The political activism of America's two major teachers' unions is well known. The National Education Association (NEA), with 1.6 million…
The political activism of America’s two major teachers’ unions is well known. The National Education Association (NEA), with 1.6 million members, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), now numbering 600,000, are among the largest, best organized, and most energetic interest groups in the United States. As campaign consultant Matt Reese once observed, “Teachers are the ideal political organization. They’re in every precinct.” Moreover, they are generally well-educated, likely to vote, mindful of public affairs, articulate, and possessed of ample spare time. All that this long-slumbering political giant needed was to be awakened, a process that commenced within the AFT during the 1960’s and within the NEA in the early 70’s.
Teacher-backed candidates sometimes lose. The most celebrated defeat, of course, was Jimmy Carter’s political erasure by Ronald Reagan despite fierce NEA support of and moderate AFT enthusiasm for Carter. But the teachers’ choices more often win. Even after discounting for such canny tactics as betting on a number of candidates who are sure to triumph, and claiming credit for some victories in which teacher support actually made little or no difference, the electoral influence of the AFT and the NEA remains a force to conjure with, if not so strong a force as they would have us think.
NEA and AFT support and endorsements nearly always go to the Democratic candidate in a general election. The same cannot be said for the votes of individual teachers. A quarter of all public-school teachers—and nearly two-fifths of those with any party affiliation—describe themselves as Republicans, and exit polls in 1980 showed that more teachers voted for Reagan-Bush than for Carter-Mondale. But while rank-and-file members display political attitudes and voting behaviors that resemble those of their neighbors, the national unions and most of their state affiliates are firmly in the Democratic camp, except when an occasional Republican “friend of education” gains their support for his incumbency, as Senators Stafford and Weicker did from the NEA (but not the AFT) in 1982. Of course this means that victorious Republicans rarely owe any debts or favors to the teachers’ unions, and that Republican platforms and legislative programs now pay little heed to teacher interests. Insofar as those interests are thought by candidates and officials to be identical with the well-being of American education, we will tend to see education labeled as a “Democratic concern” rather than as an integral part of the culture and the society, which in turn will foster the further politicization along partisan lines of major educational policy decisions at the state and national level.
The teachers’ unions, however, do not confine themselves to education issues. In fact, the successful schooling of children has steadily receded in the universe of NEA concerns. While it shines far brighter in the AFT cosmos, it would be as inaccurate to describe the politics and policies of either union primarily in educational terms as to characterize either one as a “professional organization of teachers”—something that the AFT never called itself, but that the NEA used for many years to veil its transformation into a militant public-employees’ union.
In view of the breadth and diversity of the issues, domestic and international, educational and noneducational, that now suffuse both groups, one can reasonably ask what they stand for, how they define the culture, perceive the society, and view the nation’s role in the world. This would be a significant question even if the only power of the teachers’ unions were electoral. It becomes infinitely more consequential when we consider that their members also wield what is left of the moral power and intellectual authority that virtually all the world’s civilizations have ceded to those in whose trust they place the education of the young. When that implicit moral power of the teacher is joined to the explicit political force of a major national organization, it is important to understand the ideological foundations. And these, one quickly learns, differ markedly between the two major teachers’ unions, notwithstanding their outward similarities. Both the NEA and the AFT are ambitious, aggressive, and fiercely competitive unions with all the trappings, admirable and otherwise, of such organizations. But there the likenesses cease and the differences begin, both in their pronouncements and actions on national affairs and in the curricular and pedagogical guidance that they give teachers.
At a time when many Americans are understandably alarmed by the slipshod quality of their children’s education, we might fairly expect the major teachers’ organizations to respond, perhaps even to take the lead in raising school standards, stiffening the curriculum, and insisting on stronger student achievement. Self-interest alone should dictate this, as it is clear that taxpayers will not spend more for unsatisfactory schools, nor will parents who can find alternatives willingly leave their children in them. With enrollments shrinking as a result of demographic changes, teaching jobs in most fields are already scarce, and any large-scale exodus to private schools (which are rarely unionized) or to home instruction would palpably worsen the situation. With teacher salaries much the largest item in school budgets, and exquisitely sensitive to voter action on bond issues, levies, and tax-limitation initiatives, concern for the “bread-and-butter” issues that have been the real strength of the teachers’ unions would also seem to dictate close attention to educational quality, if only to persuade the voting public that schools offer value for money.
At one time, the National Education Association conscientiously assumed such responsibilities. When it invited Charles W. Eliot and Nicholas Murray Butler to convene the Committee on Secondary School Studies in 1892, it was responding to the wholesale confusion, curricular disarray, and variegated standards that marked American high-school education at the time. And the result, after barely a year of intensive work by dozens of the nation’s most distinguished educators, was a report on curriculum and teacher preparation that for a quarter-century served as the premier national standard by which schools and school systems evaluated their own policies. It was a high, even unbending, standard that was as firm toward teachers and the institutions that prepare them as toward the curricula and students in their schools.
In recent years, however, the National Education Association and its subdivisions have taken almost precisely the opposite approach to matters of educational quality. Their response has been, first, to discredit the evidence of qualitative deterioration and the means of acquiring such evidence; second, to savage the critics of school quality; third, to mount elaborate campaigns to persuade the public that American education is basically fine, and that any minor problems would be solved by the application of more money; fourth, steadfastly to refuse to let teachers be rewarded (or penalized) on the basis of their own, their pupils’, or their schools’ performance; fifth, to seek control of the agencies and processes by which standards are set for students and teachers alike; and, sixth, skillfully to employ the rhetoric of educational quality and excellence in advocating policies that would bring about nothing of the sort.
For all their shortcomings, tests and test results are the surest and most objective indicators of whether youngsters are learning what they should. And most of the results of most of the tests given to American students over the past decade and a half show with painful clarity that overall pupil performance is inadequate and worsening. The long decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores is merely the best known. After an extensive review for the Public Interest of virtually all the available evidence on educational attainment, Barbara Lerner accurately concluded that, while youngsters in the first four grades have held their own, the achievement decline in grades five through twelve is large and irrefutable. Moreover, when American students were compared with their counterparts in other lands on 19 different tests, Lerner found, “[W]e were never ranked first or second; we came in last three times and, if comparisons are limited to other developed nations only, the U.S. ranked at the bottom seven times. . . .”
The evidence, in sum, is conclusive. But of course it bears attention only if one accepts the validity of tests and testing. The National Education Association, in the main, does not. In the late 1970’s, it declared war on standardized testing—the only kind that permits comparisons to be made among children, schools, states, generations of pupils, or nations. Terry Herndon, who is about to step down after ten eventful years as executive director of the NEA, compared the Educational Testing Service (which administers the SAT and other college and graduate-school entrance examinations) to “armament manufacturers,” and—perhaps mirroring the close collaboration on this issue between his organization and Ralph Nader—informed the 1979 NEA convention that “Standardized tests maim in equally harsh ways more people than do Detroit cars.”
