To the Editor:
The American bishops are losing faith in deterrence, to the scandal of the “clerks strategic,” including their dean, Albert Wohlstetter. On May 3, 1983, they posted their five radical theses on the limits of deterrence at the door of the nuclear-war room in their pastoral letter on war and peace, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. In June, Albert Wohlstetter replied in COMMENTARY in his article, “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents,” inaugurating what promises to be a decisive national debate on the meaning of security in the nuclear age.
Fortunately, these protagonists share several fundamental beliefs about the imperatives of national security: (1) the intentional targeting of civilians is anathema to Western civilization; (2) present strategy for the defense of Europe, which allows NATO forces to remain decisively inferior to the Warsaw Pact armies they face, is a mad gamble waiting to be lost. Enhancement of conventional forces (and revision of NATO strategy) therefore is a premier obligation incumbent on Western leaders; (3) unilateral dismantling of the present U.S. nuclear strategic arsenal would be politically destabilizing, militarily risky, and diplomatically self-defeating. Hence, unilateralism is morally repugnant. Each of these somewhat surprising points of consensus deserves comment.
- A dramatic shift in moral sensitivity has occurred since 1945. Albert Einstein was for once wrong in judging that the splitting of the atom had changed everything but our way of thinking. For, in responding to the threat of atomic weapons, the arms-control community stood the ancient tradition of civilized warfare on its head. While Western civilization had, for at least 1,600 years, defended the principle of civilian immunity from intentional targeting, the “minimal-deterrence” school of strategists, whom Mr. Wohlstetter castigates, has sought to limit the size and instability of weapons systems by pleading for a “cities-only” strategy which could be reliably executed by a relatively small (and thus economical) and invulnerable (and thus stable) force of submarine missile-launching platforms. Aghast at this (conditional) acceptance of civilian slaughter as the price of peace, Mr. Wohlstetter has long pleaded for a more humane and traditional strategy which would spare civilians from direct attack. In this he is joined by the bishops.
- Mr. Wohlstetter and the bishops agree as well on the urgent need for a conventional-force buildup (to be accompanied by a revision of NATO strategy) in order to avoid the resort to nuclear force. The only residual disagreement between them on this issue lies in the markedly more hopeful episcopal estimate of the political feasibility of such a radical shift in political attitudes. Faith perhaps begets hope.
- Mr. Wohlstetter recognizes, only to ridicule, another component of the bishops’ teaching which resembles his own convictions: the rejection of unilateral nuclear disarmament. While rejecting unilateralism himself, however, Mr. Wohlstetter is cavalierly skeptical of the pastoral letter’s confidence that the arsenal itself (even apart from a declaratory policy to use it) constitutes an effective deterrent. Deterrence, as the bishops understand it, is in the eye of the (Soviet) beholder. Since they agree with Mr. Wohlstetter that the leaders of the Soviet Union are indeed “deeply suspicious” and “hostile,” they are persuaded that this adversary would virtually invincibly discount any U.S. shift to a declaratory policy of “use, never” as a cheap propaganda ploy, presuming that an expensive arsenal is maintained to be used in a crisis. Perhaps here the bishops assess Soviet response to such a shift in policy more shrewdly than the strategists, reflecting in their judgment the skeptical interpretation that Western nations give to present USSR declarations of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons. Finding that this declaratory policy of the Soviets leaves undiminished the deterrent power of their mounting stockpiles of nuclear warheads, the bishops assume that Soviet officials would be equally incredulous of any Western renunciation of the use of its own strategic arsenal. Bishops rely more readily on Soviet skepticism than do strategists, judging deterrence to be a function of distrust and of historical conditioning. At issue is not whether “country X” and “country Y” would be mutually deterred by a balanced nuclear arsenal whose use had been renounced in declaratory policy. What counts is whether the United States (with its German ally) and the USSR would be so deterred. In arriving at such a political judgment about a sinful world, it is by no means self-evident that the biblical education of the bishops is less helpful to interpreting the meaning of deterrence than is a training in mathematics.
There is then between Mr. Wohlstetter and the bishops a surprising convergence of views on the imperatives of security. Despite their differing estimates of Soviet credulity in the face of a declaratory policy eschewing use of the nuclear arsenal, the bishops share Mr. Wohlstetter’s abhorrence of city-targeting, his anxiety about the insufficient provisions being made to resist conventional aggression conventionally, and the common-sense rejection of unilateral disarmament.
Given this ample evidence of agreement, it might appear that the impending debate will be merely a skirmish between competing schools of strategic theology. Indeed, if the bishops had finally endorsed the posture adopted in the first draft of their pastoral letter (circulated in June 1982), Mr. Wohlstetter could have subscribed to most of the findings in the document. For he has long labored to discredit counter-city targeting and to restrict U.S. targeting options to some range of hostile military installations. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the bishops themselves adopted such a deterrent posture in their first draft. While cautioning that grievous doubts remained about the controllability of such counterforce exchanges, they gave grudging approval to controlled retaliatory strategic targeting of military installations, excluding only strategic forces (that is, ICBM’s). This somewhat startling concession was won from the bishops by their desire to preserve for national-security officials the “freedom of choice” which Mr. Wohlstetter demands, that is, the capacity and public authorization to retaliate against military targets if deterrence fails. If this position had survived the series of revisions and debates that led to the final draft, the present debate would have focused exclusively on the level of nuclear strikes adequate to reinforce deterrence.
That early episcopal tolerance for limited and controlled nuclear strikes on Soviet military targets was, however, among the happy casualties of the process of consultation and reflection which occurred before the final debate in Chicago in May 1983. Indeed, when the second draft was circulated for review in October 1982 the bishops had already reversed themselves on this fundamental issue. In all succeeding drafts, including the definitive text, they reject any militarily meaningful use of the nuclear arsenal. This change was effected by the storm of criticism that broke over their toleration of counter-force nuclear war. After reviewing 700 pages of critical comments in response to the first draft, the committee paused to reassess the moral arguments that had led them to approve such strategies.
Their reassessment presumably crystallized around the meaning of “free choice” in regard to nuclear war. Sharing Mr. Wohlstetter’s reluctance to discard any military option which can meet the legitimate imperatives of defense, they asked once more whether the option for counterforce nuclear war was morally justifiable. On second thought, they judged it was not.
This revision emerged from their review of the testimony (and literature) concerning the controllability of nuclear war. Given the high risk that a significant nuclear exchange would irreversibly disrupt the command-and-control network that links the national command center to the field commanders (as well as to the adversary), they contemplated the course that nuclear war might follow once the national command center was hors de combat, including two possibilities. One was the unlikely scenario of a simultaneous, uncoordinated, and mutual cessation of nuclear hostilities. The alternative scenario appeared to them more probable: uncontrolled nuclear exchange, culminating in the destruction of the northern hemisphere. Realizing that this apocalyptic scenario was universally recognized as a “less than improbable” outcome of any (even counterforce) nuclear exchange, they retraced their steps, declaring the waging of (even counterforce) nuclear war incompatible with human freedom. Mr. Wohlstetter, as we know, holds the opposite view, that renouncing nuclear war negates freedom.
It was fortunate for the bishops that the capital issue dividing them from Mr. Wohlstetter is a theological, or at least a philosophical, one: the nature of freedom. Here bishops feel at home, experiencing no misgivings when they condemn any act which risks abandoning rational deliberation about future acts. Deliberately rendering oneself incapable of making rational and effective choices is an immoral abdication of freedom.
Fighting nuclear war, they now came to realize, would be such an abdiction of freedom. For nuclear war might be unstoppable. If the national command center were to be cut off from subordinate commanders, certain U.S. nuclear warheads could be launched against the Soviet Union either by pre-authorized or unauthorized firings. If the Soviet leaders were similarly deprived of their command-and-control network, they would be physically unable to communicate to their commanders their conceivable choice to surrender in the face of American escalation. Possibly Soviet missiles too would be launched independently of their national command center. Literally no one might be in control of the war. Exit free choice.
Having forced themseves to contemplate this possibility, the bishops reversed their previous decision to tolerate controlled counterforce war-fighting. Their second thoughts find expression in these sober words: “We are sure that we must reject nuclear war.” Human freedom may not legitimately be construed to include options which significantly risk abandoning future choice.
The schism between the bishops and the strategists on deterrence rests finally on differing views of freedom. In the Catholic tradition, at least, freedom does not mean the capacity to do whatever is feasible, but only whatever is reasonable, that is, what promises to enhance human welfare. Freedom includes, therefore, the refusal to do what risks wreaking (literally) inestimable human destruction, as a nuclear war does. Freedom, the bishops believe, is also a self-denying faculty, in this case the capacity to say “no” to nuclear war.
Have the bishops got it wrong? Or have the strategists?
Francis X. Winters, S.J.
School of Foreign Service
To the Editor:
I have long regarded Albert Wohlstetter as a serious, informed, and usually responsible strategic analyst. His article makes some useful points about the possibility—the necessity—of a nuclear-deterrent policy that does not deliberately target civilian populations. But in too many places the article lacks the virtues I hope to find in Mr. Wohlstetter, virtues that it is essential to retain in the debate on nuclear strategy.
I was particularly distressed by his distortion of the position adopted by the United States Catholic bishops in their recent pastoral letter on war and peace. (I was the principal consultant to the committee that drafted the bishops’ letter.) He repeatedly characterizes the bishops as having reluctantly accepted the continued possession of nuclear weapons by the United States, but at the same time of fatally undermining deterrence by a “doctrine of ‘use, never’ (i.e., no use—first-second-or ever).” But the fact is that at no point in the pastoral letter do the bishops adopt the “you-can-have-it-but-you-can’t-use-it” position.
