One of the great religious dramas of our time is currently being enacted throughout the length and breadth of Latin…
If the Christian believes in the fertility of peace for achieving justice, he believes also that justice is an unavoidable condition for peace. He does not overlook the fact that Latin America finds itself in a situation of injustice that could be called institutionalized violence, because the present structures violate fundamental rights. This is a situation that demands wholesale, audacious, urgent, and profoundly renewing transformations. We should not be surprised if in Latin America what Pope Paul VI called the “temptation to violence” is born. One must not abuse the patience of a people who endures for years a condition that those with a greater awareness of human rights would hardly accept.
—Document on Peace,
Second General Conference of CELAM
Medellin, Colombia, 1968
One of the great religious dramas of our time is currently being enacted throughout the length and breadth of Latin America, which contains more than one-third of the world’s Catholic population. In the dozen or so years since John XXIII proclaimed his aggiornamento, the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America has been increasingly assuming a role not unlike that of the ancient Hebrew prophets in pointing to the injustices and disorders of society; at the same time, it has been experiencing an internal ferment that has affected all levels of its hierarchical structure. To be sure, dissent and disarray—what John’s successor, the more cautious Paul VI, has called “inner rebellion” and “self-demolition”—are apparent everywhere in the Church, but in Latin America they have assumed a particular relevance. There, the papal social encyclicals are being put to ideological use as guides for a fundamental reorganization of society; and the dogmatic definition by Vatican II of the Church as “the People of God”—the effect of which was to limit the traditional predominance of the clerical hierarchy—has paved the way for a democratization of Church life in nearly all its forms. Moreover, in Latin America the Church has been generating a “theology of revolution”—disseminated in pastoral letters and bishops’ orations, in the writings of theologians, and in official pronouncements—which condemns in no uncertain terms the “institutionalized violence” of a society that confines from one-third to one-half of its population to backwardness and marginality.
Indeed, the formal Church hierarchy, in many instances, is the main voice of this new concern with social problems, and this, too, is a “revolutionary” development. The Latin American bishops, who heretofore were known for their conservatism, have become increasingly radical in rhetoric. This development is reflected in the documents issued by CELAM (Latin American Bishops’ Council), which began life in 1955 as a rather conservative body but which, under the influence of Pope John’s encyclicals, Pacem in Terris and Mater et Magistra, and of Vatican II, has been transformed into a progressive body, pronouncing itself on such questions as economic integration, agrarian reform, university problems, and violence. Of course, ideological divisions still remain within some of the Latin American hierarchies, but pressures from both priests and laymen have had a modifying effect on all but the most rigid attitudes. Thus, while Chile and the Brazilian Northeast have been the main centers of clerical innovation in recent years, the progressive currents within Catholicism have become a major factor in the politics of virtually every Latin American republic. In smaller countries like Bolivia, Guatemala, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, the aggiornamento has been largely in the hands of foreign missionaries, mostly Spaniards and North Americans, many of whom have been acting much more boldly, politically speaking, than they would have been permitted to act at home.
The changes within Catholicism over the past decade have been so swift and varied that some observers feel that something akin to the Protestant Reformation, with its elements of both social and religious revolution, is presently taking place. The Chilean Jesuit magazine Mensaje, the most widely read and respected Church publication in Latin America, has editorially compared the changes in the Church today with the historic role of Martin Luther:
In Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes as its patrimony many of the points made by Luther in his time: the primacy of the Word of God in the Scripture; the reality of a living tradition and not merely mechanical and verbal; the role of servant of the Word and of men that corresponds to the Teacher; the prophetic and priestly function of the laity and the “equality of all [hierarchy and laity] with reference to dignity and common mission”; the assertion of the liberty with reality of the Spirit that animates all in the People of God, giving them charisma; the subordination of ceremony and institution to the faith of Christians. . . .
Like the Lutheran Reformation of the 16th century, the present aggiornamento of the Roman Catholic Church has been rooted liturgically in a shift from Latin into the vernacular language and in the assumption by “the People of God” of a central role in the simpler and more direct celebration of the ritual. To obtain a sense of how powerful the traditional fusion between social and religious elements of rebellion can be, one might look beyond the contemporary examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King to Luther’s own time; in the decades before the great Peasants’ War of 1525, the German peasantry was chafing against the new taxes imposed to support the swelling bureaucracies of the German principalities, and against the hardships caused, in that time of growth of towns and trade, by the need to pay in cash instead of kind. This peasant unrest found vindication in the Reformation, according to Professor Roland Bainton, since “Luther’s freedom of the Christian man was purely religious but could very readily be given a social turn. . . . Luther certainly had blasted usury and in 1524 came out with another tract on the subject, in which he scored also the subterfuge of annuities. . . . His attitude on monasticism likewise suited peasant covetousness for the spoliation of cloisters. The peasants with good reason felt themselves strongly drawn to Luther.”1 Luther was a miner’s son, and miners in the world’s revolutionary traditions have served in many instances as leaders in the transformation of the peasantry into a social force. This association between social and religious protest has continued since Luther’s time, and is abundantly evident in Latin America today.
The Catholic Church has been at the heart of political controversy throughout most of Latin America’s history, and this conflict has left it weak. Until the 19th century, the Church was an arm not only of the Spanish conquest but of the colonial government as well. Under the Patronato Real (Royal Patronage) granted by Popes Alexander VI and Julius II, the Spanish monarchy was given total control of the Church in the New World, except in matters of doctrine and religious discipline, in exchange for a promise by Ferdinand and Isabella to spread the faith in the unknown lands coming under their temporal power. A series of papal bulls issued between 1493 and 1508 in effect gave the Spanish crown the power to collect tithes and to nominate bishops, priests, and abbots; further, no cleric could go to the Indies and no monastery, church, or hospital could be built without specific royal authorization. No papal bull or decree could be circulated or enforced in the New World without prior approval of the Council of the Indies. Thus the life of the Church became thoroughly intertwined with the political interests of the crown. (By the early 17th century one-tenth of the population of Lima, for example, consisted of priests, friars, canons, and nuns, with nineteen churches and monasteries serving a population of 26,500. In the Vice-royalty of New Spain—Mexico—the Church became the principal lending institution, controlling roughly half the colony’s landed wealth through either outright ownership or heavy mortgages.)
