It was dark. In the dark a woman said, “I’m not afraid.” A man replied, “Oh, yes, you are.” Another man said, “Quiet.”
Then dim lights came on at either side of the stage, the curtains parted, and all was quiet.
In May 1946, one year after the Allied victory, the Jewish Agency mounted a great celebration in the Edison Cinema. The walls were draped with the flags of Great Britain and the Zionist movement. Vases of gladioli stood on the front of the stage. And a banner carried a quotation from the Bible: peace be within thy walls and prosperity within thy palaces.
The British governor of Jerusalem strode up to the stage with a military gait and delivered a short address, in the course of which he cracked a subtle joke and read some lines of Byron. He was followed by the Zionist leader, Moshe Shertok, who expressed in English and Hebrew the feelings of the Jewish community. In the corners of the auditorium, on either side of the stage, and by all the doors stood British soldiers wearing red berets and carrying submachine guns, to guard against the underground. In the dress circle could be discerned the stiffly seated figure of the high commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, with a small party of ladies and army officers. The ladies were holding opera glasses. A choir of pioneers in blue shirts sang some work songs. The songs were Russian, and, like the audience, they were wistful rather than happy.
After the singing, there was a film of Montgomery’s tanks advancing across the western desert. The tanks raised columns of dust, crushed trenches and barbed-wire fences under their tracks, and stabbed the gray desert sky with their antennas. The auditorium was filled with the thunder of guns and the noise of marching songs.
In the middle of the film, there was a slight disturbance in the dress circle.
The film stopped suddenly. The lights came on. A voice was raised in a reproach or a curt command: “Is there a doctor in the house?”
In row 29, Father immediately got to his feet. He fastened the top button of his white shirt, whispered to Hillel to take care of Mother and keep her calm until things were sorted out, and, like a man plunging into a burning building at the risk of his life, turned and pushed his way to the staircase.
It transpired that Lady Bromley, the high commissioner’s sister-in-law, had been taken suddenly faint.
She was wearing a long white dress, and her face, too, was white. Father hurriedly introduced himself to the heads of the administration and proceeded to lay her limp arm across his shoulders. Like a gentle knight carrying a sleeping beauty, he helped Lady Bromley to the ladies’ powder room. He seated her on an upholstered stool and handed her a glass of cold water. Three high-ranking British officials in evening dress hurried after him, stood in a semicircle around the patient, and supported her head as she took a single, painful sip. An elderly wing commander in uniform extracted her fan from her white evening bag, opened it carefully, and fanned her face.
Her Ladyship opened her eyes wearily. She stared almost ironically for a moment at all the men who were bustling around her. She was angular and wizened, and with her pursed lips, her pointed nose, and her permanent sardonic scowl, she looked like some thirsty bird.
“Well, doctor,” the wing commander addressed Father in acid tones, “what do you think?”
Father hesitated, apologized twice, and suddently made up his mind. He leaned over, and with his fine, sensitive fingers he undid the laces of the tight corset. Lady Bromley felt immediately better. Her shriveled hand, which resembled a chicken leg, straightened the hem of her dress. A crease appeared in the tightly closed mouth, a kind of cracked smile. She crossed her old legs, and her voice when she spoke was tinny and piercing.
“It’s just the climate.”
“Ma’am—” one of the officials began politely.
But Lady Bromley was no longer with him. She turned impatiently to Father: “Young man, would you be kind enough to open the windows. Yes, that one, too. I need air. What a charming boy.”
She addressed him in this way because, in his white sports shirt worn outside his khaki trousers, and with his biblical sandals, he looked to her more like a young servant than like a doctor. She had passed her youth among gardens, apes, and fountains in Bombay.
Father silently obeyed and opened all the windows.
The evening air of Jerusalem came in, and with it smells of cabbage, pine trees, and garbage.
He produced from his pocket a health-service pillbox, carefully opened it, and handed Lady Bromley an aspirin. He did not know the English for “migraine,” and so he said it in German. No doubt his eyes at the moment shone with a sympathetic optimism behind his round glasses.
After a few minutes, Lady Bromley asked to be taken back to her seat. One of the high-ranking officials took down Father’s name and address and dryly thanked him. They smiled. There was a moment’s hesitation. Suddenly the official held out his hand. They shook hands.
Father went back to his seat in row 29, between his wife and his son. He said, “It was nothing. It was just the climate.”
The lights went out again. Once more General Montgomery pursued General Rommel mercilessly across the desert. Fire and dust clouds filled the screen. Rommel appeared in close-up, biting his lip, while in the background bagpipes skirled ecstatically.
