The comments which follow will deal with the preferred Western response to Soviet leadership in the military, political, and economic…
To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill . . . what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.
—Sun Tzu, 4th century B.C.E.
In 1947, with the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine, the United States took over from Great Britain the responsibility for maintaining a global equilibrium. It was a task that Britain had first assumed in the 17th century, when it began to use a combination of diplomacy, subsidies, and naval force to contain any power—first France, then Russia, and finally Germany—that threatened to gain hegemony over the European continent and the approaches to it. Its empire broken up and its economic resources depleted by two world wars, Britain could no longer afford to carry out this traditional policy. The mission was assumed by the United States, which, in the aftermath of World War II, committed itself to containing the Soviet Union in Europe and in any other part of the world on which it encroached.
America’s global interests, however, were much less extensive than Britain’s: it had no empire to defend, and its foreign trade accounted for a much smaller portion of the national economy. For this reason, U.S. global policy since World War II has tended to display an abstract and ideological quality: it has been less a defense of national interest than of a general international order. In dealing with the Soviet Union, U.S. policies strove above all to persuade it to join the international community by showing it that aggression did not pay, whereas restraint and cooperation did, inasmuch as the one brought rewards and the other punishments. In the words of President Carter: “Our long-term objective must be to convince the Soviet Union of the advantages of cooperation and the costs of disruptive behavior.”
This kind of didactic diplomacy has been the basic premise of U.S. policy toward the USSR in times of the cold war as well as those of detente. Under this approach, the Soviet Union is treated rather as if it were a wayward child, which has to be taught proper manners by the application of pain and pleasure. Why the Soviet Union misbehaves—that is, acts aggressively—is a question which hardly anyone bothers to address, if one leaves aside the opinion of dilettante “experts” who believe that Russia has suffered an extraordinary number of foreign invasions and developed, as a consequence, a collective paranoia that expresses itself in aggression.1
But this, surely, is the critical issue. Experience of the past sixty-seven years indicates that no attempt to influence Soviet behavior has succeeded: neither diplomatic ostracism, nor Yalta-like concessions, nor nuclear threats, nor economic bribery. This record of failure indicates that the cause of Soviet aggression lies deeper—that it is systemic. If this is the case, then it is vain to hope to modify Soviet behavior without modifications in the system which causes it.
The causes of Soviet aggressiveness are varied and many, some of them being rooted in Russian geography and history, others in Marxist-Leninist theory and practice. But perhaps the single most important of these causes resides in the fact that the Soviet Union and its dependencies are run by self-appointed and self-perpetuating elites whose extraordinary power, privileges, and wealth cannot be justified in any other way than by the alleged threat of “imperialist aggression” to the countries they rule. Their status is thus directly related to the level of international tension. They can best keep their restless subjects under control by demonstrating to them that Communist power is invincible, that it will eventually spread around the globe, and that, therefore, all resistance to it is futile. It is through aggression abroad that the Communist elite best safeguards its position at home.
Unfortunately for the Communist elite, Soviet political and economic institutions are in serious trouble. As the bloodless Polish revolution of 1980-81 has demonstrated, a Communist party that grows thoroughly corrupt and self-seeking loses contact with the population and becomes irrelevant. Since the death of Stalin, the Soviet Communist party elite has managed to shed the heavy hand of dictatorial authority over itself and to turn into a parasitic class that picks ever weaker leaders who will not challenge its interests. The economy, overcentralized and lacking in proper incentives, shows ever slower growth and becomes less and less capable of sustaining the regime’s military and imperial commitments. Unable to provide Soviet citizens with a standard of life remotely resembling that of the other industrial nations, the Communist elite has no choice but to tolerate the emergence of a free-enterprise “second economy” that threatens its hold on economic resources as well as the levers of power.
The Soviet leadership faces an agonizing choice between holding on to full power and privilege, thereby risking major internal turmoil such as has occurred in Poland, and forestalling it with costly and unpalatable concessions. It naturally prefers to have its cake and eat it. In this it is assisted by gratuitous friendly gestures from the West, whether these take the form of bowing to Soviet nuclear blackmail, acquiescing in double standards in international relations, or helping the Soviet economy out of its doldrums. All such actions help the Communist elite postpone the inevitable; all encourage it to keep intact the regime which pushes the country toward constant aggression.
Rather than seek to modify Soviet behavior, the West should assist those forces within the Communist bloc which are working for a change of the system. This is best accomplished by refusing to play the game of international relations in the manner which Moscow prefers, and by denying it the opportunities to exploit military, political, and economic relations with the West to its own advantage. The West cannot destabilize the Soviet Union, but neither should it help the Soviet elite to stabilize a system which is increasingly strained by the incompatibility of the means at its disposal and the objectives which it pursues.
The comments which follow will deal with the preferred Western response in the military, political, and economic fields.
1. The Military Aspect
The mission of the military forces of NATO is and has always been a defensive one, namely, preventing Soviet military encroachments on the territories of Western Europe. There is nothing the countries of the Soviet bloc possess that could conceivably tempt the Western alliance to commit aggression against them: neither natural resources (these can be gotten cheaper elsewhere), nor industrial or other forms of man-made wealth (poor and primitive by Western standards), nor markets for their goods (insignificant for lack of hard currency). It would produce an economic disaster of the first magnitude were the West to conquer the Eastern bloc and assume responsibility for administering and feeding the area—the Marshall Plan would look like a grant-in-aid by comparison. The West would be well advised to decline the Communist bloc if offered it free of charge: it certainly cannot have the slightest interest in going to war to seize it by force. Nor do the Communist ideology and way of life exert such attractions as to threaten Western societies with internal subversion.
All these considerations explain why the contingency plans of NATO have always been defensive. Whatever they say in public—and totalitarian regimes have a habit of ascribing to others their own intentions in order to disguise their aggressive designs as defensive reactions—Soviet leaders are well aware of these facts. This is demonstrated by their willingness to maintain most of their military forces, nuclear ones included, on low levels of alert, something they would never dare to risk if they feared coming suddenly under attack.
Most succinctly defined, Western conventional forces have the task of containing the potential enemy, and Western nuclear forces that of deterring him. The relationship between the two types of forces, however, is not well thought out in Western strategic doctrine, which may create some uncertainty in the mind of the Soviet general staff, but is certain to cause chaos and confusion in Western ranks should hostilities ever break out.
Advocates of nuclear disarmament usually balance their calls for unilateral Western cutbacks or declarations of “no first use” with demands for improvements in conventional forces. Their argument rests on the twin assumptions that the shift from nuclear to conventional deterrence would diminish the risks of nuclear war and, at the same time, permit reductions in defense budgets.
The first of these propositions is doubtful because it assumes that the decision to employ nuclear weapons is one for the West to make and depends on the ability of its conventional forces to stop the advance of the Warsaw Pact. Given the central role assigned to nuclear weapons in Soviet strategy, such an assumption seems unrealistic. As will be pointed out below, it is far more likely that recourse to nuclear weapons will be initiated by Moscow.
The second proposition is demonstrably wrong. Nuclear weapons are relatively cheap: they absorb between 10 and 15 percent of the military budgets of the U.S. and the USSR. It is conventional forces that eat up defense allocations in both countries. Reductions of nuclear arsenals may bring all kinds of desirable results, but if they are accompanied by increases in conventional forces, such measures certainly will not reduce defense outlays—not, at any rate, in the West. Furthermore, in any competition restricted to conventional forces, the Soviet side has a marked advantage in that it pays its troops such low salaries that it can devote a much larger proportion of the defense budget to weapons and equipment—by some estimates, between two and three times as much as the United States.2
Setting aside the issue of the most efficient use of defense funds, the amount of money allocated for this purpose must clearly be measured against the military threat with which it is meant to cope and not against domestic needs, however urgent these may be. It is illogical to urge cuts in defense appropriations on the ground that there are higher “priorities” in education or medical services. One may legitimately question whether the United States needs the MX or Britain the Trident submarine, but the argument has to be decided on military, not on social, criteria. Since defense expenditures, both in general and in particular, are designed to meet concrete threats posed by foreign powers—that is, powers outside the reach of our will—they cannot be treated as if they were wholly discretionary.
Nor is it sensible to question defense appropriations on the specious grounds that America’s strength lies in other than military fields—that “the biggest deterrent to the Russians is a healthy economy in America,” as the head of the National Association of Manufacturers has recently put it. Quite apart from the fact that a healthy American economy is precisely what whets the appetite of the Russians, the statement is absurd: for, if it were correct, then a healthy body would be the best deterrent against rape or murder, which is not quite what experience teaches. Economies do not stop armies any more than do schools or hospitals—only armies stop armies. It has been correctly pointed out that since every country has an army on its soil, the only choice citizens can exercise in the matter is to decide whether this army will be their own or someone else’s.
It should be self-evident that the size and structure of military forces are determined by their mission, and that their mission, in turn, is, or at least ought to be, dictated by the size and structure of the forces at the disposal of the potential enemy. For a variety of reasons, however, this is not always the case. Military strategists are inclined to regard their discipline as something of a science, and hence of universal validity. They are disinclined to take seriously other strategic doctrines, especially if such doctrines deviate significantly from their own. This phenomenon almost always bodes disaster for the party that is on the defensive: one need only recall the tragic consequences of the Allied attempt in 1940 to wage a stationary war against an enemy who was making open preparations for a campaign of rapid movement.