At the same time that thousands of missionary-priests, especially Jesuits and Franciscans, were penetrating deep into the back country, advancing the frontier and the king’s control into mountains and jungles, religious life in many big-city monasteries was becoming engulfed in concubinage, fraud, speculation, and commerce. The New World was so vast, and the means of colonization so slim, that Western ways, especially Christianity, could form at best a thin and patchy veneer on local customs. Since few European women accompanied the early colonizers, concubinage and miscegenation became everywhere the norm, to the degree that even today roughly half of all births in most countries of Latin America are illegitimate. The ritual and symbols of Catholicism were grafted onto the surfaces of a thousand different bodies of traditional belief; the resulting hybrid practices are still in evidence today. On the altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, for example, the image of the Virgin Mary is fused in the minds of the Quechua and Aymara Indians with that of their traditional earth goddess, the Pacha Mama, to whom animal victims are burned in ritual sacrifice. In Haiti, the traditional African vodun dances are tinged with recognizable elements of the Catholic Mass, while the loa or spirits worshiped in the ritual derive from the local deities of Dahomey and the Congo. Among the highland municipios of Guatemala, where in some Indian villages the Mayan calendar is still in use, the Catholic Church is merely one of several holy places in the neighborhood to which brujos (sorcerers) come with small groups of worshipers to perform rites to a local deity. And in Brazil, formal Catholicism is colored by survivals of West African folk religions, especially the Gêge-Nagô cult of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, preserved for centuries by the descendants of Negro slaves.
The prelates of the New World presided serenely over this mosaic of practice and belief until the breakup of the Spanish empire toward the end of the 18th century. Until then the privileges of the Church in Mexico, for example, were not less than those of the French clergy before 1789, although when the Society of Jesus was expelled from the Spanish empire in 1767 its 128 plantations in New Spain were expropriated by the Crown. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Freemasonry spread from England, France, and Spain to the American possessions. In the Spanish colonies not only did Freemasonry help lay the groundwork for independence, but—although priests were members of many lodges—it also set the pattern of Church-State conflict for the next hundred years. In the period immediately following independence, twenty-eight of thirty-eight episcopal sees in Latin America were vacated because of the exile or voluntary departure of their bishops. The successors of these bishops now plunged into republican politics, encouraged by a papacy desperately engaged in Church-State controversy all over Europe.
Following the pattern of the times, a series of Liberal-Conservative conflicts began in Latin America over such questions as clerical control of education, confiscation of Church property, the legality of divorce, immunity of the clergy from criminal prosecution, and the prohibition of tithes. These conflicts, which were often ultimately decided by bitter civil war, usually resulted in a severe drubbing of clerical interests. In Mexico, for example, the Church’s fortunes declined to such a degree that today it is left without property (it does not even own its churches and cathedrals) and without the right to conduct public processions; Mexican priests are legally prohibited from wearing clerical garb in the streets. In Paraguay, Dr. José Gaspar Rodriguez Francia, who ruled as dictator for the first thirty years following independence, “took all the Church’s property into his own hands, deprived it of all ceremonials which were wont to impress the populace . . . and in the end made himself head of the Church after the example of Henry VIII of England. . . .”2 In Guatemala, under a Liberal dictatorship lasting from 1871 to 1885, the Jesuits and the Archbishop of Guatemala City were expelled, Church lands were seized, convents and monasteries closed, cemeteries secularized, and priests forbidden to wear collars and cassocks outside of church. (Most of these provisions remained in effect until 1954.) The same thing occurred in Venezuela under Antonio Guzman Blanco’s long dictatorship (1870-88). And in Colombia, the conflict generated by more than a century of recurrent Liberal-Conservative religious strife was climaxed by the violencia of 1948-58, when Conservative gangs dressed as police brought Liberal peasants before the local priest, who made them kiss a crucifix and swear allegiance to the Conservative party; later these “professions of faith” were announced in the provincial press. Today, only four of the twenty-one Latin American republics—Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic—preserve the “protected” status of the Church that prevailed during the Spanish empire.
The decades of fanaticism and holy war were followed by the modernization of politics (in most cases this has taken place only within the past fifty years), a period marked by the abandonment of Church-State controversy in favor of debate by a new generation of political parties over “the social question.” This development corresponded to a change in the life of the Church itself. Until Pius XI and Mussolini concluded the Lateran Pacts in 1929, successive Popes had remained in seclusion as self-styled “prisoners in the Vatican,” in piqued response to the loss of the papal lands, in 1870, to Garibaldi’s armies—the Papacy’s final prostration in European politics. (Italian troops marched into Rome just as the First Vatican Ecumenical Council, still in session, had finished proclaiming the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.) For almost sixty years following, Catholics were forbidden under papal injunction from participating in Italian politics; the interdiction was abrogated when Mussolini and Pius XI agreed to the creation of an independent Vatican State with the Pope’s absolute sovereignty over a 100-acre enclave within Rome. During that time little attention was paid to Pope Leo XIII’s great social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which in 1891 called the world’s attention to workers’ rights and sketched one of the clearest outlines ever formulated of social democracy as practiced today in Western Europe and the United States. For most of the seventy years between Rerum Novarum and the proclamation in 1961 of John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra, the Catholic hierarchy in Latin America remained largely silent on social questions. In 1937 the Archbishop of Lima, Msgr. Pedro Pascual Farfan, was still able to say: “Poverty is the most certain road to eternal felicity. Only the state which succeeds in making the poor appreciate the spiritual treasures of poverty can solve its social problems.”
The social awakening of Catholicism in Latin America began to pick up speed in the mid-1950’s with the start of a new era in hemispheric affairs, one in which electoral democracy showed signs of replacing dictatorship as the political norm. The Church has played an active role in this process. The angry opposition of Argentina’s conservative hierarchy led to the fall of Juan Domingo Peron (1945-55), despite his announcement in 1945 that “my social policy will be inspired by the papal encyclicals,” and despite the alliance between Perón and the Church that lasted through most of the dictatorship. Following Peron’s fall, clerical opposition helped pave the way for the overthrow of other dictators, including Gustavo Rojas Pinilla of Colombia (1957), Marcos Pérez Jiménez of Venezuela (1958), Fulgencio Batista of Cuba (1959), and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (1961). The Church’s hand in these developments was indicated in October 1959, when a new Papal Nuncio, Msgr. Lino Zanini, arrived in Ciudad Trujillo, to the shock and surprise of Perón, then living in exile there as Trujillo’s guest. Perón remembered that Zanini had come to Buenos Aires as Papal Nuncio shortly before his own fall from power; Perón made immediate preparations to leave the country, and in his farewell visit to his host cautioned: “It was that man who caused my downfall. Wherever that man puts his foot, he causes disturbances. Watch yourself carefully.” Four months later, following a wave of arrests after a plot against Trujillo was discovered, Zanini prodded the Dominican bishops into issuing two pastoral letters attacking the dictatorship, as a result of which the Nuncio was expelled. Before his departure, in discussing Trujillo’s violent reaction to the pastoral letters, Zanini told a high Dominican official: “That man doesn’t know whom he’s getting mixed up with. Everyone who has opposed me has died.” Fifteen months later Trujillo was assassinated.3 By that time, Pope John had issued Mater et Magistra and had summoned the world’s Catholic bishops to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
The new trend in the Church toward disengagement from—if not active opposition to—the conservative power structure is most evident in Brazil, which, with its ninety-five million people, is the world’s largest and most populous Catholic nation. There the Roman Catholic hierarchy is engaged with the six-year-old military dictatorship in the gravest Church-State conflict of the hemisphere. The factionalism of the Brazilian hierarchy notwithstanding—there are some two hundred bishops with widely varying points of view—the Church, over the past six years, has become the main focus of opposition to the country’s military-dominated government. Leading prelates and the former Papal Nuncio, Msgr. Sebastiao Baggio, have been accused frequently of Communist sympathies by army generals and other government supporters. Many priests and bishops have come under severe attack as a result of a campaign by a right-wing organization called the “Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property,” which enjoys government and military support. In December 1968 President Costa e Silva disbanded the Brazilian Congress because it refused to waive the parliamentary immunity of a young deputy (a former Catholic Action student leader) who had offended the army; he called particular attention to “the anti-government campaign in the schools, with participation of the so-called progressive clergy and of certain organs of communication in deforming the facts, which demonstrate the existence of a revolutionary movement.”
