THE CADRES OF that citizen's army which marched on the Pentagon on October 21, 1967 were composed of a coalition…
I: A Search for the Steps
The cadres of that citizen's army which marched on the Pentagon on October 21, 1967 were composed of a coalition which could never have come together ten years before, and were in fact held in a kind of suspension on this occasion only through what is considered—by reasonable consensus—the extraordinary abilities of the chairman of the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, David Dellinger, editor of the anarchist-pacifist magazine Liberation. Yet his previous experience for such mobilizations was surprisingly not very great. Assistant to A. J. Muste for years, he inherited some of the Reverend's prestige when Muste died in February 1967 while working on preparations for the peace parade in New York that spring. Consequently, Dellinger organized the April parade, rally, and assembly in the plaza of the UN of a host of peace groups whose number was probably so high as a quarter of a million people. By New York Times estimate, this support proved twice as large as a massive counter-rally in May of patriotic groups who chose to support the war in Vietnam. But when its size and success proved to have an absolutely discernible lack of effect on foreign policy, and the war in Vietnam escalated again, an open conference was held in Washington at the Hawthorne School on May 20 and 21 of the National Mobilization Committee. With the exception of Dellinger who was then in Hanoi, some of the figures attending were the Reverend James Bevel, one of the leading organizers of the April March and aide to Martin Luther King; Professor Sidney Peck, a co-chairman of the Mobilization and chairman of the Cleveland Area Peace Action Council; Professor Robert Greenblatt, national coordinator of the Mobilization and an early founder of the campus anti-war teach-ins; and representatives from numerous moderate peace groups, SNCC, SDS, socialist splinter parties, and a couple of Communists. On the rising enthusiasm which followed the New York March it was contemplated by many at this meeting to have what would probably be the greatest rally in American history. In Washington in the fall, they would attempt to gather a million people. That was the magnetic number originally discussed, and the key slogan drafted at this May meeting was Support Our Boys in Vietnam—Bring Them Home Now. The date was even picked: October 21; it seemed the best conjunction of a number of factors—the weather would still be good, there would be ample time after Labor Day to get out word of the action, and yet not so late that exam schedules would keep college students away. Already there was vague talk of civil disobedience.
It seems obvious that the idea for such a massive rally probably derived from the success and the organizational mechanics of the April March rather than in response to the lack of political effect that March had had on the Johnson administration—indeed there was hardly time to measure the effect. It is possible that if the April March had produced a noticeable de-escalation of the war, future peace rallies might have been more conciliatory—as likely, they would have turned militant. In fact, it probably made no real difference. Just as an intensive study of foreign policy usually succeeds in depressing any lover of democratic process because foreign policy is encapsulated and therefore tends to be self-governing, so political life on the American Left tends to have an inner development which bears little relation to subtle changes in the external political context. Severed from the trade-union movement by right-wing labor leaders' raids in the early years of the cold war, the American Left—until the rise of the Negro civil-rights movements—was in this interregnum, a profoundly middle-class phenomenon filled with bitter family rifts, great propriety, academic foundations, intellectual rigidity which reacted to cataclysmic political changes outside the way a patient reacts to an operation (misery, nausea, and convalescence) and much skill in internecine organizational war (not unlike the scheming which goes into the rewriting of a will). There was—as in many middle-class families—a middle-class excess of compulsive orality, an extraordinary love of debate in meetings; just as the family lends itself to a vigorous if sterile set of speeches by its members in which—if the family is sufficiently unhappy—each can have the floor for ten minutes to describe his own views, resentments, private sufferings, and sacrifices, so too for left-wing life during the interregnum. The 50's were a profoundly unhappy period for the left wing; in the 60's with Cuba, Civil Rights, Kennedy, Berkeley, the Great Society, and the war in Vietnam, the new blood of Negro movements and youth movements brought life back to the Left, but only for a period. By 1965 the Negroes were disaffected, even profoundly bored with left-wing rhetoric which seemed to match little in their own imperatives, the youth were obviously contemptuous of the Old Left. By the time of the April March, the rifts were profound between the races and the generations. But the huge and unexpected success of the April March, its unanticipated size—no one had secretly believed they would attract a quarter of a million people—had given new hope to the Old Left, which, being thus profoundly middle class (and hence committed to the logic-of-the-next-step), had entered, infiltrated, invigorated, and doubtless inspired many middle-class peace movements. There are political alliances which are attractive, just as there are others which are dutiful. By the rudest existential measure, attractive alliances are not unsexy, dutiful alliances are deadening. Any coalition of the New Left and the Old, or the New Left and the Black Militants was dutiful, and sometimes near to unendurable. On the other hand, coalition between the New Left and the hippies, or the Old Left and the middle-class liberals in the peace movements was attractive, for ideas developed from such meetings, hopes, enthusiasms, even agreeable surprises—which last is next to manna in the life of an Old Leftist since the orthodoxy of his mind leaves not much room for surprise. Perhaps the deepest and most natural of these new alignments was between the peace liberal and the peace or Old Leftist; each excited the other—the liberal, bringing along his mass movement, was the equivalent of a wealthy heiress to a poor Old Leftist; the Old Leftist was a virile but most conventional (and manageable) principle of adventure in the somewhat deodorized orchards of comfortable middle-class liberal life. So even a year or more before the October March of 1967 in Washington was discussed, the future schisms were shaping: the Black militants were moving off by themselves, the Old Left was investing itself deep in the liberal purlieus of mass peace, and the New Left and the hippies were coming upon the opening intimations of a new style of revolution—revolution by theater and without a script.
Under these uneasy conditions, one may wonder at the practical judgment of men who meet in Washington in May to call for a rally in October which will assemble a million people. It is not really as unsound psychologically as it seems, any more than it is mentally unsound for the head of a middle-class family to announce on his best day of the year, “Honey, I'm going to make a million yet!” Without one such fierce element of the fantastic, middle-class life is insupportable. The same may be said of the old left-wing life. Without the ability to believe for a magical minute at a meeting that a million people will rally, without such inner intimations of glory (from the speech—not the fulfillment of the event), life on the left wing would be a drab parade of mimeograph machines, meetings, economic sacrifices, organizational tension, and that auditory deadening of the senses produced by left-wing rhetoric. The Old Left lived for their imagination; their imagination was founded on the apocalyptic moment—not for nothing had Lenin pointed out that there were ten years which passed like an uneventful day, but there was also the revolutionary day which was like ten years.
So plans for a rally to bring a million men and women to Washington were discussed, and the near to absolute impossibility of the project was cushioned by a growing sense of apocalypse in American life. If everything was altering at an unpredictable rate, so might a mass outcry against the war build over the months of the summer.
But the summer of 1967 was not favorable for the building of such a vast response. The Arab-Israeli war in June divided the Old Left one more time. Many of the Old Left and many members of the liberal peace groups were Jewish, and enraptured with Israel; more of the Old Left, also Jewish, remained true to the rigorous coils of certain more or less Trotskyist and Communist positions, which left them therefore beached as apologists for Nasser (a miserable position since he had bragged of the future burning of Israelis). Worse, the Black militants were almost entirely for the Arabs. The New Left in its turn was therefore seriously divided. Unity had obviously not been encouraged.
Then came Negro riots near a scale of war in the ghettos of at least a dozen major American cities. If the Old Left was thrilled at the militancy, it was also disturbed at the brutality. Plekhanov, teacher of Lenin, first editor of Iskra, architect of revolution on the Russian model, was appalled by the actual presence of the Soviet soldier at his doorstep—so was the Old Left by the criminally suggestive cool of Black Power, by the snipers, the Molotov cocktails thrown from the rooftops. On the other hand, the New Left was impressed. Young, college-bred, middle-class, they felt the militancy of the Blacks as a reproof to their own secure relatively unthreatened mass demonstrations. The center of pressure to mount an exciting weekend in Washington began then to pass from the Old Left and the peace groups to the New Left and the youth groups. Where the Arab-Israeli war had divided liberals from Old Leftists, and the Negro riots had quenched some of the militancy of the peace group liberals, the New Left was in a state of stimulation, and the hippies, dedicated to every turn of the unexpected, were obviously—as always—ready for anything.
For many of these reasons, therefore, the projected March on Washington was in the doldrums. Money to support it was hardly dribbling in, Del-linger had been on visits to Hanoi and thus otherwise occupied; enthusiasm among peace groups was not high. At this point Dellinger called in Jerry Rubin from Berkeley to be Project Director for the March. Rubin had enormous stature among youth groups and under-thirties, second perhaps only to Mario Savio. Rubin had organized Vietnam Day at Berkeley (the first mass protest of the war), had led marches in Berkeley designed to block troop trains, then massive marches in Oakland, had served a thirty-day jail sentence, and had appeared at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in an American Revolutionary War uniform. He had also run for Mayor of Berkeley on a platform opposing war and supporting Black Power and the legalization of pot, collecting in the process 7,385 ballots or 22 per cent of the vote.
It was a way of announcing to the various groups in the National Mobilization that the October event in Washington was now striking out into that no-man's-land between organized acceptable dissent and incalculable acts of revolution. To call on Rubin was in effect to call upon the most militant, unpredictable, creative—therefore dangerous—hippie-oriented leader available on the New Left. It is to Dellinger's credit that he most probably did not do this to save the March, since there was no doubt that doldrums or no, a peaceful demonstration of large proportions could always have been gotten together; the invitation to Rubin was rather an expression of Dellinger's faith in the possibility—a most difficult possibility which only his own untested gifts as a conciliator could have enabled him to envisage—of a combined conventional mass protest and civil disobedience which might help to unify the scattered elements of the peace movement. When Rubin arrived in New York, Dellinger's project was at the time conceived as follows: there would be an assembly, then a march past the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where demonstrators who wished would enter Congress and there commit acts of civil disobedience. There was even talk of investing Congress and taking it over, establishing, if only for an hour, a People's Congress. But Rubin did not like the revolutionary aesthetics of this plan—he argued with Dellinger that the proposal, while on the surface most attractive, was nonetheless a move at once too radical and too soft. It was too radical because the Capitol could not successfully be occupied, and the alternate plan—for demonstrators to petition their congressmen—was pathetically soft.
In Rubin's opinion, Congress was not a source but a servant of the real power in America. So Congress did not inspire the thought of real confrontations between real enemies, it did stir the imagination to awe and dread and admiration. In fact, for good or ill, Congress was an agreeable symbol to the vast majority of Americans. Rubin had therefore brought another idea. On the West Coast they were talking of a march on the Pentagon which would encircle it, invest it, disrupt it, and conceivably paralyze its actions for a few days. Such a move would have symbolic meaning in America and around the world for the Pentagon was the symbol of the American military, and so was hated wherever U.S. forces were resented or despised at home or abroad.
Discussions ensued. It was later to be a subject of much amusement, and an interesting sidelight into the revolutionary differences between the visionary West and the practical East that the idea of invading the Pentagon began in California, yet the knowledge was obliged to come from New York that the Pentagon was not even in Washington, D.C., but Virginia, and the bridge or bridges across the Potomac would be therefore the place where police could stop the demonstrators with no difficulty at all.
A visionary may however always defeat a practical suggestion, for he absorbs any necessary kernel of the detailed from the aura of the other debater: Splendid, said Rubin, if the police should halt the March to the Pentagon on the bridge, the demonstrators could turn back and create massive disruption in the Capitol!
A few days later, about the middle of August, Rubin, Robert Greenblatt, Coordinator of the Mobilization, and Fred Hal-stead of the Socialist Workers party (whose view would be not unrepresentative of the moderate peace groups) went out to the Pentagon to study its geography and suitability for a march, a rally, and the projected civil disobedience. Their report to a meeting of the Administrative Committee of the National Mobilization was not unfavorable and the Committee approved the shift from the Capitol to the Pentagon.
A number of Committee members were to walk through the Pentagon in the following weeks. They were to have the opportunity then to study a most bewildering opponent, for the strength of the Pentagon is subtle. It is not even a building one needs a pass to enter, and on an average working day no guards are visible. Nor is there any easily identifiable objective within the building. Long, exceptionally monotonous corridors with doors to evenly spaced small offices off them lead into other equally undistinguished halls. Of course the Administration entrance faces north onto a triangular piece of lawn called The Mall and back of it are the offices of some of the most important men in America, the Secretary of Defense, the Chiefs of Staff. If the halls on four of the five floors of the Administration wall are lined with paintings related in the main to military and naval matters (of the sort which could have been all-but-accepted for a Saturday Evening Post cover during World War II) and if the offices are larger here, and have reception rooms and carpet, if in these Administration corridors the walls are painted a modestly bright yellow, and there are even short stretches of wall with walnut paneling, still by no measure can anyone claim that the taxpayer's money is being wasted for extravagant interior decoration in the Pentagon.
