To understand the evolution in American strategic thinking regarding nuclear war it is worthwhile recalling the episode of "Team B"…
Four years ago, the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, in answer to a question whether the United States expected to emerge victorious from a nuclear war, responded that anyone in his position who did not prepare to prevail in a war deserved to be impeached. This statement did not attract a great deal of attention, for it seemed obvious, although in fact it repudiated the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that had dominated U.S. policy since the late 1950’s. To understand this evolution in American strategic thinking it is worthwhile recalling the episode of “Team B” which occurred ten years ago as a result of the decision of the-then Director of Central Intelligence, George Bush, to commission alternative assessments of the Soviet strategic threat.
When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, the military effect of these new weapons escaped no one, but their impact on future strategy was only dimly understood and a subject of controversy. The consensus of the scientific community, which had designed the new weapons, held that by virtue of their unprecedented destructiveness as well as their imperviousness to defenses, they had fundamentally and permanently altered the nature of warfare. Once other countries had acquired the ability to manufacture similar weapons—and the scientists correctly predicted that this was bound to occur before long—they would become unusable. With more than one power disposing of nuclear weapons, they could not be employed with impunity, as they had been by the U.S. against Japan: hence they would have only one conceivable function and that would be to deter others. Since victory in nuclear war was out of the question, nuclear weapons could not be rationally put to offensive purposes.
This outlook, championed in the pages of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and, later, Scientific American, did not gain immediate ascendancy. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, confronting Communist aggression in Europe and Asia and unable—because of fiscal restraints—to stop Soviet expansion with conventional forces, had no choice but to rely on the threat of nuclear response. That this threat could be effectively used, Eisenhower demonstrated in 1953 when he compelled the North Koreans to accept an armistice. Later he and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, coined the slogan of “massive retaliation” with which they hoped to contain the Soviet Union and its clients at minimum cost and without resort to the unpopular military draft.
Such nuclear blackmail, of course, was possible only as long as the United States retained a monopoly on the manufacture of nuclear weapons and the vehicles (bombers) able to deliver them to other continents. This monopoly eroded faster than expected. The Soviet explosion of a fission bomb in 1949 and fusion (hydrogen) bomb four years later shocked the United States, but it did not yet force it to abandon the strategy of “massive retaliation” because the Russians lacked adequate means of delivering these explosive devices against the United States. These means they acquired in 1957 when Sputnik demonstrated their ability to launch intercontinental missiles. Since there existed at the time no effective means of intercepting such missiles, certain to be armed with nuclear charges, the United States faced, for the first time in its history, a direct threat to its national survival.
This prospect traumatized President Eisenhower, forcing him radically to alter U.S. strategic doctrine. Unable to resort to the threat of nuclear annihilation to contain the Soviet Union, he decided henceforth to seek security through accords with Moscow. Such a course had been urged by many leading scientists. Within weeks after Moscow had sent Sputnik into space, Eisenhower moved the Science Advisory Committee chaired by the provost of MIT, James Killian, to the White House to give him guidance in these matters. This step marked a break in the U.S. defense planning because it involved, for the first time, civilian experts in the formulation of military strategy. Henceforth the scientific community, working through the Advisory Committee as well as other channels, acquired a dominant voice in the formulation of U.S. nuclear strategy. The scientists used this voice to lead U.S. strategy away from traditional ways of military thinking and toward arms-control negotiations. They were to retain this voice for nearly a quarter of a century, until the advent of the Reagan administration.
The growing influence of scientific modes of thinking on all aspects of life is probably the most outstanding feature of modern Western culture. It began in the 16th century with the revolution in astronomy and then spread into other realms of thought, including the humanities and social studies. Properly speaking, science is not content but method—a strictly empirical way of dealing with phenomena which assumes that whatever cannot be observed and measured does not exist.
Applied to human affairs, this method has produced the “science of man” or sociology. Conceived in France in the early years of the 19th century, sociology and its theoretical underpinning, positivism, deprecate national culture and history as factors that shape human behavior in favor of abstract conceptions of man, isolated from time and space. In the words of Leszek Kolakowski:
Contemporary positivism is an attempt to overcome historicism once and for all . . . it . . . frees us from the need to study history, which—since any philosophy worthy of the name must be cumulative in character—must appear to those professing. this doctrine as a succession of barren, futile efforts, basically unintelligible as to results, and only very occasionally illuminated by a ray of common sense.
Scientists are by schooling and experience committed positivists. They are impatient with everything that they regard as “irrational,” that is, outside the reach of scientific observation. F.A. Hayek has explained well the déformation professionelle of the scientist when confronted with the messy world of living human beings:
What men know or think about the external world or about themselves, their concepts and even the subjective qualities of their sense perception are to Science never ultimate reality, data to be accepted. Its concern is not what men think about the world and how they consequently behave, but what they ought to think.
When they run into what they regard as “irrational” ideas or forms of behavior, scientists turn into educators who instruct wayward mortals what to think. It is psychologically as well as intellectually impossible for most of them, and especially for the most gifted, to accept the irrational as real. So persuaded are many scientists of the incontrovertible and universal validity of their method that in their public capacity they readily succumb to a fanaticism that is quite impervious to both argument and experience. They are no more prepared to take seriously the proposition that nuclear weapons might be effective instruments of warfare than to waste time proving that the earth is not flat.
Of course, there is no iron necessity that a scientifically trained person must think and act in this manner: Andrei Sakharov and Edward Teller are proof that great scientists can entertain a variety of points of view on human affairs. But it takes a great deal of civic courage to stand up to a consensus of one’s peers, especially if it is reinforced with political influence and access to funding. Experience shows that most people will more readily face enemy bullets than what Samuel Johnson called the hiss of the world.
Having been brought into the process of decision-making and given political influence never before enjoyed by members of their profession, American scientists quickly formulated a body of opinion that brooked no opposition. Alternative views were silenced, their advocates ostracized. The scientists were divided among themselves on certain issues but they were united in the belief that the only rational function of nuclear weapons was to deter.
One group, which soon came to dominate the debate, called for deterrence through agreement. Its advocates, among whom Hans Bethe was one of the most visible, believed that nuclear weapons were so destructive that they could deter at a low level. Instead of building more weapons of this kind (especially the hydrogen bomb, which they opposed), the U.S. should intensify efforts to reach arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union. A second group, led by Edward Teller, advocated deterrence through strength. It wanted to neutralize the Soviet threat with still more potent and accurate bombs on the ground that in a world of sovereign states international accords provided inadequate guarantees of national security. The first group urged avoiding an arms race with Moscow in favor of “educating” the Russians to its futility and striving, through bilateral agreements and even, if need be, unilateral concessions, for mutual reductions. The second group wanted, if necessary, to match and surpass the Soviet effort. How intolerant scientists can be when vested with political power they demonstrated in 1957 by excluding Teller and all who thought like him from the influential Science Advisory Board. In this way, through exclusion, they achieved a consensus that allowed them to offer Presidents advice with singular authority.
The strategic policy imposed by scientists and adopted by the U.S. government in the 1960’s may be summarized as follows: the only scientifically sound strategy is Mutual Assured Destruction. This means that once both superpowers have acquired a certain level of retaliatory power, should either of them dare to attack the other, it would be struck with so devastating a blow that it would suffer as much as its victim. As defined by Secretary of Defense Robert Mc-Namara, MAD demanded that the United States, after absorbing a Soviet surprise first strike, be capable of responding with a retaliatory strike that would wipe out between one-fifth and one-third of the Soviet Union’s population and between one-half and three-quarters of its industrial capacity. Anything beyond this arbitrarily established standard of “unacceptable damage” was redundant and “destabilizing.” Mc-Namara decided that a force of 1,000 ICBM’s, 41 submarines, and 600 bombers would ensure the U.S. of the ability to inflict such damage on the Soviet Union even under the “worst-case” scenario.
This strategy regarded defenses of any sort as unsettling the balance because they raised the prospect that either country, using them as a shield, could launch a preemptive strike with relative impunity. For MAD to work, both sides had to be vulnerable to destruction. One of the earliest advocates of this doctrine, Arnold Wolfers, formulated what must surely be the most bizarre doctrine in the history of military thought when he argued that for the United States to feel secure from the Soviet Union it had to make certain that the Soviet Union possessed the ability totally to destroy it.