The NEA’s anti-testing campaign continues to-day in the media, in the corridors of Congress and state legislatures (which can discourage and discredit testing, while escalating its cost, through so-called “truth in testing” statutes), and in gatherings of educators.
The association’s speeches, testimony, and advertisements are often ingenious, replete with photographs of tearful six-year-olds—allegedly branded “below average” by their first standardized tests—and bright-eyed high-school students whose college and career prospects are being blighted by examinations. They are aimed primarily at parents, who naturally seek to maximize their children’s opportunities, and at minority groups and others apt to resonate to the suggestion that tests foster inequality. “Intelligence, aptitude, and achievement tests,” states an NEA resolution, “have historically been used to differentiate rather than to measure performance and have, therefore, prevented equal educational opportunities for all students, particularly minorities, lower socioeconomic groups, and women.” Hence tests should not be administered when they are “biased,” which word is left entirely undefined, or when they are “potentially damaging to a student’s self-concept,” which potential naturally dwells in every imaginable test, achievement measure, or assessment. The NEA also rejects the use of any test to “compare individual schools or teachers,” or as “a basis for monetary remuneration or promotions.” Though teachers are encouraged to devise quizzes and tests for use with their own students, no one outside the individual classroom should be permitted to impose such measures, or to do anything with—or about—their results.
The AFT thinks otherwise. Indeed, his union “strongly supports testing,” wrote AFT president Albert Shanker in the Washington Post in 1980. “We believe that tests tell us things that are important for students, parents, teachers, colleges, government, and the society at large to know. We also believe the public unquestionably has a right to know what we are doing in the schools—how well or how badly.”
Available evidence suggests that a majority of individual teachers share Shanker’s view. The NEA’s own poll in 1980 showed that half or more of all teachers deemed standardized achievement tests to be appropriate for evaluating school effectiveness, as the “primary measure of student learning,” and for determining pupil promotion, while three quarters would also use such tests to help evaluate curriculum and to track or group students.
The NEA’s assault on the legitimacy of tests and the utility of testing naturally extends to examinations devised to appraise teacher qualifications, too. Eighteen states now administer, or are preparing, systematic assessments of individual competence prior to awarding teaching certificates. Some use the National Teachers Examination, developed by the Educational Testing Service. Others have devised their own measures, as have a few large city school systems. This widening movement contrasts sharply with the historic pattern of licensing anyone who graduates from an “approved” teacher-education program or who can display a prescribed list of courses on his college transcript. The change results partly from the slackening demand for new teachers, which permits greater selectivity than was possible when pupil enrollments were soaring, but even more from mounting national alarm about the deteriorating intellectual caliber of such teachers, now drawn increasingly from the bottom quarter of college classes that may be no great shakes even in their higher elevations.
Although a legitimate debate persists about the utility of paper-and-pencil tests as a means of gauging the skills that teachers use in the classroom, there is no doubt that such examinations can assess the breadth of a teacher’s general education and the depth of his knowledge of the particular subjects he will teach. But here, too, the NEA has elected to stonewall, while the AFT has solidly endorsed the concept of testing new teachers before putting them in front of students. A resolution adopted at the NEA convention states that “[E]xaminations such as the National Teachers Examination must not be used as a condition of employment, evaluation, [or as a] criterion for certification, placement, or promotion of teachers.” But the AFT, Shanker says, “would like to see the testing of all new teachers before they are hired, a far from universal practice at present. . . . Why not begin now to insure at least minimal qualifications . . . through universal entry tests?”
The NEA is not so naive as to suppose that public concern with teacher quality can be entirely shrugged off. And so, after several years of effort and internal dissension, it came forth in late 1982 with a 64-page “action plan” to promote “excellence in our schools” through teacher education, primarily by spelling out dozens of criteria for college programs in teacher preparation. This is a useful document, as far as it goes, but that is not very far. As noted by Virginia Robinson, the editor of a respected newsletter called Education Times: “Missing from the NEA position paper . . . is any attempt to assess existing teacher-education programs. . . . [It] does not address one of the most troublesome problems currently plaguing teacher education—the evidently poor academic qualifications of teacher candidates. . . . There is no mention of test scores—on which current teacher candidates apparently rank well below entrants to most other professional preparations. . . .”
Tucked away in the recommendations, however, is another cardinal tenet of the NEA, namely, that it should control all teacher training and employment via the establishment within each state of an “autonomous agency” that would be “governed by a majority of teachers who are members of the majority national teachers’ organization, to approve teacher-preparation programs and certificate prospective teachers.” This derives from the NEA’s long-standing assertion that “the profession must govern itself” and is of course consistent with the approach of doctors and lawyers to their own professions. In righteously advancing such policies, the NEA benefits enormously from its prior status as a professional association rather than a labor union (as it is now officially designated by both the Labor Department and the Internal Revenue Service). But it is questionable how far society should go in permitting a public-employees’ union, which has won exclusive bargaining rights and compulsory dues in many jurisdictions, which insists on (and not infrequently practices) the right to strike, and which demands permanent tenure for any teacher with more than three years’ experience, also to control the terms and procedures by which the state determines individual qualifications to enter the classroom in the first place, particularly at a time when student achievement and teacher quality are both declining and when the NEA denies the legitimacy of the primary indicators of those declines.
Tests are not the only villains in the NEA’s account of what is right and what is wrong with American education. The standards that underlie “standardized” tests are themselves held to be invalid. Because every child (and every teacher) is unique, the reasoning goes, it is unfair to force him into any kind of mold. Because educational aspirations and career plans differ, it is wrong to make everyone leap the same hurdles. Because minority groups may be disadvantaged by standards devised by the “majority,” all such standards are immoral, illegal, and probably unconstitutional. And because fulfilling any set of “minimum standards” will tend to become the foremost objective of schooling, the minimum may become a ceiling, thereby blocking the achievement of true excellence.
Each of these assertions has a long and sometimes honorable tradition that dates back to the earliest days of formal education. Each is capable of evoking nods of agreement from parents and murmurs of approval from teachers. But when applied to schools and children, at least in the forms in which these principles have been most widely practiced in the past two decades, each is also a warrant for educational mediocrity. Of the many critics and commentators who have pointed this out, few are more perceptive than the AFT’s Shanker, whose weekly New York Times column (run as a paid advertisement) is regularly used for thoughtful exhortations to higher school standards and for summaries of research findings on school effectiveness, and whose union resolutions and publications bespeak seriousness of purpose about the development of student skills and character, curriculum content, and measurable achievement. Whether one views Shanker as an educational statesman or as the crafty guardian-nurturer of a goose that lays golden eggs, a public school run according to his lights would probably be a better school than most children attend today.1
The NEA, however, is reasonably satisfied with the educational system the way it is, save perhaps for insufficient funding. That, at least, is what it would have us believe. To encourage such thinking, the association has engaged the services of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and embarked on a major national public-relations campaign on behalf of “American education.” This has included full-page ads in general-circulation magazines such as Newsweek, and extended commercials on network television. Furthermore, when skeptical journalists inquire about educational problems, the NEA tends to deny that they are serious. The Washington Post recently ran a thoughtful, three-part series on illiteracy by Joanne Omang. “Prominent among the nonbelievers,” she reported, “is the National Education Association. . . . ‘The problem is not nearly as great as some people claim,’ said Don Cameron, NEA’s assistant executive director. ‘[T]he tendency is to stress the 15 percent of students who do poorly over the 85 percent who do well.’”