At the other end of the building is a gloomy ill-lit chamber half the size of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York and it serves as a sort of roofed-over plaza. It is the shopping center for the Pentagon. A vast cafeteria is off this immense gallery, and shops of every variety, stairways to buses and taxis, airplane reservation desks, men and women's clothing shops, a Brentano's book store, gift shops—doubtless there is a souvenir shop. This is the only center of interest. Each of the five walls of the Pentagon is probably as long as the Louvre, so it is doubtful if there was ever another building in the world so huge in ground plan and so without variation. It would therefore be one thing to attack the Pentagon—it would be another to immobilize it. What could one do inside?—there were no redoubts to take unless the shopping center and cafeteria could qualify as targets, or perhaps the office of the Secretary of Defense at the other end of the building. In fact, it hardly mattered. Regardless of how many military conversations might be bandied about the possibility of occupying the Pentagon for a few hours or a few days, it must have been secretly evident to the Committee members (each to himself) that a mass march to the Pentagon announced in advance was not going to be able to enter the building in any conclusive fashion. The approaches by road were too few, the doors in each wall were also too few and too small, and the five concentric rings of the building with their lateral corridors, and corridors on axes (like a spider web), and sum of five floors on top of one another made up a total of somewhere between a hundred and fifty and two hundred corridors varying in length from two hundred to perhaps a thousand feet long, or somewhere near to twenty miles of passageway. If twenty thousand people worked in the offices, cubby holes, and warrens off those indistinguishable corridors, twice that number of demonstrators might be needed to paralyze the entire building. For the Pentagon, architecturally, was as undifferentiated as a jelly fish or a cluster of barnacles. One could chip away at any part of the interior without locating a nervous center.
It was nonetheless an historic moment when these reconnoitering vanguards of the Mobilization Committee went into the Pentagon to study its vulnerability to attack, historic not for the magnitude of the events which were to derive from this visit, but historic as a paradigm of the disproportions and contradictions of the 20th century itself. Nineteenth-century generals would not have been permitted to explore the fortress they would attack, but they would have known its storehouse when they took it. Now recapitulate the problem at the Pentagon: an enormous office building in the shape of a fortress housed the military center of the most powerful nation on earth, yet there was no need for guards—the proliferation of the building itself was its own defense: assassination of any high official in the edifice could serve only to augment the power of the Pentagon; vulnerable to sabotage, that also could work only for the fortification of its interest. High church of the corporation, the Pentagon spoke exclusively of mass man and his civilization; every aspect of the building was anonymous, monotonous, massive, interchangeable.
For this committee of revolutionary explorers, the strangeness of their situation must have been comparable to a reconnaissance of the moon. They could enter the Pentagon without difficulty, walk wherever they pleased—although not without attracting attention quite soon, for if most of them looked like responsible executives and experts, Rubin's hair was brushed out like a Black Militant's in five inches every direction from his head; they could nonetheless explore their target, debate their approach (even debate aloud if need be in these corridors filled as much with moving people as a busy subway station), they could even if they had wished probably have paid a call on the Secretary of Defense to inform him of their project, yet it was impossible to locate the symbolic loins of the building—paradigm of the modern world indeed, they could explore every inch of their foe and know nothing about him; the 20th century was in the process of removing the last of man's power from his senses in order to store power in piled banks of coded knowledge. The essence of coded knowledge was that it could be made available to all because only a few had the code to comprehend it.
Nonetheless, they had many discussions as to which wall of the Pentagon to approach on the day. The west wall adjacent to Washington Boulevard and the helicopter pad, had too small an entrance, the southeast wall was similarly undistinguished, and overprotected by a formidable spaghetti of superhighways and cloverleafs, the river entrance on the east was militarily impossible since a narrow ramp here crossed over Jefferson Davis highway into the building—as well try to lead ten thousand men into a castle by a drawbridge. Of the five walls, two then were left: the southwest wall by the South Parking Area, and the Administrative entrance on the north wall.
Early sentiment was for entering by way of the South Parking Area which was close to the Pentagon, indeed confronted it from not fifty yards away. Here the entrances were numerous, the approaches broad, and the building most difficult to defend, for not two hundred feet behind the doors was the shopping center and the cafeteria, where a host of passageways debouched. The shopping center, although at one end of the Pentagon, was the nearest equivalent to a major crossroads. If they succeeded in reaching its great open floor, they could strike out in any number of directions, indeed in all directions—there would be no single narrow corridor to stop them.
On the other hand, the South Parking had serious disadvantages. The demonstrators would have to march half around the Pentagon to reach it, and such a long move might be easy to harass or delay; also, the southwest face of the Pentagon was the least inspiring—it looked like what it was, a loading platform, an open maw for the tons of food and supplies which came in every day, the mountains of garbage which went out. To attack here was to lose some of one's symbolic momentum—a consideration which might be comic or unpleasant in a shooting war, but in a symbolic war was not necessarily comic at all. There was something absurd in throwing oneself upon the Pentagon in order to capture the cafeteria and the shopping center. Besides, if it would be easy to strike out in all directions from the floor of this enormous gallery, so would ambush upon them be equally available—troops could come from half-a-hundred entrances; the projected battle might therefore be too rapid, and pinch off any possibility of a massive sit-in for at least forty-eight hours.
So the north wall with its Administrative entrance was eventually chosen. It was the main approach to the Pentagon, and the most attractive. Access roads curved up from Jefferson Davis Highway and Washington Boulevard to the large square of asphalt in front of the entrance steps and the Egyptian columns. Below was another flight of steps which led to two ramps descending to the Mall. An army could meet on that grassy area for a rally, then move forward for acts of civil disobedience and/or disruption with a full view of the edifice.
Back in New York, Steering Committee meetings now began to be held; every two weeks, then every week, the Administrative Committee would get together to make basic decisions. They would meet in apartments, or members' houses, or in rented halls, or at the Free School in New York. Representatives from Women Strike for Peace, the New York Parade Committee, the Chicago Peace Council, the Student Mobilization Committee, the Ohio Area Peace Action Council, and pacifists, veterans' groups, Communists, Trotskyists, returned volunteers from the Peace Corps in Vietnam were present. The difficulties of coalition, always present, were now agitated. The more liberal, which is to say the less radical, peace groups were intimidated by the specter of a large unruly civil disobedience, yet if pushed by such fears in the direction of not collaborating with the March on the Pentagon, they faced the other side of the dilemma—their refusal would split the peace movement. So enormous pressure was never put entirely upon Del-linger to settle for a massive peace rally which would forego civil disobedience, and he was able to draft a plan: The demonstration would be two-pronged—a mass march and rally would be followed by acts of civil disobedience for those who wished to engage in them. It was obvious that much time and much energy must have been spent by Dellinger in assuring the gentler and more prosperous peace groups that the civil disobedience would almost certainly be “mild,” and they would be protected from unwilling involvement in the civil disobedience. Therefore, in designing this two-pronged action, certain contradictions were in-built.
Yet Dellinger had no desire to take such a large action without including the peace groups. From beginning to end, Dellinger envisaged the struggle against the war as a mass movement—how else to impress the power elite in Washington if not with a dedicated mass? The power elite knew better than anyone how difficult it was to rouse Americans to acts of dedication by now—hence, envisaging a mass movement, Dellinger was obliged from his own point of view to have the peace groups. Besides, one could not avoid the inevitable recognition that the major source of funds would be precisely these same moderate peace groups. The demonstration was eventually to cost sixty-five thousand dollars, the money to go in rent for offices in New York and Washington, for ads, for rented sound equipment, costs of telephone (huge), mailings, travel, buttons, even the modest expense of staff salaries—perhaps ten people working for fifty dollars a week. In addition, the National Mobilization was in debt as much as fifteen thousand dollars from the costs of the April March. So Dellinger could never afford to dispense—even if he had wished to—with the potential financial support of the more middle-class peace groups.
Viewing these matters from without, one could of course ask why an organizer would be interested in the more militant aspect of the demonstration when it was obvious the forces who wanted the more active varieties of civil disobedience, like outright disruption, although a minority in number, would create most of his problems, assure him a hostile press, exhaust huge funds of time and energy in placating his right wing, probably compromise him hopelessly in middle positions, and finally remain even hostile and uncoordinated to the National Mobilization Committee. Avoiding any certainty as to his private reasons, speculations are possible on the natural desire of a middle-aged revolutionary to remain in contact with the youth groups, as well as Dellinger's own natural militancy. Not by nature, or by his own history, a conciliator or compromiser, he had been involved for years in small but not uncourageous actions of civil disobedience. It is possible he would have been even more militant if not for his trips to Hanoi which had left him with the conviction that ending the war had first priority in America, and unity was thus the obligatory strategy. This last conviction could lead one to nothing but mass movements, if not for the fact that there were hard, objective, practical reasons for quitting passive protest and entering active civil disobedience, for taking on the slogan: “From dissent to resistance.” The fragmented condition of the Left after the summer of 1967 was certain to hold down the number of participants. Yet, another mass protest against the war would be meaningless unless many times the size of previous efforts; the peace movement, if not growing, would become a predictable figure in the tapestry, to be discounted by the power elite rather than respected. A protest movement which does not grow loses power every day, since protest movements depend upon the interest they arouse in the mass media. But the mass media is interested only in processes which are expanding dramatically or collapsing. Active civil disobedience was therefore essential to give glamor and publicity to the demonstration—a page one story for Washington must instead become a page one story for the world. Then, the ante would be up, and the results unpredictable—the peace movement would seem far from subsiding into the tapestry.
Besides, Negro civil rights had prospered (until the beginning of the war in Vietnam) by the existence of their most militant groups. The value of the Black Muslims to Martin Luther King must have been considerable—he did not even have to say to the ADA, “If not me, it may be them.” In contrast white radical movements had invariably made their alliances with white liberal movements, they lacked the threatening, discomposing cutting edge of an ultra-left movement which was potentially violent. It had become commonplace to remark that young people would not travel to just another march and rally. Civil disobedience therefore was vital to the advertisement of the March, as vital to the needs of the Mobilization Committee as money, and masses of demonstrators.
On August 28 at the Overseas Press Club in New York, a press conference was held to announce the March and its intention to close down the Pentagon on Saturday, October 21, by blocking entrances and doorways. The effort would be continued through Sunday, and if possible through Monday. At the press conference table sat Monsignor Rice of Pittsburgh; Father Hayes of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship; Gary Rader, former member of the Green Berets, now a pacifist; Abbie Hoffman of the Diggers' Free Store in New York; David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Robert Greenblatt of the Mobilization; Amy Swerdlow of Women Strike for Peace; William Pepper, executive director of the National Conference for New Politics (about to have their convention in Chicago); Carl Davidson of SDS; Lincoln Lynch of CORE; Fred Rosen of The Resistance; Lee Webb, co-director of Vietnam Summer; Dick Gregory, and—to everyone's surprise—H. Rap Brown of SNCC.
Reverend Hayes spoke to the press for the Mobilization and announced that the giant coalition group which grew out of the Spring Mobilization “is beginning to organize a confrontation in Washington on October 21-22 which will shut down the Pentagon. We will fill the hallways and block the entrances. Thousands of people will disrupt the center of the American war machine. In the name of humanity we will call the war-makers to task.”
This was putting the best, most liberal and most constructive face on the projected activity, but the newspapers could also quote Dellinger—“There will be no government building left unattacked” (although the attacks “will be nonviolent”); Rubin—“We're now in the business of wholesale disruption and widespread resistance and dislocation of the American society”; Hoffman—“We're going to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet in the air”; and H. Rap Brown—“I would be unwise to say I'm going there with a gun because you all took my gun last time. I may bring a bomb, sucker.”
This press conference naturally attracted huge attention in the press, most of it critical or mocking. The snide reaction was that the demonstrators would attempt to close down the Pentagon on a day (October 21 was part of a weekend) when it was already closed down, which was not quite true, for several thousand of the Pentagon's employees were present on any normal Saturday. That reaction was less significant than the dismay of the moderate peace groups through the country who on reading of this press conference were left shocked, fearful, and antagonistic. But these negative reactions were whipped to a fury by the September 1 issue of the Mobilizer, newsletter of the Mobilization, which began with an editorial written in fire—and was backed with articles on Black Power, Rebellion, Resistance, plus an article by Keith Lampe “On Making a Perfect Mess” which included some of the following items:
A thousand children will stage Loot-Ins at department stores to strike at the property fetish that underlies genocidal war.
As the network cameras wheel in for classic counter-demonstrator footage, the BOMB PEKING picket signs will be flipped to say “Does LBJ suck?”
During a block party in front of the White House a lad of nine will climb the fence and piss, piss. . . .
The first thousand copies of this issue were rushed to Chicago to be distributed at the convention of the National Conference for New Politics where the language induced a profound shudder in every middle-class element of the white Left, old and new. A storm of protest, indignation, and horror came back on the Mobilization. The general consensus of the older people on the Steering Committee was that this newsletter would not mobilize support but would destroy it. It was voted to suppress the issue, and a new issue containing a mild statement of aims written by Sidney Peck in the form of questions and answers, and directed obviously at women's groups and moderate peace groups, was hurriedly put out. From this point on, the Berkeley group which had been the inspiration for the first issue was conceivably in decline.
Dellinger had left for Czechoslovakia after the press conference on August 28. He came back in September to a period of near chaos and conflicting demands. The moderate peace groups, put in a panic by the nihilistic possibilities of the March on the Pentagon, now began to push their demands. They wanted a clear and adequate separation between the march and rally activity, and the civil disobedience and/or disruption which would follow (in order that people who wished to protest the war but did not want to be arrested or endangered could also join). They insisted that Mobilization's press release project a tone more peaceful, less militant. It was also understood that they would not give large support to the venture unless Dr. Spock could be induced to join it.