The public at large was not initiated into the complexities of Mutual Assured Destruction. It was told simply that there was “overkill,” that nuclear build-ups beyond the figures set by McNamara constituted “madness,” and that henceforth security lay not in unilaterally arming but in mutually disarming. These propositions became dogma.
Since scientists tend to endow people, as they do inanimate objects, with an innate logic, they entertained no doubt that nuclear weapons could have but one “rational” use. The Soviet Union could no more produce a Communist nuclear strategy than a Communist science of physics. This reasoning led to the inescapable conclusion that the Soviet Union had either already adopted MAD or would do so in time, in deference to the immutable laws of nuclear reality. That the USSR was indeed moving in this direction, the scientists had an opportunity to persuade themselves in the course of arms-control negotiations, in which they played an important role, as well as from contacts with Soviet scientists at various private conferences which proliferated in the 1960’s. Totally ignorant of Communist politics and not particularly interested in them, these scientists turned strategists and diplomats allowed themselves to be persuaded by their Soviet counterparts that the latter enjoyed the same influence in Moscow that they themselves had in Washington, and were also working to restrain their own “hawks” and their own “military-industrial complex.”
Thus it happened that for two-and-one-half decades arms control rather than arms build-up became the centerpiece of U.S. defense policy: a situation without historic precedent and testimony to the success of American scientists in persuading the country that the atomic bomb had completely altered the conduct of international affairs, creating an environment in which, as in Alice’s Looking Glass world, everything was topsy-turvy.
The scientists in charge of U.S. strategy, confirming Hayek’s observation, blandly ignored that human affairs are subject to different rules and that in a century-and-a-half of strenuous efforts sociologists have failed to come up with universal laws of human conduct remotely resembling those of the exact sciences. They seem to have been unaware of the distinction between the value-free (“objective”) natural sciences and the value-determined (“subjective”) social sciences which philosophers like Heinrich Rickert and Nicholas Mikhailovsky had demonstrated already in the 19th century. Their ignorance of history blinded them even to the possibility that the Soviet leadership, steeped as it was in a radically different political culture and pursuing different objectives, could also view nuclear weapons differently.
The Soviet nomenklatura (the ruling elite of the Communist party), very experienced in taking advantage of the weaknesses of its victims, brilliantly exploited the political innocence of American scientists (as well as the vanity which is perhaps the most vulnerable trait of intellectuals) to persuade them of a spurious identity of views and interests between East and West. At Pugwash, Dartmouth, and countless other formal and informal meetings held now in the U.S. and now in the Soviet Union, they told the Americans just what the Americans wanted to hear: that MAD was indeed the only strategic doctrine that made sense, that parity was all their country wanted, and that arms control, not arms build-up, was the way to assure both national and international security. The time had come for scientists of all countries to take power away from politicians and generals.
When more skeptical American scientists raised awkward questions, their Soviet counterparts had ready answers. The Soviet civil-and military-defense effort? That was against China, of course. Continuing quantitative and qualitative improvements in Soviet missiles? The Russian tradition, shaped by centuries of foreign invasions, calls for overinsurance. The refusal to furnish figures on the Soviet nuclear arsenal or to allow on-site inspection? Unfortunately, Russians have always been a secretive nation. By pretending (in private only) to hold their people and some of its leaders in low esteem, they created an atmosphere of make-believe mutual trust that dissolved such misgivings as American scientists might still have had.
Had U.S. scientists not relied so much on private confidences but taken the trouble to read Soviet military literature and to look, without preconceptions, at ongoing Soviet strategic programs, they would have had to realize that something was terribly wrong with their assumptions. Soviet military publications, which are subject to the most rigid censorship imaginable and therefore always speak with an official voice, made no secret of the fact that Moscow had decided nuclear weapons could be used not only to deter but also to overpower. From the early 1960’s on, Soviet strategists argued that nuclear weapons were the decisive weapons of modern warfare and the key to victory, for which reason the Strategic Rocket Forces had become the mainstay of Soviet armed might.
Had Soviet strategists done nothing more than assert this thesis, one could have dimissed such talk as pap for the generals. But they also provided a rationale. They argued that nuclear charges and intercontinental missiles had revolutionized warfare by making it possible to launch preemptive strikes, which, in contrast to conventional war, allowed a country to gain a strategic decision at once rather than slowly, from a patient accumulation of tactical victories. When speaking to each other in the pages of Soviet military journals, Soviet experts simply ignored the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction which Soviet disinformation agents were ladling out at their convivial encounters to science professors from Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. Nor did Soviet experts pay more than marginal attention to arms control, so central to U.S. strategic thinking. Soviet professional literature, such as the journal Voennaia mysl‘ (Military Thought), concerned itself exclusively with the question that has stood at the center of military thinking since the dawn of history: how to win wars.
It is especially baffling that American strategic amateurs ignored even the warnings of Andrei Sakharov, a fellow scientist and a member of the Soviet defense establishment, whose moral integrity and expertise were beyond question. In 1975, this creator of the Soviet hydrogen bomb stated in a book published in English in the United States, as if it were a self-evident truth, that the introduction of missiles with multiple and independent warheads (MIRV’s) would make it attractive for a potential aggressor to attack:
The fact that the Vladivostok agreement seemed to legitimize multiple, independently targetable warheads is . . . alarming. . . . Put quite simply, it would become strategically advantageous, and relatively safe, for either side to deliver a preemptive strike with nuclear missiles.1
And if such “soft” evidence did not convince, then the “hard” data on Soviet deployments should have provided food for thought. When McNamara served as Secretary of Defense, the U.S., accepting his notion of what was required to inflict “unacceptable damage,” unilaterally froze its strategic arsenal. By this restraint it enabled the Soviet Union to catch up and thereby create the “stability” posited by MAD. The only subsequent upgrading of U.S. strategic forces was the introduction of MIRV’s intended to give the U.S. retaliatory force the ability to respond effectively after much of it had been lost to a Soviet first strike.
The Soviet Union took advantage of this restraint to gain strategic parity by 1969. Then, instead of freezing its arsenal as well, it merrily proceeded to deploy a fourth generation of MIRVed missiles with throw weights and accuracies that could have no other conceivable mission than the elimination of the U.S. deterrent in time of war. Concurrently, it carried out an ambitious program of strategic defenses which had no counterpart on the U.S. side: air defense, anti-satellite systems, civil defense, and an anti-ballistic-missile defense system around its capital city. These measures alone should have alerted the American scientific community that the Soviet Union did not subscribe to MAD, since they contradicted its fundamental principle that each country had to remain a willing hostage to the other.
But all the evidence which did not accord with the hallowed MAD doctrine was ignored. The American scientific community, soon joined by bevies of political scientists, economists, philosophers, and even lawyers, physicians, and psychiatrists, came to regard strategy not as a theory of conflict but as an intellectual game. And since in intellectual circles the highest honors go to individuals who produce the most innovative ideas, whatever their relationship to reality, if any, the greatest fame and influence went to those who formulated the most original and elegant ideas. Soviet views were ignored precisely because they fell far short of these standards.
And indeed, the strategic theories formulated by American natural and social scientists were entirely fresh: they demonstrated how wrong it is to say that there are no new ideas under the sun. Among these were such propositions as “the task of the military is not to win wars but to prevent them,” “offense good, defense bad,” and “killing cities is right, killing missiles is wrong.” All such propositions would qualify for what Ivan Turgenev used to call “reverse commonplaces.”
The task of collecting and analyzing data on Soviet strategic deployments falls on the U.S. intelligence community, headed by the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), who also serves as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It consists of a number of bureaus of which the most important are the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). In producing its estimates, the intelligence community relies almost exclusively on satellite and electronic surveillance because the Soviet Union has consistently refused not only to allow on-site inspection but even to provide comprehensive figures on its nuclear arsenal.
Possibly the single most important product of the intelligence community is the National Intelligence Estimate on Soviet Strategic Objectives, known as NIE 11-3/8. Prepared annually, toward the end of the year, in time for the new defense budget, it is released to a select body of officials who have the “need to know.” This NIE summarizes the information available on Soviet strategic capabilities, projects them into the future, and assesses their probable missions. The personnel assigned the task of drafting this document under the National Intelligence Officer for the Soviet Union are to ignore U.S. capabilities and avoid balance-of-power estimates (“net assessments”). The function of NIE 11-3/8 is simply to inform the decision-maker: as best as we can determine, the Soviet Union is developing such and such strategic capabilities; it is up to you to decide what these developments portend for U.S. security and how to respond to them.
