Early in June of 1956, the summer in New York burst forth temperate and bright, the colors deep, the wind promising. This was the beginning of the summer that was to see the culmination of a chain of events that had begun, like everything else, at the beginning of the world, but had started in a practical sense in March of the previous year, when the Saromsker Rebbe opened the wrong drawer.
A heavy wet snow had snapped some telephone lines in Brooklyn, many of which at that time were carried on poles above the ground. When these went down, the magnetic effect coursed its way through the webs of copper and steel in the telephone exchanges and made oceans of static that flowed like backwash into every telephone in Brooklyn. The Saromsker Rebbe had intended to use the telephone to propose a meeting with Rabbi Moritz of Breel, who lived on Ocean Parkway with his followers, who trimmed their hats in mink, whereas the Saromskers lived in Williamsburg and trimmed theirs with sable. The Saromsker Rebbe wanted to discuss a theological difference that now appeared reconcilable.
The Saromskers had taken in many survivors of the Holocaust, mostly children who had been babies when their parents were murdered. Their devotion to mothers and fathers they had never known was fiercer and more concentrated than anyone might have dreamed, except perhaps for the parents themselves in the very moment they were parted from their children. The parents’ prayers for the union of souls, and their silent and intense petitioning of God had the strength of all the winds of the world, of its invisible magnetism, of oceans and seas. But they were petitions that, for all their power and urgency, and though perhaps answered in time or beyond the limits of time, were not answered then.
A few of these children had been old enough to remember, some even to have begun serious study before their world was destroyed, and to these the Saromsker Rebbe would listen when, on a point of division, they held that things had changed, that movement was possible, especially in the New World and in the eyes of the young. Thus, soon after the war, the Saromsker Rebbe had swallowed his pride and begun to speak to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, who had also taken in a number of mysteriously intense young refugees. Theological reconciliation moves at a pace that makes the advance and recession of glaciers seem like the oscillation of a gnat in the golden light of a summer evening. Braced for a lifetime of cautious exchanges, the two rabbis had discovered that the telephone, more urgent even than the telegraph, was the most complimentary way for one to get the full attention of the other.
But because of the snowstorm the telephone was not working, and the only thing audible within it was something much like the experimental music then in vogue, of which neither rabbi had even the slightest inkling. The Saromsker Rebbe held the handset and tapped at the little button on the left side of the base, first three times, and then five. “Hello? Hello?” he said to the static. He repeated this six times over the space of an hour and a half, after which he gave up. Instead of talking on the telephone, he would do what came naturally and what was holy: he would write.
He wanted to write a short note, but with fountain pen in hand the Saromsker Rebbe was a dervish. Possessed of undying momentum and driven not by his own hand but by the ancient operation just of picking up the pen, he filled it, applied it to paper, and began moving it about. It then began to drag him after it like a plowman who had attached himself by a strong harness to a gigantic young plow horse before hitching it up to the plow, which horse was then stung by a big and very angry bee, and had run until he had crossed all of Bessarabia—through rivers, over fields packed with wildflowers so that the plowman emerged looking like a huge bush in full bloom with windmill legs, in long flights off cliffs, through startled towns, breaking fences that exploded like wheat on a threshing floor, through houses, skipping across the decks of boats, following the sun so that its light fueled him and he pulled the plowman without exhaustion. The plowman as he ran shouted prayers, and the horse, having long forgotten the sting, raced the sun as if to overtake it. Horses cannot be expected not to have such notions, or rabbis not to write all night.
In the morning, when the snow had fallen off the wires because of strong winds from the Ramapos, the Saromsker Rebbe found himself with forty densely imprinted pages that left him vibrating like a piano wire and that had to be delivered as soon as possible to Rabbi Moritz of Breel. Shaking not from fatigue but from having followed his pen all night, the rebbe rang his nickel-plated bell, and one of his students, who had just started the day shift outside the study door, instantly appeared.
“I have written a little letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel,” the Saromsker Rebbe said, holding the forty pages up to the light. “It must be delivered to Ocean Parkway as soon as possible. Who is the fastest and most nimble of our students? Who is smart but not so immersed in his studies that he would be crushed by a truck? Who knows the map, and will be able to come back? Who speaks English well? And who will make a good impression on Rabbi Moritz of Breel?”
The student said, “It’s simple.”
The Saromsker Rebbe knew that nothing is simple. “Really?” he asked.
“That’s a name?”
“That’s his American name—Roger Reveshze.” Stepping forward, the student said, “Rabbi, he’s so fast he bounces off the walls. He speaks English perfectly, and he will impress Rabbi Moritz of Breel. He’s one of the ones from Majdanek.”
The children of Majdanek were the cause of many problems. Like other children of other camps they had their terrors and incurable sadnesses, but, for whatever reason, they even more so. For whatever reason, Majdanek was worse.
“He spends a great deal of time praying for his parents. He was just old enough to know them. He might study more, it’s true. He could be a better scholar. . . .”
“Who are we to say?” the Saromsker Rebbe asked. “When he prays, is it recitation?”
“No,” said the student. “When he prays, white light bathes the walls. You can see it through the cracks.”
“Why did no one tell me this?”
“It just started. He’s only fourteen. We wanted to let him calm down before we told you. He’s a kind of wild man.”
“And you want me to send him to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, a man of ninety-six?”
“Rabbi Moritz will know if he’s a baal shem.”
“Shall I send for him?”
“How is he at maneuvering through traffic?”
“Nothing can touch him. He could be a snake fighter.”
Roger Reveshze had run through the halls and up the stairs, his robes and fringes trailing him like battle flags in a strong breeze, and when he presented himself to the Saromsker Rebbe, so excellent was his blood oxygen that he did not breathe hard. Many people can do physical feats and afterward suppress the need to take deep breaths, but Roger, who did not need to suppress an urge he did not have, stood quietly before the rebbe, his eyes semi-skeptical.
Like many fourteen-year-old boys in hasidic costume, he had the sweetness of a lamb and the mischievous air of an owl. At the same time, though possessed of a slight and awkward body that had not yet solidified as it would in time, he seemed to have extraordinary gravity, or perhaps, the Saromsker Rebbe thought, I am just imagining it.
He was not imagining. In Roger’s wild eyes, big ears, and big teeth, was a face, framed by blond peyess, that led with instant speed to the Pale of Settlement the Saromsker Rebbe had known in his childhood. He merely had to look in the eyes of this boy to see the heart of Eastern Europe, and there, rising against a field of black and gray, came a fume of gold in which, like smoke, souls in transport spiraled upward.
Roger had something about him forever sad but forever indomitable. The rebbe decided to ask a question or two. He allowed them to spring whence he knew not, like an egg coming from the mouth of a magician.
“What is your Hebrew name?”
“Elchanan ben Mosheh ben Arieh.”
“What do you see, Elchanan ben Mosheh?”
“When you close your eyes.”
This was for Roger an emotional subject, but one with which he was familiar on a daily basis, so he closed his eyes, raised his arms in a gesture of surprise, for what he saw was different every time, and said, “I see a courtyard in falling snow, people wrapped in blankets and shawls, wood that is broken and steps that are worn, a man standing in a square. He is dressed in black silk robes, his shtreimel almost covered with snow, his beard white. My heart cannot convey his expression. And I see houses that are lit weakly but brightly, their windows glowing yellow.”
“Do you imagine this?”
“I don’t imagine it, it exists.”
“Do you pray?”
“Who generates the prayers? Do you?”
The boy smiled.
“And what happens when you pray, physically?”
“You don’t daven?”
“I begin to daven, and then I twirl.”
“Like a dancer, spinning?”
Roger shook his head in the negative. “No, head over heels.”
“Head over heels,” the rebbe repeated, “no gravity.”
“I’m blinded,” Roger reported matter-of-factly.
“By light: white phosphorus, pinwheels, stars on a field of fire. It’s an illusion. An ophthalmologist could tell you why. Nerve endings.”
The rebbe was not convinced. Vision and skepticism are man and wife, bride and groom. “How do you know it’s an illusion?”
“Because I prayed for the life of a bird that had flown against the window and was dying on the sill, and though I was swept up beyond the world, so was he. It’s an illusion.”
“Maybe it was supposed to die.”
“I didn’t want it to die.”
“Since when is what you want central to the scheme of things?”
The boy nodded in acceptance. These matters would have to be deferred, and the rebbe decided to return to the business at hand. “Roger, please take this letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, on Ocean Parkway. Do you know how to get there?”
“Yes, we went there two times.”
The Saromsker Rebbe put the forty pages in a manila envelope. Then he opened the top right-hand drawer in his desk and took out a box of matches and a thick candle. He lit the candle. In his left hand he held his seal and in the right the end of a little stick of saffron-colored wax. But, as the wax melted, he burned his fingers, and he withdrew the flame. “I lost my tongs,” he said.
“Tongs,” Roger repeated, fascinated by the word.
The rebbe went to get a fresh stick of wax from lower down, but he opened the wrong drawer. As soon as he saw what was in this drawer, he slammed it shut. Flushed as red as if he had just climbed a sixty-foot rope, he found the saffron-colored wax elsewhere and nervously started to soften it in the flame.
“What was that?” Roger asked.
“What was what?”
“What was that in the drawer?”
“Wax for sealing envelopes.”
“In the other drawer.”
“The one you opened before you opened the one with the wax.”
“I saw it.”
“Saw what?” The rebbe’s eyes were now beady.
“In the drawer.”
“What is Lindt?” Roger asked.
“What is Lindt? What is Lindt?” the rebbe repeated.
“Yes, what is it?”
“I don’t know,” the rebbe said, now looking at Roger with panic.
Roger successfully delivered the Saromsker Rebbe’s letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, whom he did not see, and who could, therefore, make no judgment as to whether Roger was a baal shem. Everything settled down and returned to normal, except for one thing.
What was Lindt? Roger’s teachers, all unterrabbis and nachmollers, didn’t know, and his classmates didn’t know, either. He went to Rabbi Eisvogel, who was second to the Saromsker Rebbe, and his designated successor.
“Rabbi Eisvogel,” Roger said, captivated by birds perching on icicles hanging from the eaves of the rabbi’s study, “What is Lindt?”
“Lint?” Rabbi Eisvogel asked back. “Lint is cloth shavings or other material, little fibers that collect and combine. Why?”
“No, not that. It was written on the box: L-i-n-d-t.”
“I don’t know.”
“But you saw a box?”
“I don’t know.”
Rabbi Eisvogel asked, “Did you see a box in a dream?”
“Are you all right, Roger?”
“I’m all right.”
“Good. Lindt, whatever it is, I’ll think about it,” the rabbi said.
Roger thought that he would never find out what it was. The world was full of mysteries, and he had much else to think about, having been immersed in moral questions day after day, like metal annealed, since he was three years old. He returned to his studies and forgot about what he had seen in the Saromsker Rebbe’s drawer. But, then, when the next Sabbath was over, a lighthearted Rabbi Eisvogel, in the presence of students and disciples, asked the Saromsker Rebbe point-blank, “Reb Hayim, tell me, what is Lindt?”
The Saromsker Rebbe’s face turned as red as the flag of the Soviet Union. “I don’t know,” he said, with a Cheshire Cat smile, “but it may be a kind of Swiss chocolate.”
Rabbi Eisvogel said, “Ah, I see. Is it kosher?”
“How would I know?” asked the Cheshire Cat, disappearing into the semidarkness, where, amid chanting and singing weakly illuminated by the light of only a candle or two among the coal-black sateen robes and dark sable hats, a passage had opened to the East, and such questions disappeared in a dim whirlpool that shattered time and revived the life of a hundred generations rising like a bonfire. The black coats, sable hats, and hallucinatory prayer were a stage setting in which light and darkness were intertwined for the coaxing, temptation, and entreaty of countless spirits that, somewhere in the closed and darkened rooms of time, existed still. And though these were as shy and delicate as fawns, they did come, in the mind’s eye. And, when they did, they floated before the speechless scholars, not in whitened afterimages but with the strength and color of figures in Renaissance paintings, for it was not death that had been summoned but life, and life came as if the sun had risen and shone through the blackness of night.
Roger thought that only he knew the Saromsker Rebbe to be imperfect. Though the Saromsker Rebbe was constantly making protestations of imperfection, Roger now understood that these were only a cover to shield from the eyes of his followers the real imperfection. The Saromsker Rebbe had lied, directly and by omission, and with what the Sage of Minsk, the Koidanyev Gaon, called “dreadful unholy serpentines.” Lying was an unsolicited insult to the divine order.
And he ate something that wasn’t kosher—not once, not twice, but over time. He concealed sin. He hid evidence. He misled his followers. Although because of the nature and scale of the offense all these things may have been morally forgivable, aesthetically they were not. The balances of the universe are precise and delicate. Depending upon the consequences, lying may be morally condemnable in varying degree, but aesthetically it is impossible in the absolute. One uncourageous lie destroys the core of the imagination. Roger hated lying, and knew that it was the outrider of malevolent forces, which come first with a lie so that they might not have to fight to subdue you. They declare what is true, how to order the elements of truth, and what is false. They ridicule, oppress, and—if you do not bend to them—they kill you.
Roger would never yield to pressure, to false commandments, or to threats, for he had something for which he could gladly die, something that he would proclaim without embarrassment, that was the root, the rock, and the holy place of his life. This was the truth of the death of his mother and father and of so many other people’s mothers, fathers, children, wives, husbands, brothers, and sisters, in the holocaust into which he was born and to which he would, until the end of his days, bear witness—even as others might forget, ridicule, dismiss, or demean it.
This was the hook with which the small, slight Roger Reveshze grasped at the robes of God in the hope of holding Him accountable. And though he was told not to, though it was illogical, a presumption—perhaps a blasphemy and a sin—Roger Reveshze knew his position and held fast. For him, this holocaust was a barrel in which the whole universe rolled. He cared little but to look forward to a life that might in a single place touch upon perfection as confirmation that blind persistence and love would lead to eventual reunion.
There was no great consequence in defying the Saromsker Rebbe: Roger had his compass, and nothing could turn him. But now he could no longer trust the Saromsker Rebbe to sense an impending holocaust, which was part of the rebbe’s responsibility as the leader of a community immersed in the study of ancient texts and without the time to read newspapers and journals. Perhaps the rebbe’s regular reading of the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, and the Forward had led him to nonkosher chocolate, but, despite the risk, now Roger had to read them, and to study the politics of nations, as he could no longer trust the Saromsker Rebbe to do so honestly. This required as well occasional listening to the radio. But what radio? And the newspapers, being so thick, were almost impossible to conceal. You could hardly slip them between the pages of a book. Why was so much space given to advertisements for malted milk balls and brassieres—the claims for which obviously were self-serving lies—when a psalm or the Ten Commandments could be written on a diaphanous piece of parchment the size of a postage stamp?
For a boy who was used to four-hour exegeses of a paragraph, a sentence, a line, or even a single word, the prospect of reading every day a newspaper the size of a life jacket was terrifying. Perhaps, to ease his way into such things, and so he would not be faced with the problem of hiding such a big bundle of paper, he would start with the radio. He had heard radios when he passed by open apartment windows. Once, he had stopped short before an unattended parlor as a Brahms string quartet flowed like an invisible river past curtains lifting in the wind. He had not been allowed to listen to the radio, because nothing on the radio stayed still, and a lie could appear and disappear before anyone could know. A country that listened to the radio would have no way of knowing, therefore, what was true. Roger understood the reason for the prohibition, but now he had his own dispensation. And not only did he have a dispensation, he had a mission.
