Every Arab-Israeli war has been haunted by the previous one. In the end, each of these wars--1948, 1956, 1967, and…
Every Arab-Israeli war has been haunted by the previous one. In the end, each of these wars-1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973—may be thought of as extended battles in a long war. For this reason, a fuller understanding of one can contribute much to a fuller understanding of all. We are still too close to the war of 1973 to know nearly enough about its derivation and ramifications, but we now know a great deal more about the war of 1967—a great deal that casts some light on the present war and that has not been dealt with satisfactorily in the existing literature on the subject.
The ostensible Arab casus belli of 1973 was the recovery of the “occupied territories” taken over by Israel in 1967. In 1967, an ostensible casus belli was a different kind of “occupied territory”—that held by the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) on the Egyptian-Israeli border in the Sinai region as a result of the war of 1956. Until 1967, “occupied territory” in the Arab view meant the land which actually made up the State of Israel. In effect, the very existence of Israel was regarded by the Arabs as an “aggression.” The Egyptian leader in 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, stated the proposition bluntly: “Israel's existence in itself is an aggression” (May 28, 1967).1 After 1967, Arab policy, or at least propaganda, shifted its ground; “occupied territory” came to mean the land won by Israel in 1967 and “aggression” the way the war came about. From war to war, the Arabs have sought to push back to the status quo ante in order to unravel the entire fabric of Arab-Israeli history. In 1973, they wanted to go back to 1967; in 1967, to 1956; and all the time to 1948, before the State of Israel was born. For this reason, the ostensible locus of the “occupied territory” has changed but its political significance or implication has not.
The term, “Israeli aggression,” as applied to the 1967 war, became a banner, a war cry, an incantation, without which an Arab politician could hardly make a speech or an Arab diplomat compose a UN resolution. This slogan seemed necessary to give the Arabs a sense of outraged innocence, moral superiority, and unrestricted claim on the rest of the world. If the Israelis were really guilty of an unprovoked aggression in 1967, who could rightfully deny the Arabs their cries for simple justice or even fiery revenge? In those two words, “Israeli aggression,” the Arabs put their entire moral and political case against Israel, as if the charge were self-evidently true; and, if true, nothing more needed to be said to condemn Israel before world public opinion.
How true is it? The answer should tell us much about one of the deepest manifestations of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It should also teach us something about the peculiar nature of political myths, especially how they arise after some wars to cover up the true reasons for defeat. This Arab myth is not the first of its kind; the German “stab-in-the-back” myth after World War I was very similar in purpose and fabrication. The legend of war guilt haunted Germany for years and contributed heavily to Hitler's victory in 1933. If the same legend lasts that long in the Arab world, the price may be equally high.
First, let us recall the main events leading up to the 1967 war. Memories have dimmed, and it is necessary to hold a few key dates in mind before we go on to inquire what the Arab leaders thought they were doing—and why.
In most accounts, the 1967 crisis began to come to a head on April 7, 1967, when Syrians and Israelis fought a one-day battle in the air and on the ground. It was the most violent flare-up since 1956. Nasser later claimed that this incident, followed by allegedly threatening anti-Syrian remarks by Israeli leaders, had precipitated his subsequent moves.
The first fatal military move came five weeks later, on May 14, with the massing of large-scale Egyptian troops in the Sinai region bordering Israel. This move was supposedly designed to relieve the purported Israeli pressure on Syria.
Two days later, on May 16, Egypt demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF)—which was actually no “force” at all. The UNEF was merely a conglomeration of no more than 3,400 men from seven countries, over half Indian and Yugoslav, of whom about 1,800 policed 295 miles along the Egypt-Israel border and the Gaza Strip. It merely served as a buffer between the two sides, to keep them apart by its presence, not to “enforce” the peace.
Later, a controversy arose whether Nasser had intended to demand the complete or only the partial withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission. If complete, the Egyptian takeover necessarily included the UN observation post at Sharm el-Sheikh, commanding the Straits of Tiran at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba. Sharm el-Sheikh was a critical piece in this deadly game because, as long ago as 1957, the then Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, had warned Egypt not to “block our historic and legal passage into the Gulf of Aqaba” if it wished to avoid another war. For ten years, this warning—plus the understanding that the United States stood behind it—had kept open the passage through the Gulf of Aqaba.
Then, on May 22, Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran, thereby blockading the port of Eilat, Israel's only outlet to the Red Sea. This act was the immediate casus belli of the war.
The proximate, though of course not the deeper, causes of the war were, then, the unilateral expulsion of the UNEF and the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba. Both these moves assumed their overriding significance for Egypt and Israel because they represented a return to the 1956 war's status quo ante. As Nasser took pains to make clear, these actions were not ends in themselves; they were intended to begin the unraveling process. Or, as he put if. “If we were able to restore conditions to what they were before 1956, God will surely help and urge us to restore the situation to what it was in 1948” (May 29, 1967).
By May 22, then, Egypt had made its moves. The next two weeks were occupied with diplomatic maneuvers aimed at getting Egypt to reopen the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping or at deterring Israel from doing anything about it. When all such efforts failed, Israel struck on June 5. Its spectacular victory, ending in occupation of Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian territory, set the stage for the war of 1973.
The questions that arise and that have been dealt with most unsatisfactorily in the existing literature on the Arab-Israeli conflict are:
When did the Egyptians begin to think of making precisely those moves which led to the outbreak on June 5?
What were the calculations and motivations behind Egyptian policy in this period?
Who was chiefly responsible for the illusions and miscalculations which brought on the war?
In the light of what we now know, how meaningful is the legend of “Israeli aggression”?
If this legend has little to commend it historically, why has it persisted so tenaciously and what purpose has it served?
What are the larger implications of this experience for a better understanding of both the past and future of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
One of the main obstacles to an understanding of the 1967 war may be called the “Syrian myth.” It alleged that Nasser was impelled to expel the UN mission, take over Sharm el-Sheikh, and close the Straits of Tiran because the Israelis were going to invade Syria.
Nasser himself was the chief author of this story. He repeatedly sought to give the impression that he thought of taking these actions when he learned that Syria was endangered.
Here is how Nasser put it the first time:
On May .13 we received accurate information that Israel was concentrating on the Syrian border huge armed forces of about 11 to 13 brigades. These forces were divided into two fronts, one south of Tiberias and the other north of Tiberias.
The decision made by Israel at this time was to carry out an aggression against Syria on May 17. On May 14 we took measures, discussed this matter, and contacted our Syrian brothers (May 22, 1967).
Here is Nasser a second time:
The circumstances in which we requested the withdrawal of UNEF are also known to all of you. Syria was threatened. There was a plan to invade Syria (May 28, 1967).
And a third time after the war:
We all know how the Middle East crisis began in the first half of last May; there was an enemy plan to invade Syria . . (June 9, 1967).
A fourth time:
We all know that this crisis began with Israel's attempt to invade Syria (July 23, 1967).
And a fifth time:
We received information about the Israeli mobilization against Syria. That is why we sent forces into the Sinai to deter them (interview in Look, March 19, 1968).
This is the rationale for Nasser's actions that has found its way into book after book and article after article. The most imaginative version may be found in the biography of Nasser by Anthony Nutting, whose book might make a good text for a seminar on historical mythomania. Nutting claims that Israel deliberately lured Nasser into battle by means of calculated leaks and fictitious radio messages designed to convince the Russians, who in turn were to convince the Egyptians that a major Israeli assault on Syria was imminent. Thus Nasser's movement of Egyptian troops into the Sinai and his expulsion of the UN peacekeeping forces were all part of an “Israeli plan” or “trap.”2
The whole elaborate structure of the myth of “Israeli aggression” in 1967 was based, then, on two interrelated points: Israel's alleged threat to Syria in mid-May, after which Nasser first thought of his counter-moves in the Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba.