Although the bulk of such data is gathered by mechanical devices that are free of value judgments, they must be interpreted by human beings who are never without them. In practice it is not possible completely to divorce an assessment of capabilities from the judgment of intention: the significance of a person’s purchasing a knife is different if he is a professional chef or the leader of a street gang, although the technical “capability” which the knife provides is the same in each case. In one way or another, more often unconsciously than not, the analyst who studies Soviet nuclear capabilities injects into his analysis subjective opinions as to their purpose, which, in turn, derive from his view of why the Soviet Union builds a nuclear arsenal in the first place. Even the most technical assessment of “capabilities,” therefore, entails some view of the motives of the opposite party.
Now he who speculates on the motives of others can proceed in one of two ways. He can ask himself: (1) given what I know of these people, what can be on their mind?; or (2) if I were in their shoes, why would I do what I observe them doing? Clearly, the first of these approaches is preferable. It is also the more difficult because it requires knowledge of alien cultures and psychologies, not to speak of an effort of the imagination. If we add to this difficulty the fact that the scientists and engineers entrusted with responsibility for preparing these estimates tend to belittle the influence of cultural factors on human behavior, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. intelligence community, in assessing Soviet strategic programs, has relied heavily on the second approach, popularly known as “mirror-imaging.” This practice attributes to others one’s own motives and intentions on the unspoken assumption that these alone are “normal” or “rational.” “Mirror-imaging” is the very antithesis of the scientific method which seeks to eliminate personal and subjective factors from the process of observation and analysis. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely how scientists are likely to proceed once they leave the realm of the exact sciences.
A Nation’s intelligence community reflects the habits of thought of its educated elite from whose ranks it is recruited and on whom it depends for intellectual sustenance. The CIA is no exception. Its analytic staff, filled with American Ph.D.’s in the natural and social sciences along with engineers, inevitably shares the outlook of U.S. academe, with its penchant for philosophical positivism, cultural agnosticism, and political liberalism. The special knowledge which it derives from classified sources is mainly technical; the rest of its knowledge, as well as the intellectual equipment which it brings to bear on the evidence, comes from academia.
In the 1970’s, collating and analyzing the evidence on Soviet strategic programs, the U.S. intelligence community (with some exceptions, notably the DIA) tended to reason in terms of conventional wisdom. It took for granted the universal validity of MAD and interpreted the data on Soviet strategic programs to mean that whatever the USSR constructed had to serve deterrent purposes exclusively. It ignored Soviet pronouncements to the contrary, partly because they appeared scientifically absurd, partly because it felt uncomfortable with “soft” data. On these grounds, it implicitly minimized the Soviet strategic threat.
The intellectual predispositions which led to such conclusions were reinforced by political pressures from the Nixon White House. Having staked their political careers on détente, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger disliked intelligence estimates that stressed the Soviet threat to the United States and showed the USSR moving beyond deterrence. Persons who at the time worked in the intelligence community assert that in 1969-70 the White House began to intervene in the estimating process. It did so not by demanding that the estimates come up with politically acceptable conclusions, but that they concentrate exclusively on the technical data or hardware, avoiding what Kissinger called “talmudic” estimates. This had the same effect because by eliminating informed, conscious, and overt political judgment from the estimates, it led to the injection of surreptitious political judgments disguised as hardware analyses.
Thus, paradoxically, as satellite surveillance enhanced the ability of the U.S. to monitor Soviet nuclear deployments, its ability to interpret them declined. The intelligence community expressed no alarm at the unanticipated build-up of Soviet strategic capabilities in the 1970’s, the decade when the United States virtually froze its nuclear arsenal in the expectation that Moscow would do likewise. The fact that in the 1970’s the USSR deployed eleven new strategic systems as against one deployed by the U.S. was brushed aside with arguments that made sense only in terms of the MAD doctrine.
Some individuals in and out of government, however, grew uneasy about the assurances issued by the CIA and began to urge an independent review of its data base to determine whether a second reading of the evidence would not yield different results.
Overseeing the performance of the intelligence community on behalf of the Executive is the responsibility of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), composed of prominent business executives and other public figures, engineers, and scientists. The group meets several times a year to review intelligence reports, raise questions, serve as devil’s advocate, and make recommendations to the President and the Director of Central Intelligence. In the summer of 1976, PFIAB had fourteen members. Four of them were chief executive officers of high-technology corporations: William O. Baker of Bell Telephone Laboratories, John S. Foster, Jr. of TRW, Robert W. Galvin of Motorola, and Edwin H. Land of Polaroid. Two—Admiral George W. Anderson, former Chief of Naval Operations, and General Lyman L. Lemnitzer—were professional soldiers. Edward Teller was the sole scientist. The remaining seven figured prominently in public life: John B. Connally (former Governor of Texas), Gordon Gray (one-time Secretary of the Army), Clare Booth Luce (the writer and former Ambassador to Rome), Robert D. Murphy (a retired diplomat), George P. Shultz (then ex-Secretary of the Treasury), and Edward Bennett Williams (a well-known Washington attorney). Leo Cherne, an economist and director of Freedom House, chaired the group. The composition of PFIAB was weighted in favor of realists who viewed with varying degrees of skepticism the doctrines of soft-line scientists and professional arms controllers.
Early in 1975 PFIAB began to feel uneasy over the performance of the CIA in estimating the trend of Soviet strategic forces. Several factors contributed to this anxiety. In 1974, Albert Wohl-stetter, a leading specialist on nuclear weapons, had published evidence to show that although the public, remembering the “missile-gap” fiasco, considered the intelligence community guilty of exaggerating the Soviet nuclear threat, in fact it had persistently underestimated it. It so happened that at about the same time, on the basis of fresh data, the CIA upgraded its estimate of Soviet defense expenditures from 6-8 percent of GNP (which was only slightly higher than the American figure) to 11-13 percent. This radically revised estimate not only made the Soviet threat loom much greater, but cast fresh doubts on the quality of intelligence assessments. Quite independently, John Collins of the Congressional Research Service, on the basis of open sources, published in January 1976 a study of the Soviet military effort which painted a much grimmer picture than that proffered by intelligence: an updated edition, completed later that year, proved so disturbing and so much at odds with the government’s policy that the study’s sponsor, the Senate Armed Services Committee, saw fit to suppress it.
Reports of such contrary opinions worried PFIAB, which approached President Nixon at the beginning of 1975 with the suggestion that he appoint an independent body of experts to look into the intelligence data. Nixon showed no interest in this suggestion, the more so since William Colby, his Director of Central Intelligence, strongly objected to outsiders “second-guessing” the staff of his agency.
When Gerald Ford replaced Nixon as President, PFIAB restated its concerns. In August 1975, its chairman, Admiral Anderson, proposed a “competitive analysis,” to be carried out under the direction of the White House through its National Security Council, that would pit a team of outside experts against the CIA, to determine whether the two groups, using the same data, would or would not reach the same assessment of the Soviet strategic threat. Ford liked the idea but Colby remained adamantly opposed. To appease the critics, Colby now proposed to conduct an in-house review of the Agency’s “track record” in regard to the three most controversial aspects of the Soviet strategic effort: air defense, missile accuracy, and strategic objectives. For this project, he selected active and recently retired personnel of the CIA. According to Lionel Olmer, who was PFIAB’s executive secretary at the time:
The CIA produced a “track record” study about 75 pages long. It was so astonishing that Bush (Colby was gone by then) had absolutely no option but to accept the A-B Team proposal. The study was so condemnatory of the performance of the community over a period of ten years on those three issues that it left no room for argument that something ought to be done.2
In late 1975 George Bush took over a battered and demoralized CIA: he was so troubled by its condition that soon after assuming office he commissioned the consulting firm Arthur D. Little to look into its problems. Bush was much more receptive to PFIAB’s proposal, and in June 1976 agreed with its new chairman, the ebullient Leo Cherne, to carry out an experiment in “competitive analysis,” but under his own auspices rather than those of the National Security Adviser. Three outside teams were to be selected to look into Soviet air defenses, missile accuracies, and strategic objectives. The CIA’s group, charged with drafting the current (1977) NIE 11-3/8 would be known as “A Team.” “B Teams” would consist of independent outside experts: they were to work with the same raw data that the Agency supplied to its A Team. The analyses were to be completed by November 1976, in time to permit revisions in the forthcoming NIE, due in December, if such were deemed necessary. The experiment required complete secrecy in order to prevent the leakage of sensitive intelligence material and to keep the findings from being exploited for partisan political purposes.