Finally, the two anthems, British and Zionist, were played. The celebration was over. The people left the Edison Cinema and made for their homes. The evening twilight suddenly fell upon Jerusalem. In the distance, bald hills could be seen, with here and there a solitary tower. There was a sprinkling of stone huts on the faraway slopes. Shadows rustled in the side streets. The whole city was under the sway of a painful longing. Electric lights began to come on in the windows. There was a tense expectancy, as if at any moment a new sound might break out. But there were only the old sounds all around: a woman grumbling, a shutter squeaking, a lovesick cat screeching among the garbage cans in a backyard. And a very distant bell.
A handsome Bokharan barber in a white coat stood alone in the window of his empty shop and sang as he shaved himself. At that moment, a patrolling British jeep crossed the street, armed with a machine gun, brass bullets gleaming in its ammunition belt.
An old woman sat alone on a wooden stool beside the entrance of her basement shop. Her hands, wrinkled like a plasterer’s, rested heavily on her knees. The last evening light caught her head, and her lips moved silently. From inside the basement, another woman spoke, in Yiddish, “It’s perfectly simple: it’ll end badly.”
The old woman made no reply. She did not move.
Outside Ernpreis, the pants presser’s, Father was accosted by a pious beggar, who demanded and received a two-mil piece, furiously thanked God, cursed the Jewish Agency twice, and swept an alley cat out of the way with the tip of his stick.
From the east, the bells rang out continuously, high bells and deep bells, Russian bells, Anglican bells, Greek bells, Abyssinian, Latin, Armenian bells, as if a plague or a fire were devastating the city. But all the bells were doing was to call the darkness dark. And a light breeze blew from the northwest, perhaps from the sea; it stirred the tops of the pale trees that the city council had planted up Malachi Street and ruffled the boy’s curly hair. It was evening. An unseen bird gave a strange, persistent cry. Moss sprouted in the cracks in the stone walls. Rust spread over the old iron shutters and veranda railings. Jerusalem stood very quiet in the last of the light.
During the night, the boy woke up again with an attack of asthma. Father came in barefoot and sang him a soothing song:
Night is reigning in the skies,
Time for you to close your eyes,
Lambs and kids have ceased from leaping.
All the animals are sleeping.
Every bird is in its nest,
All Jerusalem’s at rest.
Toward dawn, the jackals howled in the wadi below Tel Arza. Mitya the lodger began to cry out in his sleep on the other side of the wall: “Leave him alone! He’s still alive! Y-a ny-e zna-yu.” And he fell silent. Then cocks crowed far away in the quarter of Sanhedriya and the Arab village of Shu’afat. At the first light, Father put on his khaki trousers, sandals, and a neatly pressed blue shirt with wide pockets, and set off for work. Mother went on sleeping until the women in the neighboring houses started beating their pillows and mattresses with all their might. Then she got up and in her silk dressing gown gave the boy a breakfast of a soft-boiled egg, Quaker Oats, and cocoa with the skin taken off; and she combed his curly hair.
Hillel said, “I can do it by myself. Stop it.”
An old glazier passed down the street, shouting, “Perfessional glazing! America! Anything repaired!” And the children called after him, “Loonie!”
A few days later, Father was surprised to receive a gold-embossed invitation for two to the May Ball at the high commissioner’s palace on the Hill of Evil Counsel. On the back of the invitation, the secretary had written in English that Lady Bromley wished to convey to Dr. Kipnis her gratitude and profound apology, and that Sir Alan himself had expressed his appreciation.
Father was not a real doctor. He was actually a vet.
He had been born and brought up in Silesia. Hans Walter Landauer, the famous geographer, was his mother’s uncle. Father had studied at the Veterinary Institute in Leipzig, specializing in tropical and subtropical cattle diseases.
In 1932, he had emigrated to Palestine with the intention of establishing a cattle farm in the mountains. He was a polite young man, quiet, principled, and full of hopes. In his dreams he saw himself wandering with a stick and a haversack among the hills of Galilee, clearing a patch of forest, and building with his own hands a wooden house beside a stream, with a sloping roof, an attic, and a cellar. He meant to get together some herdsmen and a herd of cattle, roaming by day to new pastures and by night sitting surrounded by books in a room full of hunting trophies, composing a monograph or a great poem.
For three months he stayed in a guesthouse in the small town of Yesod-Hama’alah, and he spent whole days wandering alone from morning to night in eastern Galilee looking for water buffalo in the Huleh swamps. His body grew lean and bronzed, and his blue eyes, behind his round glasses, looked like lakes in a snowy northern land. He learned to love the desolation of the distant mountains and the smell of summer: scorched thistles, goat dung, wood ash, the dusty east wind.