All this might best be described as a “cover story.” And, like other “cover stories” of the past few years, it came apart inadvertently, and in Egypt itself. A crucial portion of the real story has been available for over five years, but relatively little use has been made of it. What actually happened is still significant for its bearing on the present course of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
When the 1967 war ended, Nasser did not accept full responsibility for the Egyptian defeat. Instead, he shifted the blame onto the Egyptian military leaders, who, of course, fully deserved his wrath. After his top military leader, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, committed suicide in September 1967, Nasser staged a trial in February the following year of numerous officers and the former Minister of Defense, Shams Badran, who were accused of plotting to overthrow his regime. Badran, the chief defendant, insisted on talking about how the war had come about, despite efforts by the court to restrict his testimony to the postwar plot. Badran's testimony has never been disputed, and without it, the genesis of the war cannot be fully understood.3
In December 1966, or January 1967, Badran related, he, Field Marshal Amer, and the Chief of Intelligence, Salah Nasr, made a trip to Pakistan. While they were there, the Defense Council of the Arab League met in Cairo.4 At this time, it is necessary to recall, the main Egyptian preoccupation was not Syria; it was Jordan. In the propaganda war then raging among the Arab nations, Egypt attacked Hussein as a reactionary monarch afraid to fight Israel, and Jordan retorted that Nasser was “hiding behind the skirts of UNEF” in order to avoid a confrontation. A Jordanian Prime Minister, Wasfi Tell, went so far as to charge that Nasser had made a secret agreement with Israel in 1957 to keep the UNEF in the Sinai area in order to give Egypt an alibi for staying out of the Palestine imbroglio. In this way, the UNEF was drawn into an internecine Arab struggle before the crisis of 1967 flared up.
So the idea occurred to the Field Marshal [Amer] that we ought to do something about it in order to forestall the campaign [of the reactionary Arab states]. So he said: Send a message to the President [Nasser], explaining our proposal—that we should remove the UNEF and occupy Sharm el-Sheikh, and that we have [army] units which are ready [for this purpose].
Nasser failed to reply because, Badran said, he was not yet convinced that the idea was a good one. Badran, however, pointed out to Amer that withdrawal of the UNEF from Sharm el-Sheikh would result in war. Amer replied that he wanted to occupy Sharm el-Sheikh only, without closing the Gulf of Aqaba, in order to deprive Egypt's enemies in the Arab world of a pretext for their hostile propaganda. Badran was skeptical. He thought that the anti-Egyptian propaganda would intensify if the Gulf were not closed and that Amer's proposal was merely “half a solution.”
Let us stop here for a moment. We are now at the origin of the idea that led to the moves which precipitated the 1967 war. In December 1966, Field Marshal Amer was not concerned with alleged Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian border or purported Israeli threats to invade Syria. He was motivated by an internecine Arab struggle in which Israel was used by each side as a weapon of propaganda against the other. In effect, Amer had given birth to an idea whose time had not yet come—but it was not long in coming.
The “Syrian myth” was necessary to conceal the fact that the idea of expelling the UNEF and taking over Sharm el-Sheikh had been in the air in Egyptian ruling circles ever since December 1966. Nasser himself made what seemed to be puzzling, contradictory statements on how the takeover of Sharm el-Sheikh and the alleged Israeli threat to Syria were connected. On one occasion he denied that Egypt had had any thought of war before May 13, 1967, the day he had allegedly learned of the Israeli threat, because “we did not imagine that Israel would dare to attack any Arab country” (May 22, 1967). Four days later, he told a totally different story which tied in more closely with Badran's testimony. This time he said that he knew taking over Sharm el-Sheikh meant a general war with Israel. Then he added that he had been authorized “to implement it [the Sharm el-Sheikh plan] at the right time; and the right time came with Israel's threats against Syria” (May 26, 1967).
By the time Nasser made his second statement, he had closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, a step which had not been contemplated in Field Marshal Amer's original idea for the very reason that it was tantamount to bringing on a war with Israel. Nasser had taken over Amer's essential idea, but in a different form and for a different purpose. Sharm el-Sheikh now became symbolic of closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel instead of merely getting rid of the UNEF. And the purpose was no longer primarily to counter Jordanian propaganda; it was to challenge Israel to a direct confrontation.
Nasser later attributed his belief in an Israeli attack to Syrian and Soviet intelligence sources. Even if they were right, the attack, according to Nasser himself, should have taken place on May 17. When it did not, he presumably should have been satisfied that his military buildup in the Sinai had achieved its purpose. Nevertheless, it was after May 17 that Nasser made his most belligerent moves—occupation of Sharm el-Sheikh on the 18th and closure of the Straits of Tiran on the 22nd, Something happened during those days which hardened Nasser's resolve to transform Amer's original idea into a more far-reaching and complex scheme for taking on Israel.5
The inner story of what took place in Egypt's top command has not yet been fully told, and it still casts light on the fundamental considerations which have guided Egyptian policy.
So far, I have tried to get rid of an obstacle that stands in the way of understanding this Arab-Israeli conflict—the “Syrian cover story.” Now I have come to what I consider to be the most important and most fascinating aspect of the entire sequence of events. Again, the key to Egyptian strategy may be found in former Defense Minister Badran's testimony.
A tip-off to what really happened first came from Nasser's chief journalistic confidant and mouthpiece, Muhammad Hassanein Heykal, editor of al-Ahram, in a series of post-mortem articles in October 1967. Heykal admitted that the Egyptians had ostensibly achieved their objective when the Israelis did not attack Syria on May 17 and that the Egyptian forces in the Sinai should have fallen back to “defensive positions.” But he then let slip the reason why they failed to do so: “Some of us were dazzled by the spectacle of the force we moved into Sinai between May 15 and May 20” (al-Ahram,. October 22, 1967).
Nasser had previously hinted at the same mood: “We are ready today,” he had boasted (May 26, 1967). To visitors before the war, he had expressed confidence that his air force was more than a match for Israel's. He refused to listen to advisers who had warned him in advance that he was taking too great a risk.6
Badran told much more of the inside story. The Egyptian officers had been itching for a fight. Egyptian intelligence was confident that Egypt was superior in tanks, artillery, and air force. When Field Marshal Amer and Badran made a tour of inspection in the Sinai they were impressed by those “who were agitated and excited because they wanted to start operations.” After Nasser spoke at an Egyptian air base in the Sinai on May 22 without actually declaring war, the officers were so disappointed that Amer fell a rising tension between Nasser and the officers. To calm them, Amer told them privately: “Don't worry, boys, you'll fight.”
Meanwhile, a tactical dispute broke out in the Egyptian high command. The air force commander, General Sidqi Mahmud, wanted Egypt to strike first, a position with which Field Marshal Amer at first agreed. Nasser, who for his own reasons preferred to get the Israelis to make the first strike, soon won over the Field Marshal. The decisive reason for Nasser and Amer was that they thought an Egyptian first strike risked getting the United States into the war, while an Israeli first strike was calculated to keep the United States out. Badran related this exchange between Mahmud and Amer:
Sidqi Mahmud objected and said: “I cannot accept an abortive operation because, for my part, it will paralyze me [i.e., the air force].” So the Field Marshal asked him: “Would you like to mount the first strike and face America or prefer to receive the first strike and face Israel only?” Sidqi Mahmud said: “All right, I agree.” The Field Marshal asked him what the estimated losses would be. He [Mahmud] answered: “20 per cent.”
The Egyptian decision to forgo a first strike was a deliberate one. It was not based on any intention to avoid war because the Egyptians believed and knew that they had taken measures which made war inevitable. The Egyptians took a cold-blooded calculated risk because they were so sure of coming victory. This aspect of the Egyptian plan helps to explain why Nasser and Heykal tried so hard to goad the Israelis into making war.
“The Jews threaten war,” said Nasser. “We tell them: ‘You are welcome, we are ready for war’” (May 22, 1967). Six days later: “Today we are alone face to face with Israel, and if Israel wants war I would say it again, ‘welcome’” (May 28, 1967). The following day: “We are now ready to confront Israel” (May 29, 1967). Heykal left nothing to the imagination: “Let Israel begin! Let our second blow then be ready! Let it be a knock-out!” (al-Ahram, May 26, 1967).
At the time these words seemed like vain boasting. They were more. The Israeli strike was an integral part of the Egyptian war plan. Nasser closely calculated the risks of war, took those which were sure to bring the Israelis in, and—until it was too late—calmly watched as his plans unfolded.
When he first sent Egyptian troops into Sinai on May 14, Nasser said that he had estimated the possibility of war at only 20 per cent. On May 22, when he decided to close the Gulf of Aqaba, Nasser changed it to 50 per cent. A few days later, he raised the figure to 80 per cent (July 23, 1967). And on May 28, after the return of Badran from Moscow, where he had gone to confer with the Soviet leaders a last time before the showdown, Badran testified that Nasser had put the chances of war at 100 per cent. Yet a day later, Nasser proclaimed: “Preparations have already been made. We are now ready to confront Israel” (May 29, 1967). The fatalism of the Egyptians on the outbreak of war was, by their own admission, complete a week before it broke out.