Of course these moderate peace groups were often radical themselves in some part, and were not opposed to “outright lawbreaking” if it was symbolic, peaceful, controlled—but the presence of these demands implicated Dellinger in a series of promises, details, and works of personal energy whose objective result was to inhibit any real mass approach to massive disobedience. Dellinger was now obliged to act in part as an agent for the interests of the peace groups even though their intent was critically less militant than his own. It could not have been the happiest position.
The scene now shifts to Washington, and negotiations with the government. A curious period begins.
In the beginning, any question of jurisdiction must have been moot. It is safe to assume that no particular arm of the authorities would welcome the responsibility of negotiating with the demonstrators. A call to the Chief of the Park Police in Washington, D.C., Inspector Beye, was made by the Mobilization Committee and when it was explained what they wanted, Beye called a small meeting. Before the meeting was over, however, a man representing the Department of Justice exclaimed, “Do you expect us to allow this to take place?” The meeting broke up shortly afterward. No word came back from any representative of the government.
Mobilization waited ten days, then called Inspector Beye. He suggested they communicate with Harry Van Cleve, the general council of GSA—the Government Services Administration. Van Cleve had been selected to have jurisdiction for the government. He met with the committee shortly after, and a pattern of meetings was begun. Before they were finished perhaps eight meetings took place in late September and October, and indeed some details were to be argued until the very last night over such matters as the road to be permitted for the March from the Virginia side of the bridge to the Pentagon.
In these meetings, Van Cleve would come with an assistant who never spoke. The Committee, being a coalition, would arrive at meetings with as many as ten people. Dellinger, after his return, and Rubin and Greenblatt were at next to all the meetings, and others appeared if they happened to be in Washington on the day, or were interested in a specific point.
The first meeting with Van Cleve was perfunctory, and consisted of little more than an exchange of basic information, but in the next meeting, on October 6, Van Cleve, for the GSA (now representing the Park Police, Metropolitan Police, Defense Department, etc.) gave the following offer: the government would allow a rally at Lincoln Memorial, a march to the North Parking Area of the Pentagon, and a rally in the parking lot. But if the Mobilization did not relinquish all plans to break the law, the government would not even allow a rally.
At this point there was nothing to negotiate. The two parties were obviously not at all close to one another. Members of the Mobilization therefore left, and went back to their office, a three-story house at 2719 Ontario Road N.W., where a number of them got on the telephone to speak to different groups around the country. The response which came back was militant, for the reaction was that the Johnson government was now entering a period of suppression. Indeed, the offer given by the GSA was unconstitutional. If a group massed peacefully, it could not be arrested for its intention. Sentiment was for having the rally anywhere in Washington or Virginia—wherever the police intervened, massive disruption would occur. The demonstrators could move out in every direction and put Washington in disorder. The response was militant even from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Martin Luther King was ill these days, in need of rest, and in need of time to rebuild the SCLC, but his assistant, Andrew Young, assured the Mobilization that King would be there in such a case. One didn't pick the day of the revolution. Feeling among the more moderate peace groups was then surprisingly strong. Men like Julian Bond, Dr. Spock, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and Don Duncan indicated their determination to speak at the rally. It looked as if Rubin might yet have his epic of disruption.
Hundreds of phone calls had been made all over the country, however, and it is not easily believable that no one of the lines suffered from the wire tap. Even if there were no informers or government agents among the visitors to Mobilization House (also unlikely, since the high incidence of spies in left-wing movements was by now accepted as a chronic joke) it must be close to certain that the government was aware of the shift in sentiment, for at the next meeting of the GSA and the Mobilization, Van Cleve came in with a different set of suggestions. In contrast to the first meeting, Van Cleve was proper, even cordial at the second. The new offer proposed that the demonstrators assemble at Lincoln Memorial, go over Arlington Memorial Bridge, proceed on a road to be determined, to a rally in the North Parking Area, and then at a certain hour, those who wished could cross the four-lane dual Jefferson Davis Highway, enter the Mall in front of the Administration entrance, and climb the first rows of steps. This offer, made at the second meeting, was actually close to the final agreement drafted on the night before the March. All the essential elements, even the ground plan of the combat which ensued on October 21, were here indicated.
Now the conversations between Van Cleve and the Mobilization Committee were limited to technical matters and the specific points, no longer acrimonious affairs. The mood in the room—but for such occasional and unexpectedly visual elements as Rubin's mane of hair and the costume of a hippie whom he brought in one day—was not too dissimilar, although probably less intense, than an arbitration proceeding between a corporation and a union. No one can of course repress the wit who would point out that any time two bodies of men whose names end in Mobilization and Administration get together, even a revolution can be negotiated, and for fact Dellinger and Van Cleve had similarities in their personal style, since both men were more than the average civil, well-spoken, able to appreciate the nuances of the opposite view, and could with no difficulty have acted as contending parties at an Ivy League faculty meeting.
In fact, the meetings could have served as another paradigm of American civilization in this decade of the 20th century, for two groups with absolutely incompatible ends and an irretrievable lack of final resolution between them, were nonetheless adjudicators in effect with one another over the few small items of common ground which were negotiable, and this through its sheer instrumentalism—since it is somewhat more difficult to take militant action after negotiating quietly with one's enemy for weeks—was to work to pacify and finally curtail the more unmanageable aspects of the anti-war March.
Debate now proceeded over the finest points—the hour of the rally at the North Parking, the specified time when demonstrators could move on to the Mall, the special regulations—those for example who left the Mall after 7 P.M. on Saturday could not come back till noon the next day. So went a host of small points. The Mobilization asked for a rally at Lincoln Memorial and were granted it, adjustments of the area on the steps above the Mall permitted to the demonstrators were made, the duration of the permit was in question, and the access road.
It was to a degree incredible, as every paradigm of the 20th century is incredible. Originally the demonstrators were saying in effect: our country is engaged in a war so hideous that we in the greatest numbers possible, are going to break the laws of assembly in order to protest this impossible war. The government was saying: this is a war necessary to maintain the very security of this nation, but because of our tradition of free speech and dissent we will permit your protest, but only if it is orderly. Since these incompatible positions had produced an impasse, the compromise said in effect: we, the government, wage the war in Vietnam for our security, but will permit your protest provided it is only a little disorderly. The demonstrators: we still consider the war. outrageous and will therefore break the law, but not by very much.
Each side was compromised, each side was, on the face of their professed attitude, absurd. Yet each party had the most pressing practical concerns to force them into collaboration. Dellinger had his moderate peace groups; Van Cleve, the interest of the government. An open white riot in the streets of the Capital after the summer riots in the Negro ghettos would telegraph a portrait of America to Global Village as an explosively unstable nation, therefore a dangerous nation on whom to count for long-term alliances since the explosiveness gave every sign of increase. Moreover, the possibility of a number of white Americans seriously wounded or killed by police, troops, or U.S. Marshals after the government's refusal to permit civil disobedience was even worse to contemplate. A concrete disaster of international publicity could result, especially if the police were too brutal. (And the police were ultimately less manageable than the wildest of the demonstrators.) It would be undeniably safer to permit civil disobedience. The problem would be then to limit its intensity.
Van Cleve's position in negotiation became simple. He had to look for every nuance of negotiation which would reduce the potential for violence of the demonstrators. So the choice of road and time of day and rally areas became critical. If the impact of this oncoming attack, part symbolic, part concrete, depended upon the quality of the revolutionary aesthetic—the revolutionary image, if you will, presented to the marchers as they came within range of the Pentagon—then the government, through Van Cleve, would do their best to dim that image. (They would also do their best to restrict the number of hours, even minutes, that the majority of demonstrators could be active at the Pentagon. So subtle engagements were fought by Van Cleve to restrict any entrance to the Mall until four P.M. Perhaps he knew the buses would be going back to New York at five, perhaps—this is sheer speculation—perhaps charter operators in New York were given the idea an early departure from Washington was desirable.
Since Dellinger in his turn was committed to two groups at once, and was therefore obliged to work in the opposed directions of what might be ultimately more violence or less violence, and since he was a man personally opposed to violence (as a Quaker) and had therefore no particular habits for comprehending its subtleties, the inference is large that Van Cleve from this point probably scored more for the government than Dellinger for the Mobilization.
Each small point the government requested was small indeed, too small to break off negotiation. The nightmare confronting Dellinger would be the press treatment of the Mobilization if a break occurred on what would seem an absurdly minor point—the choice of a road. Who could explain that to the mass media? Mobilization wanted Washington Boulevard or Jefferson Davis Highway for their March from the bridge, since each large road had a bold unimpeded view of the Pentagon almost all the way—the government insisted on Boundary Channel, a narrow side road now under repair and with but a restricted view of the building. The Mobilization, ideally, if it had been free to create the maximum of civil disobedience, would have been obliged to insist on the Pentagon Mall rather than the North Parking Area for their rally, since there was every difference in the sense given of the objective. A powerful orator speaking on the Mall would have been able to point to the Pentagon a hundred yards away across the grass—how different from the blurred view across wire fence and four-lane highway of a rally held in an oilstained parking lot more than a thousand feet away.
The Mobilization was to request the Mall for their second rally a number of times, but in that economy of barter which characterizes negotiation, they did not make an issue of it—rather it was a point they were ready to relinquish in return for other points: the assumption is that a part of the coalition did not really desire the Mall. Like Van Cleve, they assumed the disruption would be less in the North Parking.
It had been decided that a first rally would be held at Lincoln Memorial rather than just as an assembly. This was necessary to raise money (and in fact $30,000 was to be collected during the speeches). The length of this speakers' program grew under the pressure of every group which wished to be represented on the podium—there was as well, no doubt, the unspoken assumption by the moderates that hours of speeches would reduce the possibility of violence. (Never had a more middle-class group, more fundamentally opposed to violence, assembled in great numbers on an occasion whose precise novelty was that it promised precisely to be violent!)
Now there was pressure from the moderates to have another rally at the North Parking with more speeches. As far back as the second week of September Dr. Spock and representatives from Women Strike for Peace were arguing that the rally had to be held at Lincoln Memorial in order for women and children to be able to attend in freedom from disorder. (Also, the moderates thought it was essential to separate one rally completely from any civil disobedience, so that those who did not wish to go to the Pentagon would not be forced to.) On the other hand, the second speaker's rally at the North Parking had been planned from the beginning; it was now kept (despite the glaring possibility of many superfluous speeches) on the theory that those who did not wish to participate in civil disobedience would still need an activity (the influence of the progressive school is everywhere) on their arrival at the Pentagon, otherwise they might not march over the bridge. But obviously the parking-lot rally following in the wake of a two-hour speechfest at Lincoln Memorial was another deterrent to large civil disobedience.
Rubin and Dellinger were by now at considerable odds. At every point where the government had dulled the aesthetic, Rubin wished to brighten it—so he had wanted the rally in the Mall, had wanted to resist the choice of roads, had accepted with some unhappiness the limitation to one bridge—for the sight of two friendly armies coming together at the approaches to the Pentagon would prove inspiring—besides there would be more troops present at once, had wanted one rally, not two, and a plan to divert people back to Washington if opportunities at the Pentagon were small, he had been particularly unhappy with the late hour—4:00 P.M.—accepted from the government for the commencement of the “protest.” So he had pleaded and/or argued with Dellinger that the government was all but compelled to negotiate an agreement and was therefore bluffing. Breaking negotiations would only make the government concede their points. It is likely Rubin felt the frame of reference had gotten away from him, and that the demonstration would end as another mass rally with interesting but essentially minor gestures of civil disobedience. So the difference between these leaders was by now fundamental. From Rubin's point of view, the concept had come a long way down from his first proud promise of “wholesale and widespread resistance and dislocation of the American society.”
And Dellinger? We must speculate again. He had fulfilled his promise to the moderates, and so had been unable to go very far in the direction of a mass, symbolic, and prestigious pageant of nonviolent civil disobedience, but he had brought off the preparations for an unprecedented rally and action—it had been finally his responsibility, his nightmare if disaster struck and tens or hundreds of people were killed. Besides it is possible he had been true to both factions. The moderates had not been betrayed by him, the limitations upon civil disobedience were subtle and many, but they were not hermetic. Far from it. If an extraordinary potential for civil disobedience and disruption existed among the younger groups—and no one really knew—it would find any number of ways of flowing over the restraints. He had succeeded in fashioning therefore an action which was at once penned and open-ended—for the character of the civil disobedience still remained undefined, and that was an achievement. The government had been obliged to collaborate on details of an oncoming battle against its own jurisdiction, property, and troops. Medieval concepts of war seemed to be returning, or was it primitive contracts for battle?
We can pass over the mood of Washington in the few days before the March, the sympathetic and somewhat coordinated actions of protest in other parts of the country for the week preceding October 21, we may skip over the last meetings of the government and the Mobilization Committee, the denunciations in Congress, the bill which was passed on Friday, October 20, to protect the Capitol building from men carrying arms! And the scoldings and adjurations of newspaper editorials which remonstrated with the peace movement to remain peaceful. No, one we must give, it is from the New York Times on the day of the March.