In the Arab village of Halsa, he met a wandering Bavarian ornithologist, a lonely and fervently evangelical man who believed that the return of the Jews to their land heralded the salvation of the world, and was collecting material for a great work on the birds of the Holy Land. Together they roamed to the Marj-‘Ayun valley, into the mountains of Naphtali and the Huleh swamps. Occasionally, in their wanderings, they reached the remote sources of the Jordan. Here they would sit all day in the shade of the lush vegetation, reciting together from memory their favorite Schiller poems and calling every bird and beast by its proper name.
When Father began to worry what would happen when he came to the end of the money that his mother’s uncle had given him, he decided to go to Jerusalem to look into certain practical possibilities. Accordingly, he took his leave of the wandering Bavarian ornithologist, gathered his few possessions, and appeared one fine autumn morning in the office of Dr. Arthur Ruppin at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.
Dr. Ruppin took at once to the quiet, bronzed boy who had come to him from Galilee. He also recalled that in his youth he had studied the tropical countries in Landauer’s great Atlas. When Father began to describe the project of a cattle farm in the hills of Galilee, he took down some hasty notes. Father concluded with these words: “It is a difficult plan to put into practice, but I believe it is not impossible.”
Dr. Ruppin smiled sadly, “Not impossible, but difficult to put into practice. Very difficult!”
And he proceeded to point out one or two awkward facts.
He persuaded Father to postpone the realization of his plan for the time being, and meanwhile to invest his money in the acquisition of a young orange grove near the settlement of Nes Tsiyona, and also to buy without delay a small house in the new suburb of Tel Arza, which was being built to the north of Jerusalem.
Father did not argue.
Within a few days, Dr. Ruppin had had Father appointed as a traveling government veterinary officer and had even invited him for coffee in his house in Rehavia.
For several years, Father would get up before sunrise and travel on sooty buses up to Bethlehem and Ramallah, down to Jericho, out to Lydda, to supervise the villagers’ cattle on behalf of the government.
The orange grove near the settlement of Nes Tsiyona began to yield a modest income, which he deposited, along with part of his government salary, in the Anglo-Palestine Bank. He furnished his small house in Tel Arza with a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, and bookshelves. Above his desk he hung a large picture of his mother’s uncle, the famous geographer. Hans Walter Landauer looked down on Father with an expression of skepticism and mild surprise, particularly in the evenings.
As he traveled around the villages, Father collected rare thistles. He also gathered some fossils and pieces of ancient pottery. He arranged them all with great care. And he waited.
Meanwhile, silence cut him off from his mother and sisters in Silesia.
As the years went by, Father learned to speak a little Arabic. He also learned loneliness. He put off composing his great poem. Every day he learned something new about the land and its inhabitants, and occasionally even about himself. He still saw in his dreams the cattle farm in Galilee, although the cellar and attic now seemed to him unnecessary, perhaps even childish.
One evening, he even said aloud to his grand-uncle’s picture, “We’ll see. All in good time. I’m just as determined as you are. You may laugh, but I don’t care. Laugh as much as you like.”
At night, by the light of his desk lamp, Father kept a journal in which he recorded his fears for his mother and sisters, the oppressiveness of the dry desert wind, certain peculiarities of some of his acquaintances, and the flavor of his travels among Godforsaken villages. He set down in carefully chosen words various professional lessons he had learned in the course of his work. He committed to writing some optimistic reflections about the progress of the Jewish community in various spheres. He even formulated, after several revisions, a few arguments for and against loneliness, and an embarrassed hope for a love that might come to him, too, one day. Then he carefully tore out the page and ripped it into tiny pieces. He also published, in the weekly The Young Worker, an article in favor of drinking goats’ milk.
Sometimes, in the evening, he would go to Dr. Ruppin’s home in Rehavia, where he was received with coffee and cream cakes. Or else he would visit his fellow townsman, the elderly Professor Julius Wertheimer, who also lived in Rehavia, not far from Dr. Ruppin. Occasionally there was a distant sound of faint, persistent piano music, like the supplications of a desperate pride. Every summer the rocks on the hillside roasted, and every winter Jerusalem was ringed with fog. Refugees and pioneers continued to arrive from various foreign parts, filling the city with sadness and bewilderment. Father bought books from the refugees, some of them musty books with leather bindings and gold tooling, and from time to time he exchanged books with Dr. Ruppin or with Professor Wertheimer, who was in the habit of greeting him with a hurried, embarrassed hug.
The Arabs in the villages sometimes gave him cold pomegranate juice to drink. Occasionally they would kiss his hand. He learned to drink water from an upraised pitcher without letting the pitcher touch his lips. Once a woman directed a dark, smoldering glance at him from some way off, and he trembled all over and hurriedly looked away.
