To the Editor:
I want to commend Robert Jastrow for his article, “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” [December 1984]. His arguments are painfully correct in their direction, and, as a result, Mr. Jastrow has been attacked in a very sharp manner.
His detractors, some of whom are publicly well-known, have raised and will continue to raise the argument that Mr. Jastrow, lacking clearance, is inadequately informed. It is important to realize that by abstaining from getting clearance, Mr. Jastrow has retained his freedom of speech. This privilege is one of his main weapons, one which is not available to those of us who have spent years working on the problem of defensive weapons before supporting a major program for their development.
It is worth noting that Hans A. Bethe, one of the outspoken opponents of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), conceded during a classified discussion in February 1983 that the relevant arguments in physics supported the Livermore Laboratory strategic-defense position. Shortly thereafter, however, Mr. Bethe changed his mind—not because the scientific issues had changed, but on the basis of his ideas about proper politics and military strategy. Mr. Bethe has waited almost two years before scheduling another (forthcoming) visit to review the Livermore strategic-defense work, although he has felt free to attack it on the basis of his outdated knowledge in the interim.
The position taken, by Hans A. Bethe, Victor F. Weisskopf, and many other “concerned” scientists is strongly reminiscent of the hydrogen-bomb controversy which raged more than three decades ago. The argument then was that the project was not scientifically feasible, and if it were successful, the result would be too terrible to bear. Furthermore, the argument went on, if the United States did not attempt the project, probably the Soviets would also forbear.
As it turned out—according to Andrei Sakharov’s biographical statement in Sakharov Speaks (Knopf, 1974)—before the hydrogen-bomb debate began in the United States, the Soviet hydrogen-bomb project was already under way. Only months separated the successful tests of a fusion weapon by the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet the United States had the advantage that it had been physically untouched by World War II, while the Soviets had suffered terrible damage.
The consequences of a Soviet success on this project coupled with American non-participation would have speeded up the kind of behavior today being demonstrated by the Soviets on the basis of their military superiority. However, the consequences of the Soviets’ successful development of protective defenses and our failure to do so are incomparably greater. There is much evidence—evidence that in comparison with that available in the earlier controversy should be called overwhelming—that the Soviets are hard and successfully at work on strategic defense. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative would be more appropriately named if it were called the Strategic Defense Response. Yet Mr. Weisskopf, present for President Reagan’s original speech requesting the cooperation of the scientific community in this effort, appeared to disapprove before the President even had time to develop his point.
Returning to Mr. Jastrow’s article and. his purported lack of scientific information, I would end with a question. Which better represents the method of scientific inquiry: limited, careful arguments that include all of the pertinent perspectives, or dogged support of narrow convictions based on superficial assessments?
I appreciate Mr. Jastrow’s courage in attempting to bring reason and common sense to this vital discussion.
The Hoover Institution
To the Editor:
I read Robert Jastrow’s article with great interest. It has always been a matter of surprise to me that some members of the scientific community have been critical of the technical soundness of our strategic-defense efforts, when it is clear from my knowledge of the research program that the technical promise is great. Indeed, rapid progress has already been realized in some of the most critical areas. In addition, prospects for countering future missile defenses or overwhelming such defenses seem less and less likely as we come to understand better the potential of the new defensive technologies.
James A. Abrahamson
Lieutenant General, USAF
Director, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization
Department of Defense
To the Editor:
“The War Against ‘Star Wars’” by Robert Jastrow was as excellent an article on this major public-policy question as it was overdue. Those of us constrained by the restrictions of government security clearance often despair of responding effectively in public forums to critics of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Government classification rules perversely permit all manner of nonsensical “straw men” to be put forward and then kicked apart by those holding clearance and exploiting the prestige of being “in the know,” while strictly forbidding countervailing arguments containing compelling technical material to be aired publicly. Mr. Jastrow’s article demonstrated that a response to SDI critics on a more fundamental level is not only feasible but can be telling, for these critics unblushingly impeach themselves at levels of logical consistency recognizable by a perceptive undergraduate.
A notable example of this gambit of kicking apart a straw man of one’s own manufacture, and one with which I happen to be particularly familiar, involves X-ray laser technology, which has been singled out by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as “the leading candidate” among pop-up defensive systems, and thus has been extensively assailed by them in public. The straw man in this case consists of the assertion that X-ray laser platforms having carefully chosen limitations, when popped up from carefully selected sea- or land-basing points in time of defensive need, cannot engage even present-generation ICBM’s, let alone ICBM’s of some future era employing hypothetical “fast-burn” boosters, due to limb-of-the-earth constraints on X-ray-laser-beam propagation from the platform to the booster targets.
In fact, it has been explained on many occasions, to a variety of government forums all over the country, why and how reasonably-sited, technologically-accessible, popped-up X-ray lasers can plausibly engage even fast-burn boosters, and at cost-exchange ratios which strongly favor the defense. Some of these occasions have involved face-to-face discussions with leading strategic-defense critics, none of whom has contested the technical points being made. Nonetheless, the public debate continues to be saturated with pessimistic assertions by these critics concerning this point which, to put it charitably, are disingenuous.
The stunningly effective supporting barrages laid down by sympathetic sectors of the news media amplify the efforts of SDI critics completely out of proportion to their minuscule numbers, ludicrously inflating them into “virtually all knowledgeable scientists”; even the Wizard of Oz was less flagrant in his mummery, more modest in his pretensions. This hyperinflation is the more remarkable as anti-strategic-defense arguments have fared uniformly poorly in technical debate in the classified surroundings required by government regulations. In spite of having failed to make their anti-SDI case to their well-informed colleagues in technical discourse, these critics continue to advocate their rejected positions to the public in impassioned terms, immune from the criticism of their technical peers.
Mr. Jastrow has performed a real service to the thoughtful public by documenting how sloppily this tiny group of scientists compound their nostrums, and with what generous dollops of bias. Focusing on this basic point, his article made devastatingly clear that these individuals, capable scientists though they may be, do not merit the political confidence of their fellow citizens.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow has done it again. He seems to be the greatest single asset we have in making a strategic-defense system an eventual reality. . . . Ever since I took part in a debate on strategic issues sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, I have realized the irrational fear of ABM systems among many intellectuals. People who would acquiesce in an actual U.S. surrender to the USSR to obviate the risk of nuclear war, but would not be willing to spend tens of billions of dollars to banish its possibility forever, show where their objectives really lie. . . .
University of Illinois
To the Editor:
Mr. Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative raises issues of the utmost gravity. We are astonished that COMMENTARY would present a brief for SDI in the guise of an uninformed attack against the report prepared by us under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Fallacy of Star Wars (Vintage, 1984). Robert Jastrow’s “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” takes issue with our criticisms of SDI by pretending that the entire enterprise stands or falls on a precise calculation of how many laser satellites would be required by the defense. There are some honest disagreements among knowledgeable experts that are central to the SDI debate which we wish to bring to your readers’ attention, but this is not one of them.
In his “Star Wars” speech, Mr. Reagan proposed to defend the population of the United States against Soviet nuclear-armed missiles, and thereby to replace deterrence as the bedrock of our national security. As recently as December 23, 1984, the President and his Secretary of Defense restated this objective in order to proscribe heresies within their administration: SDI would not be bargained away, they asserted, or be devoted to the lesser goal of merely defending American missile silos.
A ballistic-missile defense (BMD) of cities is inconceivable unless the great majority of Soviet ICBM’s could be destroyed while their fragile booster engines are still burning brightly. Missiles that survive this “boost phase” would pose a much more formidable threat to any defense because they would release a large number of elusive and far less vulnerable warheads immersed in a vast swarm of decoys and other “penetration aids.” The subsequent defensive layers could not, it is widely acknowledged, cope with such a prodigious “threat cloud.” The fact that the earth is round requires an attack on Soviet boosters to be launched from space.
We examined all credible proposals for boost-phase defense. (While infrared and laser homing projectiles are promising interceptors for mid-course and terminal defense, they are implausible boost-phase weapons because of their low speed.) Orbiting defenses suffer from a fatal flaw: they would rely on delicate precision instruments which would be exquisitely vulnerable to attack. We share this conclusion with Edward Teller, an ardent SDI advocate, who has said that “lasers in space won’t fill the bill—they must be deployed in great numbers at terrible cost and could be destroyed in advance of an attack.” As we shall see, Mr. Jastrow’s own argument leads to the conclusion that countering new Soviet ICBM deployments with orbiting lasers would be ludicrously expensive.
These pitfalls could be averted if the defensive weapons were “popped-up” into space on warning of attack. But this would pose insuperable time constraints: the defensive weapon must rise to a height of at least 650 miles before the enemy booster completes firing, feasible with current slow-burning Soviet missiles, but hardly practical against a Soviet equivalent of the much faster MX. Furthermore, the Soviets could readily develop boosters that finish burning too soon for any pop-up scheme to work.1 Claims that the Soviets would find it difficult to develop such “fast-burn” boosters should be laid to rest by noting that our SPRINT missile, which operated as a BMD interceptor in 1974, already demonstrated this technology.