It will be totally unnecessary for paratroopers or police or demonstrators to provoke each other, in the exercise either of duty or of self-expression today— and it will be tragic if they do.
The demonstrators will be betraying their own ideals if they follow those extremists who would deliberately turn the rally into a field of violence.
On Friday and Saturday morning, there were front page stories in the Washington papers on the arrival of troops, and a comic story on LACE, the hippies' counter-indicant for MACE. A man named Augustus Owsley Stanley, III had made it. His statement was that LACE “makes you want to take off your clothes, kiss people, and make love.” Much enjoyable copy on hippie plans to attack with marbles, noisemakers, water pistols. They would jam gun barrels with flowers. They would try to kidnap LBJ and wrestle him to the ground and take his pants off.
Let us move then to the Pentagon. The speeches at Lincoln Memorial were done, and a mass of people, calculated by the New York Times as fifty thousand, walked over Arlington Memorial Bridge in the next two hours. Waiting for them at the Pentagon or engaged in police work on the route were the following forces: fifteen hundred Metropolitan Police, twenty-five hundred Washington, D.C. National Guardsmen, about two hundred U.S. Marshals, and unspecified numbers of Government Security Guards, Park, White House, and Capitol Police. There were also six thousand troops from the 82nd Airborne flown in from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the same 82nd Airborne which had once parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, and was now fresh from Santo Domingo and the Detroit riots. M.P. units had been flown in from California and Texas, the U.S. Marshals had been brought from just about everywhere—Florida, New York, Arizona, Texas, to name a few states—it was to be virtually a convention for them. In addition, twenty thousand troops stationed nearby were on alert.
For the army of the demonstrators, no precise figures are available; government estimates were low and left-wing estimates were high. Taking the government figure, we have at a minimum an army of at least thirty-five thousand amateur soldiers consisting of a smattering and a sprinkling of doctors, dentists, faculty, veterans' groups, housewives, accountants, trade unionists, Communists, socialists, pacifists, Trotksyists, anarchists, artists, and entertainers; but the majority were college students from all over the East, and high school students and hippies and diggers and bikers. And—we come to the beginning of the battle—a striking force of shock troops. There was a group which had arrived with a real idea of combat in mind.
This group consisted in fact of two groups, the Students for a Democratic Society, and a considerably smaller group of unattached elements who had once called themselves the Revolutionary Contingent, but had been unable to function together because of many arguments on the proper style of their militancy, i.e., whether to use Viet-cong flags, or some of the specialized techniques of Japanese students, such as snake dances for breaking through police lines. Once, the Revolutionary Contingent had consisted of the Committee to Aid the National Liberation Front, the Black Mask, and other high-fragmentation sects, but now no alliance was left, other than their agreement to work together at the Pentagon. In preference to a new name, let us however still call them the Revolutionary Contingent.
That the Revolutionary Contingent happened to be in the vanguard was not surprising, but the body of the striking force remained the SDS, and that was significant, for the SDS, sharing apparently the detestation of some on the Left for the mass rally and the Great Left Pall, had a practice never to take part in large demonstrations. The Students for a Democratic Society did their work in the field—they organized in the colleges and went to live in the ghettos. They were an American form of the 19th-century back-to-the-people movements among Russian intellectuals.
But when on October 6 Van Cleve first stated that the government would not allow civil disobedience in any form, SDS decided to work for the March. (Thus, this first announcement of government repression had helped to bring in not only Dr. Spock on the Right but SDS on the Left of the Mobilization.) In the two weeks which followed, however, SDS enthusiasm cooled in some of the compromises. Yet in the week before the March, it still appeared as if the government and the Mobilization might be able to come to no agreement on details, and so the government would not grant the Mobilization Committee a rally and parade permit. So SDS kept up word to its members that Washington was very much an active front, worthy of their activity. They got ready for the March.
SDS was nothing if not wary of the Mobilization Committee and its tail of cautionary bureaucratic moderate peace groups. SDS did not wish to compromise its own militancy and its own view of civil disobedience, confrontation, and resistance by falling into the toils and instrumentalisms of the others. So it formed a temporary alliance to go into action with the Revolutionary Contingent. They would get themselves in the vanguard of the March—and, once on the Virginia side of the bridge, would separate from the other marchers and proceed by their own private route, running most of the way for a mile, through the woods to the North Parking Area where they would assemble and make their charge. Elements of SDS were lost on the rush, but determined not to wait and in fact obviously determined to start the combat before the second rally at the North Parking Area had well begun, the Revolutionary Contingent and SDS had charged across the parking area and made an assault on the military police barrier at a point considerably to the left of the Pentagon itself. They were stopped. There were barriers, there were troops, they were winded by their run all the way from Arlington Bridge, “the crowd was not yet mad enough to back them up,” as one of their leaders was to put it later, and they were charged by M.P.'s with rifles and sheathed bayonets. It is possible that bayonets were in panic unsheathed—reports of such bayonets appear here and again in accounts, none remotely verifiable, even the hour in doubt; but for whatever reason the vanguard of this militant striking force certainly faltered, and abruptly fled backward in panic.
They had obviously been charged for combat for days, and such tension in men who are determined, usually succeeds in concealing from themselves the extent of their fear. In combat which comes after long spiritual preparation, there is an instant of relaxation in the very first moment altogether dangerous to dedicated troops—all the fear they have denied can now flood them. They can panic and flee—the inner preparation has been too great. (One must, after all, contemplate the extent of that fear, made up in part of sustained political brooding about the nature of American brutality at home and abroad—they were now going to confront this brutality; the very imagination which stimulated them to think radically now had added its exaggerations to the possibilities of reprisal.) Where the dedication is serious, however, the recovery is quick. Furious with themselves at this first rout, they now reassembled, conferred among themselves, climbed the embankment which bordered the four-lane Jefferson Davis highway, broke down the newly erected wire fence which restrained them to the Parking Area, gathered numbers from arriving unattached demonstrators and crossed the highway, entered the Mall, went up the long diagonal steps in the face of the stone wall which separates the asphalt plaza of the Administration entrance from the Mall, then climbed the approach steps, pushed back the M.P. line, and broke through it at the head of the stairs to fan out and occupy the left side of the plaza, only—so far as can be determined from the conflict of reports—to be immediately cut off from the main body on the stairs and the center of the plaza by a bracing of M.P.'s and U.S. Marshals who virtually separated the two groups, thereby making passage from the left side of the plaza back to the stairs impossible. Still, this group which overflowed the plaza on the left were to retain these positions until morning, by which time arrests and the attrition of departures had emptied their salient. More centrally located, the group in the center of the plaza and stairs was to hold its position for thirty-two hours, a perfectly legal position by the terms of the pre-March agreement between the government and the Mobilization Committee, although no one on the line, troops or demonstrators, was too aware of this, and illegalities on both sides in relation to this line abounded. The estimates in left-wing and underground newspapers put the number of demonstrators on the left of the plaza at twenty-five hundred, and the number on the central plaza, entrance stairs, and diagonal steps, leading to the stairs as double. Since underground papers seem to pride themselves on being even more inaccurate than their enemies, we can guess that there were no more than one thousand demonstrators in the “illegal area” of the plaza and a maximum of two thousand on the “legal” stairs, steps, and center of the plaza.
Let us not go another step into developments until we have fortified our picture of the situation. Far away from the plaza, a quarter of a mile away, across the Mall, the four-lane highway, a wire fence, and a small intervening hill, a rally is taking place in the North Parking Area and somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people, nervous, bored, uncertain whether they are relieved or disappointed that so little seems to be taking place, are out there receiving the long tasteless unleavened bread of fiery political speeches, the apogee of this irony achieved by the most militant speech of them all, made by Carl Davidson, the inter-organizational secretary of SDS (even SDS had its table of organization) who said, “Repression must be met, confronted, stopped, by whatever means possible.” The next major demonstrations would arm to disrupt draft induction centers. “We must tear them down,” he said, “burn them down if necessary.” That was strong stuff. Over the hill, across the highway, along the Mall, up the steps, the first heads were being cracked by the clubs of the Marshals, while some true hearts of the orally-oriented Left were listening to their fourth hour of oratory—how much of one's own saliva must have been tasted by this point.
Younger spirits were now breaking down a new section of fence between the Parking Area and the highway in order to get to the Mall. The monitors appointed by the Committee made impotent efforts to hold them off. “You're not supposed to go over there until later!” they shouted through their bull horns while people crossed. All the while, marchers in that long line of fifty-four thousand people taking two hours to cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge were trickling into the Parking Area listening in confusion to the speeches (for many of the marchers must have foreseen a dramatic confrontation with a line of soldiers) and then looking about them for the next move. Meanwhile, rumors were arriving and passing through the crowd of the action at the Pentagon itself. As speakers continued, the crowd began to diminish—now thousands were going through the gap in the fence, crossing the highway, and invading the Mall. The legal time of entry on the Mall arranged by the government had been four o'clock, the first attack had come earlier, but the majority of demonstrators, being present at the Parking rally, did not cross over the Mall until 4:30, being thus left with not much more than an hour of daylight.
Meanwhile, in the vanguard, on the asphalt plaza and on the Pentagon steps, not a great deal was happening, yet everything was happening. The military situation had not altered appreciably, although a few significant events took place, notably three: first, a member of SDS, Tom Bell, succeeded in climbing an isolated wall of the plaza bordering the steps accompanied by his bull horn. He was thus in position to talk to the groups isolated on the left side of the plaza from the steps. When a Marshal or an M.P. (accounts conflict) attempted to pull him down, he pushed him off—to the cheers of the demonstrators watching—and proceeded to serve as communications center. He also proceeded—well-grounded doubtless in Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution—to talk to the troops. This was to be the first of many speeches to be made to them, and the content of these speeches must eventually be given, for the most conventional and original aspects of Left polemic were to be presented in turn by different speakers, some professional, some—girls, for instance, opening buttons on their blouses—improvisational. More of that, later.
The second significant event in this relatively constant military situation was that some of the demonstrators, having overrun the restraining lines of rope in their push through to the plaza, now began to use them. Tying knots in the ropes, they lowered them over the wall to the Mall where young demonstrators anxious to join them, now began to climb up. Since the wall was built of massive beveled blocks of stone, it was not altogether difficult to hold on to the rope and climb up, using the serrations for toeholds. Still, it had risk, a fifteen-foot drop on one's back at worst, and so the men who climbed were full of good morale on reaching the top and probably inspired the next and third significant action which is that a group probably composed in the main of SDS Contingent on the plaza saw a side entrance door to the left of the main administration entrance guarded only by six M.P.'s. Since only a relatively thin line of MP.'s were on the line to restrain them here, a small group, perhaps twenty-five, made a quick push, broke the line, broke through the M.P.'s, and actually entered the Holy of Holies—they were in the Pentagon racing down a corridor.
Not for long! Troops had been brought into the Pentagon the night before, they had slept on cots in the corridors of the building (which is not unlike laying out one's mattress in Lincoln Tunnel). Confined inside, suffering the tension of endless hours waiting for unseen anarchists, bomb-throwers, Communists, poison gassers, poison-in-the-water, nymphomaniacs, drug addicts, insane Negroes, and common city folk to inundate them under their human wave in these drear corridors one can only guess—unless there are films—at the unmitigated fury with which the few demonstrators were clubbed and kicked, arrested, and carried off.
One can of course ask why so few felt obliged to attempt the sortie, and no one behind to follow them; the answers cannot be definitive. But two factors apply. One is the extraordinary demand for initiative on the side of the demonstrators if they were to do anything at all. Anyone who has passed through the educational system of America is in unconscious degree somewhere near half a patriot. (We may reduce the fraction when considering progressive schools.) The brain is washed deep, there are reflexes: white shirts, Star-Spangled Banner, saluting the flag. At home is corporation land's whip—the television set. Who would argue there are no idea-sets of brave soldiers, courageous cops, great strength, and brutal patriotic skill in the land of authority? Obvious remarks, but it is precisely this huge and much convinced unconscious part of oneself which a demonstrator has to move against when he charges with his small part of an army into a line of M.P.'s close-packed, arms locked; anxiety washes the will with its dissolving flood. Demonstrators may break off at the last moment. Moreover one moves forward unarmed into men who hold clubs, or rifles. One does not even know the guns are unloaded—these are amateur soldiers so innocent of war they do not know enough to deduce that if there are no magazines loaded into the rifles, there can be at most but one round in the chamber. It was not so easy, therefore, when the moment came to charge into the Pentagon.
At any rate, if this is the military situation with which we are left, let us now take a look at the front line, at the six inches of no-man's-land across which troops and demonstrators—in the closest use yet of this word—confront each other.
II: The Steps of the Roaring Ladder
It is on this particular confrontation that the conceit one is writing a history must be relinquished. Forget that the journalistic information available from both sides is so incoherent, inaccurate, contradictory, malicious, even based on error that no accurate history is conceivable. More than one historian has found a way through chains of false fact. No, the difficulty is that the history is now interior—no documents can give sufficient intimation: the novel must replace history at precisely that point where experience is sufficiently emotional, spiritual, psychical, moral, existential, or supernatural to expose the fact that the historian in pursuing the experience would be obliged to quit the clearly demarcated limits of historic inquiry. So these limits are now relinquished. The collective novel which follows, while still written in the cloak of an historic style, and, therefore, continuously attempting to be scrupulous to the welter of a hundred confusing and opposed facts, will now unashamedly enter that world of strange lights and intuitive speculation which is the novel. Let us, then, fortified by this clarification, this advertisement of intentions, move up to the front, to the six inches of no-man's land between U.S. Army and demonstrators.
