Whatever the 1960's may go down in history for, the resurgence of "black nationalism" will surely be high on, if…
Whatever the 1960's may go down in history for, the resurgence of “black nationalism” will surely be high on, if not at the top of, the list. This resurgence has taken the form of demands for Black Studies or Afro-American programs and departments in our universities, of the Black Panther and other militant movements, and even of a vogue for Afro styles in dress and hairdos. What is not so clear, however, is why black nationalism has taken these forms and where it is heading. There is also need for more clarity about the relationship of black nationalism to the past experience of other ethnic groups in this country, such as the Irish, Italian, and Jewish, as well as about its ties to other nationalist revolutions in the so-called Third World, such as the Algerian, with which the black nationalists like to identify themselves.
The deeper roots of black nationalism may help both blacks and whites to understand and to cope with the peculiar nature of the phenomenon today. For black nationalism in the United States is not new. Its forerunners go back in American history for well over a hundred years. This does not mean that the problems of yesterday and today are altogether alike. Black nationalism today is similar to and yet different from its manifestations in the past; it is related to and yet distinct from all other nationalisms in the world today. This mixture of the old and the new, of similitudes and incongruities, is what makes contemporary American black nationalism so confusing and frustrating to black and white alike. The confusion, if not the frustration, may be lessened by seeing the present-day phenomenon in a larger historical perspective, and for this it is necessary to know something of its past. It is already burdened with a vast literature, some of which I have tried to examine, in order to bring the past and present closer together.
Traditionally, black nationalism in the United States has taken two predominant forms. The first was “migrationism” or “emigrationism,” and it is still with us today—if only in fantasy. Paradoxically—though the paradox takes us at the outset to the heart of the problem—this idea was as much white as black in origin. To see how deeply embedded it was in the white consciousness, two of the greatest Americans, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, may serve as witnesses. The ambivalence with which they treated the Negro problem of their day has its counterpart in our time.
Jefferson had no sympathy for the institution of slavery. The words, “all men are created equal,” were his. He tried to persuade his fellow Virginians that slavery was a “great political and moral evil” and that a large, growing Negro population, whether slave or free, was a “blot in this country.” Yet Jefferson and others of his generation were torn between the recognition that slavery was an indefensible human enormity and the conviction that black and white human beings were not made to live together in the same country. He came to suspect that “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” On another occasion, he summed up: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people [Negro slaves] are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.” He proposed a plan to the Virginia Assembly for freeing all slaves after they had reached maturity. But the plan called for them, once freed, to leave the country and settle elsewhere. This was the germ of the idea of colonizing the emancipated slaves in a faraway place. If this were not done, Jefferson foresaw a terrible fate: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep for ever.” Despite this, Jefferson freed only a few of his over a hundred slaves because he felt that his financial obligations took precedence.
Jefferson's views were typical of early anti-slavery opinion. In 1790, for example, Ferdinand Fairfax, another eminent Virginian, took up Jefferson's idea and worked it out more concretely. He suggested that Congress should acquire a colony in Africa and provide for the transportation of free blacks who would eventually earn their independence.1 Such plans, based on Africa, the West Indies, or the then “Western lands,” were common at the turn of the century. They showed that anti-slavery sentiment was one thing, living with freed slaves another.
A half-century later, the same dilemma haunted Lincoln. In 1854, he admitted that his “first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” To do so, however, presented insuperable practical problems. Yet the Negroes could not be kept in the United States as “underlings.” He went on: “What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this, if mine would, we know that those of the great mass of whites will not.” As the only way out, Lincoln fell back on “gradual emancipation.” Three years later, he saw that even gradual emancipation would raise the problem of racial “amalgamation.” To avoid this, he advocated colonization of the Negroes in Africa or elsewhere. “The separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation,” he maintained. And “such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization.” As late as August 1862, long after the Civil War had broken out, he told a delegation of free Negroes in the White House that the two races were incompatible. “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” Lincoln arranged this meeting to induce American Negroes to emigrate, preferably to Central America.2 When his views were publicized, as he had intended, Negro protest meetings were held to condemn them. And only about four months later, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which more than anything else doomed emigration projects, including his own, by giving Negroes more hope in America than ever before—and perhaps ever after.
From Jefferson to Lincoln, “colonization” was the white man's favorite solution for the Negro problem. It was no mere case of wishful thinking; it was the basis of the first important Back-to-Africa movement. That it was conceived and organized by whites did not make it less important. In fact, it helps us to understand as much about the white as about the black background of the problem.
The American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States was founded in the chamber of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., in 1816. The president of the American Colonization Society, as it was generally called, was Justice Bushrod Washington, a nephew of the first President. Among its backers were James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and many other distinguished figures of the period. Its chief support came from what would be called today the “white power structure.”
The scheme itself was the brain-child of a Presbyterian clergyman, the Reverend Robert Finley of Baskingridge, New Jersey. It was reserved for free Negroes only, of whom there were about a quarter of a million by 1820. Finley's motives were “benevolent”—he was appalled by the misery and ignorance of the free Negroes in the North, including those in his own parish. He believed that they were capable of improving their condition, but not in the United States. God, he said, had intended them for Africa, and to Africa they must return—with the help of whites who did not know what to do with them. To Finley, Negroes were always “Africans.” He conceived of arranging for their mass migration back to Africa with government support. The country would get a good return on its investment by establishing an African colony on the model of Sierra Leone, the British colony which had also been settled in the late 18th century by liberated slaves. The whole scheme—which Finley was sure came from God—was calculated to appeal to the greatest number and the most varied motives: the free Negroes themselves; missionaries; empire-builders; trading interests; Southern whites who wanted to get rid of those Negroes whom they feared the most without touching their vested interest in slavery; well-meaning Northern whites who saw it as a form of “emancipation” which might ultimately offer a way of buying out the slave system without recourse to force.
A tremendous amount of propaganda and organization went into this effort. In 1819, Congress appropriated $100,000 to establish a government agency in Africa ostensibly to resettle victims of the slave trade. The first shipload of would-be colonists arrived off the coast of Sierra Leone the following year—and were promptly struck down by a mysterious plague. But the Colonization Society persevered and sent a naval officer, whose grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence, to the African coast to buy land. In December 1821, he succeeded in purchasing Cape Mesurado, three miles wide and thirty-six miles long, for less than $300—though not without placing a pistol at the head of the native king. This tiny colony was named “Liberia” (after the Latin, liber, for freeman), and its first settlement was called “Monrovia,” in honor of President Monroe. But it was an anomaly, the colony of a private organization, not a U.S. possession. After many ups and downs, the Society decided to get out of the colonization business, and that is how the free Republic of Liberia, by then grown to 43,000 square miles, was born in 1847. The former colonists, who numbered at this time no more than 3,000, became its black ruling class which held down and exploited the native population—even in the form of outright slavery, the ultimate irony—with as much determination as white imperialists elsewhere. The Colonization Society itself started to go downhill in the late 1830's and was virtually finished off by the Civil War. Its most recent historian, Professor Philip J. Staudenraus, summed up its end: “With it perished dreams of an African empire, an all-white America, and a gradual and peaceful obliteration of slavery.”3
In effect, the pre-Civil War white Establishment wished to foist African nationality on the American Negro. It did so for the same reason—the incompatibility of blacks and whites—that later Negroes wished to divest themselves of American nationality. Even enlightened whites widely believed before the Civil War that freedom was not a solution to the Negro problem, and that is one reason why it did not become a solution after the Civil War. The roots of the problem go back as much to the Negro freemen in the North as to the Negro slaves in the South. Most white Southerners did not want Negroes as freemen, and most white Northerners did not want freemen as Negroes.
What is more striking about the Colonization Society's effort was the Negro freemen's reaction to it. If they had wanted to renounce American nationality in favor of an African nationality, the society was made to order for them. The society's propagandists and agents labored prodigiously to convince the freemen that it was in their best interest to leave the United States, where they could never hope to obtain dignity and equality. The overwhelming fact is that, in the heyday of slavery, the Negro freemen overwhelmingly rejected the society's blandishments. There were some, such as Lott Cary, ordained a Baptist missionary and appointed the society's agent in Africa, who said: “I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.” But, to do so, he had to become the paid agent of a white society, and—to add to the symbolism of his role—he came to a sad end in a gunpowder explosion preparing to attack a hostile African tribe.
But for every Lott Cary, there were thousands on the other side. As early as 1791, a society of free Negroes in Philadelphia refused to support the idea of a return to Africa. In 1831, an anti-colonization convention of free Negroes in New York issued an address which stated: “We are content to abide where we are. We do not believe that things will always continue the same.” They preferred to put their faith in the fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence: “God hasten that time. This is our home, and this is our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers; for it, some of them fought, bled, and died. Here we were born, and here we will die.” The figures speak more eloquently than anything else. In 1852 there were about 435,000 free “persons of color” in the United States. By that year, the Colonization Society had succeeded in sending only 7,836 to Africa, of Whom almost half went in return for manumission. In fifty years, at a cost of $2,500,000, the society transported only 12,000.
A century and a half ago, then, the issue of Negro nationality arose. Was it American or African? Influential whites insisted that it was African; Negroes, with few exceptions, insisted that it was American. In the end, through a tortuous combination of circumstances and the most mixed of motives, the Negroes prevailed. Of all the ironies in this story, none is more haunting than that a peculiar form of black nationalism was first encouraged by whites. The “Back-to-Africa” movement was in its inception a white man's fantasy for Negroes.
Between white segregationism and black separatism, there has been almost from the beginning a peculiar symbiosis.
The overwhelming majority of Negroes rejected the white “colonization” scheme. But an analogous Negro version made its appearance before the Civil War. As early as 1788, a Negro union of Freeport, Rhode Island, proposed to the Free African Society of Philadelphia a general exodus to Africa on the part of free Negroes. In December 1815, Captain Paul Cuffe, the son of an ex-slave who became a prosperous sea captain, sailed to Sierra Leone with 38 free Negroes in a one-man effort to ameliorate the conditions of American Negroes and, as he thought, bring civilization to the Africans. Cuffe's trip convinced him that nothing much could be done without government help. Some of his passengers later wrote back, exhorting other American Negroes to follow their example: “Though you are free that is not your country. Africa, not America, is your country and your home.”4 But their call went unheeded. Curiously, for all the white agitation about sending Negroes back to Africa, Cuffe was the only one to do anything about it until the Colonization Society went into the business.
A Negro society was founded in New York in 1851 to encourage emigration to Africa. Its outstanding advocate was Martin R. Delany, whom Lincoln once recommended as “this most extraordinary and intelligent black man.” In 1852, Delany published a book in which the earliest “black nationalism” was formulated in unmistakable terms. This book, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, and its even more famous Appendix, entitled “A Project for an Expedition of Adventure, to the Eastern Coast of Africa,” is the locus classicus of black nationalism.
Delany was one of a remarkable group of Negro spokesmen who emerged before the Civil War. The grandson of a slave, he edited a newspaper in Pittsburgh, studied medicine at Harvard, became a doctor, was one of 75 Negro officers in the Union Army, wrote a novel, ran for the office of lieutenant-governor of South Carolina—and named his daughter “Ethiopia.” One sentence in the Appendix of his 1852 book is the most quoted in the work: “We are a nation within a nation—as the Poles in Russia, the Hungarians in Austria; the Welsh, Irish and Scotch in the British dominions.” Therefore Delany advocated founding a new Negro nation on the eastern coast of Africa “for settlement of colored adventurers from the United States and elsewhere.”
It is not so often noted, however, that Delany had previously written in the body of the book these poignant lines: “We love our country, dearly love her, but she don't [sic] love us—she despises us, and bids us begone, driving, us from her embrace.” And in the Appendix itself, he also referred to the American Negroes as “a broken people” and “a Broken Nation.” These passages indicate that Delany's nationalism was not of the usual variety. It was based more on unrequited love, on rejection by the whites, than on a self-sustaining, independent need for separate national existence. To put together the broken nation, Delany could not simply advocate that they should go back to the African nation from which they had come. He conceived of a new nation arising in Eastern Africa, made up mainly of Negro “adventurers” from the United States. In fact, he did not care much where they would go, for in the same book he also advised emigration to Central and South America, to Mexico, or to the West Indies.
In 1854, a national convention of representative Negroes met to discuss emigration. It divided into three groups, one backing Delany who now favored the Niger Valley in Africa; a second supporting James M. Whitfield who spoke for Central America; and a third in favor of James T. Holly's idea of emigrating to Haiti. Delany was commissioned to explore the possibilities in Africa where he succeeded in signing treaties with eight African kings who offered American Negroes inducements to settle in their countries. Some American Negroes emigrated to Haiti in 1861, but unfavorable circumstances and the outbreak of the Civil War brought this effort to a halt. All the emigrationist efforts made in the 19th century were pitifully small and hopelessly abortive. Delany himself preferred a career in South Carolina to “adventure” in Africa after the Civil War. He worked for the Freedmen's Bureau and as a customs-house inspector and trial justice in Charleston, South Carolina, despite all that he had written of the country which despised him, bade him begone, and drove him from her embraces.5
After the miscarriage of Reconstruction, migrationist sentiment flared up again. An African Emigration Association, established in 1881, aimed at a “United States in Africa, modeled after this government, and under the protecting care of the same.” One unreconstructed Southern politician, Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, advised Negroes to emigrate on the ground that there was no future of social equality for them in the United States. The Negro community as a whole rejected his advice. “All this native land talk is nonsense,” said Frederick Douglass, the foremost Negro Abolitionist, in 1894. “The native land of the American Negro is America.” But one who agreed with Senator Morgan was Bishop H. M. Turner who called on two or three million American Negroes to “return to the land of our ancestors, and establish our own nation, civilization, laws, customs, style of manufacture.” Not two or three hundred followed his counsel.
Delany, Bishop Turner, Edward W. Blyden, H. Ford Douglass, Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, and a few others have become the heroes and prophets of today's black nationalism. Even Frederick Douglass is being denigrated as a kind of Uncle Tom because he opposed this trend. In their own time, however, few Negroes took Delany or Turner seriously and even fewer acted on their advice. The historical problem is not merely why they advocated going back to Africa but why they were not listened to.6
Colonization and emigrationism were two sides of the same coin. If one was a white fantasy, the other was no less a fantasy because it was black.
Yet this fantasy is so deeply rooted that it continued—and continues—to take numerous, extremely variegated forms.