Moreover, Nasser even claimed to have known the date of the Israeli attack. He later declared that he had told a meeting of the Egyptian high command on June 2 that “I expect the aggression would take place on June 5 and that the first blow would be directed against our air force” (July 23, 1967). According to Badran's tantalizing testimony on this point, Nasser's source of information was American. We also know from the memoirs of the then Jordanian Prime Minister, Sa'd Jum'ah, that Hussein told Nasser on May 30 that he had had information from numerous sources, some of them foreign, that Israel was going to attack the Egyptian airfields by surprise on June 5 or 6.7
In short, Nasser's war plan called for goading the Israelis to attack first. He was totally mobilized and prepared. He knew the date. Curiously, Nasser was telling the truth when he assured an American journalist after the war: “It was not at all in our plans to attack Israel. I promise you, we had no plans for this” (Arnaud de Borchgrave, Newsweek, February 10, 1969). He also told a French correspondent that he “did not want to begin a war in 1967” (Eric Rouleau, Le Monde, February 19, 1970). What he failed to say and by that time was anxious to conceal was that it was in his plans for Israel to attack, that he wanted it to appear that Israel had started the war, and that he had done exactly what he knew was necessary to achieve this objective.
Nasser's biographers have found it exceedingly awkward to face this inconvenient fact. Anthony Nutting portrays a Nasser so mindless of what he was doing that he could bring himself to believe that the Israelis would not fight a war alone and that, after Egyptian troops advanced to the Israeli frontier, “the matter would end there.” The truth is that Nasser's entire strategy was calculated on making the Israelis fight alone, and that he repeatedly told his colleagues in the week before the war that the matter would not end there. Jean Lacouture has so little understanding of his subject that he assures his readers that Nasser “expected that Israel would passively submit to the Tiran blockade.”8 The evidence is overwhelming that Nasser understood how much the Israelis could take “passively” far better than that. Robert Stephens, a British journalist, blithely considers it “unlikely” that Nasser “was simply concerned to lure Israel into a first strike so that he could overwhelm her.”9 This is exactly what Nasser himself intimated more than once, what one as close to him as Heykal unquestionably implied before the war, and what Nasser's Defense Minister, Shams Badran, who was certainly in a position to know, spelled out in the most circumstantial detail after the war.
Even Lucius D. Battle, the U.S. Ambassador in Cairo until early in 1967 and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs during the war crisis, seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He recently offered the opinion that “Nasser thought there would be someone to pull the Arabs and Israelis apart—before a military debacle could befall him but after a political victory had restored his waning image. Certainly he knew he could not win” (New York Times Magazine, October 21, 1973). If, as we know from Nasser and Badran, Nasser told his generals that war was 80 per cent and then 100 per cent certain at a time when “he knew he could not win,” he was a monster of irresponsibility and deceitfulness. Nasser was actually a man who had always calculated his chances carefully and had previously abstained from forcing a showdown with the Israelis because, as he had put it in 1965, he wanted the Arabs to be fully prepared in order “to determine the battle.” If he decided to determine the battle in 1967, it was because he thought the Arabs were sufficiently prepared. There is more truth in the idea that Nasser would have wanted someone to save him before suffering a military debacle, but this is not the same thing as saying that he expected to suffer a military debacle. If this is what Mr. Battle still thinks in 1973, one shudders at the advice he was giving in 1967.
Before turning to the implications of 1967 for 1973, it remains to inquire into the motivation of Nasser's war policy as a clue to that of his successor.
On the Arab side, 1956 haunted 1967. The lesson of 1956, for Nasser, was that Egypt had been saved and his reputation enhanced because Egypt had appeared to be the victim of an Israeli-French-British attack. The Suez adventure was Britain's last gasp as a great power willing or able to make its influence felt in the Middle East or elsewhere, and by 1967, French policy toward Israel had turned from collaboration to hostility. There remained only the United States for Nasser to worry about—when he was not worrying about Israel.
The isolation of Israel, then, was a precondition for Nasser in 1967. He could not bring himself to believe that Egypt had much to fear from Israel alone. He read the events of 1956 as meaning that Israel could not hope to win unless backed by at least one great power. He thought that he could count on either an Egyptian victory in a one-to-one war or an Israeli backdown that would be the equivalent of an Egyptian victory without war. In effect, his objective was the fruits of war, with or without war. Isolating the battlefield was the key to his strategy in 1967, and for this grand maneuver to succeed, everything seemed to depend on how he handled the United States.
Nasser decided to forgo a first strike solely in order to isolate Israel. An Egyptian first strike, he thought, vastly increased the danger of U.S. intervention; an Israeli first strike vastly decreased it. His motivation, then, had nothing to do with avoiding a war with Israel; it was solely guided by his best judgment of how to win it.
Significantly, Nasser's first impulse after he knew that he had lost the war was to blame active U.S. intervention for his defeat. In his desperately ludicrous telephone conversation with Hussein on June 6, the second day of the battle when he already knew some of the bad news but not all of it, it was Nasser who had the idea of putting out a phony story about imaginary attacks from American and British aircraft carriers. It took him almost a year to withdraw this alibi for the Egyptian debacle (in the interview in Look, March 19, 1968). This legend was more than a purely arbitrary, senseless canard; it betrayed in a distorted fashion what had long been in his mind as the necessary precondition for an Israeli victory.
Nasser, in fact, succeeded in achieving the isolation of the Middle East battleground. To this extent, his strategy was not badly designed. If it failed in the end, the fault was elsewhere.
In order to encourage an Israeli first strike, Nasser had to believe in the decisive superiority of his own armed forces. They had to be able to take a first strike with minimal losses and hit back with crushing effect. For this reason, it was so vital for Field Marshal Amer to get the Egyptian air force commander's estimate of Egyptian losses in the opening Israeli attack. When Sidqi Mahmud answered “20 per cent,” the necessary relationship of forces for a successful Egyptian counterattack against an isolated Israel appeared to be satisfied. Heykal had made known the Egyptian strategy before the war: “As of now, we must expect the enemy to deal us the first blow in the battle. But as we wait for the first blow, we should try to minimize its effect as much as possible. The second blow will then follow. But we will deal this blow to the enemy in retaliation and deterrence. It will be the most effective blow we can possibly deal” (al-Ahram, May 26, 1967). Six days before the war, the then Jordanian Prime Minister who accompanied King Hussein to Cairo heard Field Marshal Amer saying that the fight against Israel would last only a few days and “be a picnic.” This highly placed Jordanian source summed up the fate of the two aspects of Nasser's strategy as follows: “Nasser was deceived by Egyptian intelligence regarding the Israeli power and Israel's real aims. He also had the illusion that he had won the diplomatic campaign against the United States and Britain.”10 In his post-mortem speech after the war, Nasser implicitly admitted that the military side of the war had been miscalculated: “Here we should acknowledge with complete honesty and complete dignity that the military fight did not proceed the way we expected or desired” (July 23, 1967). And at his trial, former Defense Minister Badran testified that, if all had gone as planned and Egypt had lost only the 20 per cent that it had expected, “there was no one [in the Egyptian air force] who believed that the Jews would have any capability left to mount an operation against us,” owing to the vaunted superiority of the Egyptian air force and the excellence of the Egyptian war plan. Indeed, Badran still would not concede that Israel alone had beaten Egypt. He attributed Israel's victory to the Americans who had allegedly given the Israelis the benefit of American aerial reconnaissance, down to “every nail in every [Egyptian] airplane.”
Unlike President Kennedy, who had assumed full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, Nasser unloaded all the blame on his generals. To one American correspondent he complained: “What helped the Israelis the last time was not so much their cleverness, but the conceit and con-placency of our generals. They felt Israel would never attack. They even overestimated their own strength. And because of that, they failed to take elementary precautions” (Newsweek, February 10, 1969). In another interview, he forgave himself: “I was not handling military matters before the 1967 war” (Time, May 16, 1969).