Typical of the Church-State conflict of recent years in Brazil was the incident involving Dom Valdir Calheiros, bishop of the steel-making city of Volta Redonda, near Rio de Janeiro. Although he developed a personal following among younger priests in his previous position as auxiliary bishop of Copacabana in Rio, Dom Valdir is known as a quiet, even-minded cleric with more of a pastoral than a social-revolutionary bent. In December 1967 four students (two of whom were living in the bishop’s house) borrowed his station-wagon and used it to hand out leaflets denouncing the government. A few hours later, four soldiers brandishing machine-guns broke into the bishop’s home, ransacked it for more “subversive material,” and threatened Dom Valdir with arrest.4 The bishop responded by printing a list of Brazil’s “seven capital sins,” which included low wages, unemployment, discrimination, hunger, and disease. After the army seized all copies of the handbills and jailed two priests who were distributing them, the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference issued a public protest which, characteristically, emphasized social issues. Citing the “painful picture” of social inequality and injustice inherited by Brazil, the bishops stressed that “we must do our duty toward forming the conscience of our congregation, so they shall rise to an apostolic activity producing the necessary changes. . . . The preparing of laymen to accomplish this mission with courage, according to the insistent appeals of the Pope, is not a subversive activity. On the contrary, it is a contribution to true peace, which is unobtainable without a just social order. . . . We are conscious that a large part of our population regards the Church as one of their last hopes. We are anguished by the limited means at our disposal. It is not within our province to make certain decisions, which are urgent and unavoidable. . . . We do not have the resources to reduce poverty. But we are willing to cooperate, chiefly through laymen, in projects of human development, so that in a short time all paternalistic aid may be replaced.”5
Partly as a result of statements like this one, the bishops have served to fill the political vacuum created by the rise of a right-wing military dictatorship and by the failure and near-disappearance of the country’s traditional politicians. (The political role of an intelligent and publicly-active Brazilian bishop may be compared with that of a key U.S. Senator, except that the latter is elected for six years while a bishop is appointed for life and is removable only by the Pope.) Although fewer than forty of Brazil’s two-hundred bishops are spokesmen for the most “advanced” Church views, the progressive bishops include in their ranks many of the more educated clerics and have therefore, despite their small numbers, been able to exert a powerful influence over the broad, uncommitted majority; they have exercised a similar influence in the councils of CELAM, whose current President is a Brazilian, Dom Avelar Brandao of Teresina.
The rhetorical radicalism of the Brazilian hierarchy reached a peak of sorts in the pastoral letters of 1962-63, issued just prior to the 1964 military coup that ousted President Joao Goulart. At that time both the lay and clerical Catholic leadership reflected, in addition to the instruction of Pope John’s social encyclicals, the teaching of French Catholic philosophers like Jacques Maritain, whose humanisme intégral profoundly influenced the writings of Alceu Amoroso Lima, Brazil’s foremost Catholic thinker and for many years the leader of Catholic Action. The younger generation of Brazilian Catholics also developed a strong interest in the personalist philosophy of Emmanuel Mounier, founder and editor of the French journal Esprit, who, like Maritain, elaborated upon and to some extent influenced the social teaching of the Church. At the same time, the Brazilian hierarchy was being swept along by the powerful and radical lay movements that became a major force in the somewhat chaotic social effervescence of the Goulart years (1961-64). This radical thrust was concentrated in the elite youth sections of Catholic Action—known by their initials: JUC (university students), JEC (secondary students), and JOC (young workers)—which were strongly influenced by the young, progressive priests (many of them French, Dutch, and German missionaries) who served as their advisers. Many of these young people came under the intellectual persuasion of a Brazilian Jesuit theologian, Padre Henrique C. de Lima Vaz, who has produced widely-read commentaries on Hegel and Marx as well as on Pope John’s encyclicals. In 1968 the Catholic university movement, JUC, decided to enter student politics; prior to 1964 the last four presidents of the National Student Union (UNE) were Catholic Action leaders, working with the Communists in a coalition in which the Catholics were the stronger and more radical partner.
Emanuel de Kadt, a British sociologist studying Brazilian Catholicism, reported that during the early 60’s “most bishops were simply overwhelmed by the political and social happenings, leaving the hierarchy divided and unable to come down forcefully on one side or the other. It had something to do with the fear, quite widespread among Catholics, of being left behind in the overall trend toward reform. As a result, even some of the less wholeheartedly progressive Catholic leaders were willing to let a section of the Church get implicated in the wider radical movement. They regretted, certainly more than the young people themselves, the ideological weakness of those jumping on the bandwagon. These middle-of-the road churchmen gave warning of the dangers of naiveté, but had few, if any, positive and concretely helpful suggestions.”6 In 1962, after the militant Catholic Action leaders were finally warned by the bishops that their more aggressive political activities were compromising the Church as a whole, a new political organization, Açao Popular, was formed with many of its militants retaining membership in their respective Catholic Action groups. After the 1964 coup, many Catholics involved in UNE and Açao Popular, including priests, were imprisoned or forced to leave the country. The military regime’s inquiry into subversion in UNE produced an indictment of 712 students and two priests, Padre Vaz and Frei Matteus Rocha, former head of the Dominican Order. Padre Francisco Lage, a priest accused of organizing labor unions and advising Açao Popular, was sentenced to twenty-eight years in jail and then allowed to escape to Mexico.
Since 1964 the principal theater of the Church-State conflict has been the Brazilian Northeast, which, with a population of about thirty million, is the most extensive and populous area of extreme poverty in Latin America. The Northeast consists of the so-called drought polygon of the semi-desert sertao, as well as the coastal strip, zona de mata, inhabited by descendants of both indigenous peoples and African slaves imported to work the region’s sugar plantations. The social structure is still that of the 400-year-old sugar economy, though the industry has declined steadily since the abolition of slavery a century ago. Although the scarcity of arable land forced most of the freed slaves to remain on the plantations as subsistence-wage peons, some were drawn away by the 19th-century rubber boom in the Amazon, and others in recent years have migrated to the more prosperous and industrialized areas of southern Brazil around Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. In the Northeast, roughly three-fourths of the population cannot read or write. In this primitive region the average church parish is 300 square miles, with more than 16,000 inhabitants for each priest: it is no wonder that the area abounds in magical folk religions with African roots and in messianic cults built around legendary revivalist preachers who have roamed the sertao.