A subtle, intellectual expression was represented by one of the truly outstanding figures of the past century, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1897, he first projected the idea that American Negroes were Americans in a limited way—by birth, citizenship, political ideals, language, and religion. Whatever was unique in the American Negroes, he contended, was tied up with the entire Negro world outside America—with “Pan-Negroism.” In effect, Du Bois joined together the two strains that had been struggling for supremacy among American Negroes. They were, he maintained, neither American nor African but something of both. Du Bois thus opened himself to attack from both camps—from those who utterly rejected their African past and those who bitterly rejected their American present. But Du Bois never succeeded in reconciling the two forces; he held them in an extremely uneasy and unstable equilibrium which he himself could not always control.
Du Bois's “double-consciousness” of being both an American and a Negro led him a quarter of a century later to the espousal of a Pan-African movement in which he called on American Negroes to play a leading role. Du Bois devoted about a decade of his long and prolific career to this work, mainly in the form of Pan-African Congresses, of which four were held between 1919 and 1927, and a fifth and last in 1945. Pan-Africanism for Du Bois did not mean Negro separation from the United States; rather it implied American Negro leadership of the cause and interests of Negroes throughout the world, especially in Africa, which was still largely dominated by white imperialisms. In his voluminous works, Dr. Du Bois reflected so many strains of American Negro thinking and feeling that it is not easy to grasp him whole. He is usually classified as a “cultural nationalist,” though he was sometimes more and sometimes less. In his autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, he suggested a number of different paths that American Negroes might follow, not because he thought they were necessarily the best but because white prejudice gave them no choice. The ultimate object of his “plan of action,” he wrote, was “full Negro rights and Negro equality in America.” But if they proved to be unattainable, he foresaw the possibility of “eventual emigration” from the United States by “some considerable part” of the Negro population. Elsewhere in the book he was even more pessimistic and speculated that the Negro might be “pushed out of his American fatherland” as Germany was then expelling the Jews. And he also came out in support of Negro “self-segregation” in the United States.
One side of Du Bois's thought clearly contained traces of the migrationist tradition. He preferred to have the best of both possible worlds but, in his most despondent moments, he felt that it might be necessary to settle for one—the African. He himself spent the last years of his life in Ghana. For all his vast gifts, however, Du Bois succeeded in converting few American Negroes. As he later admitted, “American Negroes were not interested” in his Pan-Africanism.7 If he wanted American Negroes to lead the Negro world, he was never able to lead American Negroes. Yet by inspiring future leaders of African nationalism, such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, he was ultimately able to influence a resurgent American black nationalism through them.
If one looked only at Dr. Du Bois's frustration in the early 1920's, one might have imagined that Africa held out little appeal to the American Negroes' interests or imagination. Nothing at that very time could have been farther from the truth.
In 1914, Marcus Garvey, a West Indian Negro of far more modest intellectual equipment or attainment than Dr. Du Bois, set up a Universal Negro Improvement Association in his native Jamaica. His first manifesto called on all people of Negro or African parentage to establish “Universal Confraternity.” He met with hostility or indifference. Two years later he came to New York, revived the UNIA, and after a slow start, “stirred the imagination of the Negro masses as no Negro ever had,” so James Weldon Johnson testified. And he stirred their imagination with a peculiar version of Pan-African nationalism at the very time Du Bois's Pan-Africanism could hardly get off the ground. Indeed, Garvey and Du Bois were vicious rivals and enemies. One of the least offensive things Garvey said about Du Bois was that he belonged to “the greatest enemies the black people have in the world.” And Du Bois, in almost the same language, paid him back: “Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.”
Garveyism came closest to expressing itself in terms of traditional nationalism. It made “nationhood” the highest ideal of all peoples. “The Negro needs a nation and a country of his own,” Garvey expounded. Or again: “Nationhood is the strongest security of any people and it is for that the Universal Negro Improvement Association strives at this time.” The trouble was that Garvey's proposed Negro nation was in Africa, whereas his constituency was in the United States. Garvey's “African Republic” was set up in New York, not on African soil. There was not a single African in what amounted to his African government-in-exile. This imperial travesty was headed by “His Highness, the Potentate,” followed by “His Excellency, the Provisional President of Africa,” and nineteen other grand dignitaries. They were surrounded by a nobility which included the Knights of the Nile, Dukes of Nigeria and Uganda, Distinguished Service Order of Ethiopia, all in dazzling, multicolored uniforms. The military re-conquest of Africa was intimated by a Universal African Legion, Universal Black Cross Nurses, Universal African Motor Corps, and Black Eagle Flying Corps. Garvey's nationalism had all the trappings and appurtenances of nationhood, except that the nation it had in mind was somewhere else, and had nothing to say about Garvey's plans for it.
Racism permeated Garvey's nationalism. He was obsessed with the need for “purity of race”—any race. “I believe,” he said, “in a pure black race, just as how all self-respecting whites believe in a pure white race, as far as that can be.” The Garveyite gospel simply inverted the prejudices of white supremacy. Everything superior was black, everything inferior white. He founded an African Orthodox Church in which God was black, angels were black, and Satan was white. The church held meetings to deify the “Black Man of Sorrows” and canonize the “Black Virgin Mary.” This infatuation with racial purity was partly Garvey's undoing. Himself black, Garvey wanted his power wholly black, to such an extent that he distinguished fundamentally not only between black and white but between black and mulatto. He tried to transplant to the United States the West Indian caste distinction between blacks and mulattoes, thereby alienating many American mulattoes. Garvey also drove the logic of “racial purity” to its most extreme by saying kind things about the Ku Klux Klan because it was openly racist as much as he was. The only whites whom he respected were those who loved Negroes as little as he loved whites. White supremacy leaders spoke at UNIA meetings, and Garvey himself once conferred with Edward Young Clarke, Imperial Giant of the Klan. Many Negroes were scandalized, but Garvey insisted: “I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon Clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together.” Garvey recognized that he and the Klan were implicitly allied, their beliefs based on a common principle—there was no place for Negroes in the United States. The only thing that mattered to him was getting the Negroes out of the United States back to where he thought they belonged—Africa. If the Ku Klux Klan helped to achieve that end by persecuting Negroes and teaching them they were not wanted, he was not against the Klan and even saw merit in it. Rarely has there been such a case of extremes meeting, or better perhaps, feeding on each other.
Garvey's Africanism also helps to explain another paradox—his admiration for Booker T. Washington. Reading Washington's Up From Slavery had first inspired Garvey to become a “race leader,” and thereafter he never mentioned Washington without paying tribute to his farsightedness, alone among American Negro leaders. Yet, for Du Bois's generation, Washington represented abject capitulation to white rule. In his famous—or infamous—address at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, which made him the outstanding Negro spokesman for the next two decades, Washington had advised his people to strive for “material prosperity,” not “social equality.” “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top,” he said—and the bottom for him meant work, education, professional skills. The rest, he taught, would come in due time. Meanwhile, he accepted white political domination and social ostracism. One might imagine that nothing would have been more antipathetic to Garvey's racial pride than Washington's seemingly limitless patience. On the contrary, Garvey saw in Washington an exception to other Negro movements which, Garvey complained, “sought to teach the Negro to aspire to social equality with the whites.” Washington was not so much an exception to the rule as Garvey wanted to believe. Washington's doctrine of work instead of politics was a temporary expedient; he was not so much opposed to social equality and political privileges as he was convinced that they would come when the Negroes were ready for them. What Garvey read into Washington's message was the willingness to stay out of the white man's world, not to challenge him on his own ground. Garvey wanted to make a deal with white America in return for black Africa. He was ready, he said, to “cede to the white man the right of doing as he pleases in his own country, and that is why we believe in not making any trouble when he says that ‘America is a white man's country,’ because in the same breath and with the same determination we are going to make Africa a black man's country.” For Garvey, black nationalism in Africa implied white supremacy in the United States—and this equation was the reason for his peculiar affinity with both the Ku Klux Klan and Booker T. Washington.
Garveyism was also a parody of “black capitalism.” The UNIA went into business on a grand scale—groceries, laundries, restaurants, hotels, printing plants, above all, the Black Star Line of ships. Logically, these business enterprises should have made Garvey conscious of the fact that he was operating within the white U.S. economy, and not yet in his own domain where he could do as he pleased. But Garvey's business practices were also slightly fantastic. The Black Star Lines' treasurer knew nothing about bookkeeping; Garvey hired and fired one executive after another on charges of dishonesty; he himself received money from stocks of which he did not bother to keep a record. It did not take long for legal and economic reality to catch up with Garvey. His movement reached its peak in 1921. In 1923 the federal government, urged by his Negro enemies, tried Garvey on a charge of using the mails to defraud in the sale of stock for his steamship line. He was convicted and sentenced to a five-year term which he began to serve in 1925. Two years later, he was pardoned and deported back to Jamaica as an undesirable alien. Without him, his movement quickly shriveled. He died in London in 1940 at the age of fifty-three, broken and pathetic.
In his classic work, An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal drew the lesson that Garveyism showed that “a Negro movement in America is doomed to ultimate dissolution and collapse if it cannot gain white support.” This, he continued, was the “real dilemma,” for “white support will be denied to emotional Negro chauvinism when it takes organizational and political form.” The eminent historian, John Hope Franklin, concluded that Garvey's “‘Negro Zionism’ was doomed to failure.” He tried to explain why: “Regardless of how dissatisfied Negroes were with conditions in the United States they were unwilling in the 20's, as their forebears had been a century earlier, to undertake the uncertain task of redeeming Africa. The widespread interest in Garvey's program was more a protest against the anti-Negro reaction of the postwar period than an approbation of the fantastic schemes of the Negro leader.” A recent writer, Harold Cruse, has expressed the view that “this predominantly West Indian movement was not really attuned to the internal peculiarities of the Negro-white situation in the United States. They saw the solution to the problem outside the system—namely, in Africa. But not a single Garveyite settlement, either in America or the West Indies, exists in Africa today.”
There was something both real and fantastic about Garvey's movement. That it was the first and greatest Negro mass movement in American history shows that it responded to real hopes and resentments. For all his intended appeal to Negroes everywhere, Garvey, not an American, was eminently successful only in America and could reproduce his success nowhere else. If his flame burned more brightly than that of any other Negro leader, it was also snuffed out more quickly. For Garveyism was an authentic American Negro movement in the guise of an African fantasy. What was authentic about it made it live, however briefly; what was fantastic about it made it die out, virtually without a struggle. Despite all the propaganda about going back to Africa, no one went. Garvey himself never even visited Africa. He sent emissaries to Liberia to investigate the possibilities of colonizing it with American Negroes, but these feelers came to nothing. By 1924, relations between Garvey's movement and Liberia were so strained that Garveyites were forbidden to land in the country. Garvey appealed mainly to recently uprooted Negro migrants from the Southern states and recently arrived immigrants from the West Indies who were stirred emotionally by an exotic incarnation of nationalism and migrationism, even a spurious nationalism and an imaginary migrationism. But these ideas had little or nothing to do with their immediate lives, with their own time and place. More than anything else, this was Garvey's undoing.8
Thus far we have been pursuing the first of the two predominant forms which black nationalism has traditionally assumed—external emigrationism. The other major form may be called “internal statism.” It differs from the first in that it seeks to establish an independent Negro state within the confines of what is now the United States.
This scheme was also an early white idea. One of its first proponents was Anthony Benezet, a Philadelphia Huguenot, a pioneer of the anti-slavery movement before and after the American Revolution. In a tract called Tyrannical Liberty-men: a Discourse upon Negro Slavery in the United States, published in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1795, he recommended the colonization of emancipated blacks in the public lands in the Northwest Territory, then largely settled by Indians. This plan resembled the other early colonization schemes, except that it envisaged a black colony on the American mainland. Thomas Jefferson also wrestled with the problem. In a letter to James Monroe in 1801, he wondered whether it might not be advisable for the state of Virginia to purchase land north of the Ohio for a Negro colony. He questioned, however, the desirability of establishing such a colony within the limits of the Union and bound to become part of it. His mind then turned to the possibility of locating it beyond those limits, by purchasing Indian lands on the northern frontier with British consent. Whereupon he worried that the climate would be too rigorous for black settlers. Thomas Brannagan published his “Serious Remonstrances Addressed to the Citizens of the Northern States and their Representatives, being an Appeal to their Natural Feelings and Common Sense; Consisting of Speculations and Animadversions, on the Recent Revival of the Slave Trade in the American Republic” in Philadelphia in 1805. In it he made the proposal that the government should appropriate a few thousand acreas of land about 2,000 miles from the existing borders for the purpose of establishing a new Negro state. In 1816, the Kentucky Abolition Society memorialized the House of Representatives in behalf of colonizing the “free people of color” on the public lands. In the first two decades of the 19th century, colonization on the mainland and in Africa went side by side, and the latter won out only because it came to be considered more feasible.
Both whites and Negroes continued to toy with the colony or state idea for many years. A considerable number of the free black inhabitants of Richmond, Virginia, issued a statement in 1817 in support of the Colonization Society's principle of physical separation. But they wanted the black colony to be located on the Missouri river or any other place in the United States that Congress might prefer, not in Africa. In 1833, Texas was proposed as the site of a Negro colony; nothing came of it. One Negro convention protested against Africa, but contended: “We see nothing contrary to the Constitution, to Christianity, justice, reason, or humanity, in granting us a portion of the Western territory.” The region on the Gulf of Mexico came up again in 1874 in a book by James S. Pike. A “Negro Exodus” took place in 1879 and 1881, mainly from Louisiana and South Carolina to Kansas. Oklahoma came in for some attention toward the end of the century.9 Edwin P. McCabe, a former State Auditor of Kansas, led a campaign to make Oklahoma a Negro state. An editorial in the Indianapolis Freeman in 1905 was convinced that “it would be an easy matter for the colored people to make Oklahoma and Indian Territory a State under their own control and management; where all the opportunities of any other American would be theirs.” The editorial was probably an easy matter to write.
In this century there have been three main expressions of the concept of a Negro state, each of them in its way very different from the others.
The first was set forth by Cyril V. Briggs, the founder of a little-known organization, the African Blood Brotherhood. Briggs, a native of the British West Indies, was an editor of the Amsterdam News in New York during World War I. While Garvey was coming up with his grandiose plan for a Negro state in Africa, Briggs countered it with the view that the “race problem” could be solved by setting up an independent Negro nation on American territory. In editorials published in September 1917, he argued: “Considering that the more we are outnumbered, the weaker we will get, and the weaker we get the less respect, justice or opportunity we will obtain, is it not time to consider a separate political existence with a government that will represent, consider, and advance us? As one-tenth of the population, backed with many generations of unrequited toil and half a century of contribution, as free men, to American prosperity, we can with reason and justice demand our portion for purposes of self-government and the pursuit of happiness, one-tenth of the territory of continental United States.” He suggested locating the “colored autonomous State” in the West, either in the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, or, as he thought preferable, in California and Nevada.