When an enemy's “aggression” and “first strike” become part of one's own war plan, something strange and ominous has obviously happened to the meaning of these terms. Even in 1973, when the Israelis were clearly the victims of an Arab first strike, the Arabs and their Soviet backers persisted in a bizarre propaganda campaign against “Israeli aggression.” Is what has happened in the Middle East a portent of what may come else-where? Has “aggression” virtually lost its meaning in the circumstances of modern warfare? Does it have any relationship to the “first strike” any longer?
At minimum, the Arab propaganda about the “Israeli aggression” in 1967, let alone that in 1973, deserves to be rejected with derision and contempt. If ever a war was willfully and knowingly provoked, it was the 1967 war. In this respect, the two wars are different only in form, not in substance. The Egyptians decided to give the first strike to Israel in 1967 and to take it for themselves in 1973 for exactly the same reason—they thought it was best for them. In so doing, they have set precedents of such gravity and peril, not least to themselves, that the whole problem of war and peace in the entire world may never be the same again.
In a number of other ways, the wars of 1967 and 1973 seem to be as closely related as were the wars of 1956 and 1967.
It is almost as if the Arabs asked themselves in 1973 what the Israelis had done in 1967 and had then decided to do likewise. The Arabs obviously concluded that it had been a mistake to make the Israelis deliver the first strike in 1967. They were going to do it themselves in 1973. The Arabs were surprised by the sheer weight and intensity of the opening Israeli attack in 1967. They were going to start off with an equally massive movement of men and materiel in 1973. The Arabs were impressed by their failure to wage a simultaneous, multi-front war in 1967, enabling Israel to deal with Egypt first and turn on Syria and Jordan afterward. They were going to synchronize major offensives from Egypt and Syria, holding Jordanian and other Arab forces in reserve, in 1973.
Jordan's role in 1967 has been widely misunderstood, and a similar misunderstanding in 1973 is less excusable. It was generally thought that Hussein had waited until the last minute to make up his mind about getting into the 1967 war and that he did so only after he was convinced that Egypt was sure to win.
We now know from Hussein himself that this was not the case.
Two books on Hussein have appeared, with his blessings, since the 1967 war. The first, published originally in French in 1968, is largely made up of Hussein's own words. The second, by an English writer, published in 1972, was also written with Hussein's cooperation. Both tell more or less the same story of how Hussein got into the war.11
As soon as Nasser announced the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba on May 22, 1967, Hussein decided that war was inevitable. In the next two days he made his decision: to get into it. On May 26, Hussein called in the Egyptian ambassador in Amman and asked him to arrange a meeting with Nasser. The latter accepted Hussein's overture on May 29; Hussein flew to Cairo the following day; a reconciliation took place between the former enemies; Nasser assured Hussein that his forces were superior to the Israelis'. Hussein later insisted: “Nasser never appealed to us. We were the ones who appealed to him.”
That Hussein was totally unprepared to play the role of an effective Egyptian ally does not change the political significance of his behavior, especially for the United States which has consistently supported him. In the event of an Arab-Israeli war, Hussein is sure to take Jordan into it, whatever the state of his preparedness. If he ends up on the losing side, he is equally sure to come to Washington for another handout. He behaved in 1973 exactly the same way that he had behaved in 1967. Hussein went to Cairo on September 10 of this year; he released hundreds of political prisoners, including Palestinians who had tried to overthrow him, on September 18; and war broke out on October 6. When this one is all over, we may expect to be told how he knew everything in advance and had made up his mind long before anyone had guessed what he was up to.
As for the other Arab countries, the 1973 war was far better coordinated and prepared than that of 1967. When Nasser arranged to have the 1967 conflict, he still had about 50,000 troops in Yemen, where he was virtually fighting a war against King Faisal's Saudi Arabia, which was supporting the Yemeni royalists. In 1973, Egypt had lost so much ground in the internecine Arab struggle for power that it no longer posed a threat to Saudi Arabia and, indeed, was happy to accept Faisal's advice as well as his money. Nasser went into the 1967 war with barely more than a rickety military alliance with Syria to which Jordan even more dubiously attached itself. Sadat went into the 1973 war after mobilizing the entire Arab world for military, financial, and diplomatic support.
Nevertheless, the inter-Arab aspect of every Arab-Israeli war should not be neglected or underrated. The Arab world is far from being a unity; the ancient as well as modern rivalries and grudges persist behind the façade of solidarity. Nasser once aspired to leadership of the entire Arab world, and he used such causes as the Yemen civil war and the anti-Israeli jihad to serve his ends. Every war that Egypt fights against Israel weakens her in relation to the other Arab powers. In any case, Egypt cannot have it both ways. Saudi Arabia's Faisal is paying Egypt not only to fight Israel but also to spend Egyptian energies that might be—and have been—directed against him. For Faisal, it is tails I win and heads you lose.
Arab propaganda in 1973 also seems to have learned something from 1967. In the previous war, the candor of the Arab spokesmen, who either threatened to turn the clock back to 1948 in the manner of Nasser or promised to leave no Israeli survivors alive in the raw language of Ahmed Shukairy, then head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, clearly backfired. This time, the Arabs decided to be more restrained in their declared demands and to use more evasive formulas such as restoring “the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.” In 1967, candor came before the war; in 1973, it was put off until the end of the war—assuming that the Arabs would then be in a position to be candid about what “the legitimate rights of the Palestinians” are.
As for Israel, its successful surprise attack in 1967 ironically contributed to the success of the Arab surprise attack in 1973. The Israeli intelligence and preparedness failure in this war was, at least in good part, a product of the same kind of underestimation of the enemy that proved so costly to the Egyptians in the previous war. The initial Israeli setback had its deeper roots in the changed social conditions in Israel after 1967, the widespread disdain for the Arab ability to wage a coordinated, modern war, and a pervasive sense of satisfaction with the post-1967 status quo. General Hubris seems to have changed sides. Nasser's complaint about Egyptian “conceit and complacency” may be just as close to the truth in its Hebrew translation—except that the Israelis had enough back-up leadership and reserve stamina to turn the tide of battle.
In his news conference on October 12 of this year, six days after the present war started, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a strange and disturbing statement. Of the Soviet role, he said: “If you compare their conduct in this crisis to their conduct in 1967, one has to say that Soviet behavior has been less provocative, less incendiary, and less geared to military threats, than in the previous crisis.”
This statement has gone into my “Duke-of-Wellington file,” so called from the Duke's reply to someone who had greeted him as Mr. Smith: “If you can believe that, Sir, you can believe anything.”
In 1967, the Soviet leaders were certainly provocative and incendiary, but they were also more confused and constrained by more limited military capabilities. They peddled the still unexplained story about Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian border which helped to give Nasser the thought of putting into effect Field Marshal Amer's six-months'-old idea of chasing out the UN forces and taking over Sharm el-Sheikh. Subsequently, the Soviet commitment to Egypt and Syria was twofold. Without Soviet war materiel and training programs, the Arabs could not have contemplated going to war. But there was another essential function which the Soviets promised to perform. As explained by Nasser to Jordanian Prime Minister Sa'd Jum'ah, “the contact between our people and the Soviet leaders has assured us that they will come quickly to our support in the event of U.S. intervention.”12 Thus Nasser took out an additional insurance policy with the Soviet Union against the United States. Overconfident of the success of Arab arms, he was more interested in keeping the United States out of the battlefield than in bringing the Soviet Union in.
Yet the Soviet Union pursued a policy of limited liability, to the disappointment of Nasser when his plans went awry. He later blamed the Soviets as well as the United States for misleading him about their ability to hold Israel back (July 23, 1967). Another deep grievance was their failure to fly in more planes on an emergency basis or provide the Egyptian forces with air cover as soon as the extent of the Egyptian losses was known. Acording to Nutting, Nasser told his former Vice President, Abdel Latif Boghdady, that the Soviets “had been frozen into immobility by their fear of a confrontation with America.”13 In any event, the Soviets did not attempt to keep the Egyptian army going with a large- or small-scale resupply operation in 1967.
This, too, changed in 1973. The Soviets were again in on the war at the start, but experience had taught the Arabs to keep them in, at least for the purpose of resupply, during the war. The Soviet role was far more provocative, far more incendiary, far more geared to military action in 1973 than it had been in 1967. There was nothing in 1967 comparable to at least two Soviet actions in 1973—the huge, prompt resupply effort for Egypt and Syria, and the démarches to Iraq, Algeria, and other Arab countries urging them to get into the fight against Israel with the express admonition that the advanced Soviet equipment had been given to them for this very purpose. If only for these reasons, Kissinger's excessive solicitude for Soviet sensibilities may or may not have been good diplomacy but it was certainly bad history.
