“I want cherry soda,” said Sol.
“What! Cold stuff?” said Abe.
He cares something? thought Sonia An aidem a shtik hults, vus er vaist fon sahn' linke pedeshva. On soda Sol would fill up—the meat he'd leave over.
“Is the beer hot enough yet, Mrs M?” said Leo
After the others had sat down in the dining room, she had taken the three bottles out of the refrigerator and put them behind the phone on the kitchen sideboard. One glass, and Sam would be running to the toilet twenty-four hours, the whole day his driblets would float: a manager (you get burned on hot?—you blow on cold)! here a penny he knew to save—he had to keep flushing? they could wait for next time So who suffered in the end?
“I want more skin too,” said Sol when she came back. He tilted the heavy chair, grinning up from his book, but to get at the foam before it fizzed out, he brought the chair down, and the outside leg scraped her right shin and hit her ankle. Sonia let out a yell and threw her hands to the top of her head.
“Ox!” said Ben.
Abe stood up the gushing bottle.
Reba felt his other hand “What did he do, hon?”
“He reads!” said Becky.
“You'll get far screaming,” Leo said to Soma “Sit down in the kitchen and we'll take a look at you”
“He reads? or he dreams?” said Ben “Better a blind mule! Who reads when he eats?”
“Who talks when he chews?” Becky picked at her cheek.
“You'll learn him yet, Becky!” said Abe.
Sam came running in from the store, the door banged against the piano.
“Vair hut gekvitchet? Eppes I heard a kvitch. It's time I can eat?”
“Vair derharget! Oyzvorf—you don't get enough to eat? You slave over the stove, you march off to the auction all day you loaf?”
“Nobody needs you here,” said Leo “Go back in the store”
Sonia stepped up to the kitchen on her left foot and sat down by the stove Becky moved another chair over for her, and Soma put her foot up on it, but her fingers were shaking and she couldn't untie the shoelace
“Let me,” said Becky. “Sonia, lean back, relax.”
Sonia lay back against the chair licking her lips and swallowing, while Becky took off the heavy iron-arched shoe.
“What happened?” said Sam.
“Your son Thomas Wolfe the genius,” said Ben, “he can't sit like a human being? your wife has a leg now you'll see what happened.”
“Thomas Wolfe never wore such well-fitting shoes,” said Abe.
Sonia pulled back her dress and petticoat to unclasp the stockings on the leg. She started them down and moved the dress back over her knee. Becky slid off the outer stocking. Under that was a white cotton stocking, and under that a full-length elastic bandage. No blood had come through
“I can do it,” said Soma. With her apron she wiped her throat and the back of her neck She unclasped the bandage and began to unwind and roll it.
“She didn't do enough yet your mother?” said Ben “You want it she should have a gangrene yet?”
“I only wanted more skin.”
“What can I do I don't have no more skin? Tear from me pieces, you'll have skin.”
She sat back to rest, holding the roll of bandage on her lap.
“Will you cut it out, you little moron?” said Leo “Reba, can you lift a finger once in your life?”
Reba finished the unwinding and rolling. There was no blood No one there but Sam had seen the bare leg in years The lower half was purple, green, black, and silver The bulging veins stuck out here and there like peas.
“Nu?” said Sonia “You wanted a rose? A beauty, hah? It's something to see.”
She stroked the leg lightly where she could feel that it had been hit.
“A bunch of cheapies,” said Ben.
“So it's all right?” said Becky. “Gott sei dank.”
“She likes to holler,” said Sam
“Take a walk, Pop,” said Leo
Abe said “What are you doing now for your leg in general, Mom?”
“I'm doing It's a difference what I'm doing?”
“Oh, mother,” said Reba, “what did Abe do? Let him alone Hon, sit down and finish We're late as it is, we have to go.”
“So take an airplane and go! We're late' I'm a steam engine?”
“What do you want to be like that for, dear? We have time”
“Your pitsutsa you're asking?” Ben laughed. “You don't know her yet?”
“What's there to know? Is it my fault if she wants to kill herself? It's Leo she waits on hand and foot, not me Doesn't the doctor tell her to stay off her feet? Talk to the wall.”
“Stay off her feet? And who'll cook? Who'll clean? Seven o'clock I'm up, when I took last a drop water in mouth you know? You want a Yankee, the whole day she can sit in the beauty parlor, all night plays cards?—so go, by her a leg you won't find”
“For Christ sake,” said Leo, “is there one sane person in this house? Does your leg hurt?”
“What else—it's a picnic?”
“I'm not asking that Do you see anything new wrong with it? Do you want me to call Simkus?”
“I don't call him I'm better off”
“Then stop looking at your leg all night and feeling sorry for yourself Cut out the crap and sit down and eat”
“Shah, shah What are you eating yourself up for? I'll sit down yet—you're findished I'll sit down.”
“Do you want me to put the bandage back on for you?” said Reba
“I can do it.” Soma took the bandage, and Reba went back to the dining room
“So the leg feels all right?” said Becky
“It feels! I'm retired already? A window-cleaner fifty cents a week, I shouldn't have to climb, my husband can afford?”
“Zi ziecht zich,” said Sam “We have in a girl twice a week she don't say She likes to talk.”
“Bandit! Somebody asked you?” Soma fanned her neck with her apron “An hour after school—she gets something done?”
“She wants to be crazy, let her.”
“I thought I told you to walk, Pop,” said Leo “You didn't finish your daily quota of fairy tales ‘‘Chu’ gelaizt hant fun a mahn in Roosland vus er iz a hindret un fiftsig yoor alt er trinkt nisht kin milich fun a ki—er trinkt milich fun a kutz!’”
“Bigger heads from me read the Jewish paper I'm a Jew—I read the Jewish paper.”
Sonia stared at the linoleum a minute before she began winding the bandage around her instep It hurt him she had a leg? Something happened to her he'd see soon how smart he was It wasn't for her, on Carpentner Avenue he'd be now? Ask him who bought stones in a suitcase in the railroad station On Water Street every week what they took in Saturday she made him put it away
“Honey! Will you please come in and eat?”
Abe stepped down into the dining room
“Remember—the doctor said no carbonated water I'm going to take good care of your stomach, aren't I, honey?”
In the kitchen Leo said “Here's your chance to be a sport for a change, Ben Treat your big sister to the movies tonight.”
Leo had taken his parents to The Jazz Singer, and he had taken Soma to the stage productions of The Student Prince and Show Boat (Sam never saw another movie, until Sol was sixteen, whenever he went to the Argosy, even on Saturday afternoons, Sam walked the eight blocks with him, through the Negro section, walked home and walked back to meet him at the appointed time, but never went in There was no family car, then or ever)
“Now you said something Soma—you hear? You'll go?”
“Ain klaimkait! Nur movies ligt mir in kup Ask if I have time? The clothes who'll get together, tomorrow morning the laundryman comes?”
“If Ben had to drive you to the hospital now, would you have time? Will you have time to go to your funeral?”
Sonia spit “Funerals goor! He comes in with funerals!”
“Look at her,” said Leo. “She spits on the floor.”
“Haw! A barroom lady,” said Ben
“A real barbarian She's as bad as Pop.”
“You came in—A spit You don't give a spit on the floor?”
“She's embarrassed One night a year you can take off—it won't kill you.”
“You want to go? Go, gezinterhait.”
“Is there a law you have to hide in the kitchen like an animal in a cave?”
“Vaimen hart es? Honey and bunny I need it?”
“Once I could enjoy a show—no more,” said Becky
“So don't go to the movies—I got a better idea-surprise Mrs Blumberg tonight She's been here fifty times. Why does everybody always have to come to see you? You go to her for once.”
“She's by her son today.”
“So take a walk across the street and see Mrs Hoffman.”
“A glick hut mich oongechupt! She ever comes to me? Eppes a naye zach, Mrs Hoffman goor—zi pisht mit boymel. I need her?”
“Do you need anybody? Do you need anything? You're a pip! It's not your leg that's the problem—it's your head! I knew you were insane a long time ago! Why don't you see a psychiatrist?”
“Zul Gut oophieten! A psychiatrist yet! Aza fake! Who would pay him should go first to the crazy house”
She stayed where they knew her Alone, the soul is clean as a bone. What she needed it? A man he didn't fill the auctioneer's pocket she should be on Easy Street his wife with two maids. Which he had the sense to dress a window she didn't need to climb in and out it got dark before her eyes. He ever changed a window? The goods could rot and the glass could be covered with flyshit—it bothered him? He wouldn't budge
“Are you ever wrong? Give yourself a break for God sake!”
Leo went back to the dining room
“Come, Soma,” said Becky, “we can go see the Blintzes tonight You and Sam sit down and eat, then we'll wash the dishes one-two-three.”
“It'll be too late, I'll be all sweatied up and tseshoybert.”
Leo called in “And when was the last time Reba washed the dishes?”
“I beg your pardon We're going to Anne's the minute we're through eating. You and your ideas Ben takes Mother to the movies, I wash the dishes—and you? Your plans come first, I see.”
“Shah, shah already,” said Soma “Until now I did? I can still do Eat, go An invalid yet I'm not.”