Briggs's anti-war stand led to his resignation from the paper. In September 1918, he began to publish a monthly magazine, the Crusader, which a year later became the organ of his new organization, the African Blood Brotherhood. It came out “for African Liberation and Redemption,” which was later changed to “for immediate protection and ultimate liberation of Negroes everywhere.” The name of the Brotherhood derived from an African rite of fraternization by mingling drops of blood. The first members numbered fewer than twenty, all in Harlem and most of them West Indian in origin. It spread to other parts of the United States and the West Indies, never exceeding 3,000 members at its peak. Set up as a secret revolutionary organization, it was little known for a long time. Whereas Briggs had demanded a state within the United States in the Amsterdam News, he changed his mind in the Crusader. In 1919, he came out for a Negro state in Africa, South America, or the Caribbean, to which American Negroes could emigrate. Gradually, he linked the national and social elements in his thinking, as in this prescription in 1921: “The surest and quickest way, then, in our opinion, to achieve the salvation of the Negro is to combine the two most likely and feasible propositions, viz.: salvation for all Negroes through the establishment of a strong, stable, independent Negro State (along the lines of our own race genius) in Africa and elsewhere; and salvation for all Negroes (as well as other oppressed people) through the establishment of a Universal Socialist Co-operative commonwealth.”
In effect, Briggs wanted a Negro state, and it was not so important where. Though both were West Indians and their aims were not fundamentally dissimilar, Briggs and Garvey staged one of the most bitter internecine battles of the period. Briggs criticized Garvey for running a one-man movement. When Garvey rejected an offer of cooperation, Briggs accused him of “loose chatter and mock heroics.” Garvey hit back at the light-complexioned Briggs by calling him a white man passing himself off as a Negro—a favorite Garveyite anathema. Briggs sued for libel, and Garvey was forced to apologize publicly.
This mix-up shows how complex were the personal and political factors in the pro-African movements. In these very years, Garvey, Du Bois, and Briggs were working toward some form of the same end. Garvey was ostensibly all Back-to-Africa, but his only mass constituency was in, and never moved from, the United States. Du Bois was interested in working for Africa from a base in the United States. Briggs started out by locating his Negro state in the United States rather than in Africa, but the lure of Africa proved too strong for him, too, and he gave his organization an African name, besides conceding that Africa might be more suitable than the United States. Africa beckoned to all of them, and it was just as far away as it had always been for a century.
Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood have a special interest for us because they provided, in 1921, the first Negro contingent for the American Communist movement, which had been founded two years earlier. Besides Briggs, Richard B. Moore, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, Otto Hall and his brother, Haywood Hall (better known as Harry Haywood), were recruited into the party from the Brotherhood. Otto Hall's political itinerary was symptomatic of the times. He had served overseas in the U.S. Army in World War I, and having been told that he had been “fighting for democracy,” he became discontented and disillusioned upon his return with the democracy he found for his own people at home. He attended one of Garvey's spectacular meetings in Chicago, was swept into the UNIA, and signed up as an officer in the “Black Legion.” When a friend gave him a copy of Briggs's new magazine, the Crusader, he liked its more “social” appeal even better and joined the first post of the African Blood Brotherhood organized in Chicago in 1919. Two years later, he followed Briggs into the Communist movement. In this way, they moved far to the “Left” of Garvey, who frowned on both Communism and trade unionism as white movements. Garvey once denounced white Communists and trade unionists as “more dangerous to the Negro's welfare than any other group at present.” He was, in fact, a devotee of capitalism—within limits; those who “unreasonably and wantonly oppose or fight against it,” he said, “are enemies to human advancement.” Those who today see themselves in one side of Garveyism might do well to look at some of the other sides.
Insofar as it was Africa-oriented, the African Blood Brotherhood was another fantasy-infected movement. That its leaders could go over to Communism, which then strongly opposed any kind of African orientation for American Negroes, showed how superficial the Brotherhood's Africanism had been. It was one more indication that Negroes were looking for something they could not find in America, but it did not prove that they could find it in Africa.
The second and more important Negro state theory was advanced by the Communists at the end of the 1920's. Before that, the Communists had carried on the older American radical tradition based on racial equality. At its third convention at the end of 1923, for example, the American party had repudiated the Back-to-Africa movement as “only an evasion of the real struggle and an excuse to surrender the Negroes' rights in their native land, America.” It called the United States “the home of the American Negro” and championed “his full, free, and equal partnership with his white brothers in the future society.”
The idea that the Negroes in the United States constituted a “national question” seems to have originated with Joseph Stalin who first mentioned it in 1925 to Otto Hall, one of five Negroes sent to Moscow to study at the Communist University of Toilers of the East, which specialized in two groups of students—one from the Soviet East and the other from colonial and dependent countries. No one paid much attention to Stalin's suggestion until 1928 when the doctrine of “the right of self-determination of the Negroes in the Black Belt” was adopted in a preliminary form at the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1928. It was revised and issued in final form two years later.
At that time, 72.6 per cent of all Negroes still lived in twelve Southern states, and 51.1 per cent in the rural portions of those states. In 189 counties of this area, the Negroes accounted for over one-half the population. The “Black Belt” was defined as that area in which there had been a continuous Negro majority. By adding contiguous counties in which there was a substantial Negro minority, a larger area of 477 counties could be obtained in which Negroes constituted 44.8 per cent of the total population. Thus a map could be—and was—drawn of the Black Belt and the so-called Border Territory which implied where the Negroes were entitled to “the right to self-determination.”
This theory distinguished sharply between the North and the South. It recognized that the Negro masses in the North were “working for assimilation.” Therefore it made “equal rights” the main slogan in the North and a subordinate one in the South. If Negroes wanted their own special schools or “government organs,” Communists were told to support them, but such demands were expected primarily in the South, not the North. In the Communist party and its “auxiliary” fronts, however, special Negro organizations were ruled out; they were required to bring blacks and whites together more closely than ever before.
Thus the Communist program tried to establish a delicate balance between black-and-white integration (or “assimilation,” as it used to be called) and black nationalism. Even the latter was also very delicately equilibrated. The right to Negro self-determination in the Black Belt was stressed, not necessarily its realization. At one point, early in 1930, the American Communists interpreted the policy to mean the right of self-determination “to the point of separation.” But the then Acting Secretary went to Moscow for consultations and was told, on the highest authority—no doubt Stalin himself—that this phrase went too far and had to be deleted.10 The final version left open whether the Negroes themselves would want to set up an independent Negro state. “Complete right to self-determination includes also the right to governmental separation, but does not necessarily imply that the Negro population should make use of this right in all circumstances, that is, that it must actually separate or attempt to separate the Black Belt from the existing governmental federation with the United States,” it stated. “If it desires to separate, it must be free to do so; but if it prefers to remain federated with the United States it must also be free to do that” (italics in original). If and when a “proletarian revolution” took place in the United States, moreover, Negro Communists were advised to come out against complete separation from the United States and to try to convince the Negro population in the Black Belt that federation was more desirable.
This position may be described as conditional Negro statism. The Communists held on to it for about five years, until the Popular Front policy was adopted in 1935. As they later admitted, it fell on deaf ears. It drew almost no support outside the party itself. It went much too far for most Negroes and not far enough for the extreme nationalists. If the Communists made any progress among Negroes in the 1930's, it was due to their militant championing of “equal rights,” not “self-determination.” One reason for the failure of self-determination was that it went against the tide of history. While the Communists were discovering the Black Belt, it was already breaking up. About 200,000 Negroes migrated North annually after 1916. The number of counties in which Negroes comprised 50 per cent or more of the population in the twelve Southern states went down from 262 in 1910, to 222 in 1920, 190 in 1930, 178 in 1940, 151 in 1950, and 134 in 1960. The exodus to the North was slowed during the depression, but it picked up momentum toward the end of the 1930's and turned into a flood in the next two decades. By 1960, Negroes in the twelve Southern states accounted for only 53.5 per cent of the total Negro population and those in the rural portions only 23.7 per cent of the total population. In effect, the Black Belt has been getting smaller and less black for half a century, literally cutting the ground under the thesis of its “self-determination.”
The official American Communists were not the only ones who flirted with some form of “self-determination” in the 1930's. A Chicago lawyer, Oscar C. Brown, tried to set up a non-Communist movement “for the establishment of the Forty-Ninth State,” which he envisaged as “not a separate nation but an interdependent commonwealth like any other of the present 48 states.” It was launched in the mid-30's, just as the Communists were beginning to soft-pedal their program for the Black Belt, and Brown was no more successful. The 49th State idea never caught on.
Curiously, the most tenacious advocate of Negro “self-determination” in that decade was Leon Trotsky. In 1933, he advised his reluctant American followers to support the Negroes' right “to separate a piece of land for themselves,” whether or not they were a majority in any state. He held out the possibility that the Negroes might well get to the “proletarian dictatorship” ahead of the white workers through the medium of self-determination. Again in 1939 he insisted that the American Trotskyists should take a positive position with respect to a demand for self-determination, as long as it came from the Negroes themselves. “If you wish to take a part of the country, it is all right,” he told his disciples to say, “but we do not wish to make the decision for you.”11
In the past year, one old-time Negro Communist, Claude Lightfoot, tried to resurrect the old line of self-determination. He came out for a revised version which would apply to “the people as a whole and not to a territorial unit,” as in the past, but he failed to make clear how or where a “people as a whole” could establish a nation without some form of “territorial unity.” Lightfoot does not seem to have convinced other Negro Communist leaders.12
We have now come to the forms which black nationalism is taking at the present time. The oldest and largest contemporary black nationalist movement is the Nation of Islam, better known as the Black Muslims.
The legendary origins of this movement come close to pure fantasy. It goes o back to the first “Back-to-Islam” movement founded in 1913 by a forty-seven-year-old native of North Carolina, Timothy Drew, who changed his name to Nobel Drew Ali. In that year, he founded a “Moorish Science Temple” in Newark, New Jersey, where he had apparently worked as an expressman. In the next decade and a half, other temples were set up in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere. Thus Garvey's back-to-Africa-ism and Drew Ali's back-to-Islamism flourished at about the same time, though the former at its height reached many more people than the latter. Despite little formal education, Drew Ali was somehow attracted to Oriental lore, or what he called “Moorish Science.” He hit on the idea that American Negroes could achieve salvation simply by making themselves into “Asiatics,” or, more specifically, Moors whose ancestors had come from Morocco. Thus Drew Ali provided American Negroes with a new national origin and made them part of a far-flung Moorish Nation which had extended to North America. Unlike Garvey, he did not tell his followers to leave the United States or found an independent state. His emigrationism was purely psychological. He taught that it was enough for Negroes to identify with an Islamic African nation and adopt its religion. Thereafter, they had only to wait for the inevitable destruction of white or European rule to come into their own. Drew Ali was mysteriously killed in Chicago in 1929, seemingly in a struggle for power within his own movement.
“Moorish Science” was not the only form of psychological emigrationism. As early as 1900, Negro preachers traveled through the Carolinas spreading the word that the so-called Negroes were really the lost sheep of the House of Israel. The first “Black Jewish” congregation was organized about 1915, at the same time Drew Ali's movement was coming up. The largest sect of Black Jews in Harlem, according to Howard Brotz who has studied them closely, believes that they really derive from the Ethiopian Hebrews, or Falashas, and that slavery robbed them of their true identity. Unlike the Garveyites, however, the Black Jews, who number only about 1,000, have never been interested in politics; they are satisfied to trust wholly in the Messiah.13
Psychological emigrationism of the Moorish Science or Black Jewish type makes it possible to reject the status of being an American Negro without accepting a pro-white orientation or what has usually gone along with it, Christianity (in the case of the Black Jews, this is achieved by identifying with the Biblical patriarchs, who were allegedly black). Its substitute nationalism assumes a purely spiritual or religious form, but it serves much the same purpose as a more mundane nationalism.
In any case, the Islamic line of black nationalism did not die out with Drew Ali. In 1930, a stranger claiming to be the reincarnation of Drew Ali suddenly appeared in Detroit. His name is usually given as Wallace D. or W. D. Fard. Legend has it that he first came as a peddler who went from house to house in the Negro neighborhood selling raincoats and silks. Once admitted into homes with his wares, he gradually cast a spell on his would-be customers, many of them women, with his exotic ideas. He told them that the silks came from a faraway country that was once their own. His “light color” and “oriental” features fostered the belief that he was a Moslem, an impression he did nothing to discourage. One story had him born in Mecca, the son of a wealthy member of the very tribe to which the Prophet Mohammed had himself belonged. Another tale gave him a British education in preparation for a career in the diplomatic service of the Kingdom of Hejaz. Soon Fard came to be regarded as a “prophet” in his own right, sent to bring freedom, justice, and equality to his black brethren in North America who, he said, belonged to the same race as his own. He spoke in mysterious metaphors—of the Black Nation as his “Uncle” and its white oppressor as the “Cave Man,” “Satan,” or the “blue-eyed devils.” He slowly weaned his followers away from the Bible to the Koran as the violence of his anti-white teachings increased. As C. Eric Lincoln, one of the main students of the Black Muslim movement, notes, Fard helped his followers to relive, “at least in fantasy, the glorious history of Black Afro-Asia.”14
By 1930, the Prophet Fard had gained enough disciples to found the first Temple of Islam in Detroit. He developed an organization on a clearly nationalistic, if somewhat fanciful, basis. His message was addressed to the “Nation of Islam.” He set up a military body known as the “Fruit of Islam.” As his movement grew, he appointed a Minister of Islam with a staff of assistant ministers. He insisted that his followers were not Americans and should not pledge allegiance to the American flag. One short-lived splinter group, headed by Abdul Mohammed, challenged Fard on this point and broke away.
One of Fard's chief lieutenants was Elijah Poole, a Georgia Negro who had migrated to Detroit in the early 1920's. Fard renamed him Elijah Muhammad and appointed him the chief Minister of Islam. Soon thereafter, apparently in 1934, Fard disappeared as suddenly and inexplicably as he had appeared. Elijah Muhammad moved to Chicago, where Temple No. 2 had been founded, and from there built up the large and prosperous movement on the slender foundation left to him by Fard, who was elevated to the god-like status of “Allah,” while Elijah Muhammad took over as his Prophet or the “Messenger of Allah.”