Even while denying the existence of significant shortcomings, discrediting educational standards, and disavowing the surest means of enforcing them, the NEA leadership is much too adroit not to recognize the need for a more satisfying explanation to the public and, especially, to its own members, of why so many people are disgruntled about the quality of American education. And the chosen explanation is shrewd indeed. Evil people, one learns, are saying bad things about schools and teachers in order to further their own unsavory ends: the destruction of public education; the oppression of minorities, the poor, and the dispossessed; the transfer of resources into less worthy purposes (including, especially, the arms race); and the victory of reactionary social policies and political objectives over progressive goals.
The Reagan administration and its budget priorities have become the chief scapegoats, but assuredly not the only ones. “In recent months,” NEA president Willard H. McGuire proclaimed in his opening address to the 1982 convention in Los Angeles, “the education profession has seen an unprecedented attack on public education. The attackers assault our schools, burn our books, deny funding and even loans to our students, defame our system, and attack educators directly.” In case the martial imagery were not clear enough to the 7,000 delegates, McGuire returned to it later in the proceedings: “It’s been said of America that every generation must fight a war to preserve its freedom. I submit that we are in a war today,” he said. “It is not a war on foreign soil, but a war that is taking place in every schoolroom and in every state capital and in every congressional district. It is a war for the survival of public education.”
This was strong talk for a convention dominated by disarmament resolutions, anti-war rallies, and anti-nuclear addresses, but the contemporary NEA leadership seems less diffident about targeting enemies when they are Americans. “When school opens this fall,” McGuire explained, “many of our colleagues won’t be there because of the Reagan budget cuts. Many of our children will come to school hungry because of the Reagan budget cuts. . . . There are citizens and special-interest groups who would destroy our public schools, and in the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, they have found an agent. . . .”
The NEA’s attack on these “groups” and their “agent” is shrill, well-coordinated, and sustained, notwithstanding McGuire’s bland assertion that “[w]e refuse to emulate our critics. We will continue to appeal to the more charitable and more sensible instincts of the American public.”
There is little charity to be found in a 292-page “workshop-resource book” published by the NEA in 1981 to assist teachers with “survival-skills training . . . in countering the attacks on public education by the conglomerates of the radical Right.” But there are long lists of individuals, groups, and organizations said to be devoted to “the goal of putting into place their own economic and political agenda for the nation—an agenda that would escalate military expenditures and erase most of the social and educational advances of the past generation.” With a fine lack of concern for ideological nuance and policy focus, the lists run from tax-limitation groups to gun-owners’ associations, from the Moral Majority to the Council for a Union-free Environment, from the Heritage Foundation to the Coalition for Peace through Strength, from the Eagle Forum to the Hoover Institution, from the International Center for Economic Policy Studies to the John Birch Society.
The single most striking characteristic of the lists is how little most of the named organizations have to do with elementary and secondary education. For in reality, apart from a handful of education specialists at such places as the National Right to Work Committee and the Heritage Foundation, the Right pays much less attention to the NEA than Herndon and his associates would have the rank-and-file believe. Far more biting criticism has come in recent months from such inconvenient quarters as the Reader’s Digest, the New Republic, and the Washington Monthly. Even mainstream educators such as the respected dean of the Stanford School of Education, J. Myron Atkin, and Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, have begun to voice their displeasure. “The NEA,” writes Thomson in the widely-read educators’ journal Phi Delta Kappan, for example, “no longer contributes significantly to the improvement of teaching and learning for students. It looks after the narrow interests of its members rather than after the broader interests of its constituency.”
Faced with such open peer criticism, the NEA naturally needs a larger cause around which to rally its members, each of whom pays several hundred dollars a year to belong to the national, state, and local associations (for which one receives few direct benefits other than group-liability insurance), and it needs a convincing rationale to elicit from teachers the additional millions in Political Action Committee contributions that form the fiscal foundation of its political edifice. Ronald Reagan’s “war” on federal school aid and the New Right’s alleged assault on education itself meet these needs quite satisfactorily.
Though the federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education is marginal, having furnished only eight cents of the school dollar even at its peak, Washington has been the NEA’s political and policy focus since the mid-60’s. And there has not been a single significant national candidate, issue, or congressional vote bearing on education on which the NEA has taken the side of caution, decentralization, diversity, or deregulation. Rather, it has systematically sought to extend the reach and augment the power of all three branches of the federal government. The NEA favors compulsory busing, the vigorous enforcement of affirmative-action quotas, bilingual education that “uses a student’s primary language as the principal medium of instruction in a bicultural setting,” and exacting federal requirements for the education of handicapped youngsters. It has endorsed virtually every one of the dozens of “categorical” programs—from metric education to women’s education to small-business-management education to career education—that have cluttered up the federal statute books, bureaucratized the nation’s school systems, and homogenized the curriculum in recent years, and it has bitterly opposed “block grants,” program consolidations, and any restoration of authority to state and local governments.
The NEA’s two great—and interwoven—goals have been the establishment of a Cabinet-level Department of Education and the boosting of federal spending on education to one-third of the nation’s total public-school budget. The first of these was achieved in 1979, when the Carter administration dutifully kept the promise that the President had made to the NEA in return for its 1976 election endorsement and pushed through Congress the legislation establishing the Cabinet agency, despite the misgivings of some of his own advisers and the opposition of many other education groups, including the American Federation of Teachers. The second goal, which would add about $25 billion to the federal budget, is far from realization, and likely to stay that way for some time to come. Indeed, few people outside NEA Washington headquarters even take it seriously. But the preservation of existing federal funds and programs from attack is a satisfactory replacement on the NEA’s political agenda. And the maladroit education policies of the Reagan administration have helped the NEA to reshape its image from promoter of big government and federal intervention to a defender of the public schools themselves.
During the Carter years, the NEA tended to isolate itself from the school-board associations, the principals’ associations, and other moderate education groups, from most of the rest of organized labor, and from such exponents of liberal opinion as the editorial page of the Washington Post. It was too greedy, its federal-policy agenda too interventionist, and its quest for political power too brazen. The Reagan administration has almost singlehandedly ended that isolation through its lack of evident interest in public education, the sharp reductions it has sought in existing school-aid programs, its parallel willingness to succor private schools, its uneven handling of civil-rights policy,2 and its support for several New Right educational causes, particularly classroom prayer. It has thereby unified the education community more solidly than anything since Richard Nixon’s vetoes of congressional school-aid appropriations, has strengthened the links among education, labor, and civil-rights organizations, and has enormously improved relations between that coalition and many journalists, academics, and Democratic politicians. Even the AFT has buried the hatchet with the NEA for purposes of salvaging federal school-aid programs, combating tuition tax credits and—remarkably—preserving the Department of Education. The enemy of his enemy, Shanker recognizes, must be his ally, at least in the battles over federal education policy being fought on Capitol Hill.