The rules having been agreed upon, the CIA (rather than PFIAB, as is often erroneously asserted) began the search for outside experts to man the three B teams. It encountered little difficulty in staffing the groups investigating missile accuracies and air defenses, for their tasks were narrowly technical. Staffing Team B on Soviet strategic objectives proved more difficult because its task called not only for technical expertise but also for political judgment. As I was to learn later, the Agency approached unsuccessfully two individuals to chair this team. One, on active government service, was refused leave by his superior, Secretary of State Kissinger, to take on the assignment. The other declined for personal reasons. On the recommendation of his National Intelligence Office staff, and in agreement with William Hyland of the National Security Council, Bush then selected me for the post.3
My wife and I were spending the summer of 1976 in London where I was working in the British Museum Library on the Russian Civil War. I knew, of course, nothing of the negotiations between PFIAB and the CIA over competitive analyses of National Intelligence Estimates. By profession and preference a historian, I had had only limited political experience, owing mainly to the interest which Senator Henry Jackson and his assistant, Dorothy Fosdick, had shown in my criticism of détente. In 1973, Richard B. Foster, head of the Strategic Studies Center in Washington, a branch of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), had invited me to join his Center as a consultant, in which capacity I directed several studies of Soviet foreign policy. Even so, I was in no sense a member of the establishment of defense experts; since the purpose of Team B was to take a fresh look at the Soviet nuclear effort, however, my being an outsider, without a vested interest in the consensus, was an advantage.
In mid-July 1976 Foster called me in London to say that I had been offered, through SRI, an interesting and important assignment connected with Soviet strategy. Since I intended to return to the United States soon, we agreed that he would give me the details when we next met in Washington.
I returned home on July 22, and the following day saw Foster as well as a representative of the CIA, John Paisley, who outlined to me the purpose and scope of the undertaking. I then spoke with E. Henry Knoche, the Agency’s Deputy Director, and Howard Stoertz, the National Intelligence Officer responsible for drafting NIE 11-3/8, whose counterpart I was to become. To these officials I posed the principal questions on my mind. Our mandate: how far-reaching an inquiry did they envisage? I also wanted to know whether we were expected to act as a panel of judges, adjudicating between contending points of view, or advocates of an alternative point of view to that found in the official estimates. The answer I received to the first question sounded vague, from which I concluded that the team I was being asked to chair could cast its nets as widely and deeply as it thought necessary. In view of the complaints repeatedly voiced later that our team had “exceeded its mandate,” it needs to be stressed that all the officials to whom I spoke before and after accepting the assignment left it up to us to determine what we needed to do to answer the question: what are Soviet strategic objectives? The response to the second question was: make as strong a case as you can if you disagree with the official estimate.
The task looked challenging and important. If, nevertheless, I hesitated at first to take it on, it was because of fear that I lacked the necessary expertise in the scientific and engineering issues involved in the designing, testing, deploying, and targeting of nuclear missiles. Foster dispelled these doubts by arguing that the whole subject had too long been analyzed in narrowly technical terms, as if the strategic competition involved impersonal weapons systems rather than the human beings who controlled them. As for the technical expertise, this could be assured by appointing to the group professional missile specialists.
Inasmuch as the work required access to highly classified sources, I had to undergo a series of intensive security clearances that included an encounter with the polygraph. These and other preliminaries were completed by the middle of August, at which time I began work. The Agency assigned to me as liaison John Paisley. Paisley had retired two years earlier as Deputy Director of the CIA’s Office of Strategic Research, in which capacity he had participated in the drafting of NIE’s. This soft-spoken man with a perpetually worried face, who was to die a mysterious death two years later, rendered my Team B essential services. But he also had an additional task, which was to keep an eye on Team B on behalf of the Agency: in this second capacity he was later to behave in a quite unsavory manner.
Paisley presented me with a list, drawn up by the Agency, of candidates for membership on my team: as far as I recall, it consisted mostly of military officers and defense scientists. From this list I selected only two names: Lieutenant General John W. Vogt, Jr., the recently retired commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, and the missile specialist, Brigadier General Jasper A. Welch, Jr., then still on active service.
For the other members of the team, I preferred to go outside the ranks of technical specialists in the narrow sense of the term. I acted on the premise (which I still believe correct) that Soviet leaders, in contrast to those of the West, neither draw a sharp distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons nor divorce military objectives from political ones. Soviet strategy claims to be and indeed is “grand strategy” which avails itself of a wide range of instrumentalities, military force very much included, to pursue what, in the end, are always political ends. Seen from this perspective, Soviet strategic forces can have no independent mission as determined by the alleged properties of nuclear weapons: in Soviet practice, military missions are driven by political missions, not the other way around. This view is axiomatic in Soviet military writings: “The organic unity of military strategy and policy with the determining role of the latter,” in the words of one Soviet general writing in a publication “for official use only,” “signifies that military strategy proceeds from policy, is determined by policy, is totally dependent on policy, and accomplishes its specific tasks only within the framework of policy.”4 Nothing could be more emphatic. Clearly, to understand the task of Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces one has to combine knowledge of Soviet nuclear capabilities with an understanding of the policy in which it is embedded.
With these criteria in mind, I recommended to the DCI nine additional names. They were: Paul Nitze, a one-time Deputy Secretary of Defense and probably the country’s leading expert on arms control; Lieutenant General Daniel O. Graham, who had retired earlier that year as Director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, an institution which had consistently taken a more somber view of Soviet capabilities and intentions than the CIA; Professor William van Cleave, a strategic expert from the University of Southern California and one-time member of the SALT I delegation; Foy Kohler, an ex-Ambassador to Moscow; Paul Wolfowitz, a young specialist from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; Thomas Wolfe of RAND, the author of several works on Soviet military doctrine; and Seymour Weiss, then Ambassador to the Bahamas, recently retired as Director of the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs in the Department of State. These names received approval. The CIA turned down two additional candidates I proposed, one on the grounds that he lacked the necessary security clearances, the other for reasons which it did not care to spell out.
Team B held its first meeting on August 25 in quarters assigned to it in Arlington, Virginia. The group promptly agreed on the structure of its report: it would not be an alternative NIE 11-3/8 but a broad and in-depth survey of Soviet strategic policies and programs. We had to work on an exceedingly tight schedule because to be of use to the CIA our report had to be in hand early in November. We agreed to have a preliminary draft ready on October 14: a deadline which proved unrealistic and had to be extended. The report was to consist of three parts. Part One would analyze the methodology used by the CIA in arriving at its estimates: I assumed responsibility for this task. Part Two would have several studies of specific Soviet strategic programs each of which would lay out the nature of the available evidence, the interpretation given this evidence by the CIA, and possible alternative interpretations. Responsibility for this, the longest segment of the report, was distributed among members of the team in accord with their special expertise and personal preferences. Part Three, to be drafted collectively, was to provide a general political-military assessment of the Soviet strategic build-up. (Later on, we added an Appendix with recommendations for improving the NIE process.)
We set to work at once. Paisley and his assistant, Don Suda, supplied us with the intelligence data used by Team A to prepare the current NIE 11-3/8, and such additional information as we requested. Some of this material was so sensitive that the Agency would not let it out of its Langley headquarters and made us read it on the premises. I found the personnel at Langley correct but suspicious and hostile: they seemed to look on our undertaking as yet another assault on their Agency which was still reeling from recent congressional investigations.
Team B met in its full complement a dozen times. At these meetings we heard from the rapporteurs and went over their drafts. Opinion was far from unanimous and as the work progressed some heated exchanges took place. Part Three proved to be especially contentious. It had to be edited over and over again to produce a consensus. For a while it looked as if it would require separate majority and minority statements, but in the end this proved unnecessary.
Paisley, who attended most of our meetings as an observer, seems to have sent Langley alarmed reports that Team B was going beyond its mandate: instead of focusing exclusively on current intentions of the Soviet Union, it was also delving into the reasons why the Agency had in the past misinterpreted these intentions. Not long after our work had gotten under way, I received through him a request from Langley that we not engage in “recriminations” over the CIA’s track record.