“He's so concerned Only Leo is such an angel he can tell everybody what to do.”
The telephone rang
“Who washes and irons your shirts?”
Leo went into the kitchen and picked up the receiver The beer was still there He gave his mother a look She was clasping the bandage
“The Matkoff residence”
Reba was still talking to Leo “I'm not your slave You've got one slave.”
“Shah, er redt af 'em phone.”
“Who was she with?” said Leo
“You think he's not right?” said Ben, back at his seat “You think you're married now you're not a daughter? You're graduated a cripple? Aza piste zach!”
“Why me? Do I live here? Did her hands get like that from washing my things? Of course Leo would never dream of sending his shirts to the laundry.”
Leo took his hand off the mouthpiece, said, “Hold on a second,” covered it again, and moved with the phone to the doorway “You miserable skunk, will you kindly shut your hole? Lowlife, do you think anybody cares what you think?”
“My husband cares what I think The world's not going to stop because you're on the phone Some manners! You give yourself a middle initial and start saying eyether, and you're in the Four Hundred.”
“You ungrateful wretch—I'll remember this.”
“Listen to him! You might think he ever did something for me.”
He went back to the sideboard and uncovered the mouthpiece. “Yes, she mentioned him now and then, but I never met him He's the latest hot shot in the physics department.”
Soma took a can of cherries from the kitchen table and carried it to the sink. She went over to the window sill to look for her can-opener; it wasn't there
Ben came back into the kitchen “Groyser macher, af 'em phone day and night.”
“Shah,” said Becky.
“That's all she said?” Leo said into the phone
Ben stood in front of the mirror over the sink and put out his tongue “Puffed up with poisons! Through and through!” Keeping his eyes on the mirror, he scraped at his tongue with a teaspoon “Only meat! Why you have a leg now I can see Aza civilization! Poisons!”
“Nothing surprises me any more,” Leo said into the phone “Viva la circumstance! Well, thanks for letting me know. We're in the middle of s—of a delayed Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Oh, hon, did you get that? He can't say supper eyether!”
Leo hung up and stood there a few seconds, his back toward the others in the kitchen Then he moved slowly into the dining room
“I know it's none of my business who you were talking to, Leo, but you look like you just saw a ghost.”
“They must have been talking about Elaine she's the only ghost in his life—at the moment.”
“You have a long memory of the favors you come to me for.”
“Why shouldn't I? Do you ever let anybody forget? Let him do a favor for you, you sign your life away”
“I know better than to expect gratitude from you—but you might have a little decency.”
“Decency! He's talking—how he treated Frances Levine, so she still hates him after three years You're not such a hot shot since Elaine's father threw your engagement ring in your face You can play Napoleon around here and get away with it, but not with me.”
“I'll fix you, sister.”
He went back to the kitchen Soma turned to him for a second, and he saw the can-opener in her hand
“What? I'm getting plenty disgusted Last week you cut yourself with that antique, it wasn't enough. Are you out of your mind? I'm throwing that hunk of junk out right now” “He put the opener in his pants pocket. “You'll never see it again There's the new opener right in front of your nose”
“So let it be this opener I took out the old opener it's a tragic? A business!”
“Nor er vaist, der kliger,” said Ben
Leo carried the three bottles of beer into the dining room.
“She's contributing half for the Frigidaire, is she? I'm still waiting to collect. She can complain Mom washes my shirts, can she? Ask her when she gave one dime for the house in the last ten years. Ten years ago she tore up a set of my lab reports because she had to take ten minutes to wash the dishes because Mom was in the store.”
“Don't worry, you'll get your money for the Frigidaire—wait till you're married and have our expenses. Yes—you're very generous: he took Mom to The Student Prince ten years ago and can't forget it. He can't spend two cents on a paper without putting it down in his little book.”
“Only you come to me for checks so you don't have to pay a dime at the bank.”
“Keep your checks; I can get along without them, thank you.”
“You can now see why I'll remain a bachelor. Wait till she opens up that mouth of hers on you. Better get out while you can—or is she fragrant already?”
“Honey, defend me.”
“Come on, dear, you know better than to take Leo seriously. I can't say you wouldn't harm a fly—but you were the sweetest and most beautiful girl in the College of Education, and I love you.”
“Just listen to that shit.”
Leo had sat down and started to eat. Now he got up and went back to the kitchen for the bottle-opener.
Becky had been watching Sonia apply the new can-opener two or three ways that didn't penetrate.
“Let me,” said Becky.
The opener slipped out of Sonia's hand and knocked a glass off the drainboard. Sonia tried to catch it, but it fell and broke as Leo came in.
“That's you all over. You're a pip! Do you ever know what you're doing? Isn't this how you do everything? She has the mechanical aptitude of a cockroach. Look—for the nth time. . . .” They heard the snap and watched the lid come off. “It's a big mystery, isn't it? That's what's too much to ask her to learn. She'd rather cut herself. A human being learns from experience—but my mother?”
Sonia had opened the cellar door to get the broom. She was sweeping the pieces of glass together. She bent over to move some sheets of newspaper to get the last slivers.
Leo spit in the sink. “Rubber. You sure know how to pick a duck, Mrs. M—like Pop knows what he's buying in the auction. You're not a cook—you're a taxidermist!”
Sonia was sweeping the glass onto a card she had taken from the window sill.
“Do you want me to translate that for you? A taxidermist stuffs a dead bird with sawdust so you can hang it on the wall. You'll know as much how to cook when you're a hundred and four as you knew the day you were born.”
“Isn't he awful? My brother!”
“A nice, quiet, cheery household here.”
Sonia's jaw was shaking. She dumped the glass into a brown paper bag and set it by the chair next to the door to the yard. She straightened up but didn't turn around.
“Ah! She's insulted! That's good. You were born an animal and you raised animals. . . . Well—the beer ought to be hot enough by now.”
She turned around. “Drink it slow—it's cold like ice.”
“Children!” said Becky, coming back to the dining room. “American children. It pays. Wait,” she said to Reba, “you'll find out what a mother is.”
“Don't worry. I won't be a slave like my mother; I know how to enjoy my life.”
Sonia was wiping her eyes. Alvay! she thought. You should only enjoy till a hundred years. But first a man he can make a living let's see it?
“Am I an orphan?” said Reba. “Give me a sip, honey.”
“Educated!” said Ben, back at his seat again.
“You can show something for it, educated? Dummies! It's more sense in a dog! Something a plain farmer knows, respect for a human being, it's too much parents should expect from you?”
“Another brainstorm out of Minkevitz,” said Leo.
“Huh! The Lord arrives, his mouth open. It's your concern your mother has a leg? You'll pardon my opinion—you know—but to me I see from this house nothing but a stable. It's not animals you're here? Pigs! Apes! Wild Indians!”
“Ben, answer a confidential question: what would you do with a brain if you had one? Eh? It's not your fault—does any Diamond have a brain? Maybe Mike: his income tax for last year was bigger than your income and mine put together.”
“From my income you know something? From Mike's you know the same. They like to look big. She ever called up once Essie, she should say, ‘Becky, come to us, spend the day’? Let him have diabetes on the blueholel Ich kock af 'em Tatn zaynem!”
“Do you see him breaking his back sixteen hours a day? And his money's not sitting in Merlin Street at two and a half per cent. But you can have the consolation there's one man dumber than you—SM: you're not paying taxes on a lot in Swamptown.”
“And the Building and Loan,” called Sonia from the kitchen, “they paid ten cents on a dollar? Oy did we lost!”
“Nor yenem's hoyke zait er,” said Sam.
“I didn't say 7 was smart. How could I be smart if you're my father? Now if it was the milkman I'd have a chance. But Ben thinks he's smart. He's scraped himself a baby pile and he sits on it. If you sat on the toilet, you'd do yourself more good. You should take a look at Mike's house in Palm Beach. You don't have to be Mike—but at least he knows what money's for. Do us a favor, Ben—after all your experience—enlighten us: what's the purpose of your existence?
“Hear hear,” said Abe.
“Aza jealous shvuntz—you're my age and you made what I made, then you can say something: a success in my first business nobody could touch me, in every block you can see a clock mine; and now everybody has a clock, I put them in neon signs. I don't have a distillery? Let's see you start in a new business from the bottom you're forty—let's see you even go in for yourself a first time; it wasn't a government to take care of you, you and Abe too, you wouldn't have a pair of shoes the both of you.”
“Ben,” said Becky.
“You know what life is? College graduates! A painted face; in front, a pair tsitskes geshvullene—in back, a tooches zi ken shuckeln; every hole hers drowned in perfume it can't come near her a skunk: that's what you learn it's important in America? A honey a dear, knip! smutsk! he said and she said.
“The purpose from my life! Hair a mien kligsheft! Iftieher groyser—thirty-five-dollar-a-week college cocker! A man should kill himself for a dollar morning to night—it's my philosophy of life? Or it's capitalism makes me? I was twelve years old somebody cared in the United States I lived I died? One cent somebody gave me? It's everywhere gimme gimme gimme, it's fake it's swindle, one kills the next. For every swindle the next one tries he should put it on me, I can give him back ten—a hundred—he'll be sorry he started up! I should be an angel, I should suffer? Not me, Yankel. But I made it it should be like that? The system stinks to the sky, the whole United States is full of shit.”