“Luba,” he whispered to one of his classmates, another lamb-and-owl combination, “where is a radio?”
Luba found this entrancing. “You want to listen to the radio?”
“If I could ask a Jew a question, and not have it answered with a question . . . ,” Roger began.
“You would be the Czar. There’s a radio in the butcher shop,” Luba said like a Roman conspirator. “Schnaiper can’t turn it off.”
“The switch is broken. It plays day and night.”
“Why doesn’t he pull the plug?”
“It’s plugged in behind the giant refrigerator where he keeps the liver. If he pulled the plug he would have to move the refrigerator, and if he moved the refrigerator he would have to take out all the liver.”
Roger nodded. “It’s on all the time?”
“Day and night. The cats listen to it when he leaves the store. And he can’t change the station, or he doesn’t want to. Roger, he listens to . . . boogie voogie.”
“The tubes will burn out,” Roger said authoritatively.
“No, they won’t,” Luba answered. “It doesn’t have tubes. It has new things called trahnzeestores, which never burn out. It will go forever.”
“He’ll sell the liver.”
“Not as fast as he puts new liver in.”
“How can that be? Eventually the refrigerator would expand until it was as big as the universe.”
“No, sometimes he puts in an onion,” Luba said. Luba had been born in a town, recently wiped from the surface of the earth, where logic was not held in the highest esteem when it was held at all.
“How do you know all this?” Roger asked.
“On erev shabbes I get the gribeness and other chicken stuff from Schnaiper. In the morning the truck gets the meat, but the gribeness are never ready then, so in the afternoon Rabbi Eisvogel sends me for them. I carry twenty-five pounds in a wicker basket strapped to my back.”
“That’s what that is,” Roger said, “and that’s why it smells that way.”
“Yeh,” Luba said.
“Can I take your place?”
“For how long?”
Roger thought. “Five years.”
Luba’s eyes crossed, and he rocked his head from left to right.
“I’ll give you all my hamentashen.”
Luba raised his eyebrows and looked to the side.
“And half my jelly doughnuts,” Roger added.
“All of them.”
“Okay,” said Luba, “but you’ll have to wait until May. I have a subdeal with gizzards. I bring them to Rabbi Glipsin of Foin, but in May he’s going to Neshville.”
“I don’t know.”
Schnaiper the butcher looked up. “Why suddenly a new boy? Where’s Luba?”
“He’s in training.”
“To become a polar rabbi.”
Schnaiper narrowed his eyes.
“Canada,” Roger said, pointing straight up. “Completely full of ice.”
“So?” asked Schnaiper. “We have winter, too. What would a polar rabbi have to know?”
Roger slowly and intolerantly moved his head, as if to say, “What an idiot,” but, then, instead of jumping forward with an explanation, he said nothing, and let the butcher beg for it.
“What? What would a polar rabbi have to know?”
“Tell me,” Schnaiper commanded.
“You’re a butcher, right?” Roger asked. This was a carefully plotted question to ask a man, in a white apron, with a huge knife in his hand, standing at a giant butcher block next to a case filled with ten tons of chicken liver.
“What do you think?”
“So, tell me, Mr. Butcher,” said Roger, “What walrus.”
“Walrus. Kosher for Passover, or not?”
Schnaiper’s eyes darted. “How am I supposed to know?”
“I’ll tell you.” Roger beckoned for him to lean forward, and the butcher did. “Ask a polar rabbi. He would know. At this very moment, Luba is deep in studies of precisely this kind of question. Penguins.”
“Who’s his teacher?”
“Eisvogel. Good man. Still wants twenty-five pounds of gribeness?”
“It’ll be fifteen minutes. I apologize for the radio. I can’t turn it off. It’s goyish, but if you daven you can drive it out of your mind. I myself like it. It has pretty music called boogie voogie.” He went to package the gribeness, taking the wicker basket with him like an alpine guide.
Left by himself in the ice-white interior of the butcher shop, Roger lifted his eyes and listened. The radio had been on of course, as it was an eternal radio, when first he had walked in, but it had been just noise. Now he cocked his ears to listen and decipher. He expected to hear, perhaps, an interview with a famous rabbi. No. He thought the next most likely thing would have been an interview with the Pope. No. News about wars, Germany, ships at sea, the President’s health. No. Whatever it was, however, it was as slow and deliberative as a talmudic exegesis. In fact, he was pleasantly surprised by the unhurried pace, for he had expected thoughtless gushing, and this was careful, tranquil, with long calming spaces between the words.
“Two on,” the voice said. “Two and one . . . Miller at bat. You know, Mel, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen . . . the pitch, low, ball three. It’s been a long time since a rookie, like Miller . . . winding up . . . ball four, he walks. Bases loaded.”
This desultory conversation, the epitome of a summer afternoon, and one of the most soothing things Roger had ever heard, went on and on. “A three-two pitch to Hollins . . . line drive . . . base hit. The pitch was up and Stanky jumped to get it. So he has a lead single in the bottom . . . in the bottom, of the third. He was zero for four . . . in last night’s game. The pitch, swing . . . on the way to Allen. Foul over the Yankee dugout. Allen came to the majors by way of Richmond, Virginia—a good place to play ball. . . . The pitcher winds up. Ball, low on the outside.”
In the spaces within the narrative Roger heard a lovely and persistent sound, like the sound of the ocean, and within that sound were others. Sometimes the speaker would get excited and the ocean would roar, and then, uncharacteristically, he would yell numbers and say how great it was, or how dangerous. For fifteen minutes, Roger listened to this, mesmerized, with absolutely no understanding whatsoever of what it was. Then Schnaiper returned, his pluglike body hauling the alpine basket of gribeness.
“What is that?” Roger asked, pointing up.
“On the radio?”
“That? That’s the best part. You could listen all day. I do.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s baseball,” said Schnaiper, “from the House That Ruth Built.”
“From the House of Ruth?” Roger asked, stunned.
“Live,” Schnaiper said.
“Where is it?”
Evidently, rabbis kept certain things from their students. Wonderful things. Exciting things. If Schnaiper could be believed—and never had he overweighed a chicken—there was a place in the Bronx that—symbolically? actually? miraculously?—was a direct link to the Israelites. Roger knew that such places could be found in Eretz Yisroel, but never had he heard that they existed in the Bronx. Immediately he wanted to go there, to see. The problem was that he did not understand its language, which seemed as dense and impenetrable as his studies in the Talmud, which, after all, had not come on the instant.
So he inquired of Luba, because Luba had been fetching gribeness from the outside world for so long, “Luba, what is the House of Ruth, that’s in the Bronx?”
“The House of Ruth?” Luba closed his lamb-like eyes. He had no idea what Roger was talking about, but as a direct descendant of Rabbi Vogelsblume of Hivnis, he didn’t have to know. He closed his eyes, spread his arms, and waited for the answer. This was the way of the Jews in countries where for lifetimes they had been forced to the ground, where fact was never better than dreams. Later rationalists, even among the Jews themselves, mocked this, because they had never been so long in extremis, and did not understand art, ecstasy, or the parting of seas. They did not understand that, for those who have nothing, dreams are real. Luba began to speak as if possessed: “The House of Ruth . . . is in the Bronx.”
“I told you that,” Roger protested.
“Did I say you didn’t? It’s a palace bigger than the temple or the baths of Babylonia. People dance in the aisles, and its four-hundred-foot-high walls are hung with gold and purple draperies. Lit by divine light that showers down from heaven, beautiful women work in a field in the middle, harvesting wheat, like their great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Ruth. In galleries as high as the Empire State Building, legions of rabbis read the Talmud, and klezmer bands in the vast celebration areas play for dancing as in Simchas Torah. And the food! The food! Vegetables! Roasts! Fat pieces of halvah! Poppyseed cakes! Wine. Every day at sunrise and at sunset the rabbis dance in the wheatfields with the Ruths, like daughters. And, someday, the students will marry the beautiful Ruths, and have babies.”
Luba was still vibrating with longing when Roger asked, “How many women work in the wheatfields?”
“A constant supply. As fast as boys are born, so are girls. They come together as the rivers flow. That’s the way it is. But there’s a catch.”
“What’s the catch?”
“You can’t go there.”
“You just can’t.”
“So what’s the good of it?”
“After you die,” Luba said, opening his eyes, “you’re taken there on a holy sled.”
“Luba, it exists in the world. I heard it.”
“But you’ll never get there,” Luba said, holding his finger up the way Rabbi Eisvogel did when he drove home a point, “unless . . .”
“Or,” Luba said.
“Unless you die, or they are in peril and need a champion to save them.”
“What kind of peril?”
“Defeat. Such a place is always under siege, but sometimes a champion prays and prays, and then maybe the Holy One, blessed be His name, allows him to champion the House of Ruth. But the champion must have great virtue, for he will carry in his hand the very staff of the Lord.”
“How will he know that it is the staff of the Lord?” Roger asked.
“It will be passed to him in the fields, and it will be as if of gold, and it will shine in the light.”
Until the next erev shabbes, Roger dreamed of the House of Ruth. He knew in his American mind that what Luba had said could not be and that no such place could exist, just as he knew that people, even the holiest mystics, could not fly. But in his Eastern mind he knew that the ancient rabbis of Breel and Talakreblach actually did fly, even if in earthly terms they did not leave the ground. How was this? To say that they flew, they would have had to have made, in defiance of gravity, a vertical distance between themselves and a point of reference. When Rabbi Vimy of Breel and Rabbi Canopy of Talakreblach concentrated, their point of reference was not the mere earth. They envisioned the limitless universe, in which they floated as freely as sparkling fish. And was it not true that they did float amid the phosphorus-glistening stars? That the earth came between them and what kept them otherwise afloat was a fact and not a dream, but it was not much of a fact in comparison to the gravity-less infinity in which it existed. The earth was just a speck, less than a speck, and Rabbis Vimy of Breel and Canopy of Talakreblach were, in fact, flying at blinding speed through space, as are we all, but at the time of their visions they were the only ones who both knew it and felt it, which is why they did fly, and which is why Roger could picture the House of Ruth in the Bronx: a place that, even were it not real, God—having hinted to trusting imaginations—would be obligated to make real in one way or another, such as by having Ruth build it.
The rabbis let Roger be—even Rabbi Eisvogel, who was something of a cold bird. When a student suddenly didn’t pay attention and fell off in his work, the rabbis looked carefully in his eyes. If his eyes were as eyes usually are, they brought him back around in various ways. But if within the eyes they saw a fire, they left him alone. In fact, they asked him what he required—food in his room, a certain scroll, time to pray, a trip to the ocean, music, a conference with a mystic—and they tried to supply it, to breathe air into the fire for the express purpose of keeping it alight.
Rabbi Eisvogel asked the question, inquiring about what Roger might need.
“I want to go to the butcher’s and listen to the radio,” Roger said decisively.
“Which butcher?” Rabbi Eisvogel asked.
“Schnaiper. He’s the one with a radio.”
“Go,” Rabbi Eisvogel told him, trustingly. “We’ll keep your book open where you left it.”
From Schnaiper’s radio, which had never ceased playing, came the same, languorous, slow, Southern conversation once again. “Do you know what they’re saying?” Roger asked Schnaiper, who was very busy.
“What?” Schnaiper asked back.
“This conversation on the radio.”
“Baseball,” Schnaiper said, cleaving a veal chop. “You know, the game.”
“Do you understand it?” Roger asked.
Schnaiper rested his cleaver on the butcher block as if he were a stork resting a broken leg. “Of course I do.”
“Tell me how it works.”
“The whole game? The rules?”
“It’s simple. I’ve never seen it, but I know from the radio.”
“First, there’s a peetch-hair,” Schnaiper said, breaking into their exchange of Yiddish with an English word.
“A peetch-hair? What’s that?”
“I don’t know, but without the peetch-hair they can’t play the game. I heard once how a peetch-hair was hit by a flying object of some sort, and they stopped the game until they brought in another peetch-hair. From this, don’t ask me.”
“But what do they do?”
“Well, they run around besses, and sometimes they steal the besses.”
“What are besses?”
“Puffy white things they stick in the ground.”
Roger was nowhere. “So what’s the point?” he asked. “And what are all the numbers for?”
“I don’t think the numbers mean anything, really. Anyway, I pay no attention to them. The point is that there are two teams, and the winner is the one that can stay the longest.”
“What prevents them from staying?”
“When they miss.”
“You never said anything about a ball.”
“Oh yes, there’s a ball. They throw it at each other, and hit it with a stick.”
“I don’t know. They don’t know either: ever since I got the radio, they’ve been losing.”
“The Yenkiss,” Roger repeated.
“That’s one of the teams. They used to be the greatest team in the world, Mel said. Now they’re dying. They won’t win this year, even with Mental.”
“Mickey Mental,” Schnaiper replied, knowingly.
“A person, the greatest baseball player of our time. But the Dodgers, unless a miracle will happen, are going to kill them.”
“Really kill them?”
“What could help them?” Roger asked.
“Nothing. One more game and they’re finished. But for next year, if they had a champion, another one like Mickey Mental, but better, well, that would be a different story, maybe.”
From the top floors of the building where Roger lived, and through the gaps in ocher and brown buildings and within the steel cage-work of bridges brushed with cool sunshine, the East River was visible in wide segments of blue. From the roof, the blue patches were larger, for one could see over some of the buildings that had blocked them from below. And from the top of the stair shed, yet another story high over the roof, the river was freed. You could see all the way from St. George on Staten Island, along the cliff faces of lower Manhattan and midtown looming rocklike in the day and sparkling like galaxies at night, to the Triborough Bridge. River traffic arrived suddenly on the swift current and departed with equal speed, or fought north as slowly as a man carrying a desk. Sometimes Roger saw a boat gliding out into the harbor at dusk, its stern light bobbing in recession until it became a star. The lovely light making its way into the vastness of the ocean, like the dead in their quiet departures, grew ever fainter.
That fall and winter when it was neither too wet nor too cold, he ascended the incline to reach the small rectangular space at the top of the stair shed, and there he spent many hours in prayer. He recited nothing. He sought nothing. His prayer was the hopeful resurrection, in his heart, of those who were gone. It was the dissolution, in his mind’s eye, of all elements, colors, and sound—until, lighter than smoke, they formed a picture as full of glory as the patient astronomical photographs that he had never seen and that, in later years when he would see them, would bring to his face a smile of recognition. All was grace and perfection there, all just and redeemed, all prayer answered, ratios exact, rhythms perfect, laws obeyed.
He had known such things, somehow, since infancy. And he understood that, as he grew, his responsibility was to make sense of them: not to adopt them for his purposes but to take a tiny fraction of the light of perfection for use upon the imperfection of the world, like a match that for an instant brings a little daylight to a dark hallway.