Something similar seems to be recurring today. Western strategists have no difficulty confronting the threat posed by the conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact, since it is of a familiar kind, but they do not show the same receptivity to innovative Soviet nuclear strategies. To be sure, the concept of escalation from a conventional to a nuclear defense has formed the backbone of NATO’s “flexible-response” doctrine since the 1960’s. But the United States seems not to have thought through the uses to which nuclear weapons would be put, should circumstance require that the nuclear threshold be crossed.
It is altogether difficult to know how seriously to take this doctrine now that Robert S. McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense when “flexible response” was adopted, has gone on record that in his time the first use of nuclear weapons was not even seriously contemplated: “In long private conversations with successive Presidents—Kennedy and Johnson,” he has recently revealed in the Fall 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs, “I recommended, without qualification, that they never initiate, under any circumstances, the use of nuclear weapons. I believe they accepted my recommendation.” This authoritative statement constitutes an admission that the centerpiece of NATO’s whole strategy has been a bluff since its inception, and that the civilian leaders have been deceiving their citizens for over twenty years in a matter of the greatest national importance.
This underscores the confusion and emotionalism surrounding the entire issue of nuclear weapons in the minds of both military personnel and the public at large. Hardly anyone lacking in professional competence dares to intrude on the discussion of NATO’s conventional forces and their strategy: this is a matter gladly left to the experts. But nuclear weapons have become everyone’s business; indeed, any citizen who would claim incompetence on such issues as the MX or START would risk being accused of social irresponsibility. Certain circles interested in U.S. unilateral nuclear disarmament are not averse to bringing even children into the debate, apparently in the belief that the more important a subject is the less one needs to know about it. People who would not dream of advising a chef on preparing hollandaise sauce dispense advice freely when the topic is the immensely complicated one of nuclear weapons and strategy.
In the West, it is well-nigh axiomatic that nuclear weapons, “in the ultimate analysis,” can perform only one function, and that is to deter or to serve as a kind of monstrous scarecrow, and that as long as this deterrent makes a sufficiently frightening impression, it will never have to be resorted to. Axioms being self-evident, the consequences of the deterrent’s failure to deter have not been seriously considered. From what is known of Soviet doctrine, one must conclude that there exists by now an ominous discrepancy between Allied defensive and Soviet offensive plans—whereas one party (the West) draws a sharp distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons, the other treats the two as different wavelengths on a single and continuous spectrum of the instruments of war.3 It is almost certain that should war ever break out, the Allies would find themselves thoroughly confused by the enemy’s offensive moves and have to improvise their defenses in desperate haste—that is, if they will be given time to do so.
Considering the close correlation between Soviet theoretical writings and deployments, one might expect that Western opinion would come to acknowledge that Moscow does look at nuclear weapons differently and assigns them different missions. Yet this is not the case; indeed, any attempt to call attention to the discrepancy in the two views arouses public anger as if some taboo were being broken.
In the view of much of humanity, nuclear weapons are not weapons in the ordinary meaning of the word but instruments of cosmic destruction, the expectation of which forms part of what Carl Jung called mankind’s “collective unconscious.” It is an unsettling but by no means unusual experience in the 1980’s to attend professional symposiums at which so-called conventional war, which from 1939 to 1945 claimed 50 million lives, is calmly discussed as an acceptable alternative to nuclear war. Such discussions serve to confirm that nuclear weapons are in a category of their own and not only because of their destructiveness.
As a rule, religions that posit the existence of God or gods believe that the world came into being from a deliberate act of divine will. A corollary of this belief is the expectation that the world and life are transient, since whatever had a beginning must also have an end. In widely dispersed regions of the globe, long before the Christian era, legends circulated about the coming doomsday. Some religions envisaged it as taking the form of floods and earthquakes, others as inundations by molten metal flowing out of mountains. But the most prevalent doomsday vision was that of a cosmic holocaust—that is, the annihilation of the earth and life by an all-consuming fire. It is a theme that occurs in the epic of ancient Babylon, in the Indian Vedas, and in the Mithraic tales of Iran. It can be found also in the legends of classical Greece (e.g., the story of Phaeton whose theft of a chariot belonging to his father, Helios, nearly caused the universe to be destroyed by fire), in the epics of the Indo-Germanic peoples, and in Nordic tales.
The Jews seem to have come under the spell of these images as well: in the Bible, the vision of the Last Judgment is closely linked to that of a fiery holocaust:
Neither their silver nor their gold
shall be able to deliver them
on the day of the wrath of the Lord.
In the fire of His jealous wrath,
all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full, yea, sudden end
He will make of all the inhabitants
of the earth. . . .
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on My holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness! . . .
Fire devours before them,
and behind them a flame burns. . . .
The author of the two books of Peter in the Christian Bible wrote in this tradition when he prophesied that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (II Peter 3:10).
Because it is so ancient and almost universal, so frequently reiterated in religious works that until recent times have been the main source of human knowledge and wisdom, the expectation of an inevitable final holocaust has embedded itself deeply in the human psyche; it is a classic archetype with which argument is powerless to contend. Once it had made its appearance, “the bomb” filled a role that had awaited casting for thousands of years. One can find surprising anticipations of this weapon in literary works unrelated to religion and religious visions.
Thus, in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, published in 1721, in Letter 105 there occurs out of the blue the following passage: “I am always afraid that they will eventually succeed in discovering some secret which will provide a quicker way of making men die, and exterminate whole countries and nations.” How did this thought cross Montesquieu’s mind? Since in his time there were no scientific grounds for such a supposition, one must assume he was echoing fears whose sources lie in mythology. It is known that so-called Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO’s) were reported at least as early as the 1550’s, because there exist published accounts and illustrations to this effect dating from that time. Hence it is not fanciful to interpret the atomic mushroom cloud, which the “peace movement” likes to use for its logogram, as a modern version of the “flaming torch” of the Prophet Zechariah and the “high flame that reaches to the sky” of the Nordic epic.
The instantaneous pulverization of two Japanese cities by weapons that the public neither anticipated nor understood set off mass anxieties absent in the case of other calamities, of comparable if not greater destructiveness. Mankind apparently can tolerate the death, by starvation, in the man-made famine of the 1930’s, of nine million Ukrainians and Russians, the annihilation by poison gas and bullet of six million Jews, the massacre by Communist forces of between one and two million Cambodians. These calamities, being man-made, are “natural.” Nuclear weapons, however, though manufactured by man, are treated as supernatural: for they come from the sky, destroying by invisible rays. The dread of this magic power has even affected its peaceful uses. It touches on the rawest nerve in man’s collective psyche.
The hundreds of thousands who march to protest nuclear war are not giving expression to their political convictions, since no one clamors in favor of such a war. Rather (when they are not being manipulated), they take part in pseudo-religious rituals meant to propitiate, by tokens of awe and fear, the evil spirits whose abode is neutrons and protons. Anyone who disparages such emotional displays and calls for a dispassionate analysis of the issues or, worse yet, for defenses against nuclear weapons, violates powerful taboos and is appropriately punished by the multitude. This helps to explain why so many proponents of the “freeze” and other forms of unilateral disarmament express no interest in the facts of the case, such as Soviet nuclear doctrine and Soviet nuclear deployments and their combined effect on Western security.
George F. Kennan, whose record shows him to be an eminently well-informed and sober analyst of international relations, as soon as he approaches nuclear issues abandons his customary detachment and even scholarly curiosity. The facts, such as the numbers of missiles and warheads in the Soviet and U.S. arsenals, he dismisses as irrelevant—“I have no patience with ‘worst-case’ estimates of Soviet military strength”; “I have no confidence in sweeping quantitative figures”; “I have no confidence in statistics”; “I must totally reject. . . .”—none of such obiter dicta, drawn from just two pages of a recent exchange, is supported with any evidence. What Kennan does is castigate man for his wickedness and predict his imminent destruction, more in religious than in political or military terms.
The same applies to Jonathan Schell, whose The Fate of the Earth has been praised as a major contribution to the national debate. Actually, it is nothing of the kind. It is, instead, a long-winded jeremiad on the familiar horrors of nuclear war, which never even raises the questions that would really matter in a debate: do Soviet generals think in the same way? If so, why are they piling missile upon missile long after they have crossed the line of “overkill”? And if they do not, what should our response be?
The tragedy of people who approach nuclear matters in archetypal religious terms is that in the genuine Jewish and Christian religious vision (as contrasted with its secular travesty), the holocaust was followed by the Last Judgment, which set the just apart from the wicked and restored Eden; from their heavenly abode the virtuous were to observe the eternal torments of the condemned. But following the general decline of belief in God and the afterlife, man is left with the appalling prospect that his fate has passed into human hands; the unleashing of the holocaust, once the prerogative of God or gods, is now the prerogative of a few mortals with fingers on the “button.” In a man-made holocaust, the virtuous will not be saved but will perish along with the sinners. Thus, agnosticism intensifies an anxiety that has its origins in religious beliefs, leaving the horror but robbing it of hope. It produces an overpowering sense of helplessness that the unscrupulous exploit for their own political ends.
