrote, with a trembling hand, his eyes blazing out of a beard smeared with saliva: “The miracle is delayed. Claude is humbled to the dust, the saintly Claude is plunged into the depths of the abyss, but beyond the mire there shines a light, and I am steadily making my way toward it, to be purged in it till the very flesh perishes.”
The horror of those last nights. The faces of men whose teeth are rotted, whose lips are eaten away by the cold. They shone white as skulls in the light of the night. The screaming. The laughter. They were turned to beasts, mauling their flesh with their teeth, falling to emaciated knees to worship the lightning which flashed across the night sky. And the visions. A luminous procession above their heads, figures of pallid ghosts, glimmering from the furthermost frozen distance.
On the last night there was a sign. Through the holes in the roof the dark clouds were seen to part slightly, revealing faint stars, and beyond the stars, a halo.
And so, finally, without horses, without clothes or provisions, without women and without wine, the cold tearing at their bare feet, to rise up and go to Jerusalem. Surely it was thus that they should have set out at the start.
Nine quivering silhouettes, Claude Crookback, trudging in front, Andrés, the three brothers, four servants whose minds were long since unhinged, through meadows shining white from horizon to horizon, walking over the white earth and under a white sky, on and on.
Not turning homeward—they had given up all thought of human habitations. Not even toward Jerusalem, which is not a place but disembodied love. Shedding their bodies, they made their way, growing ever purer, into the heart of the music of the bells and beyond to the choirs of angels and yet further, leaving behind their loathsome flesh and streaming onward, a jet of whiteness on a white canvas, an abstract purpose, a fleeting vapor, perhaps peace.
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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.