To the Editor: E.L. Pattullo's “Straight Talk About Gays” [December 1992] is anything but straight.
To the Editor:
E.L. Pattullo’s “Straight Talk About Gays” [December 1992] is anything but straight. Acknowledging that most people are by nature either heterosexual or homosexual, Mr. Pattullo hypothesizes that there are an indeterminate number of adults who might yet develop in either direction. He calls them “waverers” and suggests that they can be turned homosexual by “temptation.” He defends the perpetuation of “legal and social distinctions between straights and gays” by arguing that such distinctions serve to keep waverers’ temptations in check and to drive them firmly into the heterosexual camp, and thus serve society’s “interest both in reproducing itself and in strengthening the institution of the family” and parents’ “interest in reducing the risk that their children will become homosexual.” After all, he says, “In a wholly nondiscriminatory world, the advantages of heterosexuality would not be obvious.”
This argument is deeply and multiply flawed. First, to concede (as Mr. Pattullo does) that homosexuals have done nothing to deserve second-class status and then to defend the preservation of that status on any grounds strikes me as morally insupportable in a democratic society.
Second, the only objective reason why heterosexuality should be considered preferable to homosexuality is that heterosexuals are not the target of oppressive “legal and social distinctions.”
Third, it is absurd to suggest that society’s ability to “reproduc[e] itself” depends on coercing into marriage and parenthood people who, freed from legal and social constraints, would live in same-sex relationships.
Fourth, while it may well have an environmental component, sexual orientation is certainly fixed by early childhood, long before Mr. Pattullo’s “legal and social distinctions” could have the coercive effect he desires.
Fifth, Mr. Pattullo’s remarks on “temptation” defy logic. Sexual orientation is defined by urges, not actions: a man who is more tempted by homosexuality than heterosexuality is a homosexual. Even if there were a small number of people who remained sexually on the fence into adolescence or young adulthood, the present “legal and social distinctions” would not affect their ultimate orientation: such distinctions do not alter sexual urges, they only foster sexual neurosis.
Sixth, Mr. Pattullo defends his “waverer” category by pointing out that many adults have had sex with members of both sexes. This does not, however, mean that such people have “a capacity for becoming either straight or gay.” What it means is that (a) in certain situations—military school, prison, long naval voyages—heterosexuals deprived of opposite-sex contact resort temporarily to same-sex intercourse; (b) in an atmosphere of oppressive “legal and social distinctions,” many homosexuals deny or seek to change their homosexuality by engaging in heterosexual relationships; and (c) a small minority of people are genuinely bisexual. They are not waverers in Mr. Pattullo’s sense, because they are not potentially either straight or gay: they are and always will be attracted to both sexes in roughly equal measure, and would fare best psychologically in a society in which they could settle down with whomever they loved, male or female, without feeling socially or legally pressured in either direction.
To be sure, there is a borderland between the straightforwardly gay and the unequivocally straight with which we should be concerned. Homosexuals often encounter inhabitants of this borderland. Any reasonably attractive gay man knows what it is like to be stared at with anxious longing by a dubious young daddy pushing a pram, or to drop into a gay bar after work and find himself the object of lewd, desperate overtures by a weepy, bibulous middle-aged husband.
Are these men waverers? No; they are homosexuals who have been driven by “legal and social distinctions” into playing it straight. Is this a good thing, for them or anybody? No. They are living a lie, condemning themselves to remorse, frustration, and loneliness, and (in pathetic attempts to conform to legally and socially sanctioned notions of the “family”) creating households that are perched perpetually on the edge of disaster.
Some keep up the act forever. Many eventually crack under the pressure. Recently, after twenty years of marriage, a friend of mine with six sons was told by her husband that he’s gay, that he’d been struggling against this fact and keeping silent about it all his life, and that he could no longer endure the feelings of guilt and alienation he had brought upon himself through his deception. The only segment of society that profited from his prolonged suppression of his homosexuality has been the psychology profession: all eight family members are now in therapy.
It is in the lives of families like this, whose situation is far more common than most heterosexuals realize, that one can observe some of the effects of Mr. Pattullo’s “legal and social distinctions.” We can thank those distinctions, too, for the extremely high suicide rate among gay teenagers (of which I have been acutely aware since my first openly gay friend killed himself in the wake of a favorite teacher’s condemnation) and for the number of adolescent males from the South and Midwest who, rejected by their parents for being gay, nightly hawk their sexual services to married men down the block from my midtown Manhattan apartment.
It seems to me irresponsible, then, for any discussion of the inequities visited upon homosexuals to invoke the conjectural interests of the “institution of the family” while ignoring the circumstances of actual families. It seems cruel to defend those inequities by making unrealistic claims about their containment of homosexuality while disregarding the profound, often deadly, damage that those inequities cause in the lives of countless very real people. And it seems outrageous to reinforce the myth that parents can “reduce] the risk that their children will become homosexual.” Above all, what parents must be helped to understand is that they cannot reduce this “risk.” What they can reduce dramatically, however, by the simple act of raising their children not to draw oppressive distinctions between straight and gay, is the risk that those children, if they do discover themselves to be homosexual, will despise the idea so much as to be incapable of facing it honestly and living with it responsibly.
New York City
To the Editor:
I welcome the balanced tone of E.L. Pattullo’s contribution to the gay-rights debate even if, as a gay man and someone who considers himself conservative on many issues, I must respectfully disagree with most of his conclusions.
Mr. Pattullo argues that many people, among them children, waver in determining their sexual orientation. Over time, conscious and unconscious factors lead them to choose a straight or gay life as, in analogous fashion, they choose their adult characters. Society’s interest in reproducing itself and protecting the family justifies limited discrimination by organizations such as adoption agencies, schools, and scouting organizations clearly to signal waverers that heterosexuality is preferred.
It is inconceivable to me that the overwhelming majority of individuals, consciously or unconsciously, choose, in any understandable sense of that word, their sexual orientation. Far more convincing is the statement the author attributes to John Money of Johns Hopkins: that sexuality is most similar to right- or left-handedness, a behavioral patterning qualitatively different from any concept of choice.
Even assuming waverers did exist in large numbers, conservatives should not support laws and social attitudes that champion heterosexuality and inevitably taint gay people as socially less valuable. The sanctity of the individual is fundamental to conservatism, as is the recognition that each person realizing his or her fullest potential serves society’s greatest interest. Coming to terms with my own homosexuality as an undergraduate was an unalloyed personal blessing, freeing me for the adult task of becoming a responsible citizen. The vast majority of heterosexuals who bear children ensure physical reproduction. And a climate of full acceptance immeasurably strengthens the extended family by allowing all its members to contribute to our primary collective familial responsibility, the generational transmission of values.
Mr. Pattullo endorses blanket proscriptions against gay people as adopting parents and discrimination by schools and youth organizations that serve no valid societal purpose and cruelly incapacitate the many responsible homosexual men and women who seek to fulfill the deeply felt parental impulses we all share in exactly these ways. Surely the rational alternative, particularly for a conservative, is to handle these situations on the same case-by-case basis that Mr. Pattullo correctly proposes for other situations.
These are culturally confusing times in our beloved America for many conservatives and for many among the society at large. Mr. Pattullo’s greatest contribution is to continue the gay-rights debate among reasonable people. In this way conservatives, as well as the rest of the country, will some day reach consensus on this issue, currently so daunting to so many.