Between the Yenkiss’ loss of what Schnaiper called the Verld Series to the Dodgers, and the opening of the next baseball season, Roger concentrated upon a single obstruction that he wished to burn through, a single request, a single question. It did not come, and it did not come, and it did not come. The fall’s lucid shadows deepened the colors of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and its cold air enlivened the stars. Winter froze all emotion. Sometimes he would sit in the cold until his heart hardly beat and he was blind, and he would strain, sweeping the darkness in search of a blaze of power, but he would find nothing, he would see no light. Spring came violently and ended in soft air suffused with the scents of flowers and warm brick. Baseball season had started in April. No one was happy. Then came summer, promiscuously scattering great volumes of light, dashing it up streets that had long been in shadow, touching the undersides of bridges as if the sun were boiling in the rivers beneath. Nothing happened, but he refused to give up, and then, on the fourth of June, something did happen.
That day, as sunburned as a strawberry, Roger came down from his perch for the last time. Upon seeing him, they went to get the Saromsker Rebbe, for Roger had the pellucid eyes of a tzaddik, and the Saromsker Rebbe, whose eyes were unclouded with age, was the only one who could properly look into them. He knocked on Roger’s door. Inside, the boy was packing a small suitcase.
The Saromsker Rebbe closed the door behind him: there were many people in the hall breathing respectfully.
“I’m leaving for a while,” Roger said, “but I’ll be back in a few months.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the House of Ruth, where a miracle will come, a splinter of light, a flicker.”
With everyone following him, the Saromsker Rebbe hurried through the passageways. A thousand people packed into the assembly hall, where dust was dancing in beams of sunlight. The Saromsker Rebbe stood on a high platform. “It could be,” he said, “that there is a baal shem.”
Before the musical instruments were taken from their cases and the locks pulled on the schnapps cabinet, Roger carried his butterscotch-colored suitcase down the brownstone steps and disappeared into streets that had begun to darken and glow red with alien neon. Never had he been to the Bronx, he had no map, and did not know the subway, but he was carried as if on a puff of wind through roaring tunnels and white-tiled stations full of the temptations of kosher hot dogs prepared with nonkosher utensils. While the express idled with open doors in the green curve of the Fourteenth Street station, he listened to a saxophone. The notes for which the player of this instrument was reaching, and would never attain, were the notes Roger had just heard, and even after the doors closed and the train rumbled uptown, he heard them still.
That night, Roger slept on the roof of the 161st Street IRT station, under faintly visible stars that would have blazed but for the emanations of electric light that make the sky above the City of New York the color of a jonquil. He slept neither on a park bench nor on the pavement, because had some Irish bullies tried to beat him silly and been struck by lightning it would not have been a mitzvah for Roger. The air in his resting place was relatively cool and dry, and he was so young and flexible that the washboard indentations in his back vanished ten minutes after he left the corrugated roof.
Soon the sun was high and people were streaming from nowhere to the aquarium-dark spaces under the El to buy puffer-fish-shaped fried things the color of apple pie that were filled with potatoes and cheese, triangular slices of pizza (a new thing) from which the ingredients had tried to slide and been killed during their escape, armies of nonkosher fried chicken parts arranged in golden ranks as in the Napoleonic Wars, and candied apples that you could buy only if you signed a statement stipulating that you wouldn’t sue after you ate the paper that stuck to the flat place on the top, had all your fillings pulled out, and were stabbed by the stick. This offered neither the prospect of lunch nor any other meal for a boy whose idea of bliss was herring and dilled potatoes. What did it matter? He wasn’t hungry, and he stepped from the shadows of the El into the bright sun, where the House of Ruth loomed as white as chalk, a Pleistocene cliff against which swirled the gray-black exhausts of the Major Deegan Expressway.
Hours before the game, he approached a ticket booth. “Is this the House of Ruth?” he asked.
“This is it.”
“This is it, just like that? This is her house?”
“His,” the ticket seller said.
“His?” Roger asked.
“Ruth was a woman,” Roger stated.
“Ruth was a Babe, but he wasn’t no woman.”
“That’s not true,” Roger said, “but it doesn’t matter. I’ve come to save the Yenkiss.”
“You still need a ticket.”
“I shouldn’t just go in?”
“You have to buy a ticket even to save the team. But you’re in luck. If you buy even a cheap ticket now, you can go to the best seats for the pre-game practice. Mantle is batting this very minute.”
“Yeah, Mickey Mental.”
“He’s the one I’m supposed to replace, I think.”
“He’ll be so disappointed!”
“He can be on the team. I’ll just hit for him.”
Not having any money was no discouragement for Roger, who pivoted away from the ticket booth, faced the massive concrete walls and iron gates, and, with Moses and Joshua in mind, threw out his arms. His chest was expanded (which wasn’t saying much), his fingers spread, and his face upturned in expectation of a miracle, but no breach appeared in the walls. So he repeated the gesture, and said “Lifto’ach!” Curiously, no breach appeared this time, either, or any of the dozen times thereafter. Still, Roger had no doubt that he had been commanded upon a divine mission.
Like Joshua, he circled the walls. Unlike Joshua, he came to a truck bay into which vendors were carrying trays of freshly baked pretzels, jelly doughnuts, and other things. Stepping up to an immense Armenian who was carrying sacks of roasted peanuts to a baggage trailer inside, Roger said, “Mickey Mental sent me out here to help you because he wants all these beans inside before it rains.”
“Mickey Mental. He sent me.”
“He can’t do it. A pain in his back, from playing the violin. Get those beans in right away. You know what Rabbi Belknap of Mazlow says about beans in the rain.”
The Armenian looked at the slight, blond, hasidic Jew, and said, “Rabbi Belknap . . .”
“Let’s go!” Roger commanded.
In a kind of trance, the peanut czar of Yankee Stadium agreed. “Okay. Let’s go! You take these beans from the truck. Go ahead! Take them. Take the beans!”
After working for a half-hour, Roger was in. Not only had he found the House of Ruth, he had breached its walls without slinging a single stone or slaying a single Boabite. Gliding up a ramp in search of June daylight, he came out on the first tier near left field. Looking east toward the bladder neck of the Bronx and into the vast right-field decks rising unto the crane of his neck and topped by rows of flags and formations of lights like the radars on a cruiser, he realized that although it did not fit Luba’s description exactly—gone were the purple hangings, the maidens, the grapes—it was close. You could fill it with every rabbi in the world and you would still have room for more.
He looked at rows and rows of seats as neatly folded as laundry, lacquered hard and beerproof. Remembering the oceanic sounds on Schnaiper’s radio, he filled in the crowd. In his vision of what he heard, he saw whole steppes of people whose faces were like seeds peering from sunflowers, and whose changes of position and sudden cheers were like wind sweeping high grass. Legions disappeared in the shadows, from which a roar echoed like a hurricane. How many places like this, he thought, would it take to hold six million people, and his answer, quickly calculated, was one-hundred-twenty. Stadiums packed with fifty-thousand people could be placed in a line down both sides of Manhattan from Washington Heights to the Battery, with no space in between, and if the souls within could break their silence, the roar would be unlike anything ever heard.
“One foot at a time,” he said to himself, with no idea why he said it. “One foot at a time.” He sighed. If only his father and mother could see him, standing in Ruth’s house, about to save the Yenkiss. They would not know of either of these things, but if only they could see him.
A young hasidic boy in a black coat and a fur hat on a hot June day had no idea how to save the Yankees, but his moving feet carried him to the rail. At the elliptical center of the field a man in a white suit stood on a barrow of dirt and would periodically throw something at two men who faced him. One of the men was in turtlelike armor, squatting. The other stood, with a weapon.
When the thing that was thrown at the man with the staff would come at him almost faster than the eye could see, he would strike at it, and there would be a crack as in the breaking of a cable, after which the thing that was thrown would fly out into the air, along varying trajectories, and land in the grass. Then someone would throw the man on the dirt a new thing, and the process would continue. Sometimes the man who held the weapon missed, and the thing that was thrown was caught by the turtle, who threw it back. Who knew? But this was baseball.
On the back of the man with the weapon was the number 7. This meant, according to Schnaiper, that he was Mickey Mental. It was a good place to start. If you are going to help the needy, help those in most distress, and those in most distress are those who have fallen furthest. Roger was sure that it was no accident that the only thing between him and Mickey Mental, the greatest baseball player of the age (according to Schnaiper), was a hundred feet of perfectly clear air through which sound could easily carry.
This was at a time in the morning when the field was most like what a field is supposed to be, swept clocklike by golden legs of sun stilting across it as time progressed, insects busy in flight against the huge foils of black shadow. A white blur that is not mist but a condition of the light, a lost and miscellaneous glare, covered the empty stands and bleachers in which, to Mantle’s delight, virtually no one had yet appeared. And those who had come early kept as respectful a distance as pilgrims in St. Peter’s who have stumbled upon the Pope in the dry runs of investiture. Fragrant breezes from the field alternated pleasingly with cool downdrafts of leftover night air rolling off the second level like a waterfall. It was the perfect time for the great player to concentrate on the attainment of perfection in hitting the ball. To allow his gifts free rein, he needed something like the flow of a river. In the mornings, when Yankee Stadium reminded him most of the fields his forebears had farmed, that river flowed best. He was deep in concentration, and doing very well, when he became aware of a distraction.
From behind, from the left-field fence out toward third base, came a kind of squeak. At first he thought it was a bird or a cricket. Then he realized that it was an imploring voice. Once every great while, coarse people got into the stadium before a game and stood at the rail calling out his name, hoping for acknowledgment, a conversation, or an autographed baseball. This he had learned to ignore.
But though he tried, he could not ignore the squeak. He screwed up his face, rested the bat against his shoulder, and held up his left hand as a signal to the pitcher to hold off. What was this squeak? He lifted his head, hand still held out, and squinted, which was what he did when he wanted better to hear something behind him. He heard the calling of his own name, after a fashion. “What?” he said, as if asking why the perfect morning had to include this.
Roger had been squeaking as regularly as a tree frog in heat. For ten minutes, without even a hint of self-consciousness—indeed, with miraculous happiness—he had been calling out: “Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental!”
Convinced that he was being mocked, the champion turned his head somewhat like an ostrich and stared over his own broad back as if it were a wall. He was expecting to see a large disorganized lout with a face oriented in many directions at once, or possibly a bland-looking idiot with eyes only inches from his hairline. But he saw nothing, because he was looking too high. When he dropped his aim a fraction he spied a small, funny-looking thing in black. Not budging from the plate, he leaned back slightly on his heels and focused on the object, laboring to understand what it was, while all the time it squeaked at him, shouting, “Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental!”
By this time the turtle had stood and removed his carapace. “What is that, Mickey?” he asked. “It’s not a monkey, is it?”
“Monkeys don’t talk, Yogi.”
“Maybe it’s mechanical.”
“It’s making fun of me,” Mickey Mantle said. “I’ve got to take care of this.” He strode angrily toward Roger, bat famously in hand, as irritated and as polite as a steambath attendant. Halfway there, he saw that his tormentor was a boy in hasidic dress and a shtreimel. The face of this boy was, in fact, oriented in many different directions, but lucidly so, so intelligently in fact that it gave Mantle pause, for in Roger’s young eyes was a depth that, even though they were young, Mickey had never seen except in the eyes of the very old. Roger had stopped squeaking, and was smiling, because everything was going according to plan.
A foot taller than Roger, Mickey bent forward, squinted with his left eye, opened the right very wide, and said, “Are you . . . calling me?”
“You’re seven,” Roger said in his accented English.
“What a number! What I could tell you about that number!”
“Is that what you wanted?”
“Why did you call me that?”
“What?” Roger inquired.
Roger shrugged. “That’s your name.”
“What’s my name?”
“Mickey Mental. Isn’t it?”
“Say Mantle,” Mickey commanded.
“Mental,” Roger said.
“Mantle,” Mickey repeated.
“Mental,” Roger echoed. He could not hear the difference, and wondered at this strange form of introduction.
“Mickey Mental,” Mickey said. “Are we done?”
“Oh no,” Roger said, “not by a lung shot.”
“Not by a lung shot? Look, kid, I’ve got batting practice. Do you want me to sign a glove or something? I’ll do it, but leave me alone.”
Roger looked at his hands. “Glove.”
“Whadaya want? I’ll give you a minute.”
Now, like clouds dappling the sea, the thinking moved perceptibly across Roger’s eyes. “I’ve been sent to help you,” he said.
He spoke with absolute seriousness, with a gravity of unknown but arresting origin. Mickey forgot the passage of time. Thinking that he was losing his mind, he asked, “Who sent you?”
“Boruch HaShem,” Roger said, which means, “blessed be the Name.”
“Boruch HaShem,” Mickey Mantle repeated. “Who’s that?”
“It’s forbidden to say the Name.”
“But you just said it.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Boruch HaShem, right?”
“So, you said it.”
“I would never say it,” Roger said, “Boruch Ha-Shem.”
“Well, you tell Boruch HaShem that I’m not interested.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Roger said, in a way that indicated a nervous apprehension and his absolute certainty that one dare not do such a thing.
“Okay,” said Mickey, “your time is up. That’s it.” He turned and began to walk back to home plate, hoping that he would hear no more squeaks and that the next time he looked back Roger would be gone and would not appear again.
But he had taken only a few steps when Roger shouted, “God. I can say it in English.”
Mickey stopped, turned around, and went back. “God sent you?”
“He Himself, personally.”
Eyes closed, Roger nodded unambiguously.
“To do what?”
“To lift you from the darkness of defeat.”
“And how, did He tell you, are you to do that?”
“I was not told how,” Roger said. (The problem for Mickey, as he himself saw it, was that he believed Roger.) “Specific instructions I didn’t get, but I was watching, and as usually happens, it came to me.”
“Okay,” Mickey said, “save me.”
“I will,” said Roger. “You were repeatedly hitting that object which was thrown at you, with that axe.”
Mickey looked at the bat and rolled his eyes.
“And I noticed that you hit the object out to many different places, and that people expressed approval or disappointment depending upon where it landed. Is there an ideal place to which to direct it?”
Mickey laughed to himself a little like a crazy person. “Yeah,” he said, “there is an ideal place to which to direct the object.”
“Where?” Roger asked.
Mickey took the bat in his left hand, turned his head to the right, and extended his right hand, pointing up and away. “You see that clock over there, above the sign?”
“That says Longeens?” Roger asked, pronouncing it with a hard G.
“Longines,” Mickey corrected. “The ideal place to which to direct the object is over that clock. No one’s ever done it. No one’s ever directed a ball out of this stadium.”
“I’ll show you,” Roger said.
“You’ll show me.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Kid, we have the best batting coaches in the world. I’m supposed to be the best batter in the world. How can you show me?”
“Listen,” said Roger, losing his patience. “That’s what I was sent here to do. Let me show you, and if I can’t, I’ll go.”
Mickey stared at Roger. “What is this?” he asked.
“The goat can butt because he has horns,” Roger said, as if that settled it.
And, as if it did, Mickey said, “You wait here. I’m going to see.”
“Talk to my friends.”
Mickey walked quickly back to home. Roger prayed. Davening, he was pulled into the clouds of galaxies and stars, the explosion of suns united and uniting, the greatest glory bleeding perfectly into the smallest thing, the smallest thing assuming effortlessly the greatest glory. It was not that he imagined this or summoned it to appear, but, rather, that his prayer was that the curtain be lifted.