It is true that the second draft (October 1982) of the letter was ambiguous—deliberately so—on this matter. While even that draft contained no passage explicitly saying no use would be permissible, it was imbued (properly) with a strong rhetoric of “saying no to nuclear war,” and contained a few passages whose full meaning was obscure. Most troublesome in this respect was the quotation from Cardinal Krol, which said “not only the use of strategic nuclear weapons, but also the declared intent to use them involved in our deterrence policy, are both wrong.” (Emphasis in original.) In context this statement could be taken to refer to any use of nuclear weapons, or only to the use or declared intent to use them indiscriminately, i.e., against cities. Since counterpopulation warfare was still an element of American declaratory policy at the time of Cardinal Krol’s statement in 1978, he was not necessarily condemning any use or threat. Similar ambiguity arose regarding advice, in the pastoral section at the end of the second draft, to men and women in defense industries because “. . . your industry produces many of the weapons of massive and indiscriminate destruction which have concerned us in this letter. We have judged immoral even the threat to use such weapons.” I believe that, in context, the operative qualifier is “massive and indiscriminate destruction,” but can understand how some readers could have taken this passage as a blanket condemnation.
This ambiguity was intended to mollify critics who chose to interpret some passages in the first draft—notably, “If nuclear weapons may be used at all, they may be used only after they have been used against our own country or our allies, and, even then, only in an extremely limited, discriminating manner against military targets”—as the bishops giving some “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to limited nuclear war. Of course it was nothing of the kind. Predictably, the ambiguity of the second draft opened the bishops up to ridicule or mischievous charges from conservative critics that, despite their disclaimers, the bishops were “really” adopting a stance of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Fortunately, the ambiguous passages were removed in the third draft and in the form adopted in the final Chicago meeting. In fact, a proposed amendment by Archbishop Quinn, of “opposition on moral grounds to any use of nuclear weapons,” was not adopted. Despite his various references (without quotation or citation) to works by Father Bryan Hehir, Mr. Wohlstetter does not—nor can he—cite any passage in the third draft or final version of the letter that rules out any use.
Mr. Wohlstetter’s criticism therefore is not just wrong, it borders on the irresponsible. Perhaps he was unable to read the third draft (available to the public on April 6) before writing his article for the June issue of COMMENTARY. But if so, why not say so, rather than alluding to having seen “various drafts”? Or why not delay the article a month or so to get it right? (He was able, after all, to incorporate a reference to President Reagan’s March 23 Star Wars speech.)
Mr. Wohlstetter clearly shares the bishops’ abhorrence of deliberate strikes against innocent civilians. His preferred deterrent policy is one which would rely on counter-force targeting, with efforts to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties (“bonus” effects) by the use of relatively small and accurate weapons. In principle it is hard for me to quarrel with this prescription, which appears consistent with “just-war” precepts of discrimination and proportionality. For this reason Mr. Wohlstetter can praise the reduction of the American nuclear stockpile in terms of megatonnage, and, allegedly, also a reduction in the number of “weapons.” What the referent for this latter reduction is, however, I cannot tell from such a loose definition. Much worse, this praise ignores a 60-percent increase, in a decade, in the number of “force loadings” (warheads and bombs) in the strategic arsenal.
And that points to the flaw in Mr. Wohlstetter’s prescription: even given reduction in megatonnage and improvements in accuracy, the number of strategic bombs and warheads (approximately 20,000 for both sides together) means that even “discriminating” use could wreak horrendous damage. The American SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) has identified 60 “military” targets for such weapons in Moscow alone. A Muscovite’s prospects of surviving a strike against those targets would not be much better than if civilians had been deliberately struck. Mr. Wohlstetter faults some of the studies of the effects of nuclear weapons that are cited by the bishops, indicating they do not consider the kind of “limited” strike he has in mind. But even a Soviet attack on the 1,052 American ICBM silos, 46 SAC air bases, and two bases for missile-launching submarines would result in 7 to 15 million “prompt” deaths, as many wounded, and untold eventual deaths from fallout and economic and ecological disruption. These targets do not include the many command-and-control centers, tactical military forces, transportation facilities, or “militarily significant” industry that are included in the American SIOP and no doubt in its Soviet equivalent. The number of civilian deaths might be fewer than if civilians were directly targeted, but hardly such a low number as to make “limited” nuclear war an option of rational policy.
Perhaps Mr. Wohlstetter does not intend something as massive as this in his example of “limited” nuclear war. In theory, it is possible to imagine much more restricted strikes, possibly as some form of implicit intra-war bargaining, that would produce a negotiated end to the war before escalation became overwhelming. One cannot definitively rule out the possibility, but neither should one bet the future of civilization on it. Probably the two most knowledgeable experts on this matter are Desmond Ball and John Steinbruner, who offer nearly identical skeptical views. In Steinbruner’s words: “If national commanders seriously attemped to implement this strategy [controlled response] in a war with existing and currently projected U.S. forces, the result would not be a finely controlled strategic campaign. The more likely result would be the collapse of U.S. forces into isolated units undertaking retaliation on their own initiative against a wide variety of targets at unpredictable moments.”
In other words, Mr. Wohlstetter’s aim may be laudable, but its realism leaves something to be desired. The further risk is that other strategic planners may not be as prudent or responsible as Mr. Wohlstetter. To encourage belief in the probability of morally acceptable limited nuclear war is to play into the hands of the war-fighters, the “prevailers,” those who think “victory is possible” and would have some meaning. It would encourage those who want to continue to rely on a threat of first use of nuclear weapons to deter a wide range of acts in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. It would encourage brinksmanship and crisis risk-taking at the expense of building up alternative, non-nuclear means of defending ourselves and our allies. (Mr. Wohlstetter chides the bishops for only “grudgingly” supporting conventional alternatives. But they are, after all, bishops, and cannot be expected to enthuse about more outlays for conventional weaponry. The fact is they do acknowledge an essential piece of realism, the likelihood that “some strengthening of conventional defense would be a proportionate price to pay, if this will reduce the possibility of nuclear war.”)
A key element of the bishops’ analysis is their advocacy of a policy of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons. They require that non-nuclear attacks be resisted by other than nuclear means. That advocacy does not stem, as Mr. Wohlstetter would have it, from a more general “no-use-ever” policy. It stems from a candid reflection on the probability, whatever the desirability, of truly “limiting” nuclear war.
While I have substantial sympathy for much of Mr. Wohlstetter’s position, I would have more if he would acknowledge the desirability of a no-first-use posture. It cannot be achieved readily—though it is a more plausible achievement than is the command-and-control and discrimination capability for reliably fighting “limited” nuclear war. The risks of escalation in wartime are high under the best of circumstances. If the opponent should begin nuclear war, some of those risks would already have been taken. To deter that act, and to bring the war to a negotiated halt just as soon as possible, we must plan certain very restricted forms of retaliation. But the risks of first use of nuclear weapons are too high to justify us in ever setting the process in motion.
Bruce M. Russett
Department of Political Science
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editor:
I believe that Albert Wohlstetter’s article is by far the best logical and historical exposition of the development of the strategic debate; that it is the most rigorous and convincing articulation of the only sane direction in which to go, once one realizes that neither Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) nor disarmament is a tenable goal; and that it is the most exciting (and in a way the first) challenge to the idea that the nuclear age has introduced fundamentally new theoretical, moral, and political dilemmas and paradoxes, or has immensely sharpened permanent ones already articulated by Clausewitz.
Mr. Wohlstetter is entirely convincing about what one should do if deterrence fails (provided it is feasible, and here I completely accept Mr. Wohlstetter’s argument that something is always feasible in the direction of discrimination and control, that the possibilities in these areas have improved enormously, and that at any rate one should always try). But I find Mr. Wohlstetter least strong on the question of giving reassurance not only to our establishment but also to our population, and particularly to the population of the European allies. Mr. Wohlstetter has to counter the argument of people who will say that though he may be right on paper, he doesn’t take human realities (or Murphy’s law) into account. Such people argue that in the case of Europe, distinctions between types or degrees of conventional and nuclear war make a lot more sense if you are an American than if you are a European, particularly a German, and they say that since such ideas come mostly from American analysts, it shows that the latter are more preoccupied with avoiding escalation to their own territory than with deterring any war at all.
On the essential point of deterrence, how it looks to the enemy, I believe Mr. Wohlstetter puts it too neatly by affirming that whether to deter or to fight, whether with conventional or nuclear weapons, the answer is always and exclusively discrimination and control. I think that no matter how much we try, there is still a strong possibility that the process will get out of hand. In fact, the belief that one would be entering unknown territory and might be carried all the way to mutual suicide is likely to have contributed to the nuclear taboo and hence to deterrence. After all, we have had and continue to have an endless number of conventional conflicts but so far no nuclear one.
In the case of the Soviets, Mr. Wohlstetter very elegantly solves the dilemma with his argument that, given their regime, they care about military power, not about innocent bystanders; hence the more discriminate the response, the more effective both deterrence and defense or war-fighting. He may well be right, although Stalin’s crimes, the losses of World War II, and the acceptance of tens of millions of deaths in a “nuclear exchange” may be very different psychologically and politically. But assuming (as, on balance, I do) that he is right in the case of the Soviets, that does not, it seems to me, take care of the broader problem of nuclear deterrence.
Two polemical ways of putting it, both of which in my view would be unfair but both of which may contain some truth, are:
- Mr. Wohlstetter makes the possibilities of control and discrimination in nuclear war sound so good that one does not see why he puts such stress on substituting conventional for nuclear weapons whenever possible, or why, so far, there have been, on all sides, including the Communist, more restraints against the use of nuclear weapons than against that of conventional ones.