Such alliances of convenience do not, however, represent a significant narrowing of the ideological chasm between the NEA and the AFT or, for that matter, between the NEA and the political culture of most Americans.
A reasonable facsimile of any organization’s political ethos can usually be glimpsed in the rules and procedures by which it governs itself. The National Education Association proudly and openly organizes its own governing bodies and staffing patterns around racial and ethnic quotas. The bylaws state: “It is the policy of the association to achieve ethnic-minority delegate representation at least equal to the proportion of identified ethnic-minority populations within the state.” Any affiliate that fails to gain executive approval of its plan “to achieve a total state and local delegation . . . which reflects these ethnic-minority proportions” risks being denied the right to participate in the annual convention (except to vote for national officers and dues increases!).
Color-consciousness also governs election of directors and top association leadership. The NEA constitution stipulates that “members from ethnic minorities shall comprise at least 20 percent of the board,” a quota that must be met even if it is necessary for the annual convention to elect additional directors “to assure such ethnic-minority representation.” Each state delegation on the national board must likewise meet a quota; if the first three directors from a particular state “do not include at least one ethnic-minority person,” a fourth shall be elected “who is from an ethnic-minority group.”
For uninhibited attentiveness to race, however, it is difficult to improve upon the practice of the NEA, at its annual presentation of “human and civil-rights awards,” of identifying recipients by their color in the printed program of the ceremony itself.
Not surprisingly, the NEA envisions a society in which other institutions are organized along similar lines. This is manifest in its policy resolutions and other public statements, which exhibit none of the usual confusion about goals and quotas, or any misgivings about reverse discrimination. “It may be necessary,” resolution E-13 states bluntly, for employers “to give preference in the recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion policies to certain racial groups or women or men to overcome past discrimination.” Nor are race, color, religion, and gender the only characteristics that warrant protection. The current list also includes “residence, physical disability, political activities, professional-association activity, age, marital status, family relationship, sex and sexual orientation.” And the personnel decisions that must be protected from all such discrimination include those under which a person is “employed, retained, paid, dismissed, suspended, demoted, transferred, or retired.” In fact, the only quotas explicitly frowned upon in NEA resolutions are “tenure quotas.”
Because declining school enrollments and budget constraints are shrinking the nation’s overall teaching force, the NEA has sought to give special protection to minority-group members when layoffs and reductions-in-force are carried out by school systems. The contract it negotiated in South Bend, Indiana, for example, states baldly that “No minority bargaining unit employee shall be laid off.”
Such practices clash sharply with the time-honored union doctrine of seniority, and have produced a particularly vigorous dispute between the NEA and the AFT, which adheres to that doctrine in particular, and has opposed race-based employment practices and quotas in general.
Whatever one may think of teacher seniority as an educational policy, it is preferable to racialism as a social policy. In this, as in its overall view of the proper ordering of the democracy, the American Federation of Teachers resists the classification of individuals according to outward characteristics and group identities, both in its own actions and in the actions of others. The AFT’s commitment to nondiscrimination is long-standing, firm, and sincere—it abolished “dual” (black and white) affiliates at the state and local level well before the NEA, and 7 of its 34 current executive-council members are black, while 11 are women—but it is a commitment to individual opportunity, not to group quotas and reverse discrimination. The pertinent AFT resolution “reject[s] quota policies which violate the very meaning of ‘equal protection’ by prescribing remedies for discrimination that are themselves discriminatory.” The same view animates Shanker’s frequent columns and forceful speeches on federal affirmative-action mandates, Office for Civil Rights regulations, and Supreme Court decisions. And it permeates the AFT’s view of what children should be taught in school, the language in which they should be taught, and the values that should undergird their education.
The NEA, by contrast, would fragment schooling itself along racial and ethnic lines. Bilingual education is only the beginning. Almost every imaginable minority group is the subject of an NEA resolution calling for special attention to its “heritage and culture” in the curriculum, for various forms of “self-determination” in educational policy-making (and often in general governance) for the affected group, for community or parental control of its children’s schools, and for classroom instruction by teachers of similar backgrounds.
What is missing, of course, is any clear recognition of a common American culture, nationhood, or polity. This lack of an anchor not infrequently causes the NEA to get caught in some treacherous currents when it seeks to give specific guidance to classroom teachers. One example may be seen in a 1977 volume entitled Cross-Cultural Education which the NEA still distributes as part of its extensive curriculum library. Here, and in similar publications, one encounters a far clearer and more purposeful ideology than the bland “pluralism” that pervades the association’s public statements and resolutions. One encounters the unmistakable hint that American social, political, and economic values are, in a word, evil.
How else is one to view the statement in this volume that “Americans have allowed a national climate of prejudice, hate, racism, and sexism to grow”?
How else is one to interpret a suggested interdisciplinary unit on “the recent oil embargo in West Asia and its international sociopolitical consequences” in which these topics for discussions are proposed to the teaching team?:
The economics class might address the nomenclature of the international economic system, exploring how it is possible that a few Western nations control the flow of goods and services around the world. A mode of inquiry might center around the statement that three million whites in Africa enjoy a very high standard of living, while fifteen million blacks on the same continent exist essentially in economic slavery. The language-arts class might explore the reasons why English is the international language or examine the influence of English in promulgating European values and attitudes among non-European nations. . . . The political-science class might explore the sociopolitical impact of the oil embargo on American multinational corporations operating in newly decolonized countries such as Angola and Mozambique.
Lest any teacher be troubled by the discrepancy between the implicit world view encountered here and the ideas that he may have come upon elsewhere, Cross-Cultural Education offers reassurance. A chapter entitled “So-Called Liberals and So-Called Intellectuals” explains who is and is not to be trusted: “Organizational efforts to address manifestations of dehumanization have been effectively resisted, and in too many instances, completely stifled—not by the so-called racists, but by the so-called liberals and the so-called intellectuals. . . . [B]oth types have special destructive potentials for negating polycultural efforts.” The worrisome potential of the “so-called liberals” is their propensity to engage in “complex behaviors” that have, at their roots, the “psychology of racism.” Such behaviors include a tendency to defer action on one problem until an antecedent condition is alleviated, and to engage in “the well-known liberal ploy, divide-and-conquer,” which amounts to fostering “certain conditions that set one oppressed ethnocultural group against another.”
As for the “so-called intellectuals,” their cardinal sin is to “obscure major issues affecting the progress of oppressed ethnocultural groups” and thereby “to prolong any decision-making process that could facilitate the achievement of humanistic equity.” The solitary example given is the practice of using data attesting to increased minority enrollment in college “to support the distorted contention of some liberals and intellectuals that competence via educational preparation assures equitable upward mobility.” A remarkable statement in any situation, but truly striking when published under the imprimatur of the National Education Association, even when accompanied by the standard disclaimer of responsibility for the contents. The man who wrote Cross-Cultural Education, it may be noted, was identified as Associate Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.