In sum, no technical scheme exists for a comprehensive strategic defense free of fundamental conceptual flaws. As former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger has said, “In our lifetime and that of our children, cities will be protected by the forbearance of those on the other side, or through effective deterrence.” Nor is there any basis for Mr. Jastrow’s assertion that the reports of the “blue-ribbon panels,” appointed at the President’s request, are “as different” from our report “as day is from night.” The technical [Fletcher] panel’s summary emphasizes that “survivability of the system components is a critical issue whose resolution requires a combination of technologies and tactics that remain to be worked out.” Major General John C. Too may, the panel’s Deputy Chairman, has said that the panel tended to be “pessimistic whether these technical objectives could be realized but felt that, on balance, the research and engineering was well worth doing,” and that the difference between the panel’s qualified assessment and its recommendation is “like the difference between the horse you bet on and the sentimental favorite.”2
Not only is there no technical scheme, there is not even the vaguest outline for a political scenario that might propel us toward a defense-dominated world. That political factors are essential was recognized in the Fletcher report, which stated that the effectiveness of the defense would depend not only on technology, but also on the degree to which Soviet offensive forces could be constrained. Moreover, the Hoffman panel, which considered the strategic implications of SDI for the President, noted that the past behavior of the Soviets “suggests that they would be more likely to respond with a continuing build-up of their long-range offensive forces.”
Hence our disagreement with knowledgeable and candid supporters of SDI is one of risk assessment. They are gambling on the President’s “sentimental favorite,” in the hope that unforeseen technical advances might transform the prospects for strategic defense, and are not as troubled as we are by the risks that the pursuit of SDI would entail. Our studies persuaded us that all the envisaged BMD schemes are ruinously expensive, and could not protect the United States from utter destruction because they could be readily overwhelmed or outfoxed at much less cost. We shall also explain why the very attempt to proceed toward a comprehensive missile defense will provoke a massive escalation of the competition in offensive nuclear weapons, and increase the likelihood of nuclear war.
Why should a thrust toward strategic defense have any risks beyond galloping budget deficits? What is the harm in trying? This has been answered by the Hoffman panel: defenses that could withstand a small attack, but would collapse under a large onslaught, are highly provocative. In the early stages of BMD deployment we would have just such a defense, as well as vulnerable land-based missiles. This would have two grave hazards. First, the Soviets would fear that if the U.S. were to attack preemptively our defense could cope with their surviving missiles; they would also know that our defense could, at most, provide poor protection of our vulnerable missiles against a Soviet first strike. This would greatly enhance their incentive to attack preemptively in a serious crisis.
Second, Soviet leaders have asserted that they would avert this predicament by enlarging their offensive capabilities. This build-up would emphasize submarine-based cruise missiles, which underfly space defenses and provide little warning; ICBM’s equipped with countermeasures against U.S. defense; and anti-satellite weapons to attack our BMD space platforms. Painfully aware of the fragility of our embryonic defense, we would find such Soviet moves highly provocative, and respond in kind. A budding BMD system is therefore a catalyst for an acceleration of the offensive arms race, not for reductions in offensive arms, as many SDI advocates claim.
SDI is often portrayed as a benign research program. But a program launched from the Oval Office, described as a vital element in the nation’s future strategic posture, and funded at already so lavish a level, is not merely a research project. It will not be so treated by the Soviets, no matter what we may say or believe. Modern military systems take many years to develop, so the Soviets will feel compelled to initiate programs to counter the still unborn U.S. defense. Hence SDI is likely to enmesh us in a more dangerous offensive confrontation even if it is eventually abandoned before any defenses are deployed. Those who find this farfetched have not learned the saga of MIRV—the multiple-warhead ICBM. We invented MIRV’s as a BMD countermeasure. When the Soviets installed a rudimentary ABM system, we forged ahead with MIRV development, and then to deployment after the ABM treaty prevented the Soviets from installing a defense that made MIRV’s necessary. The Soviets then followed suit. As a result, the incentive for a preemptive strike has grown because a single warhead can destroy many MIRVed enemy warheads before they are launched. Now there is a consensus that MIRVing was a dangerous mistake; former MIRV advocates such as Henry Kissinger look back fondly to the days of one warhead per missile.
We are also disturbed that the mere prospect of lavish funds is already giving SDI a life of its own. With jobs, university research, profits, and promotions at stake, such an enterprise can quickly turn into a juggernaut that cannot be stopped even when it is clear that its goals are unattainable.
Many officials now realize that SDI holds no promise for population defense, and so ersatz rationales are coming into vogue. The most popular is that a partially effective BMD would bolster deterrence because defenses would compound the problem of planning an attack.3 True enough, if the offense stays frozen while the defense is installed. But each superpower’s highest priority is a nuclear arsenal that can, with full confidence, penetrate to its opponent’s vital targets. Only technologies far more robust and inexpensive than anything now dreamed of could alter that priority.4
Another fashionable rationale is that even a modest BMD could protect us from accidental launches and from terrorists. But protection from accidental launch by the superpowers does not require space weapons. Devices installed on ballistic missiles to destroy them on receipt of secure, encrypted radio messages would suffice. And attack by terrorists would hardly come via ICBM. Delivery of nuclear explosives by plane, ship, or diplomatic pouch would be far easier. A nuclear weapon hidden in a bale of marijuana would apparently find ready entry into the U.S. The cost of one laser battle station uselessly orbiting would pay for legions of secret agents who could actually grapple with this threat.
There are those who favor SDI because they believe it best exploits the great U.S. advantage in high technology. Their position seems to be supported by the apprehension that Soviet leaders express so vigorously about SDI. Is that not enough reason to pursue the program?
We have observed and participated in the nuclear competition since its inception. Thanks to U.S. technological superiority, virtually every new technical initative has come from the United States: the fission bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental bomber, submarine-launched missiles, high-accuracy ICBM’s, MIRV’s, and high-accuracy long-range cruise missiles. The only significant Soviet initiative was the ICBM itself, but our ICBM’s quickly surpassed those of the Soviets in both quality and numbers. The net result has been a steady erosion of American security. There is no evidence that space weapons will be an exception. It is true that we have a significant edge in all the technologies that strategic defense would depend on. But in the nuclear era a sophisticated defense can be foiled by relatively rudimentary means. Which is easier: the construction or the disruption of an exquisitely shaped mirror 30-feet across which must swiftly turn from one target to another with very high accuracy? Moreover, it is cheap to build devastating weapons that could readily penetrate our exorbitantly expensive “shield.” Unless there is a breakthrough in defense as revolutionary as nuclear weapons themselves, the strategic offense will reign supreme.
But if so, why are the Soviets so opposed to SDI? Because they are exceedingly cautious, and have been playing catch-up with American nuclear technology since 1945. Soviet military planners are obliged to take American pronouncements, however implausible, much more seriously than American strategists, and will respond with an offensive build-up and by expanding their already significant BMD research effort.5 They seem to recognize that this will require vast expenditures they can ill afford, and that the net result will be a decrease in their national security. The same would be true for us.
We should vigorously exploit our technological advantage to acquire military intelligence about the Soviet Union, to strengthen our strategic command-and-control systems, and to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons. The search for new BMD techniques must go on, but the distinction between research and deployment should not be blurred. But in assessing military technologies we must recognize that any attempt by either superpower to increase the threat to the other’s survival will soon redound to its own disadvantage.
We now return to Mr. Jastrow’s caricature of our case against SDI. He would have readers believe that the prospects for SDI can be decided on the basis of just two numbers that we had calculated incorrectly in our earliest report, Space-Based Ballistic Missile Defense (Union of Concerned Scientists, March 1984); and that our “many major errors . . . go in one direction only—toward making the President’s plan seem impractical, costly, and ineffective.”
What did we set out to do? Since there is no plausible concept for strategic defense, we sought to fill this void. To that end the technical portions of our report assessed separately the interception mechanisms; illustrated the magnitude of the defender’s task by estimating the size of the defensive system required in the absence of all countermeasures; and examined a large variety of countermeasures. A realistic net assessment would integrate the last two items, and incorporate the likely enhancements of Soviet offensive capabilities. Had we carried that through in a hard-nosed fashion it would have led to the conclusion that the cost and size of the defensive system are unbounded. Why? Because the largely unknown defensive technologies, whose ultimate effectiveness is still a matter of speculation, would be pitted against prodigiously effective weapons and many known countermeasures invented during twenty-five years of BMD research. We firmly believe that countermeasures will carry the day into the foreseeable future.
Mr. Jastrow’s two make-or-break numbers are the size of the laser constellation that would have to be in orbit and the weight of a neutral-particle-beam weapon. Regarding the satellite number, he claims that “the whole ‘Star Wars’ plan rested on this one point.” But it is at least as important whether orbiting lasers could themselves withstand attack. As for neutral-particle-beam weapons, he asserts that they are “that most promising destroyer of Soviet missiles and warheads,” but neglects to mention that once fast-burn boosters are developed they would be completely shielded from such beams by the atmosphere—the reason we relegated our discussion of the characteristics of such devices to a technical appendix.6
Mr. Jastrow’s allegation that our work contains “many major errors” is both false and undocumented. We erred twice in our first report: in arriving at the number of 2,400 satellites and in estimating the weight of the particle-beam weapon; but these errors had hardly any bearing on our overall assessment of SDI, were corrected in public at our first opportunity five weeks after the initial report was issued, and do not appear in any of our subsequent publications.
The calculation of the number of satellites is not simple. For example, the “fine work by the theoretical physicists at Los Alamos,” to which Mr. Jastrow alludes,7 makes just the mistake that we had made, even though it appeared four months after our report was publicly corrected. The claim that “the experts had been looking at this problem for more than ten years, and the accurate results were well known” is not correct.