An agitated Mantle took up the batter’s position and tapped the plate with the end of the bat. Berra pulled down his mask. Mantle raised the bat and made eye contact with the pitcher. To dispel his confusion, he wanted to hit one into the stands. The pitcher, Martin, wound up, released, and a slow ball came down the chute, precisely in the middle of the strike zone. Mantle swung to smash the ball, and didn’t even touch it.
“Stee! Rike!” Berra said.
Knowing that his friend didn’t talk this way, Berra flipped up his mask. “What’s the matter?”
“That kid. He’s got me shook up.”
“What did he want, an autograph?”
“No. He’s come here to save us. God sent him. He says he can show me how to hit a ball over the clock.”
Berra thought. “Let him come to the plate. That’s what he wants. Let him hit one. Why not? What can you win?”
“You mean, ‘What can you lose?’ ”
“No. ‘What can you win?’ It means, ‘Grab the bell by the broom.’ Maybe he can save us.”
“How can he teach me? He’s a kid. I don’t know, twelve? He’s a hayseed,” by which the great slugger meant Hasid.
“Mick, maybe he knows.”
“I don’t think so, Yogi.”
“You were a hayseed before you got into baseball,” Berra said, expressing the almost universally held impression that Mantle was, somehow, the paradigm of American agriculture.
Mantle looked sharply at the catcher. “I was not.”
“Sure you were. Everyone knows it.”
“Yeah. Ask any baseball fan in America.”
“With the hat, and the sideburns and everything?” Mantle asked.
“That’s right,” Berra said, thinking of straw hat and rural aspect.
“I was not!”
“Yes you were,” said Berra, bobbing his head up and down in confirmation. “You’ve got it written all over you.”
Mickey thought this was a dream. “How come no one ever told me?”
“Because it’s so obvious.”
“In the way you dress, the way you talk, the way you look. Your accent. Your face. It’s part of why you’re such a hero. I’m Italian. People look at me differently. It’s a different attitude.”
“Wait a minute,” said Mickey, “wait a minute.” He turned to the pitcher. “Hey, Billy,” he shouted. “Billy. Do I strike you as a hayseed? Do I look and talk like one?”
The pitcher said, “Yeah.”
“How come you never told me?”
“Why should I?” the pitcher shouted back. “Who am I, your girlfriend?”
Mickey stared off into space.
“Mick, get the kid,” Berra said. “Bring him out onto the field. We’ll put the guys in position; it’ll be the thrill of his life. Look at ‘im. There’s no one with him. If you’re alone, you’re all by yourself.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t know anything about baseball. He calls the ball an object and the bat an axe.
He says that he doesn’t know how, but that God will provide.”
“Get him anyway.”
“You believe him?”
“I’ll get the guys,” Berra announced.
As Mickey Mantle lifted Roger over the fence, the Yankees loped out onto the field. Maintenance workers looked up. What was this? The whole team, in an empty stadium, set up for a game?
“How much do you weigh?” Mickey asked Roger after he set him down and they were walking—Roger’s black costume flowing with the breeze—because the airborne Roger had seemed to Mickey to have had no weight.
“Thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles,” Roger answered.
“How many pounds is that?”
“I don’t know. There are eight beyngaluchs in a shvoigle.”
“Did you ever play baseball?”
“Until a little while ago, I never heard of it.”
“Well, here on the field, awaiting your direction, are the New York Yankees.”
“You know,” said Roger, almost at the plate, “God shifts an untold number of birds twice a year from the top of the earth to the middle, and from the middle back to the top—geese, herons, fingelehs, robins, chickens, starlings, woodpeckers, kibniks, stvittles, albatrosses, sprites, doves. . . .”
Mickey awaited what was next.
“If He takes the trouble to shift a goose from the North Pole to Havana, He could easily have set me in proper motion to end up here, and He did. Here are the Yenkiss, all spread out, as He intended, and here am I. Hand me the axe.”
Mickey gave him the bat. When it came into his hands, the sun, purely by coincidence, hit it in a peculiar way, and it appeared to glow. Roger held it almost at arm’s length, like an upraised sword, and stunned the Yankees as he swayed back and forth and twirled around, for the bat seemed to them—as it seemed to him—to be a staff with a power beyond that of the maker or the wood. That he would dance so, in front of them, as if unaware of their presence, or not caring, they found extraordinary. He was, in fact, momentarily unaware of them, because his thoughts had been seized, and flowed in only one direction, where the staff pointed, up. The only thing in his heart at that moment was love, and the only thing before his eyes a passage from the book of Ruth: “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead.” What the Yankees did not know was that this boy who knew nothing about baseball had come into their midst to test an ancient compact that of late had been broken. The Yankees did not know that their stadium had been turned into a court of justice in which the prosecutor was an odd little boy and the defendant was the Creator of the universe. In Christian theology—and the Yankees were Christians—this is inconceivable. God does not appear in the dock. He does not dispute with those over whom He holds absolute sway. In Jewish theology, however, He does.
When he finished, Roger looked about and realized that everyone was staring at him in absolute silence, and that now he had to do something big. Praying internally nonstop, he stepped into the position in which he had seen Mantle, and tapped the plate with the bat.
“What do you call the object that is thrown toward you?” he asked of anyone. At a distance, he had not seen that it was a ball.
“Ball,” said Berra, leaving out the article, dropping his mask, and crouching into position.
Roger looked at Berra’s segmented armor and said, “You must be trayf.” Then he turned to the pitcher and said, “Throw ball!”
“Hit it above the clock,” Mantle said matter-of-factly. After all, they had discussed this already.
Roger nodded, but Wylie, one of the coaches, who was mean and small of soul, mockingly said, “No, first knock off the hand.”
“Which one?” Roger asked.
“The minute hand,” Wylie answered, delighted. The clock read 10:20.
“Okay,” said Roger, choking up naturally on Mickey Mantle’s heavy bat.
Martin began to wind up for an easy pitch—he didn’t want to hit a small hasidic boy—but Roger stopped him, and turned to Mantle. “Mickey,” he said, “when I knock off the minute hand it will fall to the seats below. It’s pointed and it must weigh many shvoigles. The sign on the left,” he said, meaning the sign to the left of the scoreboard, “says ‘Anyone interfering with play subject to arrest.’ Does that mean me?”
“No,” half a dozen people said in unison. This broke the spell. Now they realized that he wasn’t even going to connect with the ball, and they began to think of ways—such as biting their lips—not to laugh at him so as not to devastate his pride, although they knew Wylie would.
“Hey, Mickey,” someone said, “after the kid finishes, let him keep the bat.”
“Okay,” Mickey said. It was a good idea. The kid wouldn’t feel so bad.
Roger pointed at the minute hand. This was so much like what Babe Ruth used to do, uncannily so, that even though they thought he was imitating (which, never having heard of Babe Ruth, he was not), they were troubled. They assumed that the strikeout would take quite a few pitches, with Martin kindly throwing a ball or two, and they shifted from foot to foot.
Martin wound up relaxedly. He was hardly going to throw fast or fancy. He leaned back and threw.
If you had seen it in slow motion, you would have seen a baseball traveling like a planet in orbit, precisely and languorously, though behind its sharpness the rest of the world would have been a blur. Then you would have seen the bat moving back ever so slightly, like the hammer-cock of a Colt .45. And you would have seen Roger’s left foot elevate minutely above the ground. Then you would have seen the bat itself making an arc as certain and as powerful as a comet’s, and you would have seen the flow of his muscle and the light in his eyes, and the astronomical powers fed from the billowing fringes and folds of black cloth into the almost-glowing staff. You would have seen, in Roger’s face and eyes, a battlefield look, an expression that comes only when impossible outcomes are guaranteed. And then you would have seen the impact—so tremendous that the ball shattered into a hundred thousand minute particles filling the air with a cloud of dust that disappeared on the wind.
The Yankees had never seen anything like it. No one had.
“What happened?” someone asked.
Berra flipped up the mask. “The ball was pulverized. I saw it. I’ve seen the skin come off a ball, but I never saw a . . .”
“Was that a trick ball?” Coach Wylie yelled to Martin.
“It was the ball that Mickey hit into center,” Martin answered.
No one spoke.
“I’m sorry,” said Roger. “I guess I hit it too hard. Next time, I’ll hit it more gently.”
“He hit it too hard,” Mickey said to himself, dazed.
The coach got a ball, inspected it, bounced it against the plate, and threw it out to Martin. “Try this one.”
Now no one breathed except Roger. The pitch was thrown. The same astronomical conjunctions occurred. The bat connected explosively with the ball but, this time, just under the limit beyond which the ball would have been destroyed. Leather was stretched as far as it would stretch, thread too. It traveled in a straight line, leaving behind it a brief trail of orange flame and then a hardly perceptible line of white smoke.
Mouths dropped open and bodies froze as the ball slammed into the minute hand of the clock that said World’s Most Honored Watch and blew it from its axle so that it windmilled through the air, corkscrewing, eventually, into the ground in front of the wall that had written on it the challenging notation, 407 Ft. The field of Yankee Stadium, with the Yankees standing upon it, was still.
Even Roger stared at the javelin- or propeller-like minute hand stuck perpendicularly in the ground. A seagull dipped down to examine the broken clock, and then, taken by a gust of wind, rose like a rocket and disappeared into the clouds.
“That didn’t happen,” Wylie said “It was a trick. I’ve seen it a million times.”
“Seen what a million times, Wylie?”
“They put an explosive charge in the clock, and somebody watching with a telescope pushes a button, which sends a radio signal to the detonator, which explodes the hands off the clock. It’s the oldest trick in the world.”
“And you’ve seen it?” Mantle asked.
“I saw it in the minors in North Carolina. I saw it in Florida. I saw it all over. You know, they do it.”
“I hit the object, truthfully,” Roger stated.
“I’ll bet you did, kid. Let’s see you do it again.”
“He can’t, the hand’s down already.”
“Now that the charge is gone,” said Wylie, “let’s see you knock off the other one.” He had to believe his own theory.
Roger tapped the bat against the plate. He had a grim, insulted look. “Throw ball,” he said to Martin, who was already on the mound.
Before the pitch, Wylie shouted, “Don’t go so easy on him this time!”
Martin shot back, “What’s the difference? It’s how he hits.”
“Anybody can hit a slow pitch. That’s just giving it to him.”
“Throw ball!” yelled a peeved Roger.
“You say, ‘play ball,’ or, ‘pitch it in,’ ” Mantle told him.
“Pitch it in!” Roger shouted.
Martin wound up, and the ball came in toward the plate fast but straight.
Now that the motions were familiar, Roger was unconcerned about missing, and looked forward to the sharp crack of the bat. He worried only about hitting the ball gently enough not to pulverize it. Once again, he connected. Once again, the ball smoked toward the clock and struck it, this time breaking the hour hand off at the base. It fell, bumped against the scoreboard, and landed flat on the bleachers.
The Yankees were awed, but wanted reassurance nonetheless. Knowing that there was no wind, and that the field was dead silent, Mantle almost whispered, “Kid, can you put a hole in the clock?”
“Sure,” said Roger. “Where?”
“At the two o’clock position.”
“Pitch it in!”
The ball came in, and left like an artillery shell. A crunch sounded shortly after a hole appeared near the two.
“Get Stengel,” Mantle commanded, his voice almost shaking (Mickey Mantle’s voice never shook, at least not in Yankee Stadium). “I think the kid’s just about to hit the ball out of the park.”
In no time at all, Stengel emerged from the dugout. He had already been on his way, having been told by a choking assistant manager that Babe Ruth was back, reincarnated as a kid who was fresh and could do things the Babe had never done. Stengel believed this to be an elaborate joke, and he didn’t have time for jokes. “What’s going on here?” he asked belligerently. “Why’re you guys on the field? It’s not enough that Kansas City is going to completely run over you, you want to be tired, too?”
Mantle shook his head. “Casey, this kid is going to hit the ball out of the stadium,” he said, and then laughed like a deranged person. “Really, he is!”
Stengel focused on Roger for the first time. He tried to speak, but the sight of Roger, so small and slight, in a black hasidic cloak, a shtreimel, and peyess, made him unable to. Then he said, “All right. You got me. Now let’s get back to work, okay?”
“I’m serious,” said Mantle, a little angry and a bit trembly.
“Have you been drinking, Mickey?”
“He destroyed the clock,” a Yankee said. “He did. Look.”
Stengel looked up at the blasted clock. “Who did that?” he asked.
“He did,” Mantle said.
“It’s a trick,” Wylie shouted. “I saw it in the minors.”
“Okay, jerks,” Stengel said, never known for being unimpulsive. He paraded back and forth for a moment or two, thinking. “If that kid can hit a ball out of this park . . . gimme a break, will ya . . . if he can do that, and he’s gotta do it more than once” (the businessman in Stengel could be cautious, too), “I’ll sign him for a million dollars a year and I’ll double your salaries, every single one of you.”
The Yankees were ecstatic with the prospect.
“But,” Stengel went on, “if he can’t—in fifty pitches—I won’t sign him for anything, and I’ll cut your salaries in half for a year.” Stengel loved this. Unlike his current season, it was win-win.
“All of us, Mr. Stengel?” asked an outfielder who had just risen from the farm team and had a baby to feed.
Now Stengel nearly glowed. “No, you’ve got a choice here. Everyone who thinks the kid can hit it out, get behind the third-base line. Everyone who doesn’t, get behind the first-base line. If you’re behind the first-base line, your salary stays the same, no matter what. If you’re behind the third-base line, it’s double or half. Ha!” He was sure that not one member of the team would walk north beyond the third-base line. He had brilliantly transformed their joke on him into a joke on them.
For the next few minutes, the Yankees were deep in thought, and no one moved. Then Berra stood up and, with his left hand, removed his mask in the practiced gesture that he had accomplished many thousands of times. Stengel thought he was giving in. But Berra took a breath, pulled the mask back to his right shoulder, and hurled it like a pie plate beyond the third-base line. “That stands for me!” he shouted, and squatted down, confident that he would not have to catch the next pitch.
Mantle smiled the smile of someone who, though he may be about to lose grievously, will feel a deep satisfaction even in loss—as if the things that people do, all the hundreds of millions of different things, were measured not merely in the visible and apparent accounts of the world, but in another ledger of far greater import. He crossed the third-base line, and waited. Just standing there made him feel like his ancestors who had crossed oceans, knocked down forests, and fought wars.
Then the others followed suit, until only Stengel, the new outfielder, and Wylie were left behind the first-base line. Stengel was irritated beyond measure, but delighted as well. “Wylie, you don’t even count. You’re not a player, get away from me.” He looked at his team. “Okay, nuts, you want to mutiny? Okay. You’re outa your minds. But, look, I like it! You know why I like it? I like it because it’s justice. You’re doing so badly, you deserve a cut in pay. That’s why.”
He turned to Martin, still on the mound. “What about you?”
“I’m with them,” Martin said, pointing to the team.
“And so am I, goddammit!” yelled the new outfielder, crossing over.
“You mustn’t say that,” Roger scolded as the outfielder ran by him.
“Let’s go, then,” Stengel said. And then, to Roger, “Did they put you up to this, kid? Did they pay you?”