John V.N. Philip
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . E.L. Pattullo offers a series of quasi-scientific assertions most of which are unsubstantiated by medical or psychological research, and all of which are qualified by disclaimers which indemnify him from accusations of scientific disingenuousness. The result: an article that is long on subtly-propounded homophobia and short on those objective and scientific data which might support his theses.
As a physician, I must question his scientific integrity; as an American, I must question his (and your) motives in offering us this article; as a homosexual, I must protest your having published an article in which politico-social bias masquerades as science.
Peter John Kirsch, M.D.
To the Editor:
I found E.L. Pattullo’s article an honest and sincere attempt to find a position which eschews intolerance toward gay people without condoning homosexuality. However, his argument that government neutrality . . . would foster “moral equivalence” which, subsequently, could lead wavering youth into homosexuality, simply does not hold up. Neutrality, in fact, is exactly the position the government of a democracy should take regarding private sexual conduct between consenting adults.
Should the government actively engage in discouraging homosexuality, the results could only perpetuate the bigotry and violence Mr. Pattullo condemns. Moreover, . . when schoolteachers are fired or blackmailed because of their private lives, it only strengthens the argument that homosexuals need legal protection as a class—an outcome certainly far more undesirable, from Mr. Pattullo’s point of view, than simple neutrality.
But it is really the heart of Mr. Pattullo’s argument that needs to be scrutinized: that pressure and stigma should be applied to steer wavering youth into heterosexuality. Alas, there are too many sad cases documenting futile attempts to overcome homosexuality through marriage. And it is these very men who wind up causing the greatest social harm, for it is they who can be found hanging out in men’s rooms or other disreputable locales, hunting for furtive sex and then scurrying home to their wives in the suburbs. Is this truly better for society?
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . E.L. Pattullo agrees that some of us are straight and some of us are gay (or, presumably, lesbian). But some of us are in between. The Kinsey scale is a method for describing this. According to this scale, 0 represents those of us who are exclusive heterosexuals, 6 represents exclusive homosexuals, and 3 represents true bisexuals. A 1 is a heterosexual with some slight homosexual interest and/or experience; a 5 is a homosexual with some slight heterosexual interest or experience; and 2’s and 4’s represent more than slight interest or experience.
This scale has some problems: it is difficult to obtain accurate scientific data on experience; it is almost impossible to obtain reliable scientific data on feelings, dreams, fantasies, or other similar interests. Nevertheless, it gives us a way to discuss the problem.
Mr. Pattullo suggests that those growing children (and, for that matter, some older, even married, adults) who find themselves somewhere between 0 and 6 are waverers (his term) and thus susceptible of being “pushed” (some would say “recruited”) by either camp. He further suggests that firm but gentle anti-gay discrimination would prevent this push into the gay camp.
Mr. Pattullo admits this is speculation. While it seems reasonable to suppose that someone might waver between being, for instance, a 2 and a 3, there is absolutely no scientific data to support the concept that someone might waver between 0 and 6. Has Mr. Pattullo ever spoken to such a person? I have spoken to dozens of gay men and lesbian women; I have never met such a person.
I have spoken to many people who were unsure of their own sexuality, even well into their adult years. None of them was pushed into being gay by the permissiveness of friends, parents, or society. Many, as Mr. Pattullo writes, accepted their sexual orientation despite the hatred and discrimination of society.
But even if the waverers, as Mr. Pattullo speculates, did exist, what evidence does he have that giving children “clear, repeated signals as to society’s preference” would have any influence on their final sexual orientation? I gave my son such “clear, repeated signals.” All this accomplished was delaying his sharing his sexual orientation with us. Fortunately, his counsel was more valuable than all my years of medical training, and of reading COMMENTARY, in overcoming my own homophobia.
I belong to P-FLAG, a national organization of parents, family, and friends of lesbian, gay, and bisexual children. This includes some (straight) children of gays. None of us “pushed” our children into being gay. . . . Happily, most of us matured. Some of us are even now “coming out of the closet.”
Mr. Pattullo suggests that his approach would do no harm, and that we should not “risk” abandoning some form of anti-gay discrimination. I disagree. What about the 30 percent (at least) of teenage suicides thought to be gay-related? At least half of these are believed to be related to rejection by family or peers. Encouraging “family values,” as suggested by the former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Louis Sullivan, is worthless; I think Mr. Pattullo would agree to that.
Let me make a positive suggestion. Instead of creating more hate-filled homophobic heterosexuals, let us seek to teach our children the meaning of love. To paraphrase Bishop Melvin Wheately, love that is self-centered, selfish, exploitative, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is to be deplored. And love that is unselfish, caring, mutual, and respectful, whether between straights or gays, is desirable. If we teach that to our children, we all win.
I thank Mr. Pattullo for bringing this discussion to the pages of COMMENTARY. And I thank him for the kind things he said about those of us who are loving, supportive parents of gay children. . . . There are conservative Jewish (former) Republicans who have gay children. Some of us are your readers.
If you choose to publish all or part of my letter, please do not use my name. I do not fear recrimination against me, but against my son. There are hateful people out there. Please just sign me:
To the Editor:
. . . In his demeaning and unsubstantiated article, E.L. Pattullo has developed an entire theory without any practical experience or evidence. The fact that he has some belief or fear does not make it a reality. In an era when homosexuality was a deep dark secret, his theory of forced heterosexual conversion to homosexuality had many adherents. Today it sounds silly. . . .
I am not a homosexual nor am I an investigative reporter. However, as Bob Dylan says, you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows. Clearly there is something wrong with Mr. Pattullo’s continual references to his homosexual friend. Doesn’t he have more confirmation than this? More importantly, doesn’t he have an obligation to defend his opinion with something more substantial than his own beliefs or the fact that others may have the same opinion?
It should be noted that there is practical evidence which invalidates the belief system presented in Mr. Pattullo’s article. Recently on television, there was a discussion to the effect that even with the best intentions and psychological help, homosexuals really cannot switch their identity. There are numerous programs on cable TV dedicated to homosexuals and lesbians. All state that they have experienced their sexuality since childhood. None speaks of forced conversion. The bottom line is that you really cannot make people into something they are not inclined to be. The forced-conversion idea is more myth than reality. . . .
In Salem, Massachusetts, they burned witches. Today, hopefully, we do not have to act on our fears. If you expand the freedom of one group, you expand everyone’s freedom. Why don’t we just do it? If there are actual problems upon the granting of freedom to gays, then the actual majority of people can make actual legislative adjustments to address all real concerns.
James B. Heft
New York City
To the Editor:
Concerning E.L. Pattullo’s assertion that society should promote heterosexuality over homosexuality—imagine a world which promoted homosexuality over heterosexuality. A world where television sitcoms were about gay people, where gays could get married but not straights, where the church or temple would bless only gay unions, not marriages between people of the (ugh) opposite sex. According to Mr. Pattullo, a young person growing up in this world would assuredly become homosexual.
But of course the real world is exactly the opposite. I was raised by two heterosexuals in a world where heterosexuality was presented as the only option. Even though I was aware, from the age of twelve, that I was gay, I was so convinced of the superiority of heterosexuality that I dutifully dated throughout high school and college and finally married a woman and later had two wonderful children.
But at age thirty-five, even though I had applied virtually all my energies toward being heterosexual since reaching puberty 23 years earlier, I realized that I was gay and that all that energy and all of society’s promotion had not changed my sexual orientation one bit. Nor would it. Only since (reluctantly) leaving the marriage has my life blossomed because I am living as I was created. (And, I would add, as I think God has created me.)