How many satellites must then dance on top of a laser beam? Mr. Jastrow implies that the calculation that produces the smallest number of satellites is the most accurate, a clear absurdity. A small satellite fleet is much more vunerable than a large one. Indeed, there is no “right” number of satellites, for it depends on a host of unknown performance parameters, the nature of the attack, etc. Given the present level of ignorance, all such calculations are based on ad-hoc assumptions of varying degrees of implausibility. They are meant to be illustrative, and bear no relation to actual designs, since they all ignore a host of factors that would greatly increase the number of satellites. Taking the rather small differences in assumed parameters into account, our corrected estimate of 300 laser stations is consistent with those by Carter, Drell et. al,8 a fact Mr. Jastrow neglected to mention.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jastrow has failed to notice that he is impaled on his own sword, blunt instrument though it may be. “Everyone acknowledges that these satellites are going to be extremely expensive; each one will cost a billon dollars or more,” he says. Quite so. What would be the cost trade-off if the Soviets were to deploy a cluster of 3,000 small three-warhead fast-burn ICBM’s at a cost of about $50 billion?9 Let us accept Mr. Jastrow’s favorite satellite-number calculation,10 and his cost per satellite. We then find that it would cost the U.S. $1 trillion to deploy the additional space defenses required by this new $50 billion threat!11
Mr. Jastrow has painted a picture of the Senate hearing at which our errors were rectified that does not conform with the hearing record.12 He asserts that our statement on the particle-beam weapon ended with the sentence: “Our colleagues have pointed out that the area could be increased after the beam leaves the small accelerator.” Mr. Jastrow then charges us with deceiving the Senators because we did not say that this correction brought with it a great saving in weight. But that was not all that happened. The written testimony of our witness, Richard L. Garwin, distributed before the hearing to the press and the committee, and reproduced in the hearing record, actually reads: “. . . leaves the small accelerator, saving a great deal of weight” (emphasis added). Before our witness took the floor, Donald Kerr, the Director of Los Alamos, had said:
I think the UCS report in many ways helps to illustrate the great difficulty involved in first devising and then developing the technology that might be used for strategic defense. They have properly focused on the concerns with command and control, countermeasures, and vulnerability. In some cases I think their analysis has either been overly simplified for the purpose of the public document that it is, or at least in one case, they are totally in error.
Kerr then described our error concerning satellite numbers, and explained how we had overestimated the weight of the particle-beam weapon. He then went on to say:
So I think on the one hand UCS has done a service to the country in raising these issues. I would hope that a longer-term, more sophisticated analysis, albeit one still in the open unclassified literature, might dispel some of the inaccuracies that are also in it.
That analysis was already under way, and is continuing. It is reflected in our October 1984 Scientific American article and in our book, The Fallacy of Star Wars. When our witness testified, there was little point in going over these errors yet again.13
The allegation that we systematically tilted the case against “the President’s plan” is untrue. In fact, we granted it every benefit of the doubt allowed by the laws of physics: beams that would be aimed instantly from one booster to the next without ever missing; laser weapons having a lethality far beyond that for which not even conceptual designs exist; no redundancy to compensate for attrition due to enemy action; no growth in the size and capability of the Soviet ICBM force. No military system in history has ever attained the level of perfection that we granted to “the President’s plan.” (One of us, Richard L. Garwin, even made an original suggestion that greatly improves the prosspects for the ground-based laser scheme.)
Mr. Jastrow opens his attack on our treatment of countermeasures by admitting that “I am not an expert in this dark area,” and then reveals that (always anonymous) professionals of his acquaintance “regard many of [the UCS] proposals as bordering on inanity.” His rendition of our treatment of countermeasures is another caricature. It is he who emphasizes “tricks” like spinning the missile or “putting a shine on it.” We focused on techniques that would prevent accurate targeting on the booster, on measures that would greatly increase the power levels needed for destruction, and on the inherent vulnerability of spacecraft. He would also have readers believe that decoy balloons are a kind of schoolboy prank, but in reality they have been studied for over two decades14 by “defense professionals,” and are taken very seriously.
This picture of us as babes in the cruel woods of countermeasures does not wash. One of us (Richard L. Garwin) recently participated in the Discrimination Countermeasures Panel of the Army’s BMD Program Office. We (in particular Richard L. Garwin and Kurt Gottfried) have had repeated contacts with senior members of the Fletcher panel. They have given our countermeasure suggestions serious consideration in those few cases where they had not already been studied by the panel. Since some of these men are devoted advocates of SDI, and not shy, we wonder why these charges of “inanity” have not been voiced in public, but have been whispered only into Mr. Jastrow’s ear.
Mr. Jastrow seems perplexed as to how some of “the giants of 20th-century physics” could have “lent their names” to an effort that is “pretty good for high-school students, but not good enough to stand up to more than a thirty-minute scrutiny by the defense professionals.” He attempts to resolve his paradox by quoting Lowell Wood of Livermore: “Is Hans Bethe a good physicist? Yes, he’s one of the best alive. Is he a rocket engineer? No. Is he a military-systems engineer? No. Is he a general? No.”
As this quotation is intended to discredit all our work on these matters, we reluctantly respond. Three of us (Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, and Henry W. Kendall) have together had a total of over eight decades of extensive experience with a wide variety of military systems, including BMD technologies and countermeasures, extending to nuclear-weapons designs and effects and missile-and-reentry-vehicle development. Another (Carl Sagan) has a twenty-five-year continuing involvement in the development of major U.S. space projects. While none of us is a general (in contrast, we presume, to Messrs. Jastrow and Wood), a member of our study panel, Noel Gayler, is an admiral who has served as Commander-in-Chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Director of the National Security Agency, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Research and Development, and as Deputy Director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, which is responsible for the operational plans for all our strategic-nuclear forces.
Mr. Jastrow concedes that we did not engage “in a deliberate, conscious effort to deceive,” but surmises that our “rational judgments [were] clouded by ideological preconceptions.” What are these “preconceptions”? A defense against Soviet missiles, he quotes us as believing, would “‘have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the nuclear balance, increasing the risk of nuclear war,’” and “‘could well produce higher numbers of fatalities’ than no defense at all.” But those are not ideological preconceptions. They are the unhappy conclusions to which our analysis has inexorably led. We stand by them.
Hans A. Bethe
Richard L. Garwin
Henry W. Kendall
Victor F. Weisskopf
Ithaca, New York
Massachusetts Institute of
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow attempts to defend “Star Wars” by criticizing other analysts rather than by setting forth his own analysis. This approach would be inconclusive even if Mr. Jastrow were correct. As it happens, Mr. Jastrow’s four criticisms of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) Background Paper which I authored are technically in error. His essay therefore does not offer a serious alternative treatment of this vital national-security issue.
Let me take the four points in turn.
Mr. Jastrow’s first and main criticism rests on his proposition that if the Soviet Union increased its arsenal of missiles by a certain factor to try to overwhelm a U.S. laser defense, the U.S. would have to increase its constellation of orbiting lasers by the square root of that factor. This is wrong. The true dependence is closer to a direct proportionality, which the OTA report uses. Mr. Jastrow’s proposition would be true if Soviet missiles were distributed uniformly over an enormous area and the U.S. laser satellites were at the same altitude as the missiles. These are hardly good approximations to the real world, where Soviet missiles are deployed in a band stretching from east to west across the Soviet Union and the lasers are in space. Careful calculations making few simplifying assumptions have recently been completed by competent government scientists, notably at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Mr. Jastrow’s most misleading error, of course, is implying that constellation size is the key to judgments of the plausibility of “perfect” defense, whereas in fact it is a relatively insignificant issue.
Second, in his footnote 10, Mr. Jastrow criticizes a pedagogical device used in the OTA report, which involved deploying satellites in clusters. This short-cut has little effect on most calculations, since time averages of the constellation coverage enter these calculations. This pedagogy was intended to avoid confusing the reader, but seems to have confused Mr. Jastrow, who thinks it is a serious “error.”
Third, Mr. Jastrow misunderstands the calculation of the number of terminal interceptors needed for nationwide coverage. One thousand defensive batteries are needed for nationwide defense because the missile interceptors in each battery have limited range, not because “1,000 sites in the United States need to be defended,” as Mr. Jastrow supposes. The OTA report makes clear that 280,000 interceptors would be needed only if one aspired to a literally leakproof defense that would prevent all Soviet warheads from detonating on U.S. territory. The point of the calculation was to show how absurd that aspiration is. Mr. Jastrow got the point, but missed the irony.
Fourth, Mr. Jastrow claims that the OTA report said that one-tenth of an inch of lead could shield a Soviet booster from a neutral particle beam. This is indeed untrue, as Mr. Jastrow suggests, but the report does not say any such thing. Mr. Jastrow has confused “a few centimeters of lead” on page 49 of the OTA report with “a few grams per square centimeter” on page 50. The point made on those pages was that covering the entire upper-missile stage rather than just parts of it with enough shielding is impractical, a point with which Mr. Jastrow agrees but thinks the report missed.
Mr. Jastrow is therefore wrong on every single point. But there is an interesting pattern to his errors. Last July some Defense Department contractors, in an equally clumsy attack on the OTA report, made exacty the same spurious “criticisms”! How did Mr. Jastrow hit upon precisely the same points as these contractors? Obviously he was simply parroting them, unaware that they were incorrect.
It is furthermore a matter of public record that OTA convened a panel last summer to review these criticisms of its report. The results of this review were conveyed by OTA’s Director to Congress and to the Department of Defense. The panel consisted of Charles Townes (Nobel laureate, discoverer of the laser, and adviser to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger), William Perry (former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering), and General Glenn Kent (USAF, retired). This panel also found no substance to precisely those criticisms that now, six months later, Mr. Jastrow “discovers.”