The luxuriant growth of revivalist cults in the Northeast, together with the violent, chronic alternations of rain and drought, have contributed to a kind of lyric extremism in both politics and religion.7 In the Pernambuco revolution of 1817, local priests were the revolutionary leaders and champions of social reform. In 1874 a civil war swept the sertao in protest against the new metric system of weights and measures. In November 1935 the Brazilian Communist party engineered barracks revolts in the Northeastern garrisons of Natal and Recife; the revolt failed for lack of coordination with other plotters in the south.
Under the primitive conditions that prevail in the Northeast, perhaps any proposal for meaningful change might smack of “extremism,” which may be why the imaginative Church-sponsored radio literacy campaign, the Basic Education Movement (MEB), has come under severe attack for combining literacy education with a novel program of conscientizacao: instilling in the peasant a consciousness of his condition and rights. Just prior to the 1964 military takeover, the MEB—financed by the Ministry of Education—had 470 full-time employees providing daily broadcast lessons to some 180,000 peasants over 25 radio stations. Although it was organized and supervised by a Council of Bishops, MEB was run entirely by laymen, many of whom had been involved in the Catholic Action youth movements. Even before the 1964 coup, however, MEB’s literacy manuals—stored in Rio de Janeiro for distribution in the Northeast—were confiscated because of their objectionable content, under orders of Carlos Lacerda, the right-wing Governor of Guanabara state. Since the coup, MEB has been limping along without federal support; the inventor of its conscientizacao techniques, Paulo Freire, has been forced into exile in Chile, where he has developed an international reputation in adult education. The Church-sponsored peasant sindicato movement in the Northeast has likewise been paralyzed since 1964 due to opposition by the army and harrassment by landlords’ private gangs, though the priests who advise the peasant movement have remained as the only leadership available for the past six years. The Church clearly has been involved in a holding operation in the Northeast since 1964, a position which has become increasingly difficult to maintain as Church-State conflicts have sharpened.
The principal figure in this holding operation is Dom Helder Camara, the Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, who is Latin America’s best-known cleric and probably the most popular public figure in Brazil. A small, wispy Northeasterner, he held the key post of Secretary-General of the National Council of Brazilian Bishops during the 1962-63 period when, it will be recalled, the bishops produced their most dramatic statements on social questions. Dom Helder assumed his present position—which amounts, in effect, to acting as Primate of the Northeast—a few days after the April 1964 coup. Shortly thereafter he was denounced by General Itebere Gouvea do Amaral as being “on the side of leftism” and for “taking pleasure in appearing on TV with excesses of histrionics and clownish attitudes.” The general also charged that “the analysis of Communist organizations on the balance of forces opposing the [military] power seizure considers the disorganized Catholic Church in Pernambuco [the state forming Dom Helder’s archdiocese] ripe for infiltration.” During my visit to Recife not long ago, Dom Helder was being sued for libel by a labor lawyer who was offended at a speech the Archbishop had made before a sindicato of sugar peons in the nearby town of Cabo, in which he urged the peasants to “repel as traitors the union leaders who receive money from bosses to make the worker accept unjust and immoral contracts. If the workers opened their eyes, they would discover that, besides honest lawyers, there are parasites enriching themselves from the tears, blood, and sweat of the workers, receiving money from worker and employer, endorsing contracts so unjust that they draw the curse of God.”
Despite his flair for publicity, Dom Helder appears in some ways to be a very traditional churchman: thus, he paternalistically dispenses charity to the poor through personal contacts, whereas other progressive bishops favor social-mobilization programs. A leader of the avant-garde at the Vatican Council, Dom Helder has been a personal friend of Pope Paul since 1950 when, still an ordinary priest, he approached the then Msgr. Giovanni Montini with a bold reorganization plan for the Brazilian Church; he has since been careful to remain publicly on the correct side of the Pope on the critical issues of celibacy and birth control. At the Pope’s request, Dom Helder has recently been urging the adoption by Brazilian Catholics of the techniques of non-violent rebellion developed by Dr. Martin Luther King.
During my visit to Recife I had an opportunity to put some questions to Dom Helder and to obtain an elaboration of his widely-discussed views on the Church and revolution. “Within the effort for creation of a theology of development, one must mold a long chapter for the theology of revolution,” he told me. “What I have read until today is not easy to apply to the enormous diversity of worlds in which an apparently unitary Latin America is unfolding. The presence of the Church in social movements is very old. What is really new is the angle in which the Church places itself. Christianity in Latin America recognizes its great part of responsibility for situations of injustice in which a great part of the human masses find themselves, in a state of internal colonialism, in infra-human conditions. What looks like a mixture of political mysticism and religious mysticism, what reminds us of our social leadership, is a thirst to recuperate lost time and pay for the sin of omission.”
When I asked what he considered the most important work of the Church in his archdiocese, Dom Helder copied out for me in his small handwriting an excerpt from an article by a Spanish theologian, Padre José Maria Gonzalez Ruiz of Málaga:
We Christians have important tasks in the construction of a world being born and which is heading for a socialist solution. In this construction of socialism we Christians have no concrete technical solution: the experience of 2,000 years teaches us that the civitas humana should not be absorbed by the Church. The Church does not have the mission of creating its own civitas in which the Gospel is converted into an economic, social, and political code. The civitas should be built with its own autonomous means. . . . The Christian should commit himself to the socialist revolution without technical misconceptions and without stressing his role as a believer, but giving at the same time his notable contribution of mystique for universal brotherhood and total hope. Because—and this must be known—socialism never will be built with a sectarian call to the blind fatalism of a mechanically-conceived history. Socialism is an option of the free creative will of man and, for the realization of this option, the Gospel has served and continues to serve as an impulse of immense efficacy.
Dom Helder apologized for the length of the citation—“but it faithfully relates the thought that illuminates the work of the Church in our archdiocese,” he concluded.
These views, which enjoy considerable support among younger laymen, bishops, and priests, in Brazil and the rest of Latin America, give such primacy to the achievements of social justice as to undermine seriously the Church’s more traditional associations and alliances in temporal society. For this reason, moreover, the Brazilian Church has been undergoing an internal crisis in its confrontation with the current military dictatorship, one that is curiously analogous to the inner stresses within the dictatorship itself. The situation, too, has been aggravated by the increase of political terrorism over the past year. On May 27, 1969 the body of Padre Antonio Henrique Pereira Netto was found hanging from a tree on the campus of the University of Recife, with three bullet wounds in his head and deep slashes in his throat from a faca peixeira, a long knife used by fishermen in the Northeast. The young priest was a professor of sociology at the university and director of Catholic youth movements in the state of Pernambuco, and his murder was preceded by the slaying a month before of a Catholic student leader, Candido Pinto. Both killings were attributed to a right-wing terrorist group called the Communist-Hunting Commandos, which began operating around Recife in early 1969 and whose list of thirty-two Catholic leaders marked for death included the names of Padre Pereira, Dom Helder, and the auxiliary bishop of Recife, Dom José de Lamartine. Also in 1969 the residences of Dom Helder and Angelo Cardinal Rossi, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, were twice shot up.