Mr. Pattullo’s presuppositions are based more on cultural bias than on common sense, as if a society which affirmed gays would become gay. That is absurd. Everything we know of sexual orientation, of whatever variety, tells us that it is deeply rooted, intractable, and that whether or not society promotes one over the other, people will be what they will be. Mr. Pattullo can relax: as history down through the millennia shows, society remains mostly heterosexual. . . .
To the Editor:
E.L. Pattullo reiterates many of the longstanding prejudices against lovers of their own sex . . . with a more modern rationale. . . . That the young will “succumb to the temptations of homosexuality in a social climate that [is] entirely evenhanded in its treatment of the two orientations” has as much plausibility as the belief voiced well into the last century that some Christians might succumb to the temptations of Judaism in a social climate that was entirely evenhanded in its treatment of the two religions.
If the death penalty—reinforced by merciless ostracism of the offender and his family—did not prevent individuals from becoming homosexual in past centuries, how can mere exclusion from the Boy Scouts accomplish that purpose? If a relentless censorship that withheld from the young every trace of the existence of lovers of their own sex—even in histories of Greece and Rome—did not preclude the enlightened from learning that some of the most famous men and women of all time were homosexual or bisexual, how then can refusal of a high school to allow a gay student organization keep its charges ignorant of their sexual feelings and isolated from one another? Such precautions can have no more real effect than personal acts of rudeness and ostracism which self-respecting “queer nationals” take in stride every day of their lives.
So, far from being an unqualified misfortune, a homosexual orientation is a burden, a stimulus, and a challenge to those who discover it within themselves. It entails a radical reorientation of one’s private life, though not necessarily of one’s public career. If it closes certain potential paths, it opens others—which may just as easily lead to success. No sexual orientation is a bed of roses, and the sooner Western society learns this fact and resolves to diminish the problems and obstacles that every one of its members encounters in search of sexual satisfaction, the better it will be for us all.
Gay Academic Union
New York City
William A. Percy
University of Massachusetts
To the Editor:
. . . I am unpersuaded by E.L. Pattullo’s arguments. Now, he seems not an unkind person; in his article he even tests his position with counterarguments, and his tone generally is sympathetic. He is not unlettered, either, as his former directorship of Harvard’s Center for Behavioral Sciences attests. But his stance is based on no logic that I can descry. Underlying his contentions, I fear, are just his personal prejudices and petitio principii. He takes much too much for granted.
Why, for instance—if we can be objective about it—must we all wring our hands over society’s reproductive capacity and the persistence of the family as now constituted? Reproduction is at base a neutral biological propensity as common to cockroaches and slime mold as to human beings. Similarly, the family, far from possessing some glowing innate majesty, is often the locus of some of the most exploitative behavior we ever inflict on one another. If Mr. Pattullo wishes to glamorize these and append to them a moral imperative, he is certainly free to do so. But must everyone?
Reason, which he several times invokes, tells me that the human race is nowhere near extinction. . . . Can the presence of fully enfranchised homosexuals, however non-procreative and “tempting” (Mr. Pattullo’s recurrent formulation) their life-style, truly imperil the survival of the species and the social fabric—more than plague, inquisition, war, and revolution? Do homosexuals really have the power to undermine the institution of the family more than our technological excesses, academic effeteness, and sorry appetite for material aggrandizement?
Certainly a community will have its vested interests. Curiously, however, what the author’s heterosexual community aims most strenuously to deny homosexuals is the right to take part in and thus perpetuate the very traditions it deems essential to the general welfare: a legally and socially sanctioned marriage to a solemnly pledged partner (which self-contradicting society never denies heterosexual couples who cannot or will not reproduce); the raising of children (whether their biological offspring or adopted); secure, fulfilling employment; service in the armed forces; and full acceptance in their chosen religious organizations.
Does extending the embrace of a tradition to outsiders necessarily weaken, rather than embellish and validate, the tradition? Well, perhaps Mr. Pattullo suspects homosexuals of a saboteur’s insincerity, of mischievous motives, of a plot to desecrate and destroy all things holy. He assuredly does appear to believe those holy things mighty fragile—as fragile as the connection his waverers have to their heterosexuality, which he views as so susceptible to homosexual short-circuiting. Of this susceptibility he offers no evidence, no clear illustration, not even . . . a statistic, as he offers none for his other assertions. Their cogency we must accept on faith.
A faith recumbent on preconceived notions, inadmissive of proof, has little to do with the “reasonable discussion” Mr. Pattullo wishes to encourage. It has more to do with intellectual ambiguity, presumption, personal preference, in-groups, and out-groups. It has everything to do with what his title promises: “straight talk” . . . talk that represents the straight majority’s particular and partial interpretation of reality; that is, heterosexual subjectivity, hardly a speck more.
Nowhere does the author demonstrate that homosexuality—regardless of how his community reacts to it—is not in itself inherently good. I would venture further that homosexuality can possess as much goodness, beauty, and sanctity as heterosexuality can, and that this is worth fighting for and, if necessary in this unfair world, suffering for.
The recognition of this by statute and society is not to be prorogued by circumlocution, recourse to questionable logic, and frettings over some dreaded adverse effect on human breeding potentials and the happy home. Humanity is more than that.
Albany, New York
To the Editor:
The assertion by E.L. Pattullo that discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans is “best handled by allowing individuals and institutions to act as they will—within the civil-rights [sic] boundaries that currently protect everyone, gay and straight alike,” reflects a misunderstanding of the lack of civil-rights protection currently enjoyed by lesbian and gay Americans.
As a member of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nation’s largest lesbian and gay political group, I would like to inform Mr. Pattullo that our courts have consistently ruled that lesbian and gay people do not enjoy the right to file suit on the grounds of discrimination in jurisdictions that have no lesbian and gay civil-rights laws on the books. Currently, only seven states make it illegal to discriminate against lesbian and gay people in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Thus, most lesbian and gay people who lose their homes, their jobs, their insurance, or their medical care because of discrimination—events that occur on a daily basis in the United States—are unable to assert that their basic civil rights have been denied them.
Moreover, given the pervasive climate of anti-gay bigotry in many sections of the country, lesbian and gay Americans who have experienced discrimination or have been the victims of hate crimes are unwilling to call public attention to their plight. Having been discriminated against once, they fear the danger of being discriminated against again by calling attention to themselves. We are deluding ourselves if we believe that current law offers these individuals any sense of security or protection. That is why most Americans, if polls are to be believed, support laws to protect all people, including lesbians and gay men, from unfair acts of discrimination.
Mr. Pattullo admits to “ambivalence about the appropriate role for gays in a straight society.” Might I suggest that one way to begin dealing with this issue is to admit that we do not live in a “straight” society any more than we live in a “white” society or a “Protestant” society. While certainly the majority of people in American society are heterosexual, we share our communities and our lives with many people who are not. As a gay man with 35 nieces and nephews, my concern is that we build a society that values all of their lives, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual, or waverers, as Mr. Pattullo inelegantly defines them. In the long run, we will be better off when we begin to understand our diversity as a source of strength rather than as a problem that utilizes discrimination as a cure.