It is safe to say that the beginning of this confrontation has not been without terror on each side. The demonstrators, all too conscious of what they consider the profound turpitude of the American military might in Asia, are prepared (or altogether unprepared) for any conceivable brutality here. On their side, the troops have listened for years to small town legends about the venality, criminality, filth, corruption, perversion, addiction, and unbridled appetites of that mysterious group of city Americans referred to first as hipsters, then beatniks, then hippies; now hearing they are linked with the insidious infiltrators of America's psychic life, the Reds!, the troops do not know whether to expect a hairy kiss on their lips or a bomb between their knees. Each side is coming face to face with its own conception of the devil!
Let us give the literal picture. At this early stage, before the demonstrators were to sit down, a close-packed line of M.P.'s with clubs, backed by another line of soldiers, was supported further by separate U.S. Marshals a few feet behind them, arrayed like linebackers—it could not have been unselfconscious. In other places of tension and at other times, soldiers were to advance with rifles, with sheathed bayonets, with tear gas, but this had not happened yet on this front, where the line of standing demonstrators was composed of a mix of SDS-Contingent with a greater number of unattached young demonstrators caught in the suction of the action. Posed against the lines of soldiers, already some historic flowers were being placed insouciantly, insolently, and tenderly in gun barrels by boys and girls.
Of course the rhetoric of the Left had been consistent in referring to these troops as innocent victims of the military machine and there is the real possibility that some fraction of the soldiers may have been secretly sympathetic to the demonstrators. The following is from an allegedly unedited tape of an interview with a soldier who had been at the Pentagon. “Around 40 per cent of all the military is in favor of your demonstration. This is a big point that I have found. They go out there, and around 30 per cent are just out to hurt anybody, beat anybody up they can, just because they have a rifle and all this other stuff. However, 30 per cent of them are sort of serene about the whole thing, and they couldn't care less. They have a job to do and that's all.”
Since this interview was printed in the East Village Other, one cannot be certain it exists; psychedelic underground papers consider themselves removed from any fetish with factology. Still the dialogue has its ring—“sort of serene” is not an easy remark to make up. In any case, if the soldiers of this hour were not generally, by all accounts, interested in brutality, they were certainly fascinated by their foe, and when the minutes of confrontation went by and then the first hour, there began some lessening of woe and some lessening of the soldiers' extraordinary attention; the true literal fear of losing their lives began to go away from them. They had been sent out after all with God knows what orientation, “Well, men,” says the major, “our mission is to guard the Pentagon from rioters and out-of-march scale prearranged-upon levels of defacement, meaning clear? Well, the point to keep in mind, troopers, is those are going to be American citizens out there expressing their Constitutional right to protest—that don't mean we're going to let them fart in our face—but the Constitution is a complex document with circular that is circulating sets of conditions—put it this way, I got my buddies being chewed by V.C. right this minute maybe I don't care to express personal sentiments now, negative, keep two things in mind—those demos out there could be carrying bombs or bangalore torpedoes for all we know, and you're going out with no rounds in your carbines so thank God for the.45. And first remember one thing more—they start trouble with us, they'll wish they hadn't left New York unless you get killed in the stampede of us to get to them. Yessir, you keep a tight ass-hole and the fellow behind you can keep his nose clean.”
If the troops were relieved that a pullulating, unwashed orgiastic Communist-inspired wave of flesh did not roll right over them, and that in fact the majority of demonstrators right there before them were not unlike in appearance the few quiet long-haired cool odd kids they had never quite gotten to know in high school, the demonstrators in their turn were relieved in profounder fashion that their rank of eyes had met the soldiers, and it was the soldiers who had looked away. They looked across the gulf of the classes, the middle classes and the working classes. It would take the rebirth of Marx for Marxism to explain definitively this middle-class condemnation of an imperialist war in the last Capitalist nation, this working-class affirmation. But it is the urban middle class in America who always feel most uprooted, most alienated from America itself, and so instinctively most critical of America, for neither do they work with their hands nor wield real power, so it is never their lathe nor their sixty acres, and certainly never is it their command which is accepted because they are simply American and there, no, the urban middle class was the last class to arrive at respectable status and it has been the most over-protected (for its dollars are the great nourishing mother of all consumer goods) yet the most spiritually undefended since even the concept of a crisis in identity seems most exclusively their own. The sons and daughters of that urban middle class, forever alienated in childhood from all the good simple funky nitty gritty American joys of the working class like winning a truly dangerous fist fight at the age of eight or getting sex before fourteen, dead drunk by sixteen, whipped half to death by your father, making it in rumbles with a proud street gang, living at war with the educational system, knowing how to snicker at the employer from one side of the mouth, riding a bike with no hands, entering the Golden Gloves, doing a hitch in the Navy, or a stretch in the stockade, and with it all, their sense of élan, of morale, for buddies are the manna of the working class: there is a God-given cynical indifference to school, morality, and job. The working class is loyal to friends, not ideas. No wonder the army bothered them not a bit. But the working class bothered the sons of the middle class with their easy confident virility and that physical courage with which they seemed to be born—there was a fear and a profound respect in every middle-class son for his idea of that most virile ruthless indifferent working class which would eventually exterminate them as easily as they exterminated gooks. And this is not even to mention the sense of muted awe which lived in every son of the urban middle class before the true American son of the small town and the farm, that blank-eyed snub-nosed innocent, bewildered, stubborn, crew-cut protagonist of all conventional American life; the combination of his symbolic force with the working class, was now in focus here.
Standing against the soldiers were not only sons of the middle class, of course, but sons who had departed the middle class, they were rebels and radicals and young revolutionaries; yet they were unbloodied, they felt secretly weak, they did not know if they were the simple equal, man for man, of these soldiers, and so when this vanguard confronted soldiers now, and were able to stare them in the eye, they were in effect, saying silently, “I will steal your élan, and your brawn, and the very animal of your charm because I am morally right and you are wrong and the balance of existence is such that the meat of your life is now attached to my spirit, I am stealing your balls.” A great exaltation arose among the demonstrators in that first hour. Surrounded on the plaza and on the stairs, they could have no idea of what would happen next, they could be beaten, arrested, buried in a stampede, most of them were on the mouth of their first cannon, yet for each minute they survived, sixty seconds of existential gold was theirs. Minutes passed, an hour went by—these troops were more afraid of them than they were afraid of the troops! Great glory. They began to cheer. Those who were not in the first row yelled insults, taunted the soldiers, derided them—the demonstrators in the front looked into the soldiers' eyes, smiled, tried to make conversation. “Hey, soldier, you think I'm a freak. Why am I against the war in Vietnam? Cause it's wrong. You're not defending America against Communism, you're just giving your officers a job.” Some of the dialogue was better, some was worse, some was face to face, some by bull horn to the troops—technology land at the front. The dialogue was to change character yet, become more intimate, more awful, more excruciating for the soldiers, and the demonstrators; it was to go on for thirty-two hours of close-up dialogues across the line of confrontation, first standing, then—in response to the fear of stampede—sitting, faces inches apart, the demonstrators speaking softly, the soldiers under orders silent, some soldiers trembling—there were reports of officers coming up to say, “Steady, soldier!” and of soldiers here and there specifically relieved, even unconfirmed stories of three soldiers who took off their helmets and joined the demonstrators.
Of course this was only the first hour of thirty-two, and involved but the first line; three or four rows back the condition was different, one was safer, more anonymous—one's abuse could have more bite for considerably less cost. And down in the Mall a different condition existed, one of excitement, bewilderment, interest, anticipation. Cut off from the demonstration on the stairs or the plaza by the press of the crowd at the base, one had only to ignore the possibility of climbing the ropes and there was no way one could not in good conscience declare one had done his best. Of course, there were confrontations here as well. Where soldiers cut off the access roads, demonstrators from the Mall were pressing against them. Here the attitude was more ugly. Here soldiers were not cutting people off from the Pentagon, but from their own demonstrators, so the imperative to get through was more direct, the fear of being stampeded was less, there was all the Mall to run out into. Therefore the inability to mount a charge to break the soldier's line was less excusable, closer perhaps to cowardice—hence the ugliness of the crowd. And indeed far out in the Mall, isolated altogether from other soldiers were very small detachments on now unknown details, three soldiers here, five there. Newspaper stories referred to them. Breslin reported they were reviled and tormented unmercifully; when it got dark a few soldiers were beaten up—so goes the story. It may be well to quote Breslin here.
Taste and decency had left the scene a long time before. All that remained were these lines of troops and packs of nondescript kids who taunted the soldiers. The kids went to the bathroom on the side of the Pentagon building. They threw a couple of rocks through the first-floor windows. The soldiers faced them silently. From the steps, a captain in the Airborne kept calling out through a bullhorn.
“A Company, hold your ground, A Company,” his voice said. “Nobody comes and nobody goes. Just hold your ground, A Company.”
The mob on the grass in front of the soldiers began chanting. “Hold that line, hold that line.”
There was no humor to it. These were not the kind of kids who were funny. These were the small core of dropouts and drifters and rabble who came to the front of what had started out as a beautiful day, one that would have had meaning to it. They turned a demonstration for peace, these drifters in raggedy clothes, into a sickening, club-swinging mess. At the end of the day, the only concern anybody could have was for the soldiers who were taking the abuse.
On the steps leading from the grass to the blacktop the kids taunted the troops and kicked at them.
“Hit them—they won't hit back,” somebody yelled.
A scraggly bearded guy in a blue denim jacket shrieked. He ran up with a flag holder and swatted a soldier in the back.
Whatever it was that this peace march had started out to be, it now became an exercise in clawing at soldiers. And it lasted into the darkness.
In contrast let us now dare to give an extract from Gerald Long's account in the National Guardian. It is not a paper famous for its lack of bias and the account here is obviously partisan, but its virtues are to be brief and vivid.
Some demonstrators near the entrance and a good number behind the front lines urged the crowd forward, into a clash with the troops who were standing with rifles at the ready. A debate ensued. SDS leaders, also among the first near the doors, grabbed portable loudspeakers and urged the crowd to sit down. (“It would have been a bloodbath,” SDS leader Greg Calvert commented later. “A thousand people could have been killed if they attempted to storm those lines unarmed. We regarded those urging the crowd forward as Left adventurers and tried to stop them. We succeeded.”)
A company of M.P.s materialized from the right, running awkwardly like puppets. They stopped in front of the ramp, regrouped, leveled their rifles and marched forward. Unbelieving demonstrators just gaped at them, stunned, confronted for the first time by the guns of “our boys.” Then something remarkable happened. People began laughing. Someone threw flowers at the M.P.s, who by now had stopped, frozen, guns pointed at young men and women their own age.
Every time the troops moved forward to push demonstrators away from the ramps, scores, hundreds of youth would sneak behind them—up the ramp. The M.P.s were enveloped. People were standing with faces just inches from the barrels of M-14 semi-automatics and an occasional single barrel shotgun.
The M.P.s executed an about face, seeking to clear out the demonstrators who ran behind them. A youth refused to be moved. A rifle butt landed in his stomach. He grabbed the rifle. Several youths grabbed rifles. Four helmets were stolen. A demonstrator was slugged. An M.P. was slugged.
White-helmeted federal marshals, impressed for service from the calm of courtrooms, moved forward, clubs swinging. It seemed to this observer—both in this incident and for the next thirty or so hours—that the marshals aimed particularly at women.
Each time the action stopped in a particular spot, demonstrators sought to speak with the soldiers, who were under orders not to respond. “Why are you doing this?” a demonstrator asked. “Join us” the soldiers were asked. It was obvious that some of the troops were weakening. A few soldiers seemed ready to faint. “Hold your lines, hold your lines,” a captain repeated harshly, over and over, to the soldiers.
A girl confronted a soldier, “Why, why, why,” she asked. “We're just like you. You're like us. It's them,” she said pointing to the Pentagon. She brought her two fingers to her mouth, kissed them and touched the soldier's lips. Four soldiers grabbed her and dragged her away, under arrest. The soldier she had spoken to tried to tell them that she hadn't hurt him.
It may be obvious by now that a history of the March on the Pentagon which is not unfair will never be written, any more than a history which could prove dependable in details!
As it grew dark there was the air of carnival as well. The last few thousand marchers to arrive from Lincoln Memorial did not even bother to go to the North Parking lot, but turned directly to the Mall and were cheered by the isolated detachments who saw them from a ledge of the wall at the plaza. Somewhere, somebody lit his draft card, and as it began to burn he held it high. The light of the burning card traveled through the crowd until it found another draft card someone else was ready to burn and this was lit, and then another in the distance. In the gathering dark it looked like a dusting of fireflies over the great shrub of the Mall.