“No one ever paid me anything,” said Roger, “in my whole life.”
After assessing Roger, Stengel turned to Martin. “Billy, don’t hurt him. Gentle pitches, nice and easy, all of them.”
“You haven’t seen him,” Martin said.
“But I have seen him. He’s standing right there. Look at him. Can you believe it? Kid, if you can hit the ball out of the stadium once in fifty pitches, you can have as many more pitches as you need to hit it out again, and then I’ll sign you as a Yankee for a million dollars a year.”
“It has nothing to do with money,” Roger said, and tapped the plate with the bat. “It can’t have anything to do with money. I don’t want the money. I just want to teach you,” he said earnestly, “to hit these objects, these . . . balls, with perfection.”
Because there was no other sound except the dim roar of traffic on the Major Deegan, even the slight luffing of the flags in the June sky was audible. The Yankees knew that what they expected was not possible, but they believed that they were going to see it.
“What lies behind the wall, past the tall white building?” Roger asked.
“The Bronx,” Berra answered.
“And what lies beyond the Bronx?”
“Long Island Sound.”
“Are there many boats in Long Island Sound?”
“On a day like today,” said Berra, “there are.”
“Beyond Long Island Sound, then?”
“Of course,” said Roger, unhappily. “And then the ocean.”
“Then the ocean,” Berra confirmed, “like water off a duck’s back. Why?”
“I wouldn’t want to hit anybody,” said Roger. “Play ball.”
As Martin wound up, Stengel was filled with joy, because, if Roger could do this, doubling salaries would be nothing compared to the revenue that would pour in. To see a ball hit out of Yankee Stadium, people would come from Borneo. If Roger couldn’t do it, the pay cut would free up funds for hiring some new players with blood in their veins. But, most of all, Stengel, like his team, like everyone, loved being at the threshold of great events.
The ball flew in, expressly. Roger now had the look of a professional, the Mantle look, the forward-oriented, concentrated gaze, the ease, the love of action. It was the attitude of the kind of racehorse that lived above all to run. Shtreimel tilted, he stepped forward and leaned gracefully into the pitch. The bat connected with the ball, this time with a sharp up-angle that every experienced batter and all the coaches deemed impossible for propelling the ball over the wall. It was simply too steep. Even had Ruth hit a ball so steeply it would have flown gloriously high but not even reached the bleachers.
This ball, however, left a faintly white trace and seemed to accelerate as it climbed. Everyone except Roger shielded his eyes and followed the trajectory. The ball made no parabola, but kept going up. They waited for it to lose power and head down, plopping into right field, but it didn’t. Only when it disappeared from sight did they realize that it was not going to come down in the stadium. They didn’t know where it was going to come down. It was gone.
It had never happened before, and no one knew what to do. So Stengel dropped to his knees and said “Holy cow,” more softly than people usually say holy cow, and he kept repeating it, as if he were in conversation with himself, a conversation limited to those two words spoken with different emphasis and intonation. It went something like this: “Holy cow. Ho-ly cow. Ho-ly . . . cow! Ho-ly . . . ca-ow! Holy? Cow?” and so on, quietly, madly.
The Yankees gave no thought to their new wealth, for as Roger hit four more pitches, one after the other, into the distant Atlantic, and Casey Stengel made an opera out of just two words, they could think only of how lucky they were to be there at that very moment.
Roger turned to Stengel and said, “You see?” “I see,” said Stengel. “I see.”
“I have a suggestion,” Roger went on.
“Sure, we’ll do it.”
“I was watching Mickey hit the balls here and there.”
“Yes,” Stengel said. (Not “Yes?” but “Yes.”)
“Three people wait out in the grass to catch them.”
Stengel nodded as if seeing the game through new eyes. “That’s right. They do.”
“They shouldn’t. The one in the middle should stay, but the others should come closer in.”
“Who would cover left and right field?” Mantle asked.
Roger pointed to both, and said, “The one in the center can go to either.”
“Uh,” said Stengel, most timidly, “we’ve found that, given the depth of the field, the most a man can cover is a third. You see, the most he’d have to run would be a sixth, which would then give him a chance to cover the field back to front.” Stengel paused. “You have another way?”
“Yeh,” said Roger. “Cover from the center. I’ll show you. Give me one of those kreplach,” by which he meant a fielder’s mitt. (They wouldn’t have known had he not held out his left hand and slapped it with his right fist, as he had seen Larsen do with his glove.)
“Get the kid a kreplach!” Stengel barked, and Mickey Mantle—Mickey Mantle—ran to the dugout as eagerly as a batboy, and emerged with his own glove to give to Roger.
Roger jogged to center field. He didn’t go particularly fast, but he seemed to rise as high with each step as if he were wearing kangaroo shoes. Mantle took the bat that had just made history and positioned himself to hit pop-ups.
“Hit one right to him. See if he can catch it,” Stengel commanded.
“What?” Mantle asked. “He just hit a ball out of the park, five times in a row, Casey. You think he can’t do what he says he’s going to do?”
“He’s probably never caught a ball,” Stengel insisted.
“So what,” Berra said. “The start of the middle is the end of the road for the beginning.”
“That may be so, Yogi,” Stengel said, “but let’s make sure to start where he is.”
“I’ll do that if you want,” Mantle agreed, and hit one toward Roger. Mantle was so good that Roger didn’t even have to shift his feet to position himself for the catch, which he accomplished swimmingly.
They weren’t expecting what happened when Roger threw the ball in. Never having thrown a baseball, or even held one, he overthrew. The ball sailed into the back of the upper grandstand. “This has gotta be a dream,” Stengel said.
“It isn’t,” said Berra. “You know how, when you’re dreaming, there’s a sign that says, ‘You’re Dreaming’? There’s no sign.”
“Yeah,” said Stengel. “You’re right. There’s no sign, so we know we’re not dreaming. Okay, Mickey, let’s see if he can do this. Hit him one as far back on the third-base line as you can.”
“I have a feeling he can do it,” Mantle said, hitting with newfound strength.
The ball went deep into left field, and Roger followed—no, preceded—it with inexplicable speed.
His run had nothing about it of gravity. He just burned across the grass, like a fast train, and waited for the ball to come in. This was astounding, but not impossible.
Stengel continued to direct. “I want to see this. He’s standing on the third-base line. Hit one right along the first-base line. If he can cross the field . . . if he . . .”
The ball went high into right. Roger kept his eye on it as he ran. He ran so fast that one of the players said, “Look at that! Look at that!” and Roger arrived in right field in time to catch the ball.
They motioned for him to come in, and as Roger glided toward them along the first-base line, this time carrying the ball with him, Stengel turned to the team and said, “This is a whole new situation.”
Because of the many complications that ensued, Stengel knew it wasn’t a dream. Dreams are notable not for their complications but for their lack of them, which is not to say that they aren’t complicated. Precisely because it wasn’t a dream, everyone who had seen what had happened had to be bribed, threatened, begged, or cajoled into silence. This meant the Yankees themselves, including a few coaches and assistant managers, four groundskeepers, and a hot-dog-roll contractor who witnessed the remarkable events while wheeling in several thousand pounds of rolls. Stengel (who, as Berra said, was the smartest jerk who ever lived) enlisted those in the conspiracy not only with huge amounts of money but with roles to play. The hot-dog-roll man was retained at $5,000 per week to provide covert transportation for Roger in a hot-dog-roll truck. The groundskeepers were promised, if they kept mum, new lawns and new houses. The Yankees themselves had everything to win.
The problem of secrecy wasn’t overwhelming. The real trouble was that Roger would have to quit a week before Rosh HaShana, which meant he couldn’t play in the World Series. This was unbearable, and as the Yankees played—brilliantly, if losingly—against Kansas City that same afternoon, the conversation in Stengel’s office went as follows.
“You’ve got to play in the Series, Roger. You can have anything you want. What do you want? Money? Broads? A car? A trip to Israel?”
“I want the Yenkiss to win.”
“So do I, Roger. That’s why you’ve got to play in the Series.”
“Roger, this is important here, really important. Who exactly says that you can’t play in the Series?”
“I understand. You want to be a good guy. You want to be devout. You want to follow the rules. But God wouldn’t mind if you played in the Series. I’m sure many famous rabbis would uphold my statement.”
“He would mind, He told me.”
“What passage says that? We’ll get the best rabbis to look at it.”
“There’s no passage. He told me.”
“He told you directly?”
“I mean He actually . . . He . . . told you Himself? You spoke to Him?”
“I always speak to Him. But this time He came down to the roof.”
“Mr. Stengel”—which Roger pronounced “Sten-geleh”—“I weigh thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles. I’m two yumps tall. How do you think I hit the ball out of the house? Do you think I could do such a thing alone? Who do you think is in charge here? You? Me?”
Not only would Roger have to quit a week before Rosh HaShana, but because of study requirements and holidays he could play only in five games. Also, he had to have kosher food, and a place to live. Even had Roger been willing to accept money (Stengel foolishly told Mantle that the Yankees would have signed Roger for $10,000,000 a year—contingent on performance), the Yankees would have put him up in the presidential suite at the Carlyle anyway. As they didn’t even have to pay him, this was almost effortless. No one in the world, Stengel reasoned, would ever make the connection between Roger Reeves, the new rookie fresh out of the Carolinas or possibly Georgia (who knew?), and Winston Wilgis, a neurotic and reclusive rubber heir whose aides paid the hotel staff large amounts of cash to be discreet, and who was never seen and never left his room, although his adopted son, a hasidic teenager who sometimes wore a baseball uniform, came and went regularly in a hot-dog-roll truck that pulled up to the loading dock.
Roger had bodyguards—two huge couches in bulging suits and bowl-like haircuts, whose enormous Magnum revolvers were like giant swellings under their coats. They stood in front of his door whenever he was there, and checked the rabbis who brought carts of kosher pancakes and chocolate milkshakes for milk meals, and Bessarabian shish kebab and chopped-liver sandwiches for meat meals. They shook the Cel-Ray celery-tonic bottles to make sure they were not bombs (which, when Roger opened them, they were), and kept all maids and waiters in total ignorance of the occupant of the hotel’s best accommodations. Roger was rather alone.
The first night he was brought to the hotel, after ten hours of unwritten contract negotiations in which he was totally inflexible and got exactly what he wanted, he was tired. At his insistence they had stopped at a delicatessen at 100th Street and Broadway, where he ate like a cow and drank six bottles of Cel-Ray, his favorite drink in the world, that he had had only once before in his life, during a raucous and disorganized Simchas Torah when he had mistakenly grazed at the rabbis’ sweet table.
They popped him into the hotel room as if he had been in a hotel before, which he hadn’t, and there he was, in the presidential suite of the Carlyle, on the day that he had hit five balls out of Yankee Stadium, but luxury meant nothing to him, and this kind of glory little.
The furniture was so European that Louis XIV might not have noticed had he by some miracle been transported to the Carlyle from his own time and place. The carpets were soft and dense, the walls smooth and solid, everything clean and well lit, the colors bleeding into one another like wounded comrades in the French foreign legion. Roger wandered from room to room, but only in the living room did he fully realize what was happening, for there, as high above the earth as an airplane, huge banks of whistle-clean windows opened out on Manhattan, which roared and glowed, fading into the distance in never-ending avenues of a million flares, draped with necklaces of bridge lights, and banked high with massive buildings twinkling like starshine on a lake.
Someone else standing in the same place, a president perhaps, a tycoon, a movie star, or even a baseball player, might have felt a feeling of power and vindication. To be high and to see the world marked out below you in cool fire is, after all, the dream of angels, but Roger felt neither pride nor vindication. Instead, his heart swelled at the great expanse of lights and a blood-red pennant left in the sky by the setting sun. He had no thought of what he had accomplished or where he had come. Looking over the miraculous work that stood before him he saw no reflection or reminder of himself, but only the kind of high glory that rides from place to place and time to time on a shower of sparks.
June was hot, perfect, and strange. It started magnificently and was slowly transformed into the initial bakery days of summer, tolerable for their novelty, when the beaches are as hot and white as molten glass but the ocean is blue and numbingly cold. A day of prairie heat would surrender to a northern European evening with cool breezes veering off the Hudson and sailing down the avenues like Dutch sloops. Morning fogs as thick as cotton could burn off in a minute, leaving behind them a newly shining world. It was a gorgeous month, but its brilliances were a foil for many peculiar things.
For example, a Mr. Winston Wilgis, rubber heir and recluse, called the Hotel Carlyle front desk to ask for a complete set of the Babylonian Talmud and sixteen cases of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic on ice. The next day, he asked for deep-sea fishing equipment, and if you had been walking on the street below his suite and had had occasion to look up, you would have seen, at various times, tarpon lures, bagels, socks, and a banana flying with dampened grace ten feet above you, a pendulum suspended by semi-invisible line.
As much as he caused others puzzlement, Roger himself was puzzled. Worked with great skill into a fruitwood enclosure in the living room of his suite were two televisions and a high-fidelity radio. One television played in black and white, the other in experimental color. Neglecting these wonders on his first night, Roger awoke early the next morning and turned the knobs. He had never seen a television. At first, nothing happened, but then a white dot appeared in the center of the pudding-gray glass, soon to move and intensify like a supernova, and then, like the opening of an umbrella, to expand into what became a picture accompanied by a hardly bearable tone. The picture was of something that looked like a spiderweb, and had written in the corner, WPIX-TV, Channel 11. Utterly useless. The one in color was not much better, though it looked like a Herschel Trixie, the only abstract artist Roger had thought he had heard of, though he had actually not heard of any.
The radio played more than just one station, and because no liver-filled refrigerator case interfered, you could turn it on or off whenever you wanted. The quality of its sound far exceeded that of the butcher’s radio, and the first time Roger turned it on the most extraordinary music filled the room, music such as he had never heard. He listened in wonderment as someone sang a lyric that sounded like, A wop bopa loobop a pop pop pop, a hop poppa loopa, a wop bop pop, and so on, with a pace and excitement that, though entirely foreign, seized him and made him dance around the room in abandon. Not even a Memphis lounge lizard could have done a better number, or swiveled his hips, bit his lips, and raised his cheeks until his eyes were slits, than did Roger, who, when the song ended and was replaced by a jingle that went, Brusha brusha brusha, new Ipana toothpaste, healthy for your tee-eeth!, stopped dead in delight.
Roger was not the only one that June to be astonished as both the sports and rabbinical worlds were thrown off balance by inexplicable changes to the New York Yankees. The only plausible explanation, that the Yankees wanted to draw new fans from the perhaps-underrepresented Orthodox Jewish community, was fairly unsatisfactory in that it did not actually explain the extraordinary measures. First came the announcement that all hot dogs sold at the stadium would be kosher. They were mainly kosher anyway. Then the revelation that on “ice-cream days” (a new term in baseball), hot dogs would not be served, and vice-versa. This caused quite a stir.
At the press conference called to announce the food plans a reporter asked Stengel if and when peanuts would be available. “I’m told that peanuts are parve, and will be available at all times,” he answered. Most of the reporters thought that “parve” was a Stengel word (perhaps picked up from Berra, who was always inventing new ways to say things) that was the equivalent of the beatnik “cool,” or the now dated “swell.” This quickly infiltrated the sports press, and announcers began to talk about “the really parve double-header,” in Baltimore, or Y.A. Tittle’s “parve new contract.”