Robert Jastrow has taken up the lonely task of championing the notion of perfect defense of the United States, a task that is widely agreed to be a poor basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative’s research program. To succeed he will need to ask those who are aiding him to keep him better informed.
The issue of strategic defense is not a simple one of “for” and “against.” There are many shades in between. The dim prospect for leakproof nuclear defense is a fact that will not be dispelled by shooting the messenger. Moreover, recognizing that fact does not end, but just begins, a serious discussion of other missions for missile defense. COMMENTARY would serve its readers better by drawing out this variety of views rather than by seeking simplistically to set up opposing camps.
Ashton B. Carter
John F. Kennedy School of Government
To the Editor:
I always look forward to the writings of Robert Jastrow, who manages to be lucid when analyzing the most complex subjects. All the more bewildering, then, his paragraph disposing of decoy balloons.
The picture he paints of laser beams sorting out the decoys from the warheads, after which particle or other beams go after the warheads, somehow does not jibe with my vision of one bullet hitting another, both traveling at enormous speed through the immensity of space. How does one “observe” the recoil of a tapped balloon at such great distances and blazing speeds? Are all the balloons tapped simultaneously, with separate laser beams? Does the device then remember which ones carry warheads, all the while tracking each one? If each of the balloons must be intercepted for identification, why not use the same number of beams to attack? If it is possible to intercept them all, is it not then irrelevant which of them carry warheads? Please, Mr. Jastrow, this subscriber would appreciate a bit more detail.
A. L. Drumwright
To the Editor:
As an engineer, I would like to disagree with one aspect of Robert Jastrow’s defense of the “Star Wars” ABM concept.
His technique for making such a system sound plausible, and for making the possible defensive measures against it sound absurd, is to attribute virtually unlimited ingenuity to those people who are to design the missile-destroying system, and virtual imbecility to those who are to foil it. For example, he says that if the Soviets try, among other things, to spin their missiles and shine them up, “their missile program will be tied in knots.” And what is the fatal flaw in the shininess defense? According to Mr. Jastrow, simply that “no shine is perfect,” and, given time, a sufficiently powerful laser could burn through it. With a wave of his authoritative hand he has implied that we can deliver massive amounts of focused radiative energy against a distant target for as long as necessary, whereas the Soviets will throw in the towel at the very prospect of mirroring their missiles. Is this the kind of meticulous analysis that Mr. Jastrow would substitute for the supposedly biased science of the Union of Concerned Scientists? In reality, there are many pros and cons to the idea of a durable, reflective missile surface. How reflective can a surface be made? Can we allow it to erode like a heat shield while maintaining control of the missile? On the other hand, can we invent a weapon, by an effort which will not tie our military economy in knots, which can overcome with near 100 percent reliability an optimally reflective, robust missile surface?
Such questions are real. One need not be soft on Communism to contemplate them. Perhaps shininess and all other possible defensive measures could be overcome by some attainable, affordable laser technology. However, it is certainly possible that they might not; the idea of missile durability does not “border on inanity.” If Mr. Jastrow really thinks so, then I suggest that his judgment is at least as “clouded by ideological preconceptions” as he claims that of the UCS scientists to be, despite his pose of sweet reasonableness.
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow’s “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” was, like all his writing, clearly conceived and powerfully delivered. I agree completely with his scientific arguments; they needed to be made. Yet in the end I was alarmed and frustrated; Mr. Jastrow has provided the right answers, but in doing so he has legitimized some very wrong questions.
The most crucial fact in this entire debate is one that has been totally ignored: “Star Wars” is not an American initiative, it is a response. The Soviet Union has the initiative. . . .
The data supporting this statement are easily researched; they have been available in the popular press for at least seven years, and important scientific clues have been available in technical journals for nearly a decade before that. The most important article, “Soviets Push for Beam Weapons,” was published in the May 2, 1977 issue of Aviation Week. The intelligence data contained in the article suggested that the Soviet program was at that point already six to ten years old and was very broad and deep. Jane’s Defense Weekly, this year, reported that the Soviets are clearly ahead despite the very broad industrial base America can draw from.
The ramifications of this simple fact are enormous. For instance, Mr. Jastrow excuses the Union of Concerned Scientists on the grounds that “their rational judgments can be clouded by their ideological preconceptions.” Yet most of these scientists, led by Harold Brown, were deeply involved in the effort to discount all the evidence of the Soviet program throughout the 70’s. Interestingly, this brought them in direct conflict with Air Force intelligence and the data gathered by reconnaissance satellites, the very sources these same scientists claimed could be relied upon for verification of SALT provisions, negating the need for on-site inspections. No, these scientists are not innocents, they are quite familiar with Soviet efforts in this field. . . .
But the more important issue is the way such weapons tie in with the evolving strategic picture. The Soviets already possess a first-strike capability, an existing ABM system which violates the ABM treaty and forms the basis for a multilayered ballistic-missile-defense system, and an extensive civil-defense program. Were they to succeed in being first to emplace even an austere version of “Star Wars,” the temptation to launch a first strike would very likely be irresistible. Whatever would be left of the U.S. strategic forces after a first strike might well be handled by the defensive system they are currently building. Even if events proved them wrong, once they acted upon obvious calculations, the world would see a nuclear war. Thus, Mr. Jastrow’s tacit acceptance of the UCS argument that “Star Wars” is potentially destabilizing legitimizes a very wrong-headed perception of reality—the situation is already seriously destabilized and the Strategic Defense Initiative is a minimum attempt to restabilize it.
Even the MX missile plays a significant role in the accurate perception of “Star Wars.” All our current ballistic missiles, both ICBM’s and SLBM’s, are so weight-limited that they offer no potential for modifications which might make them effective a decade from now. Only MX and a projected version of Trident provide sufficient flexibility to incorporate a response to whatever emerges from the massive Soviet beam-weapon program. Midgetman, against any potential Soviet defense system, is an anachronistic joke.
One more point—no matter how permeable or vulnerable the space battle stations envisaged in the Strategic Defense Initiative might be, in launching a first strike the Soviets would have to deal with them first. Such action eliminates all possibility of surprise. Indeed, it eliminates even the very idea of a first strike, since action against American satellites would fully justify a launch-on-warning stance for American strategic forces, as well as immediate counter-strikes against Soviet satellites and any battle stations. The corollary of this time-sequencing is that, while launching a thousand complex missiles within thirty minutes is a very difficult technical feat, launching sufficient numbers to overwhelm a “Star Wars” defense within the time-frame necessary to achieve an effective first strike is likely to remain impossible for quite a while. . .
Thomas J. Rath
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow’s dismissal of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ proposals for countermeasures to the “Star Wars” defensive system leaves me more than a bit confused about how thoroughly the author and the unnamed “experts” to whom he so often refers understand the criticisms they rebut.
Mr. Jastrow seems to refute the charge that cheap “balloon” decoys could degrade the performance of a defensive system by conceding the validity of the point. Decoys are intended to force a defensive system to waste precious time and energy by engaging both decoys and balloon-enclosed warheads. Mr. Jastrow’s announcement that “a sharp pulse of laser light” will cause decoy balloons to reveal their identity by their rate of recoil comes as no revelation to this inquisitive citizen, as I have never heard a “Star Wars” critic argue to the contrary.
Mr. Jastrow seems also not to have thought through his remarks on the utility of spinning and shining ICBM boosters as a means of complicating the job of defensive-beam weapons. Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, and others have proposed the use of a strippable outer coating on missile boosters to reduce the dulling effect that launch would have on a booster shined to reflect laser light. The coating would shed once the missile moved above the atmosphere and within the range of laser weapons.
As for Mr. Jastrow’s observation that a laser firing in pulses would be able to concentrate its energy on a single point on a spinning missile, I must say that a lot of confidence is placed in the laser weapon’s ability to track and determine the rate of spin of a fast-moving object at long range. A simple countermeasure to a tactic such as Mr. Jastrow describes would be to vary the rate of spin of the missile once incident laser light is detected.
Specific counter-rebuttals aside, several of the tendencies apparent in the article were disturbing to me. Mr. Jastrow’s trust in the proclamations of his communicants in the defense community, whose “ideological preconceptions,” while unexamined, must certainly be as clouding of judgment as those of the UCS scientists, and his representation . . . that only professional military-systems analysts can assess competently the merits of the “Star Wars” proposal, lead me to suspect that Mr. Jastrow never undertook a dispassionate analysis but sought instead opinions that reinforced his original enthusiasm for the proposal.
I must note, also, that there is no unanimity of opinion on “Star Wars” within the traditionally pro-defense community. Richard D. DeLauer, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, testified before the House Armed Services Committee that “any defensive system can be overcome with proliferation and decoys, decoys, decoys, decoys.” Edward Teller has criticized defensive proposals that depend on satellite-based systems because such systems are “costly to put up and cheap to shoot down.” . . .
The most bothersome of Mr. Jastrow’s prejudices is his refusal to see criticisms of “Star Wars” for what they are, that is, attempts to inform the public of the vulnerabilities of a system only the putative virtues of which have been presented publicly by the Reagan administration. Mr. Jastrow does not detail the “promising new developments” that might defend components of a defensive system from space- or ground-based attack. I, and I am sure others, would appreciate any information on progress toward remedying the problem of satellite vulnerability. . . .