Only the nationalist element in the “Nation of Islam” or Black Muslim movement need concern us here. At its base is the notion of an Islamic nation which was once “lost” in North America and to which the American Negroes belong. Thus the latter were always Muslims without knowing it, and Elijah Muhammad was sent to “find” them and bring them the message of their true past and certain future. In the distant past, they and not the Jews were the seed of Abraham with whom God made the covenant, and they specifically descend from the ancient tribe of Shabazz. The larger “Black Nation” embraces the entire colored world, excluding only the whites. Within the black Nation the so-called Negroes make up the Nation of Islam which constitutes a chosen people, appointed to lead the way toward destruction of the present dominant white civilization. Victory over the whites is assured because the blacks are intrinsically good, beautiful, and superior, the whites inherently evil, ugly, and inferior. In the end, the white world with its Christian religion will give way to the rule of the Black Nation and its Muslim faith, which will usher in a new era of eternal peace, happiness, and righteousness. Elijah Muhammad has hinted that the change may come in 1970, though only Allah knows the exact day.
This mythology obviously contains a potentially explosive mixture. If it has not erupted as forcefully as other types of black nationalism have done, the cause partly lies in the eschatology itself. Inasmuch as Allah has already decreed the total, apocalyptic victory of the Black Nation, the Nation of Islam can afford to wait for the promised day of judgment in the United States. Meanwhile, Elijah Muhammad's practical politics tend to reduce rather than to exacerbate black-white confrontations. The Black Muslim political outlook clearly goes back to the fundamental proposition stated by Martin R. Delany over a hundred years ago—that the American Negroes constitute a “nation within a nation.” But whereas Delany wanted the Negro nation to emigrate from the United States, Elijah Muhammad advocates both staying in the United States and completely separating from the present white majority. The ultimate goal is a black state within the present borders of the United States; the immediate program calls for black separatism and self-sufficiency, especially in the social and economic spheres. Muhammad has asked for three, four, or more states to be set aside as an independent Black Republic. “If they don't want us to mix with them in their equality,” he has pleaded, “give us a place in America” and “give us a territory.” He has also been quoted as saying that the separate black state or territory “doesn't have to be in America,” but the emphasis has always been on the justice of setting up a sovereign black state made up of several existing U.S. states, with technical and financial assistance to help in its establishment. Inasmuch as Muhammad has also taught that his nation's native land is not in the United States but somewhere in the East, this preference for an American homeland may seem inconsistent—but the inconsistency reflects the recurrent disparity in even the most extreme black nationalism between idea and reality. If anyone should leave the United States, Elijah Muhammad maintains, it should be the whites, who belong in Europe.
In effect, the Muslims' nationalism falls mainly into the category of “internal statism.” Yet, in another respect, Elijah Muhammad's teachings resemble those of Marcus Garvey, for whom Muhammad has expressed “a very high opinion.” Garvey wished to make American Negroes into Africans; Muhammad has wanted to transform them into Asiatics, though in recent years he has also shown a greater interest in Africa. While the Muslims have physically located their future state in the United States, they have at the same time fled psychologically from the historical condition of the American Negro in the United States. Like Garveyism, too, Muslimism has organized itself, with or without statehood, into a kind of black economic and social enclave. The Muslims already practice economic nationalism even if they are able only to dream of political nationalism. They believe in a completely separate black economy and have, like the Garveyites; set up numerous communal businesses, including farms, groceries, restaurants, and clothing stores. In their economic emphasis, the Muslims go back to the tradition of Booker T. Washington, without his adaptive political overtones. Politically, the Black Muslims regard the American political process as irrelevant; they refuse to take any part in it—they do not, for example, vote in elections; and they will not bear arms in its defense.
In its internal structure, the “Nation of Islam” is built on strictly authoritarian state-within-a-state lines. Elijah Muhammad, the Messenger, is the latter-day equivalent of an all-powerful theocratic ruler. He heads, by divine right, with absolute authority, the counterpart of a church-state. Under him, subject to his supreme will, are the Ministers of each Temple, whom he alone appoints; the Supreme Captains in charge of various subsidiary organizations, also responsible only to him; and a hierarchy of lower officers—captains; first, second, and third lieutenants; investigators; secretaries. The Muslims have the rudiments of an independent economy, a school system, a self-defense corps, vocational training, and even their own flag. Of the “Fruit of Islam,” the self-defense corps, E. U. Essien-Udom has remarked: “Ideologically, the organization fits into the general belief of the Muslims that the Nation of Islam is a nation within a nation, and . . . must have its own government.”15
The Black Muslims show how many different elements and influences can go into a single case-history of black nationalism—ethnological fantasy, theological credulity, internal statism, psychological emigrationism, economic separatism, political isolationism, and individual self-improvement. Thus far the movement has mainly attracted the poorest and least-educated Negroes in the North, many of them born in the South. From all accounts, it has given them new dignity, self-discipline, and social responsibility. Whatever fantasy there may be in its black nationalism, the Nation of Islam provides a new day-by-day reality for those whom Elijah Muhammad once called “Negroes in the mud,” and thus, paradoxically, enables them to live more happily and productively in the here and now. The political and theological mystique may be a small price to pay for the simple, homely virtues inculcated by the Messenger of Allah who also wages a holy war against drunkenness, delinquency, drug addiction, prostitution, idleness, ignorance, and self-denigration.
And so black nationalism continues to haunt American Negro movements and messiahs. It has just enough reality to recur in new manifestations and just enough unreality to revive old fantasies. Where to draw the line between reality and unreality is its greatest problem, which the most recent advocates have done little to solve or even in some cases to recognize.
Malcolm Little, who assumed the name of Malcolm X, was perhaps the most remarkable figure as yet produced by the resurgence of black nationalism. His autobiography belongs with the great human documents of our time. His father was a Baptist minister in Omaha, Nebraska, who spent most of his time organizing for Marcus Garvey's UNIA. Malcolm's mother told him that threats from the Ku Klux Klan forced the family to move from Omaha—in which case the local Klansmen did not know that Garvey was the top Klansmen's favorite Negro. Malcolm was one of the “Negroes in the mud” saved by Elijah Muhammad. At the age of twenty-three, serving a ten-year prison sentence for stealing, he received a letter from an older brother “who was forever joining something” that he had discovered the “natural religion for the black man.” It was the Nation of Islam. His brothers and sisters were converted first. They persuaded Malcolm, still in prison, to believe in Allah and his Messenger. The story of how Malcolm educated himself in prison in an effort to find out how much truth there was in Elijah Muhammad's teachings is infinitely moving; it resembles the once-common experience of young workers whose school was the Socialist movement in which it was necessary to learn how to read in order to read Marx, Engels, Bebel, or Jaurès.
One day, in prison, Malcolm prayed all night to Allah, and was rewarded with the fleeting vision of a man with a light-brown skin, an Asiatic countenance, and oily black hair sitting beside his bed. Later he came to believe that his phantom visitor had been none other than Master W. D. Fard, the original Messiah. After several years of imprisonment, Malcolm was released, joined the Muslim Temple in Detroit, and from there went on to become the Muslim Minister of the New York Temple in 1954. He changed his last name from “Little” to “X,” in Muslim fashion, to stand for the African family name which he could never know. By the end of the decade, Malcolm rivaled Muhammad in influence and fame, outside if not inside the movement. He was far more quick-witted and sharp-tongued than his teacher and attracted to himself far more publicity, especially from white publications and television programs. Jealousy in Muhammad's entourage and, to some extent, Malcolm's increasing freedom of expression began to estrange them. In 1963, Malcolm broke with Muhammad over what he considered to be the latter's moral transgressions, and after a personal pilgrimage to Mecca and Africa, formed his own Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm X was murdered by gunmen as he was addressing a meeting of the OAAU in February 1965, three months before his fortieth birthday.
One difficulty in assessing what Malcolm X stood for is that, ideologically, there were at least two Malcolm X's—one the orthodox, faithful Muslim follower of Elijah Muhammad, the other the independent leader of his own movement after his break with Muhammad. Malcolm was a follower for twelve years, a leader in his own right for only one. His autobiography was largely written—or told to his collaborator, Alex Haley—in his first phase. It is just as well that this is so or we would never have obtained such a full and vivid self-portrait of Malcolm as a Muslim. In the first two-thirds of the book, then, Malcolm has few if any original ideas to contribute. Whites were still the natural enemies of blacks, and blacks could liberate themselves only by separating themselves totally from whites. In his last public speech as a Muslim on December 1, 1963, he took the position that it would be best for “the 22 million ex-slaves [to be sent] back to our own homeland” in Africa, but that if the white U.S. government was “afraid” of doing that, then “America must set aside some separate territory here in the Western Hemisphere, where the two races can live apart from each other.”
Malcolm first began to reexamine the black-white relationship, according to his own account, in Jedda in 1964 en route to the holy city of Mecca. “I've had enough of someone else's propaganda,” he wrote to a friend. “I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being first and foremost, and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” In effect, he came to distinguish between whites and white racists. “I don't speak against the sincere, well-meaning, good white people,” he said publicly. “I have learned that there are some. I have learned that not all white people are racists. I am speaking and my fight is against white racists.” Against the latter, he held that any and all means were necessary in the fight.
The months left to him were too few for Malcolm to think his way through to anything like a comprehensive or even a coherent position. In the final chapter of his autobiography, he still remarked that “a true Negro revolt might entail, for instance, fighting for separate black states within this country—which several groups and individuals have advocated, long before Elijah Muhammad.” Yet a few pages later, he defined the mission of his newly-formed Organization of Afro-American Unity in quite different terms. It was, he said, “an all-black organization whose ultimate objective was to help create a society in which there could exist honest white-black brotherhood.” The two programmatic statements which he composed for the organization say hardly more than that “we will support the aspirations of our people for brotherhood and solidarity in a larger unity transcending all organizational differences,” in the first one; or that “we are not opposed to multi-ethnic associations in any walk of life” but that Afro-American ethnic unity is a necessary precondition for beneficial “ethnic intermingling,” in the second. By this time, Malcolm was far less interested in a separate Afro-American (to use his terminology) nation than in a revolutionary internationalism, the exact nature of which was still hazy to him at the time of his death. He was drawn to the Trotskyists without sharing all their presuppositions. In his last months, he did not want to use the expression “black nationalism” any more and told an interviewer for the Trotskyist youth organ, exactly one month before his assassination, that “I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the black people in this country.”
In effect, the nationalist legacy of Malcolm X is extremely problematic and ambiguous. A Trotskyist writer, George Breitman, who had made a careful study of Malcolm's last year, contends that “he was becoming black nationalist plus revolutionary.”16 But by black nationalist at this stage, Breitman means little more than that Malcolm wanted to solve black problems first, not that he had anything more to do with black American nationhood. In any case, his intense emphasis on ties with black Africa as the “motherland” was culturally and politically related to the old Back-to-Africa emigrationism. Indeed to the extent that he related Afro-American liberation in particular to African liberation in general, he might be said to be the exponent of a kind of international black revolutionary emigrationism. He was primarily an inspired agitator, not an original ideologist, and he picked up bits and pieces of what he considered to be useful ideological baggage as he went along. Those who take his name in vain to advance their own favorite nationalist recipes do his memory no service.
Other recent attempts to define black nationalism have been hardly more satisfactory. A case in point is the concept of “Black Power” advocated by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton.
Carmichael and Hamilton start with a seemingly momentous major premise: “black people in this country form a colony.” This colony, they hastily admit, is no ordinary, recognizable one. In order to make it fit American conditions, they quickly redefine colonialism as but another name for “institutional racism.” In the next sentence, they recognize a difficulty: “Obviously, the analogy is not perfect.” The first reason for its imperfection, as they see it, takes us close to our main concern:
One normally associates a colony with a land and people subjected to, and physically separated from, the “Mother Country.” This is not always the case, however; in South Africa and Rhodesia, black and white inhabit the same land—with blacks subordinated to whites just as in the English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies. It is the objective relationship which counts, not rhetoric (such as constitutions articulating equal rights) or geography.17
It is, of course, true that blacks and whites inhabit the same land in South Africa and Rhodesia—about four blacks to one white in the Union of South Africa and about seventeen blacks to one white in Rhodesia. In the United States, the proportion is approximately nine whites to one black. Is the difference inconsequential? In addition, South Africa and Rhodesia were age-old black lands colonized and conquered by whites only in the last century: whites and blacks came to the United States under very different circumstances. To cite South Africa and Rhodesia as colonial prototypes for the United States because whites and blacks inhabit the same land in all three obviously leaves much to be desired.
We are confronted here with a simple confusion of terms. A colony requires something more than political, economic, and social discrimination or oppression, especially of a minority. It requires precisely what Carmichael and Hamilton deny—a historic relationship of a people to a land. Without this, there may be discrimination or oppression, but not the status of a colony. If black Americans constituted a colony, the implications would be relatively simple and obvious. Colonies rebel to throw out their alien rulers and establish national independence and sovereignty. The Algerians rose against the French, expelled them en masse, and set up their own state.
If American blacks truly constituted a colony, Carmichael and Hamilton would no doubt advocate the same course here. That they do not, that they in fact advocate something much less and something very different in the name of “Black Power,” makes clear that they promise far more than they deliver.
For when Carmichael and Hamilton spell out their own program, what do they propose? In the main, they want blacks, as they put it, to “close ranks,” to create “power bases, of strength,” “to gain control of their own communities,” to obtain “black self-determination and black self-identity.” But for what purpose? They say that the black ethnic group must first close ranks in order to “enter the open society.” They call for power bases, of strength, “from which black people can press to change local or nationwide patterns of oppression—instead of from weakness.” Their ultimate values and goals are, they insist, “an effective share in the total power of the society.” Black self-determination and black self-identity—by which they mean Black Power—aim at “full participation in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people, and recognition of the virtues in themselves as black people.” Indeed, they sum up their ultimate goal in terms which fair-minded and decent whites could easily accept: “Ultimately, the gains of our struggle will be meaningful only when consolidated by viable coalitions between blacks and whites who accept each other as co-equal partners and who identify their goals as politically and economically similar. At this stage, given the nature of the society, distinct roles must be played.”
But where does all this leave the concept of an existing black “colony” within the United States? It cannot possibly mean what the Algerians meant in relation to the French. The “colony” that Carmichael and Hamilton claim to represent does not aim at nationhood; at no point do they even refer to nationhood. They want little more than a fair share of the historic American commitment. They decry the rhetoric of equal constitutional rights but are not above the rhetoric of a colonial revolution that is neither truly colonial nor truly revolutionary. A true colony aims at more than full participation in the decision-making process of the existing nation; a true revolution aims at overthrowing the existing decision-making process, not at participating in it.