Gregory J. King
To the Editor:
E.L. Pattullo makes too facile a connection between a fixed code of sexual morals and opposition to the “gay life-style.” Rock and rap lyrics, which owe no allegiance to religious scruples, are nonetheless infamous for their homophobia. On the other hand, the Catholic bishops of Oregon campaigned against Measure 9, which sought to proclaim homosexuality “unnatural” and “perverse.” As the case of Woody Allen shows, what society may tolerate in actual sexual conduct is not necessarily what it accepts in theory. . . .
Further, Mr. Pattullo’s use of “gay” as synonymous with “homosexual” in the title of his article reflects the same dangerous ambiguity as President Clinton’s distinction between “preference” and “action” in deciding whether homosexuals should serve in the armed forces. The British experience with the Wolfenden formula legalizing “private actions between consenting adults” illustrates the need for precision in this matter. . . . “Private” ruled out “importuning,” the behavior here known as “cruising,” and “adult” meant over twenty-one, which resulted in a tripling of the conviction rate of homosexuals. Despite the attempts of homosexuals to amend these points, the very legislation which sought to reform an unsatisfactory legal system remained in many ways unsatisfactory to homosexuals.
Instead of the majority worrying about waverers becoming trapped into a minority, the recent referendum in Colorado, where the legislation passed in a few areas was, in effect, repealed by making it conform to the norms of the entire state, suggests that the minority should be concerned about the majority wavering in its tolerance because it had never thought through precisely what it was prepared to tolerate.
[Reverend] Donald Hendricks
Yonkers, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Apart from a brief reference to the need for the human species to procreate (notwithstanding the population explosion) and the need to “strengthen the institution of the family,” nowhere does E.L. Pattullo tell us why heterosexuality is to be preferred to homosexuality. Does he have an answer other than societal “preference”? . . .
Mr. Pattullo mentions society’s interest in maintaining the institution of the family in such a way that it is apparent that he means a family with a heterosexual couple at its core. Why? I know many families which would not meet that definition and yet I know them to be families in the truest sense of the word: a community closely bound by love, caring, and support. Some are straight, some are gay; some have children, some do not or cannot; some are single-parent families. Should society be less interested in these families because they do not fit a heterosexual mold? . . .
“Children,” he writes, “are cruel, and just as short or unathletic or homely boys and girls suffer for their state, so would those who differ in sexual preference”—which is precisely the value of education: to teach our children the harm done by such prejudices, many of which, I am convinced, are taught rather than instinctual. . . .
The most alarming statement Mr. Pattullo makes comes at the end of his article. Referring to sexual development, he writes, “. . . we dare not risk failing to give children clear, repeated signals as to society’s preference” (emphasis added). What a thoroughly dangerous idea! It is painfully obvious to me as a Jew that much of the world has, for millennia, deemed Jews to be marginal. Indeed, it has told us that society prefers that we not be Jews . . . or not be at all. Should I, therefore, teach my three-year-old son that he should not live his life as a Jew because Western society prefers Christians and Christianity?
A society ruled by intolerance should no more dictate that decision than it should attempt to convince a waverer that a heterosexual orientation is to be preferred to a homosexual one. If my son grows up and detaches himself from our Jewish tradition I will be profoundly disappointed because I feel he will lose all of the richness I associate with the Jewish tradition. If, in his development, he discovers himself to be gay, I will be disappointed only because I know that the society in which he is growing up is not yet the society which can set aside its fears and prejudices to allow homosexuals simply to be who they know themselves to be.
I do not regard Mr. Pattullo as a homophobe or a bigot, but I do find his thesis chilling and I do wonder what is really bothering him. Perhaps it is the discomfort all of us feel when we see societal mores in transition. He would concretize the prejudice of the past and accept it as something innately human. I prefer a conception rooted in Jewish tradition which suggests that each of us is created in God’s image and, as a consequence, we must work hard to get past our prejudices to discover the God-like in each person.
[Rabbi] Elias J. Lieberman
Falmouth Jewish Congregation
East Falmouth, Massachusetts
To the Editor:
COMMENTARY readers, particularly Jewish readers, should find much that is disturbing in the logic and assumptions underlying E.L. Pattullo’s article in defense of discrimination against homosexuals. . . .
The frightening ramifications of Mr. Pattullo’s argument become readily apparent if one makes the analogy to being Jewish in a predominantly non-Jewish culture. Jews have throughout history faced similar sorts of difficulties for being different from the norm, and it has often been (and, in some areas, may still be) desirable to change one’s religious beliefs in order to fit into the predominant culture. If the predominant culture considers Judaism to be a cultural disadvantage, does this justify discrimination against Jews as a means for society to dissuade children from growing up to be Jewish? Should Jewish parents so dissuade their children as a means of making their futures less of a burden? Having survived the Holocaust, Jews, perhaps more than most, should realize the dangerous ramifications of these sorts of attitudes. . . .
Mr. Pattullo also flippantly conflates and/or dismisses a number of important concepts. He asserts that sexual orientation, being possibly shaped by postnatal environmental forces, is thus not deserving of civil-rights protection. Following this reasoning, one’s religious beliefs, which similarly develop postnatally, should likewise be a justifiable basis for discrimination.
Mr. Pattullo also claims that even if society in general were to become more tolerant of gay people, children, being innately cruel to those who are different, will nonetheless continue to mistreat gay and lesbian children; he considers this a justification for not even bothering to attempt to create a more tolerant societal environment. Does he also suggest that teachers and parents should likewise ignore racist, sexist, or anti-Jewish comments made by children just because attending to them might be futile? Social tolerance is fostered during all stages in life, and indeed lessons learned in childhood help shape ideas held as an adult; homophobia should not be tolerated in children any more than other forms of bigotry.
It thus becomes quite apparent that behind a façade of supposed objectivity, Mr. Pattullo’s arguments are no more than a rehashing of hackneyed and debunked theories about homosexuality as a simple learned behavior. His line of reasoning, however, becomes truly frightening when considered in the light of the historical experiences of other marginalized populations, such as Jews. Indeed, the lessons of the Holocaust should teach us all the dire ramifications of fostering intolerance and discrimination as a means of societal engineering. Thoughtful readers should thus recognize the dangers inherent in Mr. Pattullo’s argument, and come to understand the need to counter, rather than foster, the intolerance and discrimination that gay and lesbian people face in today’s society.
Paul A. Siskind
To the Editor:
. . . E.L. Pattullo’s “Straight Talk About Gays” . . . only reinforces prejudice and intolerance. . . .
We do not even know for certain whether sexual orientation is caused by a combination of prenatal and postnatal factors or by prenatal factors alone. Mr. Pattullo says analogies to race and sex are inapposite because race and sex are determined purely by prenatal factors.
Personal religious beliefs depend both on prenatal and postnatal influences. Children born to Jewish parents are predisposed to be Jewish, although they retain a certain degree of autonomy with regard to their ultimate religious orientation. Perhaps we should, as a society, promote distinctions between Christians and Jews. We need only discriminate against Jews in certain ways, so that individuals unsure of their religious orientation will tend to gravitate toward Christianity. After all, as a nation we have a vested interest in promoting a homogeneous society. Additionally, we must not run the risk of having our society tainted by the impurity of Jewish beliefs.
Perhaps my analogy produces a more visceral response than Mr. Pattullo’s article. When put in a more identifiable form, the odious nature of Mr. Pattullo’s views becomes readily apparent.