Edward F. Hennessey
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow states that “90 satellites—and perhaps somewhat fewer—are needed to counter a Soviet attack.” His argument, however, contains one profound flaw. He deals solely with the defensive systems needed to neutralize a massive attack of Soviet land-based missiles. The actual attack scenario would almost certainly include substantial numbers of submarine-launched missiles as well as cruise missiles that can be fired from a variety of platforms, both moving and stationary. This consideration would exponentially magnify the task of the defense. Indeed, even if the oceans were rendered “transparent” by evolving technology, the cruise missile, relatively inexpensive and readily camouflaged, might easily overwhelm any combination of defensive systems.
Other considerations abound, such as the destabilizing nature of any truly effective defensive system and the obvious inference that its deployment might trigger the very suicidal confrontation that all nations seek to avoid.
I would also assume that any defensive system resulting in the physical destruction of thousands of warheads would result in a literal rain of radioactive bomb components into the atmosphere and thence to the surface of the earth. I wonder if Mr. Jastrow’s celluloid computer has taken this into account.
David R. Perles, M.D.
Woodruff Community Hospital
Long Beach, California
To the Editor:
Even if a satellite-type ABM system could be made 100-percent effective against ICBM’s, the U.S. would still be vulnerable to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or cruise-type missiles launched from bombers.
Moreover, the deployment of the “Star Wars” system, intended only for defense, could lead to a far more precarious situation than we are in today.
If it were possible to place a working satellite system above the Soviet Union, our weapons-controllers would be tempted to arm those satellites with nuclear warheads; overwhelmingly tempted. The Soviets would certainly react, not necessarily by trying to disrupt or destroy our “Star Wars” system, but by deploying one of their own, albeit with inferior safety controls.
If such systems are deployed, they will dangerously diminish the response time to suspected attack. Instead of fifteen to thirty minutes, the President or Premier will have about sixty seconds to respond to signs of an adversary’s nuclear strike. Hence, both the U.S. and Soviet Union would almost certainly revert to a “launch-on-warning” system, computer-controlled and unalterable by human judgment.
Worse yet, the Soviets, knowing the inferiority of their own radar and signaling equipment, might place their whole nuclear network on a state of constant alert—in which the “red button” does not initiate but merely restrains the launching of their nuclear missiles. Hence, if that trigger were destroyed, a Soviet nuclear attack would automatically follow.
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow exposes and dramatically debunks some of the errors committed by the enemies of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” proposal, in their blind attempt to kill this program. However, in addition to claiming erroneously that the hardware required to implement SDI would be virtually impossible to develop, opponents also offer flawed arguments that it would violate the ABM treaty and would stimulate a new defensive arms race.
One way SDI opponents bias their discussions against the feasibility of the hardware is to confine their attention to a perfectly leakproof defense . . ., even though the cost and technical risk of a partially effective nuclear-missile-defense system would be far less than the cost of a leakproof defense. Also, a leaky nuclear-missile defense would strengthen deterrence significantly by drastically reducing Soviet confidence in their ability to launch a successful first-strike nuclear attack. . . .
In an apparent attempt to frighten the public, opponents also declare that SDI violates the terms of the ABM treaty. But SDI is a research program of the kind that is not prohibited by the ABM treaty; it contains no development, testing, or deployment activities. If, in the future, the U.S. determines that it would be in the national interest to go beyond the research stage, then a new kind of activity not in the current SDI program would have to be initiated, and the U.S. would have to determine whether the new activity would violate treaty limits.
This attempt on the part of those who oppose SDI to mislead the public blurs the distinction between the administration’s SDI program, which is well within treaty limits, and some hypothetical program, which has neither been proposed nor planned, and which may or may not confront the treaty limits.
Arguments that SDI would trigger a new defensive arms race are contrary to the facts because the Soviets have been racing in this direction since well before the signing of the ABM treaty in 1972. During the past dozen years, they have developed a new, transportable, phased-array ABM radar and a new interceptor missile, both of which could be deployed rapidly should the Soviets choose to do so. (The U.S. has no equivalent deployable capability.) They have also upgraded the Moscow ABM defense system (the U.S. has no defense system), have deployed additional phased-array radars on their periphery for ABM target-acquisition support, and are now developing an advanced anti-tactical-missile-defense system that definitely has value for strategic-missile defense.
The attack against SDI seems to assume that all of the initiative in strategic defense lies with the U.S. It ignores the chilling and fairly obvious possibility that the Soviets will find it advantageous to accelerate their own strategic-defense programs or even break out of the ABM treaty. The political costs to the West of a substantial Soviet lead or break-out in defense would be great.
SDI should be pursued to give us a chance to strengthen the security of the U.S. and the rest of the world by making nuclear-ballistic missiles less useful as instruments of politics and war.
New York City
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow faults the Union of Concerned Scientists for some unfortunately flawed calculations concerning the size and weight of satellites required to set up a “Star Wars” defense against Soviet ICBM’s and the numbers of such satellites that would be needed. But the case against a “Star Wars” defense is far more substantial and is based upon serious technical matters. The numbers and dimensions of “Star Wars” satellites are significant only if the X-ray lasers, optical lasers, and particle beams will actually function. The UCS’s The Fallacy of Star Wars raises many doubts about these weapons, doubts which Mr. Jastrow ignores in his article. . . .
The use of X-ray lasers powered by nuclear explosions and launched at the time of a Soviet attack would require building a new fleet of submarines to launch the “pop-up” X-ray laser weapons, since we have no satisfactory land bases close enough to Soviet silos to enable us to intercept Soviet ICBM’s in the short time which will be available. We would also have to build attack submarines and surface vessels to protect the X-ray laser submarines. The X-rays of this type of laser are unable to penetrate the atmosphere, . . . and the Soviets could easily shorten the boost phase of their ICBM’s to end before the missiles have left the atmosphere. The Union of Concerned Scientists has concluded that “the X-ray laser is not a viable BMD weapon.” . . .
In addition, . . . the concept of using the weapons as “pop-up interceptions” is not feasible. The Soviets have located their silos in the area of the Trans-Siberian railway at about 55 degrees latitude. The area closest to these silos that American forces can reasonably use is the Arabian Sea to the south of Pakistan, about 23 degrees latitude. The X-ray lasers would have to be launched to a point where they can fire at the Soviet ICBM’s while they are out of the atmosphere and still boosting. Assuming an interception altitude of 110 kilometers, the distance from a submarine to a satisfactory interception firing point for an X-ray laser would have to be at least 1,200 kilometers.
Assuming far more powerful propellants than those currently in use, the minimum flight time of an X-ray laser from launch submarine to interception-firing point would be 120 seconds. To these 120 seconds we have to add the time involved in the decision to launch the X-ray lasers: the processing and verification of satellite warnings that ICBM’s are being launched: the acquisition, processing, and transmssion of targeting information; and the firing of the X-ray lasers from the submarines. According to John Steinbruner, in the January 1984 issue of Scientific American, 120 seconds would be needed merely to process and verify the data from the early-warning satellites. Regardless of how long this takes, the 120-second flight time of the X-ray lasers is far short of the 50-second booster time the Soviets would be able to achieve for their ICBM’s.
Submarines are also crippled by their inability to fire all their X-ray lasers in a single salvo. The first launch would give away the submarine’s position and invite a Soviet attack.
The interception of Soviet ICBM’s during their boost phase is the most important consideration of the “Star Wars” defense. The large ICBM’s are easier to locate and track than relatively small warheads after they have been released from the final stage of ICBM’s. The Reagan administration’s own Defense Technologies Study Team, headed by James C. Fletcher, agreed that a “Star Wars” defense is impossible unless the great majority of Soviet ICBM’s were intercepted during the boost-phase of their flight. X-ray lasers are clearly not feasible for boost-phase interception. The much-touted particle-beam weapons fired from orbiting satellites are also not feasible because of the effect of the atmosphere and the magnetic field of the earth upon particle beams. The particles from neutral-particle-beam weapons would, if fired into the atmosphere, encounter air molecules in the upper atmosphere and disintegrate into charged particles which would be pulled by the earth’s magnetic field, resulting in a steady increasing of the width and consequent decreasing of the intensity of the particle beam. . . .
Optical lasers, which emit light in the infrared (chemical lasers), ultraviolet (excimer lasers), and visible (free-electron lasers) portions of the spectrum, may also be unsuitable for interception of Soviet ICBM’s during their boost phase. The wave nature of light means that the edges of the beams will tend to spread out increasingly over increasing distance. This means that the size of a spot upon which a laser can be focused increases in proportion to the distance from the target. Since the energy carried by a laser beam spreads over distance, the effectiveness of a laser weapon decreases over distance in proportion to the square of the distance. The energy needed for optical lasers suggests they could be functional only in low orbits where they would be vulnerable to attack from Soviet anti-satellite weapons of various sorts. Clouds of fine abrasives, for example, could be used to damage the laser mirrors. Clouds of light-absorbing substances could be used to limit the efficiency of the mirrors. Battle stations in space are much more vulnerable than boost-phase ICBM’s to a wide variety of rather crude attacks.
The “Star Wars” defense would have to have battle-management systems that would deal with hundreds of thousands of objects. For this we would need computers able to carry out at least hundreds of millions and probably billions of authentic operations each second. Even if huge strides in computer technology were to produce hardware able to perform such gigantic numbers of operations per second, other problems connected with the implementation of a “‘Star Wars” defense would probably never be resolved.
One very serious problem is that of designing and developing the programs (software) needed to direct the defense computers. Experience with the software involved in other defense systems as well as non-defense software indicates it will be extremely difficult—if not impossible—to create software capable of functioning properly in a nuclear attack. . . .