He wrote in his journal: “I have been living in Jerusalem for three years, and I continue to yearn for it as though I were still a student in Leipzig. Surely there is paradox here. And in general,” Father continued thoughtfully and rather vaguely, “in general there are all sorts of contradictions. Yesterday morning, in Lifta, I was obliged to put down a fine, healthy horse because some youngsters had blinded it in the night with a nail. Cruelty for its own sake seems to me to be something sordid and thoroughly unnecessary. The same evening, in Kibbutz Kiryat ‘Anavim, the pioneers played a Bach suite on the phonograph, which aroused in me profound feelings of pity for the pioneers, for the horse, for Bach, for myself. I almost cried.
“Tomorrow is the king’s birthday, and all the workers in the department are to receive a special bonus. There are all sorts of contradictions. And the climate is not kind, either.”
Mother said, “I shall wear my blue dress with the V-shaped neckline, and I shall be the belle of the ball. We’ll order a taxi, too.”
Father said, “Yes, and don’t forget to lose a glass slipper.”
Hillel said, “Me, too.”
But children are not taken to May Balls at the high commissioner’s palace. Even good children, even children who are cleverer than is usual for their age. And the ball would certainly not end before midnight. So Hillel would spend the evening next door with Madame Yabrova the pianist and her niece, Lyubov, who called herself Binyamina Even-Hen.
Hillel tried to protest, “But I still have to tell the high commissioner who’s right and who’s wrong.”
Father replied patiently, “We are right, and I’m sure the high commissioner knows it in his heart of hearts, but he has to carry out the wishes of the king.”
“I don’t envy that king because God is going to punish him and Uncle Mitya calls him King Chedorlaomer of Albion and he says the underground will capture him and execute him because of what he’s done to the Remnant of Israel,” the boy said excitedly and all in one breath.
Father replied mildly, choosing his words with care, “Uncle Mitya sometimes exaggerates a little. The king of England is not Chedorlaomer, but George the Sixth. He will probably be succeeded on the throne by one of his daughters, because he has no son. To kill a man except in self-defense is murder. And now, Your Majesty King Hillel the First, finish up your cocoa. And then go and brush your teeth.”
Mother, with a hairpin between her teeth and holding a pair of amber earrings, remarked, “King George is very thin and pale. And he always looks so sad.”
When he reached the end of the third form, Hillel wrote a letter and typed it in triplicate on his father’s typewriter. He sent two of the copies to the king in London and to the high commissioner: “Our land belongs to us, both according to the Bible and according to justice. Please get out of the Land of Israel at once and go back to England before it is too late.”
The third copy passed from hand to hand among the excited neighbors. Madame Yabrova the pianist said, “A child poet!” Her niece, Lyubov Binyamina, added: “And look at his curly hair! We ought to send a copy to Dr. Weizmann, to give him a little joy.” Brzezinski the engineer said that it was no good exaggerating, you couldn’t build a wall out of fine words. And from Gerald Lindley, secretary, there came a brief reply on official government notepaper: “Thank you for your letter, the contents of which have been duly noted. We are always receptive to the opinions of the public. Yours faithfully.”
Hillel was a pudgy, awkward little boy. He had a hiding place at the end of the garden, behind the fig tree or up among its branches, which he called his “hideaway.” He would hide himself away there and secretly eat sticky sweets that the women gave him, and dream of Africa, the sources of the Nile, the lions in the jungle.
At night he would wake up with attacks of asthma. Especially in the early summer. Feverish, suffocated, he would see the horrific smile of the terrifying white thing through the slats of the shutters and burst into tears. Until Father appeared holding a small flashlight, to sit on his bed and sing him a soothing song. Aunts, neighbors, and nursery-school teachers adored Hillel, with Russian kisses and Polish displays of affection. They called him “Little Cherry.” Sometimes they would leave heavy lip marks on his cheeks or his mouth. These women were plump and excitable. Their faces wore an expression of bitter complaint: life has not been as kind to me as I deserve.
Madame Yabrova, and her niece, Lyubov, in the determined way they played the piano, seemed to be nobly refraining from repaying life for what it had done to them. Mrs. Vishniak the pharmacist would grumble to Hillel and say that little children were the only hope of the Jewish people, and particularly of herself. At times Hillel wrapped himself in introspection or sadness, and then he would delight himself with a sweet phrase, such as “Life is a circle. Everyone goes around and around.”
And stir ripples of emotion.
But the children of Tel Arza called him by the unpleasant nickname “Jelly.” Unkind, skinny girls, vicious Oriental girls, enjoyed knocking him down on a heap of gravel and pulling his fair hair. Keys and amulets hung around their necks. They emitted a pungent smell of peanuts, sweat, soap, and halvah.