Carmichael and Hamilton are not the only ones who have had trouble with the notion of a black colony in the United States. It has become the fashionable cliché of present-day black nationalism, though none of those who use it quite know what to do with it. The problem of how to go from “colony” to “nation” has also puzzled the Black Panthers whose ideas have spread far beyond their ranks.
The Black Panther party was formed in Oakland, California, in October 1966 by two young black nationalists, Huey P. Newton, then twenty-five, and Bobby Seale, five years older. The guiding spirit and dominant personality was—and is—Newton. His family, which he once described as “lower class, working class,” moved from Louisiana, where he was born, the youngest of seven children, to California. He graduated from two-year Merritt College, in Oakland, where he met Seale. At the school they took their first step toward nationalist political activity by joining a local Afro-American Association, which soon proved insufficiently militant for them. Newton wanted to become a lawyer, Seale an actor. About a year at San Francisco Law School convinced Newton that he was not cut out to be a lawyer. Seale drifted from odd job to odd job without getting very far in his chosen career. One evening, during an argument at a party, Newton slashed a black auto worker with a steak knife, and spent eight months in jail for the assault. After his release, he and Seale got together again, and according to one version, Seale stimulated his renewed political activity by giving him Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth to read. When some of their younger friends formed a Soul Students Advisory Council at Merritt to demand a “black curriculum,” they took an interest in it. An incident in Berkeley apparently led them to go much farther. It seems that a white policeman tried to arrest Seale for blocking the sidewalk by reciting poems from a chair at an outdoor café. A fight ensued; no one was arrested. But Newton and Seale thereupon decided to give up the Soul Students Advisory Council and to form a broader organization called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.18 The name was later shortened to Black Panther party to emphasize a larger goal than “self defense.” The panther reference came from the symbol of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization which had been launched in Alabama six months earlier.
The Panthers seemed at first little more than another self-appointed band of black nationalists whose chief claim to publicity was their armed patrols which drove through the streets of Oakland. Their first important convert early in 1967 was Eldridge Cleaver, author of Soul On Ice, then working for Ramparts, whom Newton impressed by leading a group of armed Panthers into the office of the magazine and daring a policeman to shoot him. The police flinched that time, but in a shootout in Oakland in October 1967, Newton was wounded, one policeman was killed, another policeman was wounded, and Newton is now serving a two-to-fifteen year sentence for manslaughter.
From this unlikely beginning, the Black Panthers have become a formidable national movement. In less than three years, the party claims to have set up about fifty chapters. Besides Cleaver, now a fugitive, it was able to win over for a time such well-known figures as H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent (later National) Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It entered into a coalition with the white-based Peace and Freedom party, which ran Cleaver for President in the last election. Its program of black nationalism was endorsed by the Students for a Democratic Society last March, and it precipitated the SDS split in June. It is allied with a new League of Revolutionary Black Workers which has sprung up in the automobile industry and particularly threatens the United Auto Workers Union, headed by Walter Reuther. It has provided much of the inspiration, leadership, and program of the black student unions in universities, colleges, and high schools. A full study of the Panthers' unusual organization, activity, and program cannot be attempted here. They have not received enough serious attention, except possibly from the police in whom they seem to bring out the worst, not without some reason.
The ideology, which mainly concerns us here, is only partially revealed by the official platform and rules. Point 1 of the ten-point Platform and Program adopted in October 1966 reads: “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.” Other points call for full employment, decent housing, education, and the liberation of all black prisoners from all prisons and jails. Point 10, the most nationalistic, states: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of the black people as to their national destiny.” The rest of the document hints at the meaning of this demand by quoting the justification for secession in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. But this was hardly a fully thought out program of black nationhood. It left the decision to a vaguely-formulated plebiscite and, even if the “black colony” decided to “dissolve the political bands” connecting it to the existing United States, it did not make any effort to suggest what the next step might be.
The full Black Panther ideology emerges only in the pages of its official organ, the Black Panther, now published weekly in Berkeley, California, and especially in the articles, speeches, and interviews of its main leaders. Some early columns by Newton in the Black Panther in 1967, before he was imprisoned, have been collected in a little pamphlet, Essays From the Minister of Defense Huey Newton. These essays show that Newton's basic ideas were formed before his shoot-out with the Oakland police and derived mainly from Fanon, Malcolm X, Mao Tse-tung, and Fidel Castro.
For Newton, the “Black colony of Afro-America” has a unique and universal mission. “The Black people in America are the only people who can free the world, loosen the yoke of colonialism, and destroy the war machine.” No other country can defeat this “monster” as long as it continues to function. “But Black people can make a malfunction of this machine from within.” In order to do so, however, “They must have the basic tool of liberation: the gun”—a lesson attributed to Mao Tse-tung and Malcolm X. Guerrilla warfare is the tactical method that goes with the basic tool. As a self-styled “Vanguard Party,” the Black Panthers do not think they have to do the whole job by themselves. They need only set an example and the masses will follow. Newton's own example leaves little to the imagination: “When the masses hear that a gestapo policeman has been executed while sipping coffee at a counter, and the revolutionary executioners fled without being traced, the masses will see the validity of this type of approach to resistance.” The pamphlet, however, tells little about the ultimate objective beyond proposing that “Black people must now move, from the grassroots up through the perfumed circles of the Black bourgeoisie, to seize by any means necessary a proportionate share of the power vested and collected in the structure of America.”
Since 1967, Black Panther ideology has become a more fully-developed, if not essentially different, system. In essence, it is a hybrid made up of revolutionary black nationalism and what is by now an old friend, “Marxism-Leninism.” As a result, it is not quite like any other black nationalism or any other Marxism-Leninism. Its peculiar “amalgam,” as Trotsky would have called it, of bits and pieces from Malcolm X, Mao Tse-tung, Ernesto Che Guevara, Regis Debray, and others, is typical of the kind of do-it-yourself Marxism-Leninism that has recently come into vogue. It is especially characteristic of movements which have invited themselves into the Marxist-Leninist tradition from the outside, bringing with them their own national or particularist folkways and shopping among all the current versions of the doctrine for those features or formulas which happen to suit or please them the most. In this respect Black Pantherism resembles Castroism but has gone much farther in asserting its individuality.19
What is most individual about the Black Panthers is, of course, what concerns them most—the “national liberation” of the “black colony” in the “white mother country.”
The last term was apparently originated by Eldridge Cleaver. It suggests the difference between the Panthers and the Back-to-Africa nationalists. The mother country of the Panthers' black colony is white America, not Africa. Since the mother country is not Africa, there is no reason to go back to it. Without denying the existence of vestigial ties with Africa, the Panthers strongly reject and oppose the Back-to-Africa line, even in an attenuated form which they contemptuously call “cultural nationalism.”
Newton has sternly disapproved of the return to African culture. “Cultural nationalism deals with a return to the old culture of Africa and that we are somehow freed by identifying and returning to this culture, to the African cultural stage of the 1100's or earlier,” he has maintained. “As far as we are concerned, we believe that it's important for us to recognize our origins and identify with the revolutionary Black people of Africa and people of color throughout the world. But as far as returning per se to the ancient customs, we don't see any necessity in this.” Other Panther leaders have been more emphatic. Former Minister of Education George Mason Murray has called this kind of pro-African cultural nationalism “a fixation in a people's development like a half-formed baby,” “reactionary and insane and counterrevolutionary,” “a bourgeois-capitalist scheme, to confuse the masses of people, so that they will not assault the city halls, the bank tellers, and managers, or seize control of community schools.”20 A programmatic article in the Black Panther of May 25, 1969, ridiculed the “fools running around who declare that they are ‘just trying to be black’ by wearing dashikis and bubas and who tell black people that they should relate to African customs and African heritage that we left 300 years ago, that this will make them free, that reading black history will make them better.”
Ironically, therefore, the Panthers have decided that the emphasis on Black Studies programs has gone too far. In May 1969 the present Minister of Education, Ray “Masai” Hewitt, denounced Black Studies as a “new trick bag.” He told of having talked with “many brothers from Africa” who “are not hung up on Swahili or Arabic.” Of the new vogue for the “natural head,” he reported: “Very few of the African brothers that we met had what could be called a ‘Natural Head.’ They just had hair. You couldn't call it one of those custom-tailored natural heads. They never spoke Swahili and every time we told them that there were brothers here studying Swahili for the revolution, they burst out laughing.” He added: “The movement toward Black Studies in colleges and other Black cultural programs have [sic] become a fixation. At one point in the revolutionary development of our people it was a revolutionary step. Instead of taking it as a beginning step many cultural nationalist opportunist boot-licking cowards and freaks have latched on it.”
The nationalist side of the Panthers' ideology makes them emphasize black unity; the “Marxist-Leninist” side makes them emphasize a social revolution by both blacks and whites. Unlike other nationalist groups, the Panthers do not believe that the “black colony” can liberate itself alone. “We have two evils to fight, capitalism and racism,” Newton says. “We must destroy both racism and capitalism.” But the Panthers do not see how they can destroy capitalism and install socialism in the black community without destroying capitalism and installing socialism in the white community. As the programmatic statement in the Black Panther of May 25, 1969, put it: “There must be a revolution in the white mother country, led by white radicals and poor whites, and national liberation in the black and third world colony here in America. We can't triumph in the colony alone because that is just like cutting one finger off a hand. It still functions, you dig it. No, when we deal with this monster we must deal with it totally.”
This suggests that the Panthers expect the black nationalist revolution to be part of, or accompanied by, a larger white social revolution. In this respect, therefore, they do not belong in the line of pure black nationalist movements, such as Garvey's. They have a foot in both national and international camps, sometimes coming down hard on the one, sometimes on the other. Yet their membership is purely black and for that reason they will probably stand or fall on the persuasiveness of their black nationalist program. Yet it is precisely in this area that they are ideologically most vague and uncertain.
The original proposal in the Platform and Program of October 1966—to hold a United Nations-supervised plebiscite—was clearly an evasion of the issue. It is, of course, highly improbable that the UN would or could hold such a plebiscite; at best the proposal passed the problem on to the black voters; and it did not tell them how the Panthers wanted them to vote. There is reason to believe that this evasiveness was deliberate and that the Panther strategists considered any more concrete position premature. At a Peace and Freedom party forum on February 11, 1968, Cleaver remarked: “It's very important to realize that in moving to gain power, you do not conceal or repudiate the land question, you hold it in abeyance. What you're saying is that we must first get ourselves organized, and then we can get some of this land.” Since then, most Panther leaders, including Newton, have been content to deal with the subject in vague and general terms. Newton has gone no farther than: “Our problem is unity at this point. We have to unify ourselves. We can handle the colony better than anyone else. We are a colonized people. Many Black communities are like decentralized colonies throughout this country” (the Black Panther, February 17, 1969, p. 4). Murray has touched on the critical point without offering much more enlightenment: “You cannot say that wherever Black people are, there is our nation. To say this is foolishness. What if the masses of people you're talking about are slaves, as we are in Che U.S. When you talk about nationhood, you are talking about territory (land), people, and sovereignty (power). When we talk about becoming free, we have to talk about power, getting all the goods, services, and land, and returning them equally to the oppressed and enslaved Mexicans, Blacks, Indians, Puerto-Ricans, and poor whites in the U.S. and to the rest of the oppressed and hungry people in the world” (ibid., March 3, 1969, p. 4).
Eldridge Cleaver once tried to deal directly with “The Land Question and Black Liberation” in Ramparts magazine, April-May 1968 (reprinted in his Post-Prison Writings and Speeches, edited by Robert Scheer). At one point he came close to what the trouble has been: “Thus, it is not surprising that the average black man in America is schizoid on the question of his relationship to the nation as a whole, and there is a side of him that feels only the vaguest, most halting, tentative and even fleeting kinship with America. The feeling of alienation and dissociation is real and black people long ago would have readily identified themselves with another sovereignty had a viable one existed” (my italics—TD). Cleaver then went on to argue that no viable alternative sovereignty had ever existed. He had high praise for Marcus Garvey, but it turned out that Garvey “did not solve the specific question of Afro-America and its immediate relationship to the land beneath her feet. The practical prospect of Garvey's actual transporting blacks back to Africa turned most black people off because of a world situation and balance of power that made such a situation impossible.” He gave Elijah Muhammad credit for knowing “that he had to deal with Afro-America's land hunger.” But Cleaver considered Muhammad tactically wise enough to be “very careful never to identify any specific geographical location when he issued his call for land for Afro-America.” Stokely Carmichael's thesis of Black Power “does not attempt to answer the land question. It does not deny the existence of that question, but rather frankly states that at the present moment the land question cannot be dealt with, that black people must put first things first, that there are a few things that must be done before we can deal with the land question.”
Yet Cleaver went on to insist: “The necessity upon Afro-America is to move, now, to begin functioning as a nation, to assume its sovereignty, to demand that that sovereignty be recognized by other nations of the world.” But where? The closest Cleaver came to meeting the issue was: “Black Power must be viewed as a projection of sovereignty, an embryonic sovereignty that black people can focus on and through which they can make distinctions between themselves and others, between themselves and their enemies—in short, between the white mother country of America and the black colony dispersed throughout the continent on absentee-owned land, making Afro-America a decentralized colony. Black Power says to black people that it is possible for them to build a national organization on somebody else's land.”
What is “sovereignty” without land to be sovereign of? How project “sovereignty” on “somebody else's land”? What is a “decentralized colony”? Is it made up of black ghettos in New York, Chicago, Oakland, and elsewhere, separated from each other by hundreds of miles? Is ghetto “sovereignty” a truly embryonic form of national sovereignty? It may be possible to build a national organization on somebody else's land, but how build a nation on that land?
Cleaver did not raise these questions, but he was not unaware that his notion of “embryonic sovereignty” might need some clarification. He therefore seized on what he considered to be the “parallel” between early Zionism and present-day black nationalism. The Jews, he pointed out, had also been cooped up in Eastern European ghettos. Argentina and even Uganda were considered as possible sites for a Jewish homeland before the decision was finally made in favor of Palestine. The Zionists founded a virtual government in exile for a people in exile. Cleaver concluded: “They would build their organization, their government, and then later on they would get some land and set the government and the people down on the land, like placing one's hat on top of one's head. The Jews did it. It worked. So now Afro-Americans must do the same thing.”