The emotionalism that surrounds the whole issue of these weapons transforms the process of nuclear-arms negotiation from what it ought to be—namely, matter-of-fact bargaining—into a quasi-religious ritual whose success is measured not by the results obtained but by the “sincerity” with which it is approached. In the 1970’s Western planners could not even decide on deploying a modest force of intermediate-range missiles partly to offset Soviet SS-20’s without coupling such deployment to arms negotiations with the Soviet Union: this double-track policy, hailed as the acme of political sophistication, has had the effect of giving Moscow a seat in NATO’s councils. Whenever the USSR commissions, tests, and deploys new missiles, which happens routinely, it never seems to occur to its leaders to make such actions dependent on Western approval. Feelings on this subject, however, run so high that democratic politicians have no choice but to yield to public clamor. President Reagan, who on assuming office had intended to proceed in this matter more deliberately than his predecessors, soon found himself swept up in the emotional tide and compelled first to initiate arms-control talks before he was ready for them, and, secondly, to shift them from the periphery of his foreign policy, where they properly belong, to its very center.
Soviet leaders, who are free of such domestic pressures, attach little importance to arms-control negotiations, except as they help to restrain Western advances in technology and to divide Western opinion. In internal Soviet literature on security issues, the subject is hardly ever mentioned. The USSR has not bothered even to establish a counterpart to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Soviet personnel involved in these negotiations are dominated by the military, who, insofar as can be determined, are accountable to the General Staff, an institution not normally associated with disarmament. Evidence from SALT I, SALT II, and START negotiations suggests that the Soviet side first determines what weapons it requires to meet its strategic objectives and then concentrates on constraining, through negotiations, America’s ability to respond. In the words of the French General Pierre Gallois, “[The Soviets] do what they want and negotiate about what you’re going to do.”
The American experts who in 1972 concluded SALT I with the USSR did not believe in the military utility of nuclear weapons on either the strategic or the theater level. To them, an arms agreement was primarily a political device, the second pillar of détente (the other being credits and trade). As one European specialist put it at the time, “There’s a lot of eyewash in these agreements, but their significance lies in the extent to which they reflect the mutual recognition of the need to cooperate in the nuclear-disarmament field.” In other words, the terms did not matter as much as did the political atmospherics. From the beginning it was indeed the political process, cynically manipulated for its public-relations effect, rather than the deadly reality of the nuclear balance, that the U.S. and its allies regarded as the foremost priority. As a result of this attitude, the U.S. has allowed some very disadvantageous features to intrude into these accords, of which the public at large is quite ignorant.
The Soviet side has from the outset refused to furnish comprehensive data on its strategic systems—in itself a most extraordinary procedure. Since, however, negotiations on limiting numbers could not very well proceed without agreement on what these numbers were, Moscow has consented (without prejudice) to accept the data for its side furnished by the United States. The United States could account for only those Soviet systems of which it had solid evidence from its intelligence-gathering sources, not those that were beyond their scope. Although the Soviet Union subsequently agreed to furnish random data on its nuclear forces, the information at the disposal of the United States is certain to reflect only the minimum dimension of the Soviet nuclear arsenal; the precise dimensions of this arsenal were not and are not known. It would certainly be difficult to find a businessman prepared to enter into relations with a company that refused to provide him with complete information on its assets and debts; in the field of national security, unfortunately, different standards prevail.
Because the United States has been compelled to rely on its “national means of verification” (mainly satellites and electronic intelligence) to verify Soviet compliance with the limits established by SALT, it had to choose a unit of measurement that lent itself to observation by these means. The choice, by mutual consent, fell on “launchers.” In the case of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s), a launcher is a hole in the ground called a silo. A silo can be seen from the air, whereas a missile can be concealed. In real life, however, it is not silos but missiles that fly and their warheads that inflict damage. Knowledge only of launchers (silos, submarine tubes, and bombers) furnishes an inadequate idea of the other side’s destructive capacity. The United States, therefore, cannot be said to dispose of accurate information on the number of missiles and warheads in the Soviet arsenal; the figures used in SALT and START postulate that each launcher holds a corresponding number of missiles, and that no missiles are unaccounted for.
This is almost certainly an incorrect assumption. In the case of Soviet ICBM’s, the number of stockpiled missiles must exceed that of known launchers (silos), because the USSR has been observed experimenting with “cold launch” techniques that allow the missile to fire its boosters after ascending from the silo so as to leave the latter intact for the insertion of a second missile. This practice presupposes a strategic-missile reserve the size of which is not known. The SS-20 intermediate-range mobile missile is believed to be equipped with two missiles per launcher, although in the publicly released balance-of-forces statistics only one is assumed and counted.
More disturbing still is the realization that the USSR need not emplace its ICBM’s in silos at all; the more accurate American missiles become, the less reason Moscow has to place its main strategic force (ICBM’s account for three-quarters of Soviet launchers) in static silos where they are vulnerable. On these grounds, some American experts question whether the silos that satellites are busily observing and counting are not either decoys or expendable goods, while the bulk of Soviet ICBM’s intended for use is concealed to be launched in wartime from soft pads, such as sheds and other places of storage, beyond the range of U.S. observation.
The United States, in its insularity, consented in SALT and START to define a missile as “strategic” if it is capable of striking the continental United States from the Soviet Union and vice versa. Since the nearest distance between these two countries (across the Bering Strait) is a few miles, the range was arbitrarily set to be equal to the distance separating the northeastern U.S. from the northwestern USSR, that is, 5,500 kilometers. Only weapons capable of this or greater ranges come within the purview of SALT limits. Such a definition would perhaps make sense in a narrow “Fortress America” context, under which the United States would have neither forces overseas nor overseas allies whom it was committed to defend. It makes little sense in the context of global strategy. The rules to which the U.S. has agreed have given the Soviet Union, which controls the center of the Eurasian land mass, the license to deploy unlimited quantities of nuclear launchers with ranges just below the “intercontinental” threshold yet capable of striking targets in all the areas adjacent to its immense frontier in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and East Asia.
The Soviet Union accepted this definition of “strategic” only for the purpose of negotiating with the United States; in structuring its own nuclear forces, it has never adopted such a standard, since all its missiles with ranges exceeding 1,000 kilometers come under the command of the Strategic Rocket Forces—a procedure that inadvertently throws light on Soviet thinking about the uses of nuclear weapons. So it has happened that quite lawfully, within the terms of SALT I and SALT II, free of any numerical constraints, the USSR has been able to deploy since the 1970’s a massive force of modern, mostly mobile, intermediate-range nuclear systems.
When NATO awoke to this reality and decided to counter it by deploying some intermediate-range, land-based missiles below the 5,500-kilometer range but capable of striking Soviet territory from Western Europe, the USSR charged that these missiles fell within the definition of “strategic.” Thus, the West’s lack of attention and foresight has already caused it no end of trouble. Even with the Pershing 2’s and cruise missiles in place, the USSR will still enjoy an immense advantage in substrategic systems.
The United States assiduously collects data on Soviet compliance with the provisions of SALT I and SALT II, the latter of which, although not ratified by Washington, is, by mutual consent, treated as though it were. Such investigations have revealed a consistent pattern of violations of the spirit and even the letter of these agreements. The information, however, has not been given much publicity, because committed advocates of arms control, afraid lest it undercut public support for the process, intimidate those who wish to bring it into the open. The fanaticism of some of these people goes to such lengths that instead of blaming the Soviet Union for violations of arms-control agreements, they accuse the United States of ill will for calling attention to them. When President Reagan, in one of his speeches, referred to the poor Soviet record of compliance, he came under certain attack from legislators and journalists for his alleged “insincerity” about arms negotiation. This is a dangerous variant of a theory popular in contemporary liberal circles that the victim of a crime is as guilty as, if not more than, its perpetrator.
Quite apart from its inequities and inconsistencies, the arms-control process has so far failed to achieve its principal stated objective, which is to stop the growth of nuclear arsenals. In 1970, when SALT I was being negotiated, the Soviet Union had approximately 1,400 strategic warheads; in 1977, as SALT II talks neared completion, its arsenal had grown to nearly 5,000 warheads; in 1983-84, during START talks, this arsenal had risen further to 8,700 warheads. This growth represented a six-fold increase. During this same time, the United States, mainly by MIRV’ing its missiles to match the Soviet buildup, had more than tripled the number of warheads in its arsenal (from 2,200 to 7,600). If this is arms control, it might be interesting to experiment for a while with an honest arms race.
In dealing with nuclear weapons nothing is more important than demystifying them, that is, severing the psychic bonds that connect them, in our conscious and subconscious, with ancient religious myths. These are man-made weapons. The Soviet nuclear arsenal is at the disposal neither of gods nor of evil spirits but of ordinary men, many of them overweight and overworked, scared of losing what they have, observed to suffer from dandruff and bad breath. Our main purpose should be to convince these men that they cannot intimidate us. Fear of nuclear weapons, especially in its overt and hysterical forms, does not contribute to peace; on the contrary, it serves to encourage those in the Soviet Union who want to use them to terrorize and blackmail foreign powers and their citizens. It should also be made eminently clear to these people that if they ever should dare to carry out their strategic plans and fire nuclear missiles in anger, they and their families will perish.