One wants to avoid recklessness in attributing motives and affixing political labels, but in reflecting upon the many societies that at one time or another have encouraged their teachers and students to view the world through lenses such as these, it is difficult to identify a single one that could accurately be termed democratic. Certainly this interpretation of the role of ideas and intellectuals within a political culture ill-becomes an organization whose principal criticism of its own perceived antagonists is the threat they purportedly pose to academic freedom.
The steadiest flow of such material into the NEA circulation system comes from an organization called the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC), which is not part of the NEA but which has co-sponsored several individual projects with it, which received an NEA “Human and Civil-Rights Special Award” in 1982, and which is listed in the NEA “yellow pages” of useful resources for teachers.
One such venture was the preparation by CIBC, in conjunction with the National and Connecticut Education Associations, of a kit of teacher materials about the Ku Klux Klan. The purpose was certainly laudable, and many of the materials are informative and useful, but the interpretation leaves something to be desired. “[I]t is important to remember,” the authors caution, “that the Klan is only the tip of the iceberg, the most visible and obvious manifestation of the entrenched racism in our society.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) termed this approach “disturbing and troublesome,” and pointed out that “racist ideas, contrary to the NEA’s basic theme, are antithetical to most Americans today. The nation’s thrust is to achieve racial equality, undo past wrongs, and insure the growth of freedom.”
The AFT’s Shanker echoed the ADL’s concern in his column. “Why aren’t all the facts given to the students so that they can arrive at conclusions for themselves?” he asked. “Should students leave the classroom filled with shame about what America once was—and without any sense of pride in what it is now and is trying to be?”
But the NEA is undaunted. It continues to distribute Violence, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Struggle for Equality through its “professional library” for $4.95 a copy, and its December 1982 newsletter announced that sales had topped 13,000 copies, indicating “that teachers nationwide are using this curriculum resource.”
The joint ventures of the NEA and the Council on Interracial Books for Children are not confined to the Klan, or indeed to the detection and elimination of racism. Another combined project was a 1981 report on romantic novels aimed at the preteen and teen-age markets. That many such books are dreadful scarcely bears repeating. What is noteworthy, however, are the assumptions underlying the criticisms proffered by the NEA and the CIBC. The stated objective of the exercise, of course, was to “eliminate bias” from children’s books. But it turns out that among the prominent varieties of bias of which many such books are culpable is a disposition to favor heterosexual love. In one of the briefer articles in the report, a self-described “adult lesbian” observes that “No romance novel ever gave me the slightest hint that girls (and women) could, and did, stay together. . . . Fortunately, I eventually escaped from the entrapment of these novels. I am concerned that the adolescent years of those who may be gay or lesbian and are now reading these ‘happiness package’ novels will be made far more difficult than necessary.”
The other forms of “bias” that the CIBC excoriates in its regular bulletin and miscellaneous publications are numerous, pervasive, and occasionally inventive. Criticisms range from “stereotypes in amusement parks” to an attack on Sesame Street. But some of them are unfunny. In an adulatory review of a new Harper & Row children’s novel about a fourteen-year-old Puerto Rican “street punk” in New York, for example, the youthful protagonist is hailed for being a “hustler with morals” (who “hustles a full meal from a sympathetic waitress but leaves her a large tip, explaining ‘I’m broke for restaurants, not people’”). More remarkable still, we are asked to admire the book’s portrayal of the lad’s father, who “is in Attica for having assaulted a policeman during a Puerto Rico independence day rally” which “suggests that he has a sense of self-respect and self-determination.”
Such materials are a long way from bland convention resolutions in support of federal aid for bilingual education, but they partake of essentially the same view of American society, of the role of education in that society, and of the teacher’s responsibilities. The NEA and the organizations with which it cooperates would have children absorb the same values and beliefs that permeate its own governance system, its public-policy pronouncements, its lobbying efforts, its television and magazine advertisements, and the criteria by which it decides which candidates to support in state and national elections. Running throughout is an unstated but fairly coherent ideology familiar to all who have watched the evolution of radical political movements within the Western democracies during the past two decades. It includes the denial of nationhood; the celebration of individual and, especially, group differences; the substitution of color (and gender, ethnic, linguistic, etc.) consciousness for color-blindness; the delegitimization of all authority save that of the state; the purification and reconstruction of political institutions to make them more “responsive”; the gradual eclipse of liberty by equality; the defaming of economic structures and the ethos that sustains them; the creeping politicization of the culture; the degradation of traditional morality; the idealization of modernism and relativism in values, attitudes, and behavior; and the encouragement of citizens in general and children in particular to despise the rules and customs by which their society orders itself, including those that make it a functional (if imperfect) democracy.
It would be wrong to infer that the NEA harbors such an ideology at the level of organizational consciousness, and certainly it would be inaccurate to impute such views to American classroom teachers, 70 percent of whom describe their political philosophies as “conservative” or “tending” that way, and most of whom share the values and beliefs of their relatives and neighbors in every community in the land. But it is impossible to examine the policies, practices, and publications of the National Education Association without at least concluding that it has lost (or jettisoned) its anchor and is drifting rapidly into some well-charted but exceedingly dangerous waters. And probably carrying more than a few teachers and pupils with it.
The American Federation of Teachers, by contrast, is securely moored. A fair sampling of the educational and political values it seeks to impart can be found in the Winter 1982 issue of its journal, American Educator, which in recent years has emerged as one of the most solid of the innumerable periodicals aimed at schoolteachers. It contains six major articles. In one, the president of St. John’s College urges restoration in the schools of “a traditional liberal-arts education—not just job training—which will provide a solid foundation for youngsters to become imaginative citizens prepared for the world of work and able to enjoy and contribute to society.” Another celebrates the ability of the “great books” to rekindle teachers’ “excitement about learning.” A third, by philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, summarizes the boldest and most imaginative of the many recent commission reports on restructuring the curriculum and strengthening the pedagogy of American schools. The fourth is an essay-review by Judge Robert Bork of a recent history of key Supreme Court decisions and constitutional evolution. The fifth is a selection of material that teachers might use in teaching “honesty,” this being the latest in a superb series on “traditional values” that previously addressed responsibility, courage, and compassion. Finally, there is a critical appraisal by Harold Isaacs of “myths” about the Chinese Cultural Revolution that are fostered by writers who fail to note “how many died, were shot, beaten, tortured, frozen, or starved to death during this ordeal.”
This is not the first time that the American Federation of Teachers has chided those who romanticize the People’s Republic of China. In 1977, Shanker sent an open letter to Dr. Mary Berry, then the Carter administration’s senior education official (and today a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights), who had recently returned from Peking and pronounced in a speech that “The whole relationship between the academy and the real world represents an area in which I believe we have much to learn from the Chinese.” Shanker expressed his “shock” that “you have chosen to extol various aspects of Chinese education as models for us to emulate. . . . How . . . can you ignore that they are part of an educational system in which the highest purpose of learning is service to the state—in which the suppression of criticism and the screening for political opinion are major functions of the schools?”