- He tends not to give enough weight to “uncertainty,” both in deterrence and in war-fighting, which would make the balance less delicate (and deterrence less unstable) and the war less controllable (and hence less appealing to an aggressor) than Mr. Wohlstetter has made them out to be.
I myself believe that this “uncertainty,” though it makes it impossible to stabilize the arms race, does act as a stabilizing factor in deterrence: not being quite sure of what an opponent has up his sleeve and how his systems and one’s own would actually respond, means that one is always trying to improve one’s posture, but it also means that you can never completely trust the calculation which would give you victory in a first strike.
It seems to me there are four positions:
- Deterrence only, implying that any attempt at defense or even thinking about what happens if deterrence fails detracts from deterrence. This implies that if deterrence fails one has the choice only between a suicidal and criminal spasm and preemptive surrender.
- Deterrence as identical with defense, or as a by-product of a realistic defense posture. This is Mr. Wohlstetter’s position, if I understand him correctly.
- A deterrent declaratory posture based on the threat of massive retaliation but including as well an operational posture which permits a war-fighting strategy based on limitation and discrimination (the Soviet position, according to Mr. Wohlstetter).
- A deterrent declaratory posture based on serious, credible threats backed by a corresponding military posture, but a posture which acknowledges that while the lower level will always be preferred, both the sanctity of commitments and the difficulties of control may lead to escalation to undesirable and unpredictable levels.
I confess that I still favor this last approach. I see military force as a last resort if non-military pressures and negotiations fail, nuclear weapons as a last resort if conventional ones fail, strategic if theater nuclear weapons fail, and massive (never singling out cities deliberately but no longer avoiding any valuable military target in order to spare them) if discrimination is not reciprocated or is deliberately used by the other side to protect valuable military targets.
Perhaps it is all only a matter of presentation, but I would say that the more convincingly and eloquently Mr. Wohlstetter argues for the desirability and possibility of control and choice, of limitation and discrimination, the more he exhibits an awareness that war, no matter how controlled and discriminating, and particularly nuclear war, remains a dirty, bloody, messy, and unpredictable business.
A last point: it seems to me not entirely fair to accuse the MAD bombers of actually wanting to bomb innocents or even of claiming that they can deter only by threatening cities. Actually, I think what they are saying is that threatening cities is the only way to deter without provoking, i.e., without raising the suspicion that you are preparing a first strike and hence increasing the danger of preemptive or launch-on-warning from the other side.
Finally, let me emphasize that I believe that fundamentally and in the long run Mr. Wohlstetter provides the only answer to the dangers of war and of surrender, of destruction and of pacifism.
Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales
To the Editor:
Albert Wohlstetter’s incisive commentary on the problem of nuclear-war moral theory certainly clarifies and improves greatly upon the final position of the Catholic bishops. They should be pleased by his penetrating effort. We can, of course, regret that he was not included in the formulation of their now famous document.
Mr. Wohlstetter has outlined to the bishops and the rest of us what they should have said about their own just-war tradition, particularly the doctrine of the actual protection of the innocent, and of how this is done in the present circumstances. He has also traced the facts of the current nuclear posture in the light of developments in strategic thinking before, during, and after World War II. He is evenhanded, precise. His article is an excellent example of the Thomist principle that moral thinking is natural-law thinking at its best, that it is not exclusively a religious endeavor, however much it does not exclude religious contributions to what can be learned by reasoned reflection. Politics is not revelation. Hence there is true common discourse about its realities. When religion speaks about politics, it must be tested by politics. This is what Mr. Wohlstetter did, and this is why, in a strict way, he laid a claim to be “moral” in a much more rigid fashion than did even the episcopal document.
I was especially struck by his analysis of what might be called “the ideology of dialogue.” . . . “Dialogue,” in fact, does not necessarily consist of political pacts or lofty conversations in some Soviet, Swiss, or Virginia spa. Rather, while the other watches from a distance, it is a clear understanding of the enemy’s political philosophy, his habits, what forces he has put into being, together with a solid grasp of what one must oneself do to make defense policy moral in one’s own intellectual terms and realistic in the enemy’s eyes. When this is carefully done, “dialogue” will have silently taken place, whether or not a sound is uttered or an official document signed.
If the bishops can look upon their own document as a very imperfect initial effort, as they seem to suggest themselves, then such analyses as that of Mr. Wohlstetter will go a long way to guide them in the two essential things they must keep in mind, as John Paul II has emphasized: how to be moral and how to be free. The first, morality, is, in fact, a function of the second. Failure to realize this fully almost forced us into a “worst-regime” thesis, which would hold that to be “moral” we had to give ourselves up freely to the worst regime, while to be free, we had to be immoral. Demonstrating how to be moral while being free—such is the merit of Mr. Wohlstetter’s article.
James V. Schall, S.J.
Department of Government
Washington, D. C.
To the Editor:
Official Catholic pronouncements on nuclear deterrence and defense have been deficient in their characterization of the empirical concepts and facts. The bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter reflects a more serious empirical base than was evident in earlier pronouncements. However, Albert Wohlstetter’s article reveals major inadequacies on the empirical side which result in inadequacies in the moral guidance offered.
The bishops have relied on one set of empirical assumptions and scenarios, rejecting all others, and declared only one nuclear option to be available. That option is Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD, based on the assumption that nuclear war is intrinsically uncontrollable and, if ever initiated, will inevitably escalate to a worst-case scenario of mutual annihilation that “threatens the existence of our planet.”
The logic of this empirical analysis led to MAD deterrence policies. But the bishops, reiterating classic just-war doctrine, reject any actual implementation of a MAD deterrent threat as self-evidently disproportionate to any just end and indiscriminate. Without any serious discussion of the just-cause referent of proportionality or evaluation of the threats to just causes, the bishops reject any alternative limited deterrence/defense posture as unfeasible and, apparently, unnecessary. Thus, they condone the existing deterrent as a necessary evil pending arms-control progress that will eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.
Since the bishops explicitly reject all indications of a change in U.S. deterrence policy in the direction of controlled, discriminate response, how can they reconcile even an ephemeral toleration of a nuclear-deterrent posture that, if ever translated into a war-fighting reality, would, in their opinion, inevitably escalate to all-out nuclear war?
The answer is the “bluff deterrent,” developed by the bishops’ national-security adviser, Father Bryan Hehir. In a bluff-deterrent posture, as outlined by Mr. Wohlstetter, one threatens implicitly immoral responses that one has publicly renounced. This is achieved by “possessing” the nuclear means to implement the MAD threat while declaring that they are immoral and will never be used.
How could responsible people adopt such a dubious position? Mr. Wohlstetter shows, from perspectives that are more mature and profound than those of many of the experts cited by the bishops, that this bluff deterrent, this “volubly revealed deception,” is a natural product of the “deterrence-only” concepts evolved by MAD strategists. A nuclear nominalism, heavily influenced by the view that deterrence is almost entirely psychological, a matter of perceptions rather than substance, has encouraged the notion that deterrence-only postures require no war-fighting contingency plans.
Mr. Wohlstetter traces authoritatively the history of deterrence-only strategies based on the assumption that nuclear war must inevitably assume catastrophic proportions. He scores the underlying error of deterrence-only strategies: the claim that limited nuclear defense consonant with just-war requirements is impossible. This is the position the bishops take.
Given the dangers of any nuclear war, the bishops’ position would make sense if nuclear deterrence based on a credible and morally permissible war-fighting posture were dispensable, but it is not, if the free world is to be protected from nuclear aggressors. As Mr. Wohlstetter reminds the bishops, there is no effective deterrence without the capability, intention, and will to resist nuclear aggression with nuclear means if deterrence should fail. A bluff deterrent cannot convey this resolve, particularly for the protracted period that even the most optimistic expectations of arms-control progress would envisage.
In fact, MAD is dead, all trends in U.S. policy are toward war-fighting strategies that would increasingly respect just-war standards of proportionality and discrimination. Bluff deterrents . . . based on MAD deterrence-only postures are even less credible than formerly. The empirical assumption that just and limited nuclear deterrence, based on a war-fighting posture consonant with just-war standards, is and will forever be impossible, is refuted by Mr. Wohlstetter. He holds out just- and limited-war options that are indispensable both for the defense of the free world and as a basis for serious arms control. This is an important contribution in what is only the beginning of a new great debate on morality and nuclear deterrence and defense.
William V. O’Brien
Department of Government
To the Editor:
The final version of the American bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace is a valuable contribution to contemporary moral debate on questions of war generally and on nuclear arms in particular. It is, however, only a contribution to that debate, representing judgments made by the authors of the document and the bishops as a whole in their Chicago meeting. Where these judgments reflect the Christian principles laid out earlier in the document, that is one matter; where they reflect other principles or assumptions about the nature of contemporary military issues, that is another matter entirely.
Unfortunately, while the final document goes to some lengths to declare that the bishops are aware of this dichotomy (unlike, for example, the second draft), some confusion remains in the use of Christian and other assumptions jointly to form specific judgments regarding policy. In particular, this confusion has led to an unfortunate analysis and set of judgments in the subsection, “Moral Principles and Policy Choices,” where the criteria of discrimination and proportionality that are taken from the just-war tradition are associated with three “specific evaluations” of deterrence. The problem is that the reasoning applying these just-war criteria to the case of nuclear war-fighting has no obvious connection to the three “specific evaluations” of the bishops, and that in fact just-war reasoning points toward what the bishops reject rather than toward what they endorse.