It is only when the magic and the taboos that surround it are removed that one can deal with this real danger realistically. The analogy with cancer comes to mind. Not so long ago the very name of this dread disease could not be pronounced for fear of inviting it. Today, cancer is openly discussed, even by its victims, and it is this honest acknowledgment that has made it possible to deal with it more effectively. Nuclear weapons, which are a kind of cancer of the international body politic, should be looked upon with the same dispassion. The beginning of morality, as Pascal has taught, is clear thinking.
It is essential for anyone concerned with nuclear weapons, whether in a professional capacity or as a layman, to familiarize himself with Soviet nuclear doctrine and programs. They are the reality against which U.S. strategies and programs must be matched. In all deliberations on the matter at the public level, the issue should not be settling scores between American liberals and conservatives, nor the undisputed horrors of nuclear war, nor America’s social and other domestic needs, but solely the nature and extent of the Soviet threat. Any statements on the subject of nuclear weapons and strategy that fail to address themselves to this central subject ought to be dismissed as irrelevant.
The strategic forces of the United States should be designed not simply to deter aggression and to punish it after it has been committed, but to prevent threats of subsequent damage. This means, among other things, that it would be good for the United States formally to renounce the policy—as barbaric as it is futile—of retaliatory strikes aimed at the civilian population. The target should be the true culprits of such aggression, the Soviet elite and its armed forces.
Specialists estimate that there are in the Soviet Union between 10,000 and 20,000 objectives of political and military significance. If that assessment is correct, then the United States needs that many accurate warheads left after absorbing a Soviet first strike; this capability alone will provide a deterrent credible to Moscow. It makes little sense to measure existing U.S. strategic forces against those available to the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces command (even assuming that it is known precisely what these are) because the U.S. has no first-strike doctrine or capability whereas the Soviet side has both. The only force that counts, therefore, is the one left following a Soviet first strike. While the present survivable force could inflict grueling punishment on the USSR’s civilian population, it could not destroy its political and military organizations and the nuclear forces at their disposal.
Improving NATO’s conventional forces is indisputably desirable, but it is unlikely in itself to prevent a war from turning nuclear. The assumption that underlies Western strategy—that the decision whether or not to resort to nuclear weapons will be for the West to make—may have made sense when first devised, but it seems unrealistic today in the light of what is known of Soviet plans and capabilities in this regard. A military command that has built its armed forces around a nuclear core is unlikely to defer use of it until the enemy has given it an excuse to do so. The USSR is not in a position, either politically or economically, to engage in a military war of attrition. Such a war would exacerbate all its latent problems and unleash an internal crisis under the worst possible circumstances. Should it decide that war has become unavoidable, therefore, it will almost certainly have prompt recourse to nuclear weapons since they alone offer it a chance of gaining a rapid and decisive victory. Tactical nuclear weapons are fully integrated into Soviet land forces, down to the divisional level, each commander disposing of rocket systems of a range appropriate to his mission, which suggests that they are meant to be fired in the first hours of combat. To cite the conclusions of a recent study of the European nuclear “balance”:
Soviet theater nuclear weapons are not simply “there,” as a “reaction” to NATO nuclear capabilities or even in some vague back-up role for Soviet conventional operations. Rather, they were developed, produced, and deployed in response to specific requirements within a concept of offensive operations; they are assigned specific missions within that concept; and they thus form an integral part of the Soviet/Warsaw Pact posture in Europe.
The scenario for the use of these forces has been depicted by General Gallois, as quoted in the Fall 1981 issue of Orbis, as follows:
It is a fact that the Kremlin leaders know that they may only engage their armed forces in a victorious war. Therefore they would have recourse to the strategy, tactics, and weapons of success. With their ballistic arsenal, utilizable with the advantage of total surprise, they now have possession of such weapons in quantity. . . . [T]he way it today deploys its conventional contingents, NATO obligingly offers up for destruction some 400 to 500 crucial targets that, when neutralized, will leave all resistance completely paralyzed. And these targets are planes in their air fields, the antennae of fixed radars, munition and tank depots, military headquarters, among others. Precision ballistic weapons carrying nuclear warheads, all the more powerful the greater their precision, could destroy the majority of these targets without considerable collateral damage. Thus, and only after having launched this initial salvo, the Warsaw Pact tanks and airborne units would occupy the previously disarmed and practically intact territories.
These considerations suggest that it is as naive to envision a potential East-West conflict being waged on the model of World War II—that is, with tanks and bombers—as it was to expect in the 1930’s to fight another war with Germany in the trenches. Should World War III ever break out, the Soviet Union is likely swiftly to take the initiative with all the weapons at its disposal, including nuclear ones. It makes little sense, therefore, to concentrate one’s attention on preventing nuclear war as such, as if conventional war were a viable alternative; one must strive to avoid war altogether, because any general war with the USSR probably will not remain in a conventional mode for any length of time, if at all.
The West would do well to emulate Soviet planners and pay greater attention to defensive measures. The Reagan administration has taken steps to improve the protection of U.S. command, control, and communications networks, which is welcome news since they are a declared prime target of Soviet strategic forces. Because an effective program of civil defense does not seem practical in a democracy as large and diverse as the United States, there is reason to devote greater effort to antiballistic-missile-defense programs.
Those who dismiss the idea as science fiction might change their minds by taking a close look at Soviet efforts in this direction. The deployment of an elaborate ABM system around Moscow suggests that the Soviets take defenses against missiles seriously. There are so many other indicators of intense Soviet work on missile defenses that some American military analysts fear a technical breakthrough followed by Soviet renunciation of the treaty limiting ABM deployments. Once its arsenals are overflowing with offensive weapons, it would make sense for Moscow to shift its attention in this field to defensive measures which, in any event, have always played a major role in its strategic thinking. Should such a development take place, it would pose a serious threat to U.S. security. Opposition to nuclear defenses on the grounds that they are “destabilizing” should go the way of the advocacy of mutual assured destruction (MAD), whose ill-begotten child it is.
Should political conditions make meaningful arms-control agreements possible, at least three cardinal requirements ought to be met. The most important of those is on-site verification, because the existing “national means,” marvels of technological ingenuity though they are, do not provide the requisite certainty. The second is agreement on a sensible unit of measurement which, once verification on the ground has been agreed upon, will assuredly be something other than launchers. The third calls for the adoption by the United States of a definition of “strategic weapons” that corresponds to the Soviet one; this measure will eliminate the possibility of the USSR being free to construct a panoply of nuclear weapons that, though unable to reach the continental United States, can very well reach and destroy its allies. Arms-control agreements concluded under different circumstances and on other terms are either pointless or deceptive or both.
The rearmament program inaugurated by President Reagan, when completed, should allow the United States to match Soviet military capabilities. This effort is commendable but it is not sufficient. The true military balance lies not in equality of military forces alone but in the combination of force and strategy. The history of warfare knows many examples of superior strategic skill defeating larger armies. Napoleon routinely beat armies that on paper were stronger than his own, only to be crushed, in turn, by the Russian army which, too weak to give him battle, retreated, and in retreating chanced upon a strategy that rendered him helpless. In 1940, the Allied force in France was larger and in many respects better equipped than the Germans, but it was burdened with a strategy that looked backward. Arming oneself, therefore, is not enough; an even greater threat than being outgunned is being outsmarted.
2. The Political Aspect
The chief instrument of Soviet global strategy is political attrition, which, in practice, means exploiting the open character of democratic societies for the purpose of inciting internal divisions among different social groups and between their citizens and their elected governments, as well as sowing discord among the allies. This strategy cannot be completely neutralized if only because democracies will not remain democracies once they disallow conflicts of interest and differences of opinion. But its pernicious effect can be significantly reduced when it is realized what it is and how it functions.
Ideally, political parties in democratic countries should seek to pursue a strictly bipartisan policy in regard to the Soviet Union. That such a policy is possible was demonstrated in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s in both the United States and West Germany. The breakdown of bipartisanship that has occurred subsequently as a result of the Soviet shift to “peaceful coexistence” provides Moscow with excellent opportunities to play on internal political rivalries in democratic countries by encouraging parties that are not in the least degree pro-Soviet or pro-Communist to assume, for narrow partisan interests, the positions it favors.
It was a sorry spectacle to see the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in the United States trying to outbid one another with pledges of being the first to fly to Moscow to “settle” U.S.-Soviet differences with its leader. In several countries (e.g., Great Britain and Germany) socialist parties, in the quest for support from the neutralist segment of the electorate, have taken positions that come dangerously close to unilateral disarmament—positions they would inevitably abandon if elected to office, but which they can irresponsibly exploit as long as responsibility for defense rests on the other party, the party in office. Such pressures from the opposition, in turn, compel heads of state to seek a rapprochement with Moscow at any price, for they cannot afford to find themselves in the exposed and dangerous position of being the “party of war.” If the democracies persist in allowing intraparty rivalries to overshadow the fundamental interest all their citizens have in maintaining their way of life, the day may come when they will lose the right to engage in party politics altogether.