In November 1969 several priests and friars were implicated in the leftist violence during the investigations that followed the kidnapping of the U.S. Ambassador two months earlier. (Ambassador Elbrick was freed after a few days, when Brazilian authorities gave in to the kidnappers’ demand that fifteen specified political prisoners be flown into exile in Mexico.) The man sought as the kidnappers’ ringleader, a former Communist Deputy named Carlos Marighela, was killed in a gun battle with police November 4, after authorities used two Dominican priests, arrested a week before, as the bait to draw Marighela into a police trap. Since then, the government has charged that religious seminaries and monasteries are being used to prepare subversive literature and to provide hiding places for terrorists seeking to escape to neighboring countries. In response, Church authorities have criticized the involvement of priests in political violence and terrorism as “anti-evangelical,” while at the same time denouncing arrests and tortures by the government.
These developments show how deeply the Church is being drawn into the conflict that has been polarizing Brazilian society. Despite its hesitations and internal divisions, the Church provides the only institutional opposition to the increasingly unpopular military regime. Growing political instability—the armed forces on several occasions have set aside their own constitution in order to accommodate internal pressures—has strengthened the hand of a leftist-nationalist military faction that is influenced, in part, by the progressive wing of the Church. The Brazilian case, although not unique, is the outstanding example in Latin America of the way in which the Church, by putting the social doctrines issuing from the aggiornamento to an immediate and dangerous test, has assumed a central role in a conflict whose end cannot be seen.
Quite probably there would be no Catholic renewal in many countries of Latin America today without the Jesuits, whose famous energies are now being directed almost exclusively toward achieving social justice. Their chief instrument for this purpose are the centers for research and social action—Centro de Investigatión y Actión (CIAS)—which the Society of Jesus has established in all of its Latin American provinces. The social-action effort has gained further impetus from the leadership in Rome of Padre Pedro Arrupe, a Spaniard who in 1964 became the Society’s Father-General. (The Jesuits’ new activity, it should be noted, has been promoted at the expense of the order’s more traditional educational activities oriented toward the training of elites: some Jesuit schools and colleges in Europe have been closed to free staffs for missionary work in Latin America.) At a meeting in Rio de Janeiro in May 1968, after reviewing the entire Jesuit operation in Latin America, Padre Arrupe and the Society’s seventeen Latin American province-heads sent a letter to the nearly 5,000 Jesuits working in the region, which proclaimed in part: “We wish to conceive the totality of our apostolic mission as focusing on the social problem. We wish to avoid any attitude of exclusiveness or domination. We wish to adopt an attitude of service in the Church and Society, rejecting the image of power that frequently is attributed to us. . . .”
For the greater part of this century, the Chilean Jesuits were identified with an aristocratic secondary school in Santiago, the Colegio San Ignacio. About ten years ago, however, several Jesuits concerned with social problems broke away to form, within the CIAS framework, the Centro Bellarmino, which has since become the most influential Jesuit institution in Chile and is a striking example of what a small group of highly-trained Jesuits can accomplish. This community of eighteen priests has generated sufficient influence in the Chilean Catholic hierarchy to make it the most progressive in Latin America. Moreover, they have critically influenced the growth of the Christian Democratic party, helping to transform it from a tiny splinter faction into the ruling party it has been under President Eduardo Frei (his term expires later this year). The members of the Centro Bellarmino form a battery of specialists in sociology, trade unionism, theology, communications, housing, and land reform, and over the years they have served as advisors to the Chilean bishops on social questions. Besides publishing the influential magazine Mensaje, the Centro Bellarmino operates an impressive variety of social and research programs.
The impact of the CIAS social-action program is also strong in the smaller, more backward republics. In Paraguay, for example, where the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner has remained virtually unchallenged for fifteen years, a major Church-State conflict has developed over the regime’s efforts to extend its control over the Jesuit-run Catholic University, which had become a center of anti-government opposition, and to expel from the country five Spanish Jesuits holding key professional and administrative positions. One of these was Padre Jose Miguel Munárriz, managing editor of the Church’s official weekly newspaper, Comunidad, which occasionally printed editorials critical of the regime and which had been closed by government order while most of the Paraguayan hierarchy was away attending the 1968 CELAM Latin American bishops’ conference in Medellin, Colombia.
The Spanish Jesuits in Paraguay have been a major force in the aggiornamento of the traditionally weak and submissive Paraguayan hierarchy; they have also organized Catholic peasant leagues and advised in the formation of a small but vigorous Christian Democratic opposition party. While the Stroessner regime was pressuring diplomatically in Rome for the transfer of the five Jesuits mentioned above, the Paraguayan bishops opened a public campaign for the release or trial of political prisoners who had been held for several years without formal charges. The Paraguayan hierarchy then issued a pastoral letter bluntly attacking a newly promulgated security law for its “consecration of a form of absolute totalitarianism that has been condemned many times by the Supreme Pontiffs in the name of social morality.” These maneuvers continued until a climax was reached on October 22, 1969, when Padre Francisco de Paula Oliva, one of the more influential Jesuit professors, was called to police headquarters and summarily deported from the country; police then beat up and dispersed a number of students, priests, and professors who had gathered on university grounds to protest the expulsion. Three priests were injured. The Archbishop of Asunción responded with an announcement that, according to canon law, “the authorities that ordered the beatings given the priests have been excommunicated.”
As I have noted, dissent and disarray are threatening the future of the Latin American priesthood. One of the more dramatic examples of clerical rebellion is the case of Padre Camilo Torres, who was killed in February 1966 in a clash with an army patrol in the mountains of eastern Colombia, where he was leading a Castroite guerrilla band. The story of young Torres, a son of one of Bogotá’s socially prominent families, also serves to point up the continuing crisis in Colombian society, the most clerically-oriented in Latin America today. Torres’s death occurred just a few months after he had been released (at his own request) from all priestly vows, save that of celibacy, following an ugly public dispute over social doctrine with the aged Archbishop of Bogotá, Luis Cardinal Concha Cordova. This was also shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, whose liberating effects led, in Bogotá, to a rebellion of the younger members of lower clergy against the reactionary Cardinal, which in turn prompted an inspection visit from a representative of the Roman Curia and Cardinal Concha’s retirement a few months later.