Both national teachers’ unions, it turns out, have what could fairly be termed “foreign policies,” and these are sharply divergent. The AFT’s world view closely resembles that of the AFL-CIO. It was forged in the political tradition of democratic socialism from which some key AFT leaders come, and toughened in the 1940’s and 50’s when the union forcefully (and painfully) expelled several locals with Stalinist leanings.
The AFT is quite active in foreign affairs, both on its own and through the AFL-CIO. Shanker currently serves as president of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions, the major world assembly of non-Communist teacher groups, which provides funds, technical assistance, and moral support to fledgling democratic unions in many countries.3
The AFT has also given vigorous moral and financial support to Poland’s Solidarity union and to Soviet dissidents, many of whom it has publicly honored, invited to speak at its conventions, and publicized in its journals. Recent AFT speakers and human-rights award recipients include Alexander Ginzburg, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Yugoslav writer Mihajlo Mihajlov. Shanker helped organize the International Sakharov Hearings, provided office space in New York for a Solidarity spokesman, and frequently devotes his column to such issues as the plight of Cambodian refugees, the imprisonment of Huber Matos in Cuba, and the results of annual human-rights assessments by Freedom House and Amnesty International. American Educator and other AFT publications include critical accounts of human rights in Eastern Europe and Cuba, and of the parlous condition of democracy in Central America. Union policy resolutions are strongly supportive of Israel (and critical of the PLO), skeptical of a wide array of United Nations activities, and impatient with the United States government for its cautious responses to Soviet actions in Afghanistan and Poland. The union’s general position on national defense is consistent with the AFL-CIO view that strength begets security and that domestic and defense spending must not be pitted against one another in budget decisions. As for nuclear weapons, the 1982 AFT convention called for a “mutual and verifiable freeze” but insisted that American arms reductions be “consistent with the maintenance of overall parity with the Soviet Union,” and condemned Moscow for its military build-up.
The NEA’s positions on most foreign-policy and defense issues are different both in detail and in spirit, as suggested by the association’s unsmiling characterization of Shanker as a man “suspected of brushing his teeth with gunpowder.” The arms-freeze position adopted at the 1982 NEA convention warmly endorsed the Kennedy-Hatfield nuclear-freeze proposal and called for a “complete halt in the nuclear-arms race.” Part of the philosophical basis for that position can be seen in a paragraph on “education and national security” contained in the NEA’s current statement of priorities for Congress:
The security and well-being of our nation are enhanced by the pursuit of peace. The most effective guarantees of peace are a solid economy, a well-educated populace, and a stable world community. All efforts which detract from those guarantees shall be actively opposed. The goal of national security through peace can be achieved only by the education of the citizenry to compete and succeed in a complex and interdependent world. Therefore the proposed disproportionate allocation of funds increasing the national defense budget and decreasing federal funding for education must be reversed.
Up to a point, the NEA’s position on national defense reflects the familiar worry of any domestic interest group that each dollar spent by the military will be a dollar subtracted from its pet programs.4 At times, however, one catches a whiff of something else, perhaps just the faintest suggestion that the clash of budget priorities can be turned to tactical advantage in the pursuit of ends that have little directly to do with domestic programs after all. Ronald Reagan has, of course, made such left-wing political craftsmanship more inviting and occasionally more gratifying, and in the hands of a master craftsman the results can be seductive indeed. One need only review Terry Herndon’s remarkable National Press Club address in April 1982 (which Herbert Stein could well have used as the basis for his brilliant essay on “How World War III Was Losf”5):
The President may speak of our social programs as “hungry stray pups” to be spurned, but I speak to him of war machines which he pets and feeds without limit as ravenous lions which must be tamed lest they consume us all. . . . [I]t is increasingly clear that we lack the food to both feed the hungry pup and sate the ravening lion. Yet, both within and beyond our borders, we see hungry children seeking food, destitute families seeking homes, ignorant masses seeking schools . . . while the Congress debates a budget which diminishes or threatens to eliminate nearly all of the relevant relief programs. . . . Is it not time to question “Why?” The answer is inescapable, it is proposed that we spend $1.6 trillion to achieve military superiority in five years. . . . [T]o build redundant weapons with dollars stripped from the millions of children served by Head Start or from the millions served by Title I, to install the MX system with money wrenched from the education of handicapped children and aspiring college students . . . is to sacrifice self-determination to reaction. . . . Our dependence on the implements of war seemingly threatens our will and our capacity to establish justice. . . . In this world the “common defense” is to be found only in the aggressive pursuit of peace. . . . We ring the globe with military installations because of the Soviets. We flood Europe with missiles because of the Soviets. . . . [O]ur government seems more responsive to the Soviet presence than to the needs of its own people or the needs of the desperate peoples of the world. . . . The omnipresent nuclear umbrella has not created jobs, filled bellies, ended oppression, or forestalled Soviet exploitation of human misery in the Third World. Moreover, aggressive arms supply and bellicose diplomacy did not arrest the creep of Marxism into Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Afghanistan. Then why do we rely on these policies for future defense? It seems to me clear that, at home and abroad, we must instead compassionately attend to the promotion of justice and human rights; the encouragement of economic development; the provision of food, medicine, and schools; and the preservation of peace. . . .
Herndon is as energetic as he is loquacious, and in recent months he has pushed the “peace issue” to the top of the NEA’s public-policy agenda (where it took the place of the defunct Equal Rights Amendment) and has assumed a major leadership role in forming new peace coalitions and organizations. He is president of a new umbrella group called Citizens Against Nuclear War, and provides it with office space in the NEA headquarters building in Washington. This coalition of 26 other groups—primarily civil-rights, religious, and environmentalist—has three specific objectives: negotiation of a bilateral nuclear-weapons freeze, cancellation of “irrational civil-defense programs for evacuation of American cities,” and “observance of all previously negotiated international arms agreements,” which is evidently meant to include SALT II.
The salient characteristic of Citizens Against Nuclear War is that, while its laudable objective is “world peace,” its governing principles speak only to American policy and to the responsibility for foreign policy of “the citizens of a democracy.” Thus, “the U.S. must urgently seek international agreements to reduce the risk of war” and “U.S. policy should not be based on an effort to win or survive a nuclear war.”
While the absence of any parallel admonitions to those who might make war on the United States could be mere oversight, and while it is reasonable to suppose that the primary concern of an American group will be the policies of its own government, this inattention to the policies and actions of adversary nations is nonetheless striking. But it is not unprecedented in the foreign-policy pronouncements of the NEA and the organizations with which it is affiliated. Although the resolutions adopted in 1982 include a mild statement of support for Solidarity, as recently as 1981 the reporter covering that year’s NEA convention for the Communist party’s Daily World (himself a New Jersey high-school teacher and convention delegate) could approvingly write that “Nowhere in the basic documents of NEA, in their resolutions or new business items, are there any anti-Soviet or anti-socialist positions.”