It is essential for the West not to allow Moscow to insinuate itself into its domestic politics and not to give it any opportunity for exploiting the “rifts” in the enemy camp which Lenin regarded as the prime objective of his political strategy. Not that there must be no disagreements in the Western camp, but rather that the West should instantly close ranks whenever the Soviet Union attempts to take part in them. Instead of giving Moscow such an opening, the West would do well to strike back and challenge the Soviet effort to seal off its domain from any outside interference. Through radio broadcasts (and, in the future, possibly television transmissions as well), through speeches of its statesmen, and through symbolic acts, it should be possible to raise in the minds of citizens of Communist countries doubts about the omnipotence of their regimes. To allow the Soviet Union to meddle in Western affairs but to desist from meddling in its affairs is to play into the hands of Soviet strategists.
The Soviet Union is even more successful in exploiting divisions in the Western alliance, whose cohesion, were it realizable, would constitute a most formidable obstacle to Soviet global ambitions.
It requires no elaborate proof to demonstrate that the alliance binding the United States to the countries of NATO, and, once removed, Japan, is of immense value to its members. The industrial democracies linked by this alliance enjoy vast technological and industrial superiority over the Communist bloc. Their combined gross national product is at the lowest reckoning three to four times that of the Soviet bloc and probably considerably in excess of that; the GNP of Western Europe alone is nearly double that of the USSR and its colonies. Were the Soviet Union to succeed in establishing hegemony over Western Europe and Japan, its industrial capacity would in a short time double or treble, enabling it in one fell swoop to overcome all the economic difficulties that now constrain its imperial ambitions. Should this occur, the United States would be left alone to confront the Soviet threat: under these conditions, the survival of free institutions in the United States would become most problematic. This is why the United States stands prepared to defend Western Europe as if it were its own territory, and why the Soviet Union, on its part, regards Western Europe as a prime objective of its grand strategy.
The defensive ties binding the United States to Europe were, from the outset, territorially restricted to Europe, North America, and the Atlantic Ocean north of the Tropic of Cancer. This arrangement created serious problems because Soviet strategy is not regional but global in scope. The result was that all the areas outside the North Atlantic community came within the purview of other regional alliances tied to the United States but not to NATO: among them, the Baghdad Pact, SEATO, and the Rio Treaty. Inasmuch, however, as all regional defensive treaties except for NATO proved to be paper compacts, the United States has had to assume principal responsibility on its own behalf, as well as that of its European allies, for the security of the entire non-Western world outside the North Atlantic region.
Such an arrangement made sense in 1949, when NATO came into being, because at that time Europe was still incapable of insuring its own protection, let alone the defense of distant regions. Today it is difficult to justify either on grounds of equity or military expediency, for it imposes on the United States excessive burdens of protecting the approaches to Europe as well as coping with Soviet expansionism in the Third World. The defense of the Middle East, without whose oil Europe could hardly carry on, is entrusted to the United States, as is that of the mineral resources of Africa, not to speak of the strategic areas in East Asia and Central America. Whenever Communist forces commit acts of aggression in these outlying areas, Europe assumes the stance of a neutral observer. The detachment with which its leaders react to such events sometimes conveys the impression that they are not unhappy to have Russia dissipate its aggressive energies far away from the European continent.4 There seems little awareness in European thinking (a few honorable exceptions apart) that the Soviet Union pursues a global and not a continental strategy, that the invasion of Afghanistan has some bearing on the security of Europe’s oil supplies, that a series of successful Communist revolutions in Central America may have the consequence of diverting American attention away from NATO. These matters, which do not happen to impinge on Europe’s territorial interests but affect its security in every other respect, are left to the care of the United States and such smaller non-European countries as Washington can persuade, bribe, or cajole into rendering it assistance.
An alliance, so inequitable in its principles and kept in place long after the circumstances that had shaped it have disappeared, is a monument to the short-sightedness of American diplomacy. It really is not so much an alliance as an insurance policy, extended by the United States to Western Europe at no expense to the insured but at an immense cost and risk to the insurer. As such, it offers Moscow superb opportunities for driving wedges between the U.S. and Western Europe. Moscow can, and does, deliberately exacerbate its differences with the United States, while offering “security” to Western Europe, so as to reduce artificially the East-West conflict to one that involves only the two “superpowers,” which allegedly does not affect Europe’s interests and from which it had best keep out. It heightens this effect by maintaining a stable East-West border in Europe and committing acts of aggression exclusively in regions outside the confines of NATO, where it runs into American but not European resistance. In this manner, Moscow succeeds in implementing the divide et impera principle which lies at the heart of its political strategy.
The unwillingness of a fully reconstructed and prosperous Europe to join the United States in a policy of global defense and its political and military parochialism have been the principal causes of the discords troubling the alliance during the past twenty years. True, the United States is also annoyed that its allies, although equally affluent, contribute proportionately less to the common defense, but it is not defense budgets that American participants in a 1982 NBC poll had on their mind when four out of five of them responded negatively to the question whether the allies were “providing the right amount of support for American foreign policies.” They meant that the United States was too often left in the lurch to confront Soviet and Soviet-sponsored aggression while the allies looked the other way, as had happened in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and throughout the Middle East.
The American public takes a very sober, even cynical, view of domestic politics. Its attitude toward foreign policy, however, is a different matter. Essentially insular, Americans see no reason to involve themselves in foreign ventures unless it is to promote some ethical ideal, to make the world better, safer, or more democratic. Realpolitik in foreign policy makes no sense to them, since realism tells them to stay home and mind their own business.
Given this attitude, it should cause no surprise that the American public takes a very dim view of allied behavior. In the late 1940’s, it had let itself be persuaded to abandon strongly held, traditional objections to “entangling alliances,” and committed the country to the defense of the “Free World,” understanding this to mean literally the Free World and not a military “forward base” for the protection of the continental United States. Rightly or wrongly, the American public sees no connection between the security of Western Europe and that of the United States. It believes that it is acting selflessly in placing troops in Europe and subjecting the continental United States to the risk of a Soviet nuclear attack. Consequently, it is bewildered and angered by Europe’s lack of cooperation in other regions of the world, by its unconcealed contempt for the moral element that Americans always inject into their foreign policy and lacking which they cannot be drawn out of their insularity, and by Europe’s reluctance to accept nuclear weapons mutually agreed upon to be essential for the Continent’s defense.
This mood carries the risk that some day public support in the United States for NATO will erode to the point where its chief executive will no longer be able to call for the sacrifices that the alliance demands. Some European politicians, in private conversation, profess to be untroubled by this prospect on the grounds that the United States needs Europe more than Europe needs the United States, and hence has no choice but to accommodate itself to Europe’s actions and inactions. This argument is wholly irresponsible. For one thing, “need” is a subjective concept; the objective reality is that the average American simply is not aware that he needs Europe to defend his country. Nor is the military premise of such thinking sound; for, as Walter Hahn has written, while Europe indeed serves as America’s first line of defense, it happens to be Europe’s last.
Of all the allied powers, it is the Federal Republic of Germany that makes the greatest contribution to NATO and causes the greatest problems within it. Germany occupies a location of unique importance, in that any military conflict on the Continent is certain to begin on its territory and there to find its decision. Germany has the largest economy in Europe and provides NATO with the largest contingent of troops. The Soviet leadership, aware of these facts, concentrates its political offensive in Europe on West Germany. It knows that should it succeed in neutralizing Germany, NATO would fall apart and the Continent would become indefensible.
To all appearances, the West German population is fully committed to the alliance. Public-opinion polls indicate that most Germans approve of NATO—78 percent desire to remain in NATO, and 63 percent regard it as essential to their security. Although anti-Americanism is not uncommon in Germany (it has become for some Europeans a psychological surrogate for anti-Semitism), its sporadic manifestations do not reflect the feelings of the population at large. The personal popularity of Americans is relatively high and if anything it is increasing: in 1957, only 37 percent of Germans responded affirmatively to the question, “Do you like Americans?,” whereas in 1981 the proportion of such respondents rose to 56 percent. Fifty-three percent of Germans consider “good relations with the United States” essential for the security of the West, which happens to be a higher proportion than in any other nation of NATO. (By comparison, only one-quarter of British citizens hold this opinion). The Germans, who are among the most heavily polled people in the world, give such answers consistently no matter how the questions are phrased, which indicates a solid majority in favor of the alliance and collaboration with the United States.
But this holds true only as long as the Soviet Union is excluded from the equation and the choice reduces itself to a simple alternative: with NATO and the United States or without them? The instant the USSR is introduced as a factor, the picture turns murky. A good part of the German public wants close association with the NATO allies, but only on condition that this relationship not irritate or appear to menace the Soviet Union. It is as if many Germans wanted the alliance to confine itself to political formalities, largely devoid of military or economic substance; such an alliance would serve Germany as a guarantee that it will not be left alone to face the giant who borders it in the east, that it will have friends to fall back on in the event of trouble, all without having to commit itself to anything faintly anti-Soviet, even if only in a defensive sense.