By now, however, the way was open again to the North Parking. The chartered buses were getting ready to leave. That portion of this revolution which was Revolution on Excursion Ticket was now obliged to leave. Where once there had been thirty thousand people in the Mall, there were now suddenly twenty thousand people, ten thousand people, less. As the buses ground through the interlockings of their gears and pulled out into a mournful wheezing acceleration along the road, so did other thousands on the Mall look at one another and decide it was probably time to catch a cab or take the long walk back to Washington—they were in fact hungry for a meal. So the Mall began to empty, and the demonstrators on the steps must have drawn a little closer. The mass assault was over.
A few thousand, however, were left, and they were the best. The civil disobedience might be far from done. On the Mall, since the oncoming night was cold, bonfires were lit. On the stairs, a peace pipe was passed. It was filled with hashish. Soon the demonstrators were breaking out marijuana, handing it back and forth, offering it even to the soldiers here and there. The Army after all had been smoking marijuana since Korea, and in Vietnam—by all reports—were gorging on it. The smell of the drug, sweet as the sweetest leaves of burning tea, floated down to the Mall where its sharp bite of sugar and smoldering grass pinched the nose, relaxed the neck. Soon most of the young on the Mall were smoking as well. Can this be one of the moments when the Secretary of Defense looks out from his window in the Pentagon at the crowd on the Mall and studies their fires below? They cannot be unreminiscent of other campfires in Washington and Virginia little more than a century ago. The Secretary of Defense is by all reports a complex man, a reader of poetry—does he have a secret admiration for the works of Robert Lowell as he stands by the window?
But what had happened to the notables, to the leaders of the demonstration? We must move on.
When the speakers' rally at the North Parking Area was done, the leaders decided to join the others, and commit their own acts of symbolic civil disobedience. So Dave Dellinger, Dagmar Wilson, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin Spock, Noam Chomsky, Sidney Lens, Barbara Deming, Dwight Macdonald, and Robert Lowell left the North Parking. Drifting through the Mall, entering dialogues with young demonstrators, or holding impromptu press conferences which would be forced to emphasize their unhappy distance from the action (and the press of the demonstrators on the steps might have been difficult to pass through) were alternatives which offered no grip—Dellinger wisely led the contingent past the Mall to a small grassy area, now untenanted but for soldiers, between Washington Boulevard and the west wall of the Pentagon. Here he planned to open another arena of action by engaging the troops in a teach-in. On their arrival, Dellinger suggested that those who had not spoken at the rally should talk to the soldiers. Father Rice spoke. Then Noam Chomsky. While he was speaking a line of soldiers left the west wall of the Pentagon and advanced gently on the notables, moving forward slowly, expressionlessly, and with a lack of violence which was bewildering for they passed silently through the figures about Del-linger without striking any of them, indeed making every effort not to touch them. A larger crowd of students who had accompanied Dellinger and Spock's contingent fled however before the soldiers, despite Dellinger's shouts through the bullhorn for them to hold ground, since the soldiers were not intending violence. But this group of demonstrators fled. Perhaps it was the movies they had seen of armies of zombies, perhaps it was the vitiated state of their liver after four hours of speeches—it was evident, no matter how, that rhetoric hand in hand with reason put no spirit of war into revolutionary boys. The notables, however, were made of firmer stuff—they turned around and began to address the soldiers who had passed by them. When this became apparently absurd—where does the teach-in begin on a man's back?—they turned about again, and walked once more toward the wall of the Pentagon. Now more soldiers suddenly double-timed out of an entrance, rifles at high port. Caught between two lines of soldiers, the ends pinched off, the notables were surrounded. The soldiers were silent.
Dr. Spock began to speak to the troops. He told a story which was obviously one of his favorites. He had received a letter not so long ago from a soldier who wrote to him from Vietnam in tones which condemned the war. Dr. Spock wrote back only to have his letter returned with the legend, “Verified deceased.”
Now a Negro sergeant who had commanded the advance of the first line of troops came back, and said to the second line, “All right, push 'em out now.”
The soldiers advanced, the notables sat down. Dr. Spock kept talking, and a flurry in which no account is clear took place. In the course of it, Dellinger, Dagmar Wilson, and Chomsky were arrested. Spock was not, although he made efforts to be arrested—it seemed conceivable the Marshals were under orders to leave him alone. Macdonald and Lowell were passed by. When it was all over, and some had been copped, and some hit by clubs (or rapped with the ends—for the Marshals were not conspicuously brutal here) Lowell, Macdonald, and a few others found themselves alone. The storm had passed. They left, unhurt, and eventually went home.
This excursion to the flank and arrest was not uncharacteristic of Dellinger's leadership in the weeks preceding the March. If Dellinger had been doing his best to be true to his principles and at the same time elucidate the maximum of practical advantage possible in the constricted situation which conciliation must obligatorily produce, he had on this occasion fulfilled just such a limited maximum. Not feeling determined to be with the demonstrators on the line, since the arrest of the notables would be in his mind a superior aim, he had made his own attack in an illegal area, and had attempted to teach the opposing soldiers. When this produced the order to push them out, Dellinger managed to get himself arrested, not easy in the face of the military's obvious policy of random arrest, and was out of jail in the same evening, also not so automatic. He was able therefore to be present at a press conference where he could claim a “tremendous victory.” The protest, he was reported to say, marked the beginning of a “more militant mood, a more persistent mood, a more insistent mood.” If the second half of the proposition was almost certainly correct, the first half did not necessarily precede it, for at the opposite end of the spectrum of Left opinion, bitter old veterans might have been remarking that out of such “tremendous victories” concentration camps were born. In fact it would not have mattered too much what did happen—Dellinger, like any leader of such a Mobilization, would have been bound to claim an enormous victory. It is this he could have told Jerry Rubin on the night before the March—if we are to make the unwarranted assumption that such cynicism was actually in his conscious head—that what happened at the Pentagon would not matter short of the most incredible victory—such as McNamara joining the demonstrators—or the most abysmal defeat, a paralysis of all activity before the sight of the troops. Anything less than these alternatives would produce the same predictable results—each side would claim a great victory for its own principles, the press would be naturally on the side of the authority (although much which was favorable to the other side would be leaked), and the left-wing and underground press and word of mouth would be sure to distort, enrich, ennoble, purify, and finally transpose the real history of the events to their own need; the real victory or defeat could be measured later by the military, money, and mass available for the next big operation. In the meantime he had appealed to the conscience of America, to the middle-class conscience at any rate, he had appealed through the attraction of the mass of numbers of the people who had attended, the numbers arrested, and the names of the notables. So he could have told Rubin—if he had been that cynical and by all evidence he was not—that the important thing, the only thing, was to have an action at the Pentagon, because that, given the processing methods of American newspapers, would be the only thing to come out of the event. Since the American Revolution must climb uphill blindfolded in the long Capitalist night, any thing which was publicity became a walking stick.
Rubin in such a dialogue could possibly have answered that although he agreed in part with Dellinger, there was still ho real victory unless the troops at the front could leave with the conviction that something magical had been won. Rubin was a mystic, a revolutionary mystic—his roots were in Bakunin: so he believed that the chaos which followed disruption would force a crisis, force the government to overextend itself, arid so would polarize the country and develop the strength of the Left who could build new values, new community, new power. So he must also have believed that nothing could be gained in the future which did not proceed from the truth of a victory whose light could be seen in the eye, that a war of publicity unillumined by inner victory was a war in a wallow with gobbets of dung, but that a true victory, if it came to only a few of the best of the very last hundred of the troops would put a radiance in the seed of their oncoming night. An extraordinary multiplication of the romantic, but it was not Rubin's apocalyptic vision alone—it had been seen before by men so vastly different (but for the consonants of their name) as Castro, Cortes, and Christ—it was the collective vision now of the drug-illumined and revolutionary young of the American middle class.
The night went on. As the remaining demonstrators realized they were alone, and no longer linked to the eighty or hundred-thousand-headed force of men and women around the reflecting pool, or the fifty thousand at the Pentagon, but were instead down to a few thousand of the true, the adventurous, and the dedicated, their massive bourgeois complement now gone (not unlike the departure of an obese and wealthy mother-in-law) as they sensed that they were a smaller force, even by count of heads, to the troops around, about, and inside the Pentagon, so they knew the war could now become more serious, now their true weapons could show.
The campfires were lit, the pot—as already described—was passed; what prehistoric forms the dark bulk of the Pentagon must have taken from its spark, how the figures studying them with field glasses from the roof must have looked—how much like gargoyles on the ridge of a cathedral. Action was on in the night. Hungry, thirsty, the demonstrators were being fed—impromptu self-elected Diggers had organized transportation service for food and water. Beer came in, sandwiches, it was Saturday night—Saturnalia came in: couples began to neck on the grass, some awed by their audacity, some stimulated by the proximity of the Pentagon. Others, using spray cans, crayons, paints and brush began to write slogans on the stone wall of the Mall, the pier, the sides of the ramp. WAR SUCKS went one of the signs, PENTAGON SUCKS went another, FUCK WAR went a third. There was much to be made of this in the newspapers when all was done, and much to be made of the litter on the grass. That might have been a mistake—the litter. An army which leaves its litter behind could form the habit of leaving its dead behind, but the signs! They were easier to defend, for the legend PENTAGON SUCKS would reach the troops, it would reach every unit in the army before a month, and they would be a new breed of American soldiers if they did not laugh.
In the meantime the Army was not inactive. On the left access road where the Diggers had established a base in the chain of food transportation, tear gas was used by the troops—there seems no doubt of this. Too many eyewitness reports appeared in too many newspapers—indeed some reporters entered a night briefing in the Pentagon hardly able to see from tears in their eyes caused by gas discharged from canisters by soldiers, just in time to hear the Army deny they had used tear gas. Of course, some of the demonstrators had used tear gas too; so would swear Jimmy Breslin; so admitted one of the March leaders. It would in fact have been unlikely if out of this citizen's army of angelic and vicious children and youth, not one of that pill-ridden, electronically-oriented, chemically-grounded generation had not brought some gimmicks with gas. How else to play? That army of hippies and bikers would not be so unfrightening when their inventive pop-art genius turned to the craft of the nuisance weapon. Twenty years of comic strips were twenty years of surrealist seed.
The girls were now taunting the soldiers on the line. Something had happened with the line. Now soldiers were being rotated rapidly, sometimes by the half-hour—no relationship between troops and soldiers was to be permitted to grow. Perhaps for good cause. Earlier in the day, a couple of Negro demonstrators were reported to have taunted a Negro soldier until he had finally been obliged to hang his head, turn it away. One can conceive of the dialogue.
“Hey, nigger, how long you going to kiss Mr. Charlie's who-who-who? Going over to Vietnam, going to be nigger hero, huh? Going to have your photograph in a honkie paper, that right, is that right? Hey, Mr. Big, give us some skin, take your fat black hand off that honkie asshole rifle and give us some skin. You're the man! You're the man!”
Yes, they had skinned him with that Negro irony which could separate the most weathered hide from the most determined flesh—the wisdoms of torture were in their skill—how could any U.S. Army dare to put many Negroes on a line, if an army of black and white demonstrators would be there to face them, no, the troops might break and no one would know where—the loss was bitter on this night that the Black Militants pursuing their own revolution were dispersed in the black ghetto of Washington rather than here. The Blacks had their own army to form, the Black Left had more power over the White Left than over black people—besides, some instinct in the Black had them wary of the New Left's automatic acceptance of technology land (the New Left tended to think technology land was acceptable except for its management by corporation land; the Black Left now interested in discovering itself had unruly jungle intuitions that technology land and corporation land might be the same).
With Negroes or without, fraternization on the line continued. Draft cards continued to be burned—each one a flutter of anxiety in everyone's heart, a release of fire on wings. Contemplate the humiliation to a college student if he hates the war and keeps the card in his wallet—how it says to him each time he looks for an address: You are yellow, buddy, for you keep me. So the cards burned one by one through the night, each man sitting in his position on the steps, the plaza, or the Mall, with his own card burning inside him, his stomach a glut of elation and woe as each new card went up from the dark in flame, suddenly it is his own, he—wild revolutionary youth, conservative middle-class boy, keeper of draft cards—his schizophrenia is burning and the security of the future with it. He looks for a girl to kiss in reward.
Sex, fear, the lift of first courage, the lightness of freedom, the oncoming suffocations of dread, the wild swinging ache or the somnolent drift of the pot, the biting cold of the night, the Civil War glow of the campfire light on all those union jackets, hippies on the trail of Sergeant Pepper—the U.S. Army looking out on a field of fires heard demonstrators talking to them, crying, “Join us, Join us,” demonstrators talking in low voices, “Why do you stay in uniform? Do you like the helmet on your head, is that it? Do you like obeying officers you hate? Join us. We have everything. Look. We are free. We have pot, we have food we share, we have girls. Come over to us, and share our girls”—a generosity of Eskimoes and the New Middle Class which these soldiers of the working class and the small town would not be quick to comprehend—who gives his girl away, would be their question. And the answer—a fag! Yes, the hippies offered much, perhaps they offered too much.