Mark Adam Schnurman
To the Editor:
E.L. Pattullo calls for a variety of second-class treatment of lesbians and gay men on the grounds that “explicit evidence of society’s bias against homosexuality is an important element in the process by which many children become straight adults.” Social bias against gay people is not any such thing, however, and Mr. Pattullo does not even try to submit any supportive evidence. A person’s sexual orientation is, in fact, fixed no later than infancy. No amount of speculation about waverers or reliance on the twin myths of choice and seduction can justify special pleading on behalf of anti-gay bigotry.
. . . Who should know more about the danger of restricting minority rights in the name of “society” than Jews? Encouraging social bias against gay men and women will not turn gay youth into heterosexuals, but it will encourage those who fire gay people from their jobs and those who assault, maim, and kill them. Stop it, COMMENTARY; just stop it.
To the Editor:
As E.L. Pattullo tells us, “There is much we do not know about human sexuality, especially on the all-important issue of how sexual orientation is determined.” We also do not know how prevalent homosexuality is, or how it is related to other—nonsexual—aspects of human behavior.
Some time ago, I noted that a great many obituaries (articles, not death notices) in the New York Times listed AIDS as a cause of death. I decided to keep a record and did so from June 30 through October 11, 1992. There were 697 obituaries during that period, 47 of which explicitly mentioned AIDS as the cause of death. One of the AIDS victims was a female; one case was the result of a transfusion. Most of the rest, presumably, were male homosexuals.
These figures, of course, prove nothing. There are no explicit criteria for meriting an obituary in the Times. Nor do we know what percentage of gay men die of AIDS. Nevertheless, a percentage of roughly 6.5 AIDS deaths in the total population seems higher than chance. Is there a link between homosexuality and productivity? Perhaps this is a question worth investigating.
College of Staten Island
Staten Island, New York
To the Editor:
. . . It is not possible to address the bulk of E.L. Pattullo’s article, which deals with the question of why some people become gay—it is much too muddled. . . . [But] at the end, the article emerges from a muddle to become a cop-out because the author does not tell us just what “distinctions” or “signals” we should retain in order to provide an effective deterrent to the choice of homosexuality or bisexuality. He seems to be against society’s “irrational hatred of homosexuals” as well as “gay-baiting and gay-bashing.” If we are looking for “clear, repeated signals” as deterrents, what could be more to the point? What about job discrimination? Housing discrimination? Admission to university? Indeed, what about castration? If there were a Nobel Prize awarded for creating unmistakable “distinctions” and emitting “clear, repeated signals,” surely John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer have to be leading candidates.
It seems to me that this article is neither here nor there . . . because it will not or cannot tell us what the author thinks are appropriate measures to deter waverers from making undesirable choices. After all, one might feel one way if the article recommended the rack or burning at the stake; and quite another way if it recommended taking away a child’s marbles or forbidding the use of his Nintendo. What does Mr. Pattullo have in mind? . . .
To the Editor:
The greatest interest in E.L. Pattullo’s poorly reasoned article is the fact that it appeared in COMMENTARY. Mr. Pattullo seems only dimly aware of what is at stake in the conflict over homosexuality. Is homosexuality a vice which is harmful to individuals and which undermines society, or is it a harmless life-style like, say, being a vegetarian? If homosexuality is a perfectly legitimate life-style, then those who discriminate against homosexuals are bigots and they should be educated and, if necessary, coerced to behave tolerantly. If homosexuality is a vice, on the contrary, society has an obligation to reprove and suppress this behavior.
Mr. Pattullo does not address the morality of “gay rights” which apparently he considers self-evident. The “few pockets of resistance” to the campaign for gay rights, he writes, stem “almost entirely from religious considerations,” and, he continues, “Protestant evangelicals were behind the extremist move to proclaim homosexuality ‘abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse’ ” in an Oregon initiative which, he adds, “was rightly defeated.”
That may be the way it looks in Cambridge or in the editorial board room of the New York Times, but I think it is safe to say that there are substantial numbers of people, of both religious and secular outlooks, who consider homosexuality a vice. And if it is a vice, how else to characterize it than as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” . . .
Mr. Pattullo does not address the issue of the morality of homosexual behavior. But when he enjoins us to “rid society of irrational prejudice against gays,” he is clearly expressing his opinion that homosexual behavior is perfectly legitimate. He reveals his moral opinions in the typical universalist jargon of modern liberalism, for which preferred imperatives flow directly from reason, and from which it follows that those who disagree are “irrational.”
But here Mr. Pattullo’s article makes a curious digression. He raises the question as to whether homosexuality is innate . . . and concludes that in the case of humans we cannot really be certain. Therefore, “. . . it is a good bet that substantial numbers of children have the capacity to grow in either direction.” From this modest speculation Mr. Pattullo draws the major conclusions of his article, . . . which, because they are presumably “conservative,” explain why it appeared in COMMENTARY rather than in the New Republic. The problem is that none of Mr. Pattullo’s conclusions follows from his premises.
We may dismiss the argument that society’s “interest in reproducing itself” could justify discrimination against homosexuals. First, because homosexuals can reproduce and second, because, in Mr. Pattullo’s words, “. . . if overpopulation continues to threaten the planet, gay adults might become more socially valuable than straight ones.” (This statement is particularly puzzling since it asserts that overpopulation is threatening the planet, from which it would seem to follow that gays are already more socially valuable than straights.)
All the other conclusions drawn by Mr. Pattullo are unwarranted if one assumes, as he does, that there is nothing illegitimate in homosexual behavior. Thus, society would have no justification for “strengthening the institution of the [monogamous, heterosexual] family” unless this institution were superior to alternative sexual arrangements. The gay-rights movement is perfectly correct in asserting that if homosexuality is legitimate, there is no reason why a family consisting of bonded homosexuals should be disadvantaged.
Similarly, unless there is something wrong with homosexuality, policies which take into account parents’ “interest in reducing the risk that their children will become homosexual” or which “ensure that all children clearly understand the desirability of growing up to be heterosexual adults” would be nothing other than pandering to the “irrational prejudice” which Mr. Pattullo assures us he wishes to expunge. . . .
Further, Mr. Pattullo’s explicit premise, that we cannot be sure whether homosexuality is innate, is irrelevant. Even in the unlikely event that a “queer” gene were to be discovered, the issue of the morality or immorality of homosexual behavior would not be resolved. . . . If an “anti-Semitic” gene were discovered, would we then alter our public-school curriculum to teach six-year-olds to respect anti-Semites?
Irrespective of any biological, psychological, or sociological accounts of human sexuality, societal discrimination against homosexuals is justified if and only if homosexuality is a vice. That is the question. Despite his promise to “promote the kind of reasoned discussion that has been conspicuously absent to date,” Mr. Pattullo does not even address this issue, let alone give a convincing answer.
To the Editor:
In “Straight Talk About Gays,” E.L. Pattullo cites England’s immediate past chief rabbi, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, to the effect that “All the authentic sources of Judaism condemn homosexual relations as a heinous offense.” Paul and other equally authentic sources of Christianity are no less emphatic in condemning homosexuality. This is also true of the natural-law tradition, the tradition of unassisted reason, a tradition in large measure common to both Judaism and Christianity. . . .
Mr. Pattullo’s article, taken as a whole, is a well-meaning but fruitless attempt to find a middle ground between disapproval and approval of homosexuality. One is reminded of Lincoln’s warning against “groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man.” It is not extremist or irrational to agree with the tradition of both reason and revelation that holds homosexuality to be unnatural. What is at stake here is not the standing of homosexuality alone, but of all morality, as something grounded in more than mere subjective preference. . . .