Thus, 40 percent of West Germans unconditionally oppose the stationing of U.S. nuclear missiles on their soil, regardless of how many such missiles the Soviet Union deploys and targets on Germany. Nearly the same proportion rejects resort to nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for Soviet nuclear strikes. These results indicate that fully two-fifths of German citizens are prepared to surrender once it becomes certain that the alliance cannot defend itself conventionally against either a conventional or a nuclear Soviet assault. Asked whether Germany should cooperate more closely with the United States or the Soviet Union, 56 percent express a preference for the first option, and only 1 percent for the second, but an important bloc (32 percent) want “an even-handed” policy toward both Washington and Moscow.
These results indicate that there exists in Germany a sizable body of committed neutralists—between one-third and two-fifths of the population—who have psychologically opted out of the alliance and regard it either as altogether undesirable or at best as a symbolic bond that imposes no serious obligations on their country. Sociological inquiries indicate that a high proportion of these neutralists consists of mass-educated young people—teachers, students, and functionaries—products of the ambitious higher-education programs of postwar Germany, who live in a cultural no-man’s-land and whose prospects for securing jobs commensurate with what they consider their skills and abilities are so low as to breed in them a permanent state of discontent.
The mood of its electorate obliges every German administration, regardless of its own preferences, to conduct an ambivalent foreign policy in which professions of undying loyalty to the Western alliance are coupled with assurances to the Soviet Union that it can count on Germany being a reliable “partner,” and an “intermediary” between East and West. (“Our national interest does not allow us to stand between East and West,” Chancellor Brandt pronounced cryptically in 1970. “Our country needs cooperation and harmony with the West and agreement with the East.”) German governments are indubitably committed to the defense of the central front, which, after all, cuts across their own territory. They are also willing discreetly to provide money and political support to nations threatened by the Communists: this they have done with excellent results in Portugal and Turkey. But they are emphatically not prepared either to withhold economic and technical aid from the Soviet bloc or to participate in any effort to cope with Soviet military expansion outside the confines of NATO.
In some measure this ambivalence can be explained by geography and history. Germany—Communist and democratic alike—is the focal point of East-West confrontations and the battlefield in any potential war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This location makes Germans particularly sensitive to any worsening of relations between the two blocs. Another factor is the memory of Nazism, which has the effect of discrediting both militarism and anti-Communism; for many Germans, the notion of an anti-Communist alliance evokes sordid associations with the Axis. But probably the most important consideration influencing German attitudes toward the East-West conflict is the division of Germany: Germany is the only politically bifurcated country in Europe, one-fifth of whose population and nearly one-third of whose territory are under foreign occupation.
Germans have never reconciled themselves to the status of a truncated nation, and the desire for reunification is a powerful force in their politics. Theoretically, there are two ways by which reunification can be accomplished: by force or by conciliation. Force is not a realistic option under any conceivable circumstances; even if Germany decided to resort to war to recover its eastern marches, it could not do so alone, and not a single ally would support it. It is the alternative, conciliation, that appears feasible and attractive. Since the 1960’s German policies toward the USSR have been strongly affected by the hope that Ostpolitik, the German variant of détente, will increase contacts between the two Germanys to the point where somehow, in the end, reunification will occur. The expectation is almost certainly misplaced: there is not the remotest chance that the Soviet Union will ever allow East Germany—its military and political springboard against Western Europe—to join with West Germany except on terms that would amount to the Federal Republic being detached from its allies and transformed into a Soviet client state. Nevertheless, the hope persists and affects policy in many ways.
Extensive commercial relations with Moscow are one price that Bonn must pay and is not averse to paying for access to East Germany. In the 1960’s, West Germany tried to make direct contact with its Communist half but that endeavor was thwarted. It discovered eventually that the road to East Berlin required a detour through Moscow. Moscow closely monitors relations between the two halves of Germany and exacts a price for its friendly services—when Bonn is accommodating, it facilitates contacts; when not, it blocks them. Should West Germany ever dare to join the United States in a program of embargoes and boycotts, it would promptly find its lines of communication with East Germany—a very important matter to the millions of Germans who have relatives there—reduced or even cut. West Germany is for the Soviet Union the most important trading partner in NATO, and since East-West trade generally calls for Western credits and subsidies, it is also the recipient of generous German economic aid.
This economic aid is extended to the Soviet Union and its East European colonies not only directly, but also indirectly, by way of East Germany. The founders of the European Economic Community (EEC), which came into being in 1957, in a special protocol attached to the Treaty of Rome, decided to treat Germany as a single political entity. This little-known provision has made Communist East Germany a de-facto member of the EEC, able to enjoy its bounties but exempt from its obligations. The critical factor is that trade between the two halves of Germany is regarded as internal trade, which means that West German firms can import goods from East Germany without having to pay the duties imposed on the other members of the EEC whenever they import from non-members. Through this loophole, East Germany can unload its merchandise in the EEC duty-free. The protocol is so strictly enforced that the exact dimensions of the intra-German trade cannot be determined because Bonn treats it as an internal matter and refuses to share the information with its allies. The arrangement brings no mean profits to the West German economy as well. It is common practice, for instance, for West German firms, eager to profit from lower labor costs there, to subcontract to East Germany; as long as the contractor is West German, the manufactured goods (they are said to include uniforms for the West German army!) are admitted duty-free.
Nor does Bonn’s assistance to Communist Germany stop at trade. It has generously lent it vast sums of money (at latest reckoning, East Germany’s debts amount to $13 billion, most of it owed to West Germany). When, in 1983, East Germany could not meet its interest payments and teetered on the brink of insolvency, Franz-Joseph Strauss, Germany’s leading right-wing politician, came to its rescue by arranging a one-billion-deutschmark ($400 million) loan to East Germany, without political strings attached and without the usual stipulation that the money be used to purchase West German products.
West German subsidies to the East German economy also assume some highly exotic forms. It is estimated, for example, that in the past twenty years, Bonn has ransomed from East German jails 20,000 political prisoners at an average price of 50,000 DM ($20,000) per head, which amounts to the transfer of nearly half-a-billion dollars. In 1983, West Germany completed the construction of a superhighway connecting Berlin with Hamburg. Its ostensible purpose is to ease the economic isolation of West Berlin, but it might just conceivably someday also help solve the transportation problems of Soviet armored units stationed in East Berlin in their race to the North Sea.
When confronted with the evidence and criticized for it, Germans are prone to respond that geographic proximity and age-old contacts have made them uniquely qualified to understand the Russians and to deal with them. One would feel more encouraged by this self-confidence were it not for the historical record. After all, it was the Germans who in World War I had made it possible for the Bolsheviks to come to power in Russia and to hold on to it when in 1918 they were near collapse. In World War II, it was they who brought Russia into the eastern half of Europe. Many of them pride themselves today on conducting a highly sophisticated policy toward the Soviet Union, a policy that someday will pay rich dividends. But one wonders whether they are not once again deceiving themselves, and instead of doing the manipulating are not themselves the victims of manipulation, who will end up fatally weakening the Western alliance without obtaining anything from Moscow in return.
These various strains and inequities call for a reassessment of an alliance that no longer meets the needs of the time. However the matter is worked out in practice, if NATO is to remain viable, changes seem unavoidable. One alternative is for NATO to expand its responsibilities beyond its present confines, to include at least some areas contiguous to Europe, particularly the Middle East. But since it is the unanimous opinion of knowledgeable persons that European parliaments would never approve such a revision of the terms of the alliance, one may have to look for another solution, namely, creating a separate alliance with selected members of NATO to assume this responsibility.
An alternative arrangement would be for the allies to take upon themselves a greater share of the burden of self-defense while the United States withdrew the bulk of its forces from Europe to be able to fulfill its global responsibilities better. It is difficult to see how the United States can continue to meet the global Soviet threat when the overwhelming bulk of its forces is allocated to the defense of Europe and the forces of its European allies are exclusively committed to this end.
Whatever the best solution, clearly something must be done about a treaty that is more than a third of a century old, that was conceived before the USSR had missiles and an oceangoing navy and Western Europe had a GNP greater than that of the United States.
In objection to such proposals, it is said that, should the United States withdraw its troop contingents, Europe would turn neutral and arrive at an accommodation with the Soviet Union. To this argument there are two rejoinders. First, if, indeed, all that prevents Western Europe from Finlandizing itself is the presence of U.S. troops, then it becomes questionable whether it can or should be defended; the function of NATO, after all, is to safeguard Europe from the Soviet Union, not from itself.
Secondly, the threat need not be taken very seriously. Western Europe desperately does not want to become dependent on the Soviet Union, let alone share the fate of Europe’s eastern half. Under the present arrangement, it can avoid either fate because it has U.S. guarantees, purchased at almost no cost. Having persuaded themselves and the United States that NATO primarily serves the interests of U.S. security, not their own, America’s allies are in the comfortable position of being able to eat their cake (conduct a militarily limited and politically semi-neutralist policy) and have it too (enjoy U.S. military protection if this policy fails). One cannot blame them for taking advantage of such an opportunity: NATO probably represents a singular instance in history of an alliance in which the senior partner asks too little rather than too much of his allies.