The first of these “evaluations” contrasts nuclear deterrence “to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others” with “proposals to go beyond this to planning for prolonged periods of repeated nuclear strikes and counterstrikes, or ‘prevailing’ in nuclear war.” Such proposals are “not acceptable,” though the pastoral letter accepts the existence of a nuclear deterrent force as morally tolerable, at least in the short run. In the second draft, where this item first appeared, it was called simply “war-fighting capabilities.” In either case, one suspects the bishops have been led astray in their reasoning by the assumption that strategic deterrence has only to do with ICBM’s, SLBM’s, and SAC bombers, for the deterrent value of the weapons linked to the idea of “war-fighting” is not only not explored by them, it is not even conceded to exist. In a purely political debate, it might be to the advantage of opponents of such weapons . . . to depict them as enhancing the possibility of nuclear war; yet there is another side to this argument as well; it is not enough, morally speaking, simply to accept the political case against these weapons as the Christian option. Let us look a bit more closely at this.
In the first place, there is considerable tension between the bishops’ argument . . . and just-war reasoning as it has taken shape historically. For this moral tradition the priority has always been first to decide the Tightness or wrongness of participation in war, then to assess the means of force available and define moral limits to that force. If the priorities are now to be reversed, we should at the least be told why. That is, we should be told why if just-war reasoning is actually what matters, and I have already expressed my doubts as to the relevance of the just-war principles used by the bishops in this context to the “specific evaluations” made. But if the intent is to employ just-war reasoning, then there must be an effort to weigh the reasons that might justify Christian participation in war first, before turning to judgments about the means of war.
Second, it is not clear why planning for prolonged nuclear war is any more morally objectionable than planning for deterrence by means of MAD. On the bishops’ own terms, reiterated in various forms from Cardinal Krol’s Senate testimony in 1979 to the present pastoral letter, it is the use of nuclear weapons that is to be morally rejected by Christians. To reject plans that may enhance deterrence by making plain that this country could withstand and fight back in a nuclear war simply does not follow, and it suggests that something else is at work in this rejection than the consistent application of principles, Christian or otherwise.
Third, good reasons exist from the very principles of discrimination and proportionality to prefer deterrence by means associated with the idea of limited nuclear war over deterrence associated with the idea of MAD. The bishops deny that these just-war principles could be observed in an actual nuclear conflict; for my part, I would rather take the chance that they could be observed than continue to know that an all-out thermonuclear war with present “strategic” weapons might destroy the earth. Just-war tradition has always and consistently preferred restraint in the means of force. Why should Christians now prefer unlimited force in the form of a MAD-based deterrent?
Behind the bishops’ judgment in this matter lies a fundamental confusion—the belief that somehow deterrence can be separated from use in war. It is difficult to see how this belief arose, for common sense suggests that no threat will deter another’s act if he judges it is only a threat. Deterrence by threat alone depends on the ability to lie convincingly. Thus we are left with the conclusion that the American Catholic bishops would have Christian statesmen systematically and convincingly lie in order to achieve nuclear deterrence—a strange bit of moral advice for Christians.
A related matter is the idea that nuclear deterrence depends only on the “possession” of nuclear “stockpiles” (an idea that suggests that strategic nuclear weapons are stored in some National Guard armory alongside the howitzers and small arms). These forces are in fact deployed, not “stockpiled,” and their “possession” most certainly implies their use in the case of a nuclear emergency. It does no service whatsoever to the moral debate over deterrence strategy to maintain that the present strategic nuclear force would not be employed in case of war. Rather, its deterrent effect depends on the likelihood of its use. No one should realistically expect that, in the case of a general war between the United States and the Soviet Union, strategic forces would be withheld. If the result of using these weapons is too awful to contemplate (as I agree with the bishops it is), then clear-headed moral analysis should point toward reducing our reliance on them. . . . Indeed, a cruel irony is that if this country were to follow the course laid out by the bishops, forgoing the development and deployment of less massively destructive (more proportionate) and more accurate (and discriminate) weapons and the plans for their utilization, then we would be locked into the same MAD strategy that the bishops so roundly (and rightly) condemn as immoral.
I conclude by noting that the ideas of deterrence “sufficiency” and “progressive disarmament” (endorsed by the bishops in their second and third “specific evaluations”) might be enhanced by a force posture that did not depend so one-sidedly upon weapons of the present strategic types. In the past, those arms-limitation or reduction efforts that have succeeded best have been those aided by such non-moral factors as lack of military utility and obsolescence. But so long as strategic nuclear weapons are regarded in moral analysis as the only game in town, then the moral pressure works against the development of defenses that would reduce military utility or new weapons systems that would make outsize silo-busters obsolescent or obsolete, once more serving to lock us into place with a deterrence system decried as immoral.
James Turner Johnson
Department of Religion
New Brunswick, New Jersey
To the Editor:
It seems a logical conclusion that if the U.S. is to achieve peace, or at least long-term stability, with the Soviet Union, we must, as the USSR has, establish a policy of expanding influence and control. If we do not do this, then all the other nations of the world are presented with the choice of either (1) accepting Soviet influence; (2) resisting without assistance; or (3) asking for our support. In “real-world” situations, accepting Soviet influence is by far the most likely result. In view of this, it seems obvious that U.S. policy should be to proclaim the truth that the Soviet Union is our prime competitor for world influence and control. We do not have to be enemies or antagonists to be competitors. Let us tell the world that this is the case and provide other nations with the choice of accepting our influence and control.
In addition, the point should also be made that discussions of nuclear arms control cannot be separated from discussions of “conventional” arms control. Although it is healthy to be in constant dialogue concerning these issues, no nation interested in expanding its influence would ever make an agreement that it perceived as weakening its ability to wield influence. Neither does history offer any evidence that political leaders are concerned with the extent of destruction or loss of life that would result from the use of any weapons system that would help achieve the goal of expanding influence and control over others. . . .
Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania
To the Editor:
Many of us in areas of research directly or peripherally related to military technology have witnessed developments that made possible, without detriment to our strategic security, a significant reduction in the numbers and destructiveness of our strategic nuclear weapons. Further pursuit along these technological lines may even give us a basis for negotiating the complete elimination of such weapons.
For reasons not clear to me, this situation has received little attention in the general press, and COMMENTARY has thus taken an important step with its publication of Albert Wohlstetter’s article, Mr. Wohlstetter dissects the arguments of MAD supporters, showing their grotesque inconsistency with the humanitarian principles that provide their motivation.
One may hope that this essay by a man of experience and authority in the subject will initiate an informed public discussion, and put an end to the current battle of slogans that does little credit to our press and our campuses.
Morton G. Wurtele
Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of California
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
Albert Wohlstetter shows incisively that our “statesmen” and “strategists” (and not just our bishops) need to do some basic rethinking. The article by Robert S. McNamara in the Fall 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs illustrates how widespread and urgent that need is. In the article, Mr. McNamara says that he and at least two Presidents believed that nuclear weapons have no use if deterrence fails. His “use-never” sermon at the White House preceded that of Cardinal Krol. But can we deter the Soviet use of nuclear force in a crisis if we are unwilling to plan seriously to employ nuclear weapons in response? Can we protect the free world from coercion if it is obvious that we think a response would be uncontrollable and would amount to suicide?
The United States, in the mid-70’s, looked more soberly at policies for the employment of nuclear weapons in response to nuclear attacks and adopted a dual criterion for any possible use of this awesome force: to destroy Soviet military capabilities selectively and, at the same time, to minimize harm to innocent bystanders. We need limited nuclear options if we are to deter limited nuclear attacks by the Soviets. Much remains to be done, but what has already been done is widely misunderstood. The bishops and some former officials rely on the dubious statements of strategists like Desmond Ball who hold that any possibility of controlled use of nuclear weapons is a “chimera,” and that we can and must convince the Soviets that we would reply to a limited Soviet first strike by initiating an insane, massive exchange against civilians. But in fact, our command and control is flexible enough to release exactly the number of nuclear weapons necessary to execute a selective-employment plan.
Additionally, technical advances in the accuracy of delivery now permit us to use highly effective non-nuclear munitions to accomplish missions which until recently could only be carried out by nuclear weapons. The recent European Security Study, “Strengthening Conventional Deterrence in Europe,” in which I participated (I was Assistant for Atomic Energy to Secretaries of Defense Schlesinger, Rumsfeld, and Brown), describes how accurately delivered non-nuclear weapons can perform missions against air fields, bridges, and other key lines of access which now call for the use of nuclear-armed aircraft or Pershing missiles. Similar improvements in “smart” conventional submunitions can replace the use of short-range nuclear artillery to defeat massed armor. But the possibility of our actually using nuclear weapons against massed military forces is still an essential condition for fielding an improved and adequate conventional capability.
If we pursue them seriously, we can secure options that would lessen our dependence on nuclear weapons and, most important, reduce our reliance on threats whose execution would mean the intended or unintended destruction of large civilian populations.
Donald R. Cotter
To the Editor:
Albert Wohlstetter’s article is by far the best piece ever done on this subject. But the debate, I believe, is not mostly about foreign policy; foreign policy has become the pursuit of domestic policy by other means.
University of California
To the Editor:
I was struck by the contrast between the importance of the issues Albert Wohlstetter raises and the way his message has been coming across in the popular debate: it is a sorry comment on the state of public discourse that Mr. Wohlstetter’s position has been so concealed.
A. Lawrence Chickering
Institute for Contemporary Studies
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
I think Albert Wohlstetter’s article on the bishops and the bomb is absolutely superb. It should be required reading for any participant in this great national debate.
To the Editor:
“Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents” is an absolutely first-rate dissection of the ambiguities and contradictions in the bishops’ statement, as well as a most persuasive delineation of the direction in which we must move in order to bring morality and strategy back together.
Director, Center for International Affairs
To the Editor:
Albert Wohlstetter’s article is an astonishing intellectual feat—by all odds the best and most original work I have read on the subject (or many others) in a long time.