We could never be reasonably confident that a “Star Wars” defense with all its complex facets would function harmoniously and effectively during a strategic-nuclear attack. The “Star Wars” defense would be a gigantic, intricate assemblage, novel in conception, involving the farthest limits of advanced technology, and required to meet an extremely high performance standard, even though it could never be adequately tested.
Complex designs generate complex problems. All large computer programs contain flaws or bugs which decrease over use but which may never be entirely eliminated. . . . But no amount of simulated battle situations could satisfactorily examine the actual response of a complex “Star Wars” defense system to an actual nuclear attack. This is so not only because of flaws or bugs in software . . . but also because the precise nature of a nuclear attack, along with the enemy’s countermeasures, can never be known in advance. . . .
Robert Jastrow writes:
Edward Teller’s letter makes an apt comparison between the controversy over the feasibility of “Star Wars” and the H-bomb controversy of the early 1950’s. Confident in the superiority of American scientists, we were certain at that time that the decision to build the weapon rested solely with us. But we now know that the Soviets were in fact hard at work on their version of the H-bomb as we argued over whether it should be built at all.
Today, as we again debate the wisdom of research on another weapons system—this time, a system that destroys weapons rather than people—we assume that the decision will be made in this country, whereas in fact the Soviet Union is already hard at work on its own “Star Wars” program, and has been for many years. In the twelve years since the USSR signed the ABM treaty, the Soviet Union has, according to Secretary of Defense Weinberger, spent more on strategic defense than it has on its arsenal for strategic offense. Elements of the Soviet missile-defense effort that violate the ABM treaty in particularly conspicuous ways were publicized last October in a report to the President by the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. Because of this massive Soviet strategic-defense effort, Mr. Teller rightly concludes, our government’s missile-defense program, officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, could better be called the Strategic Defense Response.
Soviet emphasis on a defense against missiles, and the total Soviet rejection of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), go back at least two decades. Andrei Gromyko called for the deployment of a missile defense by the superpowers in a speech to the UN in 1962, in which he strongly criticized the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Gromyko said the “balance of fear,” as he called it, kept the world in a “a permanent state of feverish tension.” He compared MAD to a duel in which the superpowers “raise their pistols, aim at each other’s foreheads, and wait for the other to shoot.”
James A. Abrahamson’s letter underscores the fact that attacks on his program by a few academic scientists are entirely at variance with the rapid technical progress being made by thousands of scientists and engineers who work full time on the “Star Wars” project. Even without access to classified information, a diligent reader of aerospace trade journals can gain tantalizing hints of extraordinary developments taking place in the basic technologies of missile defense.
It is also reassuring to have General Abrahamson, who is in a better position to know than anyone else, agree that various Soviet countermeasures to our defense—highly touted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and discussed in my article—are not holding up well under the scrutiny of the defense professionals. The Soviets have confirmed General Abrahamson’s evaluation of their countermeasures. If they thought the proposals put forward by the Union of Concerned Scientists were truly effective and inexpensive, they would not be trying so desperately to stop our “Star Wars” research. They would encourage us instead to go on with this expensive program that could be so cheaply countered by them. But they are fighting tooth and nail to kill the “Star Wars” project. Clearly, they disagree with the Union of Concerned Scientists and believe that it will cost them a great deal of money and trouble to counter our defense, if that can be done at all.
Lowell Wood of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory stresses a very significant point which has been made a number of times in my hearing by scientists working on defense matters. The university scientists who put forward the egregiously flawed arguments against missile defense have been repeatedly and firmly corrected by their colleagues in classified technical discussions that are not open to the public. But, as Mr. Wood notes with exasperation, after failing to make their case to their technical peers, they continue to present the same rejected arguments over and over again to the press and public.
One of the prime examples is the so-called “pop-up X-ray laser,” which requires much additional research and development but holds the promise of being a devastatingly effective destroyer of missiles. In the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and in the recently published UCS book, The Fallacy of Star Wars, the pop-up X-ray laser is dismissed as a useless device, readily countered by Soviet fast-burn boosters—that is, by missiles that accelerate very quickly and burn out at an altitude of 50 miles or less. One UCS criticism relates to the fact that a fast-burn booster may burn out in the atmosphere at depths to which X-rays cannot penetrate. But this criticism turns out to be invalid when classified information relating to the intensity of the X-ray laser beam is taken into account.
The classified information, Mr. Wood notes, has been presented in face-to-face discussions with the critics, who have not contested the technical points being made. Yet the critics continue to make their pessimistic comments in public where they cannot be countered by the classified facts.
This behavior seems to me and many of my colleagues to be less than responsible.
I share with George Fishman his puzzlement over the fears of a space-based missile defense expressed by many academics. These fears seem indeed to be “irrational,” as Mr. Fishman says, because the space-based weapons proposed for the “Star Wars” defense are not weapons of mass destruction, and cannot blow up a city or incinerate millions of civilians. The weapons that can do that are on the ground, in silos and submarines. “Star Wars” space weapons do not kill people; they destroy the weapons that kill people.
The letter by Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, Carl Sagan, et al. deals in its first section mainly with the strategic and political dimensions of missile defense. I should like to pass beyond these to the technical issues which were the principal thrust of my article, and take up those in order.
First, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues say that fast-burn boosters protect the Soviets from our neutral particle beams, because the neutral particle beam does not penetrate the atmosphere. The thought here is that the booster will reach full speed in 50 seconds and burn out at an altitude too low to be reached by the beam. But, as my article noted, the neutral particle beam is just as effective against the bus carrying the warheads after the booster has burned out, as it is against the booster itself. If the beam catches the bus early on, while most of its warheads are still on board, the results are just as good for our defense as destroying the booster would have been.
If the Soviets try to escape the neutral particle beam by pushing their warheads off the bus while it is still within the atmosphere, air drag will seriously degrade the accuracy of the warheads, with disastrous consequences for Soviet hopes of taking out our retaliatory forces. That problem might be overcome by putting every warhead on its own mini-bus, with separate guidance and steering rockets. But if the Soviets do that, the extra weight required will substantially diminish the total number of warheads carried on the missile, probably by a factor of 2 to 5. And when the warheads are released, they are still vulnerable to the neutral particle beam during the long mid-course phase of their flight, which lasts many minutes. So, if the Soviets go to the enormous expense and trouble of replacing all their missiles with 50-second boosters—and, as George Keyworth, the President’s Science Adviser, has noted, that means wiping out a fifteen-year investment in their missile force—it will avail them nothing.
In fact, the consensus among the experts is that the fast-burn booster, so highly regarded by the UCS and by Ashton B. Carter in his report to the OTA, is not a useful ploy for the Soviets. This has been pointed out to Mr. Garwin and other critics in classified discussions, but they continue to present their discredited arguments to the public “immune from the criticism of their technical peers,” as Mr. Wood has said.
Not only are fast-burn boosters ineffective against several defenses being designed in General Abrahamson’s program, but there is even some doubt among missile experts as to whether such a thing as a 50-second booster can ever be built on a mass-production basis and perform reliably. A rocket that accelerates from a standing start to roughly 15,000 miles an hour in less than a minute presents horrendous technical problems to the missile designer. Fast-burn rockets tend to explode and are not reliable; they get very hot because they move through the atmosphere so rapidly; and their structure must be stiffened to protect them against the battering forces created by their own acceleration. This last point imposes a heavy penalty on the Soviets, because the added weight must be compensated by the loss of a quarter to a third of the missile’s payload.
Mr. Bethe and his colleagues cite a report submitted to the Fletcher panel that suggests 50-second boosters are feasible, but fail to mention that after examining all the evidence available to it, the Fletcher panel concluded that the Soviets could not hope to deploy a missile of this kind before the 21st century. In the light of these circumstances, many people in the defense community find it impossible to understand why Mr. Bethe and the UCS put so much emphasis on the fast-burn booster as the Soviet response to our defense.
Turning to the question of the number of satellites needed for our defense, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues dispute my statement that the experts have been looking at this question for more than ten years. My remark was taken from an unclassified report dated May 9, 1984 by O. Judd of Los Alamos. I spoke with Mr. Judd recently and he confirmed the accuracy of the statement.
On this same matter, according to the Bethe letter, I imply that the calculation that produces the smallest number of satellites is the most accurate, which is a “clear absurdity.” Not at all. I only note that the UCS calculations went from 2,400 satellites down to 800, then to 300, and, in the most recent report on the matter by Mr. Garwin, to 162 satellites. This sequence of numbers, which started out at 2,400 satellites, seems to be converging to a result in the neighborhood of 100 satellites, which is where the professionals pegged their results all the while.
Anyone can draw his own conclusions from these facts. My impression is that the UCS theorists first did a hasty piece of work and then, under criticism, did more extended calculations, until finally Mr. Garwin did a careful analysis. Throughout this long learning process, their numbers came down steadily, until leveling off in the neighborhood of the right answer.
Hans A. Bethe and his colleagues allege that there is no right answer because the answer depends on many factors, some of them unknown. But there is a “right” answer to the specific theoretical problem which they addressed. For that particular problem they presented a calculation to the public which turned out to be wrong by a factor of about 24, and in a direction that made the “Star Wars” plan seem very costly and impractical.
The Bethe letter also mentions the “square-root law,” which is critical to the assessment of Soviet prospects for overwhelming our defense, because it indicates that we can overcome a massive build-up of Soviet missile forces with a relatively modest increase in the size of our satellite fleet. Richard L. Garwin’s detailed report of December 30, 1984 concedes the validity of this relationship. Yet the letter from Mr. Bethe and his colleagues states that Mr. Garwin has proven the Los Alamos report to be incorrect under “all but highly artificial circumstances.” How do we explain this contradiction?