“In Russia is good?” said Sam. “Answer me that! In Russia, bonds you would have? Your house you would have? And your machine?”
He had pulled out the piano stool from behind Leo and was sitting on it against the edge of the open door to the store. He had opened it so he could see if anybody stopped at the front step to look in the windows.
“Yold. It's important a machine—or a man? In Russia it's the whole civilization is a new thing. In Russia now he couldn't get in medical school Norman? In Russia I would sell clocks? There a Jew can somebody be. It's a bargain the United States?”
“I know everybody says that about medical school, but all through high school and college—and now—I can't say anybody ever discriminated against me.”
“That's because of your great charm—or you're blind; I'll let you decide which. My own pleasant experiences at Wallow I won't mention, but the whole school can blow up before they'll get a cent out of me. Half the students are Jews—and not one teacher in a hundred. In four years I didn't have one, and neither did you, and we weren't in the same College. Now there's one Jew in the English department—because Wallow specified him in his will. Didn't Clark tell your class there were too many Jews going into teaching?”
“You're distorting. She meant that here we took tests, it was civil service, but how many openings were there?—I got the only one that year—and if anybody thought he might get a job out of town, the suburban school boards weren't hiring Jews: she was just being realistic.”
“Didn't she tell Robert the Red to get out of Education?”
“On account of his accent.”
“He got an appointment, didn't he?”
“She wasn't wrong: his oral kept him in the state stores two years—he would have been first on the list.”
“But the Board's OK!”
“I wouldn't call that anti-Semitic—he's teaching English, not Jewish.”
“Are they running a public school system or a finishing school for Miss Worthington Kish-mir-in-tooches? Or maybe they're training Bell Telephone operators?”
“Her teacher Mr. Stotesbury Reba's what she worked for him”—Sonia was bringing in the cherries, two dishes at a time—“she didn't come to me for an advice, a bachelor he was old enough he could be her father he wanted she should go out with him?”
“Sonia! Don't be a fool! You think it's not anti-Semites in the United States? A Jew for President you'll never see it.”
“Dummy!” said Sam. “In the United States it's pogroms?”
“Not yet,” said Leo.
“In Russia Ben might have been another Trotsky,” said Abe.
“Who needs to be Trotsky? A plain life of nature, on the farm—an air a man can breathe, no smoke, filth, consumption. Down from the tree with our own hands we take our fruit, and the vegetables what we planted in the ground we eat—no meats, no poisons from cans. No hate—no gimme gimme, every pig his nose in the garbage. There a farmer don't lose everything he sweated his life away.”
“You saw it?” said Sam. “How many kulaks Stalin killed, you counted them? Your mouth you don't can open you're afraid you was be a slave in Siberia you like it?”
“Sam, what are you talking for? Do you know anything? Talk sense, I'll listen as good as the next one. When you know from your ass, don't talk.”
“You know something? In Russia you can starve for a piece bread you know it? In the United States, even it's a depression, you can starve, hah?”
“Don't be a child When everybody works—you know so much! unemployment is in Russia, big philosopher? go ahead, you tell me!—when everybody works, and from that everybody takes out what he needs, how can you starve? Nobody has too much, nobody don't have enough!”
“With the mouth is cheap,” said Becky “What's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine.”
“I'm on Pop's side,” said Abe “I'm a capitalist and I'm proud of it.”
“Two A-1 kaptsn—excuse me, capitalists between the both of them they have five dollars in the bank I see it I'll believe it.”
“Not one carrot you didn't take in the mouth yet,” Soma said to Leo “And I cooked them special for you.”
“If you listen to him, he's the world's number one humanitarian I'll fix his wagon Tell me, Ben, in the last ten years have you once given one cent to charity?”
“As much as you—your mother washes your clothes, a sour, farshtinkene bachelor you still live at home—as much as you gave I gavel”
“I should live so long, nobody gives like Leo—every year he sends in the federation plenty.”
“He gives, he sends in? Good for him—a poorets! He has something to give? Maybe in his position he has to keep a front And who pushes the check in his own pocket, you know? Soma! Have a little sense? With all my might I work I'm ready I can drop—I should buy him his Buick the crook he sends in a sob story from some orphans' home? You know him? You'll ever see him? Fershvinden the gelt! There's your wonderful charity! When I give—don't worry! Listen—some sense you can hear yet?—so hear It's not the first time I'm thinking it all over I'll go—one day, soon, I'll go in the poor house in this room, in that, I'll make a peep—here's an old man, hardly he lifts his glass tea, he'll tell me from his life story—I don't give him pennies, I push him five dollars in pocket, I go further yet, I see an orphan, a boy a beautiful head golden curls, a cripple, I'll put my hand on his shoulder, I'll walk with him in the garden, he'll explain me the flowers, slow I'll go he can keep up—I'll give him five dollars! That now I call charity There can I something accomplish! No middle-man, no crooks, no Buicks! In prisons too I'll go!”
“I give too, I give plenty,” called Soma She came to the doorway, she had been cutting the sponge cake on the kitchen table “A blind man comes in the store, ask he ever goes away I don't give him something?”
“What? Where do you come in? Once in six months der farkockte Iyd creeps in with his screwdriver he takes down your pishka he finds five-six pennies Let him screw, better, slot machines in the subway, he wants money he can help orphans.”
“Of all the phonies!” said Leo “You have an orphan in your own family—you've done a lot in your life for Rosie and Sol”
“I should have a dollar every time I tell Becky—ask her—as soon Sol finishes high school I take him in the business.”
“Meanwhile it's all right if he lives in ten different foster homes.”
“I should take them in? Who can live with Rosie—a wild animal a moron she can't make a home for her one son She didn't have a fight with Soma she wanted to tear her hair out, he had to run down from the third floor Foley he should pull them apart? Let your mother say if it's not the truth My family! It's not her family too?”
“Zi zorgt zich fer mir?” Sonia was carrying in the sliced sponge cake.
“Nobody's telling you to take them both in Rosie can stay on relief and peddle shoelaces.”
“He's a good kid,” said Abe “I taught him how to fish Those summers he was at Cedar I never knew he was a Diamond.”
“She don't have enough problems Becky? What she went through with Flora she's alive it's a wonder.”
“Let's see how many kids he gets,” said Reba “People in glass houses . . .”
“Leo? He'll stink a bachelor his whole life Af yenem's hinten 'siz git tse shmeisen How many bucks you give to Rosie let's hear.”
“She your sister When my sister comes to me for money, that'll be my problem.”
“That's one problem you'll never have,” said Reba
“I'm as good as the next one,” said Ben “You're worse than me.”
“Talk out of both sides of your mouth, rationalize Human beings who live in the world hold a responsibility to their fellow men—but you need to think everybody else is like you. That's how you like to live? Good It's your life.”
“Charity begins at home,” said Becky “My conscience are clear.”
“You said something,” said Ben “Here his mother on a sick leg she stands in front of his nose, and er zorgt zich for Sol Rosie's It costs him something, his big heart? When I say I'll do something, it's done We'll see who it's here the selfish one You can sit here You can watch on your mother the gangrene it soon crawls on her hips You should see her black in the coffin you can't wait? Murderers—it already looks you in the eyes! That's a Minkevitz brother does it? I can stand here to see it? Twenty dollars, a hundred dollars, for Soma this minute I'm calling up a specialist!”
“Who's there on Sunday?” said Becky
“Sonia, tomorrow I call the American Hospital, we make an appointment with the top specialist, I'll take you myself.”
“He'll give me a new leg?”
“The operations they make now, your leg it'll be like new.”
“When it grows hair on my palm I'll see it”
“Ben, for you I have just one word—just two little words of advice as they say in France—know thyself, brother. . By the way, Mrs M, did you light the water?”
“Oy, ‘chu’ goor fergesen.”
“As usual. Sol, run down to the cellar and light the water.”
“Don't listen to me,” said Ben
“We're leaving, Mom,” said Reba
“Leaving? What leaving? You can't taste a piece cake? I just baked it today.”
“Wrap me up some to take home.”
“Me?” said Ben “Oh no! But I can see it in your mother's nose like it's Sunday today over the whole world, in six months she has a stump I give you my word!”
“Bite your tongue,” said Becky
“It's not Sunday . . .” said Sol, going toward the cellar door with a safety match
The kitchen clock began to strike eight
“Hear?” said Ben “You hear? The clock strikes for the truth!”
“Kee-rist!” said Leo, “will you look at the time!” He dropped his fork, swallowed the bottom of his glass of beer, jumped up, pulled up his pants, and buckled his belt
“Tea I'm bringing in, where are you running, sit down.”
Sam stood up. Soma grabbed him and Leo and pulled at them in opposite directions. “Where are you sitting?” she said to Sam, and “Where are you running?” she said to Leo “Go away, slop, you can't see he's not done? You're not done yet, sit down, here it's your tea.”