Eugene V. Rostow
New Haven, Connecticut
Albert Wohlstetter writes:
The letters to the editor, as well as comments on my piece in other journals, both for and against, raise basic issues about the morality and prudence of the Western use of apocalyptic threats, about the changing role of technologies of destruction and technologies of control and discrimination, and about uncertainties in the control of nuclear and non-nuclear conflict. The Western strategic views reflected by the bishops have collapsed into so many incompatible parts that we may at last have reached the point where it is obviously necessary to rebuild.
An apocalyptic view of nuclear war has become orthodox across a wide spectrum of opinion. Publications ranging from National Review on the Right to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the Village Voice on the Left, link the use of nuclear weapons to the mass destruction of populations and frequently to the uncontrolled destruction of Western civilization. Harold Brown, President Carter’s Secretary of Defense, for example, followed a practice introduced by his predecessor, Robert S. McNamara, when in 1975 he defined “deterrence” as the perceived capability and intention of annihilating a substantial portion of the population and civilian industry of the nation attacking oneself. So do the editors of National Review, who said recently: “Counterpopulation warfare . . . is what deterrence threatens” (emphasis added). Tout court. The Soviets, in a crisis or some future conventional war, might be stopped from using nuclear weapons by the realization that, if they did, they would very likely lose decisively important elements of their ground and tactical air forces and face a possible political disaster. That, however, by this now standard definition, would not be “deterrence.”
Moreover, the apocalyptic character of deterrent threats has been escalating. It seems that to deter we must now literally threaten the end of the world, or at least the end of the northern half of it. Harold Brown, to take a moderate example, believes that a nuclear exchange is likely to have no limits on either side. Desmond Ball is the most prolific source not only for the bishops but for almost everyone else of the view that any nuclear exchange will lead uncontrollably to the direct massive destruction of urban populations. And several studies are in process now, which purport to show that the indirect or global effects of a nuclear war on the atmosphere would be to alter the climate in the entire northern hemisphere long enough to make it uninhabitable. Some of these results were presented at a conference which included many eminent Western and some Soviet scientists held in Sicily last August. A large conference, called “The World After Nuclear War,” sponsored by an impressive list of professional societies, was held at the end of October. And by the time this issue of COMMENTARY appears, a report by the National Academy of Sciences, involving some of the same physicists and experts in the physical chemistry of the atmosphere, should be ready to come off the press. It appears that Jonathan Schell’s hyperbole may be given some appearance of firm scientific support.
These nightmare prospects have led not only to a call for unilateral disarmament by Western counter-establishments, but to some establishment strictures against any actual use of nuclear weapons, even if we continue to threaten their use, and to injunctions against threatening their use, even though we continue to keep them in stock. It has long been clear to many of us that the West needs urgently to improve its conventional forces enough so that we could expect them to defeat non-nuclear threats whenever they endanger critical interests of the alliance. However, that still leaves open the question of what we do in the interim; or even what we would do when we have obtained such forces, if our expectations should be disappointed in an actual conventional conflict and if we should suffer an overwhelming disaster at conventional arms. In fact, proponents of a “no-first-use” pledge never face squarely a somewhat easier but quite central question: if we should defeat by non-nuclear means a Soviet conventional invasion of a NATO country and the Soviets resort to a confined use of nuclear weapons first, how should we respond?
Proponents of a “no-first-use” pledge, like Robert McNamara today, for the most part not only fail to deal with these three questions, they use arguments against first use which would serve equally well to rule out second use. Mr. McNamara, for example, has said recently—to the consternation of our European allies—that nuclear weapons have no military use at all, and that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson shared his view. All such arguments would effectively remove any content to the American guarantee to NATO countries or to Japan that we would respond to a nuclear attack that was confined to an allied country.
Mr. McNamara made Mutual Assured Destruction a formal declaratory policy in the mid-1960’s. It has never been operational policy in the United States. Indeed, it could not be. Not only doesn’t it fit reality, but various of its essential parts don’t fit each other. But while it’s necessary to understand the defects of this frightening doctrine, it’s even more essential to sketch an alternative to it.
It’s hard to resist taking just a few well-aimed smacks at such fierce but hollow defenders of this establishment faith as Theodore Draper, who nowadays appears regularly in the New York Review of Books. However, even rhetorical wars should be limited and discriminate. I agree with Pierre Hassner that on these muddled issues of life and death it is more important to clarify the muddle and suggest persuasive alternatives to mass destruction as deterrent than to score points. And (to answer one of his questions) I do not hold that proponents of the now standard Western threats to destroy population on both sides of the Iron Curtain would prefer to surrender (or, still less, to execute such threats) rather than to deter. It is their way of trying to deter. Harold Brown, for example, who defined “deterrence” in terms of annihilating population, said and meant that the purpose is to prevent attack. Similarly, the editors of National Review say that deterrence threatens counter-population warfare as a means of avoiding it. All this is reckless, in my view, and likely, in some crucial cases, to fail disastrously; but not willfully.
By the same token, proponents of threats of Mutual Assured Destruction should avoid the much more widespread distortion that calls anyone a member of the “war party” who talks of surviving a nuclear war and who believes that you can reliably deter only if you are prepared and willing, if deterrence fails, to fight with at least a rough discrimination that preserves the values we are defending. Charles Krauthammer, in “On Nuclear Morality” in the October COMMENTARY, is more discriminate on this than Leon Wieseltier, his fellow senior editor of the New Republic, in Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace.
The basic question is which of these differing kinds of policy is more likely to avoid a ruinous war. Father Winters begs that question. He, like the bishops’ strategists, assumes that a “war to end all choice” will be made less probable if we restrict our ability to introduce less indiscriminately deadly and less vulnerable weapons, which are also less subject to accidental detonation or unauthorized seizure and use. The freeze would so restrict us. Moreover, he assumes that a policy which rests on an implicit threat to use the more deadly weapons to bring about the uncontrollable destruction of the world is more likely to prevent both deliberate and accidental war.
My own view is that such a bluff of total destruction increases the likelihood of nuclear war by accident or by design. And it increases the devastation such a war could be expected to inflict:
- It reduces the basis for deterring a deliberate attack by destroying the credibility that we would respond to any nuclear attack that left all or most of our urban population surviving.
- Then to save some small credibility that we would respond to a limited attack even though we thought that doing so would mean universal ruin, it encourages moves toward delegating the responsibility for decision to a computer. Advocates of the MAD distortion of second-strike theory, during the 1969 ABM debate, revived the bad idea of launching our missiles irrevocably on the basis of electromagnetic indications that a Soviet attack might be on the way. They suggested that instead of defending missile sites with ABM’s, we could launch our missiles before enemy missiles arrived. And it was the Carter administration that later advanced “launch-on-warning” as a formal government option.
- Advocates of this reckless bluff oppose any attempt to increase our ability to control the devastation done to our adversaries or to ourselves on the grounds that the U.S. might precipitate a war unless it were nearly certain the war would be totally devastating. (On the other hand, they assume that it takes only a small probability of extensive harm to deter the super-cautious other superpower.)
- By fostering the notion that even a small probability of a recklessly suicidal Western attack would be enough to deter any enemy use of nuclear weapons, no matter how confined, they justify the acquisition of nuclear strike forces by any small power nominally concerned to deter nuclear attack. (In fact, MAD originated in the mid-1950’s among middle powers in Europe as a justification for the spread of nuclear strike forces even to very small countries.)
- MAD doctrine focuses attention on the problem of deterring a wholly rational, “all-out” attack against all of NATO by a very cautious and exclusively defensive Soviet adversary, faced with no desperate alternatives, who needs only to be convinced that we ourselves may be irrationally suicidal. (In so relaxed a circumstance, a zero probability that we would launch a suicidal response might suffice rather than the near-zero probability advocates of MAD think is enough.) MAD theory neglects more likely circumstances of the use of nuclear weapons and much more serious issues: how, for example, to avoid the general holocaust if a politically responsible Soviet authority, facing disaster in a conventional war, should use nuclear weapons in a confined way on the territory of an ally nominally protected by our nuclear guarantee; or how to avoid the holocaust if nuclear weapons are seized and used against us by men without the authority to use them; or if the authority over nuclear weapons should be acquired along with a small nuclear force by an unpredictable leader, like Qaddafi.
Perhaps most damaging, relying on reckless and improbable threats to deter attack, and the concentration of government attention in defense on nuclear arms and arms control, distract us from the important task of getting a sober non-nuclear answer to any of several critical conventional threats.
In short, the immediate foreclosure of choice suggested by proponents of Mutual Assured Destruction seems to me to increase the likelihood of conventional as well as nuclear war and to magnify the probability that the war itself would get out of hand, and grow uncontrollably to the much more extensive foreclosure of future choice that Father Winters fears. And the most plausible danger to our future freedom of choice, by far, would stem from the surrender of military resistance to Communist rule, which Cardinal Krol, in a sermon he gave at the White House in September 1979, held is more acceptable morally than any use of nuclear weapons ever.
I don’t think that the differences between the strategy the bishops advocate and a strategy emphasizing discriminate and proportionate responses can be settled by an appeal to theology or even to philosophy, as Father Winters suggests. Aristotle makes the common-sense point that moral problems have to do with the contingent, with those things that can be affected by choice. (Paul Ramsey and Father Schall understand that very well.) While one expects the entire thrust of the pastoral letter to emphasize moral choice, unfortunately in several key passages the letter relies on physicists who claim that on these matters policy choices are excluded by the laws of physics.