Morality comes to sight as the mutual obligations, first of all, of husband and wife, then of parents and children, brothers and sisters. From this it expands to include the extended family, the clan, tribe, city, country, and, at last, mankind. We find the moral law condensed in the injunction that we should do to others—that is to say, others who share our nature—what we would have them do to us. Mankind as a whole is recognized by its generations, like a river which is one and the same, while the ever-renewed cycles of birth and death flow on. But the generations are constituted—and can only be constituted—by the acts of generation arising from the conjunction of male and female. The distinction between a man and a woman is not only in itself according to nature, but is the very distinction by which nature itself is constituted. Lincoln once said that if slavery is not unjust, nothing is unjust. On the same premises, if sodomy is not unnatural, nothing is unnatural.
Mr. Pattullo observes “that there is a bit of the waverer in . . . many of us” and that “straights” often feel threatened “not because gays are so different, but because they are so similar.” But most human beings at one time or another detect tendencies in themselves to cheating, stealing, homicide, adultery, and other wrongful actions. If we are well brought up, we condemn such actions in ourselves or others, not because of innate tendencies, but because we understand that they are wrong, and that we as human beings are responsible for what we do.
As individuals, our natures differ, within the bounds of our common nature. As Aristotle notes, some are born fearful, and others bold. But the fearful one can become a brave man and a hero; and the bold one turn out a poltroon. Character is not determined by innate tendencies. Moral education consists in habituating ourselves to the actions of the virtues and overcoming our tendencies to the actions of the vices. But there can be no moral education where there is no clear understanding of the ground in reason and nature for the distinction between virtue and vice. Tolerance does not require of us that we cease to call things by their right names.
Harry V. Jaffa
Center for the Study of the Natural Law
The Claremont Institute
To the Editor:
Though I agree with E.L. Pattullo’s conclusions, I think his article suffers from a major disease of neoconservatism: the absence of firm principles. . . . Very often conservative authors, Mr. Pattullo included, . . . implicitly accept the liberal ground rules and then try to argue a conservative cause lost from the beginning. Mr. Pattullo rejects “religious dicta” in relation to homosexuality, but then tries to make a case for some moderate discrimination against homosexuals as educators of young people, either as adoptive parents or leaders of Boy Scouts, because their influence on “the character and psyche of growing children” may affect their sexual orientation.
But what difference does it make? Nowhere in this article do we find an explanation of why it is better to grow up straight, and why we should, if possible, try to prevent children from becoming gay. Nowhere do we find the opinion that, in the heterosexual realm as well, not all behavior is acceptable, but that sex should be practiced within the framework of love, marriage, and family. . . .
If we try to formulate the original axioms for our moral judgment on homosexuality, two alternatives should be considered. One is that sex is given by God (my apologies to any enlightened secular person whose eye falls on this) for purposes of reproduction, and that homosexuality is an abnormality, an error, because it does not serve this goal. . . . The second, and opposite, view, explicitly expressed in the sexual revolution, transforms sex into just another kind of entertainment, something like going to movies or nightclubs. High-tech contraceptives have made it even easier to break completely not just from any connection with reproduction, but from family obligations and the whole complex set of moral and cultural limitations which have been imposed on sex throughout the history of Western and other civilizations.
Only if one accepts the first axiom, without fear of being accused of religious fundamentalism, can a convincing argument be made for limiting the rights of homosexuals. Only then is it obvious that being straight is better, because it is normal. Until we learn the real causes of homosexuality and can offer a cure to those gays and lesbians who want it, we should assume that homosexuality, albeit a defect, is a natural one, and we should treat homosexuals with tolerance and decency. This means no discrimination in hiring for most jobs and outright rejection of violence and insults against them. But gays should be considered inherently unfit to be parents and educators, just as people without good voices are unfit to sing in the Metropolitan Opera. . . .
Berkeley Heights, New Jersey
To the Editor:
E.L. Pattullo displays both wisdom and courage in writing “Straight Talk About Gays.” . . . He is deeply and correctly concerned that the homosexual movement has gone beyond securing civil-rights protection against persecution and is now demanding that all societal distinctions between heterosexuals and homosexuals be completely abolished. . . .
As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and as a researcher in the field of sexual deviation, I continue to be troubled by the social and scientific consequences of the American Psychiatric Association’s decision, in 1975, to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for sociopolitical reasons. . . . The motive force for this decision was the wish to protect homosexuals against injustices and persecution, an aim which could have been achieved by a simple demand for equal rights. . . . Instead, the false step of removing homosexuality from the manual was substituted, which amounted to the approval of homosexuality and encouragement to aberrancy by those who should have known better—both in the scientific sense and in the sense of the social consequences of such removal.
The devastating clinical consequences of this decision have since followed. Those who wish to retain homosexuality as a valid diagnosis have been practically silenced by lectures, meetings, and publications both originating within our association and from other sources. . . .
In essence, this movement within the psychiatric establishment has accomplished what every other society, with rare exceptions, would have trembled to tamper with, a revision of a basic code and concept of life and biology: that men and women normally mate with the opposite sex and not with the same sex. . . .
This psychiatric nonsense and social recklessness bring with it many individual tragedies, as men and women who no longer care for their appropriate sexual roles create confusion in the very young for generations to come. Gender-identity disturbance is bound to increase and more true homosexual deviations result as parents distort the maleness or femaleness of their infants and children. . . .
Homosexuals who are in therapy have developed tremendous resistance, which retards their progress, while others are dissuaded from seeking appropriate help. Other medical specialists such as pediatricians and internists are baffled by psychiatry’s folly. . . . Residents in psychiatry have very little interest in going into an area of psychiatric research where they will be attacked, belittled, and demeaned, and their knowledge of sexual development will cease to grow. Above all, however, it is the individual homosexual wishing to change who suffers the most.
Young men and women with relatively minor sexual fears are led with equanimity by some psychiatrists and nonmedical counselors into a self-despising pattern and life-style. Adolescents, nearly all of whom experience some degree of uncertainty as to sexual identity, are discouraged from assuming that one form of gender identity is preferable to another. Those persons who already have a homosexual problem are discouraged from finding their way out of self-destructive fantasy—discouraged from learning to accept themselves as male or female, discouraged from all those often painful but necessary courses that allow us to function as reasonable and participating individuals in a cooperating society.
After all, homosexuality cannot make a society or keep one going for very long. It operates against the cohesive elements of society. It drives the sexes in opposite directions, and no society can long endure when either the child is neglected or when the sexes war with each other. Those who reinforce the disintegrating elements in our society will get no thanks from future generations. . . .
Charles W. Socarides, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
Albert Einstein College of Medicine
New York City
To the Editor:
“Straight Talk About Gays” offers some good reasons for continued caution about homosexual demands. There are still other reasons, most of them concerned with the need to inhibit behavior which is risky for both gays and straights. An example which comes quickly to mind is promiscuity, a community health hazard as well as a lifestyle choice. . . .
A more significant example is the demand increasingly being heard from politicized female homosexuals for “sexual and reproductive freedom.” This translates into the increasingly tolerated practice of deliberate illegitimacy. . . .
During the 80’s so many gay women acquired children through artificial insemination—and also by ad hoc heterosexual intercourse and adoption—that insiders referred to the trend as the “lesbian baby boom.” The actual numbers remain speculative, but a March 1990 Newsweek article estimated that one-third of all lesbians were mothers and that seven million children had gay parents. . . .