The answer is in Mr. Garwin’s paper. He has invented another problem involving satellites and missiles, which is quite different from the problem that was analyzed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in its report, and then in its book, and by Ash ton B. Carter in his report to the OTA, and by G.H. Canavan and his colleagues at Los Alamos, and by C.T. Cunningham at the Livermore Laboratory. In this new problem, Mr. Garwin assumes that 3 seconds are needed, on the average, for a laser to swing around from one missile it has just destroyed, and lock its beam onto another missile. This is the so-called “retarget time,” which was assumed to be zero in all the calculations mentioned above. If the retarget time is indeed as long as 3 seconds, our laser-equipped satellites will be very inefficient at shooting down Soviet missiles, and many more satellites will be needed than the previous estimates assumed. We will lose not only the square-root law, but the entire effectiveness of this part of our defense.
But the design objectives in General Abrahamson’s program call for a retarget time of 0.1 seconds and not 3 seconds. If the retarget time is 0.1 seconds, the results for the number of satellites are not very different from those for zero retarget time. In particular, the important square-root law is valid.
But how can we hope, in a time as short as 0.1 seconds, to rotate the mirror that directs the laser beam, damp down its vibrations, and lock in on a new target? A retarget time of 0.1 seconds would indeed be difficult to achieve if the experts were planning to rotate the mirror mechanically to redirect the beam from one Soviet missile to another. But the “Star Wars” program is probably not going to do that. A part of its funding is going into research on an extraordinary new technology that uses “phase conjugate coatings,” which change the direction of the laser beam electronically in a fraction of a second, leaving the mirror fixed in place. The technique is essentially that used in phased-array radars, which do not rotate like the earlier radars, but sweep the sky electronically. This is a fascinating illustration of the black arts being practiced on the cutting edge of technology by the scientists and engineers working with General Abrahamson.
Mr. Bethe and his colleagues also take up the critically important question of cost ratios, saying it will cost us a trillion dollars in additional satellites to counter an increased Soviet missile force costing only $50 billion. With a cost ratio like that, we are lost before we start, for clearly the Soviets can overwhelm our defense by outbuilding us. But I have looked into the cost figures, and they turn out to be entirely different from those given by Mr. Bethe and his colleagues.
First, on the matter of the cost to the Soviets of building more missiles, the letter states that $50 billion will buy 3,000 fast-burn, three-warhead, Midgetman-type missiles, including the cost of warheads and silos plus ten years of maintenance. This amounts to about $15 million per missile, or $5 million per warhead. Missile designers do not know yet what a fast-burn missile would cost, because none has been designed or built, but we can get an idea of the cost by using the current life-cycle cost for the MX missile. This is $40 billion for 100 missiles, each containing 10 warheads. That works out to $400 million per missile, or $40 million per warhead.
The cost per warhead for the proposed Midgetman will certainly be more than that, first, because fast-burn boosters are a new generation of missiles that must be built to withstand the stress of high acceleration, and second, because the cost per warhead is greater for small missiles than for big ones. According to Mr. Carter, a fair guess for the cost per warhead of a fast-burn booster is two to three times the corresponding cost per warhead of the MX missile. It is safe to say the cost of the proposed new Soviet missiles is at least $40 million but probably not more than $100 million per warhead. Thus, 3,000 fast-burn Midgetman missiles will cost the Soviets between $400 billion and $1 trillion.
Now for the cost to us of our defensive satellites. Mr. Bethe and his colleagues say we will require an additional 964 missiles to counter the new Soviet satellites. Using the accepted ballpark figure of $1 billion per satellite, this works out to $1 trillion in round numbers. Where does the figure of 964 satellites come from? It rests on the assumption by Messrs. Bethe et al. that the Soviets will cluster all 3,000 new missiles tightly together in one spot. But is it conceivable that the Soviets would do that?
For several reasons, they would not. For one thing, if all the missiles are located in one spot, and all are launched at one time, the times of arrival at their various targets in the United States will be widely different. That means the Soviets cannot effect a surprise attack that would take out all at once our command structure, airfields, submarine bases, and missile silos, since these are located at widely different flight times from any single place in the USSR. Suppose the Soviets try to overcome this handicap by launching their missiles over an extended period of time, so as to achieve a simultaneous arrival at the various targets. Then our boost-phase defense becomes enormously more effective, because we can pick off the Soviet missiles one by one as they rise from their silos.
The so-called “point” launch will create other problems for the Soviets. If they launch from one location at one time, all their warheads and decoys are bunched tightly as they course through space. This reduces the retarget time for our mid-course defense and, again, greatly increases its effectiveness. It also makes the warheads ideal targets for the X-ray laser. Finally, putting all the Soviet missiles in one place increases the effectiveness of our terminal defense as well, because it then becomes difficult for the Soviets to “ladder down.” That refers to a technique for foiling our terminal defense in which the Soviets explode a nuclear weapon far above the missile silo or other target to create a fireball that will blind the ground radars on which our terminal defense depends. The fireball clears the way for another nuclear weapon that explodes and creates a fireball farther down, which clears the way for still another warhead, and so on, until finally the last warhead, swimming through these fireballs, reaches the target. But laddering down is impossible if all the missiles are in one place, unless they are launched at different times, and that is, as noted, disadvantageous to the Soviets for other reasons.
All in all, the last thing the Soviets are likely to do in response to our defense is to place their entire fleet of new missiles at one location.
But if the assumption that they would do this is removed, and the hypothetical new Soviet missiles are assumed to be spread across the Soviet land mass, as Soviet missiles are today, the number of American satellites required to counter their hypothetical attack goes way down. The reason is that the swath containing Soviet missile fields extends nearly a third of the way around the world at these latitudes. This considerably increases the chance that one missile or another in that vast expanse will be within the range of our satellites. The effect is to reduce by about a factor of approximately 3 the number of satellites required for our defense.
But there is more. The estimate of 964 satellites given by Mr. Bethe and his colleagues also assumes that the Soviets will have available to them a fast-burn booster that completes its acceleration from a standing start to full velocity in 50 seconds. This assumption means that each satellite has a very short time in which to attack the Soviet missiles, and therefore can destroy only a relatively small number of them. That means, in turn, that we need a large number of satellites to do the whole job.
As a practical matter, however, the goal of a 50-second booster is so difficult that the United States probably could not attain it until the late 1990’s, and the Soviets are not expected to achieve it until the 21st century. When the assumption of a 50-second burn time is removed, and the more realistic assumption is made that the Soviets will have boosters similar to our MX, which has a 180-second burn time, the number of satellites required for our fleet goes down to 88, or, in round numbers, to 100.
At a billion dollars a satellite, that brings our investment down to about $100 billion, compared to between $400 billion and $1 trillion for the Soviet investment. In other words, the ratio of costs is very favorable to our defense over their offense.
Next, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues take up the matter of the 40,000-ton accelerator, and suggest that my description of their testimony is distorted because I have omitted the important phrase, “saving a great deal of weight.” But I have the stenographic transcript of the hearing in front of me and it does not contain that phrase. Even if that phrase had been in the transcript, it would not have conveyed the full flavor of the difference between 25 tons in orbit and 40,000 tons in orbit; but in any event, it is not there.
Turning to Ashton B. Carter’s letter, objections are raised therein to four points in my criticism of his analysis. First, Mr. Carter says that the “square-root law,” to which I attribute much importance, is wrong. He refers to calculations by the Livermore Laboratory for support. But the Livermore report confirms the square-root law. I have in hand the Livermore report on this subject by C.T. Cunningham, dated August 30, 1984. It was one of the sources for my article. The report shows that a fleet of 60 satellites in orbit at an altitude of 300 kilometers will shoot down 97 percent of the Soviet missiles in a mass attack from all 1,400 Soviet missile silos; whereas 90 satellites will shoot down the same percentage of the Soviet missiles in a mass launch from 2,800 silos simultaneously. According to the square-root rule, a defense against the increased Soviet missile force should require √2×60 = 85 satellites. But if Mr. Carter’s analysis were correct, and the number of American satellites rose in proportion to the number of Soviet missiles, 120 satellites would be needed to counter the doubled threat. It is clear that the Livermore result is much closer to a square-root rule than it is to Mr. Carter’s result.
Mr. Carter says his hypothetical deployment of satellites in bunches or clusters was a pedagogical device. But his device has an unfortunate effect, for when the satellites are bunched we lose the square-root rule; and when they are unbundled, we get it back again.
Mr. Carter also says I misunderstood his calculations on the number of intercepting missiles needed for our terminal defense. I think I understand them all too well. Mr. Carter estimates our need for thousands of intercepting missiles on the assumption that the Soviets might throw their entire force against one defended site. This leads to a requirement of 280,000 intercepting missiles. That is an implausible number based on an implausible assumption.
In the matter of the lead shield against a neutral particle beam, Mr. Carter suggests that he has been misquoted. Here are his statements. On page 30, his report states that such shielding could be an “attractive countermeasure” for the Soviets. On page 50, the report states: “But if the third stage, say of the MX, were covered with a few grams per square centimeter of lead [about a tenth of an inch], the shielding would weigh as much as several RV’s [i.e., warheads]. On the other hand, if the neutral particle beam is only designed to disrupt or damage sensitive electronics . . . only the sensitive components need be shielded. The weight penalty then becomes small.” It seems to me that my article gives a fair account of the meaning of these remarks.