The girls conducted their war. They had been walking in view of the soldiers, talking to the soldiers, standing in front of them, studying them, putting flowers in their barrels, smiling—some were gentle and sweet, true flower girls; others were bold and with the well-seasoned and high-spiced bitch air of fifty Harlem pickup lovers in a year, not saying how many whites—they unbuttoned their blouses, gave a real hint of cleavage, smiled in the soldier's eye, gave a devil laugh, then a bitch belly laugh at the impotence of the man's position in a uniform, helpless to reach out and take her. And the Marshals behind the soldiers, tense as police dogs, wheeling up and down the line, glaring at demonstrators, rapping their clubs against their hands, dying for their own precise kind of action.
Once in a while an arrest would be made. It seemed never to make much sense. A seated demonstrator might touch a soldier by accident, the Marshal would reach through the soldier's legs, grab the demonstrator, pull him through, another Marshal would join him, a quick beating, a move off to the waiting wagon or truck. All day, the arrests had made no sense. There had been in the beginning an obvious attempt to hold arrests down, then a wave of arrests when sds-Contingent took the corner of the plaza, then this long period from dark to midnight with random scattered meaningless arrests.
There was meaning in it. The deepest sort of technological meaning: the technique of avoiding martyrs in riots. The essence of that technique is to arrest at random. The arrested hero having done nothing in particular feels like a victim or a fool. Upon his release, his friends treat him like a hero. But he is the sort of hero who must end by disappointing them. That is part of the technical wisdom of random arrest. It also disrupts, since no preparation for self-protection can be made, no sense of slow immersion into the possibility of arrest is possible, and the growth of rumor is exaggerated—for random arrests seem always more brutal than more logical arrests. In fact they are more brutal.
One element of these arrests was however not random at all. A startling disproportion of women were arrested, and were beaten in ugly fashion in the act. Dagmar Wilson, the leader of Women Strike for Peace, was treated more brutally by the Marshals than any of the male notables. She was hardly alone. Over and over, eyewitness account after eyewitness account gives brutal deadening news of the ferocity with which Marshals and soldiers went to work on women. But let us move into these accounts.
Some time after midnight, the press was called into the Pentagon for a final press conference before going home. The Secretary of Defense had left, the television was gone. There was an hiatus in the coverage of the event. It was a moment which somebody in command had obviously anticipated. New columns appeared from the building. The soldiers who had been on the line were replaced. The new soldiers were veterans of Vietnam. Such men had been on the plaza since dark, but this detachment seemed specially trained, a fierce cry away from the more frightened reserves who had been first on the line in the afternoon, and had lost that confrontation of the two lines of eyes in the first hour. The strength gained by the demonstrators then, was now to be tested in quite another fire. What came to be known as the battle of The Wedge was here begun. Let us get news of it by an extract from an eyewitness account by Margie Stamberg in the Washington Free Press.
When the paratroopers with their M-14 rifles, bayonets, clubs, and stone faces appeared, the bull horns set up a call for reinforcements from those resting at the campfires below.
Note that the bullhorns seem to set up an immediate call. How palpable must have been the shift in mood.
A tight resistance of row upon row of people sitting with locked arms was formed. Then the squeeze began. We saw at first individuals in the front lines being dragged out behind the troop lines and carried away. Suddenly, the troops which had been in single rows in front of the crowd formed into a wedge on the right side. Their tactic apparently was to split the group in two and force them to move back. No explanation was given for the sudden action. Paddy wagons rolled up, soldiers with tear gas guns appeared among the troops, and from the mall behind, other troops began to form.
Slowly the wedge began to move in on people. With bayonets and rifle butts, they moved first on the girls in the front line, kicking them, jabbing at them again and again with the guns, busting their heads and arms to break the chain of locked arms. The crowd appealed to the paratroopers to back off, to join them, to just act human. They sang the “Star Spangled Banner” and other songs: but the troops at this point were non-men, the appeals were futile.
The pleas of SDS people on the bull horns to convince the group to pull back in the face of a tactically deadened situation went unheeded. And so we sat. Some individuals left, but most remained. To leave was to leave one's brothers and sisters to get clubbed, yet to passively remain in the locked chain was also to participate in the senseless brutality. The victory of before was forgotten. In the dark the paratroopers began to move.
As they clubbed the marked person, usually a girl, in the first row, and dragged her away, the ranks in back closed in tighter. The person in the row behind became the front, was subjected to blows and kicks, dragged away, and the troops went on to the third row. Then the fourth, the fifth, the sixth rank, and so on until the people were finally separated into two groups. One hundred people were methodically beaten and carried away to the paddy wagons.
The wedge beat through to the last line, and the resistance was broken. Those left, who had been locking arms, stood up and waited quietly to be taken to the paddy wagons which continued to arrive. No one was leaving now as thousands there prepared for arrest.
One cannot articulate the agony of those who sat and watched this go on slowly for hours amidst the songs, the pleas, the tears, and the impotent curses of “motherfucker” and “bastards!” from those who could not leave yet could not resist.
When the resistance had been broken, the brutality stopped, the crowd prepared for arrest, word came that McNamara had arrived at the Pentagon. When this was announced on the bull horns, the troops stopped attacking immediately. Sidney Peck of the National Mobilization Committee took the bull horn from SDS and begged the troops to stop until the person responsible within the Pentagon for the massacre order could be found for an explanation. Peck insisted we had been given a permit to remain on the steps which the troops were violating. This speech, to many of us, was a funeral oration. All during the day the legality or illegality had been superfluous; the permit, a petit-bourgeois hang-up for those who had come to confront the warmakers. We didn't want the brutality to stop BECAUSE we had a permit; if it was to stop it must stop because we had beaten them, or they had carried the last one of us away.
Let us have another account from the same newspaper. This one is by Thorne Dreyer.
The second phase of the demonstration was pretty much a bad scene. And I'm not sure why. For one thing, they kept changing the troops. Whenever we'd start really talking to the guys, they'd move them out. Maybe they finally brought in their “crack” troops. Lots of people left. It got dark and cold. But this is most important: There was a tactical vacuum. We were in a box.
Suddenly we were defensive and scared. We sang “We Are Not Afraid.” Earlier, we did not have to sing it. There was no communication with the troops now. We chanted, “Join Us!” and “We Love You” and it was meaningless rhetoric. People kept bringing more and more food and we gorged ourselves and that food became really obscene. We started bickering and began to sing “We Shall Overcome” and were right back in that liberal bag. There were a few people who were totally committed to getting their scalps torn open, and a few who thought it would be tactically best to leave, and a hell of a lot who were scared shitless, but just didn't know what to do. There were lots of young kids who had really been moved by the spirit of the thing and weren't about to leave if leaving meant a defeat. And at that point I guess it would have.
The cops began to get really brutal, moving into the group in a wedge and smashing heads with billy clubs. These beautiful little hippie chicks had tears streaming down their faces, but they weren't about to move. These kids were really brave. And I began to resent the “super-militants” who created so much pressure to stay. Because that was nothing but goddamn bourgeois politics. At this point we had moved from confrontation right back to symbolic protest.
The brutality by every eyewitness account was not insignificant, and was made doubly unattractive by its legalistic apparatus. The line of soldiers would stamp forward until they reached the seated demonstrators, then they would kick forward with their toes until the demonstrators were sitting on their feet (or legally speaking, now interfering with the soldiers). Then the Marshals would leap between their legs again and pull the demonstrator out of the line, he or she would then be beaten and taken away. It was a quiet rapt scene with muted curses, a spill in the dark of the most heated biles of the hottest patriotic hearts—to the Marshals and the soldiers, the enemy was finally there before them, all that Jew female legalistic stew of corruptions which would dirty the name of the nation and revile the grave of soldiers like themselves back in Vietnam, yes, the beatings went on, one by one generally of women, more women than men. Here is the most brutal description of a single beating by Harvey Mayes of the English Department at Hunter.
One soldier spilled the water from his canteen on the ground in order to add to the discomfort of the female demonstrator at his feet. She cursed him—understandably, I think—and shifted her body. She lost her balance and her shoulder hit the rifle at the soldier's side. He raised the rifle, and with its butt, came down hard on the girl's leg. The girl tried to move back but was not fast enough to avoid the billy-club of a soldier in the second row of troops. At least four times that soldier hit her with all his force, then as she lay covering her head with her arms, thrust his club swordlike between her hands into her face. Two more troops came up and began dragging the girl toward the Pentagon. She twisted her body so we could see her face. But there was no face there: All we saw were some raw skin and blood. We couldn't see even if she was crying—for her eyes had filled with the blood pouring down her head. She vomited, and that too was blood. Then they rushed her away.
One wonders at the logic. There is always a logic in repression, just as there is always a logic in the worst commercial. The logic is there for a reason—it will drive something into flesh.
The logic here speaks of the old misery of the professional soldier, centuries old. He is, at his most brutal, a man who managed to stay alive until the age of seven because there were men, at least his father, or his brothers, to keep him alive—his mother had drowned him in no oceans of love; his fear is therefore of the cruelty of women, he may never have another opportunity like this—to beat a woman without having to make love to her. So the Marshals went to work; so did those special soldiers saved for the hour when everyone but themselves and the Marshals was gone from the Pentagon. Now they could begin their beatings.
Yes, and they beat the women for another reason. To humiliate the demonstrators, to break them from their new resistance down to the old passive disobedience of the helpless sit-in waiting one's turn to be clubbed; they ground it into their faces that they sat there while their women were being taken off and no one of them or group of them dared to charge for all that hour. It is the worst hour at the Pentagon for the demonstrators—and the worst hour for the speakers on the bullhorn who quieted the militants who wanted to make some sort of charge. Yes, it was a difficult hour—the working class had plucked all stolen balls back. Great cheer. With rifles and clubs they had plucked them back. It is a large blemish on the demonstrators that they were supine in the wedge, but it is comprehensible. There is a dead nerveless area on the Left, comprised of the old sense of paralysis before the horror of the gas chamber. There are very few on the Left who do not live with the partial belief their own life someday will end in a such a way—perhaps that is why they are hung like a string of fish on the power of the public speech for all occasions. In a crowd listening to a speech, perhaps they are then farthest from the nightmare of retching up one's last salts in the incredible ballooning suffocations of the last gas. Perhaps it is better to die each public evening by such an inch. One wonders why no musicians were playing as the clubs came down—just motherly legalistic injunctions from the bullhorn; motherly! the clubs of the Marshals, the butts of the rifles of the soldiers came down with more force. Kill the mothers! All the while, rumors passed. A demonstrator was already dead they heard—then next that they were all to be taken away and beaten one by one. Now the rumors changed. At X hour, a charge would come down on them. They would be clubbed to death.
It was still possible to leave. It was possible every inch of that slow advance of the wedge for demonstrators to leave. But they sat there expecting to share the fate of the girls and the boys being beaten now. So it is not altogether shameful. If they did not defend their allies by action, they defended another ideal by their presence, by their refusal to flee. And the pot had deprived them of force. The Wedge had come on their slide down from elation into the long bad stoning of their collective head as mental connections begin to miss and reports of new small brain damage reach the home of the mind. Apathy. Depression. Then the battle of The Wedge.
They were shriven in the hours till dawn. Rumors went through the cold night and the 40° of darkest early morning that the charge would be coming or a new wedge. They were down to four hundred demonstrators, a hundredth of the force which had come to the Pentagon—they were out on the cold exaltation of having survived, of having remained—they were therefore tempted to stay and stay, to stay to the very end. They were now engaged in that spiritual test so painful to all—the rite of passage. Let us ruminate with them and contemplate the dawn.
The few hundred demonstrators still left in vigil on the stairs of the Pentagon in those dark hours after The Wedge and before the dawn were being exercised in all those nerves which lead to the moral root—a physical and spiritual transaction whose emotions are, at worst, so little agreeable as the passage of the dentist's drill toward the nerve canal of a tooth. It was bitterly cold, and they slept huddled together, beggared by discomfort, even occasional acts of petty viciousness. A sergeant went down the line at 5 A.M. pouring cold water from his canteen on the sleeping bodies.