Meanwhile, Colombia was passing through difficult times. A sharp decline in coffee export earnings had cut in half the dollar value of the Colombian peso; political insiders were speculating in cheap official dollars, while factories were closing for lack of foreign exchange to finance imports of raw materials; a number of sensational kidnap murders of wealthy citizens had occurred during the year, and a Castroite guerrilla insurrection had begun in the mountains of eastern Colombia; electoral abstentions had reached as high as 70 per cent of the eligible voters in the previous election; the Liberal-Conservative “National Front” pact to end the violencia (the tribal warfare between the two parties that from 1948 and 1958 had cost an estimated 200,000 lives) threatened to come apart as powerful splinter groups developed in both parties. The government showed little capacity to stop the downward slide, and in the middle of 1965 Torres’s political appeals began to catch on. “The revolutionary struggle is a Christian and priestly struggle,” he declared. “I am a revolutionary because I am a priest and because I am a Catholic. The Colombian Church is one of the most backward in the world.”
While traveling through Colombia on a reporting trip in August 1965, I accompanied Camilo Torres on one of his speaking tours to Cali, a tropical city near the Pacific coast, which has become an industrial mecca and refuge from the violencia for hundreds of thousands of peasants from Colombia’s western departments. “For me there was no possibility of compromise with the Church, because the Church has always been with the oligarchy, and continues that way,” he told me. “Believe me, many young priests feel as I do, but cannot express themselves. We are forming a United Front with the Communists, the Christian Democrats, and the left-wing of the Movimiento Liberal Revolucionario (MRL). They have accepted my platform of agrarian reform, of urban reform that will convert all tenants into homeowners, and nationalization of hospitals, radio and television stations, and the country’s natural resources. We would agree to a plebiscite to end the National Front;8 but we would abstain from any other election because in Colombia there is no free vote.”
The thirty-six-year-old suspended priest, who had been immensely popular as a chaplain and professor of sociology at the National University in Bogotá, was to speak in a small plaza near the newly-created slum of El Rodeo. Torres’s meetings had been drawing consistently larger attendance than either of the major parties had been able to attract in many years, and although he arrived two hours late, a big crowd was waiting patiently for him. The crowd began to drift away, however, as his speech dragged on. Torres’s oratory was full of Marxist cant—“masses,” “revolution,” “oligarchy,” “agrarian reform”—which often tends more to bore and irritate an audience of poor people than to win their involvement and support. By the time he finished speaking half the crowd had dispersed.
Within a month after this appearance, Torres’s United Front showed clear signs of falling apart. Under pressure from the Church hierarchy, the tiny Christian Democratic party and the radical Catholic trade-unionists who had supported him began publicly to condemn his alliance with the Communists, the only organized party not to deny him its support. Torres’s public appearances became less and less frequent until they stopped altogether toward the end of 1965. After he disappeared entirely from public view, it was rumored that he had gone to Cuba; another report had him resting “for reasons of health” in some remote hacienda. In early 1966 a communiqué signed by Torres circulated in Bogotá: “I have joined the armed struggle. From these Colombian mountains I intend to continue the struggle with weapons in hand, until power is conquered for my people. I have joined the Ejército de Liberatión Nacional (ELN) because I have found in the ELN the same ideals as the United Front.” He died a month later in the municipio of San Vicente de Chucuri, a primitive region deeply scarred by years of the violencia, where ELN guerrillas are still operating.
Since his death Torres has come to be venerated by many Latin American Catholics as a martyred saint who fell in the struggle for social justice; a cult has grown up around his memory very much like the one around the memory of Che Guevara. To others, however, the death of Camilo Torres has become symbolic of the general process of dissolution in the Latin American priesthood after the Vatican Council. The future of the priesthood in virtually every republic is threatened by numerous resignations from the clergy and the near-total lack of priestly vocations among the young. Beyond this the various hierarchies are hard-pressed to handle the many rebellions issuing from the ranks of the younger priests. In Cali not long ago a group of priests organized marches to protest the “extortion against the people” represented by an increase in bus fares. During 1969 four Spanish priests and an American nun were expelled from Colombia for allegedly inciting student disturbances; some of them were associated with a group of thirty-nine priests and the young bishop of Buenaventura, known as the Golconda Group, which had issued a document calling for a “socialist society” in Colombia and “an increase in revolutionary action against imperialism and the neo-colonial bourgeoise.”9 About this time Church authorities also closed the Colegio Marymount, a fashionable girls’ school run by American nuns, because of Marxist tendencies among its student and faculty.
In Argentina, where another conservative Church hierarchy presides, 283 clergymen belonging to a group called “Priests of the Third World” signed a document last April, proclaiming their support of the twenty-eight priests in Rosario, Argentina’s second city, who had resigned their posts in protest against the “insensitivity” of Archbishop Guillermo Bolatti, who had dismissed a priest in a workers’ district for implementing one of the liturgical innovations of Vatican II. In another protest in Rosario, 4,500 parishioners signed a letter to Pope Paul backing the dissident priests, whom the Archbishop had called “Marxists” and “subversives.” In July five persons suffered bullet wounds when police broke up a demonstration protesting the arrival of a replacement for the dismissed priest. Earlier, the Archbishop of Cordoba was forced to resign his post following a similar conflict. Faced with intransigent young priests citing the papal encylicals and the documents of CELAM and the Vatican Council, conservative national hierarchies, such as those of Colombia and Argentina, have often been forced to yield.
The radicalization of large numbers of priests has led in turn to some radical innovations in the symbolic language of the Church. For example, the Chilean Jesuit magazine Mensaje, in an editorial published on the eve of Pope Paul’s 1968 Latin American journey, compared the death of Che Guevara with that of Christ. This much-discussed editorial attempted to deal with the moral problem of revolutionary violence by turning “martyred” guerrilla leaders such as Che Guevara or Camilo Torres into Christ-figures, who “died for men” while struggling against the injustices and cruelties of Latin American society. Another example of this sanctification of violence is afforded by the “manifesto” issued by a group of priests in Higüey, one of the poorest rural dioceses of the Dominican Republic: “The violence (so much feared) is already among us. When a peasant with many children who are hungry and naked, without house or school, looks at his children, he must turn to violence; when he looks at the great extensions of pangola grass, he must turn to violence; when he sees the well-tended pastures, where the animals are better-fed than his own children, this peasant must turn to violence. . . .”10
Both the Mensaje editorial and the Higüey manifesto appeared around the time of the 1968 Medellin conference of CELAM, sometimes called Latin America’s own Vatican Council, which went on record as saying that “Latin America finds itself in a situation of injustice that could be called institutional violence, because the present structures violate fundamental rights.” The same position was articulated somewhat more graphically by a former Maryknoll priest, Thomas Melville, after he and three other American missionaries (including a Maryknoll nun whom he later married) were expelled from Guatemala, after fifteen years’ work among the highland Indians, for having provided assistance to a Castroite guerrilla movement. Melville wrote: “Having come to the conclusion that the actual state of violence, composed of the malnutrition, ignorance, sickness and hunger of the vast majority of the Guatemalan population, is the direct result of a capitalist system that makes the defenseless Indian compete against the powerful and well-armed landowner, my brother11 and I decided not to be silent accomplices of the mass murder that this system generates. We began teaching the Indians that no one will defend their rights, if they do not defend themselves. If the government and the oligarchy are using arms to maintain them in their position of misery, then they have the obligation to take up arms and defend their God-given rights to be men.”12
Most of the recent Catholic discussion regarding the necessity and legitimacy of revolutionary violence hinges on the following paragraph from Pope Paul’s 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples):
There are certainly situations whose injustice cries out to heaven. When whole populations destitute of necessities live in a state of dependence barring them from all initiative and responsibility, and from all opportunity to advance culturally and share in social and political life, recourse to violence, as a means to right these wrongs to human dignity, is a grave temptation. We know, however, that a revolutionary uprising—save where there is manifest, longstanding tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country—produces new injustices, throws more elements out of balance and brings on new disasters. A real evil should not be fought against at the cost of greater misery. We want to be clearly understood: the present situation must be faced with courage and the injustices linked with it must be fought against and overcome. Development demands bold transformations, innovations that go deep. Urgent reforms should be undertaken without delay. (Italics added.)