The nation became aware that now before every game in Yankee Stadium the stands echoed with Hebrew prayers, and that hasidic rabbis stood behind the umpires at each of their positions. Disputes that had once taken seconds or minutes now sometimes took hours, with boys in black running to and fro to fetch or return leather-covered tomes for support. Stengel began to pronounce his own name with an “eh” at the end, and no longer referred to his team as the Yankees but as the Yenkiss, with the last syllable pronounced as in the last syllables of “hocus pocus.”
Speculation was that all of this was an inexplicable commercial strategy of the management, and as long as people credited the theory the inexplicable seemed explicable. Even when the team refused to play on Saturdays, everyone thought it was simply a disastrously stupid move somehow designed to increase attendance. But the changes were not solely the work of management. Some of the players now wore what everyone in New York called yamakas, a strangely Japanese way of referring to what Roger called kippehs, or, in the singular, a kippeh. When the press finally got up enough nerve to ask Eustis Jackson Jr., the second baseman, why he was wearing such a thing, he said, with some heat, “I’m a colored man, this is a free country, and I can do what I want.”
When Berra was asked, he responded with a long and phenomenally disjointed essay about freedom of speech, the free-enterprise system, and his ancestors. What did that have to do with his wearing of a yamaka? With a twinkle in his eyes that the press never saw, he said, “They would, had they could, because the least obvious reward for labor is hard work.” But that was not the end of the encounter.
“Hey, Yogi,” a reporter said. “What are those threads, those, uh, fringes, sticking out of your pants?”
Yogi tucked them in, saying, “Frayed threads. It happens when it’s washed a lot.”
“Yogi,” they asked. “What is all this stuff, suddenly?”
“All this Jewish stuff.”
“What Jewish stuff?”
“You know, kosher stadium food, Hebrew prayers, rabbis behind the umps, yamakas, fringes. What’s going on?”
“Jewish stuff?” Yogi asked. “As Eustis said, it’s a free country, right? Look, guys, when you have a choice, there’s only one way to go.”
They accepted this, and went on. “But closing on Saturday is nuts. Aren’t you worried about attendance?”
Berra laughed. “Just be there for the game against Kansas City.”
The rematch against Kansas City was also a home game, as the A’s played solely away games that June because their field had been invaded by locusts. In New York at the end of the month it was hot and nearly everyone was either at work or at the beach. That the stands were half-full might have been worrisome to management as a sign that the Yankees had lost their touch, but they were worried only about Roger.
Roger was fine, had kept up his extraordinary record in numerous practices (although, to keep the strategy secret, he hit balls out of the stadium only in the dark), and assured them that the presence of a crowd and the press would have no effect on what he could do. But they had seen too many confident rookies turn to swamp mush at the roar of the crowd to be reassured, and they breathed apprehensively all through June, especially Stengeleh, who thought that perhaps he was having an epic dream.
Just striving to imitate Roger had made the Yankees hit better, run faster, and throw harder. They were losing by lesser margins, and although no one expected them to get to the Series, there was hope that they might hold their own enough to come back the next year. In fact, the sportswriters hoped for the agonizing comeback that would give them a great theme for the rest of the season. In the bottom of the ninth inning in the Thursday game against the A’s, the score was Kansas City 3, New York 0, which wasn’t so bad, and might be good for stimulating eight-hundred words of drivel about a Yankee revival. The radio announcers, however, were used to filling dead air in any circumstance, albeit with a languor that would have been the envy of Oblomov. No matter what, they would broadcast their perfectly timed descriptions in wonderful baseball-afternoon bursts.
Thus, Red and Mel—Red from Alabama, and Mel from Alabama, Red thin and Mel stocky, Red red-haired and Mel blue-black, Red high-strung and aristocratic and Mel what you might call a garage guy, Red a prima donna and Mel a prima donna, and both as comfortable to American ears as the sound of the lines whipping against a flagpole on a windy day. Red was looking forward to catching the train up to Briarcliff, and Mel was going to dinner that night with a broad. They thought the game was more or less over. So, apparently, did a lot of other people, who were headed to the subway and the parking lots. The voices of the announcers, arrowing over the air, conveyed a yearning for scotch on the 5:06 as the sun beat off the brackish Hudson, and the anticipation of the relaxed clink of glasses and ice at “21.”
After some light opera in service of Rheingold Beer, Mel summarized: “Yankees versus the A’s, Yankee Stadium, bottom of the ninth.” The word ninth had an upward intonation, like a rising pheasant. “A’s three, Yankees nothing, Koswick on third, Miller on second, two outs.”
“Folks,” said Red, “there are two outs, and Mantle is up. Or will be . . . in a second. What do you say, Mel?”
“It’s pretty clear, Red. Mantle has to go for a homer, and Zelinka has gotta walk him.”
“And strike the next batter out. . . . There’s potential drama here, Mel. Mantle has been hitting well.”
“You’re right, Red. If he hits now the way he’s been hitting in practice, the Yanks may have a chance today.”
“I know what you’re gonna say is strange, Mel,” Red interrupted.
“You’ve seen it, too?”
“I have. He’ll hit one into the bleachers, and you’ll see a pained expression on his face, as if that’s just not good enough.”
“That’s what makes a champion, Red. Never satisfied.”
“Okay, Mantle is up. Zelinka can’t take the chance. He’s gotta walk him.”
“There’s Mick. He brushes the dust off his left leg. A few practice swings.”
“He looks intent. He’s gotta hit for the bleachers. Look, people have stopped leaving the stadium. They’re poised at the ramps, their feet toward the exits, their bodies twisted so they can look over their shoulders at the field.”
“I’ll tell you, Mel, I would not walk out of this ballpark if Mickey Mantle was up at bat, or, if I did, I’d stop just like these folks.”
“The pitch,” said Mel. “Ball one. So far on the outside that maybe it was for the Dodgers.”
Red added, “Some people are booing Zelinka.”
“Zelinka doesn’t care. The game could ride on this. He can’t let Mantle drive in three runs and go to dangerous extra innings.”
“Zelinka hasn’t fared well against Mantle in the past. He knows. . . . He winds up . . . the pitch.”
The pitch was a slow boat to the outside, so far to the outside that it had to be slow to give the catcher time to get to it. But that was not something to be taken for granted, as the pitcher and the catcher had. Most uncharacteristically, Mantle ran after the ball.
“He’s running!” the announcers shouted. “He bunts! Oh boy! He’s halfway to first already, and there’s no one there to pick up the ball!”
Koswick, the runner on third, started toward home but the third-base coach called him back. “I coulda made it!” Koswick said. The coach just looked away, as did the rabbi behind him. Meanwhile, the catcher went for the ball and found himself in the middle of the infield while Zelinka rushed in to cover the plate. The catcher frantically threw the ball to Zelinka, who almost didn’t catch it, and, when he did, stood on the plate in a state of shock, looking out at bases loaded and knowing that his options were getting fairly narrow. As he returned to the mound, the fans at the exits went back to their seats.
The radio announcers forgot what they had been thinking of, because here was what they lived for. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, three nothing, two outs. Of course they and everyone else hoped the next batter up would go to a three-two count, the ultimate precipice of baseball, but even without that, what they had was good enough. A home run would win the game, a triple would tie it, a double would put the Yankees one down, a single or a walk two down. They were still alive, and no one knew what would happen.
“Morgan is up next, Red. With his batting average . . .”
“The only question, Mel, is who will be the pinch hitter.”
There was a delay, during which an argument in the Yankee dugout was overshadowed by the inevitable Kansas City conference with Zelinka, which was very animated.
The announcers commented on the pressure, and set the scene for their audience across the nation. “It’s been a really hot day in New York. The first subways, windows open, are rolling past, taking home those lucky enough to have gotten off work early. A shadow has just begun to move across the field, and although it’s an ice-cream day in the stadium, you can smell hot dogs and hamburgers cooking in the restaurants beyond the fence. The question remains, ladies and gentlemen, who will hit for Morgan? Mantle’s not moving from first. It was a strange thing to see him bunt.”
Then, over the radio, in every town and minuscule junction in America, from Caribou to the Everglades, Norfolk to San Francisco, came the following question: “Reeves? Who’s Reeves?”
The sound of paper being shuffled was heard across the nation as Red and Mel pulled out the back pages of the roster.
“Roger Reeves,” said Mel. “A rookie out of Georgia. His first day in the majors. This is unbelievable, Red.”
“It sure is, Mel. I’ve never seen it . . . in all my life. Reeves has never played before a crowd this large, never faced a pitcher like Zelinka. The Yankees . . . well, something’s come over the Yankees.”
Mel had been reading. “He’s only eighteen years old,” he said, astonished. “He played for half a season. On a team called the Milledgeville Crab Legs. That has since been disbanded.”
Red hushed down into his portentous voice. “All I can say, Mel, is that I’ll bet this boy is seven feet tall and weights two-hundred-fifty pounds.”
“Southern boys are short, Red.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they’re short and light. Look at you.”
“A lotta colored boys are Southern boys, and they’re big, Mel.”
“Yeah, Red, but this is a white boy.”
“How do you know?”
“Because there he is.”
Roger walked onto the field, with the crowd primed for the most generous cheer of their lives, but the cheer was drowned in shock.
He was not even five-and-a-half feet tall, he was so gangly that it seemed he could not have weighed much more than a hundred pounds, and his quaquaversal gait and quaquaversal eyes made him look like someone who might indeed have been on a team called the Milledgeville Crab Legs. As a physical specimen, he was easier to associate with a hospital than a major-league baseball team. Even from far away you could see how thick his glasses were, how white and delicate his hands. The baseball cap capped his head like a mixing bowl, but did not stem the wild flow of peyess.
“You know he’s from the South,” Mel said, “because he’s got those Johnny Reb sideburns. But he’s so small. Why is that, Red? Why are people in the South so small?”
“Yes they are. What is it, nutrition? The Civil War?”
“Yes they are. Look at Reeves.”
“I think Reeves will acquit himself well,” Red offered, “no matter what the impression you have of him.” As far away as the docks of Galveston, they could tell over the radio that Red would have killed Mel but for the fact that a baseball game intervened. It was strange, in that both were from Alabama.
Roger took his position and raised his head to look at the huge stadium, now completely silent and still, with tens of thousands of people looking back at him. He looked left, and there was Zelinka, three times his size, smiling with contempt. Even the rather large Orthodox contingent in the right-field stands was quiet. They knew in their bones that Roger Reeves of the Milledgeville Crab Legs was one of them, and their overwhelming emotion was fear that he would be the reason for the defeat of this otherwise invincible Gentile team (they were somewhat behind the times), and that this might result in a pogrom.
Zelinka decided to drive a fastball right down the middle, square in the center of the batting picture. He had done this many a time before to rookies, who always had swung after the ball was in the catcher’s mitt. When pitched without complication, his fastball was so fast that no inexperienced player would ever be able to connect with it. And given Reeves’s size and weight, even if he did it was possible that the force of the ball would push the bat back rather than vice-versa. In the few cases of this that Zelinka had seen, the batter was shocked to find himself, absent his own volition, back in the ready position. The only drawback was that such balls veered up or down, and sometimes bounced off the catcher and rolled into play without anyone realizing that the batter hadn’t hit them. It didn’t matter. Zelinka wanted to make every pitch to Reeves a recoilless rifle shot. He was enraged that they would put such a batter up against him, and wanted to make the ball smoke on its way in.
The stadium was like an ocean of angry rabbis. The whole world at that moment seemed to depend on Roger, and he had no confidence that he could hit a baseball, much less one thrown by an enraged major-league pitcher, much less send it out of the stadium and thus make in the world of baseball an explosion like that of a hydrogen bomb. Roger could not even see the ball. He had no illusions. What was he? Nothing. He was, as both Gentile and non-religious Jewish children of the era called each other in derision, a “spastic.” True, he could run, and his reflexes were live wires, but, from hitting? Jews couldn’t hit, never could. Their job in the mystery of things was to take on the kidney a baseball thrown by a tall Irishman or a giant Pole like Zelinka—people who were not afraid to punch, or jump off a waterfall, or ride a bicycle on a rope stretched between the Woolworth and Municipal buildings.
It didn’t matter. Not only that, but what no one ever knew or could know was that, after the pitch, Roger always closed his eyes. It was then that he felt the arms, fluttering and feathered, golden and shiny, reach from behind him and slowly, viscously, take hold of his hands on the bat. The joy that this brought him, knowing that it was not he that held the bat, but an angel, made him float. No one ever looked at a batter’s feet at the swing, but had anyone peered stereoscopically at the photographs of record, he would have seen that Roger’s feet were held a quarter of an inch off the ground. He floated, and was happy. An angel supported him in his arms and gently held the bat, and, with eyes closed, Roger would swing with the angel.
He felt that, even were he betrayed, even were he to be abandoned, even were he to be humiliated in front of tens of thousands of Gentiles, it would be enough that he had had so intimate a discovery of so unpredictable a God. It would be enough that he had been promised, even were the promise not kept. It would be enough that in the House of Ruth, he had been clasped by an angel’s wings and raised from the ground.
“The pitch!” Mel and Red said to the nation simultaneously.
Even with eyes closed, Roger could see the ball coming in, as white as the foam of a tidal wave, moving like a cannon shell, a piston, or a comet, with a power that made the air around it roar. Then this ball slowed most graciously into an almost rhythmical stillness. It glowed, pulsed, and seemed to grow to the size of the moon, and then dutifully stopped one foot in front of home plate, with glistenings, luminous rings, showers of ice, pinwheels of diamonds, and leaping sparks spinning from it. “Hit me!” it shouted, in the visible language of stopped and floating baseballs. “Hit me!”
Feathers pressed in unison against the limitlessly powerful wing, and the bat moved like a jet as the wings grew taut to slow it lest the ball be hit too hard, and when the two connected, the ball fled like a cat on fire. It went just slowly enough so that everyone in the stadium could track the flame, and track it they did, up at the angle of a useless fly, but so far up that its trajectory seemed aimed at the huge daylight moon loitering impudently above the Bronx.
Thirty thousand people dared not breathe. Their heads lifted and their eyes opened to the maximum as the ball flew from the stadium, clearing the flagpole by six-hundred feet, headed perhaps to Africa or Rio de Janeiro, over Orchard Beach. And as everyone followed it, Roger began to walk quietly toward first.
As the Yankee runs came in, the crowd grew hysterical on account of the frail unknown Yankee who brought up the rear and ran from third to home with uncanny spastic grace to win the game for the Yankees by one run, the only one of its kind in history. In the stands the Gentiles shook the pillars of the world with their shouts, and the Jews prayed silently, thankful to have been spared.
Someone brought champagne to the locker room, and it was spilled wastefully over everyone. They picked up Roger and, dancing between the benches, carried him from place to place. One of the team held the bat and kissed it; then he elevated it above his head and marched around in triumph. They chanted in unison: “Ro-ger! Ro-ger! Ro-ger!”
Roger squiggled out of their grip and slid to the floor. “No!” he said, retrieving the airborne bat. “No!”
“No?” they asked.