Yet NEA convention proceedings and resolutions in both years contained multiple denunciations of various aspects of American foreign and defense policy, and admonitions to the government to change its ways. The current NEA legislative program, for example, calls upon Washington not to give military or economic assistance “to any foreign government which violates or permits the violation of the basic rights of its citizens.” Well and good. But the next sentence states that “For example, NEA shall work for cessation of aid to the current administrations in Guatemala and El Salvador.” No other examples are given. Certainly there is no suggestion that the United States might reconsider the various kinds of preferential treatment and indirect economic assistance that it gives to Warsaw Pact nations or, for that matter, to the Soviet Union itself. The government is similarly advised to refrain from any “overt or covert action that would destabilize Nicaragua,” but no one is admonished to stop using poison gas in Afghanistan and Indochina or to refrain from destabilizing countries in Africa.
The NEA’s generally uncritical stance toward Moscow occasionally yields domestic public-relations problems. This was particularly evident in 1978 when the association officially endorsed and recommended the television series The Unknown War. Much could be said about this twenty-hour cinematic treatment of World War II from the Soviet standpoint.6 Tom Buckley termed it “softcore propaganda.” Shanker’s column described it as a “whitewash of Stalin.” Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander Motyl, writing in Freedom at Issue, called it a “disservice to the millions who suffered the ravages of both Nazism and Stalinism” and a “shameful model for the clichés and falsifications that animate the Soviet version of reality.” The NEA’s tepid response to these criticisms did not address the substance of these concerns at all. Rather, explained the association’s spokesman, “The NEA has acknowledged from the start that there may be distortions of history (distortions from the American and other views) in the series.”
In and of itself, such seeming innocence about the motives of other nations on the part of leaders of our oldest and largest education group is merely astonishing. But when combined with deep-seated mistrust and carefully-elaborated analyses of the motivations of one’s own government and its elected leaders, and when that combination is enveloped in the language of international brotherhood and shared human understanding, the result is truly insidious. The inescapable result of such ratiocination is the conviction that the United States is the main obstacle to worldwide fellowship, to the permanent conversion of swords into plowshares, and to the long overdue elevation of education and other worthy social goods to the priority that they deserve. It is, in short, a recipe for despising the society whose children one is charged with teaching.
Hence the real significance of NEA endorsement of The Unknown War lies not in the domain of foreign policy per se, but rather in the insight it gives into the association’s ideas about what people should learn. In that instance, television was the pedagogical medium. But the same world view often enough enters into school-curriculum and teacher-guidance materials endorsed by the NEA and by organizations that it esteems.
The association itself has published relatively little on international relations and defense policy thus far, perhaps because such subjects do not yet loom large in most elementary and secondary-school curricula, but recently it has been generous in referring teachers to “peace-resource groups.”7 In June 1982, for example, the NEA weekly newsletter identified thirty such, ranging from the Council for a Livable World to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Educators for Social Responsibility, one of the “peacework” organizations listed in the NEA guide, has produced a 209-page “planning and curriculum-resource guide” for “dealing with issues of nuclear war in the classroom.” Some of it, in fact, has little directly to do with the classroom, instead consisting of sample letters that teachers can send to parents, school boards, and newspaper editors to invite their participation in a “day of dialogue.” But much pertains directly to the content of what teachers may wish to impart to their students, the questions they might raise, and the readings they might assign. For instance, high-school teachers are encouraged to use “imaginative literature . . . to acquaint students with the dangers we face in our nuclear world, and the opportunities we have to lessen them.”
How, for example, might teachers employ literature to answer the question, “But who are the Soviets?” Answer: “The short story, ‘the Fate of Man,’ by Mikhail Sholokov, is a good choice. It is the story of a Soviet soldier in World War II; he spends time in Nazi prison camps, and returns home to find his family has been killed in a bombing attack. The World War II setting—when the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies fighting a common enemy—may help your students bypass cold-war distortion to reach an understanding of the Soviets as people.” Any teacher uncertain how to obtain this work is referred to Imported Publications, Inc. in Chicago, or Progress Publishers in Moscow. Perhaps it goes without saying that there is no parallel reference to the works of Solzhenitsyn.
A still more creative suggestion is offered in the section explaining how “Inflammatory Words Can Teach You to Hate.” There, teachers and students are encouraged to consult the memoirs of Lt. William Calley to gain a better understanding of how his simplistic grasp of the inflammatory word “Communism” led to his actions at Mylai. “In all my years in the army,” the Calley excerpts explain, “I was never taught the Communists were human beings. We weren’t in Mylai to kill human beings. We were there to kill ideology carried by—I don’t know—pawns, blobs, pieces of flesh. I was there to destroy Communism. We never conceived of old people, men, women, children, babies.”
And that is just about all that the entire curriculum-resource guide has to say to teachers and students on the subject of Communism or, for that matter, on American involvement in Vietnam.
Additional teacher guidance on foreign-policy curriculum issues, textbooks, and supplementary readings is provided by the ever-helpful Council on Interracial Books for Children which has devoted several of its recent bulletins to salient international issues.8 One such volume was given over to a report on the “literacy crusade in Nicaragua.” Another, devoted to Central America as a whole, examined 71 books (texts, encyclopedias, etc.) to determine their suitability for U.S. classrooms. The level of analysis, and the values coloring it, are adequately revealed in this brief excerpt:
Several texts attribute complex events—including revolution—in Central America simply to the proximity of Communism in Cuba. Instead of explaining how internal events in each nation might cause dissatisfaction or revolt, readers are left with the idea that: (1) Cuba is bad because it is Communist; (2) Central American revolutions might be bad because they include ideologies similar to Cuba’s; (3) therefore, the U.S. should not support these revolutions. . . .
But the showpiece of the Council’s recent contributions to our understanding of world affairs is a new Bulletin devoted to “Militarism and Education” (subtitled “Racism, Sexism, and Militarism: The Links”). This has some (unintentionally) amusing articles, such as a brief sidebar on “militarism and handicapism,” both of which turn out to be “elitist, hierarchical ideologies which value strength over human qualities and deny the equal worth of nations and individuals.” But there is little to smile at in the article entitled “But What about the Russians?” by Irving Lerner, which purports to answer seven of “the questions most frequently raised about the arms race.” Two brief examples will suffice:
Q. But aren’t we risking our way of life if we allow the Russians to get ahead?
A. The $1 trillion defense budget that President Reagan seeks for the next four years will do more to undermine our democratic values and standard of living than anything the Russians can do. . . .