“Should I say it in Jebip? Your duck was pasta-fazoo—nobody else in the world can make a duck like you—but I'm fini Is there a secret reason you didn't make chicken? A naye mishugahs! For ten years I've been working on her to break the habit of cooking chicken seven days a week—now it's only Sunday, Monday, and Thursday A housewife for thirty years, and how many meals can she make? OK, Pop, you can sit down now.”
He padded up the stairs
“So what I should make? Vus likest di yuh?”
“Sonia,” said Becky, “where are you running? Sit down already Rest your leg.”
Sonia called up the stairs “So what I should make, tell me? An advice you can give? Suggest! Suggest!”
They heard Leo's belches and then his slippers on the bare steps to the third floor
Sonia wiped her neck with her apron “The restaurants he likes—who knows what kind drek they put in, se hut mahn bubba's tam!”
Sam had sat down.
“Grubber pimpusnik—you couldn't wait? You had to run in in the middle, he eats like a bird, you couldn't let him findish? You threw away his appetite Horse, you're worried you won't eat? Don't worry! You'll eat more than anybody put together!”
“Once a mule, always a mule,” said Ben “Soma, I tell you, in hell you can't find aza bunch cheapies.”
“In hell now I'm elected? I work my way up in America? Pig,” she said to Sam, “to wash your hands first me darf dir zugen? Go to the sink!” She followed him and took the open can of cherries off the sink “Soap in the cherries I need yet.”
She looked into the teapot and carried it into the dining room Then she came back for glasses
“Mule! The dishtowel it's all you can find?” She jerked it away from him “Every other towel it's already disappeared?”
She brought four glasses to the dining-room table
“It's his leg? Him it hurts I cook on a black leg? As long it stands the auction, shmattes he can carry home in the last war they threw them away, he's satisfied. It's room yet under the counter he can push in more boxes, which nobody'll ever open them again biz Meshiech vit kimmen, ba im iz frailich—a customer wants something it takes a year to find it”
Sam came in carrying a plate of soup, and she went back to the kitchen Ben blew and sipped at his tea and sighed. He kept his spoon in the glass, holding it with an index finger, his thumb under the glass
“Your husband! Another diplomat, twice a year with one foot in the bath. Your wife's leg it don't concern you? She should have a servant it don't convince you? Look how he eats When he pours on the pepper, you can faint Ask him what he eats? Chaym Shmendrik—you'll make an end too Already in your nose I can see the acids You can yet in front of him sit a plate meat and potaytes (never mind you're falling from your feet)—he don't ask no questions You're a horse, you're dirt—by him is the same Ask Becky I let her move an inch three days a week, nine to seven—the cleaning, the washing, the ironing—”
“Enough I don't give her every week? What she's saving for, ask her?”
“I save? Once in three years I buy a pair shoes I should have to come to him? Here, fress.”
Sonia plopped down his plate
“You took in a girl before already the whole day,” said Ben. “Don't tell me.”
“Don't tell me don't tell me How she did the panya, you saw? In the hall behind the banister you saw? Take more soap here, there under the radiator it's still some water wipe up With the mop they make clean! A sprinkle, a shake—done! Every second I should watch her? I can do it myself already. They want to work? To play all day the radio—this they know, se grilltzt in kup; no radio it don't suit them. I got to pay them yet? I get two dollars a day? And how many pair stockings from the store? And slips?”
“And the rings I lost?” said Becky.
“Hon,” said Reba, “Anne will hate us if we're late. I'm going upstairs for a minute; be ready to leave as soon as I come down.”
“Aie!” said Ben. “Beautiful children! They took a knife to you they could make it quicker. And who's to blame? Who raised them? If not you, who?”
“If not you who! I'm a stone?”
“Not better a stone, you should be a garbage can?”
“It pays you should kill yourself?” said Becky. “I give the girls credit today they're not in such a hurry to have babies. Reba's not rushing in.”
Alevay! Sonia pulled in her upper lip with three teeth and stared at her apron. What else? It's the Yankee gets the credit. Reba can show she'll do what I did, I'll be glad to see it. Run to the department store every Monday and Thursday—yuh. Aza mitzve! Bolt af 'em dieer, az me hut nit k'in shtik flaish—dus, yuh. And when it comes a baby, bolt darf min es araynvarfen in incubator—if it's alive even. The night before I had you I washed out a tub clothes. Who heard from needles, vitamins, overweight goor? How many steps I climbed I was pregnant with you, we lived on the third floor and even winter in bitter cold I took out Leo—even it was only a half-hour—he shouldn't be so pale, he should have an appetite? And with you in the beginning—Leo was just two, I could leave him in the street even a second?—you could sit down with the baby in the top step like me and take on the other arm Leo and slide down one step at a time the two flights I want to see it. Diaper service we had? Washing machines? With a stranger anybody left a baby he could go to the movies? Or three o'clock at night on my knees I fell asleep scrubbing the kitchen? All cakes and no shit—dus vilt the Yankee.
“Mom! Are you deaf?”
Sonia jumped up.
“Do I have to stand on my head to get some hot water around here? Where's that goddamn kid? Can't he even light a boiler? And tell him to bring up a towel; not next year—now. And where are my shirts? Didn't I tell you to get them yesterday? What did you do with them?”
“I got them, you'll find them, don't worry. Stop hollering, you'll make yourself hoarse.”
She took a towel out of the bottom of the china closet and started for the stairs.
“Sonia,” said Becky, “where are you going? Sol will take it—he don't want to be bad to his mother.”
“It's all right,” said Sonia. “Read, baby, read.”
“The baby,” said Ben, “the genius, also a cripple. He's not old enough he should have some sense? His mother she can hardly drag herself around, vus vaist er? She still stuffs him in his mouth while he reads.”
Sonia flicked her husband in the shoulder with the back of her hand. “Farkockte Iyd, farshtinkene. Fresst? Go take a match and see if it burned out the fire in the cellar. Leo has to shave, and you sit.”
She stepped up on the landing.
Sam put down the wing he had been gnawing and got up wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Behind Sol's chair, he reached over and walloped the book off the table.
“You ate? Take up Leo the towel.”
Sol picked up the book. “You broke the back.”
“What you eat you know, always with the head in a book?”
They heard Leo again. “Are you really out of your mind? Go right down this second and send Sol up with the towel or tell him I'll break his head. And for the sixty-seventh time, where are the shirts?”
Sol went to the stairs, the book in his hand. He stopped on the landing and waited for Sonia to get down.
“He hollers—he don't mean it. You only have one brother, kind.”
As Sol went up, Reba came down.
“Gee it's cold up there. It's as cold as outside. Leave it to my father! It was better when we had coal.”
They heard Leo again. “You can forget anything I ever did for you—you don't owe me any favors; do anything to yourself you want-don't talk to anybody, knock your head against a wall; but when I ask you to do something for Mom, you might at least have the decency to think of somebody else for a change. Do you ever stop dreaming? Do you have any feelings?”
“Wouldn't you know,” said Reba “The thermostat's set for sixty-eight.”
“Let me maybe give a move the macherayka, arayn loyft er in der minit.”
Sam stepped into the room as Reba re-set the thermostat.
“What are you monkeying?” He moved the pointer back.
“It's freezing upstairs, Pop. Turn on some heat.”
“What? Who says it's cold? Touch me.” He held out his hand.
“Smart guy! Long woolen underwear and two sweaters he's wearing: touch me ! My hands can be falling off—Maigst dich shaimen.”
“Aza cheapie. Sonia, you got a toothpick?”
“On the closet in kitchen it's a box.”
The phone rang once. Sonia went to the stairs. “Sollie, holler up one ring.” To Reba she said, “Button up your coat. You can't sit home one night? Out, out—only out?” “Thank you very much for the supper, Mom,” said Abe “Don't listen to what Leo says If my mother could cook like you, I'd be single too.”
“It's a new hat? Every Monday and Thursday by you it's a new hat.”
Leo came in in his shorts
“Look how he goes—a nakete It's July?” Soma ran into the kitchen
“My darling sister—do me a favor and stay mad It's so kind of you to give your mother a break and let her feed you once a week.”
Sonia came back with a towel and reached up to wrap it around Leo's shoulders “When she's so busy—Bridge comes before a mother.”
Leo went into the kitchen. The towel fell on the floor.
“Maybe I'll see you Wednesday, Mother—don't expect me Good bye, Becky. Good bye, Ben”
“Good bye,” said Becky “Have a nice time”
Abe opened the door and followed Reba out into the store Soma was going after them, carrying the towel, when she heard Leo.
“Goddamn it! Do you know it's 110 in here?”
He jammed down the top sash next to the stove, the chains jumped and quivered
“What are you doing?”
“Lunatic! Are you insane? I'll end up in a lunatic asylum yet Do you mind if I don't suffocate? Did you ever hear of such a thing?”
“What did I do? Un di gaist a nakete! A finstere choolem af mahne sunim! You want to get sick? Close the window, please, kind! Just see how the wind blows—all over the papers are flying. . . .”
He pulled her away from the window
“I don't know whether to laugh or shoot myself Is there another house like yours anywhere in the civilized world? Are you a human being? Will you do me a favor and tell me what good it is to scrub a floor if you're going to bury it under filthy papers? Between the papers on the floor and the paper on the wall, this is without a doubt the filthiest kitchen this side of Japan Is it any wonder I can't bring anybody in this house?”