Father Winters is quite right in observing a convergence between my own view and that of the bishops that security policies which rest on intentional targeting of civilians raise cardinal moral issues, with the one qualification that the word “convergence” might suggest erroneously that one or the other of us hasn’t held this all along. That view distinguishes us from Theodore Draper who has said in the New York Review of Books that we should all “bite off our tongues” before uttering the word “morality” when discussing kinds of nuclear conflict. Mr. Draper believes that deterrence must rely on threats whose execution would lead to the annihilation of both sides and possibly universal ruin. He also believes that deterrence in one of its forms relies on the fact that it is highly probable that an adversary’s preparations for a successful first strike would provoke us to get in our own first strike before he had even launched. This notion of launching irreversibly a strike that we think would annihilate ourselves on the basis of an enemy’s logistic preparations and other reversible readying moves is even more extreme than the most reckless proposals for launching on the basis of electromagnetic signals of an adversary attack under way. With views like that, it is easy to understand why Mr. Draper would like discussions of the morality of various nuclear policies silenced, though perhaps less violently.
The pastoral letter condones the continued stocking of nuclear weapons and the deterrent threat implicit in it. But since it holds that destroying populations or threatening to destroy them are both wrong, and that any nuclear war will lead to unlimited destruction, the moral choices facing the bishops seem especially hard, although, I would contend, not much harder than those of the strategists they reflect. Bruce M. Russett believes that I have misstated the message of the pastoral letter in its third and final version. Since the bishops only amplify the difficulties in a view now standard among Western statesmen and strategists, a discussion of their position on the use of threats of mass destruction has a wider interest than any normal explication of texts.
If you believe any nuclear exchange will almost surely destroy Western civil society and even bring on universal ruin, you may say you would respond to a limited nuclear attack, but if you are even moderately thoughtful, you will almost surely not really mean it. Even if you had so awesomely suicidal and homicidal a conditional intention, you would be unlikely, in the event of an adversary’s limited use of nuclear weapons, actually to be willing to reply by ending the world. If your adversary understands that you believe a nuclear reply would be suicidal, he may count on your being unwilling to reply, even if you say you will. But in more recent times, Western elites have ceased even to say it. During the period of détente following the Cuban missile crisis, they came increasingly to say the opposite, with varying degrees of clarity: that nuclear weapons have no use if deterrence fails, and that one may deter but one should not even talk about actually fighting, much less plan to fight.
Statements since the mid-1970’s by the American Catholic bishops are perhaps the most explicit illustration of this trend. In formal testimony representing the American bishops’ organization, the U.S. Catholic Conference, as well as in his sermon at the White House, Cardinal Krol, a member of the conservative wing of the bishops, said bluntly: “Possession, yes. . . . Use, never!” And I believe that this is the substance of the final as well as the two preceding versions of the bishops’ pastoral letter. However, as Donald R. Cotter’s letter stresses, the bishops do not differ substantially from a wide variety of Western statesmen, strategists, and members of the press who for years have chorused in horror whenever a member of any American administration is caught out suggesting that a nuclear war might conceivably be limited. Robert McNamara’s sermon at the White House preceded Cardinal Krol’s. And “use, never” is, after all, the direct meaning of the standard establishment view known as “deterrence only.”
The final pastoral letter rules out the mass destruction of populations, whether that slaughter is intended or unintended but probable (page 15, col. 1 and page 11, col. 3). It also holds that any nuclear exchange will almost surely lead to the unlimited mass destruction of population. (Page 15, col. 2 says that “The chances of keeping use limited seem remote.” Page 16, col. 1 expresses the hope that “leaders will resist the notion that nuclear conflict can be limited [or] contained.” Page 13, col. 3 approves the view that “talk about . . . even surviving a nuclear war must reflect a failure to appreciate medical reality.”) In brief, then, the final letter rules out any use of nuclear weapons, first, second, or ever.
The second draft of the letter spelled out this obvious meaning even more explicitly than the final version. Mr. Russett thinks that’s an important substantive difference. Father Winters, who also consulted with the bishops during the successive formulations of the letter, is more candid. He says that all versions after the first reject not only attacks on cities but “any militarily meaningful use of nuclear weapons.” And William V. O’Brien and James Turner Johnson have been clear about the matter throughout all the drafts.
The political history of the formation of the final text has only a limited interest for those who took no part in it. All four versions had obscurities, some deliberate. Such ambiguities have much less to do with deterring a possible Soviet attack than with keeping the peace among American Catholics of differing political views. The “centimeter of ambiguity” which Father Bryan Hehir, the principal be-getter of the pastoral letter, likes to cite as enough to do the job of nuclear deterrence is a fig leaf covering a rather small area of the nakedness of the “use, never” position. Many conservatives as well as liberals seem grateful for even that tiny fig leaf. But the emperor is naked, as Messrs. O’Brien and Johnson insist.
In my view, the first draft came closest to endorsing a restricted and proportionate use of nuclear weapons in response to a limited nuclear attack and so came closest to facing hard choices. The second draft, because it rejected with the least ambiguity all nuclear weapons, had the greatest value for reflecting and exposing the dangerous bluff that has come increasingly to replace a serious defense policy among political elites in Western Europe as well as in the United States.
The bishops rule out not only massive and indiscriminate destruction but also any threats of such destruction. But the phrase “massive and indiscriminate destruction” doesn’t restrict, as Mr. Russett suggests it does, their condemnation of threats of any use of nuclear weapons, since they think that any nuclear exchange will lead to massive and indiscriminate destruction. Though I cannot agree that every potential use of nuclear weapons would lead to the destruction of innocents en masse, I am with the bishops when they condemn threats against innocents. The academics who, in the mid-1960’s, thought it necessary to hold innocent populations as nuclear “hostages,” and thought this harmless because it would never be necessary to execute the terror, might have had second thoughts a few years later when PLO and PFLP terrorists began using innocent airline passengers as hostages, in what they considered a good cause. Preventing World War III is, of course, a great cause we all share. But even so, to threaten universal ruin makes the Palestinian terrorists seem tame. On the major TV networks, on public radio, on literally hundreds of campuses, and in the churches and parish schools the current campaign to conjure up, in grisly detail—as the inevitable outcome of any nuclear war—images of burned children and horribly wounded mothers in the midst of total devastation, terrorizes primarily Western publics. Members of the Politburo, on the other hand, surely do not complain if Westerners fix firmly in their minds the idea that any Western use of nuclear weapons will result in such horrors.
Father Winters, once again, is more candid than Mr. Russett in acknowledging that the bishops condemn threats as well as actual mass destruction. The bishops think the threat involved in the potential use of nuclear weapons can only be indiscriminate, and they condemn such threats. Yet they condone maintaining a stockpile of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Father Winters’s proposed solution to this insoluble dilemma is to say, as he does in his interesting essay, “The Bow or the Cloud?,” that we needn’t threaten; the weapons themselves will threaten. This is an ingenious twist on the old arguments about domestic gun control: that is, that people don’t kill people; weapons kill people. Only Father Winters’s formulation argues for keeping the stock of deadly weapons. While ingenious, the argument seems less than serious, and given the subject matter, even frivolous.
Father Winters argues that the Soviets, being deeply suspicious, won’t believe us even if we say we will never use nuclear weapons. After all, we would not believe that the Soviets would abstain from using nuclear weapons, even if they made a “no-first-use” pledge. This is a particularly good example of Father Winters’s imaginativeness in argument. I am impressed. I agree that it would be a great mistake for us to believe that the Soviets would not use nuclear weapons, simply because they promised not to. However, that is the reason we should make it clear to them that if they use nuclear weapons, we have a non-suicidal response, which would defeat the purpose of their using nuclear weapons. The problem with the declaratory policy Father Winters and so many strategists now propose is that it shapes our posture and plans in a way that would reveal we have nothing but a suicidal response and that we really mean it when we say we will not respond. The behavior of the Soviets, on the other hand, makes rather clear that they intend neither to commit suicide nor to surrender the use of nuclear weapons, if the alternatives during a conventional war should look even worse.
I have said that the behavior of the Soviets in the past demonstrates that they value military power at least as much as they prize Soviet bystanders, and, therefore, that the prospect of losing key elements of their military power should deter their use of nuclear weapons at least as well as threats against their civilians. And the fact that they have frequently increased their military power at the expense of civilian lives suggests that centering on their military power may be an even better way to deter. My view contrasts with the now familiar one expressed, for example, by the editors of National Review, which I quoted earlier, that “counterpopulation warfare . . . is what deterrence threatens,” by definition. On the other hand (to answer another of Mr. Hassner’s questions), my view is not the opposite extreme of the familiar definition of deterrence. It does not imply that the Soviets place no value on their own citizens, even if they are not useful in war. Even if the Soviets attack our civil society, I believe that we can and should bring the war to an end most rapidly by concentrating on enemy military power. First, that will most directly interfere with his conduct of the war; second, it is a good intra-war deterrent; and third, other things being equal, we have no desire to destroy Soviet subjects, many of whom are potential allies, and in any case, do us no harm.
These last points, I recognize, call for a most drastic change in outlook. Nonetheless I think simple prudence may recommend it. In the Battle of Britain, Hitler erred when he switched to bombing British civilians from bombing fighter production and key elements of fighter command. If he had not, the battle might conceivably have gone the other way.
But Mr. Hassner is obviously right when he suggests that it is important to clarify and elaborate the differences between my own views of the feasibility of controlling unintended harm, and those associated with the use of threats of mass destruction as deterrent. The latter views are so widespread that most readers find it hard to understand any other.
The New York Review of Books again offers some choice examples: George Ball and, once again, Theodore Draper. I think it feasible and urgent to improve our capabilities for discrimination and control in both nuclear and non-nuclear war and to place some gross limits on the destruction of innocent bystanders. George Ball, who believes that any nuclear exchange of military significance will lead to unlimited destruction, concludes that I must think that a nuclear war directed at military targets would be “neat [and] well-mannered.” Theodore Draper, at his surliest, suggests that I think a nuclear war would be like ping-pong. Like Mr. Ball, Mr. Draper, who has said justly that Jonathan Schell’s mind operates only between extremes, cannot himself conceive of any use of nuclear weapons in between a neat well-mannered game of ping-pong and total mutual annihilation. They both believe that we have no alternative if we are faced with the need to respond to a limited nuclear attack other than to say, “Whee!” and let all the nuclear weapons go. Or do nothing at all. What Messrs. Ball and Draper conceal beneath their bluster about the impossibility of a neatness comparable to table tennis is that they are against trying even roughly to confine a nuclear conflict and to limit damage to bystanders on both sides.