Let us now go back and try to reconstruct, in its main lines, how the Soviet Union was implicated in the Arab decision to go to war again.
Nasser at first needed a breathing spell and hoped against hope to retrieve his fortunes through the United Nations and joint U.S.-USSR pressure on Israel. In March 1969, he launched what he called a “war of attrition” against Israel; it cost him dearly and he called it off in July. By the end of 1969, his frustration could no longer be contained. On November 6, he made a speech in which he for the first time talked of using force again “to open our own road to what we want, over a sea of blood and under a horizon of fire.”
At this time, however, Nasser had not yet made a new deal with the Soviets, and without it he was helpless to convert his words into deeds. This dilemma sent him to Moscow from June 29 to July 17, 1970, one of his longest stays in the Russian capital, when he succeeded in getting the Soviets to install the first SAM-3 missiles near the Suez Canal, though the Soviets still insisted on training Egyptians to use them. Soon afterward, Nasser accepted the so-called Rogers Plan, named after the former U.S. Secretary of State, providing for an Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire for ninety days to set the stage for intensive peace negotiations. In effect, Nasser was preparing to move either way, though his faith in the Rogers Plan must have been minimal.
A cease-fire agreement was signed on August 7, 1970. It prohibited military build-ups or offensive action within a zone at least 32 miles wide on each side of the canal. The United States and the Soviet Union were co-signatories, and an American spokesman defined the understanding in unmistakable terms:
The depth of the cease-fire was described as sufficient to assure Israel that neither Egypt nor the Soviet Union would expand military positions—especially the Soviet SAM-2 and SAM-3 anti-aircraft missile sites—into the 32-mile belt along the canal during the truce.
The informed sources said that the Soviet Union had given the United States a “categorical commitment” to abide by the requirement not to build up positions in this zone during the truce. This enabled President Nixon to give Israel firm assurances on this point.14
This categorical commitment and these firm assurances were worthless as soon as they were made. Even such kindly chroniclers of Nasser as Jean Lacouture and Anthony Nutting admit that the missiles were installed in violation of the August 7 cease-fire.15 We now know that the U.S. government knew all about the violations and failed to live up to its assurances. Senator Henry M. Jackson has revealed that he tried to persuade Kissinger, then the President's national-security adviser, to recognize that “the accumulated result could do irreparable harm to Israel's security” and to insist on the removal of the missiles.16 His efforts were fruitless.
Nasser died in September 1970. It was the end of the Arab-Israeli postwar Phase 1.
Nasser's successor, Anwar el-Sadat, also needed a breathing spell before he was ready to go to Moscow.
Sadat permitted the cease-fire to last until March 1971. Then came the following timetable:
March 1-2: Sadat in Moscow.
March 7: Sadat ends the cease-fire.
March 20: A special “War Preparation Committee” headed by Sadat orders nationwide measures to mobilize the national resources for the eventuality of war (al-Ahram, March 21, 1971).
March 22: Abdel Mohsen Abul-Nur, Secretary General of the Arab Socialist Union, Egypt's only political organization, declares at a rally at Aswan that “the only way for us now is a military solution” and “our armed forces are now ready to force him [Israel] to withdraw” (New York Times, March 25, 1971).
March 24: The New York Times correspondent in Cairo, Raymond H. Anderson, writes: “A new wave of weapons and military equipment deliveries from the Soviet Union has reached the United Arab Republic in the last few weeks, according to reliable Western sources, coinciding with stepped up, widely publicized measures by the Egyptian leadership to prepare the country for war” (ibid.).
The fullest and bluntest expression of Egyptian thinking came, as usual, from Muhammad Hassanein Heykal on March 26. In an article entitled “The Inevitable War,” he wrote that “this war will be long, fierce, and complicated, but there is no alternative.” As if the Egyptians were merely trying to improve on their 1967 strategy, he concluded: “While the stage is prepared by political means, the Egyptian military forces are ready to start war against Israel—a war which is inevitable, as I have already said. It is inevitable against Israel, but it is avoidable against any other factor [in the situation] except for Israel.”
In an interview later that same year, Heykal incautiously acknowledged that Egypt was after far more than the post-1967 “occupied territories.” Speaking to an Arab publication, he said: “It's not enough to return to the borders of 1967. Adjustments are needed which it is unlikely that Israel will make.” As Nasser's literary heir, he also stated: “He [Nasser] wanted the Arab world, and the whole world, to realize that a peaceful settlement was impossible, so that it would no longer be a subject for discussion. As a result, the Arab world will organize itself and prepare for a long struggle on many fronts.”17
After these bold words, the Egyptian leadership hesitated for a few months owing to more diplomatic maneuvering. By the beginning of last year, however, the original decision to go to war was reaffirmed, as Sadat disclosed in a speech on January 13, 1972:
We have reached the conclusion that the battle has been forced upon us. We took this decision in 1971, but a little fog descended upon us and we had to find our way all over again.
On January 25, 1972, he reiterated:
We must be prepared for battle since we have adopted the view that the problem can only be solved by force,18
After this, the only open questions were the preparation, the timing, and the tactics. There is reason to believe that the final, operational decision did not come until last summer, but the political decision goes as far back as two years ago. Unlike Nasser, Sadat did not intend to telegraph the blow. Since he was determined to strike first, there was no need for a complicated escalation of threats and stratagems to get the Israelis to do anything. In fact, the less the Israelis did, the better. Having made their decision, the Egyptians were faced with many complex problems vis-à-vis the Soviets, the other Arab countries, and the non-Arab world, especially the United States. Without going into the details here, it is enough for our purpose to note how long ago the fundamental Arab decision was made and how closely it followed another mission to Moscow.
Whenever Arab statements are cited, the question of Arab “rhetoric” arises. Should it be taken seriously or are Arabs peculiarly addicted to hyperbolic bombast? Whenever an Arab spokesman says something particularly provocative or outrageous, there is always someone who says that “they never really mean it.” One writer has maintained that the Israeli case has been more “believable” because of Arab “irrationality” and that Arab leaders invariably tell Arab audiences merely “what they wish to hear.”19 I have even heard the foreign minister of an Arab country instruct a group of Americans that Arabs are allergic to Western rationalism and that, if Westerners wish to deal with Arabs, they must adopt the seemingly irrational Arab mode of thinking. Former Ambassador Battle has related that one of the first things Muhammad Hassanein Heykal told him was: “Don't try to understand us. We don't understand ourselves.”20 But in that case, why should anyone try?
Whatever one may think about Arab rhetoric and rationality, Arab politicians who know the West perfectly well are not above taking advantage of what may well be nothing more than a patronizing or apologetic attitude on the part of some Westerners. It enables them to operate on the basis of a political double-bookkeeping system—one version for their own people and the same words but in a bowdlerized version for the West. I am inclined to agree with an acute Israeli student of Arab ideas and attitudes, Dr. Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former chief of Israeli army intelligence and now a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Harkabi has this to say about the difference between private and public utterances in the West and in Arab countries: “If in the United States a private statement is an indication of real intentions, the reverse seems to be true, very often, in Arab countries, where public proclamations are more significant than soft words whispered to foreign journalists. Even if the masses cannot impose their will on their leaders by democratic processes, the importance of the public declarations lies in the fact that they create commitments and arouse expectations that the leadership will practice what it preaches.”21
Certainly, both Israelis and Westerners would have been better advised and more nearly forewarned if they had taken Arab public proclamations and declarations quite literally since at least 1971. Too many Westerners treat the Arabs as if they were irresponsible, irrational, petulant children who go into a tantrum every time they do not get what they want. Even if some Arabs invite it, this Western attitude does no one any good, least of all the Arabs whom it encourages to indulge in irresponsible histrionics.
Ever since the so-called Soviet-Amercan détente was consecrated in Moscow by President Nixon in May 1972, the ambience of détente has been inextricably linked with the latest phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Americans were admittedly caught off guard by the outbreak of the 1973 war. They were “burned”—to use Treasury Secretary Schultz's elegant phrase—as much in the Middle East as in the celebrated “grain deal.” We still do not know whether the Russians were able to get such a favorable deal simply because they were so much smarter than the Americans or whether the latter were unusually complaisant owing to a bureaucratic understanding that détente means keeping the Russians happy by giving them more or less what they want, at least in the economic sphere. The American rationale has seemed to be: give now, get paid later.