The key words, of course, are contained in the italicized clause, which repeats a concept that can trace its theological lineage back to St. Thomas Aquinas, who formulated the Church’s classic position on revolution.13 The Pope’s pronouncement has been welcomed by progressive priests and bishops who, while not advocating violence, believe it may be inescapable in achieving the sweeping social changes advocated in the encyclical. Consequently, however, there has been sufficient speculation on the advisability of violence to cause Pope Paul to express some reservations on the subject, and three of the four speeches he delivered in Bogotá in 1968 contained pointed warnings against revolutionary violence.
The Church’s social involvement of recent years, for all the hope it holds out to Latin America, is nevertheless proving to be a mixed blessing for the hierarchical authority. A good case in point is the situation in Chile, where the national hierarchy published in 1962 a momentous pastoral letter, “On Social and Political Responsibility in the Present Hour,” which was credited with helping pave the way for the triumph of the Christian Democratic party over a Communist-Socialist coalition in the 1964 Presidential election. But after this triumph, and after having changed its popular image by donating all its lands for distribution among the peasants, the hierarchy yet finds itself losing traditional ground—to an extent where the Chilean bishops were recently constrained to speak out against the effects and consequences of liberalization: “weakened feeling for God, deterioration of the spiritual life and abandonment of the sacraments, arbitrary acts introduced into the liturgy, . . . ideological confusion, and in particular a ‘secularization’ that is ill-understood and built on a doctrine that substitutes the evangelizing mission for a mere strategy of social promotion with vocabulary and method taken from an openly atheistic ideology.” This lament of the Chilean bishops brings into question the role of ecclesiastical authority in a situation of inevitable change; indeed, it is the opinion of many that the shrinking celibate priesthood cannot for long resist the transfer of responsibility to leaders emerging from the lay community of the faithful, since in many areas of Latin America there is simply no other alternative if the Church is to survive. Moreover, some signs indicate that the new popular sovereignty will increasingly be associated with a spontaneous “prophetism” that will challenge the intercession of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy in matters of interpreting divine revelation. These certain eventualities are inherent in the insistent demands being voiced today—that the Pope share power with the bishops, that “the People of God” as a whole participate in the choice of bishops (who are now appointed by Rome), and that the priesthood be opened to exemplary married believers whose authority derives from the community they serve.
Whatever new forms may evolve, it is abundantly clear that the present ecclesiastical structures have been considerably weakened. Indeed, the Church is quite visibly shaken, and one would be hard-pressed to say what arouses Rome’s greater inquietude, the crisis in religious discipline or the social-revolutionary spirit that has been unleashed by the aggiornamento. Be that as it may, sometimes the two tendencies—they are undoubtedly complementary—unite in the person of a powerful advocate. Such a person is Ivan Illich, a forty-three-year-old, Vienna-born American Mon-signor of Jewish-Croatian parentage. In 1961, Illich founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, an institute for the training of missionaries bound for Latin America, for the publication of books and pamphlets on Latin American society, and for conferences of intellectuals concerned with hemispheric affairs. Prior to this, Illich had obtained a PhD in history at Salzburg, studied theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, and was apparently headed for a career in the Vatican diplomatic service when, rather abruptly, he turned up as a priest in a Puerto Rican parish of the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Here he became a protégé of the late Francis Cardinal Spellman, who supported him in his subsequent troubles with the Vatican Curia. At the age of thirty-one, Illich became a Monsignor and, leaving New York, was appointed Vice-Rector of the Catholic University in Puerto Rico, where he remained for five years until he quarreled with Bishop James MacManus of Ponce over the Church’s intervention in the 1960 Puerto Rican election.
Illich’s reputation as an iconoclast—it is this that aroused the wrath of the Curia—derives primarily, however, from two magazine articles he published in 1967. In “The Seamy Side of Charity” (America, January 21, 1967), he wrote with unconcealed scorn: “If North America and Europe send enough priests [to Latin America] to fill the vacant parishes, there is no need to consider laymen—unpaid for part-time work—to fulfill most evangelical tasks; no need to re-examine the structure of the parish, the function of the priest, the Sunday obligation and clerical sermon; no need for exploring the use of the married deaconate, new forms of celebration of the Word and Eucharist and intimate familiar celebrations of conversion to the Gospel in the milieu of the home.” In “The Vanishing Clergyman” (the Critic, June-July 1967), Illich’s contribution to the celibacy debate, he drew this unpromising-picture:
. . . A large segment of the thinking Church questions the tie between the celibacy and the priesthood. The Pope insists on their connection. Neither doctrine nor tradition give definitive support to his position. I believe that the emergence of a new pastoral Church depends largely on compliance with his directive during our generation. His position helps assure the speedy death of the clergy. . . . Thousands of priests now reject celibacy, and present the painful spectacle of men trained for sexual abstinence groping belatedly into big-risk marriage. The Church dispenses of them secretly, arbitrarily, and awkwardly. They are forbidden further exercise of their orders. Having chosen marriage, they could still exercise priestly functions, but they would cease to be models—except perhaps to others like themselves.