Hillel would always wait until they had had enough of him and his curls. Then he would get up and shake the dust off his gym shorts and his cotton undershirt; gasping for breath, his eyes full of tears, he would bite his lip and begin to forgive. How nobly forgiveness shone in his eyes: those girls did not know what they were doing; they probably had unhappy fathers and brothers who were high up in the underworld or in football; their mothers and sisters probably went out with British soldiers. It was a terrible thing to be born an Oriental girl. And one of them had even started to grow breasts under her sweaty vest. Hillel reflected, forgave, and was filled with love of himself for his ability to understand and to forgive.
Then he would run to Mrs. Vishniak’s pharmacy to cry a little, not because of the scratches but because of the cruel lot of the girls and his own magnanimity. Mrs. Vishniak would kiss him, console him with sticky candy, tell him about the mill on the banks of the blue river, which no longer existed. He would tell her, in carefully chosen words, about a dream he had had the previous night, interpret the dream himself, and leave behind a delicate mood of poetry as he went off to practice the piano in the dark, airless house of Madame Yabrova and Binyamina. He returned the caresses he had received from Mrs. Vishniak to the haughty bronze Beethoven on top of the sideboard. After all, Herzl, in his youth, was called a madman in the street. And Bialik was always being beaten.
Beyond the low fence, which Father had made from iron posts and old netting and painted in bright colors, began the wasteland. Plots of scrap iron, dust, smelling of thistles, of goat dung; and farther on, the wadi and the lairs of foxes and jackals; and still farther the empty wood where the children once discovered the remains of a half-eaten Turkish soldier in the stinking tatters of a Janissary’s uniform. There were desolate slopes teeming with darting lizards and snakes and perhaps hyenas at night, and beyond this wadi, empty, stony hills and more wadis, in which Arabs in desert robes roamed with their flocks all day long. In the distance were more and more strange mountains and strange villages, stretching to the end of the world, minarets of mosques, Shu’afat, Nabi Samwil, the outskirts of Ramallah, the wail of a muezzin borne on the wind in the evening twilight, dark women, deadly-sly, guttural youths. And a slight hint of brooding evil: distant, infinitely patient, forever observing you unobserved.
Mother said, “While you, Hans, are dancing like a teddy bear with the old lady you treated, I shall sit all alone in my blue dress on a wicker-work chair at the end of the veranda, sipping a martini and smiling to myself. But later I, too, shall suddenly get up and dance, with the governor of Jerusalem, or even with Sir Alan himself. Then it will be your turn to sit it out by yourself, and you won’t feel at all like smiling.”
Father said, “The boy can hear you. He understands exactly what you’re saying.”
And Hillel said, “So what?”
For the occasion, Father borrowed from his neighbor, Engineer Brzezinski, an English evening suit made by the Szczupak textile factory in Lodz. Mother sat on the shady balcony all morning, altering it to fit him.
At lunchtime, Father tried the suit on at the mirror, shrugged his shoulders, and remarked, “It’s ridiculous.”
Mother, laughing, said, “The boy can hear you. He understands everything.”
Hillel said, “So what? ‘Ridiculous’ isn’t a dirty word.”
Father said, “No word is dirty in itself. In general, dirt lies either behind words or between them.”
And Mother, “There’s dirt everywhere here. Even in the grand ideas you’re always putting into Hillel’s head. Even in your stray remarks. And that’s also ridiculous.”
Father said nothing.
That morning the newspaper Davar said that the politics of the White Paper was leading up a blind alley. Hillel, with an effort of the imagination, could almost visualize the “blind alley.”
Mitya, the vegetarian lodger, padded barefoot from his room to the kitchen to make himself a glass of tea. He was a tall, etiolated young man with thinning hair. His shoulders always drooped, and he walked with short, nervous steps. He had an odd habit of suddenly chewing the tip of his shirt collar, and also of angrily stroking every object he came across, table, banister, bookshelf, Mother’s apron hanging on a hook in the kitchen. And he would whisper to himself.
As Mitya shuffled to the kitchen, he waved his hand in every direction in greeting, as though confronting a large crowd. Suddenly his glance fell on the words “blind alley” in the headline on the center page of Davar, lying open on the oilcloth on the kitchen table. He bared his bad teeth and snarled furiously. “What rubbish.”
Then, clasping the hot glass in his large white hands, he strode stormily back to his room, locking his door behind him.
Mother said softly, “He’s just like a stray dog.”
After a short pause, she added, “He washes five times a day, and after each time he puts on scent, and even so he always smells. We ought to find him a girlfriend. Perhaps a new immigrant from the Women’s Labor Bureau, poor but charming. Now, Hans, you go and shave. And Hillel—go on with your homework. What am I doing in this madhouse?”
She had come from Warsaw as a young woman to study ancient history at the university on Mount Scopus. Before a year was up, she was in despair at the country and the language. Nyuta, her elder sister in New York, had sent her a ticket to go from Haifa to America aboard the Aurora. A few days before the date of her departure, Dr. Ruppin had introduced her to Father, shown him her beautiful watercolors, and expressed in German his sadness that the young lady was also leaving, that she, too, found the country unbearable and was sailing to America in disappointment.