We decided not to follow this advice and this on grounds that can best be explained in connection with the recent space-shuttle accident. The commission appointed to study the causes of the Challenger‘s explosion could have confined itself strictly to technical matters, namely, the reasons for the failure of the booster mechanism. If NASA had been in charge of the inquiry, this almost certainly would have been its preference. But NASA’s mistakes are not shielded by walls of secrecy as are those of the intelligence community. The commission President Reagan appointed wisely chose to broaden its investigation to include questions of management and decision-making at NASA. It did so not to engage in “recriminations” and find scapegoats but to identify the human failures behind the mechanical ones. The inquiry quickly ascertained serious managerial failings that had caused the catastrophe and recommended changes in personnel and procedures.
Team B felt, on similar grounds, that if the Agency had for years turned out faulty estimates—and, in common with Colby’s in-house review, we believed that this had been the case—then it would be of little value to provide merely an alternative estimate. Our group, after all, was an ad-hoc body, destined to dissolve in a couple of months. If the CIA reverted to its old ways after the experiment was over and continued to provide flawed estimates, then our whole effort would have been in vain. On this reasoning we felt it necessary to broaden our inquiry to include methodological as well as procedural factors responsible for the faulty estimates so that they could be corrected. Robert Galvin, whom PFIAB had designated to deal with our team, agreed with this reasoning during my only encounter with him early in September.
Team B’s report remains highly classified. Its classification is so restrictive as to grant access to it only to a very small number of persons among the many who have a professional interest in it. I cannot help feeling that such extreme restrictiveness has less to do with the sensitivity of its material than with the political embarrassment that it has caused the CIA. It should certainly be possible to remove from it references to the classified data and to release publicly a sanitized version.
Be that as it may, it is not possible at this time to reveal the contents of Team B’s report, and one can refer to it only in the most general terms. The report charged that in estimating Soviet strategic objectives the CIA had consistently engaged in “mirror-imaging,” including insertions of un-proven assumptions about Soviet behavior, as well as surreptitious “net assessments.” The products of such faulty methodology had served to buttress the apparent belief of the Agency’s analysts that the Soviet Union, like the United States, accepted the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine and built its strategic arsenal for strictly defensive (retaliatory) purposes. Without actually proving the point with reference to U.S. capabilities (which they were enjoined from doing), CIA analysts had conveyed the impression that the Soviet strategic build-up presented no threat to U.S. security.
The political implications of such an assessment happened to favor détente and to place the main burden for its success on the United States, to the extent that Soviet deviations from MAD were ascribed to Russian paranoia that America alone could assuage. Although the Agency’s analysts had a great deal of both “hard” (technical) and “soft” (verbal) evidence to demonstrate if not necessarily the validity then at least the feasibility of another interpretation, they chose to ignore it. Their approach indicated neither knowledge of Russia and Communism nor concern with these subjects: they treated the Soviet threat as if it derived from inanimate objects, not from the people who stood behind them.
We, on our part, concluded that the evidence indicated beyond reasonable doubt that the Soviet leadership did not subscribe to MAD but regarded nuclear weapons as tools of war whose proper employment, in offensive as well as defensive modes, promised victory. Soviet nuclear strategy had to be seen in the context of “grand strategy.” We also suggested procedures for the preparation of NIE’s that would ensure that such faults as we had identified would not recur: they essentially boiled down to the proposition that Soviet nuclear programs be interpreted in Soviet, not American, terms.
During the first two months of their work, Team A and Team B did not communicate. Then, toward the end of October, as prearranged, the two teams exchanged drafts. The Team A document which we were given did not differ much from previous NIE ll-3/8’s either in premises or in conclusions. It continued to interpret Soviet behavior in American terms: here and there, for purposes of self-protection, the analysts inserted cautionary statements to the effect that perhaps, after all, the USSR did not have exclusively defensive objectives in mind.
On November 5, at 1 P.M., the two teams confronted each other at Langley to criticize their respective drafts. The news of what was certain to be a lively encounter spread quickly in the intelligence community and admission to the crowded room was said to have been at a premium. In this highly charged atmosphere, Teams A and B took seats on opposite sides of a long table. Howard Stoertz, the head of Team A, chose to sit in the back, entrusting the opening skirmish to his junior staff.
As subsequently reported in the press, the meeting proved a “disaster” for Team A. This outcome was at least in some measure due to the Agency’s unwise decision to field against senior outside experts a troop of young analysts, some of them barely out of graduate school, who, even if they had had a better case to make, could not help feeling intimidated by senior government officials, general officers, and university professors. The champion for Team A had barely begun his criticism of Team B’s effort, delivered in a condescending tone, when a member of Team B fired a question that reduced him to a state of catatonic immobility: we stared in embarrassment as he sat for what seemed an interminable time with an open mouth, unable to utter a sound. Later Stoertz came to the rescue, but he did not save the Agency and his office from emerging badly mauled.
I do not know what happened within the Agency immediately after this encounter, but I strongly suspect that George Bush intervened to have Team A substantially revise its draft to allow for Team B’s criticism. On December 2, the chairmen of both teams presented their findings to PFIAB. Bush attended the meeting but did not speak. I listened with mounting disbelief as Team A advanced an estimate that in all essential points agreed with Team B’s position. Then my turn came to deliver a summary of our findings. It was slightly disconcerting to have no reaction from PFIAB, for the few questions which followed were quite perfunctory. At the time I did not know what to make of it but I was later told that the panel’s silence was due to its being “thunderstruck” at hearing what many of its members regarded as the first realistic assessment of Soviet strategic intentions to come before it.
Team B met for the last time on the morning of December 21 at Langley. Here, in a large auditorium filled with personnel from various branches of the intelligence community, the A team and the three B teams presented summaries of their findings. George Bush thanked us for our efforts and invited us to lunch: I could not help noticing that no member of my Team B was asked to sit at his table. Bush’s position was delicate in the extreme, given the sweeping criticism of his Agency by a group which he had brought into being, and he may not have wished to identify openly with it. He had shown great courage in allowing an external review of the work for which he bore ultimate responsibility. Later on, during congressional hearings, he stated that he strongly favored competitive analyses and would recommend to his successor that he continue them. That day he signed the revised NIE 11-3/8 that was to set a new standard.
Four years later, when I joined the staff of the National Security Council, I had a chance to convince myself that the post-1976 strategic estimates in every respect excelled those which we had read and criticized. And these new estimates, of course, exerted influence on U.S. defense policies, in a limited way under President Carter and in a major one under President Reagan.
There was one respect in which the experiment in competitive analysis did not succeed and that was in maintaining secrecy. While our work was still in progress, Paisley told me that he had received a call from David Binder of the New York Times. He managed to put Binder off for the time being but the secret clearly was out and, given its explosive nature, the press was certain soon to be in hot pursuit. Indeed, on October 20, 1976, the Boston Globe carried an article by William Beecher, one of Washington’s outstanding defense reporters, with a brief description of Team B’s work and a partial list of its members. Other media ignored this news, as they did Beecher’s account on December 17, which concluded that “well-placed sources familiar with the story say [Team B’s report] is the most devastating indictment ever made of the CIA’s Board of Intelligence Estimates.” Who had leaked to Binder and Beecher I have never found out. In view of these leaks it occurred to me that it might be advisable for the DCI and PFIAB to release a brief official statement. The powers that be, however, rejected this suggestion: its only effect was to make me a prime suspect in the leaks.
Then the New York Times once again demonstrated that in the United States an event is news only when its editors designate it as such. On Sunday, December 26, the Times carried on its front page an article by Binder headlined “New CIA Estimate Finds Soviet Seeks Superiority in Arms.” This item stimulated an avalanche of public inquiries, and for the next several weeks Team B was constantly in newspaper headlines and on prime-time television.
Binder (who had been a tutee of mine at Harvard in the 1950’s) called me a few days prior to the appearance of his article to request an interview. I refused but promised to reconsider when he told me that he had already spoken with George Bush and Richard Lehman, a high CIA official. I called Lehman to verify Binder’s account. He confirmed it and encouraged me to talk to Binder as well. I saw Binder subsequently at Washington’s National Airport and gave him a hurried interview on the Team A-Team B experiment, in broad outline, avoiding particulars.
Binder confused some of the facts, but in its essentials his account was correct. The TV networks at once seized on the news and deluged me with requests for appearances, all of which I turned down. I did, however, give some additional newspaper interviews and published rejoinders in the Times and the Washington Post.