But the numbers . . . are less significant than their supportive ideology, which must attack what one advocate called the “hegemonic paradigm,” the principle of legitimacy itself, which requires for each child a father and a mother bound in marriage. Some ideologues thus see themselves as vanguard revolutionaries against the two-parent heterosexual norm, which is as old as memory and as wide as human society itself. One counselor of prospective lesbian mothers wrote: “We are challenging the traditional heterosexual nuclear family. We are saying we can do it differently and make it work. . . .”
Another emphasized that success required devaluing the father’s role. “We must make the courts realize,” she wrote, “that concern over the absence of a male model is a bogus issue.” . . .
Such concepts have now worked their way, as the Murphy Brown episode revealed, into liberal ideology, a process which has nudged public policy in general toward a diminished fatherhood, making the male the “disposable” parent. Thus, tolerance of just one newly-asserted “gay right” compromises our effort to restore stability to a father/mother family whose health affects all of us, gay or straight.
Frank S. Zepezauer
To the Editor:
The article by E.L. Pattullo wisely points up the question of socially acceptable parameters of the gay-rights movement. Begun in 1969 with a vengeance at the Stonewall bar in New York City, when a group of gays fought back for the first time in the course of a police raid, the movement has employed political and judicial tactics to get rid of discriminatory practices on the basis of sexual orientation in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. In recent years it has added to its agenda such items as employee fringe benefits to same-sex couples, the legal sanction of gay marriages, etc.
In my view, Stonewall took a pernicious turn when it hinged its crusade on the issue of sexual orientation instead of on single (marital) status. If it had focused on the latter, single straights as well as almost all gays—who are virtually all single—would be covered by nondiscriminatory legislation. Marriage is the culmination of heterosexual orientation, and the single state, a minority group, is the culmination of a sexual orientation—straight, gay, bi-, or none-of-the-above—the amorphous nature of which should be protected from discrimination.
What Stonewall did was to open up a Pandora’s box of sexuality, and if it has liberated anything, it has been the Freudian id instead of the Freudian superego.
To the Editor:
Masters and Johnson, who researched human sexuality for a quarter of a century, concluded from their research that no one is born homosexual; it is not genetic, but learned through experience.
Their conclusion appears to be based on their research into homosexual dysfunction. Another result of this research: about two-thirds of those who had a reason and a desire to change their sexual orientation were successful.
I find their conclusion most credible because they do not take a stand on homosexual behavior. Unfortunately, because this is not a politically-correct opinion, the media have been conspicuously silent about it; but those who attempt to find evidence that homosexuals are born get a great deal of media attention.
Many who believe they are homosexual, especially the young, think themselves to be some sort of freak. . . . They need to know that they are normal human beings who were exposed to this sexual orientation and that there is at least a possibility of change. . . .
I agree with E.L. Pattullo that attitudes and actions need to be changed, but at the same time society must ensure that all children clearly understand the desirability of growing up to be heterosexual adults.
To the Editor:
E.L. Pattullo suggests that only if some measure of choice is involved in becoming gay could there be any reason to find it in any degree objectionable, so that society might not be entirely indifferent to sexual orientation. This seems to be a mistake, since one can certainly find something objectionable about conditions that could not be subject to choice. That some people are born deaf or retarded does not mean that there is nothing wrong with being deaf or retarded. Of course, there could be nothing blameworthy about such conditions, but that is a different matter. . . .
There is an interesting issue not touched upon by Mr. Pattullo related to the military’s policy of excluding gays from its ranks, which President Clinton is now in the process of reversing. So long as sexual segregation is considered a sound policy for the military (or any other institution involving the grouping of members of a given sex in circumstances that make privacy impossible), it is arguable that giving gays access to others of their sex defeats the purpose of sexual segregation. If, for example, men should not shower with women, presumably so that men and women should not gain visual access to one another without consent, then gays should not have visual access either to other gays or straights so that this element of consent is not violated.
This does not imply anything unusual about the sexual appetites of gays. All it means is that having gays in intimate visual contact with those in whom they may have a sexual interest is an imposition on those who are unaware of what they are being exposed to. Indeed, in the case of gays having access to other gays or straights, the situation is more complicated than straights of one sex having access to straights of another. In the former case there is no evident presumption of sexual interest, so people would more likely have their guard down about having to share their privacy with those who may have a sexual interest in them.
Tibor R. Machan
Visiting Professor of Philosophy
United States Military Academy
West Point, New York
To the Editor:
. . . For our society to be healthy, it is necessary that we use all reasonable means to suppress homosexuality. Late in the 1960’s, this society essentially surrendered in the fight against homosexuality and we are now reaping the fruit of this policy change.
Perhaps the most disastrous result of the toleration of homosexuality is AIDS. This year around 51,000 people in this country will die of AIDS. Ninety-five percent of these victims will be either homosexual and/or drug users. The rest will be those who caught the disease from homosexuals and/or drug users, either through contaminated blood products, contaminated transfusions, intercourse with infected individuals, or infection in utero.
The disaster of AIDS was totally preventable. Had the homosexual life-style not been tolerated, there would be no epidemic. In the 1950’s the laws against homosexuality were, to a large extent, enforced. By the 1970’s, this was no longer the case, and in the 1990’s tens of thousands are dying. . . .
To abolish all discrimination against homosexuals . . . we must discriminate against heterosexuals. Health insurance is a perfect example of this problem. As a sexually inactive heterosexual female, my odds of catching AIDS are lower than the odds of my being hit by lightning. But if I purchase health insurance I am compelled to pay the astronomical health bills associated with the treatment of AIDS. I would be willing to purchase health insurance which specifially excluded payment for AIDS, but that is prohibited by anti-discrimination laws. . . .
The problem with homosexuality is not whether it is volitional. Those persons who are homosexual have not chosen to be this way. The problem with homosexuality, at least on the male side, is that it is more than just a desire for sex with other men. It is a fundamental personality disorder which manifests itself in a compulsive sexuality that leads to no good ends. . . .
A fourteen-year-old boy who is not sexually experienced may be lured into the homosexual lifestyle if he encounters a predatory adult homosexual. The same boy at age nineteen may be immune to the allure of homosexuality. In the age of AIDS this problem is not academic. We must continue to fight homosexuality to protect that fourteen-year-old boy. If we can delay his exposure to homosexuality for five years we may be able to save his life.
One final point: although homosexuality is a severe personality disorder, . . . homosexuals are not evil persons and must be treated with respect. Physical assaults on homosexuals and the pathological hatred of homosexuals known as homophobia are themselves evil and should not be tolerated. We must love the sinner, but hate the sin.
To the Editor:
I very much enjoyed E.L. Pattullo’s article. It provided a note of moderation in an avalanche of extreme talk about a most sensitive subject. . . .
As a retired Coast Guard captain, with a total of 35 years in the military, 29 of them as a commissioned officer, I have made a number of observations over the years on the subject of gays in the military.
In general, most of the homosexual offenses I became aware of were committed by outwardly heterosexual men, usually married, some with children, even one grandfather. Separate some men from their families and away from women for a period of time and they act poorly.
President Clinton most assuredly is correct when he states that the issue is conduct, and I believe that eliminating the ban on homosexuals in the military should be done slowly and carefully and be accompanied by service indoctrination. To be blunt about it, I fear outbreaks of violence in the service as a result of the new policy. . . .