Hans Kipnis looked at the watercolors for a while and suddenly thought of the wandering German ornithologist with whom he had traveled to the remote sources of the Jordan. He traced the lines of one of the pictures delicately with his finger, hurriedly withdrew his hand, and uttered some remarks about loneliness and dreams in general and Jerusalem in particular.
Mother smiled at him, as though he had accidentally broken a precious vase.
Father apologized and lapsed into an embarrassed silence.
Dr. Ruppin had a pair of tickets for a concert that night by a recently formed refugee chamber orchestra. He was glad to present the tickets to the young couple: he could not go anyway, because Menahem Ussishkin, the Zionist leader, had unexpectedly arrived from abroad a day or two earlier, and as usual had convened a frantic meeting for that evening.
After the concert, they strolled together along Princess Mary’s Way. The shopwindows were brightly lit and decorated, and in one of them a small mechanical doll bobbed up and down. For a moment, Jerusalem looked like a real city. Ladies and gentlemen walked arm in arm, and some of the gentlemen were smoking cigarettes in short cigarette holders.
A bus stopped beside them, and the driver, who was wearing shorts, smiled at them invitingly, but they did not get on. An army jeep with a machine gun mounted on it rolled down the street. And in the distance a bell rang. They both agreed that Jerusalem was under some cruel spell. Then they agreed to meet again the next day to eat a strawberry ice cream together at Zichel’s café.
At a nearby table sat the philosopher, Martin Buber, and the writer, S. Y. Agnon. In the course of a disagreement, Agnon jokingly suggested that they consult the younger generation. Father made some remark; it must have been perceptive and acute, because Buber and Agnon both smiled; they also addressed his companion gallantly.
Nineteen days later, the Nazis publicly declared their intention of building up their armed forces. There was tension in Europe. The Aurora never reached Haifa; she changed her course and sailed instead to the West Indies.
Father arranged to see his fellow townsman, Professor Julius Wertheimer, who had been his patron ever since he had arrived in Palestine. He said he wanted to consult him on a personal matter. He was confused, furtive, obstinate, and tongue-tied. Professor Wertheimer listened in an anxious silence. Then he drove his cats out of the room and closed the door behind them. When they were alone, he warned Father obliquely not to complicate his private life unnecessarily. And it was precisely these words that brought Father to the certainty that he was finally in love.
Ruth and Hans were married in Jerusalem on the day that Hitler declared in Nuremberg that he was bent on peace and understanding and that he detested war. The guests consisted of the officials of the veterinary department, including two Christian Arabs from Bethlehem, the Ruppin family, some refugees and pioneers, a few neighbors from Tel Arza, and an emaciated revolutionary student from the university who could not take his blazing eyes off the beautiful bride. He it was who toasted the happy couple on behalf of all their friends and vowed that right would triumph. But he spoiled the effect of his words by getting thoroughly drunk on one bottle of Nesher beer and calling the bridegroom and bride respectively “burzhui” and “artistka.” The guests departed, and Father hired a taxi to convey Mother’s few belongings from her simple room in Neve Sha’anan to the house he had been making ready for several years in the suburb of Tel Arza.
There, in Tel Arza, in the little stone-built house facing the rocky wadis, there was born to them a year later a fair-haired son.
When Mother and the baby came home from the hospital, Father indicated his diminutive estate with a sweep of his hand, gazed raptly at it, and pronounced these words: “For the moment this is a remote suburb. There are only young saplings growing in our garden. The sun beats down all day on the shutters. But as the years pass, the trees will grow, and we shall have plenty of shade. Their boughs will shelter the house. Creepers will climb over the roof and all over the fence. And the flowers will bloom. This will be our pleasure garden when Hillel grows up and we grow old together. We shall make an arbor of vines where you can sit all day through the summer, painting beautiful watercolors. We can even have a piano. They’ll build a civic center, they’ll pave the road, our suburb will be joined to a Jerusalem ruled by a Hebrew government with a Hebrew army. Dr. Ruppin will be a minister and Professor Buber will be president or perhaps even king. When the time comes, I may become director of the veterinary service. And immigrants will arrive from every country under the sun.”
Suddenly he felt ashamed of his speech, and particularly regretted his choice of some of the words. A momentary sadness trembled around his mouth, and he added hastily, in a matter-of-fact tone, “Poetry. Philosophizing. A pleasure garden with overhanging vines, all of a sudden. Now I’ll go and fetch a block of ice, and you must lie down and rest, so that you won’t have a migraine again tonight. It’s so hot.”