I have never been in the slightest bit unclear about the slaughter involved in war, even a non-nuclear war. In my paper, “Alternatives to Mass Destruction,” for Pacem in Terris II, I said, in brief, “war will in any case be terrible.” That is not a good reason, however, for making the disaster complete and universal.
War would be terrible, even if we were able to confine the destruction effectively to military targets and to combatants. Slaughter on the beaches of Normandy or in the trenches of World War I was centered on men at arms. But even the direct and immediate harm in a conventional war was never neatly limited to combatants. What is more, there is aways the possibility that the violence of a conflict will mount in chain to higher levels than originally intended. That cannot, however, excuse the failure to try to control the mounting violence; nor does it excuse the abandonment of any serious attempt to discriminate between soldiers and innocent bystanders.
Moreover, there is an enormous difference (about three orders of magnitude) between the area that the grossly inaccurate ballistic missiles of the late 1950’s would have destroyed and the area of destruction that would be subjected to blast damage by a cruise missile of today with mid-course guidance and a small nuclear warhead. (Many scientists and soldiers changed their view of the choices possible in nuclear war late in the 1950’s when the expected accuracies for the coming ICBM’s and SLBM’s were at their worst.) And, as I have stressed, there is an enormous difference of even greater importance between the area of destruction by a cruise missile with mid-course guidance and a small nuclear warhead and the area that would be destroyed unintentionally by a cruise missile with autonomous terminal homing and a non-nuclear warhead suited to the military target attacked.
According to Mr. Draper, it is “insidious to urge that one type of nuclear war is immoral, but that another . . . is more morally acceptable.” It didn’t seem that way to opponents of the H-bomb when they supported a large expansion of fission weapons for use against military targets in the early 1950’s, because they thought that H-bombs were so indiscriminately destructive that they could only be used against cities. And the liberal community that supports nuclear threats against cities today has had a remarkable amnesia about its decade-long struggle to protect civilians and to shift nuclear weapons to military targets. It is ironic that now, when such a shift is more feasible than ever, it should be regarded as “insidious.”
On the other hand, even accurately delivered, small nuclear weapons will by no means make nuclear war, as Mr. Draper suggests in tones of horror, “even more precise and discriminating” than “any other kind of war.” Most obviously, it will be vastly more indiscriminate than a war conducted with the extremely precise conventional weapons now feasible. A thousandth of a square mile subject to destruction by such a “conventional” weapon contrasts with an area three orders of magnitude larger that might be destroyed by a small, relatively accurate nuclear weapon.
The contrast, of course, is not merely in the direct damage done, but in the ability to keep the chain of violence under political control.
New ballistic and cruise missiles with conventional warheads can substitute for nuclear weapons in a variety of important missions. They will permit the raising of the threshold beyond which we might resort to nuclear weapons. However, they cannot completely replace nuclear weapons. For example, as an answer to an adversary’s restricted use of nuclear weapons, we clearly need the ability to make a proportionate nuclear response. Moreover, as Mr. Cotter’s letter mentions, if we have the capability of using nuclear weapons ourselves in a restricted, non-suicidal way, this can force an adversary to disperse his own military force in a conventional war in a way that makes it much easier to exploit our own improved conventional capabilities.
I suspect Mr. Hassner was only acting as devil’s advocate when he anticipated some of Mr. Draper’s arguments. But it was useful. There should be little doubt about the revolutionary strategic importance of the new technologies that permit the precise, effective, and discriminate delivery of long-range attacks on military targets with non-nuclear weapons. The implications of this revolution are only beginning to be grasped. The synonyms we use for “non-nuclear” as distinct from “nuclear” tend to obscure the revolutionary nature of the change—words like “conventional” or, in France, “classical,” or even, in the words of the current French Minister of Defense, “archaic.”
The change is not only by comparison with nuclear weapons. The contrast is almost as great between these new “conventional” weapons and the wildly imprecise conventional weapons that forced the British in 1940 to turn to saturation bombing of cities at night. And the new “conventional” missiles contrast even more obviously with the German V-l and V-2 missiles of World War II.
The revolutionary change is obscured perhaps even more by the blurring of distinctions between effectiveness in destroying military targets and the massive destruction, even if unintended, of nearby civilian targets. Even before nuclear weapons were produced in order to compensate for the gross inaccuracy of our delivery system, saturation bombing with conventional weapons had largely obliterated the distinction between the strategic bombing of military targets and the destruction of civil society as a whole. Such extreme inaccuracy made infeasible the systematic application of the “dual criterion” whose importance Mr. Cotter stresses: it made it hard to destroy military targets and at the same time preserve civil society intact. Hard, in other words, to fight a war without destroying the values we are trying to defend. Even with revolutionary technical advances, that will never be easy. But it is absurd to talk—in the way now standard, for example, in the freeze movement—as if any improvement in weaponry increases the weapons’ mass destructiveness. In fact, there seems to be an odd coalition, including some on the Left as well as on the Right, forming to block these new non-nuclear technologies. We are hearing a good deal lately about the costs and horrors of non-nuclear war.
Conservatives have often tended to argue against the anti-nuclear activists that if they think nuclear weapons are bad, they should realize that conventional weapons are almost as bad and maybe even worse. The anti-nuclear movement, which is usually anti-war in general, likes that particular conservative line of argument. Nonetheless, major figures in the wing of the Western establishment that opposes unilateral disarmament continue to use this argument and even to conjure up visions of greater horrors to come because conventional weapons are being “modernized.” And on the unilateralist Left, members of a recent Pugwash conference and Michael Klare, of the radical-Left Institute for Policy Studies, have been spreading the alarm about the dangers of this “near-nuclear” modern conventional weaponry.
West Germany’s Foreign Minister, speaking for the German middle, said recently, “We must reiterate our warning time and again against underrating the dangers of a conventional war, a war waged without nuclear weapons. Given the technological developments, such a war would be a thousand times more horrible than World War II.” Since World War II killed some 50 million people, that suggests a new conventional war will destroy 50 billion. Rather difficult to manage, given the earth’s present population. Even Michael Novak, whose courageous challenge to the unilateralism of the pastoral letter has been a major contribution to the debate, has sometimes fallen into this trap. He says, in Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age: “Even should the specter of nuclear war be lifted at last from the human race, we recognize the horrors of modern conventional warfare. The power and terrible accuracy of rocket-driven conventional arms, launched at great distances, became visible during the last days of World War II. These horrors have been magnified since. . . .”
On one meaning of the phrase “terrible accuracy,” it would seem that the accuracy of the V-2 was terribly good; on another, that it was terribly bad. The passage is worth clarifying since it suggests some of the standard mix-ups about the implications of improvements in accuracy. It seems to say that the accuracy of Hitler’s V-2 was terribly good, and that advances in precision since have increased the horrors, that is, increased the likelihood of indiscriminate destruction. However, the first V-2 was extremely inaccurate. It was essentially un-guided. It had a median radius of error of eleven miles at a range of 200 miles. This is to say, half of a great many shots would fall outside a circle of a 380-square-mile area.
Second, the V-2’s inaccuracy was the basic reason that it could be used only as a terror weapon against population. It would have taken in-feasibly large numbers of V-2’s to have even a small probability of destroying a moderately hard small military target. As the letter “V” suggests, Hitler used it as a purely vengeance weapon which he revived in reaction to the British area-bombing of Luebeck. Even then, of 230 rockets reaching the United Kingdom by the end of 1944, only 17 came within three miles of Charing Cross.
Third, the current accuracy of rockets without terminal guidance, even at intercontinental range, is about two orders of magnitude better than that of the V-2 at 200 miles. And the Pershing 2, which is a medium-range rocket, has an accuracy which is an order of magnitude better than that of our current ICBM’s. That will permit it to use a non-nuclear warhead with kinetic-energy penetrators effectively against airfields with collateral damage that is extremely small by comparison with that done by a small nuclear weapon; or by the V-2 if the V-2 had been used in large enough numbers to be effective against a military target.
When proponents of a freeze talk indiscriminately about the “increased destructiveness” of new weapons, they frequently imply that improvements in accuracy that increase our ability to destroy a military target will thereby also increase the collateral damage, the “mass destruction.” (They would freeze new conventionally-armed cruise missiles because they might carry a nuclear warhead instead.) Senator Claiborne Pell of the Foreign Relations Committee illustrated the confusion splendidly in the recent debate on the “build-down” which would allow the introduction of modern weapons and the simultaneous withdrawal of several older weapons. According to Senator Pell, that was much worse than a freeze precisely because it would permit the introduction of new weapons and therefore would increase mass destruction. In fact, the confusion on the subject of qualitative and quantitative “arms races” in debates on arms control is nearly total.
Willy Brandt illustrated a related confusion nicely in a dramatic speech to a crowd of 400,000 in Bonn, protesting this past October against the deployment of the Pershing-2 missiles—which his party had earlier requested the United States to install: “We don’t need more means for mass destruction. We need less.” But the Pershing 2 will reduce both the numbers and mass destructiveness of the Pershing 1 it will replace. It will replace only the number of Pershing 1’s on launchers, not the substantial number of Pershing-1 reloads. The Pershing 2 is much more discriminate because it is more accurate and it enables a choice of nuclear yields, including a low yield that is much smaller than the yield of the Pershing-1 warhead. NATO gets no credit for that. Nor for the 1,000 nuclear warheads it has already removed from Europe. Nor will it for the additional 1,400 short-range nuclear warheads it is now scheduled to take out. The stereotypes about arms races and escalating nuclear arsenals are immune to fact.