He began to dial Soma turned from the window, brought the teapot back to the kitchen, filled a glass on the table, and began pouring the tea from one glass to another He has to holler. Elaine it's still on his mind In and out a hundred times a day Sam tracks in dirt instead every day Rina should wash the floor, papers I put down—the thick-covered pages, no white spaces should show the dirt. What does Leo know? For the floor a dollar a week he wants to pay?
“Pick me up at nine,” said Leo into the phone “I'll be outside.”
When he turned, Sonia said, “Here's your glass tea I made you—it's not hot; drink.”
“Take it away before I spill it in your face Your mouth is leather, but I can be scalded. Did you decide yet where you hid the shirts?”
“Where I hid them? You don't have? They're not in the bureau?”
“Am I sorry I moved home!”
He opened the sideboard drawer that worked He looked in both sides of the closet underneath
“You think I have all night to look? If this happened once there might be some excuse You never remembered a fact in your whole life.”
“I got too much on my mind.”
“Aw, poor girl! You have a limited brain, that's all What would you do if you had to make a living in the outside world? You couldn't hold a job for three days You're lucky you got hold of Pop You think he's worse than you are? You're as bad as he is Yeah, I know—jobs you had four dollars a week.”
“Twelve dollars In that time—”
“I wouldn't have a suit tonight if I didn't remind you six times Friday to go to the tailor Make me sick.”
“Now I remember! They're on the bureau the shirts in my room I left them See! You had to get excited? A person can make a mistake Now it's cold already—drink”
She held up a glass half full
“You know what you can do with it.”
He padded upstairs.
Sonia put down the glass and tried to shut the window, but the sash was stuck “Stinkbarrel,” she called to Sam, “close the window” She bent over to straighten some papers When Sam came in, she said, “And with your greasy luhpes don't touch the curtains which I wash and iron them when you're snoring.”
“Sonia, come in and sit down,” said Becky. “It's not time you should eat?”
Sonia went into the dining room
“Wherever it comes an evil into the world, first it tries out on me On one side, a son-in-law an ulcer and an emic Here, it's a man a stomach like a horse, which he only cares the auctioneer should be a millionaire Fer vus befailt mich? Chicken it's not good enough any more? Rubber it's the duck? Ich bin nisht k'in expert cook? In restaurant Reba ken gaien, she can pay three dollars a meal me ken nisht nehmen tse mul. The old can opener it's not good enough? So a new mother get too! Kill me—and take an airplane
I made out until now? Two hands I still have? Another mother she wants to depend her kids should take her in?—she can depend. Me? Go slow, uncle! My kids I don't need yet, thank God! To the poorhouse I won't go!”
“To crazy house you'll go?”
Kliger Iyd! Abi me darf im nit iz er bolt du She should have an end like the Frankel—that came to her yet? So dumb to pregnant every year she wasn't (And not so dumb to wash out her insides with vinegar, which she was sure even Becky did it.) Nine kids she had alive the Frankel, and how many dead? It was any wonder, on the slice machine she sliced herself off a finger, to her husband she took the cleaver? He was just in time or he would have been by a head shorter and to him the thought would never come what good luck God sent him he was laying in a ward only an arm bone smashed in a hundred splinters God watches—what else? Four weeks past Warsaw it happened! Not three-four weeks the lucky one was back in the store they let his wife out az och un vail Everybody who went into them said she was all right; but it passed three-four days and when the house was asleep, in her nightgown shtillinkerhait she crept downstairs, and in the kitchen she boiled a bucket oil Shah-shtill she went back up, ripped off his covers and took care of him good from head to foot—it wasn't enough, the bottom from the bucket she saved for the two babies Right there in the bed they all three would have made an end, but next door the blacksmith the oldest girl heard screaming, and he was the one saw Mrs Frankel in her nightgown throw herself under the truck
Leo came in and went into the kitchen Soma followed
Ben raised his eyes, lifted the tip of his nose with thumb and forefinger, and whistled—his standard comment on affectation “You're going to suffocate her?”
Becky flushed “A real sheik.”
Leo got his coat off the cellar door hanger, and Soma held it for him He looked at the clock and he looked in the mirror He drank some of the half-glass of tea waiting on the side of the sink. He yawned.
“See—you yawn It shows it's empty in your stomach. Honest to God! I know—I know by experience that that is.”
The doorbell rang and he went out.
“Now I can eat—my heart gnaws at me already.”
Sonia filled the roaster with hot water and set it on the stove Then she filled a plate and carried it to the table.
“It melts in the mouth He knows what good is? He's crazy my son He makes a mountain from a moth hole. He screams on me you think he means it? He's nervous What it's on his heart, he lets it out on me He'll be somebody Leo—you'll see it For Mike he was too honest A gold watch from the whole office they gave him he graduated.”
“Gahntser knocker, it stinks from his mouth What he tells you you know.”
“He knows what he's doing—you can listen to me.”
The pulp she had torn out of a slice of rye bread fell on the rug, and she bent over to pick it up She straightened and bit off a piece
“He left once home his glasses, the teacher sent him home—how old was he? maybe ten—I went back with him, the teacher said, ‘I only wanted he should learn a lesson people can depend on him He needs his glasses? With his eyes shut can Leo do his homework.’ Don't worry about Leo Show me it's another American boy he dahvined to twenty-one Leo never came to me for one penny Only he hollers.”
“Just like Norman! He says, ‘Don't be a miser all your life, Dad. I need five bucks’ Bucks! That's what he knows—to pull from his father bucks.”
“He was thirteen Leo already newspapers gave out, in ball games peanuts he sold.”
She bit deep into half a peeled cucumber
“And maybe a college boy needs something, if he comes to his father for a dollar it's a crime? If we didn't have it, that's another thing Maybe you want he should dig ditches? He has beautiful hands Norman So in six months I didn't hear him once lift a finger to the piano, but he finishes dental school his hands will be his fortune.”
“Let me live to see it! Let him bring in more than me! The office I make him I don't ask him he should pay me back one penny For my bucks I won't have to come to him He won't take a good piss on my grave.”
“Toilet, close your mouth better Listen to that mouth his You can't talk nicer? ‘Vulgarian’ That's what Norman tells him—Norman gives it to him good You didn't have a mother, Soma, it's no excuse Ben shouldn't know better When we got married, if I let him all day Sunday he laid in bed and naked strolled around the apartment.”
“She knows The body from a man is nature—a wonder—a light in the eyes”
Becky flushed “From a man yet! From a woman even it's not to look at The top, when you're a young girl, is not bad But the bottom—what's so beautiful to see? Feh! Sit, Soma, sit—I'll bring you in your glass tea.”
Ben looked at the floor
From the kitchen Becky said “What does a man know? Edythe's got her hooks in him Norman, he don't know if he's coming or going A man He can't blow his nose yet The pisherka She cooked him a meal tonight? Oh would I love to see it! She can make tea she's a cook.”
“Leo's not in such a hurry to get married For what? How many girls he had already you can't count them He knows where he has it good He's going to find another one like me?—he'll keep looking!”
“Nature gives us a body we should take care of it, every corner in Nature is a miracle, a treasure. . . . Maybe a doctor Norman will be yet To heal people—any other profession compares? A weak heart, cancer, gall stones—we need them? In Russia now they can take eyes from dead people, and make the blind they should see Every goddamn lousy disease science will make an end to And in the end—old age! A man should have to die, like an animal? The appendix, Nature made a mistake?—old age, too.”
“Af yener velt.”
“I'm forty-one years young—not old what I can do now I couldn't do it when I was twenty.”
Becky brought in the glass of tea.
“You hear how he's dreaming?” said Sonia.
Becky sat down.
“He should live forever—only Flora they had to take away For what? She brought in once a little pussy cat, I didn't see, in the bathtub she drowned her She laughed, Florelle So—a baby has no sense, but God—how He took away Flora it's any different? Who gave her a weak heart? Me And who gave me? A little girl shouldn't take out her sled? She came in on fire, she wouldn't let me feel her Only a wurst sandwich she wanted—with mustard on both sides, and chocolate milk And with a hundred and four degrees heat' What did she know? A bird! In the hospital she was still playing ‘It's so funny, Mommy,’ she said, ‘the doctors are so funny Babcock and Lipschitz.’ ”
Becky coughed She said, hoarsely, “She used to say, ‘Mommy, you're young and fool-i-sh yet.’”
She couldn't stop coughing.
“Sam, bring in a glass water.”
The water didn't help Becky's eyes bulged. Blood filled her white neck and face.
“I'll bring in the digitalis.”
Ben went out the back door After Flora had died, Becky had shut herself up, and Soma had recommended the house next door so Becky could have company The house went for $6,000, and remodeling cost $3,000 The private entrance and the third-floor bathroom and kitchen would soon pay for themselves, and then the rent would pay the taxes and more yet, and in a few years he would sell the house at a profit, after living in it free
He came back with the box of pills, panting Becky was pale
“Give her, give her,” said Soma She had another glass of water ready on the table
Becky swallowed a pill She put down the glass and looked at her lap
“Go to bed better Ben will bring you up a glass tea”
“And the dishes? I wanted to help. . . .”