Maxwell S. Charleston
To the Editor:
. . . I agree with many of the conclusions reached by E.L. Pattullo, but with an administration determined to protect and enforce politically-correct views, the subject of gays is no longer academic.
Two areas of immediate interest are gays in the rabbinate and gays in the military. The author quotes Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, when he was chief rabbi of England, as condemning homosexual relations, the traditional view of Judaism. . . . Reform Judaism, however, the most liberal of the Jewish groups, approves gay rabbis, part of the rationale being that whether we accept gay rabbis or not we have them anyway. A practical, not a religious reason. . . .
As for gays in the military, . . . as we have recently seen, all top military officials have stated that homosexuality is incompatible with military service and that the presence of homosexuals impedes good order and morale. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the presence of homosexuals would interfere with the right to privacy of heterosexual troops, though many countries, including Australia and Canada, do permit gays to serve. Here the issue would appear to be not one of human rights, but the efficiency of the military. . . .
In any case, the time for feinting is past; we must face the issue of gays and their status in our institutions directly. Otherwise, like so many other social issues, it will be determined by politicians anxious to fulfill campaign promises or wishing to pander to voting blocs or liberal do-gooders. I am pleased that the issue of gays is now openly discussed and citizens with opinions openly express their views and are concerned with policy results.
Robert J. Rosenthal
To the Editor:
It seems incredible that we—homo sapiens—have deviated so far in our thinking and in our natural functioning that we should even be considering homosexuality as “just another life-style” instead of the aberration it really is.
As far as we know at this moment in time, the earth came into existence four-and-one-half billion years ago. One billion years later, the earth was covered with unicellular creatures. Around two billion years after that, multicellular creatures had developed, and some time during the ensuing millennia, sexual differentiation occurred. This fact of nature is irrefragable and irrevocable. The real question is: why do we seem to be in a continual state of denial about our natural functioning instead of facing up to the truth about it? If we could only face this truth, everything else would fall into place and homosexuals might get the help they really need instead of the false acceptance that is so damaging to them and to society in general.
E.L. Pattullo writes:
One of the issues raised, implicitly or explicitly, by several of my critics is whether or not it is legitimate to speculate about a matter of public policy when there is a paucity of fact. A predictable result of doing so, of course, is that one assertion is simply countered by another. In a famous exchange, James Thurber dubbed this the myass school of argument. A says to B, “Dizzy Dean is the greatest pitcher of all time,” prompting B to respond, “Dizzy Dean is the greatest pitcher of all time, myass!”
Though it fails to improve the argument, there is no help for this problem. More often than not, public policy must proceed in the absence of sure knowledge and some of the controversy it arouses must get bogged down in the Thurber school. Any who doubt this might consider the question of what to do about the economy at any given time. For every expert opinion there exist several others, equally expert, urging a quite different course of action.
Aware of the absence of knowledge concerning the genesis of homosexual attraction, I was careful to qualify most of my assertions about fact as probabilities, and to point them out for readers. Several of my critics are less careful and seem to assert sure knowledge about things for which there is, as yet, little scientific evidence. Bruce Bawer, for instance, says, “sexual orientation is certainly fixed by early childhood.” James B. Heft, John V.N. Philip, Samuel Schaal, and others make similar assertions with equal confidence. Yet though many gays attest that they never experienced doubt as to their sexual preference, many others, gay and straight, report different memories. I can only repeat that no reputable student of the subject pretends to know precisely how or when sexual orientation is fixed.
All of us who venture opinions on this difficult subject need to be aware of the tendency to overinterpret our own experience. Our sexuality is ever present and so central to our being that it is hard to resist the temptation to project onto others that which we have felt and know to be of great importance in our own lives.
Kent Gordis, David Shur, and Harry V. Jaffa take me to task for failing to make a judgment on the morality of homosexuality one way or the other. On the other side, Ray Bono, Bruce Bawer, Gregory J. King, and Rabbi Elias J. Lieberman argue that there is no objective moral reason for preferring straight to gay. I do not deny the existence of the moral dimension, and recognize the power it brings to any argument. But that power is dependent upon acceptance of the moral system invoked, and there are many competing ones. It is my purpose to try to persuade readers not that a wholly value-free (objective) case can be made, but that given straights’ bias in favor of heterosexuality there is a purely pragmatic justification both for tolerance of homosexuals and for continuing to discriminate against them in certain areas. Though that bias can be confirmed or rebutted only within the framework of a moral code, it is a datum that forms a legitimate base for a reasoned argument.
Another explicit theme in several of the letters is a denial of the idea that there can be a middle ground between total acceptance and total rejection of those who live the gay life. Their authors clearly think me insincere in suggesting the possibility. This is odd when, in recent years, we have seen so many people abandon the fear and dislike with which they once viewed homosexuality, moving to occupy that middle ground. In wide areas of the United States it is apparent that a majority now sees no reason to dislike or scorn gays and, indeed, actively opposes those who would bait or bully them. The very rash of anti-discrimination laws and rules—which I deplore—demonstrates a rising tolerance—which I applaud. Consider, too, the attitudes prevailing in our leading colleges and universities. And in most large cities, gay men and women need no longer fear the ostracism that once would have followed upon their orientation becoming known. In other places, we all know, there is still much work to be done.
Yet it remains true that among those newly tolerant are many who, by moral conviction—religious or other—still regard homosexual acts as wrong. Many others remain firm in the belief that an inability to form a traditional family is a grave misfortune. And almost all parents hope their children—whom they will continue to love in any event—will grow up straight.
The changes already accomplished, thanks to the efforts of gay activists, amply demonstrate that gays can find a secure place in society without forcing that same society to pretend that it places no greater value on the straight life than on the gay one.
Yet having made long strides toward persuading straight society to be tolerant of differing sexual orientations, gay political leaders remain discontented. They now wish to use the law to force public and private institutions to treat gays exactly as they treat straights. The model is the anti-discrimination statutes that seek equal treatment regardless of gender, race, or religion. That effort offends not only those who condemn homosexual acts as immoral, but also those who think the straight life vastly preferable and believe it likely (as do I) that socialization plays a role in determining sexual orientation.
If the last belief is correct, there is good reason to insist that gays rest content when society as a whole becomes genuinely tolerant of those of their sexual orientation. To require that the majority act as if it believes the two life-styles to be equally desirable, by forbidding any kind of discrimination whatsoever between the two, is to demand too much. Race, gender, religion, and—now—physical handicap are each a different story.
Paul A. Siskind, Bert Thompson, and Mark Adam Schnurman invoke an analogy substituting Christians and Jews for straights and gays. Why, they suggest, should a predominantly Christian society not use my reasoning to justify differential treatment of Jews? But analogies mislead as often as not. Religious belief is not the same kind of phenomenon as sexual orientation, and to forbid discrimination in one area does not imply that it must be forbidden every place.
Finally, it is clear that many of my critics are concerned exclusively with the welfare of those who define themselves as gay, dismissing those I have chosen to call waverers as self-deceiving. Only Charles W. Socarides, clinical professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and a long-time student of homosexuality, speaks compassionately of those who reject their gay inclinations, and Eileen O’Brien and Patricia Meyerowitz touch on the same point. No one else expresses much sympathy (let alone empathy) for persons who could be straight but may become predominantly gay in an environment that refuses to distinguish between the two. Several, of course, deny this possibility and several others clearly think one orientation is as good as the other. But for those of us who still believe the straight life is preferable, the spectacle of a child growing up gay when he might have been straight is little short of tragic.
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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.