My article did not deal extensively enough with the ways in which the bishops’ references to the continuing arms race and the escalating nuclear arsensals of the two superpowers reflect the standard looseness and error on this subject. I mentioned in passing that the bishops, like almost everyone else, persist in talking about the steady accumulation of nuclear weapons by both superpowers and the increasing, indiscriminate destructiveness of their stockpiles, and I noted that, at the very least, such statements show a certain lack of seriousness. What they have failed to observe is that the American stock of nuclear weapons has been declining for fifteen years. It actually peaked in 1967—at a level one-third higher than the current levels. The number of megatons in the stockpile (which is most relevant for measuring indiscriminate mass destruction and especially for the apocalyptic global effects that are now so prominent in the debate) reached its highest level twenty-three years ago, in 1960. The number of megatons in our stockpile then was four times as high as now. The average destructive energy per weapon started to decline even earlier, in 1957. Then it was ten times as high as now.
Mr. Russett doubts the reduction in the number of nuclear “weapons” and believes that my wording was “too loose” to be meaningful. He is interested in strategic weapons. Mr. Russett, I’m afraid, mistakes inclusiveness for imprecision. My words had an exact and obvious meaning. They meant all the nuclear weapons in our stockpile, including not only strategic-offense and defense warheads but fleet-defense weapons and all the main categories of tactical weapons. That total has gone down, not up. This most comprehensive total seems appropriate since the bishops are concerned about the possibility of nuclear war in overseas theaters and not only intercontinental war. Proponents of the freeze, similarly, are talking about freezing all nuclear weapons.
In the early 1970’s, when it was fashionable to talk only about the “strategic arms race,” to introduce a little reality into the discussion I published detailed figures on, among other things, strategic spending, the number of strategic vehicles, and the strategic stockpile. I succeeded in getting figures for the strategic stockpile as a whole, and for various subcategories of it, released in index form. Unfortunately, most of the talk about arms races and about “increasingly destructive” and “ever-increasing” nuclear stockpiles ignores these figures, which have been available for nearly a decade now, not to say those that have become available more recently. Discussion of the arms race continues to proceed in great confusion and ignorance of the facts.
Mr. Russett’s own recent book, Prisoners of Insecurity, characteristically identifies the “strategic arsenal” with the stockpile of strategic-offense weapons—even though current arms-race dogma takes strategic defense as particularly malign. He doesn’t notice, therefore, the drastic decline in the strategic-defense part of the strategic-weapons arsenal which offsets increases in the offense. But confusion is very widespread. Mr. McNamara, whom I had always thought very good at numbers, recently has confounded the number of strategic-offense weapons with the number of all-nuclear weapons; and also, in talking of 17,000 new additions to the total nuclear stockpile, has confused these with net additions to the stockpile. He cited a New York Times article by Judith Miller, reporting long-term projections that might add 17,000 new weapons. Miss Miller had made it clear, however, that these projected additions would be offset by the withdrawal of older weapons. Dr. Helen Caldicott, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has completed the confusion. She not only describes these 17,000 weapons as a net addition, but thinks that they are all strategic weapons, and weapons in the megaton range. In any case, such long-term projections, even if correctly identified, are not firm commitments but only wish lists. And, in the period beginning in 1967, we were withdrawing about twice as many nuclear weapons as we added.
In general, discussions of the supposedly growing nuclear stockpiles and discussions of a quite hypothetical arms race have been deplorably loose, misinformed, and misleading. I have for many years believed that we can drastically further reduce our stockpiles both in number and in destructiveness if we pursue innovations in accuracy and discriminateness and related technologies more energetically. However, most discussions of both nuclear arms and nuclear spending have had almost no relation to actual history. They have, instead, rationalized unilateral restraints on Western arms spending and Western innovation. Meanwhile, the Soviets have continued to build their military force and to improve it qualitatively.
The second-strike theory of deterrence in its origins in the early and mid-1950’s placed risks and uncertainties at its center. It recognized that risk was ineradicable and that every decision meant a choice among risks. First of all, the design and operation of a strategic force had to compromise the likelihood that we could survive and respond to a deliberate nuclear attack with the need to reduce the risk that we would launch an attack irreversibly in response to a false alarm, or that we would increase excessively the risks of nuclear accidents or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. That was the reason that so much attention was given to command and control and to the development of low-cost, repeatable responses to ambiguous signals that did not commit us to war, as in the case of various degrees of ground alert and fail-safe operation of bombers. There is no great trick in deterring deliberate attack, if one is willing to be sufficiently irresponsible about accidental or mistaken war. And vice versa. (A proper concern for Murphy’s law should affect both the design of responses to initial attack or to ambiguous signs of attack and also the strategy for conduct of a war.) That this matter is not well-understood today is illustrated by frequent blithe remarks about the great stability of the balance of terror in combination with ominous statements that the chance of our nuclear forces or the enemy’s being used by “accident” increases year by year. A genuinely stable deterrent requires dealing with both sorts of risks.
Second, the second-strike theory recognized that the risks that would suffice to deter an adversary would depend not only on the absolute amount of damage we threatened, but on the probability that we would actually inflict the harm we threatened, which in turn had something to do with the risks we would face in responding to attack, that is, the damage we would expect to suffer. Moreover, we want especially to deter an adversary in the dangerous circumstances which are the most likely ones to impel him to resort to nuclear weapons. Our adversary might have embroiled himself in a conventional war with one or more of our allies in a place critical for both of us, and he might, if our conventional defense has been effective or lucky, find himself facing a politically disastrous defeat at conventional arms. Our ability to deter his use of nuclear weapons then will depend on whether we can make that alternative appear more dangerous to him than accepting the likelihood of defeat at the conventional level.
Our adversary then also must choose among risks. Criteria for deterrence like the later notion of “unacceptable damage” unfortunately suggest that there is some level of damage—say 20 percent to 25 percent of his population killed—which in an absolute sense is quite acceptable to him and that threatening a higher level of damage than that will invariably deter him. This later notion had some role as a bargaining device in the battle between the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it has very little to do with the serious problem of deterrence. There is no great trick in deterring the Soviets from using nuclear weapons when there is little or no serious and immediate danger to them, if they do not use them. The authors of the second-strike theory never supposed that the Soviets were straining at the leash to start a nuclear war. They did believe, and still do, that Soviet predispositions might lead them to seize an opportunity for expansion in some part of the world that is unstable and vulnerable, yet critical for the West, and that, at some future date, we or our allies might be embroiled in a conventional conflict. And the course of that conflict could generate incentives for the Soviets to use nuclear weapons, most likely in ways appropriate to decide that conflict. That is when we would need our deterrent most. We might also be confronted with a decision of how to respond if our adversary actually did use nuclear weapons in the theater or in some restricted way against the sources of our support and of reinforcement of operations in the theater.
In all of these varied circumstances of the possible initiation of the use of nuclear weapons, the response to that use and the continuing conduct of a war to bring it to an end, both sides have enormous incentives to control the risks. And both sides are likely increasingly to exploit the new technologies of precision and control. The greatest weakness of exponents of the theory that we must threaten mutual annihiliation in order to deter, and that that is all that we have to do, is the failure to consider the risks, incentives, and uncertainties in the potential use of nuclear weapons in the most plausible concrete contingencies and the failure to consider the uncertainties and the strong incentives for controlling the risks. They consider almost exclusively question-begging extremes.
There are many plausible but false stereotypes about deterrence that are common even among sensible statesmen and strategists who reject basing our policy on threats of Mutual Assured Destruction. The familiar saying that uncertainty is the essence of deterrence could mean that any finite chance, no matter how small, that we would respond would be enough to deter the Soviet Union in any plausible circumstance. Or it might even mean that the more uncertainty the better, which would seem to have the far-fetched meaning that the smaller the probability that we would respond, the more likely we are to deter aggression. But at the very least it generally means that all that really counts is the enormous magnitude of the disaster promised, and so long as one’s adversary cannot be absolutely sure that we won’t inflict this disaster, he will never take the chance of using nuclear weapons. And he never can be sure that we won’t be crazy enough to bring on that disaster, even though we know it would engulf us too. Not being crazy himself, therefore, he will be deterred.
This well-worn course of reasoning can be persuasive only if one sticks to abstractions and extremes and never considers the concrete contingencies in which an adversary might have incentives to use nuclear weapons because all alternatives confronting him look even more chancy. Then the fact that we are promising to end the world may look so outrageous that he will take his chances on our maintaining a modicum of sanity. In fact, there is recent statistical evidence and a long body of experience in the common law which suggest that deterrence of crime depends critically on the degree of certainty with which the crime will be punished, rather than merely on the magnitude of the penalty. The severity of the penalty can even work in reverse. It can increase the crime rate by making punishment less likely. In 18th-century England, Parliament had declared no fewer than 160 offenses to be punishable by death. “So dreadful a list,” Blackstone wrote, “instead of diminishing, increases the number of offenders, because the injured party, through compassion, sometimes forbears to prosecute; or juries for the same reason acquit the accused or mitigate the nature of the offense; or judges likewise recommend mercy.”
Now picture what the case might be if all the parties concerned in shaping the decision to hang the criminal—the victims, the prosecutor, the jury, the judge—recognized that if hanging were the verdict, they too would be hanged, along with their families and closest friends. And, in fact, so would just about everybody else. It would clear their minds considerably. Threats to bring down the world along with one’s enemy need a lot of rethinking.
Morality and Deterrence
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.