“A new fashion! You wash and I watch ! Go, go”
“It was a beautiful dinner”
“In how many years I never tasted peas they should be so sweet. . . So next year, we're all you'll invite me.”
“I'm such a coward. . . .”
Sam pushed back his chair “I have to go to toilet.”
“Hust shoyn es loyfenish, in draird eran?”
Sonia went down to the cellar to relight the boiler, Sam had turned it off She went upstairs to make the beds and get the wash together After the first week she would turn her own sheet and Sam's over, and every other week she changed them, Sol's and Leo's beds she changed every week, and Sol and Leo got a second sheet This was the week when all four beds were changed. She started on the third floor. When she finished here, she wrapped a sheet around the other pieces, tied it, and rolled the bundle down to the second-floor landing.
She did her own room last Reba had moved out in June, and Soma had left the double bed in the second-floor front room and had taken the middle room She was forty-nine and Sam was sixty The open doorway between the two rooms was blocked by the dresser from their first bedroom set The two top drawers, lined with old newspaper, were still filled with Reba's relics Making the bed, Soma had to be careful when she moved it—one of the casters was loose and if it fell out she would have to ask Sam to stick it back It was an old iron bed Against the wall facing her pillow was a glass-doored bookcase with three rows of five shelves each It was filled with sets Leo had bought at auction The wall over the bookcase was bare except for an inch of old, un-papered gas pipe Later, framed full-page color photographs of the faces of Thomas Mann and Einstein would hang there, cut out of Life—Leo was a charter subscriber and saved every issue for fifteen years
From the landing Soma shoved the two bundles over the banister In the kitchen she sorted and counted the pieces aloud before she pushed them deep into the laundry bag—every other Monday she sent out a hundred-piece damp wash She didn't need to write down the numbers
She couldn't work the rope her hands were chapped, some of the finger tips were split It was awkward and painful for her to squeeze a lemon or tie her shoelaces After Edythe first shook Soma's hand, she told Sol it felt like a tree. Five years from now, in 1942, when Soma was at City Hall to apply for citizenship, the clerk stopped trying to take her fingerprints—he said, “What have you done to your hands, Mom?” She said, “I sit on the rocking-chair too much”
Sol was reading in Leo's chair, leaning back against the wall with his feet up on the sideboard A slat nailed to the floor kept the chair from slipping He got up and bounced the heavy bag for her, tightening the noose in the neck, and tied the rope Sol's hands were soft and smooth except for one callous—his “pencil bump,” on the first joint of the right middle finger
In the dining room Soma cleaned off the dishes and stacked them Holding a stack with two hands, when she lifted herself up into the kitchen she had to lean against the woodwork—she couldn't take hold of it The dishes filled the sink There was no drip-rack on the drainboard, she stacked the washed dishes upside down, in a chain To make room, she moved the glass holding used teabags to the window sill After the silverware and pots, she cleaned out the stove-burners She didn't have rubber gloves—she began using them after her eczema attack when Sol was drafted, and then she was never again permitted to use soap The dried dishes and silverware went back to the dining room, to the top half of the china closet (1942, too, was the last year for Pesach dishes, now kept apart on one side of the bottom half of the closet) The glasses stayed on the drainboard, they would go into the kitchen closet, above the sideboard, later—Soma would have to stand on a chair, and she didn't want to bother Sol now, a second time One dish was still unwashed—the serving plate, with the garbage, on the kitchen table There was no indoor garbage pail (it would stink up the kitchen), and most of the paper bags she brought home from shopping went into the store for re-use
Now Sonia went over the dining-room rug with a hand sweeper To sweep the kitchen, she had to shake out the newspapers Half of them were crumpled and torn She piled and folded them and set them behind the bag with the broken glass by the door. She swept the dirt together and dumped it off the card into the bag Then she went through the discarded papers on the floor at the back of the door, picking out the classified pages.
When she had spread these on the floor, she was ready to take out the garbage and dirt, but she was sweating She looked at Sol—he was still reading. She took her coat down from the cellar door and pulled it over her shoulders To pull the door shut after her, she had to take her hand away from her collar In the yard she found the garbage can lid on the ground, on top of the brick she used to hold the flattened lid down (The brick had come from the pile the builder had left with Ben last year) She saw a cat's eyes, halfway up the fence. She snarled at it and the cat climbed over to the alley Sam did not bring home stray cats or dogs any more, after a cat had shit on Reba's first good coat—a velvet coat with a badger collar—as soon as Soma saw a new cat or dog in the house she threw open the back door and came down with the broom on the animal's head At least here she could take the wash off the line any time—on Water Street when Leo was born there had been rats in the yard at night But she would throw bread crusts out for the sparrows in the yard, and when she saw sparrows bathing in a puddle she would say, “Klaine foyglich even have sense for theirs” She dumped the garbage off the plate, set the plate on the ground, dropped in the bag of broken glass and dirt, covered it with the folded sheets of newspaper, and set the lid and brick back on, she used one hand—the other held her coat together at the throat. She came back into the house shivering She bolted the door and hung up the coat She washed the serving plate, dried it and put it away, cleaned the sink with cleanser, and wiped her hands on her apron.
She set two chairs facing each other by the table She sat down on one and with her hands lifted her right leg to the other Sol didn't look up.
Did Leo say right—feelings for somebody Sol didn't have any? Any time he kissed her? said a kind word? Or a mean word, even? Only he listened When they gave him the wristwatch last year a graduation present, he told anybody “Thanks”? To the third floor he could let her take the towel—why? He hurt her leg he didn't care? She did him something bad? What? When? She didn't still feed him even?—he was her baby He didn't love her it couldn't be On Mother's Day—when? it was already five years?—he didn't sneak out to the 5 and 10 to bring her home six glasses? And the other time, a Saturday night, she was busy in the store, how he surprised her she came running in to wash the dishes—they were all done, dry, standing on the table, the sink shining like diamonds So? And since then? Five years later it wasn't the same Sol?
Read, only read When he wasn't reading? Always another book—never an end He studied too hard, he would be better off he went out sometimes—here Leo was right. He was pale, he didn't eat He needed this book? He couldn't write a book like this? Why not? Mark Twain made so much money then why Leo sold the whole set from Mark Twain's books to Rina for two dollars? They didn't have enough room? So many bookcases they had already, they needed another one? Not enough they had to bring in one through the third-floor window—to move it cost more than the bookcase The last one Leo brought home from the auction they had to put it in the dining room A house with books
Out of the corner of his eye, Sol saw her head drooping over her folded arms When it dropped too far, it jerked back, but she didn't open her eyes Her head dropped sideways too, toward the table or the floor, but she didn't fall As Sol watched he kept pressing down the cartilage in the tip of his nose Once he sighed
A heavy truck, passing by, shook the house
Sonia started—her eyes opened. Sol was still reading Before she thought, she interrupted him “I was asleep?”
He looked up, wrinkling his forehead “You were chrahckin'.”
She wiped her neck.
He farted silently, flushing Sam and Leo could fart openly before Soma While he waited, they heard Sam open the door from the store He came into the kitchen
“Skunk! Gai mir in draird! The second you walk in, you stink up the kitchen.”
Sol laughed “It was me! See—” He fanned the air to her with his book, holding his place “Pyoo!”
Sam reached over Sol's legs for the shaving-cup he kept his teeth in overnight
“You need to go to toilet? Now go, before he stinks it up you can't catch your breath.”
Sol got up, his finger in the book. Soma watched him go out He had a loose stomach? It was the soda Maybe he was stopped up—it wasn't too late, an enema she could still give him before she took her bath
Sam lifted and bolted the heavy solid insert Foley had made for the square he had cut out of the door to give them another window Sam raised the bottom sashes of the two windows and pulled in and bolted the shutters. He shut and latched the windows and went upstairs
Sonia felt cold. She took a match off the window sill and lit one of the front burners on the stove The thermostat was finished: every night Sam turned off the switch in the cellar. She was afraid to touch the switch.
There was a pencil on the window sill—she would surprise Sol. She slid an envelope from under the embroidered scarf on the sideboard and sat down at the table, turning her chair to have the back behind her. She began to write her name She spoke each letter. After the first name she stopped to wipe her neck. The table wobbled when she picked up her arms It was a round wooden table, from her first dining-room set; the legs were clawed C's with the backs attached, and there was some folded cardboard under one leg to cut down the wobble when you shifted your elbows. The oilcloth covering the table was crisscrossed with knife cuts New cuts became a problem for Leo almost ten years later, after he brought in a formica-topped table with tubular chrome-plated legs—Sonia kept forgetting to use the breadboard he had bought her Now, at the old table, she finished her last name, rested again, and then wrote the whole name a second time. Sol still wasn't back. She took part of the Sunday paper off the radiator.
When Sol came in she said, “You have a loose stomach?”
“No—one long bupka.”
Sonia showed him the envelope. “It's good?”
“All right—but it's not straight.”
“I got to write straight too? . . . I had more time, I could learn. I'll learn yet. Leo ever gets married, I'll have more time. . . . If I'll do it? It remains to be seen! Hah!” She blushed. “Let's see your father can say such a high word!”