The story broke at the very time the Ford administration was about to vacate the White House. Although as its whole previous history indicates, the experiment in competitive analysis had nothing whatever to do with this transition, which was as unanticipated as it was irrelevant to its task, journalists and, following them, some legislators hastened to interpret Team B as nothing but a crude political ploy. President-elect Carter had pledged to pursue SALT II negotiations and to cut back the defense budget by $5 billion. If, at the very moment he was assuming office, the intelligence community, acting under alleged external pressure, had altered its estimate to make the Soviet threat appear more menacing, the effect pointed to the motive: to wreck SALT II and compel Carter to increase the defense budget. To make this argument it was necessary to impugn the integrity of Team B and PFIAB.
The initial reaction of the Carter administration—whether out of ignorance or for purposes of obfuscation, it is difficult to tell—was to pretend that Team B had questioned the U.S.’s ability to meet the Soviet military threat. On January 1, 1977 President Carter stated: “We’re still by far stronger than they are in most means of measuring military strength.” He repeated this assurance in his State of the Union Address later that month. The Secretary of State designate, Cyrus Vance, during his confirmation hearings showed more caution but was equally far off the mark when he voiced confidence that there existed “general parity” between the two superpowers. When pressed, he conceded that he had neither read the Team B report nor received a “thorough briefing” on it.
The outgoing Secretary of State also rushed into the fray. When the experiment was taking place Kissinger seems to have raised no objections to it, possibly because it began during the presidential campaign when he had other things on his mind and ended when he was about to leave office. But he realized that the thesis of the Team B report struck at the very heart of his Soviet policy, which had posited that the nuclear competition should not prevent the two sides from reaching accords on a broad range of issues because they both subscribed to MAD. On January 10, 1977, at a farewell gathering at the National Press Club, he disposed of the whole exercise as nothing more than an effort to “sabotage SALT II.” He went on to assure his audience “that no American President would ever allow the Soviet Union to gain superiority over the United States.” In the next breath, he added that “the concept of ‘supremacy’ makes no sense in the nuclear age.” Sober heads among his listeners must have wondered why, if supremacy no longer made sense, a President of the United States should work so hard to deny it to the Soviet Union.
It may be added as a postscript that two years later, in a complete about-face, Kissinger told the London Economist that he had erred in adhering to the MAD doctrine: nuclear supremacy did, indeed, matter very much. Why he had once held the one view and now its opposite, and what had made him change his mind, he did not explain.
Prominent legislators also rushed into the fray. One of them was Senator William Proxmire, who lost no time declaring that Team B’s supposed allegations—that the Soviet Union had “already achieved military superiority over the U.S.” and was “not only aiming at superiority but preparing for war”—could only be explained by the tendency of the “military establishment . . . to cry wolf at budget time.” Even a cursory reading of press reports should have told the Senator that Team B neither made such claims nor worked for the military establishment. Proxmire cited the opinion of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George Brown, who said that while he believed the Soviet Union did not as yet enjoy military superiority, “the available evidence indicates that the USSR is engaged in a program” to achieve such superiority. This, of course, was exactly the conclusion of Team B: the “available evidence” to which the General referred could only have been its report and the revised NIE. Yet Proxmire praised General Brown for his “courageous statement,” although he did nothing but echo Team B which Proxmire himself had accused of “crying wolf.”
I clipped and filed the press notices, which were almost uniformly hostile. The editorial writers and columnists of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Washington Star concurred that the Team A-Team B exercise had been misbegotten and that its primary purpose had been not to reach an objective judgment but to derail the “orderly process of intelligence evaluation” for purely political ends. The British press, taking its cue from the U.S., fell into step. So did Red Star, the organ of the Soviet military, and Pravda, which cited Western opinions to argue that Team B was yet another effort of American “hawks” to scuttle détente and raise defense expenditures. Brezhnev professed to be bored by the whole affair. “Frankly speaking,” he declared in mid-January, “this noisy and idle talk has become quite tiresome. The allegations that the Soviet Union is going beyond what is sufficient for its defense, that it is striving for superiority in armaments with the aim of delivering a first strike are absurd and totally unfounded.” For good measure Brezhnev added that his country “will never take the path of aggression, and will never raise a sword against other nations.” This was going a bit far perhaps, but at least Brezhnev showed that unlike the incumbent U.S. President and his Secretary of State, much of Congress, and most of the Western media, he at least knew what Team B was about: not Soviet capabilities but Soviet intentions.
Among the self-styled “experts” on Team B who proliferated at this time, the most voluble was a certain Arthur Macy Cox. Cox had long ago worked for the CIA, which lent him an air of authority in matters concerning intelligence. By the time the Team B story broke, he was among the most extreme advocates of détente: a reviewer of a book Cox published in 1976 said that the author believed the “arms race will end when the United States decides to end it.” Cox had never seen the Team B report even from a distance, but this did not inhibit him from declaring categorically in the New York Review of Books that “all its conclusions are either wrong, or distorted, or based on misinterpretation of the facts.”
And finally, there was the scientific community. Team B challenged its most cherished political convictions as well as its political interests. If Team B’s conclusions became U.S. policy, then the hold which the scientists of the “deterrence-through-agreement” school had had on U.S. strategic planning and weapons programs for twenty years would be broken. The scientists reacted, therefore, with understandable anger. I did not follow their pronouncements on the subject closely, but I see no reason to think that the reaction of two prominent scientists from Cambridge, Massachusetts in an interview with the Harvard Crimson was an isolated example. Bernard Feld, an MIT physicist, dismissed Team B’s findings on the grounds that the group consisted of “well-known spokesmen for the American Right.” The Harvard chemist, George Kistiakowsky, labeled the undertaking “one of those red-herring stories.” Neither gentleman was familiar with the contents of Team B’s report, and neither responded to its findings as reported in the press. Their reaction was strictly ad hominem, a kind of pseudo-argument that always betrays the absence of ideas.
The shower of confused and ignorant abuse was, of course, unpleasant. But it was even more disturbing. It revealed that the intellectual elite of the United States, which had arrogated to itself the right to determine U.S. defense strategy, was unable, intellectually as well as psychologically, to cope with alternative points of view.
Having spent my entire adult life in scholarship, I took it for granted that a statement of fact, provided it is not meaningless, can only be either correct or false—it cannot be “good” or “bad,” “moral” or “immoral.” He who makes a factual statement can be faulted on no other grounds than wrong perception of the facts or faulty inference from them. His motives in making it are as irrelevant to its veracity as are its implications. This much seems obvious. No one in his right mind would accuse a physician who diagnoses a patient as suffering from terminal illness of harboring ill will toward the patient and his family: at most one would question his judgment and seek another opinion. But in politics, as I was to learn in the winter of 1976-77, other rules prevail. Here the first, and often the last, question asked is not: is the proposition true?, but: why has it been made and what are its practical consequences?
In all the discussions of Team B the one question that mattered the most was never raised: was the Soviet Union really seeking nuclear superiority? So preoccupied were the politicians, journalists, and left-wing intellectuals with what they presumed to have been the motives of Team B and the potential political fallout from its findings that they never bothered to inquire whether its principal conclusion was correct. In any event, in my extensive collection of newspaper clippings there is not one which addresses itself to this central issue. In this respect, the writers for the New York Times, Washingon Post, London Sunday Times, Red Star, and Pravda differed only in their journalistic manners, not in the quality of their thinking.
It was also disconcerting to learn that those who had claimed the final say on nuclear strategy could not distinguish the discrete elements that go into security estimates. Soviet nuclear capabilities and intentions were hopelessly mixed up with each other and with the separate question of the overall military balance. The proposition that “the Soviet Union strives for nuclear superiority” was confounded with the question of whether the Soviet Union intended imminently to attack the United States. In the end, the reaction boiled itself down to the juvenile boast, “I am stronger than you,” supplemented with the MAD qualifier, “But even if I am not, it does not matter because there can be no fighting.” It is not difficult to imagine with what amusement Soviet professional strategists must have followed this particular “national debate.”
Regrettably, the same confusion was to attend subsequent U.S. public discussions of arms control, nuclear programs, and strategic defenses.