This bad American habit of going from cold to hot in Soviet-American relations did not start with Mr. Nixon. The pattern was set by so vastly different a President as Franklin D. Roosevelt. If a Roosevelt and a Nixon can lurch from one extreme to another in this highly inflammable area, something is deeply wrong.
When Roosevelt decided to recognize the Soviet regime in 1933, his hopes were high. Soon disappointed, he lost interest and Soviet-American relations in the 1930's settled down to a low level of economic exchange and diplomatic intercourse. With the Soviet attack on Finland in 1939, however, Roosevelt went into his most extreme anti-Soviet phase. He privately expressed disgust at “this dreadful rape of Finland.” He told Ambassador Joseph C. Grew in Tokyo that “people are asking why anyone should have anything to do with the present Soviet leaders because their idea of civilization and human happiness is so totally different from ours.” He stated publicly in February 1940 that “the Soviet Union, as everybody who has the courage to face the facts knows, is run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.”
Yet, after Russia entered the war the following year, his attitude changed miraculously, though nothing had changed in Russia's internal setup. By September 1941, he tried to convince Pope Pius XII that freedom of religion in Russia was a real possibility. He advised newsmen to read the article in the Soviet Constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience, as if the reality could be found there. He boasted that he “got along fine” with Stalin. He told both Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles and Cardinal Spellman that the difference between the United States and Soviet Russia was going to be reduced from a ratio of 0 to 100 to one of 40 to 60.22
Those who choose to remember only Roosevelt's wartime attitude toward Russia have over simplified him. A President who could change so drastically from the anti-Soviet 1939-mid-1941 period to the pro-Soviet late-1941-1944 period could easily change back again. Yet the disturbing fact remains that Roosevelt could not conduct a policy of wartime cooperation with Russia without sowing illusions about the Soviet regime.
A somewhat similar phenomenon has accompanied the Nixon policy of détente. Nixon, like Roosevelt, has made his Soviet policy a personal one. Roosevelt imagined that he alone was capable of dealing cozily with Stalin and that he alone could cajole concessions out of “Uncle Joe,” as Stalin was endearingly called. Now we have Mr. Nixon telling us, at his news conference on October 26, that “it's because he [Brezhnev] and I know each other and it's because we have had this personal contact that notes exchanged in that way result in a settlement rather than a confrontation.” Oddly, this personal contact did not prevent a confrontation from erupting before it resulted in a “settlement,” as ill-timed and ill-defined as any in recent years, extorted under the menace of unilateral Soviet military action. The two most persuasive “notes” that Mr. Nixon communicated to Mr. Brezhnev were unwritten and unsent—the first on October 13, when Mr. Nixon decided to start the resupply effort to Israel, and the second on October 25, when he took what were delicately called “certain precautionary measures” of a military nature. If there is one area in our foreign policy which should be essentially impersonal, it is that dealing with the Communist powers, Communist China as well as Soviet Russia. Roosevelt's personal diplomacy with Stalin was one of his costliest aberrations. There is much less excuse for Nixon and Kissinger to repeat it with Brezhnev and Chou En-lai.
But this is only part of the trouble. One of the most delusory documents in American diplomatic history was signed on May 29, 1972, by Richard Nixon, President of the United States of America, and Leonid I. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee CPSU. It was grandiosely entitled, “Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” As a compendium of illusions and effusions, it reminds one of the “Atlantic Charter” of 1941, which Kissinger had the misfortune to recall nostalgically earlier this year. The second and third “basic principles” of the charter of détente are particularly pertinent to the Arab-Israeli war:
Second. The USA and the USSR attach major importance to preventing the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations. Therefore, they will do their utmost to avoid military confrontations and to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war. They will always exercise restraint in their mutual relations, and will be prepared to negotiate and settle differences by peaceful means. Discussions and negotiations on outstanding issues will be conducted in a spirit of reciprocity, mutual accommodation, and mutual benefit.
Both sides recognize that efforts to obtain unilateral advantage at the expense of the other, directly or indirectly, are inconsistent with these objectives. The prerequisites for maintaining and strengthening peaceful relations between the USA and the USSR are the recognition of the security interests of the Parties based on the principles of equality and the renunciation of the use or threat of force.
Third. The USA and the USSR have a special responsibility, as do other countries which are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to do everything in their power so that conflicts or situations will not arise which would serve to increase international tensions. Accordingly, they will seek to promote conditions in which all countries will live in peace and security and will not be subject to outside interference in their internal affairs. (Emphasis added.)
What has all this to do with the Arab-Israeli war of 1973? The answer is that the main Soviet effort to prepare the Egyptian and Syrian armies for war took place after this declaration of principles was signed. I do not mean to oversimplify Arab-Soviet relations over the years. They have had their ups and downs; Sadat brought in hordes of Soviet “advisers” and technicians in 1971 and sent most of them out in 1972. Yet the two sides managed to patch up whatever differences they may have had, and Soviet planes, tanks, missiles, and the myriad of other war materiel poured in to enable the Arab armies to take the offensive. The upshot seems to be that the Soviets have invested in their Arab proxies too heavily since 1955 to let go so easily; whatever their difficulties and rebuffs may have been, the Soviets have not permitted them to stand in the way of a long-term policy which has now persisted for eighteen years despite upheavals in the Soviet leadership.
After Mr. Nixon and Comrade Brezhnev signed their names to these beautiful sentiments, détente became the chief political capital of the Nixon administration. The more the President was forced to wallow in the Watergate and associated ignominies, the harder Mr. Nixon tried to sell the blessings of dé it was almost only thing he could sell, and he repeatedly tried to change the subject from Watergate to déente.
In Washington, it became almost indecent to say anything nasty or naughty about the two great Communist powers. They order this matter better in China. On August 24 of this year, Premier Chou En-lai delivered a report to the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Communist party in which, détente or no déente, he referred scathingly to both the United States and the Soviet Union. They were “contending for hegemony,” “are in a sorry plight indeed,” “want to devour China, but find it too tough even to bite,” and—this for U.S. imperialism alone—it has “started to go downhill” and “has openly admitted that it is increasingly on the decline.” If such a speech were made by President Nixon or Secretary Kissinger about China, their whole “structure of peace” would seem to come tumbling down, and Washington would quake with rumors of the return of hot, cold, or lukewarm war.
The trouble, of course, is not déente. It is the illusions that détente has fostered or that have been fostered in the name of déente. Unfortunately, détente with illusions is worse than no détente at all; one-sided détente is worse than no détente at all. While Mr. Nixon and Dr. Kissinger were basking in the warmth of déente, the Russians were heating up a war in the Middle East. While a new academic doctrine was developing that the Soviet Union had become a conservative, status-quo power that abjured risks and renounced upsetting the existing balance of forces, the Soviet Union was preparing to take incalculable risks to upset the precarious balance in one of the most sensitive areas in the world. It the President and Secretary of State had not developed a case of unwonted bashfulness on the subject of Soviet Russia, they might have asked some embarrassing questions about how the USSR had lived up to the “Basic Principles.”
Had the USSR tried to prevent “the development of situations [in the Middle East] capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations”? Did the USSR do its utmost “to avoid” this military confrontation? Was the approaching war in the Middle East ever discussed with the United States “in a spirit of reciprocity, mutual accommodation, and mutual benefit”? Had the USSR sought “to obtain unilateral advantage at the expense of the other [U.S.], directly or indirectly”? Did the USSR do everything in its power “so that conflicts and situations [in the Middle East] will not arise which would serve to increase international tensions”? Accordingly, did the USSR “seek to promote conditions [in the Middle East] in which all countries [including Israel] will live in peace and security and will not be subject to outside interference [viz., Russian tanks, planes, and missiles] in their internal affairs”?