She pointed to the newspaper. “A-n-d: this makes and, ain't it?”
“Right. And this?”
“And this? I can read it like I can dance. . . . He made something from this book the author?”
“He lost money on it”
“So—darfst mootshen zich?”
“Now he's famous”
“What good's money?”
“What good it is? Just go in Nate's delicatessen and see what you can get you don't have money. Af vus shtait de velt? Ze shtait af gelt Vus vaist di? You have scholarships. From the government it comes to you fifteen dollars a month. In Minkevitz it was nothing to eat in the house, to Pop's partner I had to go to beg a ruble for bread I cried, I didn't want to go Then somebody stole Brownie the cow, we didn't have milk.
“I didn't want to learn? Who let me? . . .” She wiped her neck. “Bin fitsh nuss, oogegusen mit shvais. . . . I didn't get scarlet fever I was fourteen, I'd know something. Wet to the bones I came back to Monya I fell asleep—too far I went on the trolley, in the pouring rain I had to walk back, in the dark. From seven in the morning to six at night I stitched sleeves on men's shirts, I didn't have time to eat supper—I went right to night school. In the hospital I saw they took off my whole head hair it came down to the waist. Oy did I cry!
“You read and write good? You had a stepmother you were twelve years old, you wanted to leave home? They say the sun in winter, it warms like a stepmother. And here was good? I wanted to go back I cried It choked me tomatoes, I couldn't take a tomato in mouth. I had somebody here? With Monya I lived, we had the wedding supper in her house, the gas we used up cooking she charged me for it.
“Her delivery with Ben it killed my mother. So I was the mumma. Sense I had? I was nine, I didn't see he had his hand in the side, I closed the trunk What did the doctor know? He was a doctor? Who knows what he was. So one finger is an inch shorter and crooked, too.”
She wiped her neck.
“Pop married again I went to live with the bubba. She saw a picture from my wedding, but not from Leo—not even Martin. Pop's picture she liked—a businessman, zair fine! . . . She said everybody would one day fly—on the roof they would keep wings. . . From Denksgivning she didn't know. Crutzmich, yuh: not one lid from a pot you couldn't leave off—Yussele was flying, he had a full ladle shit he should poison the Iyden. When the poem couldn't hear, Easter, we said, ‘So Christ has come out of the ground? You lie like a hound.’”
“What's a poer?”
“A poer? It's the Ukrainians—the goyim. . . .”
“What's the difference between a goy and a poer?”
“The difference? You say poer ! You want to know the history of it? . . .
“So let me tell you. . . Pesach maybe it fell a spoon on the ground (you think we had floors like here?), the bubba buried it it should be pure again. The cat's feet she tied up in little sacks, the cat shouldn't touch the Pesachdike dishes
“Oh were we dumb!—Iyden with goyim together! Pishechts we drank for a fever. In the flour mill in Minkevitz they put in the elecktrichestvo (let's hear your father can say that!), everybody came to push the button—they could feel it go through them—a miracle from Heaven!”
“You didn't come over until you were fourteen You could have gone to school in Russia for eight years.”
“You think it was like here? Where did it come a Jew he could go to school? One in a hundred For a doctor, maybe he had money could a Jew go in der Shvayts.”
“Der Shvayts! You don't learn from der Shvayts? . . . Chaider I went, sometimes.”
“What did your father do?”
“He was in the egg business From the poern he bought eggs, he had a wagon, to Zinkev he went, to Staraya Ushitsa, as far Proskurov.”
“Did you know your father's mother or father?”
“I was born the mother his still lived But her I don't remember The father, he died young A shaigets threw him in the head a stone.”
“Did you know the bubba's father or mother?”
“Go know! The bubba was already old Fon Bubba Tultse's time he wants to know! You need it?”
“Her name was Tultse?”
She laughed “Vus maint Bubba Tultse I should explain you? . . . It's from long ago—nobody it's alive ever saw it—so who knows from it? only they tell bubba mahnsas.”
The clock whirred It was five minutes to twelve
“Look how late it is Like a poorets I sit and talk.”
She went down to the cellar to turn off the boiler Then she went up to the second floor to turn on the hot water in the bathtub and light the gas heater In her bedroom she collected fresh long drawers, an undershirt, a petticoat, and a flannel nightgown, and carried them to the bathroom In the front room she picked up the bottle of rubbing alcohol on the marble top of the floor cabinet built in the alcove between the closets The closets were shallow—the few suits and dresses there hung parallel with the wall In the cabinet only one or two screws were left in the four door-hinges, the sagging doors, without handles or knobs, stayed shut in front of ten years' dust Set back above the marble, a mirror six feet high covered the door of a wooden medicine chest—also unused and undusted, containing a few bottles and tins with faded labels
Over the bureau against the front wall hung a brown photograph in a floral-carved oval gilt frame over two feet high, showing Sam, seated, with the moustache he had shaved off long ago (then only the curled, waxed ends in his wedding picture were off)—Soma, three months pregnant with Sol, standing a little behind Sam, touching his shoulder—in front of her, Reba, in a coarse home-knitted sweater—at Sam's right, Leo, in a sailor suit
Sonia changed the alcohol to her left hand and picked up the bench of her vanity dresser, which she never used and which still stood in Sam's room In the bathroom she lifted the shade to see if any lights were on next door The downstairs was dark, but Becky was reading a newspaper in bed Soma sighed She turned off the water
Downstairs again, in the kitchen, she pulled the radio plug out of the socket behind the refrigerator It was a small radio, on top of the refrigerator She plugged in the toaster The toaster stood on the sideboard—the cord didn't reach the table
She took a quart of milk, butter, and packaged white bread out of the refrigerator There was no breadbox in the kitchen
“Take out the cherry jelly too”
Sol called preserves jelly Soma did the food-shopping—every day, she bought everything in small quantity
She poured some milk into an aluminum pot and set it on the lit burner She put the bottle back and sat down
Sol looked up “I don't want no hoyt.”
“Don't worry—I'm watching.”
“If there's hoyt in it, you'll have to drink it.”
“It won't be no hoyt You want cold milk you'll run to toilet again.”
“You want me to vomit?”
“You won't vomit What you're so scared a little piece hoyt?”
She stood over the pot Another one knew what good is From hoyt you can vomit! And from a soft-boiled egg the white once let's see him eat it, he vomited from it he was a baby he could still vomit Now raw, like Sam, an egg she couldn't eat An appetite! He could clean up a plate anything—a true pig Sol she had to pour in cod liver oil—and the steak she gave him, he was little, just to chew up for the blood and spit it out?
She left the burner on and poured the milk into a glass at the stove, holding back the rim of skin with a spoon She carried the glass to the table, and Sol studied the surface of the milk
She made a slice of toast, buttered it, spread a tablespoon of preserves on it, and gave it to him He read while he ate She watched him eat Her mouth moved
She made a second slice
“Well, any hoyt you found?”
He didn't answer
She had started buttering a third slice (she used to say, “A sick person you ask—a healthy one you give”) when Sol said, “I don't want no more.”
“I already put butter on.”
“You eat it.”
She put it in the refrigerator with the other things and cleaned up She didn't want animals
She took out her upper plate and rinsed it off At night she kept it on her bureau, in a cup of water covered with an envelope
“You'll go to bed before I come down you'll turn off the stove?”
In the bathroom she undressed and hung her clothes on the door She felt the water in the tub and let the cold water run half a minute Then she sat on the edge of the tub soaking her feet
She soaped herself around good before she sat in.
Flora died, it was a wonder? A child survived it was a wonder Martin from fifteen months—he went into convulsions she tore her eyes out—three years she waited for him And Frances, after Reba—eleven months, it was her own fault she was in the ninth month she was running out to the stand and tripped, flat she stretched out on the floor, something it tore inside, Frances could never eat right And the flu? And later—Leo a bicycle under a truck (that was the end from bicycles—skates Sol had? it was enough), Leo in football a broken nose Or a Hauptmann, they should only tear him in little pieces
They survived, it was enough They should know what she did, a mother, it should come to her eppes appreciation—where? when? This one says, Are you blind? Can't you see the fork is filthy? That one, Don't tell me supper's not ready, I'll scream Everybody comes to me What do they want from me? Once a week like a clock she visits her mother—it can't be no other way?
A mother it comes to her cockroach? A cockroach it ironed your shirts, it makes your breakfast, it cleans your bathtub? You had to work out of town, from one furnished room to the next wandering, on Sunday night you unpacked your laundry case which I folded your shirts in it, it was your father hid in the ten-dollar bill in the tissue paper? And how many times I was ironing the shirts you hollered “stupid,” for you the collars they weren't soft enough? You can open the can? Good! You do it Who needs me? I'm not modern! So in the street throw me away and bring in a modern! That you want? You'll have it! You'll see how good it is! I can cook yet somebody else don't have to spit it out? I can clean?
—Ah! She's insulted!
Why not? Who took from her own mouth you should be well? I lived for myself?
She can't wait Reba she should stop teaching, she needs a baby? OK with me, kid
I didn't have scarlet fever I could go for a nurse the patients couldn't do enough for me, they'd know what it means to take care.