Mother turned to go indoors. By the veranda steps she stopped and looked at the miserable, rusty pots of geraniums. She said, “There won’t be any flowers. There’ll be a flood. Or a war. They’ll all die.”
Father did not answer, because he sensed that these words were not directed at him and that they should never have been spoken.
His khaki shorts came down almost to his knees. Between his knees and his sandals his legs showed brown, thin, and smooth. Behind his round glasses his face bore an expression of permanent gratitude, or of slight, pleased surprise. And in moments of embarrassment he was in the habit of saying, “I don’t know. It’s just as well not to know everything. There are all sorts of things in the world that are better left alone.”
Here is how Mother appeared as a girl in her old photograph album: a blonde schoolgirl with a kind of inner, autumnal beauty. Her fingers clasping a broad-brimmed white hat. Three doves on a fence behind her, and a mustached Polish student sitting on the same fence, smiling broadly.
She had been considered the best reader in her high-school class. At the age of twelve, she had already attracted the enthusiastic attention of the elderly Polish literature teacher. The aging humanist, Mother would recall, was deeply moved by her charming recitations of gems of Polish poetry. “Ruth’s voice,” the pedagogue would exclaim with hoarse enthusiasm, “echoes the spirit of poetry, eternally playing among streams in a meadow.” And because he secretly considered himself a poet, he would add, overcome by the force of his emotions, “If gazelles could sing, they would surely sing like little Ruth.”
When Mother repeated this sentence she would laugh, because the comparison seemed to her absurd. Not because of the idea of gazelles singing, but because she simply couldn’t sing. Her affections at that time were directed toward small pets, celebrated philosophers and artists, dancing, dresses trimmed with lace, and silk scarves, and also her poor friends who had neither lace-trimmed dresses nor silk scarves. She was fond of the unfortunates she came across: the milkman, the beggar, Grandma Gittel, the maids, and her nanny, even the local idiot. Provided that suffering had not disfigured their outward appearance, and provided that they carried themselves woefully, as if acknowledging their guilt and attempting to atone for it.
She translated from Polish a story she had written on her fifteenth birthday. She copied it out neatly and told Hillel to read it aloud:
The blue sea allows the sun’s rays to draw up its water, to make clouds that look like dirty cotton wool, to pour down rain on mountains, plains, and meadows—but not on the ugly desert—and eventually all the water collects and has to flow back once more into the sea. To return to it with a caress.
Suddenly she fell into a rage, snatched the paper out of the boy’s hands, and tore it into shreds.
“All gone!” she cried with desperate pathos. “Dead and done for! Lost!”
Outside, a wintry Jerusalem Sabbath, windswept, lashed by dead leaves. Inside the little house in Tel Arza, the kerosene heater burned with a blue flame. On the table there were tea and oranges, and a vase of chrysanthemums. Two of the walls were lined with Father’s books. Shadows fell on them. The wind howled from the wadi. Mists touched the outside of the window, and the panes rattled. With a kind of bitter mockery, Mother spoke of her childhood in Warsaw, rowing on the Wisla, playing tennis in white clothes, the Seventh Cavalry Regiment parading down the Avenue of the Republic every Sunday. Occasionally she turned abruptly to Father and called him Dr. Zichel instead of Dr. Kipnis, Hans, Hanan. Father would rest his fingers on his high brow, unperturbed, unsurprised, silently smiling at the recollection of the acute remark he had made in Zichel’s café to the writer Agnon and the philosopher Buber.
When Mother was sixteen, she allowed the handsome Tadeusz to kiss her at the bridge: first on the forehead, later on the lips, but she let him go no further. He was a year and a half younger than she, an elegant, handsome youth, without a trace of acne, who excelled at tennis and sprinting. Once he had promised her that he would love her forever. But forever at that time seemed to her like a small circle bathed in pleasant light, and love like a game of tennis on a clear blue Sunday morning.
Handsome Tadeusz’s father had been killed in the Polish war of independence. Tadeusz also had a cute dimple when he smiled, and wore sports shirts all through the summer. Mother loved to kiss Hillel suddenly on his own dimple and say, “Just like this one.”
Every year, on the national holiday, Ruth and Tadeusz would both stand on a decorated stage in the school playground. Old chestnut trees spread their branches overhead like a rustling bridal canopy. Tadeusz’s task was to light the Torch of Liberty—the same liberty for which his father had given his life. Pupils and teachers stood in serried ranks, frozen in a strained silence, while the wind toyed with the flags of the Republic and Ruth recited the immortal lines by the national poet. Bells rang out joyously from atop every church in Warsaw. And in the evening, at the ball at the home of the director of the opera house, her parents permitted her to dance one waltz with General Godzinski himself.