On January 7 and 8, 1977, the press announced that no fewer than three congressional committees were undertaking to investigate the Team A-Team B affair. The most important of these was the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence whose Subcommittee on Collection, Production, and Quality of Intelligence, chaired by Adlai Stevenson, was to determine whether any improper pressure had been brought to bear on the Agency to have it “slant” its estimate. It gives some idea of the spirit in which these inquiries were carried out that neither I nor any other member of Team B was invited to testify before these committees. Their source of information was the CIA, which thus enjoyed the enviable position of appearing as both plaintiff and sole witness.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed hearing on January 18, at which George Bush testified. Although the Washington Post headlined its report “‘Worst-Case’ Intelligence Hit,” every Senator who spoke to its correspondent after the hearing praised the Team A-Team B experiment. Hubert Humphrey, Clifford Case, and Jacob Javits commended the Agency for organizing the competition and incorporating Team B’s findings into its estimate. Case declared that “political considerations” had not altered the official estimates. Humphrey expressed the opinion that the U.S. still enjoyed a nuclear “edge,” but that it was “questionable whether we can maintain that edge” into the 1980’s. Charles Percy thought that to alert the Russians to American concerns, the new findings should be made public, but he failed to convince Bush.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held “hearings,” a format which permits diverse opinions to be heard and enables the Senators to take part in the inquiry. The Senate Intelligence Committee, however, chose a different and much less satisfactory route of preparing a “report.” This procedure requires no witnesses to be called. It is a research effort in which busy Senators do not participate personally but rely on their staffs: at best the Senators read the finished product before affixing their signatures to it and contribute a personal statement. In such an exercise, the quality of the staff is critical. The Intelligence Committee assigned the task of drafting its report on Team A-Team B to two staff members who had strong ideological and personal biases against Team B and everything it stood for. The staff director of the Committee, William G. Miller, had drafted the Cooper-Church Amendment that cut off aid to Vietnam and, as Senator Cooper’s assistant, had actively fought the ballistic-missile defense program (ABM). It was presumably his responsibility to select the person in charge of the Team A-Team B report. His choice fell on Harold Ford, a recently retired employee of the CIA (which he subsequently rejoined). By virtue of his entire background, Ford could hardly have been expected to sit in impartial judgment on a case so painful to his colleagues in the Agency. The two men worked assiduously and quietly, with the assistance of the CIA. So it happened that the Team A-Team B inquiry was conducted by active and retired CIA personnel—that is, essentially by Team A. Ford briefly interviewed some members of Team B, but he relied mainly on testimony by Paisley who provided a highly partisan account.
I first learned of these developments in July 1977 when I received a letter from General Graham in which he wrote that he had heard through the “grapevine” that the Intelligence Committee had drafted, in utter secrecy, a biased and denigrating report on Team B. I immediately wrote Senator Stevenson requesting permission to see this document. I argued that if the intelligence community had been given the opportunity to present its side, then Team B should at least be allowed to read and comment on the Committee’s product. Senator Stevenson must have been unaware of what Messrs. Miller and Ford had been doing on his Subcommittee’s behalf, for he immediately agreed that Nitze, Graham, and myself should be given access to the classified report.
The document I saw was an indictment of Team B, filled with slanderous accusations. As I now learned, it had been completed as early as May but had not yet received the approval of the Committee, which gave us an opportunity to correct its misstatements and slurs. Its most offensive feature was its questioning of the personal integrity of PFIAB and Team B, whose members stood accused of conniving to carry out, in the guise of intelligence estimating, a political operation. It charged Team B with exceeding its original mandate; of ignoring the “raw data” supplied to it by the Agency; of conspiring with PFIAB in the selection of personnel as well as the formulation of conclusions; of reaching conclusions before it had seen the evidence; and of leaking to the press. The principal source of these accusations was Paisley.5 These charges notwithstanding, the report found many of the criticisms which Team B had made, and many of its recommendations, to be sound and worthwhile. It did not explain how a group of such low integrity, using such flawed procedures, could produce anything of value, but this contradiction could not be avoided since the authors of the report, while condemning Team B, had to explain why the Agency had allowed itself to be so strongly influenced by it.
Appended to the report was a personal statement by Senator Gary Hart which summarized this whole indictment. “The [Intelligence] Committee report and the information from other sources,” Hart wrote, “has convinced me that ‘competitive analysis’ and use of selected outside experts was little more than a camouflage for a political effort to force the National Intelligence Estimates to take a more bleak view of the Soviet strategic threat.” Whether he realized it or not (for such senatorial statements are usually prepared by staff), Senator Hart was accusing the fourteen members of PFIAB and the ten members of Team B of placing their personal political objectives ahead of the nation’s interest.
I submitted to Senator Stevenson a point-by-point rebuttal. (So did, separately, Nitze and Graham.) I asserted that we could not have “exceeded our mandate” since no responsible person in the Agency had restricted the scope of our inquiry. As for our alleged disregard of the “raw data,” I observed that the Committee could arrive at such a conclusion only by ignoring Part Two of our report, which almost entirely relied on them. I stated that prior to joining Team B, I had not met a single member of PFIAB (I later learned that PFIAB had been equally ignorant of my existence) and hence that no “collusion” could have taken place even if it had been on anyone’s mind. I had talked only once to Robert Galvin, and then in Paisley’s presence. I, not PFIAB, had personally selected all the members of Team B, and my choices had the approval of the Director of Central Intelligence who had picked me to be chairman. The charge that Team B had reached its conclusions before analyzing the CIA material could be disproven with reference to its work schedule, which I provided. The Committee report furnished no evidence to substantiate its charge that members of Team B had had unauthorized communication with the media. As for Senator Hart’s accusations, I found them contemptible slander: the best that could be said in his favor was that he did not realize what he was saying when he accused ex-Secretaries of the Treasury and the Army, an ex-Deputy Secretary of Defense, a one-time Chief of Naval Operations, and presidents of major corporations of deliberately misleading their government on a matter of the greatest importance to national security.
These rejoinders fortunately did attract the attention of the Committee, because it held up approval until the report could be revised to allow for our corrections. The staffs of Senators Malcolm Wallop and Daniel Patrick Moynihan greatly contributed to this editorial work. The Committee finally approved the revised text on February 16, 1978. I have not seen the full, classified text but the public version showed considerable improvement.6 The verdict remained negative. While it commended Team B for having made “some valid criticisms” and “some useful recommendations,” the Committee thought that the experiment proved less valuable than it might have been because Team B was too one-sided in its composition and had exceeded its mandate. Press leaks had further reduced its value. Still—in the public version, at any rate—the personal attacks on members of PFIAB and Team B were omitted. The Committee report also accepted one of the basic premises of Team B, that “strategic” should be interpreted “in the context of Soviet interests and policies.”
Appended to the Committee’s public report, alongside Senator Hart’s statement, were “separate views” by Senators Moynihan and Wallop which appraised positively the work of Team B and refuted some of the criticisms by the Committee’s majority. Moynihan disposed of the complaint that the undertaking had been carried out in an “adversarial” manner because of the “one-sided” composition of Team B:
Given the B Team’s purpose, it is hardly surprising that its members’ view reflected “only one segment of the spectrum of opinion.” Inasmuch as the main purpose of the experiment was to determine why previous estimates had produced such misleading pictures of Soviet strategic developments, it was reasonable to pick team members whose views of Soviet strategy differed from those of the official estimators, just as a similar experiment, had one been conducted in 1962, might have called for a “B Team” composed of strategic analysts who had been skeptical of the “missile gap.”
Senator Wallop criticized the preoccupation of the Committee’s report with procedures. The Intelligence Committee, in common with the media, had refused to address itself to the central issue, namely, the soundness of Team B’s findings, preferring to concentrate on the procedures it had used. This was a strange self-imposed limitation for a group charged with overseeing the quality of intelligence. Conceding that the revised report improved on the original, Wallop nevertheless thought it “still fundamentally flawed, because,
in the words of the [Committee] report, it “makes no attempt to judge which group’s estimates concerning the USSR are correct.” Therefore the report’s “findings and recommendations for improving the quality of future NIE’s on Soviet capabilities and objectives are primarily directed at procedural issues.” But it is logically impossible to determine the quality of opposing arguments without reference to the substance of those arguments. After all, the quality of an estimate depends above all upon its accuracy. In order to make judgments concerning quality, never mind suggesting improvements, one must judge where the truth lies against which the estimate’s accuracy is to be measured.