No such questions have been raised, at least publicly, about a document only a year and a half old. President Nixon was so far from realizing how close the Soviet-backed Arabs were to war that he decided to blame both sides indiscriminately and to disclaim being pro-Israel or pro-Arab only a month before the outbreak of hostilities. This “evenhandedness,” as it was called, might have made sense if General Secretary Brezhnev had come out with more or less the same thing. In the circumstances, it was an invitation for the Russians and Arabs to catch the American leaders unawares. After the outbreak, Kissinger still thought it necessary to compare Soviet behavior in 1973 favorably with Soviet behavior in 1967 and to characterize the former as not yet “irresponsible,” as if he were waiting for the Russians themselves to attack Israel before entertaining the thought that they might have gone too far. It took him a little while to realize that it was pointless to make excuses for Russian responsibility. When Kissinger rushed off to Moscow at the behest of General Secretary Brezhnev, he could not fail to give the impression that the Russians could turn the war on and off as they pleased. They may even be blaming him for having unwittingly misled them about the price the United States was willing to pay for the privilege of participating in a détente with them.
Secretary Kissinger might usefully reread some of Professor Kissinger's old writings, especially an article on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Eleven years ago, President Kennedy was also caught by surprise and then reacted strongly. Now President Nixon has told us that the 1973 Soviet-American confrontation was the worst since the missile crisis. In the earlier case, Kissinger was not satisfied with mere self-congratulation. He asked some deeper questions, which might also be asked now. He admonished that “even this success does not free us from the need to understand how we arrived at the point where such a dramatic and risky action was necessary.” He wanted to know “what tempted the Soviets into so rash, so foolhardy an adventure”? Or, as he also put it, “with the stakes so high, what made the Soviets believe that they could get away with it?”
Part of the answer, Kissinger indicated, pointed in the direction of U.S. policy before the missile crisis. “Over the past decade,” he suggested, “Khrushchev may well have become convinced that the United States would never run risks to protect its interests, either because it did not understand its interests or because it did not have the appropriate doctrine for using its power.”23 A similar line of thought might well be pursued now. What was there about previous U.S. policy that had given Khrushchev's successors the idea that they could take such an exorbitant risk in the Middle East and expect to get away with it? Soviet moves of such gravity are not taken in a vacuum; they reflect, among other things, a perception of U.S. policy. Was the policy of déente, as publicized and practiced before October 1973, an “appropriate doctrine” for warning off the Soviet Union from “so rash, so foolhardy an adventure”? We were once instructed by Professor Kissinger that “the test of statesmanship is the adequacy of its evaluation before the event” (emphasis in original).24By this test, his statesmanship in this instance was somewhat less than adequate.
If, as the usually sober and trustworthy International Institute for Strategic Studies in London estimates, the Egyptians had as many as 1,000 Soviet “advisers and instructors,” the Syrians 3,000, and the Iraqis 1,500, and the Egyptian army closely followed Russian tactical procedures, on top of the fact that the immense accumulation of war materiel was entirely Soviet, the Soviet Union was up to its neck in this war. Some people like to make a distinction between whether the Soviets encouraged the Arabs to go to war and whether they merely acquiesced in it. The practical difference is negligible. The Soviets encouraged it by acquiescing, and they would have discouraged it by refusing to acquiesce. They have, at minimum, a veto power over any Arab action on this scale. If they choose not to exercise it, they might as well push the button to let it go on. In fact, the vast and expensive effort the Russians must have made to render this war possible required a major decision on the part of the Soviet leadership many months ago. By its very nature, that decision entailed secrecy and deception, made all the more necessary because it was in flagrant violation of both the letter and spirit of that charter of détente solemnly signed in May 1972 at the insistence of the Russians.
The starting point for any reconsideration of U.S. policy in the coming months is that the Soviets prepared this war under cover of the déente. It was the 1973 edition of the Soviet-Arab strategy for isolating Israel and the Middle East battleground. In the division of labor between the Arabs and the Soviets, the former are supposed to do the fighting and the latter to run diplomatic and other interference. If this is still not enough to insure an Arab victory, the Soviets are then expected to blow the whistle, call off the game, strong-arm the Security Council, and, in the event of an imminent Syrian-Egyptian military collapse, stave it off by all possible means, even to the extent of threatening to take over the war from its Arab proxies. A détente which permits the Soviets to play such a double game is doomed to end in disillusionment and recrimination.
In his news conference on October 26 President Nixon tried to answer criticism of the détente by arguing that “without that détente we might have had a major conflict in the Middle East. With détente we avoied.” it this is a most peculiar interpretation of what déentes are for. In Mr. Nixon's view, a détente can apparently take us to the very brink of a major conflict, as if that were not the business of a détente to avert. But if the major conflict is avoided by a last-minute display of precautionary power, credit for the allegedly happy ending should go to the détente. The awkward fact is that the dénouement of October 22-25 was the result of the oldest of old-fashioned power plays on both sides. It this is what détente signifies, the word has become meaningless and we might as well trade it in for something less pretentious and disarming. When President Kennedy faced up to Khrushchev in 1962, he did not find it necessary to pretend that it had anything to do with something like détente.
The Israelis have reason to be grateful to the United States for the aid which they received when they needed it most. After a week of bureaucratic wavering and division, President Nixon acted with forcefulness and decision. For the future, however, the policy before October 13 is more alarming than the policy after that date is encouraging. If U.S. policy is going to be based on deals with Soviet Russia, it will have to find a way to stop the Russians from underwriting Arab wars instead of stopping wars that do not go according to the Russian-Arab plan. If détente is helpless before the first and operates only in the second fashion, it will be dishonored the same way another perfectly good word, “appeasement,” was dishonored before World War II.
Judging from Brezhnev's speech to the World Peace Congress in Moscow on October 26, the task of salvaging détente from the wreckage of this war will not be easy. Listening to Brezhnev, one might imagine that nothing worth mentioning had happened in the Middle East before October 22, the day the Security Council voted the first cease-fire. Here was the leader of a great nuclear power, which had aided and abetted a reckless, perfidious aggression against Israel on Yom Kippur, unctuously accusing Israel of “perfidiously” violating Security Council decisions, continuing “aggressive action” against Egypt, and exhibiting “the recklessness of the peace-violators.” One would have given much to hear someone at this “peace” congress ask Mr. Brezhnev why he waited until the Egyptian army was on the verge of collapse before he bethought himself to denounce the violation of peace in the Middle East. Or to inquire how a nation which as a result of World War II had acquired 272,500 square miles of territory with a population of 24,168,000—a territory as large as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq combined, with a population two-and-a-half times as large—could without shame tell any other nation that “acquiring territories through means of war” was impermissible.25
The 1973 war has also had far more serious international repercussions than the previous one, not least in the United Nations. Rarely, perhaps never, has the world organization been so crudely used to provide a fig-leaf for naked great power. Fig-leaves, to be sure, have their uses or they would not have been invented. It was undoubtedly better for the UN to furnish a small-power cease-fire force than to have direct Soviet and American armed intervention in the area. That Sadat begged for the latter showed that, in desperation, he had become more interested in bringing the Soviets in than in keeping the Americans out. Nevertheless, the convenience of the UN's role is small consolation for the damage that was done to the organization and that it did to itself. Its members, if they have any consciences left, will long have to account for the fact that they did nothing to restore peace when Israel was in danger but hurriedly passed one “peace resolution” after another, with hardly any time to know what they were doing, as soon as Egypt was in danger. This war may well be to the United Nations what the Italo-Ethiopian war was to the League of Nations.
From war to war, the essential Arab strategy has become increasingly clear. Gimmicks will not make it go away, and UN resolutions have mainly served to exacerbate it.
The essence of that strategy was put in five words by former President Nasser to Eric Rouleau: “Time works in our favor” (Le Monde, February 19, 1970). This idea, giving impetus to every successive war, has been the leitmotif of Arab and Soviet propaganda for a long time.
The result is that the Arab countries want to end as well as to start wars in their own way. As we have seen, it has pleased them to give and also to take the first strike. As soon as they get into trouble, however, they expect someone else—the Soviet Union, with or without the United States, the United Nations, the oil-consuming nations—to get them out of it. The manufacture of myths about why they lost—Israel was the “aggressor,” the United States intervened in some unfair fashion, the Soviet Union did not do enough-becomes a national passion. After the 1948 war, the young Egyptian officers, of whom Nasser was representative, blamed a corrupt regime. After the 1956 war, Nasser blamed Britain and France. After 1967, he blamed the United States, his generals, his allies.