Cleaver could hardly have chosen a more unfortunate “parallel” for his cause. It is entirely based on the circumstance that the Jewish Zionists in the beginning did not have a national territorial base and were not even sure where it might be. But of one thing the Jewish Zionists were always sure—that they could not set up a national homeland in their East European ghettos. If black nationalism in the United States were prepared to get out of the American ghettos and set up a nation in Africa or elsewhere, the Zionist “parallel” might be helpful, though here again historical differences might dictate against pushing it too far. Black nationalist “Zionism” inevitably heads toward a Back-to-Africa conclusion, which Cleaver and the Black Panthers reject.
A few months later, Cleaver gave an interview to Playboy (October 1968) in which he was questioned about the plan adopted by a National Black Government Conference which met in Detroit in April 1968 for a “Republic of New Africa” to be made up of five Southern states. “Do you think that's a viable plan?” Cleaver was asked. “I don't have any sympathy with that approach,” Cleaver replied, “but the Black Panthers feel that it's a proposal black people should be polled on.” From Cleaver's articles in Ramparts and the interview in Playboy, it is hard to see just what kind of concrete, practical approach he would sympathize with.
On the main issue—nationhood—the “land question” has given the Panthers the most trouble. Without an answer to this question, they have not been able to make the leap from “colony” to “nation.” The latter may be implicit in the former, but the inability to make it explicit may also imply that there is something inappropriate to American conditions about the concept of a black “colony.” The Panthers' dilemma has opened them up to attacks on two sides—from those who want a pure and simple black nationalism not dependent for its ultimate success on a white social revolution and those who want a social revolution untainted by black nationalism. It remains to be seen how long they can maintain their uneasy equilibrium between the two camps.
In the past few years, the Back-to-Africa tendency has been reduced to little more than superficial “cultural” manifestations; a new hairdo hardly constitutes a new nation. Territorially, the most extreme wing of black nationalism, which will be satisfied with nothing less than a clearly defined nation, has swung over to locating it in what is now part of the United States. As one of the more moderate proponents of this scheme, Robert S. Browne, assistant professor of economics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has noted, most American Negroes who went to Africa in recent years discovered that they could not feel at home in the newly independent countries which they had thought of as their homeland. “If we have been separated from Africa for so long that we are no longer quite at ease there,” he concluded, “then we are left with only one place to make our home, and that is the land to which we were brought in chains.”
Professor Browne was one of the main spokesmen at the Conference on Black Power which met in Newark, New Jersey, in July 1967. He presented the resolution which called for initiating “a national dialogue on the desirability of partitioning the U.S. into two separate and independent nations, one to be a homeland for white and the other to be a homeland for black Americans.” It received a thunderous ovation, though he later admitted that all those who voted for it could “by no stretch of the imagination be considered active partisans of the idea of a separate state.” Evidently it is the kind of proposal that some, perhaps many, Negroes will applaud without necessarily wanting to do anything about it.
Professor Browne has represented the soft-sell approach to “The Case for Black Separatism,” as his article in the December 1967 Ramparts, which has been widely circulated in black nationalist study circles, was entitled. He insisted that the Newark resolution did not try to prejudge the merits of the proposal; it merely asked that “the legal, political, economic, and sociological implications” of partition should be seriously discussed and examined. He even presented the case as if it came from the “moderate center” and warned that failure to take it seriously would sentence the country to the “terror” of irresponsible extremists. He offered the division of British India into today's India and Pakistan as the precedent for what he had in mind. For the most part, he has contented himself with getting both whites and blacks accustomed to the idea of partition. His message is that “a sense of nationhood is groping for expression” in the black ghettos, and it may lead to two separate nations or to “some as yet untried type of human community.” In another article in the New York Times Magazine of August 11, 1968, in which he largely repeated himself, Professor Browne based his separatist argument solely on the difference in the American Negroes' ethnic culture.
The hard-sell approach has been represented by the National Black Government Conference which met in Detroit in April 1968 (with which Cleaver was not sympathetic). It immediately set up a “Republic of New Africa,” to be made up of five Southern states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. It endowed this “Republic” with a self-chosen government headed by Robert F. Williams, a fugitive for the past few years in Cuba, China, and elsewhere, as President; a Michigan lawyer, Milton R. Henry, as First Vice-President; a Second Vice-President, Treasurer, and Ministers of Justice, Finance, Culture and Education, and Defense.
According to Robert Sherrill, who published a lengthy interview with him in Esquire, January 1969, First Vice-President Henry is the real headman of this outfit. Logically, Henry said, the black population should go back to Africa, “but logistically it is very unsound because of the difficulties of moving people, furniture, mastering the culture.” However, one African custom—polygamy—would be reinstated. He also envisaged a dictatorship of the founders for the first thirty to forty years and prohibition of all trade unions. To take over the five Southern states, Henry has worked out an ingenious scheme. The basic strategy consists of gaining control of them, county by county, starting with Mississippi, which has the largest percentage of black population. Economically, this entails buying up land, as the Jews bought land in Palestine, for which purpose “Malcolm X land certificates” are offered for sale at the price of $100 each. Politically, Henry sees control of the sheriffs' offices as the key to control of the land. “Then we will have a legitimate military force, legitimate under U.S. law, made up of people Who can be deputized and armed.”
Henry was asked if they could whip the U.S. Army. “With the aid of nuclear weapons from our allies, such as China, sure we could,” he replied. “China would never help us until we could show that we were capable of a separate, independent existence. But we could show that by controlling a land mass.” And if Chinese nuclear power was not enough? He had another weapon: “We've got second-strike power right now in our guerrillas within the metropolitan areas—black men, armed. Say we start taking over Mississippi—which we are capable of doing right now—and the United States started to interfere. Well, our guerrillas all over the country would strike.”
It is hard to take this kind of talk seriously. Paradoxically, it depends for whatever persuasiveness it may have on the relative success of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the voter registration campaign. Black voter registration in Mississippi went up from 8 per cent in 1965 to 59 per cent by late 1968. Only this unprecedented increase enabled Charles Evers to defeat a white incumbent in the election for Mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, and permitted a black slate to score a victory in Greene County, Alabama, in 1969. These historic victories, the first in Mississippi since Reconstruction, may well be followed by others in similar communities!, if it means, as Mayor Evers put it, making government “work for everybody,” white and black alike. The gravest danger to this democratic achievement, overdue for a century, will come not only from die-hard white supremacists but from die-hard black nationalists. Both have a vested interest in exploiting the fantasy of a black takeover, municipality by municipality, county by county, state by state.
Another version of the takeover has been put forward by Floyd McKissick, the former National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). McKissick also maintains: “Black People in the United States live in a state of de facto nationhood.” All they lack, he claims, is independence. To enable the black people to make use of the present electoral system, the federal government must make it possible for more black sheriffs and black tax collectors to be elected in counties with a black majority. This development will cause whites to move out in large numbers and open the way for blacks to move in. McKissick foresees black control of two or three states in a single generation. For some reason, however, in the end he stops short of ushering in a new stage of independent nationhood for the black-controlled states. His conclusion seems to be somewhat anticlimactic: “When Black People are in control of at least a few American states, they will be able to exert enough influence within the federal system to affect the treatment of their Black brothers in America's urban centers, as well as the exercise of American foreign policy.”21 It is hard to see why the Black People in the United States need to be a de facto nation to exert this kind of influence. But if there is anything that will stand in the way of black control of more counties, let alone entire states, it is loose thinking and writing about black “nationhood” and “independence.” For these terms imply that Mr. McKissick is really asking the federal government to aid and abet the disruption and dissolution of the existing American nation. The difference between Mr. McKissick and Mr. Henry seems to be that the former wants to do “constitutionally” what the latter wants to do more forcefully—but the former's views lend themselves to so many different interpretations that it is hard to be sure what he really wants.
Professor Browne glibly mentions the need for seriously considering “population relocation,” “Vice-President” Henry blithely talks of setting up a Black Legion by arming sheriffs' deputies, and Floyd McKissick foresees black control of counties leading to black control of states and beyond. The magnitude of the problem, however, is never hinted at by them or by other black nationalists with similar ideas. According to the last census of 1960, the population in the five states chosen by the “Republic of New Africa” was divided as follows:
How much “population relocation” would be necessary in order to get a black population of only 50 per cent in the five states? Of a total population of 15,008,223, whites predominated by 5,234,007. It would be necessary, therefore, to move out one-half of the existing whites or move in an equal number of blacks for every remaining white. But these figures, formidable as they may be, imply nothing more than an equalization of the population, a balance that might be suitable for a biracial state. A black majority of even three-fourths—not too much to ask for a black state—would require the “relocation” of about two-thirds the present white population or moving in two or three times the number of blacks there now. And it should be remembered that the blacks have been moving in the opposite direction for half a century.
Another aspect of the problem deserves some attention. Even in those states with the largest proportion of black population, the distribution of that population is highly significant. Mississippi is a case in point:
|Urban||Rural Nonfarm||Rural Farm|
These figures show that the black population is still largely concentrated in the rural areas. South Carolina was the only state in which, as in Mississippi, non-whites somewhat outnumbered whites in the rural farm area. In all the other states, whites outnumbered non-whites in all three categories. Thus, demographically, the whites are predominant, and decisively predominant, in or near the cities which control the main economic and political levers of power in the modern state. The problem of “population relocation” would be enormously complicated by this factor in the present balance of forces.
The McKissick theory of county control leading to state control may also be tested by a few figures. According to the 1960 census, the number of counties with white or black majorities in the five states with the largest percentage of black population was as follows:
Thus about one-third of the counties in Mississippi and South Carolina had black majorities, some by a very narrow margin. Georgia had about one-fifth and the other two states somewhat less. The black majorities were concentrated in the most rural sectors of the states. In Greene County, Alabama, blacks outnumbered whites by more than three to one. But this was exceptional, and black political control of all the black-majority counties could not begin to take over the state.
Apart from all other considerations, then, what do these figures tell us about the allegedly “colonial” nature of the American Negro problem? In Algeria, for example, the proportion of Frenchmen to Algerians was unusually high for a colonial situation. But even there, at the end of French rule, the French accounted for only 10 per cent of the total population. In the case of Pakistan, about six and a half million Moslems moved into it from India and about five and a half million moved out of it to India. But these numbers, huge as they were, must be measured against the total Pakistan population of almost 34 million. Algeria and Pakistan represented “population relocation” at its most extreme. Yet they cannot be compared with the problem posed by the five Southern states. In Algeria and Pakistan, the native populations rooted in the same land for centuries constituted the immense majority. A “colony,” such as the black population in the Southern states is supposed to constitute, which consists of a minority, and a shrinking minority at that, presents an altogether different problem, and cannot call for the same solution.
However outlandish the idea of partition may seem to some, it was bound to arise in black nationalist circles, and the Southern states were the most likely candidates to provide the territory for a new black nation. If it is a fantasy there, it cannot even be imagined anywhere else in the United States. For good reason, Mr. Henry will have none of independent black cities because “the whites would have us surrounded.” A collection of far-flung ghettos does not constitute a nation, and it is for this reason that black nationalism must ultimately seek to find a place for itself in Africa or “New Africa.”
What we have now are, in the main, black rural ghettos in the South and black urban ghettos in the North. The urban ghetto as the basis of some kind of black nationalism has attracted the attention of W. H. Ferry, until recently a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California. He has proposed the demarcation of white city and black city “colonies.” They would be subject to a Statute of Colonization containing a Reciprocal Indignities Understanding. If whites preferred to live in black colonies, they would have to abide by black colonial rule, and vice versa. Black colonies could deny normal services to whites and overcharge them for any services they might provide; black police would treat all whites as suspicious characters and “mistreat them accordingly.”
This may be a sardonic caricature of what we may already see approaching, but its essential point cannot be easily overlooked. In his lecture at Williamsburg, Virginia, on June 1, 1968, George F. Kennan raised the question of whether it will not be necessary to permit the American Negro “first to have, as a number of his leaders are now demanding, a local political community of his own through which he can find his identity and gain the dignity of both authority and responsibility.” If this “local political community” were to remain an integral part of the present United States, whatever its relationship to the other parts might be, it would still fail by far to satisfy the yearnings of black nationalism for a black nation. But the idea points in the direction of enabling black “nationalism” to find an outlet locally in those areas which are preponderantly black anyway.
One other way to get around the troublesome “land question” is, in effect, to ignore or bypass it. This strategy has been adopted by those who base black nationalism on “culture” or “consciousness” without attaching it to any particular national territory. This approach attempts to prove that there is something culturally unique about the American Negro, as if this were equivalent to a recognizable national existence.
In a lecture at Michigan State University in May 1969, LeRoi Jones declared: “Black people in America form a nation in every respect, except that they do not have political power. We are black by race, by culture, and by consciousness.” Culture, he went on, was far more important than race, and then he struggled to say what he meant by culture: “Culture is the life-style of a people. It is the value system organized by the group. It is not the moral or intellectual superiority of an idea that makes it hold sway in the world—it is the power of the group.”22
We have here the initial assumption that there is a black “nation” secreted somewhere in the United States and it needs only “political power” to emerge from hiding. But “political power” where and in what form? Jones begs these crucial questions by equating culture with nation. A culture, even if what he says is true, is far less clearly defined and localized than a nation. There can be a distinct culture without an independent nation, and an independent nation without a distinct culture. The Algerians, for example, did not have to stress their cultural difference from the French; they knew that they were a different people who inhabited a different land. That the cultural differences were deep undoubtedly reinforced the Algerian national consciousness, but Algeria did not owe its nationhood to these cultural differences, and it would have struggled to free itself from France even if the cultural similarities or ties had been much more pronounced and numerous.
It is not easy to define what is culturally unique in the American Negro. Julius Lester, for example, also contended in Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama! (even a worse book would deserve a better title) that “blacks are a colonial people within” the United States. He made no effort to say more than that the black people of this alleged colony want to “control their own lives, destinies, and communities.” It is hard to argue with this kind of formulation until we know more about it, especially its bearing on the question of black nationhood. Lester is most revealing, however, in his effort to define the uniqueness of black American culture. It can be explained, he says, “in that it is a culture whose emphasis is on the nonverbal, i.e., the nonconceptual.” In black culture, “it is the experience that counts, not what is said.” And further, “The black man knows the inherent irrationality of life.” How this nonverbal, nonconceptual “culture” operates is illustrated by Lester as follows: “When the black preacher shouts, ‘God is a living God,’ don't argue. Get ready to shake hands with the Lord Almighty. ‘I talked to God this morning and I said, “Now, listen here, Lord. You got to do something about these white folks down here. Lord, they giving us a hard time. You got to do something!”’ God is like a personal friend, an old buddy, whom you talk to man-to-man.”