Finally, Mr. Carter says a panel of experts found no substance to criticisms of his report which had been directed against it by Los Alamos and other groups. Most important among these is a 57-page technical memorandum issued by the Los Alamos Laboratory that contained many detailed criticisms of Mr. Carter’s work, some of them devastating. According to Mr. Carter, the panel refuted these criticisms. But the panel that endorsed Mr. Carter’s report offered no technical arguments whatsoever to counter the carefully reasoned criticisms offered by the Los Alamos scientists. The Los Alamos critique was a serious study, bearing on a matter vitally important to the security of the United States, and its criticisms had to be either rebutted or accepted. The distinguished panel of three experts cited by Mr. Carter did neither. As C. Paul Robinson, Principal Associate Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory pointed out, their benediction, unaccompanied by a technical backup, was without value. Mr. Robinson went on to note that “Los Alamos’s concerns have since been debated in other technical forums, where they have been sustained.”
In response to A.L. Drumwright, the decoy balloons are tapped rapidly, one after the other, with moderate-energy laser beams, and tracked repeatedly throughout this process to observe their recoil. Computers on our satellites keep track of the separate warheads and decoys and remember the information acquired about each one. As Mr. Drumwright suggests, a little more laser energy could destroy the lightweight decoys, instead of just identifying them. That would mean a different kind of midcourse defense, in which we hit all the warheads and decoys with moderately energetic laser beams, and observe what survives. The surviving objects must be the warheads, and we would go after these with our heavy guns.
Larry Clifford asks about my objections to the Soviets shining up their missiles. This proposal generates even more problems for them than I mentioned in my article. For one, as the booster accelerates it compresses and heats the air above it, and the plume of hot air sweeps downward around the side of the missile, oxidizing the surface and taking its shine away. Furthermore, the shine itself is obtained by applying a thin coat of reflective material to the missile, but under the high heat resulting from the the laser attack and from atmospheric friction, the coating tends to disintegrate. Finally, the coating has a different coefficient of expansion from the metal skin underneath, and tends to buckle when the missile is heated by the laser beam, leading to its catastrophic failure.
Thomas J. Rath makes the very interesting point that if the Soviets attempt to destroy the satellites in our space-based defense at the outset, before launching their missiles, they must necessarily give us warning of their attack. For this reason alone, our defenses will make it difficult for them to achieve the element of complete surprise that is essential to the success of a Soviet first strike.
Edward F. Hennessey asks about the possibility of a strippable outer coating that would keep the missile surface clean and shiny during launch. The trouble with this suggestion is that the strippable coating, which is to be wrapped around the entire missile, must be quite thin, or it will weigh too much and force the Soviets to eliminate several warheads from the payload. It must be sturdy, or air resistance will strip it away. And it must be heat-resistant, because the missile gets quite hot as it rises rapidly through the atmosphere. These requirements are partly contradictory, and reconciling them will not be easy. A substantial amount of development and testing would be necessary to make certain that such a device works well and does not interfere with reliable missile performance. And all this is for a very uncertain gain to the Soviets, because, as noted in my article, when the coating is stripped away and the shiny surface underneath is exposed to attack by our laser beam, the heat of the laser beam will degrade the shine rapidly.
Allen Finegold and David R. Perles suggest the “Star Wars” defense, even if effective against land-based missiles, will be vulnerable to submarine-launched missiles and cruise missiles. This is not the case. When our boost-phase defense system of approximately 100 satellites is in place, a dozen or so satellites will be over the missile fields of the Soviet Union at any one time, defending us against an ICBM attack. But most of the remaining satellites will be over the oceans and in a position to defend us against missiles launched from submarines. Moreover, for several reasons—slower speed, staggered launches, and dispersed launch sites—the interception of submarine-launched missiles is considerably easier than the interception of land-based missiles.
As for defense against cruise missiles, that is a different problem from defense against ballistic missiles, but not a harder one. In fact, it appears to be considerably easier, because we have many minutes or even hours in which to find, track, lock our beams onto, and destroy the relatively slow-moving cruise missiles. Lasers in space, contrary to some views that have been expressed, are effective against cruise missiles and bombers because their beams, being light rays, reach to the ground. Clouds offer a temporary screen, but a cover of clouds is not likely to exist all the way to the target. And bombers fly above the clouds, at stratospheric heights, on their way to their targets, and are vulnerable to space lasers for hours.
Marvin King correctly rebuts the charge by some critics of the “Star Wars” research program that it is a violation of the ABM treaty. The language of the treaty states that “Each party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components,” but research on missile defense is not prohibited.
Joseph Forbes’s comments on the usefulness of the X-ray laser are taken from a section of the UCS report which Lowell Wood has shown to be in error. For example, the UCS proposes to have the X-ray laser pop up from submarines located in the Arabian Sea. This relatively distant launch site, about 2,000 miles from the closest Soviet missile fields, would introduce a substantial delay of some minutes in the availability of the X-ray laser for combat—that interval being the time required for the X-ray laser device to climb to an altitude at which the Soviet missile fields are in its line of sight. But, as Mr. Wood pointed out, the eastern Mediterranean and the Sea of Japan are much closer to the Soviet missile fields, and just as accessible to our submarines politically. A launch from these waters largely eliminates the problem cited by the UCS.
Mr. Forbes also says that satellites are necessarily more vulnerable to attack than missiles. This is often stated, but is quite untrue. A satellite, being weightless in orbit, can be defended by heavy armor, guns, and maneuvering rockets. On the other hand, a missile, which must propel itself upward against the backward pull of gravity, cannot afford any substantial amount of armor or shielding, or it loses much of its payload. Today’s military satellites are quite vulnerable because no one has been shooting at them, and we have not bothered to go to the expense of protecting them, but tomorrow’s satellites will be another story. A substantial part of the Defense Department budget is going into research on the hardening of our military satellites.
As for the computations needed in the “Star Wars” defense, as many as several billion operations per second may be necessary, but parallel computer architectures should make this possible. Computing speed is not expected to be a major problem for our defense. The preparation of the complex programs needed is another matter. This is one of the pacing items in the “Star Wars” program, and is receiving a great deal of attention in early planning.
1 The Martin-Marietta Corporation studied fast-burn boosters for the Fletcher panel, and concluded that they would impose a payload-loss of at most 20 percent, a consensus confirmed in writing by the Deputy Chairman of the panel. Claims to the contrary stem from an abandoned Pentagon attempt to discredit Ashton Carter's Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report on SDI. This misinformation is still being spread (e.g., Wall Street Journal editorial, December 10, 1984).
2 National Journal, July 7, 1984, p. 1316.
3 The diversion of SDI to silo defense is the only rationale that makes technical (though not necessarily strategic) sense. Hard targets, especially expendable silos, could be defended. However, we agree with the administration's Scowcroft commission that such defenses are not needed at this time. In any case, space-based weapons are not suited to this purpose.
4 Indeed, the growth in the offense is bound to exceed any attrition that the defense is likely to attain. The U.S. nuclear threat against Moscow multiplied as soon as we learned that the city was being surrounded by ABM batteries.
5 The Soviets' BMD program seems to be quite similar in character to what ours was before the “Star Wars” speech. We know of no evidence that they are moving toward a comprehensive strategic defense of Soviet society. As the Fletcher panel emphasizes, the most daunting BMD problems are computer-intensive, an area in which the Soviets are exceptionally weak. Indeed, they lag in almost all technologies critical to space-based BMD, so they would be ill-advised to start a contest in this arena.
6 Mr. Jastrow claims that a neutral-particle-beam weapon would only weigh 25 tons. That agrees with our estimate of the weight of the accelerator alone, but ignores the far heavier beam expansion and targeting magnets (see The Fallacy of Star Wars, p. 97).
7 G.H. Canavan, Simple Estimates of Satellite Constellation Sizing, Los Alamos National Laboratory, August 6, 1984. A detailed solution of the satellite-coverage problem has now been found (Richard L. Garwin, to be published) which shows that the “square-root law” of the Los Alamos paper, to which Mr. Jastrow ascribes such importance, is incorrect under all but highly artificial circumstances.
8 S.D. Drell, P.J. Farley, and D. Holloway, The Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative: A Technical, Political, and Arms Control Assessment, Stanford University, July 1984.
9 This comes from the projected cost of the Midgetman missile, though not in its mobile form, and includes the cost of the extra warheads, the silo, and ten years of maintenance.
10 C.T. Cunningham, Report No. DDV-84-0007, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, August 30, 1984.
11 This is arrived at from Cunningham's number of 120 lasers for 1,400 co-located boosters with an engagement time of 150 seconds. Our 3,000 fast-burn boosters give an engagement time of 40 seconds, which then gives 120 (3000/1400) (150/40) = 964 laser satellites. (All agree that the number of lasers is proportional to the number of co-located boosters, not to their square-root.) Cunningham assumed a booster hardness that is 50 percent of the Fletcher panel's baseline figure. Were the latter used, the laser constellation would cost $1.9 trillion. This illustrates the sensitivity to assumed parameters.
12 Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for FY85, The Strategic Defense Initiative, Senate Committee on Armed Services, 98th Congress, Second Session, April 24, 1984.
13 He did, however, read the phrase at issue, “saving a great deal of weight.” Unfortunately the stenotypist missed precisely one line of written text, and the last word, as restored in the record, was misprinted as “height.”
14 See Richard L. Garwin and Hans A. Bethe, Scientific American, March 1968.
“Star Wars” & the Scientists
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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.