“No,” he said, pausing to regain his breath. He held the bat out in front of him on display. “This is the bat of God,” he told them.
“The bat of God,” they repeated in awe.
“No!” he said again.
“It isn’t?” they asked.
“Is it,” they asked, “or isn’t it?”
“It is,” he confirmed, “but you may not worship it.”
“Why not?” Berra asked. “God! It’s the bat of God!”
“Yes,” said Roger, “but you can’t. If you worship it, you are worshipping only a thing that He made. He didn’t even make it, He caused it to be made.”
“He made everything, so if you worship only one of those things, or any of them, or all of them, you are worshipping your own choice, and thus you are worshipping yourselves, which you must not do.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do with the bat of God?” Mantle asked.
“Treat it,” Roger said, remembering a song he had heard on the radio, “like a lady.”
As the Yankees tried to assimilate this, everything was frozen, and amid the stillness, the doors of the locker room began to stretch inward with wavelike changes of pressure against them in advance of the sports press, which no force in the world could stop.
“Quick, Roger,” Mantle said, “jump in the laundry cart.”
Roger flew into a wheeled canvas hamper, and the Yankees covered him with towels. Then the doors burst open and what seemed like a thousand men with tickets in the brims of their gray hats flooded in like the tides of Fundy.
“Roger! Where’s Roger Reeves!” they screamed.
“Who?” the Yankees asked.
The great crush of press was driven into a kind of seizure, which the Yankees much enjoyed. “Roger Reeves! He’s a legend! He hit a ball . . .”
“Yes?” Mantle asked.
“He hit a ball . . .” the reporter repeated, sweeping his left arm across an imaginary horizon, “out of the . . . out of the . . .”
“He went home for the weekend,” Berra said. “He wants to spend the weekend with the former Crab Legs.”
“In Milledgeville?” they asked.
“Yup,” Berra said.
The wave that had burst in now evacuated with a sucking sound of withdrawn air, and the rest was silence. Roger popped up from the towels like a chick breaking out of an egg, and said, “I’ve got to get back to the hotel; I’m way behind in Mishnah.”
“If this is a dream,” Berra said, “then let it be your wishbone.”
Roger refused to play away games, not only because of the difficulty in getting kosher food (which, like kosher food itself, was surmountable), but because he wanted to hit balls out of Yankee Stadium each time he was up at bat. He suggested, and Stengeleh agreed, that this might be good for the Yankees. The whole country was already in a fever, the press had ravaged Milledgeville and come up with not even one former Crab Leg, and the greater the mystery the more people wanted to know. There was no Roger Reeves in Milledgeville. Never had been. No one knew him. Who was he? Was he a robot? Had Roger Reeves shown up in public, anywhere, he would have been torn apart by gushing hands, but Roger Reveshze was free to walk about, entirely ignored.
As the fervor built, the Yankees played at Cincinnati and Roger rested for a Thursday game against Chicago. Every seat in Yankee Stadium was sold, and scalpers were disposing of tickets for a premium of one-thousand percent. The front pages of the tabloids for that entire week would be devoted to Roger: Who Is Yankee Miracle Boy?; Reeves to Field Thursday; Never Again?; Stengel Says, “Watch!”; Reeves Unknown in Milledgeville; and so on. Pictures of his face, many times enlarged, like photographs of the moon, appeared in the newspapers. Television ran slow- and stop-motion films of him again and again. Industries were born putting his name on mugs and cards, though not his image, for which they needed his permission, and would have paid dearly had they been able to receive it. The President was asked about him at his news conference, prompting the normally good-natured general to snap, “How the hell do I know? He’s not a secret program. He doesn’t work for the government. Why are you asking me?”
Such fame, even pseudonymously, might have worked upon anyone other than someone who had received as the answer to his prayer the embrace of an angel. This coursed through Roger’s veins like life itself. It put the world in a very clear light, even literally, illuminating in the texts Roger studied, for example, each Hebrew letter as if it were caught from every angle by miniature suns shining on it like spotlights. This gave the letters depth, and never had the texts themselves seemed so profound, brilliant, and beautiful. He was astounded to discover that these readings, which normally were only words, were now accompanied by music. The letters and words on the page, formerly black and black-gray, now shone like bright sun on burnished brass.
Though Roger had not seen the angel, he had felt its embrace and sensed a coolly burning orb. He guessed that this would be surrounded by souls of similar perfection gliding gracefully and unseen throughout their days.
The White Sox were a repulsive bunch of taciturn midgets whose throwing arms seemed attached to stolid blocks of steel. Whereas most pitchers were like supple human flyrods, the Sox were like trench mortars or doughnut machines. They never looked anyone in the eye, they had flat heads, and although they did everything to win, as long as they belched forward like steam shovels they really didn’t care if they won or lost, which was lucky for them, because, after Roger took to the field and single-handedly prevented a single ball from touching the grass, they had to decharter their airplane and go home on a bus. The final score for this, Roger’s second game, was Chicago nothing, Yankees 147.
The Yankees were regretful but too stunned by the whole situation not to accept that Roger would play only three more games. Sure to lose him, they yearned to know how he did it, so Stengel gingerly asked if he would hold a clinic for the rest of the team.
“A clinic?” Roger asked.
“A baseball clinic,” Stengel said. “You know, teach them how to hit, how to field, how to run. You’re only going to play three more games, and we thought, well, it’d be great if you could leave behind some of what you brought. We’re doing okay now—I mean, look at the score against Chicago—but you never know. The way we were going this year, before you came. . . . We could lose it.” He laughed nervously, not daring to bring up money, which he knew Roger would refuse.
“I don’t know from baseball,” said Roger, “not a thing.”
Stengel bowed his head. “Really,” he said, in awe.
“Then how did you . . . how did you . . .”
“That?” Roger asked.
“Yes, Roger,” Stengel said politely, “that.”
“I could tell them what I do know.”
Stengel looked at Roger, who was illuminated in fading reddish-brown light. He was less than half Stengel’s size. He didn’t know the rules of baseball, much less the subtleties. By rights and the laws of physics he should not have been able, even had he connected with the ball, to have hit it beyond the diamond. A child of his size and underdevelopment would not be able to throw the ball from home to second, much less leap twenty feet in the air (as he had done in the Sox game) and then get the ball off on a flat trajectory to burn into the catcher’s mitt at home plate before the thrower was back on the ground. “Yes,” said Stengel, “tell us what you do know.”
“Okay,” said Roger, “but I’m telling you, I don’t know anything.”
That was not quite true. He had begun to think about the game. For example, he liked very much that the ball was an object descending from heaven, and he thought of it, therefore, not as an object to be captured for the glory of the captor but as a gracious gift that brought with it in train a bit of the loveliness of the sky.
For the seminar, the Yankees went to their secret practice field at Lake Honkus, near Mohonk, in the Shawangunks. The Yankees had bought a secluded estate and set up a baseball field on what had been a cow pasture, where they could practice in secret their surprise plays and coded signals. The lodge where they stayed was filled with wrought iron, Indian blankets, and buffalo heads. In fact, in Roger’s room, he and a moose had a staring contest for at least an hour.
The next morning, Roger and the Yankees put away a huge breakfast, during which Roger discovered that the maple syrup the Yankees used on their pancakes was kosher, and made an interesting sauce for pickled herring. Then they went outside and sat on benches facing a portable blackboard. The weather was wonderfully cool and clear at Lake Honkus. Stengel brought Roger up to the front, stood him next to the blackboard, gave him a piece of chalk, and said, “Kid, we’re totally secure.”
Roger looked at the Yankees, who looked at him expectantly. What could he possibly say that would enable them to hit a ball out of the park or jump twenty feet in the air?
“From baseball I know nothing,” he began, “but what’s a lock?”
“What’s a lock?” Mantle echoed.
“You mean like a lock on a door,” Larsen asked, “or a lock in a canal?”
“Both,” said Roger.
“A door lock is a metal thing with a lot of really smart junk in it,” Berra said.
“Okay,” said Roger, “and the lock of a canal?”
“A chamber for raising and lowering boats, with water from the river or canal to run it.”
“Yes,” said Roger.
Time passed. The Yankees stared at Roger. More time passed. Then Roger said, “Both illustrate the mechanism of the world.”
The Yankees inched forward. No clinic had ever begun like this.
“God is perfect,” Roger said. “His creation is perfect. It doesn’t seem so to us—we who suffer and die, who must live with sadness and terror—because we can’t see it in its entirety. If we could, we would see that it is in perfect balance. The counterweight for which we long—to right wrongs and correct injustices—is sometimes far away from us in space, time, or both. But, taken as a whole, from far enough afield, all is in balance, all is just.
“Good. What does this have to do with baseball and locks? As set out in the teachings of Rabbi Pepper of Biloxi and Rabbi Goldfinch of Barnevelt, the modern-day disciples of Rabbi Yoel ben Isaac of Zamosc and his grandson Rabbi Yoel ben Uri (whose last names I will not say), each a baal shem, and their descendants, et cetera, in God’s eyes, in fact, and in truth, all souls, absent the deficit of sin, are equal. For example, a wise and brilliant king has no higher rank in the view of the Almighty than a beggar who has not even the comprehension to speak his own name. At the final judgment, both souls can glow equally in the same circle of continuous light.”
The Yankees nodded slightly. They understood; they had all deeply loved those who were far from perfect.
“Okay,” said Roger. “So here is the question that Yoel ben Isaac put forth and Yoel ben Uri answered. If these souls occupy the same level at the end, equally beloved of God, and if God’s creation is perfect, how can an imbalance exist in their lives on earth? How can one suffer all the miseries of this life, and the other know all the glories, if in the end every account is to be reconciled and they come to the same reward? In a perfect universe, how can such a shortfall exist? How can God allow it?”
Not even the entire Yankee lineup could answer this question, though they strained to do so. Roger again challenged them. “Tell me, how can God allow it? Do you know?” He surveyed them. They didn’t. “I’ll tell you, then. It’s simple. He doesn’t. What is equal in the end is equal also in the beginning and in the middle. There is no deficit even on this earth, even in the smallest picture, the tightest section of view. But how can this be? The king and the beggar live vastly different lives. Ah! That’s what you think. That’s what may be apparent. But it isn’t true. Why? Because,” he said to the Yankees, their eyes unblinking, “the mechanism of creation is like a lock.”
The Yankees waited. How was it like a lock, both kinds?
“Both kinds. The metal lock has a cylinder that, for the door to open, must turn. This cylinder has a row of holes drilled in it, in which rest pins. In the barrel inside of which the cylinder turns and is encased, is a line of holes spaced exactly like their counterparts in the cylinder, with its own set of pins. In the locked position, the pins from the barrel fall into the holes in the cylinder and prevent it from turning, because they cross and block the interface. When the key is put in, it raises the pins exactly to the points—at a different level in each hole—where the barrel pins are above the line and the cylinder pins are below it. If all the pins were raised indiscriminately, sometimes the cylinder pins would block the interface, and sometimes the barrel pins would. If they were not raised at all, the barrel pins would block the interface and, thus, the rotation. To allow the turning, each pin must be raised according to what it requires. Some are raised more, some less, which is why the key is jagged. In the end, its unevenness makes a perfect equality that allows the lock to open.
“And a lock that lifts or lowers a boat is a mechanism that gets its power from the urge of all water to find its own level. Only that way can things flow, rivers run, and the world function—when the disparate forces of the universe are conjoined, and rest easy in an equality of perfection. Every force that exists is held in balance by a counterpart with which it must be united, and with which it is united, even if the connection be not apparent to us.
“Like the pins in a lock, the beggar and the king are lifted by God variously and invisibly, but equally, even in this world, so that the perfection will not be broken, for, by definition, the perfection cannot be broken. They ride unseen waves and are held aloft by unseen supports. Were they not so lifted, the world would not work.
“Only those who have suffered can know the strength of the compensation they acquire. The emissary that comes to them is all-embracing, and though some may deny or mock this, it is many times more real than the world itself, for next to this working of perfection the world itself seems only a tinsel of the imagination. God compensates even in this world. He must. He does. And the reception of His compensation, like a quantity of physics, is the certain though insubstantial thing we call holiness. Those who would deny it would do so simply from lack of having received it. Perhaps the king, gifted in other ways, has no knowledge of holiness, while for the beggar with no gifts, it is overflowing. You may wonder what this has to do with baseball.”
“It seems clear to me,” he said, as a breeze brought resinous air from a thick pine forest that bordered the practice field as evenly as a crewcut. “I have been able to do what I did because my arm was guided, my strength supplied, my speed achieved, by the ever-present will of God for balance and perfection. Perhaps a Phoenician ship listed too much to port, thousands of years ago; or it was too cloudy, for too long, over a glacier in the Himalayas; or a woman’s heart was broken for a day by her suitor in Montana. I don’t know. I do know that it is important to know that such balances exist, and that, if I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t have the heart to continue.”
“Can we hook into this stuff?” Berra asked.
“Not if all you want to do is win games,” Roger answered.
“But wait a minute,” Berra demanded. “Let’s say someone cheated in chinese checkers a thousand years ago in Peru. If I could hook into that, I could run twenty feet back to the plate even though Zelinka is just an inch from it, and put him out, right?”
“No,” said Roger. “It doesn’t necessarily work that way, and God is not fond of games.”
“Games can become, because of their closed set of rules, an independent universe, a distraction from the seeking of perfection. If they are taken as a universe in themselves, what a meager universe that is. This offends God, who worked for six whole days to make the universe we have. Can you imagine what would come of the work of an omnipotent being for six whole days? What is the infinity of detail, the infinity of extent, the infinity of connectedness, and the infinity of surprise, times six?”
“It doesn’t apply to baseball?” Stengel asked, not quite sure of exactly what it was.
“If your object is merely to play baseball, it doesn’t.”
“What’s your object, then, Roger?” Mantle asked.
“Because of the imperfection I have seen, I live for the hope of restoration. That’s all I live for, even if it be a sin.”
“What imperfection?” Stengel asked.
Roger’s expression was incomprehensible to the Yankees as anything but some sort of nervous ailment, because boys his age who are not afflicted with a crippling disease do not show on their faces the pain of old men. “I was born during the war,” he said, to answer the question, “in a place called Majdanek. I knew nothing else. The physical privation of this place, the terror of the selections and the frequent killing of people around me, seemed natural. Until I was three, I existed in the aura of my parents’ love. I don’t know what they did to keep us alive, but I know that whatever it was it was done for me. I stop abruptly when I begin to imagine what they must have suffered, especially my mother. For this I pray with love and gratitude, every day. I wish it were they who had lived and I who had died, although that would have taken from them what they wanted most.
“Just before the liberation, when I was three, we were marched out and made to stand at the edge of a pit. In the pit were thousands of bodies. Bulldozers had compressed and shaped them. They were as white as snow, and beneath them was a lake of blood. Even among the crushed forms and severed limbs, some people remained alive, though not for long.
“My mother and father told me that they loved me. They tried to shield me with their bodies. When the firing began, the force of the machine-gun bullets caught them and the other adults and they were hurled into the pit as if a wind had blown them away. The firing had been over the heads of the children, who stood on the rim untouched and unable to move. The guns were not lowered, because bullets were scarce.