It is remarkable how similar this stereotype is to Thomas Jefferson's classical stereotype of Negro inferiority. Jefferson thought that Negroes were more capable of “sensation than reflection.” He found them “in reason much inferior.” He was prepared to agree that they were “more ardent,” more generally gifted musically, and not inferior morally, but he drew the line at—to use Lester's term—their ability to conceptualize. The abiding influence of Jefferson's views on the Negroes' alleged mental inferiority has been emphasized by Professor Winthrop D. Jordan in his massive work, White Over Black. Yet the key idea has now come back in the guise of attributing to it the function of creating a unique culture. One wonders whether Lester's latest black stereotype should not be just as offensive, at least to Negro intellectuals, as Jefferson's antiquated black stereotype, and whether the former would not in the long run produce just as much harm. In any case, “a colonial people” is essentially a political, not a cultural conception, and it is hard to see how cultural nationalists like Lester can get very far without a minimum of such conceptualization.
The problem, in fact, is not so much lack of conceptualization as the wrong kind. Harold Cruse rightly cautions that “if the Negro leadership is hampered by deficient conceptualizing of American group reality, then the Negro movement will defeat itself in the long run.” His book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (Morrow, 1967), has the great merit of manifestly coming from an independent, critical mind. Whether it succeeds in providing a more satisfactory or even a more consistent “conceptualizing of American group reality” is more doubtful. Cruse once drops the hint that the American Negro was the subject of “a special kind of North American domestic colonialism”—but he never follows it up. He touches on the “land question” with a remark that it “can be solved only from an urban base of political power,” not a rural base. But he makes no effort to clarify what he means by “political power.” He adds for good measure the provocative thought that the American “land question” is now “an international issue involving Africa,” which leads him to put forth the extraordinary suggestion that “there may well come a time when the race question in Africa will have to be solved by admitting specified numbers of white Rhodesians, Angolans, and South African Afrikaaners into the United States, in exchange for an equal number of Afro-Americans to take their places in Africa.” What such an exchange would imply or in what possible circumstances it might take place he leaves totally unanswered—and unasked.
This ill-organized, overambitious, exasperating, and yet rewarding work is really about a much larger crisis. Inasmuch as Cruse gives the Negro intelligentsia the guiding and directing role in working out and activating what he calls “Afro-American Nationalism,” the book actually deals with the crisis of the new Negro nationalism, of which it is in its own way another manifestation. To the extent that one can make out Cruse's own position, which is never developed systematically, it has little to do with “domestic colonialism” or the “land question.” Cruse's main positive contribution—when he can tear himself away for a few words or sentences from paying back old scores against other Negro intellectuals—hinges on the ethnic, rather than the racial, character of the American Negro problem (his italics, p. 557). He chases other leads fitfully and sporadically, but he has most to say, and most originally, about the ethnic factor. Thus Cruse is at his best when he acutely distinguishes between “having a nationalistic mood and having nationalist objectives in politics, economics, and culture that relate to how Negroes as a people exist in America.” The mood is real enough, but history and circumstance may preclude it from relating realistically to the condition in which the American Negro finds himself. Such a conflict is likely to produce political fantasy: “The American Negro is wedded to America and does not want to return to his ancestral Africa except in fancy, perhaps.” Even Africans may suffer from this duality: “The African has Africa, but a severe psychic problem has cropped up among Africans sent to the United States on various assignments: Many of them have very little contact with American Negroes, feel alienated within themselves, but do not want to return to Africa. Alienated or no, they have become passionately attached to the ways of the cosmopolitan West, the high standard of living, the creature comforts of the affluent society” (p. 555).
As Cruse sees it, “the problem [of the American Negro] will be solved under specifically American conditions or it will never be solved, for Afro-American Nationalism is basically a black reflection of the unsolved American nationality question.” By “nationality,” Cruse means what the dictionary defines as “an ethnic group constituting one element of a larger unit (as a nation).” This nationality—not national—question, he says, involves several ethnic groups, not Negroes alone. But two are crucial—“Anglo-Saxon Protestants and American Negroes.” In between them he sees another major group, the Jews, who make up the third component of his “fateful triangle.” Cruse's chief grievance against the Jews seems to be that they have come between the Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the Negroes; he is most wrathful against Jewish Communists for having acted out “the role of political surrogates for the ‘white’ working class, and thereby gained the political whip of intellectual and theoretical domination of the Negro question.” The Communists, and especially the Jewish Communists, obsess Cruse to such an extent that he devotes far too much of his book to them, sometimes in a manner bordering on the absurd.23 In general, his idea seems to be that the Negroes must solve the American nationality problem by making a direct deal with the “Anglo-Saxons” without the intervention of the Jews who, he claims, have ideologically dominated the Negroes. Whatever merit there may be in this view, it takes us a long way from the perspective of black nationhood. In the end, Cruse advises the Negro intellectual that his “special function” is cultural.
Milton R. Henry and Harold Cruse illustrate how far apart ostensible proponents of “black nationalism” may be. About all they have in common is a mutual antipathy for “integrationists.” Black nationalism today is not a party and has no party line—or it has too many parties and too many party lines. It can be identified more easily by what it is against than by what it is for. It is still seeking the right answers, and it is not yet clear that it has been asking the right questions.
The burning question is whether American black nationalism is or is not the expression of a suppressed nation. If the nationalists are right, the American Negroes have always constituted a nation—without a proper nationalism. Do we now have a black nationalism—without a proper nation?
Other nationalisms have, at bottom, a persuasively simple basis. They rest on a demand for sovereignty or self-rule in a particular territory. The Algerians could cry “Algeria for the Algerians”; the Indonesians cried “Indonesia for the Indonesians.” This “territorial imperative” has given every nationalism its raison d'être and its popular base. Algerians, as Malcolm X discovered, could be white, but they were none the less Algerians. The definition of an Algerian was not in his color or his class, but in his relationship to his land.
American history and conditions do not permit a black relationship to a national territory. The only conceivable parallel is the case of the Jews who did not have a national territory in Palestine until they migrated there. But, as I have previously pointed out, the example of Jewish Zionism can only be made to serve the ends of Back-to-Africa black nationalism. It has no relevance to a “Black Belt” in the South, which Negroes have been migrating from rather than migrating to, or to the dispersed black ghettos in the North, the oldest of which, Harlem, is the product of only half a century. Moreover, it is doubtful whether Jewish Zionism could have survived without its historic territorial relationship to the Palestine of the Bible, however unconvincing this may seem to non-Zionists. If even this extreme and unique case does not apply to the conditions of black nationalism in the United States, then the latter is faced with a problem that is peculiar to itself, and no analogies with the so-called Third World can help to solve it.
The result is that black nationalism has been vainly looking for a surrogate sovereignty, a substitute for a nation. This need is the unfulfilled and unfulfillable wish behind the demands for separate, autonomous Black or Afro-American Studies Departments and similar phenomena in other fields. It is unfulfillable because the shadow of sovereignty can never take the place of the substance.
What Black Studies meant to the black students demanding them came out most clearly at Cornell University. The students stated openly that these studies were intended “to enable people to use the knowledge gained in the classroom and the community to formulate new ideologies and philosophies which will contribute to the development of the black nation.” As part of such a program, they also demanded a physical education course on “Theory and practice in the use of small arms and hand to hand combat. Discussion sessions in the proper use of force.” The gun incident at Cornell in April 1969 was headlined in the Black Panther: “Power At Cornell Out of The Barrel Of A Gun.”
What came out explicitly at Cornell may be present implicitly in other schools. At San Francisco State College, the Black Students Union demanded an all-black department with the authority to grant a bachelor's degree in “black studies” and “the sole power to hire faculty and control and determine the destiny of its department.” It was the prototype of similar demands in one school after another last year. Such a department was the academic equivalent of a state-within-a-state, in this case an all-black academic state within all-white or virtually all-white schools.
Nothing is more revelatory of this fantasy-nationalism. It demands all the trappings of “self-determination,” except the ability to pay for itself. Yet the more deeply it penetrates into white academic territory, the more profoundly it withdraws into itself. It wants sovereignty, but a subsidized sovereignty. It seeks to develop the rudiments of a new black nation, but merely succeeds in producing a new form of a black ghetto. It cannot break the umbilical cord with the white world, and it cannot live harmoniously within that world.
By no means do I wish to challenge the validity and necessity of Black Studies. The more we know about “black history,” “black literature,” or “black sociology,” the better it will be for all of us. The real question is whether they should be studied and taught the way other subjects are studied and taught, as a collective educational enterprise, or whether they should be studied and taught with a built-in nationalist mystique outside the bounds of rational discourse and authentic scholarship. By Black Studies, I mean nothing more than the history of black people or the sociology of black communities, not a “black history” or “black sociology” so different in kind that only blacks can understand or use them. This nationalist bias invariably leads to the insistence that Black Studies must be organized into a self-governing, all-black department from which white students may even be excluded. Whether a department or an interdepartmental program is better for these studies is, to my mind, not the main point, though departments lend themselves to autonomy far more than interdepartmental programs. The crucial question is whether the Black Studies set-up should imply that blacks and whites in the United States belong to two different nations, one long established, the other striving to be born, and that they should treat each other as such in universities, trade unions, and ultimately everywhere else. The set-up is, therefore, tremendously important to black nationalists, who demand departments that could act as if they were ersatz foreign institutions with extraterritorial rights.
The nationalist case for Black Studies in white schools is marked by a curious contradiction. According to the nationalist party line, all whites are hopelessly racist, white schools merely mirror a racist society, “white culture” is not “relevant” to the “black experience,” and separatism is the only way out. If so, it may be asked, what are Black Studies doing in white schools? The answer is that black nationalists do not really want them to be part of those schools; they want to recreate black schools in, but not of, white schools. It is important to recognize that the case for Black Studies is not the same as the case for Black Schools of Black Studies. The case for Black Studies rests on the intrinsic validity and significance of the subject matter; the case for Black Schools of Black Studies is less concerned with white schools than with white money. In the end, a marriage of convenience will benefit neither the white school nor Black Studies. A set-up which exacerbates existing differences and antagonisms could in the long run set back Black Studies for a generation.
In a symposium held at Yale University two years ago, the record of which was recently published, one black sociologist argued: “If there are black people in this society that live in segregated institutions, that's exactly what you have to create on the university campus.”24 Apart from all other considerations, why go to all that trouble when there are already so many segregated black institutions in this country? What is the point of getting physically closer together in order to get psychologically farther apart? I have no doubt that Black Studies in hitherto white schools are fully justified and long overdue—but only if they lessen the gap between whites and blacks, help break down the walls of prejudice and ignorance, give each the benefit of the other. In the interest of the entire society, white students need Black Studies as much as or even more than black students. “Black” should refer to what is being studied, not who is studying and who is teaching.
Thus far we have been thinking in terms of blacks and whites. But we must also think of Black Studies in terms of blacks and blacks. The idea of Black Studies by and for blacks only tends to assume that there is something in the nature of a monolithic black consciousness which can or will express itself in these studies. This is by no means the case. Blacks differ among themselves as much as they may differ with whites; the extreme nationalist tendency is only one of many, and the nationalists are far from united on what they should stand for. The problem then becomes: which blacks are going to decide what Black Studies should be? The politicalization of Black Studies almost fatally makes them a battleground for rival black movements and ideologies. “Battleground” here is no mere metaphor. The struggle for control of the Afro-American Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles went so far that two Black Panther leaders who were also students at UCLA were shot to death on January 17, 1969, in the university's Campbell Hall. They were Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, Deputy Minister of Defense, and John Jerome Huggins, Deputy Minister of Information, for Southern California. The murders were ascribed to a rival nationalist outfit headed by “Maulana” Ron Karenga (born Ronald Everett) who founded the organization US (as opposed to “them”) in 1965. Information from the Panthers led to the indictment of five US members. The Panthers have vowed vengeance, but Karenga has so far eluded them (Karenga means “keeper of the tradition” and “Maulana” is an honorific title in Swahili). Karenga represents to the Panthers the most dangerous of the pseudo-African “cultural nationalists,” and their enmity could make a shambles of the Afro-American Studies Center even if the directorship were not so lucrative and Panther blood had not been shed.
Those who do not understand the nationalist fantasy are bound to get hurt, as even the presumably more knowledgeable white New Left sponsors of the New Politics Conference in Chicago discovered two years ago. This conference was set up to work out a New Left strategy for the 1968 Presidential elections. It was attended by about 2,500 delegates, of whom about one-tenth were black. The latter formed a Black Caucus which proceeded to deliver ultimata to the entire conference in which they hardly deigned to take part. First they made two peremptory demands with a time limit for acceptance—that the Black Caucus should be given representation equal to all the whites on the steering and other committees, and that the convention should adopt a 13-point program reflecting “black revolutionary consciousness.” After much tormented oratory, the convention capitulated to both demands by a vote of nearly three to one. This demonstration of “liberal sincerity” was thereupon further tested by a third demand, going still further, that the Black Caucus be given conference votes equal to that of the entire white majority. After even more tormented oratory, the third ultimatum was accepted by more than two to one. The conference thereupon sealed its fate and came to a sad, bitter, demoralized end. The larger New Left has not yet recovered from this fiasco.
One white sponsor of the organization, who in the end rebelled against the Black Caucus's tactics, wrote that the Thirteen Points were “incredible” and the will of the Black Caucus was “irrational.” They were, to be sure, “incredible” and “irrational” to him and others in his painfully awkward position. But a black nationalist could make them credible and rational. “When the representatives of two nations sit down to negotiate their common or conflicting interests, they meet as equals and the guiding principle is ‘One nation, one vote,’” expounded Eldridge Cleaver in the November 1967 issue of Ramparts. “Seen in this light, the demand of the Black Caucus at Chicago for 50 per cent of the votes is only an assertion of equal national status.” He did not bother to explain how the Black Caucus came to represent the black nation or the white delegates the white nation. It was enough that blacks were in a position to make take-it-or-leave-it demands on whites; this parody of national “negotiations” was worthy of a fantasy-nationalism which is capable neither of representing a real nation nor of conducting real negotiations.
The Cornell incident ended much the same way. After a two-day sit-in, a high university official and a black student leader signed a written agreement to the effect that the university accepted all the black students' demands. Here again the roles were largely symbolic and the substance of the demands was less important than the ceremony. The incident demonstrated that a few black students with guns can suddenly see themselves as representing the “black revolution” or the “black nation,” even if no one really represented anything on that occasion, as the university official soon found out.