What happened thereafter has been widely reported. First, CIDOC became the object of various ecclesiastical investigations as a suspected center of dangerous leftist and heterodox activities. Then, in June 1968 Illich was summoned to Rome for a secret appearance before the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (the former Holy Office), where he was interrogated by Franjo Cardinal Seper, the Congregation’s head and a fellow Croatian. This was followed by Illich’s refusal to take a secrecy vow or to answer any questions unless given a written copy of all the charges against him. Illich was then handed a bizarre list of 85 inquisitorial charges put as questions.14 He responded by writing a letter to Cardinal Seper, stating that he refused to answer because “a questionnaire of this type seems designed to wreck any hope of a human and Christian dialogue between the one judging and the one being judged.” The curtain on the drama rang down with Seper’s dismissal of Illich, in Croatian, with a line that echoed the words of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: “Get thee hence, get thee hence, and do not come back.” Despite a series of subsequent maneuvers by Illich to exempt himself and CIDOC from ecclesiastical control and the sanctions of canon law, the Vatican, in January 1969, forbade all bishops to send priests or nuns to CIDOC for missionary training; Illich then appealed his case directly to Pope Paul.15
The prosecution of Ivan Illich by the former Holy Office of the Vatican Curia cannot be separated from the general crisis in papal authority—which in practice also means the authority of the Roman Curia—that has agitated the Church since Vatican II, and that reached a climax at the Synod of Bishops which met in Rome last autumn. The growing impression is that the Vatican has now become afraid of the more radical effects of aggiornamento. Paul’s image is no longer that of the winged Pope, making jet-age visits to India and Africa, Bogotá and New York, but of a quietly determined old man trying, in a last-ditch effort, to save the Church from the tumult it has generated within itself. During Easter Week of 1969, for instance, he warned of “a practically schismatic ferment that divides and subdivides the Church.” On June 24, while commemorating the sixth anniversary of his reign, he spoke of the “grave dangers to the Church of God” posed by two key problems: “A diminished sense of doctrinal orthodoxy toward the repository of faith that the Church has inherited from its apostolic origin . . . [and] a certain diffuse lack of confidence toward the exercise of Our ministry which, under the mandate of Christ, united and guided the People of God on several levels.” And on his visit to Bogotá in 1968, as we have seen, Pope Paul was pointedly reserved in his social utterances, avoiding repetition of the attacks on neocolonialism, “liberal capitalism,” and the “international imperialism of money” that he had made a year before in Populorum Progressio, and warning his Latin American audience against using the encyclical as a justification for violent revolution.
Nevertheless, for all his public agonizing over some of the directions in which the aggiornamento is taking the Church, Paul VI has been careful in most instances not to associate himself with the reactionary party in Vatican politics. Moreover, he cannot be unaware that, with the consolidation of social democracy in most of Western Europe and North America since World War II, Latin America is now the only Catholic region of the world where the Church’s newly enunciated social teachings are being put to a serious test. Certainly the Vatican cannot turn its back on the public pressure for social justice generated in nation after nation by Latin American laymen, priests, and bishops. Despite instances of extremism, this development has issued in a fertile enrichment of Christian tradition in an area where it has been conspicuously weak. Although only about 10 per cent of the population attends Mass with any regularity, the Church in Latin America has returned to the center of public life with a social doctrine that has given it a prophetic role, and sometimes a polarizing role, in what remains an unjust and highly volatile society. The hierarchical Church remains too weak and poor to bring about by itself the changes it preaches. Nevertheless, it has learned over the years that its institutional charisma and solidarity can be greatest where its temporal pretensions are least. In the words of Ivan Illich, “I believe the specific task of the Church in the modern world is the Christian celebration of the experience of change.” But, with or without this celebration, no one can be sure in what form the Church will survive. The agony of Catholicism seems likely to continue, with the Church caught between surrendering itself to a religious revolution of its own making, or fortifying itself in the traditional forms and usages that these days show diminishing power to sustain a living faith.
1 Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, p. 209.
2 From J. Lloyd Mechara, Church and State in Latin America, p. 191.
3 This story is told in Robert D. Crassweller's excellent biography, Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator, pp. 382-83.
4 On December 4, 1969, Dom Valdir was indicted for subversion by a military court after he had charged that a labor leader at the government steel mill in Volta Redonda had been tortured during interrogation.
5 From “Bispos Apóiam Padres contra Acao Militar,” in Correio da Manha, Rio de Janeiro, December 1, 1967.
6 From “Religion, the Church, and Social Change in Brazil,” reprinted as CIDOC Document 68/73 (Cuernavaca, 1968), p. 73/21.
7 Euclides da Cunha's literary classic, O Sertao, quotes this description from 1877 of the most famous of the backland preachers: “There has appeared in the northern backlands an individual who goes by the name of Antonio Conselheiro, and who exerts a great influence over the minds of the lower classes, making use of his mysterious trappings and ascetic habits to impose upon their ignorance and simplicity. He lets his beard and hair grow long, wears a cotton tunic, and eats sparingly, being almost a mummy in aspect. Accompanied by a couple of women followers, he lives by reciting beads and litanies, by preaching, and by giving counsel to the multitudes that come to hear him when the local Church authorities permit it. Appealing to their religious sentiments, he draws them after him in throngs and moves them at his will.”
8 Under the 1958 agreement the Liberals and Conservatives have undertaken to share equally for sixteen years the Presidency, governmental appointments, and parliamentary representation, to the exclusion of all other parties.
9 From “Segundo Encuentro del Grupo Sacerdotal de Golconda,” in SIC, No. 312, Caracas, February 1969.
10 From “Manifiesto de los Curas de Higüey,” in SIC, No. 315, May 1969.
11 Arthur Melville, also a former Maryknoll missionary, who was expelled from Guatemala with Sister Marion Peter Bradford (whom Thomas Melville married) and Father Blase Bonpane.
12 From “Revolution Is Guatemala's Only Solution,” in the National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 1968, p. 5.
13 “The tyrannical regime is not just, for not orienting itself toward the common good, but toward the private good of the ruler, as one reads in the Philosopher [Aristotle]. For this reason, the disturbance of such a regime cannot be called sedition, if it is not disturbed in such a disorderly way that the tyrannized multitude suffers more injury with the uprising than with the tyrannical regime.” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2-2-42.
14 See Edward B. Fiske's interview with Illich in the New York Times, February 4, 1969, and texts of the Congregation's 85 questions and Illich's letter to Cardinal Seper in the National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1969. Here are two samples from the 85 questions: “3: What do you say about those who say you are ‘petulant, adventurous, imprudent, fanatical, and hypnotizing, a rebel to any authority, disposed to accept and recognize only that of the Bishop of Cuernavaca’? . . . 5: Is it true that by articles, interviews, and ambiguous theoretical and practical positions, by personal sympathies toward the political and social Left and a morbid understanding of ex-religious and ex-priests, you have fomented grave confusion in the souls and consciences of others, especially by assimilating Marxism to Christianity and by equating the celibate parochial clergy with the married deaconate?”
15 A Vatican document reported in Le Monde, June 14, 1969 and in the National Catholic Reporter, June 25, 1969 said that “the Holy See . . . does not oppose attendance on an experimental basis, by priests and religious, at courses organized by CIDOC,” but urged that Illich leave CIDOC and place the center under the control of CELAM and the Mexican Bishops' Conference. In a statement Illich referred to a March 15, 1969 letter to Cardinal Terrence J. Cooke of New York, saying: “In this letter I expressed what must continue to be my firm intention to govern all the decisions and actions of my life completely independently of any canonical authority, legislative or otherwise, special to the clergy.”
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Latin America: The Church Militant
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
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.