“A soldier came by and picked me up by both ankles. My head hit the ground, and then he swung me around like an ice skater swinging his partner. I remember the blood rushing to my head, and the world blurring into blue and white. Even as I was twirled, the soldiers were laughing. After I was released, for a moment, I flew. Undoubtedly, I passed over my mother and father, and though I thought I was going to fly forever, I fell into the center of the pit, face-to-face with a dead woman upon whom I had fallen, whose mouth was open.
“I thought I was dead, too, until the bulldozers drove over us. The sound of bones breaking was like the sound of burning kindling. Many times, the bulldozer drove right over me, but though I was too frightened to move, I found myself each time between the treads. Then I was caught in a wave of tumbling bodies that, pushed by the blade, washed up at the edge. The bulldozer no longer came near me. I lay quietly as it worked, and then slept.
“After nightfall, I was awakened as I was wetted with gasoline. Choking on it, I climbed over the rim and walked into the darkness. I thought that this was death and that I was dead, but when I looked back and saw the huge blaze of the fire in which my mother and father were burning, I knew that I was still alive. I knew the difference. I wanted to die, I wanted very much to die, but, not knowing how, I lived.
“That is the imperfection I have seen,” he said, “and all I want from the world is some indication or sign that, forward in time, or where time does not exist, there is a justice and a beauty that will leap back to lift the ones I love from the kind of grave they were given.”
The poor Orioles. They had no idea what was going to happen to them when the Yankees took the field in Roger’s third game. Though they knew to be concerned with Roger himself, they had closely studied the first two of his games and saw hope in the fact that in these the other Yankees had played only marginally better. If they could isolate Roger, the rest of the Yankees would still be the Yankees Brooklyn had beaten in the Series the year before. Their rivals in the Bronx, they thought, still lacked focus.
But when the Yankees returned to the Bronx from Lake Honkus they did have focus, albeit of an unusual sort. They appeared to be bent on a certain kind of vengeance that was entirely alien to and had never been seen in baseball. True, baseball had its fierce moments, and sometimes teams were arrogantly knit together into bands of primitive warriors who pressed their case in a way that knocked the wind out of their fans. When the outfielder Whitey Koski was deliberately struck in the head, or so it seemed, by the pitcher Chick Perkasky, so concentrated and angry were Koski’s teammates that they burned up the rest of the game. With home run after home run, and fielded balls thrown back with the force of cannon fire, they astonished the spectators, of whom they had become totally unaware. When Doug Little and Kevin Small, two Giants, were attacked by drunks hurling coconuts during an exhibition game in Sarasota, the Giants came alight with heavy hitting and flame-thrower pitching. For two weeks they beat every team they played, and then, when their anger dissipated, they returned to their losing streak.
Such things were expected of teams whose players had been struck by fastballs or kneed when sliding, but why the Yankees? The Yankees were in the midst of the most spectacular rise baseball had ever seen. Why would they be angry? Why would they be grim? No one had suffered indignity or abuse. If anything, they could be expected to be sheepish and self-conscious about their inexplicable good fortune and the fact that now they all had Cadillacs.
This is, anyway, what the Orioles had been counting on. Nonetheless, the Orioles saw out on the green lawn the faces not of baseball players but of soldiers. When he didn’t smile, Berra looked even more like a turtle, and he refused to be engaging. The Oriole batters felt pure concentration emanating from him as he crouched at the limit of their peripheral vision. Mantle looked no longer like a farm boy but rather like the ruthless head of a giant steel corporation. The boyishness in his eyes had disappeared and been replaced by a metallic coldness. Larsen didn’t bother to touch the brim of his hat or adjust anything before his pitches, each of which seemed designed to break Berra’s wrists. All the Yankees—except Roger, who remained mild (because the world into which they had just entered, and in which they would stay for only a short time, was his forever)—had an intense impatience that changed their timing to something such as no one had seen.
Baseball is like a clock, in that its wheels turn at different speeds and all its moves require waiting. Eventually, everything pops at once: the detents lift, springs decompress, arms rise, and hammers strike twelve times, even if only twice a day. Most of the time, however, is spent waiting for one wheel to align with another. So it is with baseball and its glorious pauses, which cannot be rushed and which even the announcers mimic with genius. Were the empty spaces to be compressed or done away with, the game would die.
Driven by emotion, the Yankees played a game with few spaces, little hesitation, and no rest. To describe just a small part of the Orioles’ nightmare, which took place within the span of a hot-dog transaction, Larsen pitched without a warm-up, firing the ball across the plate at a hundred miles an hour. The batter swung late, and before he was finished with his swing Berra had thrown the ball back to Larsen as fast as a pitch. Immediately after the ball ploughed into Larsen’s glove, he pitched it, and the batter, who had barely taken up position, swung again. This was repeated, and, within twenty-three seconds of the first pitch, the batter was out and gone.
When the next Oriole hit a fly to third, Rocky Babis, a new guy covering the base, harvested it and instantaneously rammed it across the diamond to first, where the Oriole Brutus Evans was tagged before he got back to base, making three outs. At the instant Evans was tagged, the Yankees sprinted in, and the next Yankee up stood impatiently at the plate before the Orioles were even out of their dugout, which, not surprisingly, gave the Orioles an incurable case of the heebie-jeebies.
The Daily News now referred to the Yankees as “the Invincible Engine.” Although Larsen was not pitching perfect games, his pitching was astoundingly quick and deadly. As a team, New York had become the model of a grim and efficient army that fights an unspeakable enemy and is reconciled and devoted to its tasks. Roger’s last three games and quite a few afterward were played not as games but as tributes. The Yankees no longer cared about their standing in the league or their chances for the pennant or in the Series. They did not care about their salaries and bonuses. They did not care that children ran up to them in the streets and women watched glowingly as they passed. They did not even care about winning: winning, for them, became joyless. They wanted only to play to perfection and to rush it on, as symbol and sign, to speak directly to God, and to face like men the fact of evil and sorrow in the world.
And they played so beautifully, so well, and so apparently with something higher in mind, that the announcers really did not know what to say—except that they would always remember, and that something had turned that summer to gold.
Roger’s last game was in late September, on the dry cloudless day that confirmed to all that summer was finally over. October would bring some heat now and then, but this was the signal that New York’s bejeweled fall had begun, when sharp shadows brought depth and reflection, and because of the declination of the light the rivers looked their bluest. Sounds, too, were sharper, and better sustained on the cool dense air, and no longer was everything blurred by the summer vapor that fills-in the channels of sight and sound.
Everyone knew that the Yankees would be on Detroit like a tidal wave. Bookies were giving odds of ten-thousand to one. And for a team on its way to face a firing squad, the Tigers were in a festive mood. They looked forward to the exhibition, to watching Roger hit balls out of the park, and to winning, perhaps, if not the game, a rich pool based on the point spread: the most daring Tiger had placed his stake on a spread of nine-hundred runs.
Buoyed by the summer’s place in history and coffers overflowing from the unprecedented gate since June, not to mention the miraculous improvement of the team and the likelihood of its coming back to beat the Dodgers in the Series, Stengel simply announced that this would be Roger’s last game. As Berra always said, “The middle is the end of the road for the beginning,” and Roger was going back to the South (Milledgeville, Stengel had confessed to the public, had been a feint), to a small town that, to preserve his and its privacy and peace, would remain unknown.
When people heard this, they ached. Although the sports press had never stopped trying, Roger had never been interviewed, and the public had exactly the image of him it wanted. He was the ideal and paradigmatic American—lanky, side-burned, taciturn, unmarried, young, rich (they thought), mysterious, and devout. Had he run for President he could have won by a landslide even in a non-election year, and that fall the presidential campaign was in full swing. Harvard invited him to be its president, the Treasury to be on medallions, Wheaties to be on the box. Commercial offers were so lucrative that, had he taken all thousand of them and bargained well, he could have been the richest man in the world.
But all Roger wanted to do was go home, where no one would know anything about what had occurred in baseball that summer—except that a Jewish player had been a brief sensation. Even Schnaiper would not grasp the significance of what had happened, and would not in any case realize that its agent had been the new boy who fetched gribeness for the rebbe. The Yankees would keep his secret and never call on him, content that he had helped them this one time, because this was what he had asked of them.
After the game, he would stay in the locker room until early evening. Dressed again in hasidic clothing, he would shoulder the books he had not already sent home by book post, and walk out of the deserted main gate, as obscure as he had been when he walked in. He would get on the subway and go back to Brooklyn, where he would continue doggedly the task of his life. But there was one more game to play, the most unusual game ever played in the history of baseball.
The Yankees were up, and because everyone knew the Tigers would never come in from the field, chairs were brought for every Tiger player except the pitcher. Next to the chairs were little tables with ice buckets, bottles of Coke and lemonade, and snacks. A hundred thousand people filled Yankee Stadium, double its capacity, and in the South Bronx and upper Manhattan millions had gathered, packing the avenues, cramming into all the empty spaces, their faces turned toward home plate, even though the three television networks were broadcasting live. Inexplicably, the rules had been changed, and Roger would pinch hit for everyone on his team, even Mantle. After the national anthem and ten minutes of prayer, Roger walked onto the field.
He was greeted with the longest, loudest, most extraordinary cheer that had ever been raised, a hundred-thousand voices amplified by the hornlike shape of the stadium, and a million more following on in the street. Though he knew he deserved no such thing, he was pleased nonetheless—because he understood that they were not cheering for him even if they did not know it—and he bowed his head to honor what they were cheering. Not mistakenly, they thought that this was a sign of humility, which set alight a self-sustaining, self-replicating, waxing roar that rose for a half-hour and tumbled from the stadium on waves of thundering air that could be heard from Kingsbridge to Canarsie.
Mantle gave the bat to Roger, who walked gangly-legged to the plate. When the umpire shouted “Play ball!” the cheer went up again and did not die for fifteen minutes. Then, when all was quiet, Roger turned crisply to the pitcher. The pitcher wound up and sent a one-hundred-mile-per-hour fastball screaming at the umpire, for the catcher, who was eating poppyseed cake, sat on a chair off to the side.
The ball that came in at a hundred miles per hour left at quadruple that speed, whining briefly through the air before it disappeared in the pure blue, forty degrees above the top of the flagpole. The fans were wild, but then settled in to simple euphoria as Roger hit pitch after pitch high over the Bronx toward Africa and the South Atlantic. The pitcher was supplied with one ball after another by teammates standing next to huge bins of baseballs on the sidelines. After a hundred desperate throws, his relief came onto the field and stood behind him, and when his arm gave out the relief pitcher took over so as not to break the rhythm of Roger’s drives.
Roger was lost in the soundless incantations that affirm the truth of truths. The pattern of the vast numbers of baseballs streaming over the wall was like a cloth of ghostly white threads, or seeds sown in a light and helpful breeze. Four-hundred-mile-per-hour baseballs pierced the air and whistled over the Bronx in a song, while the announcers said virtually nothing. “Let’s just look on as this unfolds,” they had said, forgetting that they were on the radio and that people listening could not see what they saw, “for it will never be this way again.” And, then, counting under their breath, they joined their audience in subdued amazement as the balls flew by in steady procession, like raindrops speeding sideways in a gale. Two thousand of them were shot from the stadium that day. There might have been more, but Roger stopped at the even number, which he thought might be a record. It was.
The players, the management, the professionals, the sportswriters, and the fans were aware that, before Roger, they had never seen a ball hit from the stadium, and that they never would again. To see two thousand in a row, without a miss, without hesitation, pause, or variations in path or timing except those that he willed, was as if God had chosen that moment to make His presence known, and they reacted accordingly in wonder and delight. For the moment, at least, they felt as if the deepest circles within them had been squared, their ragged doubts knit smooth, and the world were ablaze with the light of perfection.
Roger had long since tired of the suite in which he lived in deadening luxury on the Upper East Side. It was now empty, as it was empty before his arrival, a rosewood and alabaster tomb without even a body, a columbarium without ashes. In that neighborhood it was fairly easy to get a Fabergé egg but almost impossible to get a kosher chicken. True, the dwellings were well kept and well appointed, they often were as high as birds’ nests, and you could look out and see a half-million windows and not a foot of fire-escape iron, but the difference between this place and where he lived in Brooklyn was like the difference between a wool suit on a hanger, and a lamb. There were those who would instinctively choose the suit, and those who would instinctively choose the lamb. It was not for Roger to criticize anyone who would take the suit, but he himself would gather the lamb into his arms.
So with the place where he lived, a jumble of ancient brick in a basket weave of black iron that lay upon the tenements like fishing net sprawled to dry across a city of crates. The streets had no prospect and were tight and twisting. Only from the rooftops could you catch a glimpse of ships and blue water, and the trees, being so few and rare, were achingly beautiful.
Roger’s affection for the awkward and homely way in which he lived had not diminished, and it began to enfold him graciously even as he headed out of the stadium’s main gate. It was the way his parents had lived, and the way their parents had lived, and so forth, and so on, very far back. But it would be a sin to carry on habit for its own sake, or to venerate the old merely because it is old. After all, given the expanse of the infinite, all that occurred did so within less than the duration of a spark, so everything was new and had to be judged for what it was. Tradition was an illusion, an afterimage—comfortable, yes, but unjustifiable in itself.
The ancient ritual, the black coats, the way of speaking, the languages, the revelations and commentary, the candles, the cuisine, the marriage customs, and the fur-rimmed hats, were things as new as if they had just burst upon the world like the first rays of light. Pop. There they were. To think that they were old would be only a mistake of perspective. What made them what they were, and so different from everything else, was that each one carefully and deliberately put the things of the world in their place. Each was a declaration and vow, each the outcome of a battle in which reason strictly assigned them a post. And thus subdued, the things of the world were sweet, and the world rose, like a planet in ascension, to its proper position.
The subway, inexplicably elevated aboveground, rolled down its track, taking Roger home. It made many turns indirectly in directions different from the one in which he was headed, but the sum and subtraction of the departures would constitute the precision of the aim, and had the train gone merely in a straight line, it likely would have missed. It went noisily amid the appearance of a million gently burning lights that gradually took the place of the bright scales with which the setting sun had armored the face of every building. It went left, it went right, it lurched north, south, east, and west, but then it began its last dash toward Brooklyn like a dog following a trail.
Roger closed his eyes, and a world that once had been came alive in all its tender detail. His mother lived again in moments so taxing to him that it threatened his young heart. His father lived again. They moved in color and dimension, and as the train rushed forward the world doubled back upon itself, twisting immeasurably, confounding time. In these moments, when it was as if he were observing them, unseen, they were, somehow, observing him. He could neither explain nor understand, but he was sure they knew.
When the train rose gracefully onto the bridge and sped with immensely complex clacking over iron rails in an open box of steel held in the wind a hundred feet above the river, the sound made Roger open his eyes. There was the world clear in the night, its sparkling towers piercing a band of brilliant orange light. For a moment, and just a moment—for he had work to do—he thought about what had happened. What had happened was but a single, lovely note in an always urgent song that he had been brought up to sing, like those before him, in protest of mortality, hope of survival, and love of God. It had happened here, in the New World, and why not? If Ruth could, among the alien corn, begin the line in Judah that led to David, then what was not possible here, and what perfection would be disallowed?
Perfection: A Story
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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.