For these reasons one need not worry that a gradual shift of responsibility for the defense of Western Europe to the Europeans would lead to a disintegration of the alliance and the loss of the continent. Michel Tatu, a prominent French journalist, argued this point very convincingly in the July 1975 Foreign Affairs:
Every government and every society seeks security not in order to become part of one or another system and thus as an end in itself, but because security will permit the government or the society to maintain its identity and its values. Just as a shipwrecked person who has lost one plank will not let himself drown but will look for another plank, so there is no reason to suppose that the European governments, not abandoned by America but simply invited to take charge progressively of their own defense, will immediately give up the values in whose name they [have] so long attached themselves to America. . . .
Must one believe that the European attachment to liberalism and democracy is valid only so long as the United States is willing to guarantee these values? Or is it rather the contrary, that the alliance with America springs from the Europeans’ own attachment to these values? The argument that Europe would turn herself into another Finland lacks dignity as well as cogency.
Should Western Europe confront the prospect of Finlandization or still worse, it is certain to galvanize its resources; but this can happen only if and when the United States extricates itself from the psychological dependence on the alliance, which allows many Europeans to pretend they are doing the United States a favor in allowing themselves to be defended.
3. The Economic Aspect
In the West it is widely believed that the Soviet economy is self-sufficient and that commercial relations with the West are an option that Moscow is at liberty to exercise or to reject. This assumption makes it possible to argue that there is no point in resorting to sanctions and embargoes to withhold equipment and technology from Communist states: the only effect such measures have is to push the Soviet Union toward autarky, to deprive Western firms of business, and to worsen the climate of international relations.
For all its popularity, this argument rests on a fallacious premise. Solid evidence that no one so far has been able to refute shows that the Soviet economy has never been self-sufficient and today is less so than ever. From 1921 on, almost without interruption, the USSR has been importing from the West significant quantities of materiel and know-how to modernize existing industries and to introduce new technology. In the words of Anthony Sutton, the author of the most comprehensive survey of the subject, “From 1930 to 1945 Soviet technology was in effect Western technology converted to the metric system.”5 The debt of the Soviet Union to Western assistance is not widely known because neither of the parties involved wishes to advertise it—the Soviet Union wants to avoid the embarrassment of conceding that it is more or less permanently dependent on the “capitalist camp,” while Western firms are coy about doing business with a power that most Westerners view as hostile and spend great sums to arm themselves against. (To this day, the U.S. Department of Commerce will not release lists of industrial corporations granted export licenses to the Soviet Union, although such business is perfectly legitimate.)
Western assistance to the Soviet economy began as early as 1921, with the inauguration of Lenin’s New Economic Policy. At that time the not inconsiderable industrial plant that the Bolsheviks had inherited from the czarist regime lay in shambles; Russian industry, for all practical purposes, had ceased to function. The first foreigners invited to help with industrial reconstruction came from Germany, with which Moscow had signed a trade agreement in 1921. Their assistance helped Soviet industry attain prewar production levels by 1927. In the late 1920’s, the USSR switched most of its business to the United States, whose corporations became a major factor in the implementation of the first Five-Year Plan. At that time, Ford Motors constructed in Soviet Russia a huge integrated plant at Gorkii to build Model A cars, trucks, and buses. General Electric helped with the development of the Soviet electrical industry, while DuPont contributed to the chemical and RCA to the communications industry. Sutton estimates that during this critical phase of Soviet industrial development, at least 95 percent of Soviet industries benefited from Western assistance.
This cooperation continued during the 1930’s. The McKee Corporation of Cleveland designed the famous Magnitogorsk steel mill, a copy of the U.S. Steel plant at Gary, Indiana, then the largest integrated iron and steel plant in the world. All the refineries in Russia’s principal oil-producing area at Baku were constructed by U.S. firms, which also furnished them with the bulk of their drilling and pumping equipment. Most of the plants built during the third Five-Year Plan (1936-40), with the exception of those working exclusively for the military, were planned and in many cases constructed by Western companies, including (for a while) even those from Nazi Germany. Later on, during the war, U.S. Lend-Lease provided the USSR not only with expendable military materiel but also with advanced equipment, which is estimated to have increased Soviet industrial potential by one-third.
The point is that Western involvement was at no time marginal and therefore a matter of choice; it was all along essential to the entire Soviet industrialization drive. “During the period from 1930 to 1945, Soviet technology was almost completely a transfer from Western countries. . . .” Sutton concludes, “No major technology or major plant under construction between 1930 and 1945 has been identified as a purely Soviet effort.”
So much for the vaunted Soviet-self-sufficiency under Stalin. In the decade immediately following World War II, the USSR imported little from the West because it needed time to absorb its Lend-Lease equipment and the immense quantities of war booty that it had seized in Germany and Eastern Europe. The purchase of Western equipment and know-how resumed in the late 1950’s, this time on a grander scale than ever before.
The critical factor which made such an expansion of individual imports possible was a change in the attitude of Western governments: whereas before they had been rather neutral toward trade with Moscow, they now began actively to encourage it. It is difficult to tell whether in this case economic interest was the driving force and the expectation of political benefits a rationalization, or the other way around; the consequences were the same. Since the late 1950’s, Western governments have cooperated with their banks and business corporations to promote exports of industrial equipment and technology to the USSR and Eastern Europe, as well as to enhance the latter’s ability to earn hard currency with which to pay for these goods. Since the USSR is relatively poor in cash and usually suffers an unfavorable balance of trade with the industrial countries, no significant expansion of East-West trade could take place without Western credits, and no credits could flow without government participation.
The latter assumes two forms: Western governments lend directly to Communist countries to enable them to pay for purchases from their business firms, or they guarantee repayment of the loans extended to the exporting firms by private banks. By availing themselves of this credit, Warsaw Pact countries have run up a debt of over $80 billion, most of it in the decade of the 1970’s. The USSR normally insists on paying interest rates on its loans that are substantially below (as much as 5 percent) those prevailing on international markets. The purpose of this practice, with which Western governments and banks connive, is to help the Soviet Union maintain the reputation for unique credit-worthiness and, in this manner, to enhance its international prestige. As a rule, the USSR discreetly compensates its creditors for their losses on interest by paying premiums for the goods and services purchased with the borrowed money.
An interesting variant in East-West trade practices are the so-called “compensation” deals under which the USSR repays its loans not in cash but in the product that the loans had made possible. This method has been employed in financing the Siberian pipeline, the costs of which are to be recovered in future deliveries of natural gas.6 For a while the Soviet leadership believed that it had found in “compensation” arrangements a kind of financial perpetual-motion machine: Western firms would develop Soviet industrial capacities and natural resources at little or no cost to Moscow, receive payment in the product, reinvest the proceeds, and so on, in perpetuity. Unfortunately, it soon dawned on the Soviet Union’s European partners that by so doing they were competing against themselves and as a result compensation deals became much less popular than expected.
Western economic involvement in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe since the 1960’s has been deep and consequential. Once again, as had happened in the 1890’s and 1930’s, Russia has secured in the West help essential to modernizing those industries that advances in technology had rendered obsolete and learning about technologies that it has not been able to master on its own.
A survey of the technology acquired by the USSR from the West in the past quarter-century shows the following:
Motor vehicles: Italy has built for the Soviet Union at Togliatti a giant automobile plant (equipped mainly, it is to be noted, with U.S. machinery) to turn out copies of Fiat passenger cars, while Pullman-Swindell of Pittsburgh, a subsidiary of the M. W. Kellogg Company, has constructed for Moscow on the Kama River the world’s largest truck plant. The two establishments account for the production of one-half of Soviet passenger cars and heavy trucks, respectively.
Oil industry: the equipment purchased by the USSR from the West has enabled it to raise its oil production substantially, by some estimates as much as two million barrels a day, which at 1984 prices brings in (or saves) $21 billion a year; in effect, this imported technology subsidizes Soviet energy exports to Eastern Europe.
Chemical industry: the USSR has carried out an ambitious program of importing chemical plants from the West. These have largely freed it from the necessity of buying chemicals abroad.
Electronic industry: the Soviet Union has made abroad significant purchases of integrated-circuit technology.
Steel: Moscow has purchased abroad the equipment to produce high-grade specialized steel; currently, the French company Creusot-Loire is constructing in the USSR a mill capable of turning out seven million tons of such steel annually.
Ammonia: Western equipment has enabled the USSR to become the world’s leading exporter of industrial ammonia.
Natural gas: the story of the Yamal pipeline, built with the assistance of critical Western technology (large-diameter pipes and compressors) and capital is well known. At present, negotiations are quietly under way to continue such development beyond the existing line. In addition, the German company Mannesmann, AG, is negotiating for contracts to build in the Soviet Union synthetic liquid fuel plants estimated to be worth as much as $16.5 billion.
Shipping: The bulk of the Soviet merchant navy—the largest in the world—consists of vessels built by foreign shipyards.
Unusual reticence accompanies these and other industrial endeavors, as if the parties had a gentleman’s agreement to keep the information privileged.
The industrial assistance given to the Soviet Union helps its military effort directly and indirectly—directly, by providing so-called “dual-use” technology which can be applied to the production of both military and non-wartime equipment; and indirectly, by strengthening the Soviet military-mobilization base. The development of Soviet energy resources has the effect of providing the USSR with hard currency which its own economy cannot generate; normally most of it is spent on acquiring abroad equipment of some military application.