In fact, from one point of view, it would be much easier and simpler if there were such a thing as a “black colony” or a “black nation” in the United States. At least it would clearly define the problem and clearly point to its solution. Perhaps the most difficult and baffling aspect of the American Negro problem is that it has no such clarity and no such definition. The black “land question” is made up of enclaves and ghettos, which can only rhetorically be called a nation or nations.25 As soon as the term “colonialism” is applied to the American Negro experience, it is necessary to add the qualifier, “a special variety,” the variety being so special that it admittedly lacks a colonial territory or economy.26 When “nation” and “colony” are used so loosely to cover so much ground, they raise more questions than they answer, lose all the sharpness and force of their traditional meaning, or else say one thing and mean another.
A starting point may be the frank recognition that it is easier to say what the American Negro is not than what he is. If he does not constitute a nation of the Third World type, is he merely another one of America's well-known ethnic groups, such as the Irish, the Italian, or the Jewish? The ethnic label also strikes me as unsatisfactory and misleading. While the national concept goes too far, the ethnic concept does not go far enough. No ethnic group in American history has encountered degradation and discrimination so rigid and so lasting as those established by the color line. While the ethnic ghettos have decreased or disappeared, Negro ghettos have enormously increased and enlarged. Indeed, it is the specific and intransigent character of the Negro problem that has given rise to the black nationalism we have been considering. Our ethnic groups gladly left another nationalism behind them; only the Negro has had to invent a spurious nationalism here to cope with his extraordinary condition.
Are the Negroes a “race”? The term is generally used, for want of something better, despite its dubious biological connotations. “Class” is not much more exact or useful because the Negro problem cuts across class lines. Gunnar Myrdal and his associates did not even bother to consider whether the American Negroes constituted a nation, and they found fault with “minority group” (the equivalent of ethnic group), “race,” and “class.” In the end, they preferred the term “caste” as coming closest to the American reality. The determining factor in this “caste line” was the “color line,” which by its very nature could not be breached the way ethnic disabilities have been overcome. In one of his most challenging insights, Myrdal struck at the primitive source of the problem: “Should America wake up one morning with all knowledge about the African ancestry of part of its population and all the outward physical characteristics of the Negro people eradicated, but no change in their mental or moral characteristics, nothing we know about this group and other population groups in America would lead us to believe that the American Negro would not rapidly come to fit in as a well-adjusted ordinary American.” In this sense, as he said, it is “a white man's problem.”
This is not the place to try to settle this issue, even if it were within my capabilities. What strikes me most of all, however, is the many-sided specificity of the American Negro problem. It breaks out of one conceptual compartment after another and yet defies a synthesis of all of them. The Negro group is a “minority”—but it is unlike all other minority groups. It is a “class” for the vast majority of its members—but it extends beyond the class line. It has some likeness to a “caste”—but the basis of this caste—color—strikingly differentiates it from the classical Indian caste system. The only thing to do with such a phenomenon is to see it for itself and not to make it something else. American history, especially the appallingly incompatible heritage of slavery and democracy, the distribution of population, the ever more interdependent and interlocking economy, are among the circumstances which have molded the American Negro problem in ways that are both like and unlike any other. The colonial or national metaphor may be mistaken, but it evokes enough of the reality to be persuasive to those who are desperately looking for a quick answer. If fantasy is a substitute for reality, then the fantasy of black nationalism should help us to understand better the reality for which it is a substitute.
The cost of misunderstanding has become catastrophic. That black nationalism may not be the answer does not mean the present system can continue in the same old way. It must adapt itself to the new conditions brought about by the failure to wipe out the old ghettos which, instead, have spawned more and greater ghettos. The black rural enclaves and urban ghettos cannot create a new nation, but they can attempt to form a new type of “local political community,” as Professor Kennan has suggested. What it is going to be can only be dimly perceived at present. But of one thing we may be sure. As long as America permits black enclaves and ghettos, it cannot deny them representation of their own choosing—and remain true to itself or even avoid a conflagration. The democratic process itself must bring about far-reaching change in the relations of blacks and whites. Only political double bookkeeping and the most outrageous inequities prevented such change earlier. The critical problem at this stage is whether the new political communities, whatever they may be, will relate more or less realistically to the rest of the country or whether they will be infected with the nationalist fantasy and encourage a destructive—and self-destructive—separatism from the rest of the country. Once the fantasy sets in, no arrangement, however well-meaning, is workable. Whatever the road ahead, it can scarcely fail to be a hard one, full of bumps and sharp turns, threatening to many existing vested interests. But if the democratic road is blocked, the nationalist fantasy will loom larger and larger, even if it can destroy far more than it can create. There has been a white fantasy to get rid of blacks, and a black fantasy to get rid of whites. After more than two centuries, it is high time for both whites and blacks to get rid of their fantasies instead of each other.
1 The idea of returning blacks to Africa has apparently been traced back to 1714. Those who wish to know more of these proposals may consult H. N. Sherwood, “Early Negro Deportation Projects,” the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, March 1916, pp. 484-508. More recently, Professor Winthrop D. Jordan has gone over the same ground, including a detailed survey of Jefferson's views, in White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812 (University of North Carolina Press, 1968), pp. 429-481 (Jefferson) and pp. 542-582 (emancipation and colonization). Staughton Lynd's mordant essay, “Slavery and the Founding Fathers” is vastly illuminating (reprinted in Black History, edited by Melvin Drimmer [Doubleday, 1968, pp. 117-31], an excellent collection).
2 I do not wish to burden this article, which does not pretend to be anything like a complete historical survey of a vast subject, with an extended bibliography. But it may be helpful for those who wish to look into it more closely to suggest a minimum of further sources. This meeting is treated in Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro (Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 115-117. In Lincoln's day, the two main colonization projects were located in Haiti and in Chiriqui, then the northernmost province of Panama (Frederic Bancroft, “The Colonization of American Negroes, 1801-1865,” in Jacob E. Cooke, Frederick Bancroft Historian [University of Oklahoma Press, 1957], pp. 192-258). A good survey of the period may be found in Robert H. Zoellner, “Negro Colonization: The Climate of Opinion Surrounding Lincoln, 1860-65,” Mid-America, July 1960, pp. 131-50.
3 The African Colonization Movement 1816-1865 (Columbia University Press, 1961), p. 249.
4 Henry Noble Sherwood, “Paul Cuffe,” The Journal of Negro History, April 1923, p. 218.
5 The emigrationists active in this period have been studied by Howard H. Bell, “Negro Nationalism: A Factor in Emigration Projects, 1858-1861,” the Journal of Negro History, January 1962, pp. 42-53. A pioneer work by Carter G. Woodson, A Century of Negro Migration (The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1918), is still most useful.
6 Howard Brotz has edited an excellent anthology of Delany, Blyden, Garnet, as well as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and others, Negro Social and Political Thought 1830-1920 (Basic Books, 1966). For their influence on African nationalism, see George Shepperson, “Notes on Negro American Influences on the Emergence of African Nationalism,” Journal of African History, 1, 2 (1960), pp. 299-312 (reprinted in Black History, op. cit., pp. 493-512). Blyden, Delaney, and others are also treated in an essay by Hollis R. Lynch, “Pan-Negro Nationalism in the New World, Before 1862,” reprinted in another excellent collection, The Making of Black America, edited by August Meier and Elliott Rudwick (Atheneum, 1969), vol. 1, pp. 42-65.
7 What the Negro Wants (University of North Carolina Press, 1944), p. 60.
8 The standard biography of Garvey is Edmund Davis Cronon's Black Moses (University of Wisconsin Press, 1955). His writings were compiled by his second wife, Amy Jacques Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (Frank Cass & Co., London, 1967, two volumes in one).
9 A deeply moving and somewhat bizarre footnote to the Oklahoma story was the career of Alfred Charles Sam, known as “Chief Sam.” Claiming to be an African tribal chief born in the Gold Coast, but speaking with a British accent, he appeared in Okfuskee County in Oklahoma, where many Negroes had settled, some of them former slaves of Indians as well as whites. How the whites shamelessly disenfranchised the Negroes in the county to gain political control is more than ever worth pondering today. To these disheartened American Negroes, “Chief Sam” came as a mysterious savior (somewhat the way “W. D. Fard” later came to the Detroit Negroes), and they signed up in the hundreds, bought stock in his trading company, sold off everything they owned, and waited for him to take them to his tribal lands in the British colony. A boatload set forth in August 1914 aboard the Liberia, bought by Sam's company. It arrived at its destination; soon everything went wrong. Most of the emigrants eventually straggled back to the United States. The historians of this venture—a small-scale forerunner of Garveyism—comment: “They did not want to be Americans; but now they found that they did not want to be Africans either” (William E. Bittle and Gilbert Geis, The Longest Way Home, Wayne State University Press, 1964, p. 196).
10 I am now working on the third volume of my history of American Communism, dealing with the 1930's, in which this part of the story will be told in detail. The background is fully covered in the second volume, American Communism and Soviet Russia, Chapter 15.
11 “Documents on the Negro Struggle,” Bulletin of Marxist Studies, No. 4, pp. 10, 13, 16.
12 This controversy appeared in Political Affairs, November 1968 (Lightfoot) and March 1969 (James E. Jackson and Ted Bassett).
13 Howard Brotz, The Black Jews of Harlem (Free Press, 1964).
14 C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Beacon Press, 1961), p. 13. Most of what is known about Drew Ali and W. D. Fard first appeared in 1945 in They Seek a City by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy, a revised edition of which is Anyplace But Here (Hill & Wang, 1966, especially pp. 205-223).
15 Black Nationalism (University of Chicago Press, 1962; Dell paperback edition, 1964, p. 167). This book is especially good on the “eschatology” (pp. 140-59). There is also a more journalistic treatment in Louis E. Lomax, When the Word Is Given . . . (World Publishing Co., 1963).
16 The Last Year of Malcolm X (Schocken Books, 1967), p. 68.
17 Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power (Vintage Books, 1967), p. 6. This book does not necessarily represent Carmichael's subsequent political position. He went over to the Black Panthers in 1967 and left them in 1969. Nevertheless, the book stands, and its readers must judge it on its own terms.
18 This version of the origins mainly comes from the only book thus far devoted to the subject, The Black Panthers, by Gene Marine (Signet Books, 1969). I have followed it for biographical details, not otherwise available, but one of Huey's older brothers, Lee Edward Newton, said that Huey was born in California, not Louisiana (interview, the Black Panther, May 19, 1969, p. 20). Marine's book is mainly devoted to the Panther's fights with the police and courts, and tells little about its program and makeup. A book on the Panthers on the order of those by Lincoln or Essien-Udom's on the Muslims is urgently needed.
19 Organizationally, the party also shows its hybrid makeup. It is headed by a Central Committee, a term traditionally used in the Communist movement. But unlike such parties, its No. 1 leader is the “Minister of Defense”—Huey P. Newton. After him comes Bobby Seale, the “Chairman,” reminiscent of Mao Tse-tung's favorite title. The next in line is the “Minister of Information,” Eldridge Cleaver (in absentia). No. 4 is the “Chief of Staff,” David Hilliard, an ex-longshoreman. The Central Committee also contains “Field Marshals (Underground)”; Minister of Education, Ray “Masai” Hewitt; Minister of Finance, formerly Melvin Newton; Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Justice, unnamed; Prime Minister, formerly Stokely Carmichael; Communications Secretary, Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge Cleaver; and Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas, also the party's Revolutionary Artist. There is also a Minister of Religion, Father Earl Neil, whose church is located in West Oakland. At the first Black Panther wedding held in Father Neil's church on May 1, 1969, Chairman Bobby Seale officiated but used the Little Red Book, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, instead of the Bible (the Black Panther, May 11, 1969, p. 7).
20 Murray was the English instructor for one semester at San Francisco State College whose dismissal, for having allegedly told students to bring guns on the campus, set off months of disorder there. Murray denied the charge, but he made a speech at Fresno State College, published in the Black Panther of November 16, 1968, in which he advised that “if you want campus autonomy, if the students want to run the college, if the cracker administrators don't go for it, then you control it with the gun.” Panther political style is sui generis. What Marxist-Leninist ever defined the revolution in the language of one Panther leader: “The only way we can do this is to pick up the gun. We are gonna walk all across this motherfucking government and say Stick ‘em up, motherfuckers—this is a hold-up; we come to get everything that belongs to us” (ibid., October 12, 1968, p. 12). Or the way the Panthers’ Jersey City branch ordered a purge of nineteen members: “The Party will no longer tolerate these counterrevolutionary m—f—s, who by their deeds are harming the interest of the Party and the People. These degenerates have aroused the anger of the people, ‘the people will kill them, and we gonna kill every m—f—who went along with their s—t’” (ibid., May 4, 1969, p. 7).
21 Floyd McKissick, Three-Fifths of a Man (Macmillan, 1969), pp. 145-46, 163-64.
22 In 1967, Jones had tried to cope with the problem of “space.” Black Power, he said, already controlled black enclaves and cities, but that was not enough. “Further control must be nationalization, separation.” And this in turn meant, he went on, “absolute control of resources beneficial to a national group.” How much would it take to give Harlem, Hough, and Watts “absolute control” of the resources necessary to their “nationalization”? It is perhaps asking too much of a poet and playwright to answer such a question. Yet this kind of wild and woolly black nationalism is coming out in all literary forms, losing itself in grandiose rhetoric that never bothers to face any of the hard questions it raises (LeRoi Jones, “The Need For a Cultural Base to Civil Rites & Bpower Mooments [sic],” in The Black Power Revolt, edited by Floyd B. Barbour, Extending Horizons Books, 1968, pp. 119-26).
23 “Under Jewish Communist prodding, the [American] Communist Party took up the anti-Hitler crusade in the late 1930's” (p. 168). The “crusade” was, of course, taken up in the early 1930's. There is something ludicrous about the notion that it was “Jewish Communist prodding,” not Soviet Communist prodding, that turned the American Communists into anti-Hitler crusaders. Cruse refers to the “Jewish crusade on the Left against Hitler,” as if there would have been no crusade without the Jews, and as if anti-Hitlerism was a specific Jewish creation.
24 Black Studies in the University: A Symposium (Yale University Press, 1969), pp. 72-73 (Gerald A. McWorter).
25 One writer in the black nationalist monthly, Liberator, recently referred to the “enclaves of Black Power like Lowndes County” and the “Black Power bases in the Northern ghettos” as “Black nations” (June 1969, p. 10). The plural suggests how confused and confusing the terminology has become.
26 J. H. O'Dell, “A Special Variety of Colonialism.” Freedomways, Winter 1967, pp. 7-9.
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The Fantasy of Black Nationalism
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
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Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
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Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
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When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
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He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
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In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.