A second chance you don't get
Vi IZ di oolitsa,
Vi iz der shtieb?
Un vi iz di barishnya
Vus ich hu' zi lieb?
I can't read? God wants from me a diploma?
God! Er zorgt zich fer mir? Talk to the wall. Piep lyoodi karaya a sahm lyekhorobiet1
With the sober man
It stays on his lung
What the drunk
Lets out on his tongue
Just the Frankel? And the paperhanger Hoffman, two years ago?—it burned to death his daughter she took care of the house—him they let out it's not terrible, he won't hurt anybody—he'll maybe hang himself, but a cage is better? He works again but the eyes are not the same—he don't eat, he don't hear when you talk to him they'll run him over yet In the spring he's alive he'll make the kitchen—it's ten years
Slow-slow she got out of the tub—Oy . . . se shvindelt mir in di oygen From nowhere—What happened? Her jaw almost hit the sink—she caught the edge—her arm trembled—the bench fell over—she was sitting on the floor Oy a dinner, oy a finster a viester! Tears covered her eyes God, God—what were they sending her now?
The radiator was almost cold—she took hold of the top and pulled herself up She hunched over, breathing She stood up the bench and sat down heavily.
There was blood on the bathmat Then she saw the blood on her right leg, running down the bone and off the heel
She raised the leg to the edge of the tub The blood came faster, running off the calf She couldn't reach her things on the toilet She raised her hips and dragged the bench closer She got hold of the towel, sat back, and pressed a corner of it down on the break in the skin With her left hand she wiped her calf. The blood was still coming Her hands were shaking
That man was deaf Oh she should only sleep like him—anything it ever bothered him?
She was drenched with sweat With the towel in her left hand she wiped her neck and chest She kept the towel in her lap and leaned over for one of her shoes.
“Did you knock?” It was Sol, calling up from the dining-room door
“Wake up Pop I'm screaming my lungs out”
“Nothing fell—wake up Pop.”
“You hurt yourself?”
“'Siz goormsht, ich zug dir Wake up Pop”
His father was moaning In the hall light Sol looked at his father's face. The cheeks and gums were sunken There was a stain of drool on the pillow Sol touched him, and Sam opened his eyes
“Mom wants you in the bathroom”
Sam wiped his mouth and sat up Before he stood up he pulled his woolen undershirt down over his crotch, and he held it there with one fist as he went down the hall in his bare feet.
With the other hand, in one motion he pushed in the bathroom door and caught the pair of drawers that had held it shut He stepped over the gas-heater cord and latched the door. Soma had covered her breasts with her nightgown.
“So you're not dead—only deaf? Poor man-when do you get a chance to sleep yourself out? Di, az di shlufst nisht, bist di oys mensh.”
“What did you do?”
“Dummy! You're blind too? I did! You don't see what I did?”
Sam looked. The blood was still running, and her jaw was shaking.
“You're examining me? It pours from me a plate blood and he looks! Vus kikst di? Vus ich fiel, di eppes vaist?”
“Dummy!” he said “Nor reden vaist di”
The end of the toilet-brush handle was sticking out from under the tub Sam picked up the brush and cracked the handle across his knee He tore off a strip of nightgown at the hem, made a tourniquet, and held it
Sonia wiped her calf and waited Two or three limes he switched hands The blood had stopped.
“I can hold it On the dresser mine, go, you'll find cotton In medicine chest Leo's the tape.”
In the bathroom medicine chest there was only what Reba had left. Leo had insisted on this chest when the green porcelain sink under it had replaced the original antique, but he and Sol shaved on the third floor, where a sink and cabinet had been installed for the tenants who had lived in the two rooms there during the 20's, Sam—twice a week—used the kitchen
“And cheesecloth a yard”
Sam opened the door an inch Sol was still there
“Bring up from store the scissors and the roll cheesecloth.”
He waited for Sol to get out of eyesight.
“Go already,” said Soma. “To the auction you can run?”
He stepped out and closed the door.
No end Before Pesach, one side her head it came three stitches—she went to the icebox in the yard, she bumped a nail in the dark Two years ago she was running to see was he waiting yet in the cold for the trolley Leo when God sent her a typewriter—go know Sol left it there on the floor, the handle sticking out How many months it went by before her leg healed?
The asbestos shield of the gas-heater crackled Soma licked the sweat off her lip She looked at her shadow on the green window shade
It's left from me yet a shadow? Blood I poured out, teeth—it's yet a foot left? take it Zindik nit?—Anybody listens? Three beautiful children in America—a home (from Minkevitz it's anything left?)—you think it comes for nothing, this medina?
When Sam opened the door, Sol called up “I can't find the cheesecloth”
“On the middle counter, in back from the chair”
Sam leaned over behind Sonia and set the things on the window sill
“You can't move? Sol has to gruppa, he don't know where to look? Hand me the cotton”
He went out again.
The same place where Sol hit it Exactly where to go they knew The first time, I came out alive—they're not satisfied The first time you don't succeed. . . This time you did a good job, Uncle.
Sam came in with the bolt of cheesecloth and the scissors. He latched the door
“Vus bepshist di dort? Meshigene chaye, what you're doing you know?”
“Vus vaist? di? Di fresst, shloofst, cockst—dir ist frailich”
“Nor di vaist You don't need I should call Simkus?”
“Toyber Iyd—di kenst redden af 'em phone? Which first you have to get the right number Stop talking. Cut off a yard and a half cheesecloth”
Again meshigene? A lunatic like Chaim she wasn't, her father's brother—when from gallstones he was rolling already on the floor, still he wouldn't let in the doctor, he died he wasn't forty yet and under the stove sacks of coins they found
While Sam cut the cloth, she wet some cotton with alcohol and held it. Then he loosened the hem-strip The break in the skin stayed dry Soma looked at it and felt it before she applied the cotton Sam wrapped the cheesecloth over the cotton around the leg and taped it. Soma lowered her leg, and they watched The bandage stayed white
“Such healthy equipments God gave me! Another slave you don't need yet I'm good another hundred years I'm so good off! You can go back to sleep”
Sol was sitting at the top of the stairs, reading
Fifteen minutes later Soma came out, red and sweating, in her nightgown—her shoes on, laces flapping, over white cotton stockings Sol came out of the parlor, the back room that had been Reba's in the days of the tenants—and that Reba one night had refused to sleep in, the night of the day a stranger had died in her bed, a customer who had fainted in the store and was helped upstairs, that night Sam was sent to sleep there, and Reba slept with her mother
“Look how pale he is You worried for your mother? I slipped You thought it's something terrible? A scratch, a nothing—ich vais? You didn't have to wait.—Shah!” Her eyes widened, she stiffened and threw out an arm
Sol looked at her
She was listening After a half-minute she looked at Sol to see if he heard anything He raised his eyebrows and showed a palm
“Pop locked up?” she whispered
“I guess so”
In the summer her pocketbook had disappeared and Sam had found it in the alley empty Ben argued she had dropped it there on the way home from the bakery, but how could she have gone to bed without missing it—she put it under her pillow at night You don't know what you're doing any more, he said. But a robber could climb in through the parlor—the windows were unlatched.
They listened The bed creaked up the hall
“I'll go down and look,” said Sol
“Azoy zol ich laiben!”
She started and threw out her arm again—then relaxed, blew at the strands of hair on her eyes, and wiped her neck She had heard the hum of the refrigerator
Sam came down the hall.
“You locked up?”
“Vus shreist di? Once the store door you didn't forget, and he came right up to the bedroom the politsman he woke us up? Go down and see it's somebody trying to break in.”
He went down and in a minute came back up
“You're dreaming. Nahr, di vainst di vainig shloofst vair darf di zolst a halbe nacht anmvolgern?”
“It's snowing,” called Sol
He had identified the tapping on the windows and gone up the hall into the front bedroom He raised the shade.
Sam came up to the window and watched The street was covered, and the sidewalks The snow was falling thick in the light of the street lamp No one was walking The trolley tracks were covered
“A shaine zach,” said Sam
“A shaine zach! Reba darf varten in shnai until the trolley scratches itself out? She had to go out? Her shoes are like paper Zi shtait un friert”
They stood there watching
Sonia sang, in Yiddish
The moon and the stars
See what we're doing
Horses turn to cars—
The cat's still mewing,
There's no end to wars
Or old men chewing,
If children, then scars—
She hiccupped “Vair gedainkt mich? . . . Leo! Kind! He has to wander around yet, he has a warm bed at home? He knows a clean bed I made him tonight”
She turned to Sam “Ifshtai frie, hairst? Somebody falls on the cellar door you'll have a new story Take up the shovel and go out before you eat”
Sam turned back to the bed, and Soma reached out to pull down the window-shade Sol had fixed his forehead against the glass
“Come away from the window You want a cold?”
As he turned away, Sol saw a cockroach in the hall light in the doorway
“What? An animal? Where? Where? It's the snow it brings him out.”
She tiptoed to the spot Sol pointed to, but when she brought down her loose shoe there was no crunch—they knew the bug had escaped
1 Corrupt Ukrainian “The priest chastises the people and sins himself.”
Must-Reads from Magazine
t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.