Generally, however, there were few incidents. The Wedge had left no desire for more fight on either side. The Army had been guilty of illegal activity and knew it: the section of plaza they emptied during the wedge had clearly belonged by the terms of the agreement with the government to the area provided for demonstrators—so a few officers must now have been contemplating their actions nervously—the hippies and pacifists still remaining on the stairs could not have felt even an instant of security. In the early morning hours, rumor must have been a leaden dread, stories of what was certain to come next must have sunk into the heart—their journey into the dawn of Sunday was not routine. Cowardice lives in waves, in congealed layers, in caverns of the psyche, in treacheries of fear next to the boldest moves; it also lives encysted in all the firmest structures of the ego. How many of these demonstrators, certain at the beginning of the night by the firm conviction of their ego that they would not leave until morning, must have been obliged to pass through layers and dimensions and bursting cysts of cowardice they never knew to exist in themselves, as if each hour they remained extracted from them a new demand, a further extension of their moral resolve, another rung up the moral ladder. Yes, the passage through the night against every temptation to leave—the cold, the possibility of new, more brutal, and more overwhelming attacks, the boredom, the middle-class terror of excess (if one has done two or three good acts in a row, it is time to cash them in), the fear of moral vertigo (one courageous action resolutely following another without compromise and without cease must end in the whirlpool of death), yes, even the fear that if they remained through the night, they would be obliged to remain through the morning, the afternoon and the evening of the next night, and even then! would there be ever an end? Yes, the passage through the night brought every temptation to leave including the thundering schisms of muttered political argument in the dark—the proud advertisements of the new resistance had been ground back to the old masochistic tramping grounds of the sit-in—an argument which was undeniable, and could have prevailed, except if they left, and no one was at the Pentagon then but the soldiers through the night, well what unseen burning torch of which unknown but still palpably felt spirit might expire? No, this passage through the night was a rite of passage, and these disenchanted heirs of the Old Left, this rabble of American Vietcong and hippies and pacifists and whoever else was left were afloat on a voyage whose first note had been struck with the first sound of a trumpet blown the morning before. “Come here, come here come here,” the trumpet had said, and now eighteen hours later, in the false dawn, the echo of far greater rites of passage in American history, the light reflected from the radiance of greater more heroic hours may have come nonetheless to shine along the inner space and the caverns of the freaks, some hint of a glorious future may have hung in the air, some refrain from all the great American rites of passage when men and women manacled themselves to a lost and painful principle and survived a day, a night, a week, a month, a year, a celebration of Thanksgiving—the country had been founded on a rite of passage. Very few had not emigrated here without the echo of that rite, even if it were no more (and no less!) than eight days in the stink, bustle, fear, and propinquity of steerage on an ocean crossing (or the eighty days of dying on a slave ship), each generation of Americans had forged their own rite, in the forest of the Alleghenies and the Adirondacks, at Valley Forge, at New Orleans in 1812, with Rogers and Clark or at Sutter's Mill, at Gettysburg, the Alamo, the Klondike, the Argonne, Normandy, Pusan—the engagement at the Pentagon was a pale rite of passage next to these, and yet it was probably a true one, for it came to the spoiled children of a dead, de-animalized middle class who had chosen most freely, out of the incomprehensible mysteries of moral choice, to make an attack and then hold a testament before the most authoritative embodiment of the principle that America was right, America was might, America was the true religious war of Christ against the Communist. So it became a rite of passage for these tender drug-vitiated jargon-mired children, they endured through a night, a black dark night which began in joy, near foundered in terror, and dragged on through empty apathetic hours while glints of light came to each alone. Yet the rite of passage was invoked, the moral ladder was climbed, they were forever different in the morning than they had been before the night, which is the meaning of a rite of passage, one has voyaged through a channel of shipwreck and temptation, and so some of the vices carried from another nether world into life itself (on the day of one's birth) may have departed, or fled, or quit; some part of the man has been born again, and is better, just as some hardly so remarkable area of the soul may have been in some minuscule sweet fashion reborn on the crossing of the marchers over Arlington Memorial Bridge, for the worst of them and the most timid were moving nonetheless to a confrontation they could only fear, they were going to the land of the warmakers. Not so easy for the timid when all is said.
But of course this rite of passage was hardly to end as yet. The morning came; very cold, very quiet, unexciting. Demonstrators left, all but a token force. Were there even a few hundred? The others rushed to places for a few hours sleep, then returned. By ten in the morning, two thousand may have been back. The day was different. There was not much militancy now, but long speeches, different somehow from the speeches of the day before, because the listeners moved now on the currents of the night before and the bloodyings. Now and again draft cards were burned, and for a part of the day, Gary Rader, once a member of the Green Berets, gave a speech which was thought by many to be the best hour of them all.
Night was on. The demonstrators were entering the last few hours of their march on the Pentagon. They were tired, exceptionally tired, they felt vulnerable—their aggression, their ability even to defend themselves now used up by endless calls over the hours for more adrenalin; yes the mood was pacifistic, almost saintly, but very weak. In the night, they were all close to each other. Quietly. They were waiting. The walls of the Pentagon bulked large.
Fifteen minutes before midnight, a voice boomed out of a loudspeaker in the wall. To the demonstrators it sounded like the voice of the Pentagon. Big Brother had come to be heard.
“The demonstration in which you are participating,” said the voice, “ends at midnight. The two-day permit which was agreed to by leaders of the demonstration and GSA expires at that time. All demonstrators must depart from the Pentagon grounds at midnight.” A silence.
“All persons who wish to leave voluntarily can board buses on the Mall.” A pause. “Those demonstrators who do not leave voluntarily by midnight will be arrested and taken to a federal detention center. . . . All demonstrators are urged to abide by the permit.” So the government remained to the end what it had been from the beginning: one part legalistic, one part cooperative, and one part threatening—or is it rather—one part in the area of the non-negotiable?
There was a short silence, hardly time for the demonstrators to do more than reckon with the fact that another rung in the rite of passage had been presented. But again the Voice spoke out of the Pentagon wall. “I say again to you. The demonstration in which you are participating . . .” and the same speech was read to the same conclusion. Thirty-four demonstrators accepted the offer to leave.
Let us quote from the Washington Star. For once, a newspaper account seems to agree with eyewitness reports. One must, of course, as always, beware of adjectives and estimates of number. Adverbs are to be shunned.
During its last hour the demonstration seemed no menace to the helmeted legions still facing them across a single-strand rope barrier. The crowd was down to its last 200.
Repeatedly, almost pleadingly, the march's leaders at that hour had reminded the soldiers and the marshals—by loudspeaker—that arrests should be made non-violently to fulfill a supposed promise.
At 11:46 an amplified voice echoed across the helmeted troops and federal officers and out to the now-tense 200.
“The demonstration in which you are participating ends at midnight.”
“I say again to you. The demonstration in which . . .” and on to a second full reading.
“No,” Crowd Cries
This done, there was a moment of silence. Then, “No,” a muted chorus from the demonstrators. Then, more lustily, the chant: “Hell no, we won't go, hell no, we won't go.”
Almost immediately, 57 helmeted U.S. marshals filed out of the Pentagon, across the Mall, and behind the front line of M.P.s.
The crowd started singing, mournfully, “We Shall Overcome.” Most sat down, immediately in front of the first M.P.s. A futile attempt at “God Bless America,” then more “We Shall Overcome.”
And then again, from the loudspeakers: “Attention all demonstrators. The demonstration in which . . .” It was repeated twice then, with the added notice that “It is now 11:55 P.M.”
“God Bless America” issued from the protesting remnant, their number diminished by the 34 who had accepted the ride to freedom.
Second Bus Drives Off
The announcement came again, this time with the notice: “It is now 11:58 and a half P.M.” And then: “It is now 12 P.M.”
A minute passed, and the second “Freedom bus” drove off. There was some shuffling about at the east end of the marshals' line, but still no fulfillment of the arrest notice.
The closed vans, Occoquan-bound, began moving into position at two minutes after 12. And then the troops tightened around in a triangle, and the marshals moved in on the demonstrators, now singing “This Land Is My Land,” and then “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” and finally—over and over—“We Shall Overcome.”
It was a curious last act. Almost conversational. Said a priest to a marshal: “Don't club that boy; this is non-violent.” And there was no clubbing. Said a bearded boy to a soldier: “I am going limp.” He did, and the soldier obligingly lifted him.
The arresting went so smoothly then that the vans could not be moved up fast enough to accept the prisoners.
After six vans, two panel trucks and that one unused “freedom bus” were loaded and driven off, it was over.
When the count was made, there proved to be one thousand arrests. It was not a small number; it was not an enormous number—it was certainly a respectable number to be arrested over thirty-two hours in protest of a war. Six hundred had charges pressed. The others were taken to the back of the Pentagon, photographed, and driven away in buses to be released on the street. Of the six hundred arrested, no felony charges for assault were brought in, indeed only a dozen were charged with assault, only two went to trial and both were acquitted.
Yes, the end seemed to have come, and the immediate beneficiary of the March could be nobody other than the President of the United States. Lyndon Johnson made a point to have his picture taken Saturday sitting at a table on the White House lawn with Hubert Humphrey, Dean Rusk, and Orville Freeman. The caption informed that he had spent the day in work. Headlines on Monday: “LBJ Hits Peaceniks.” He had sent a memorandum to Defense Secretary McNamara and Attorney General Clark. “I know that all Americans share my pride in the man in uniform and the civilian law enforcement personnel for their outstanding performance in the nation's capitol during the last two days. They performed with restraint, firmness, and professional skill. Their actions stand in sharp contrast to the irresponsible acts of violence and lawlessness by many of the demonstrators.”
The press was, in the aftermath, antagonistic to the March. Some measure of the condemnation and the abuse can be indicated by quoting Reston of the Times who was not immoderate in his reaction. Nor untypical.
It is difficult to report publicly the ugly and vulgar provocation of many of the militants. They spat on some of the soldiers in the front line at the Pentagon and goaded them with the most vicious personal slander.
Many of the signs carried by a small number of the militants, and many of the lines in the theatrical performances put on by the hippies, are too obscene to print. In view of this underside of the protest, many officials here are surprised that there was not much more violence.
The rest of the stories went about that way.
Emphasis was put on every rock thrown, and a count was made of the windows broken. (There were, however, only a few.) But there was no specific mention of The Wedge. Indeed, stories quickly disappeared. No features nor follow-up a few days later. In six weeks when an attempt was made in New York to close down the draft induction centers, it seemed that public sentiment had turned sharply against resistance. The Negro riots had made the nation afraid of lawlessness. Lyndon Johnson stood ten percentage points higher in the popularity polls—he had ridden the wave of revulsion in America against demonstrators who spit in the face of U.S. troops—when it came to sensing new waves of public opinion, LBJ was the legendary surf-boarder of them all.
It probably did not matter. Ever since he had been in office, the popularity of LBJ had kept going up on the basis of his ability to ride every favorable wave, and had kept going down on the unwillingness of the war in Vietnam to fulfill the promises his administration was making. So his popularity would go up and down again. There would be many to hope it did not go up in the last week before election.
Probably it was in Occoquan and the jail in Washington, D.C. that the March ended. In the week following, prisoners who had chosen to remain, refused in many ways to cooperate, obstructed prison work, went on strikes. Some were put in solitary. A group from the Quaker Farm in Voluntown, Connecticut, practiced non-cooperation in prison. Among them were veterans of a sleep-in of twenty pacifists at the Pentagon in the spring before. Now, led by Gary Rader, Erica Enzer, Irene Johnson, and Suzanne Moore, some of them refused to eat or drink and were fed intravenously. Several men at the D.C. jail would not wear prison clothing. Stripped of their own, naked, they were thrown in the Hole. There they lived in cells so small that not all could lie down at once to sleep. For a day they lay naked on the floor, for many days naked with blankets and mattress on the floor. For many days they did not eat nor drink water. Dehydration brought them near to madness.
Here was the last of the rite of passage, “the chinook salmon . . . nosing up the impossible stone,” here was the thin source of the stream—these naked Quakers on the cold floor of a dark isolation cell in D.C. jail, wandering down the hours in the fever of dehydration, the cells of the brain contracting to the crystals of their thought, essence of one thought so close to the essence of another—all separations of water gone—that madness is near, madness can now be no more than the acceleration of thought.
Did they pray, these Quakers, for forgiveness of the nation? Did they pray with tears in their eyes in those blind cells with visions of a long column of Vietnamese dead, Vietnamese walking a column of flames, eyes on fire, nose on fire, mouth speaking flame, did they pray, “O Lord, forgive our people for they do not know, O Lord, find a little forgiveness for America in the puny reaches of our small suffering, O Lord, let these hours count on the scale as some small penance for the sins of the nation, let this great nation crying in the flame of its own gangrene be absolved for one tithe of its great sins by the penance of these minutes. Oh Lord, bring more suffering upon me that the sins of our soldiers in Vietnam be not utterly unforsoldiers in Vietnam be not utterly unforgiven—they are too young to be damned forever.”
The prayers are as Catholic as they are Quaker, and no one will know if they were ever made, for the men who might have made them were perhaps too far out on fever and shivering and thirst to recollect, and there are places no history can reach. But if the end of the March took place in the isolation in which these last pacifists suffered naked in freezing cells, and gave up prayers for penance, then who was to say they were not saints? And who to say that the sins of America were not by their witness a tithe remitted?
Whole crisis of Christianity in America that the military heroes were on one side, and the unnamed saints on the other! Let the bugle blow. The death of America rides in on the smog. America—the land where a new kind of man was born from the idea that God was present in every man not only as compassion but as power, and so the country belonged to the people; for the will of the people—if the locks of their life could be given the art to turn—was then the will of God. Great and dangerous idea! If the locks did not turn, then the will of the people was the will of the Devil. Who by now could know where was what? Liars controlled the locks.
Brood on that country who expresses our will. She is America, once a beauty of magnificence unparalleled, now a beauty with a leprous skin. She is heavy with child—no one knows if legitimate—and languishes in a dungeon whose walls are never seen. Now the first contractions of her fearsome labor begin—it will go on: no doctor exists to tell the hour. It is only known that false labor is not likely on her now, no, she will probably give birth, and to what?—the most fearsome totalitarianism the world has ever known? Or can she, poor giant, tormented lovely girl, deliver a babe of a new world brave and tender, artful and wild? Brood on that country who expresses our will.
* From the title poem by Robert Lowell in Near the Ocean.
The Battle of the Pentagon
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.