In order to make every defeat inconclusive, it is necessary to act as if the defeat did not really take place. Other countries have, after all, fought wars and lost. But when has a country sought to dictate the terms of peace negotiations to the victor? The answer is that the Arabs are not yet interested in a peace and they consider themselves to be the ultimate victors. In immediate defeat, they yet feel it necessary to act as if they were going to have the last word. For this reason, the Arabs have always been interested in a cease-fire, whatever it may be called, not in a definitive peace. A cease-fire implies that a battle has been lost; a peace might imply that a war has been lost. The language which Arabs use to convey their intent should not deceive us. Its form is psychological, but its content is political. It would be “humiliating,” we hear interminably, to negotiate with Israel while Arab land is still occupied by the Israeli army. If the Arabs have to be spared all humiliation, it would be necessary to undo far more than the 1967 war; that kind of psychological therapy would go right back to the equally disastrous and humiliating 1948 war. Among themselves the Arabs consider the very existence of Israel to be their real “humiliation”; the surrender of the post-1967 occupied territories in advance of negotiation would only be a start toward relieving Arab humiliation on the installment plan. To negotiate on the basis of only one side's psychological propensity is obviously an absurd and futile exercise.
These tactics flow from the Arab assumption that “time works in our favor.” It sometimes takes the form of boasting that the Arabs can afford to have a war every few years, and Israel cannot. Or that Israel can only fight a short war, and a long one is sure to favor the Arabs. The trouble with such theories is that, even if there is some truth in them, there is rarely a military problem, providing it is sufficiently clear, for which there is absolutely no answer. The French, for example, were convinced that the Germans could not break through the Maginot Line in World War II. Whether or not the French were right, the Germans disappointed them by going through Holland and Belgium, thereby outflanking the Maginot Line. The history of warfare is full of such “challenges and responses.” The idea that the Arabs can have as many wars as they please may well be their mental Maginot Line. It gives the Israelis the moral and psychological advantage of always fighting what may be the last war, while the Arabs need not go to the bitter end because there is still another and better war in the offing. The most serious flaw in the theory, however, is something else. It inevitably escalates the level of every war. From 1948 to 1973, each Arab-Israeli war has increased in scope and costliness. The Israelis cannot tolerate an infinite series of wars; the Arabs have started every war at a greater disadvantage than the last one. The whole theory of time working inevitably and inexorably in favor of the Arabs is a formula for the most destructive war yet.
If the 1973 war is not the last Arab-Israeli conflict, the next one is sure to be worse. If Soviet-American-UN diplomacy can come up with nothing better than a retreaded version of all the gimmicks that failed in the past—the UNEF in another guise, the slippery UN resolution of November 22, 1967, indirect “negotiations,” ambiguous formulas and face-saving evasions—the result will again be a cease-fire rather than a peace.
And if it is to be a cease-fire in all but name? Arab strategy in 1967 and 1973 has virtually made meaningless the terms “aggression” and “first strike.” It is too much to expect any Israeli government and high command to take chances next time. The lesson of 1967 for Egypt was that Israel should not have the first strike, and the lesson of 1973 for Israel is that Egypt should not have the first strike. From now on, the finger will always be on the trigger. Let us pray that the lesson for both sides is that they must reconcile themselves to each other's existence, to the realities that have been brought about by a unique and singular set of circumstances, to the realization that the entire fabric of Arab-Israeli history cannot be unraveled.
1 The full text of Nasser's statements during the 1967 crisis period is given in the appendices to my book, Israel and World Politics. These translations, made in Washington at the time, have been checked with the Arabic original and some minor revisions have been made here. The dates in parentheses are the dates of delivery.
2 Anthony Nutting, Nasser, Dutton, 1972, pp. 397-98.
3 Badran testified on February 24, 1968, and a verbatim report appeared in the Cairo paper, al-Ahram, the next day. The testimony came too late for my book, Israel and World Politics. In the literature on the subject, only Nadav Safran seems to have used it beyond a mere reference, and he was barely able to insert four last-minute footnotes based on the testimony as his book, From War to War, went to press.
4 The visit to Pakistan actually took place December 5-12, 1966, and the meeting of the Arab League's Supreme Council occurred December 7-11, 1966.
5 According to a UPI report from Cairo of February 24, 1968, Badran testified that the Egyptian Chief of Stag, General Muhammad Fawzi, had been sent to Syria on May 14, 1967, to check on the Syrian and Soviet reports of Israeli forces massing on the Syrian border. Fawzi found that the reports were unfounded and said that the Soviets “must have been having hallucinations.” The same version of this portion of Badran's testimony appears in Safran's book (pp. 274-75) and in the Middle East Record, 1967 (p. 191), both of which attribute it to al-Ahram of February 25, 1968. A search of the paper of that date in the copy at the Library of Congress has failed to locate and verify this passage. Conceivably, it may have appeared in a different edition of the same date and was eliminated from the Library of Congress's edition. If it should be confirmed, it would show even more emphatically that everything the Egyptians did after May 14 had nothing to do with the ostensible Israeli provocation of Syria.
6 Nutting, op. cit., p. 409.
7 Sa'd Jum'ah, al-Mu'amara wa ma'rakat al-masir (“The Conspiracy and the Battle of Destiny”), in Arabic (Beirut), 1968, p. 176.
8 Nasser, Knopf, 1973, p. 301.
9 Nasser, Allen Lane (London), 1971, p. 482.
10 Jum'ah, op. cit., pp. 171-72.
11 Vick Vance and Pierre Lauer, Hussein de Jardanie: Ma “Guerre” avec Israel, Albin Michel (Paris), 1968; Peter Snow, Hussein, Barrie & Jenkins (London), 1972.
12 Sa'd Jum'ah, Mujtama' al-Karahiyah (“The Society of Hatred”), in Arabic (Beirut), 1972, pp. 127-28.
13 Nutting, op. cit., p. 419.
14 New York Times, August 8, 1970.
15 “The demon which impels certain rulers always to seek a little more gain or ‘profit’ incited the Soviet-Egyptians, after the cease-fire of August 7, to place their missile launching sites nearer the canal. These were the famous SAM-3's, obtained by Nasser six months earlier from Moscow” (Jean Lacouture, op. cit., p. 341). “. . . The Egyptians were unable to install all the missiles within the time limit and so were obliged, to the accompaniment of loud protests from the Israelis, to commit a technical breach of the cease-fire by moving the late arrivals onto appointed sites after the August 7 deadline” (Nutting, op. cit., p. 450).
16 New York Times, October 17, 1973.
17 Journal of Palestine Studies (Beirut), Autumn 1971, p. 19.
On July 14, 1972 Heykal denounced the widespread visits of Arabs to Israel—150,000 a month that summer—by arguing: “Israel wants to deprive the Arabs of their chief weapon, which is their nonacceptance of Israel . . . it is a method of disarming the Arab rejection of Israel. . . .”
18 Ibid., Spring 1972, for the text of both speeches.
19 Hisham Sharabi, Palestine and Israel, Pegasus, 1969, pp. 125-26.
20 ew York Times Magazine, October 21, 1973.
21 Y. Harkabi, Arab Attitudes to Israel, Israel Universities Press (Jerusalem), 1972, p. 390.
22 The above two paragraphs are based on: Robert A. Divine, Roosevelt and World War II, Johns Hopkins Press, 1969, p. 77; F.D.R. His Personal Letters, 1928-1945, Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1950, Vol. II, pp. 961, 1204-05; The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Macmillan, Vol. IX, p. 93; Vol: X, pp. 401-02; Vol. XII, p, 558; Sumner Welles, Where Are We Heading?, Harper, 1946, p. 37; Robert I. Gannon, The Cardinal Spellman Story, Doubleday, 1962, p. 224.
23 Henry A. Kissinger, “Reflections on Cuba,” the Reporter, November 22, 1962, pp. 21-2.
24 The Necessity for Choice, Harper, 1961, p. 3.
25 As a result of World War II, the Soviet Union acquired the following territories and population, some of which had been former conquests of the Czarist Empire, which the Bolsheviks had disavowed in 1917, and some of which had never belonged to Russia at all:
|Eastern Poland||68,000||10 ”|
|Bessarabia and Bukovina||19,000||3.7 ”|
|East Prussia||3,500||0.4 ”|
|West Karelia||16,000||0.5 ”|
|Tannu Tuva||64,000||0.06 ”|
|Southern Sakhalin||14,000||0.4 ”|
|Kurile Islands||4,000||0.004 ”|
From 1967 to 1973: The Arab-Israeli Wars
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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.