Q. But how can we trust the Russians? How can we be sure they won’t cheat?
A. We can trust them as much as they can trust us. . . .
The Council on Interracial Books for Children, it seems fair to say, does not suffer from an inordinate fear of Communism or an overweening passion for democracy. Neither do many of the other organizations now preparing and distributing curriculum materials to the nation’s teachers and students on issues of foreign policy in general and nuclear war in particular. A number of these are recommended by the NEA to its members. Most teachers feel a keen sense of obligation to do right by their students in explaining this and the other great issues facing the nation and the world. The teacher’s instinct is to be accurate, informed, fair, and constructive, which is what practically every parent would want his child’s teacher to be. How often, after all, does that child preface his comments on pressing issues of the day and of the ages with the phrase, “My teacher says . . .” It stands to reason that many conscientious teachers will seek curricular information and pedagogical direction from their local, state, and national organizations, and will carry that guidance into their classrooms, where it will be imparted to their youthful charges.
What guidance, finally, does the National Education Association provide? How does it suggest that the moral authority and intellectual power of the teacher should be deployed? President Willard McGuire addressed the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament on June 25, 1982, offering this helpful advice to mankind on behalf of himself, the NEA, and the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession:
Our students must be taught to love, not hate. To respect others different from themselves, not condemn them for being different. And, the most difficult thing of all, we must teach our students that positions their governments take are not necessarily the right positions. And that they, like their teachers, have not only a right but an obligation to protest when their government’s action, as in the case of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, threaten our very existence.
No doubt McGuire was well-received in Turtle Bay. For what he was there proposing, and what his colleagues have for the past decade been promoting in word and deed, is something that most UN member nations already take for granted but that the democratic societies that are heir to the educational traditions of Western civilization have tended to resist. Namely, the use of the classroom to pursue the agendas of the policy arena, the cession of the teacher’s moral authority to the advancement of particular causes, the displacement of liberal learning and cognitive growth by lessons in political action, and even the corruption of childhood’s simple truths and pleasures by the confusions and anxieties of the adult world.
Totalitarian regimes have long recognized the teacher’s power to mold ideas, influence behavior, and shape belief. That is why their schools are integral parts of the governmental-control apparatus. Radical movements, too, have come to appreciate the potency of the classroom in forming the ideology and attitudes of children, families, and communities. Hence the leader of any nation, party, or movement that wishes the United States no good would instantly see McGuire’s plea to the United Nations, though cast in the language of a higher morality that transcends politics, as the very essence of politics as practiced in most of the world, thus particularly insidious when reflected back into our own schools. For it has been one of the abiding strengths of American education and of the society that nurtured it that we have not politicized the classroom, or turned teachers into propagandists, or willfully instructed our children through curricula that seek to indoctrinate. Politicization and indoctrination are, of course, what the NEA charges the “radical Right” with seeking to infuse into the nation’s educational system, and this concern is legitimate. But it is not clear that an educational system organized around the views of the NEA would be any less politicized, or its curriculum any less doctrinaire, though the doctrines would surely differ.
Nor is it clear that such a system would itself retain popular respect and electoral approval. The long-term strength of public education in a democracy depends on its success in imparting skills, knowledge, and fundamental values to children without intruding politics into the schoolhouse. The parent whose child learns to read, write, and reason for himself, to weigh evidence and evaluate ideas, to respect the central tenets of a free society and to honor the terms that make him a member of it, is a parent who is apt to respect the teacher, esteem the school, and willingly pay taxes for the educational system. The parent whose child is taught that he has an obligation to protest—or, for that matter, to support—particular policies and practices that the teacher, or the teacher’s national union, happens to dispute, is a parent whose lasting faith in public education dare not be taken for granted.
Over time, the signals that the national teachers’ unions send into the educational system itself will have a more profound effect on the nature of American society than their decisions about which candidates to endorse and finance at election time. The implicit politics of the organization, transmitted into the classroom, the curriculum, the teachers’ colleges and journals, the lessons that are taught, the homework that is assigned, the books that are read, the values that are inculcated, and the ways in which teachers represent themselves in the world of ideas and to their counterparts in other lands, will count for more than the organization’s explicit political activities in the governmental domain. Moreover, the implicit politics are less visible, harder for others to appraise, more difficult either to reinforce or to combat, and far more apt to intimidate the average citizen through the aura of superior knowledge, expertise, and moral authority associated with the teacher’s role in society.
In the case of the National Education Association, implicit and explicit politics seem to have converged around a single set of ideas and values. On the whole, these are now the doctrines of the Left. This is not true of the American Federation of Teachers, which is apt to end up supporting most of the same candidates on election day, but which infuses a quite different set of moral, cultural, and political values into the educational system itself, and into the society whose children it teaches. Indeed, the AFT’s value structure seems to have emerged remarkably strong and resilient from a period in which so many of our major social and cultural institutions—and the elected officials who respond to them—have allowed their own to soften and bend. This discrepancy between its inward and outward politics may eventually produce symptoms of organizational schizophrenia in the AFT, but that is less worrisome than the singlemindedness of the NEA. It would, of course, be well if the AFT could bring itself to support more candidates who share its faith in freedom and its pride in liberal democracy. As for the NEA, however, unless the new executive director finds a more reliable compass with which to steer its course away from the ideological shores to which it is drifting, perhaps the most that can be hoped is that both the teachers who belong to it and the candidates who accept its support will take their own navigational bearings from other sources.
1 Unfortunately, his educational vision has a large blind spot when it comes to private schools, which the AFT—here in complete accord with the NEA—regards as a threat and spares no effort to bar from educational legitimacy, social approbation, and governmental funds.
2 See my article, “‘Affirmative Action’ Under Reagan,” COMMENTARY, April 1982.
3 The NEA's international is the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP), and it is largely outside the worldwide network of democratic labor activities and organizations with which most major American unions are affiliated. Although included in the celebrated Ramparts list of onetime CIA conduits, the WCOTP today has no very clear ideology, save a strong yearning for cooperation among all the world's teaching organizations, regardless of their politics or those of the regimes under which they exist. WCOTP does not currently include teacher groups from Warsaw Pact nations, however, though the Yugoslavian teachers are members.
4 This position is sufficiently flexible, however, to permit the association to seek federal education funds in the name of national defense. In an action slightly reminiscent of the man who murdered his parents and then beseeched the judge for mercy on grounds that he was now an orphan, the NEA has endorsed the American Defense Education Act, which would, if enacted, provide funds to public schools for instruction in math, foreign languages, science, and the like. The NEA's statement noted, without intentional irony, that the program would “provide the necessary training programs . . . to answer the nation's needs for the maintenance and operation of weapons systems.”
5 Wall Street Journal, December 3, 1982.
6 See Joshua Rubenstein, “World War II—Soviet Style,” COMMENTARY, May 1979.
7 Such materials are under active development, however. A new curriculum on nuclear weapons and conflict resolution, prepared jointly by the NEA and the Union of Concerned Scientists, was field-tested in 37 states during the autumn of 1982 and is expected to be published by mid-1983.
8 As noted above, the CIBC is not an NEA affiliate and not all of its publications bear explicit NEA endorsement. However, the two organizations frequently collaborate; the NEA uncritically refers teachers to CIBC for “bias-free children's books and learning materials”; and the special “human rights” award that the NEA conferred on the Council in 1982 would seem to suggest general approbation.
Must-Reads from Magazine
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.