The “dual-use” technology, lavishly sold to the USSR in the 1960’s and especially the 1970’s, has had a most impressive effect in enhancing Soviet military power. While basic Soviet military equipment is of native manufacture, the West and Japan have supplied the Soviet war industry with specialized and advanced technology which Soviet engineers integrate into their output—it makes all the difference between equipment of passable and of superior quality. A plant built by a U.S. corporation to manufacture rock-drill bits to explore for oil can be and very likely is used to turn out anti-tank ammunition. Specialized steel, sold to the USSR, has a variety of applications in tank armor and submarine hulls. Integrated circuits, knowledge of which was acquired in the West, make critical contributions to electronic warfare. And it takes no great imagination to realize that the heavy trucks that the Kama River truck plant turns out are either shipped to the Red Army or earmarked for it in the event of hostilities. The same applies to the merchant marine, which in peacetime fishes and transports cargoes, but forms an integral part of the Soviet Navy and operates under its command.
The most shocking instance of the contribution that Western technology has made to Soviet military capabilities was the sale by the U.S. in the early 1970’s of equipment to manufacture miniature ball bearings. In 1959-60, the Soviet leadership decided to proceed with the mass-production of nuclear weapons. German technology, acquired after World War II, combined with native science and industry, provided nearly all the components required.
Among the equipment that could not be produced domestically, however, was machinery to manufacture large quantities of miniature ball bearings for missile-guidance systems. At the time, Soviet representatives approached the only firm that made such machinery, the Bryant Chucking Grinder Company, of Springfield, Vermont. In 1961, with Soviet orders pending, Bryant applied for a license to sell this equipment to the Soviet Union, but Defense Department objections caused President Kennedy to deny the application. In 1972, in the more favorable climate of détente, Bryant applied once again for a license to ship its Centalign grinders to the USSR. This time, permission came through. The ball bearings produced by this U.S. equipment are almost certainly integrated into the guidance system of Soviet missiles. In the opinion of some experts, they have materially contributed to the enhancement of the accuracy of Soviet missiles, to the extent of putting at risk the U.S. force of Minuteman ICBM’s and requiring the development of the MX.
Nato long ago recognized the need to withhold from the USSR, and from countries likely to pass on to the USSR, equipment with obvious and direct military applications. In practice, enforcement of this principle has been hopelessly lax, especially since the inauguration of détente.
The agency charged with monitoring technology transfer to the East is known by the acronym COCOM. Formed by NATO countries in 1949 with headquarters in Paris, and joined a few years later by Japan, COCOM maintains lists of embargoed technology, agreed upon by the allies. Alas, COCOM is virtually powerless to carry out its mandate. It is assigned an absurdly small budget (under $500,000 a year) with a correspondingly minuscule staff and can only recommend but not enforce its recommendations. In practice, it routinely processes and approves requests for the sale of equipment and technology to the Soviet bloc; and on the infrequent occasions when it turns down a request, it has no means of insuring that its decisions are implemented, because it has neither the necessary authority nor the personnel. After President Nixon assumed office, the U.S. relaxed its more stringent national rules on exports to Communist countries, which in turn caused a further dilution of COCOM.
If one adds that the neutral countries of Europe—Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria—do not receive COCOM recommendations and both sell embargoed material and provide transit for it, it becomes evident that few effective restrictions exist on the transfer to the Communist bloc of advanced technology with direct military application. The West, notably the Federal Republic of Germany, France, and Japan, which together account for nearly two-thirds of the technology sold to the USSR (1979), constitutes a giant supermarket of military know-how where the USSR shops (often with borrowed money) for goods to integrate into its arsenal of destruction.
The United States seems most aware of the danger of such sales and makes an earnest effort to control them. But Washington has difficulty maintaining its resolve in the face of unremitting pressure from both the allies and domestic commercial interests, usually backed by the Departments of State and Commerce, which argue that such restrictions serve only to divert Soviet business elsewhere. In his first eighteen months in office, President Reagan tried to enforce industrial controls, but his resolve weakened as the allies refused to cooperate and U.S. business firms loudly complained. By the end of 1983, he seemed to have given up trying.
The sad reality is that while there are powerful vested interests lobbying for exports, no one has a vested interest in restricting the flow of technology to the potential enemy. Private enterprise does not seem especially concerned with who buys its product, as if oblivious of any connection between technology and military power; and governments lack the will to impose considerations higher than immediate profit on business. So it happens that while the West busily arms itself, it also helps arm its opponent.
The transfer of military technology, however, is not the only problem; another major Western contribution to the Soviet military effort lies in assistance extended to its mobilization base. In the Soviet Union the line separating the military and civilian economies is so indistinct as to be almost meaningless, inasmuch as the leadership views the entire national economy as either actually or potentially destined for military ends: we are dealing here with a war economy operating on an intermediate level of mobilization. Soviet military personnel participate closely in economic planning and carry a strong, probably critical, voice in decisions on allocations for the civilian sector of the economy. The central planning agency, Gosplan, makes no major investments unless the generals on its staff are satisfied that they meet the needs of wartime mobilization. Furthermore, each major industrial establishment has a military office that supervises those departments working for the armed forces. On the eve of World War II, the German high command compiled a list of Soviet war industries: it turned out to have been virtually identical with a list of Soviet industrial establishments of that time.
Nothing indicates that matters have changed in this respect. Since the Soviet leadership views all industries in the light of their contribution to the war effort, it must view industrial imports in the same manner; from which it follows that any contribution to Soviet industrial potential is at the same time a contribution to its war-making potential. Help extended to the Soviet Union to construct plants for the manufacture of goods which ostensibly serve peaceful purposes, such as automobiles and trucks, tractors, or specialized steel, in fact serve a double purpose, partly civilian, partly military, with the military one always paramount.
The other objection to technology and equipment transfer has to do with its effect on the Stalinist system. Foreign technology and foreign credits help prop up an economic regime which shows every sign of having lost its vitality; they also enable Moscow to allocate its capital and resources in a manner that continues to favor the military sector. It is in the interest of the West that the USSR reform its labor policies, raising productivity by greater incentives and decentralized decision-making. This would represent a step toward weakening the economic and political power of the Soviet elite. To the extent that it helps to make the system more efficient, Western technology makes it easier to avoid such reforms. If one can imagine a Soviet economy that would be 100-percent automated and able to dispense with human labor altogether, such an economy would be entirely freed from the need to take the human factor into account. Of course, such an economy is not possible; but everything that contributes to the automation of Soviet production, that supplies it with that which the Stalinist system cannot provide, serves to solidify the despotic arrangement.
It is difficult to tell whether the democracies, constrained as they are by vested interests, public opinion, and political rivalries, are capable of sustaining an indirect, long-range policy, which requires the courage of quiet firmness and patience. Unquestionably, it is much easier to evoke a response from a democratic electorate with either calls to arms or promises of eternal peace. What can be said with confidence is that as long as the present, essentially Stalinist, system prevails in the Soviet Union, war will remain an ever-present danger which neither rearmament nor accommodation can entirely avert.
1 It would take much more space than is here available to dispel this widespread myth. Suffice it to say that in 1898 a group of Russian military specialists completed a comprehensive history of Russian warfare and concluded, with pride, that in the thirty-eight wars which it had waged since 1700, Russia had fought only two defensive campaigns—the other thirty-six were offensive (nastupatel'nye). N. N. Sukhotin, Voina v istorii russkogo mira [War in the History of the Russian World] (St. Petersburg, 1898), pp. 13-14.
2 A Soviet soldier is paid four rubles a month, which at the official exchange rate amounts to slightly over five dollars, but at black-market rates comes to less than one dollar. Since this is as much as no pay, the bulk of the Soviet army may be said to consist of temporarily bonded serfs. The U.S. private by comparison receives nearly $600 a month.
3 My views on this subject were stated in “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” COMMENTARY, July 1977.
4 This is nothing new: Napoleon and Hitler encouraged Russia to expand in the direction of India, while Kaiser Wilhelm II incited it to move against China and Japan. In all three cases the motive was to keep Russia so busy elsewhere that it could not meddle in the affairs of Europe. As early as 1638, the French statesman, Maximilien de Bethune Sully, in his “Great Design,” urged the European powers to expel Russia from Europe and leave it alone to fight the Turks and Persians and, presumably, other Asians.
5 Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development, 1930 to 1945 (Hoover Institution, 1971), p. 329. In his three-volume detailed account of Soviet purchases of Western equipment and technology, of which this is the second volume, Sutton comes to conclusions that are uncomfortable for many businessmen and economists. For this reason his work tends to be either dismissed out of hand as “extreme” or, more often, simply ignored.
6 After these costs have been repaid, the income generated by gas sales is expected to be used by Moscow to buy imports from Germany and the other countries in Western Europe. It was the desire to place cash in Soviet hands for such purchases rather than the alleged need to diversify energy supplies that motivated the German government, financial institutions, and corporations to promote the Siberian pipeline with such single-minded determination, even at the risk of conflict with the United States.
How to Cope With the Soviet Threat A Long-Term Strategy for the West
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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.