By the time this report was released, Team B had faded from memory, and it attracted little attention. The original draft, however, even though eventually discarded, managed to inflict serious harm on the intelligence process. In May 1977, when Harold Ford completed his draft, PFIAB, which it cast as the chief culprit, was peremptorily abolished. Leo Cherne, its chairman, received, along with his letter of dismissal, an application for unemployment insurance. The timing may have been coincidental; but it is more likely that the new DCI, Admiral Stansfield Turner, used the initial draft of the report to rid himself of the group charged with overseeing his Agency.7
The subject which remains to be discussed is Team B’s influence on the attitudes of the U.S. government and public opinion toward the Soviet nuclear threat. Such matters are inherently difficult to appraise. Team B did not so much come up with fresh revelations as articulate and justify doubts about Soviet intentions which had been gaining ground among political and military experts for some time. Such impact as it exerted resulted from the fact that it stated what many were thinking but did not dare to say. This is confirmed by the speed with which the views of Team B, once the spell of conformity had been broken, spread in and out of government. Proponents of MAD found themselves for the first time confronted with an articulate and well-informed opposition: their monopoly on opinion fell apart. Barely a year after the event, in his appendix to the Intelligence Committee’s report, Senator Moynihan wrote that Team B’s “notion that the Soviets intend to surpass the United States in strategic arms and are in the process of doing so, has gone from hearsay to respectability, if not orthodoxy.” Ideas spread this rapidly only when they have already germinated in many minds.
Within the government, as I have noted, the views advanced by Team B initially affected thinking through the revised 1977 NIE and its successors. In the years that followed, the Agency’s analysts ceased to “mirror-image”: this fact alone gives the lie to the charge that Team B had “pressured” the Agency to alter its 1977 estimate. In fact, miniature Team B’s had existed all along inside the intelligence community, the CIA included, but they were silenced by the official consensus and confined to cautionary remarks and dissenting footnotes. Team B gave these minority views such strong and persuasive support that they emerged on top. Team B through its recommendations also had a lasting effect on the manner in which estimates were henceforth prepared. According to Herbert Meyer, who recently retired from the National Intelligence Council of the CIA, “We have put a major emphasis on competitive analysis. The estimates now routinely include dissenting opinion.”8
The responsibilities of office quickly cured the Carter administration of its glib and uninformed opinions of Team B. On assuming his duties, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser, commissioned a number of studies on the Soviet strategic threat and potential U.S. responses. This work, carried out quietly to avoid the kind of public controversy that had followed the A-B Team experiment, promptly led to the conclusion that Team B had been correct in its assessments: the Soviet Union was indeed developing a first-strike capability. In 1980, probably in an effort to refute candidate Ronald Reagan’s criticism of their administration’s nuclear policy, Carter’s officials began to leak these findings to the press. Once again, the redoubtable William Beecher of the Boston Globe broke the news. On July 27, 1980, he published an article headlined “U.S. Reshaping N-Strategy Against the Soviets,” in which he reported that a new statement was being drafted in the National Security Council on U.S. nuclear strategy. It would reject Mutual Assured Destruction and the targeting doctrine based on it, which called for the retaliatory strike to concentrate on civilian targets, in favor of one directed principally at political and military targets. The purpose of the new strategy was to ensure that even if attacked in a first strike, the U.S. would have the ability to wage a protracted war. The new strategic doctrine, formulated in the summer of 1980 in a Presidential Directive (PD 59), marked the beginning of a radical shift in U.S. strategic policy.
No less important were parallel shifts in public opinion. Here a major contribution was made by the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a bipartisan body of prominent public figures founded in Washington in the summer of 1976. (To prevent exploitation of its findings for campaign purposes, the founders of CPD postponed formal announcement until after the presidential election of that year.) Paul Nitze, a member of Team B, was one of the Committee’s founders. Its other leaders—among them, Eugene V. Rostow, Dean Rusk, Lane Kirkland, Max Kampelman, Richard Allen, David Packard, and Henry H. Fowler—felt apprehensive about the strategic balance and dedicated themselves to alerting the public to the decline in U.S. military capabilities.
Early in 1977 I was invited to join CPD’s Executive Committee and wrote two programmatic statements for it, one on Soviet global strategy (“What Is the Soviet Union Up To?”), the other on Soviet arms-control policies (“Why the Soviet Union Wants SALT II”).9 Under the skilled direction of Charles Tyroler, CPD conducted press conferences, commissioned opinion polls, and released facts and figures on the strategic balance. In the propitious atmosphere created by the Team B controversy, public interest was keen. CPD had much influence on public perceptions of the Soviet threat, with the result that voters soon took a more favorable view of increased defense expenditures and a more critical one of SALT II, which CPD selected as its particular target. My article, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks it Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” published in the July 1977 issue of COMMENTARY, explained how and why politicized scientists and uncritical devotees of arms control had misconstrued the Soviet strategic threat.
By the time President Reagan took office, the views of Team B and CPD were unmistakably in the ascendant. A remarkable shift in public opinion had taken place, which helped the new administration to proceed with its ambitious program of defense procurements. Several commentators, seeking to define President Reagan’s views on foreign and defense policies, found their source in Team B.10 It did not escape them, either, that nearly thirty of the officials whom Reagan—himself a member of CPD—chose for high posts in the first weeks of his administration belonged to the Committee on the Present Danger, an organization that saw eye-to-eye with Team B. President Reagan’s distaste for arms control as a political tool, his insistence on building up first offensive nuclear forces and then anti-nuclear defenses, all rested on the premise that the USSR held a different view of the utility of nuclear weapons from the United States, regarding them as guarantors not of peace but of victory. From this premise it followed that if the U.S. deterrent were to prove effective it had to be constructed in terms that were credible to the Soviet General Staff, even if they held no appeal for American civilian strategists.
Thus the United States government at last came to terms with the military implications of a weapon that it was the first to develop and employ but for a long time refused to acknowledge as a reality in the international balance of power. The opponents of this realistic view have had to retreat. They have regrouped and returned to the fray in President Reagan’s second term, bringing to bear powerful pressures from such diverse sources as the Department of State, much of Congress, and the European allies. President Reagan is once again told that national security is best assured not by the construction of offensive and defensive weapons but by accords with the Soviet Union. The battle is far from won. But at least the arms-control lobby no longer has a monopoly on opinion: it obstructs but it does not dictate U.S. defense policies.
1 My Country and the World (Knopf, 1975), p. 71, emphasis added.
2 “Watchdogging Intelligence,” in Seminar on Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (Incidental paper, Center for Information Policy Research, Harvard University, 1980), pp. 179-80.
3 For the sake of brevity, I shall henceforth apply the term “Team B” to the group charged with analyzing Soviet strategic objectives, but it must be borne in mind that there were two other B Teams.
4 Colonel General A. Maiorov in Voennaia mysl', No. 1, January 1975.
5 Except for some minor matters connected with Team B finances, this was my last contact with Paisley. On October 1, 1978, his badly decomposed body was found floating in Chesapeake Bay. There was a bullet wound in his head and diver's belts were wound around his waist. The circumstances of his death have not been cleared up to this day (the CIA conducted an investigation but did not release its findings). The most likely verdict is suicide but murder cannot be precluded. Some journalists have claimed that at the time of his disappearance Paisley had materials on Team B on his sailboat. See the New York Times Magazine, January 7, 1979.
6 The National Intelligence Estimates—A-B Team Episode Concerning Soviet Strategic Capability and Objectives, released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 16, 1978.
7 President Reagan reinstituted PFIAB shortly after assuming office.
8 Insight, June 23, 1986, p. 15. People well Informed about the NIE process say that the current “competitive analyses” are in-house undertakings, much more limited in scope than Team B had been. Recently the CIA has let the press know that it once again takes a “less grim” view of Soviet military preparations than the Pentagon, and maintains its “independence” from the Reagan administration's “more conservative direction.” As an illustration of “past political pressures,” its spokesmen referred to the A-Team/ B-Team experiment. This may be a sign of the changing political climate. See Michael R. Gordon in the New York Times, July 16, 1986.
9 These documents, along with others released by the Committee, are reproduced in Charles Tyroler II, ed., Alerting America (Committee on the Present Danger, 1984), pp. 10-15 and 166-69.
10 See, for example, Hedrick Smith in the New York Times, May 25, 1980 and Godfrey Hodgson in the New Statesman, September 5, 1980. Hodgson wrote that “Reagan's foreign policy is rooted in the world view of Team B.” Jim Klurfield concluded, in what is one of the best journalistic accounts of Team B (Newsday, June 14-15, 1981), that “on November 4, 1980, Team B, in essence, became Team A.”
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Team B: The Reality Behind the Myth
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
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Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
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Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
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When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
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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.”
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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.