Then Zionism broke out. The handsome Tadeusz joined the National Youth Corps, and because she refused to spend a weekend with him at his aunt’s in the country, he sent her a disgusting note: “Zidowka. Dirty Jewess.” The old teacher who was fond of the phrase “singing gazelles” died suddenly of a liver disease. And both her parents, too, in a single month. The only memento she had left was the sepia photographs, printed on thick card stock with ornamental borders.
Nyuta, her elder sister, quickly found herself a widowed gynecologist named Adrian Staub. She married him and went with him to New York. Meanwhile, Mother came to Palestine to study ancient history on Mount Scopus. She took a small room at the end of the world, in the suburb of Neve Sha’anan. Nyuta Staub sent her a modest allowance every month. In that room she was loved by several wonderful men, including, one Hanukkah festival, the furious poet Alexander Pan.
After a year, she felt defeated by the country and the language, and decided to join her sister and brother-in-law in New York. Then Dr. Ruppin introduced her to Father, and he told her shyly about his dream of setting up a cattle farm in the hills of Galilee with his own hands. He had a fine Galilean smell. She was desperately tired. And the Aurora changed course, sailed to the West Indies, and never reached Haifa.
To the northeast, in the white summer light, one could see Mount Scopus from the window of the house in Tel Arza, crowned by a marble dome, a wood, and two towers. These lonely towers seemed from a distance to be shrouded in a kind of veil of solitude. At the end of the Sabbath the light faded slowly, hesitantly, poignantly: as though forever. And as though there were no going back.
Father and Mother used to sit facing each other in the room that Father called his study. And their pudgy son built complicated brick castles on the mat, demolishing each suddenly with a wave of his hand because he always wanted to build a new one. At times he would ask an intelligent question of his father, and he always received a considered reply. At other times he buried his face in his mother’s dress, demanded to be cuddled, and then, embarrassed at seeing her eyes fill with tears, returned silently to his game.
Sometimes Mother asked, “What’s going to happen, Hans?”
And Father would answer, “I confidently hope that things will take a turn for the better.”
As Father uttered these words, Hillel recalled how last Pentecost he had gone out with his friends to hunt lions or discover the source of the Nile in the woods of Tel Arza. He recalled how a faded golden button had suddenly flashed at him, and blue cloth, how he had knelt down and dug with both hands, tearing away the pine needles, to uncover the treasure, and found a rotting military tunic, a terrible, sweet smell coming from the tarnished gold, and how, as he went on digging, he had discovered white ivory among disintegrating buckles, large and small white tusks, and all of a sudden the ivory was attached to an empty skull that smiled at him with a kind of chilling affection, and then the dead teeth and the eye sockets. Never, never again would he search for the source of the Nile anywhere. Never.
In Europe at that time, there was a world war going on. But in the streets of Jerusalem, there were only singing bands of friendly soldiers, Australians, New Zealanders, Senegalese looking like chocolate-cream soldiers, lean Scots wallowing in beer and homesickness. The newspapers carried maps with arrows. Sometimes, at night, a long military convoy crossed Jerusalem from north to south with dimmed headlights, and a smothered roar seemed to sound in the darkness. The city was very still. The hills were hushed. The towers and domes looked thoughtful. The inhabitants followed the distant war with anxiety but without any passion. They exchanged conjectures and interpretations. They expected a change for the better that would surely come about soon and might even perhaps make itself felt in Jerusalem.
Mitya addressed Father: “In that evening suit, Dr. Kipnis, you look like the spit and image of the martyred Haim Arlosoroff. There is no peace for the wicked. So I shall ask you a small diplomatic favor. Could you pass along a short message from me to the foreign high commissioner? Just one or two urgent sentences? It is a message the high commissioner has been secretly waiting for for some, and he probably cannot understand why it has not yet come.”
Father said, “If I do actually manage to have a private conversation with the high commissioner, which I very much doubt.”
Mitya suddenly grinned, baring his rotten teeth. He chewed his shirt collar, with an expression of pain and disgust on his bony face and a fire in his eyes.
“Give him this message, word for word: Our true Messiah will surely come, He will not tarry. He will come whirling a flaming sword in His hand. He will come from the east and lay all the mountains low. He will not leave any that pisseth against the wall. Do you think, Dr. Kipnis, that you can repeat this message word for word without making a mistake?”
Father said, “I don’t think I can undertake to convey that message. And certainly not in English.”
And Mitya, frantically stroking the oilcloth on the kitchen table, replied in a hoarse voice, “Jerusalem, which slayeth its prophets, shall burn the new Hellenizers in hellfire.”
At once he added politely, “Good evening, Mrs. Kipnis. Pozhal’sta, why are you staring at me so cruelly? I was simply making a small joke with your husband. I shall never forgive myself if, heaven forbid, I have accidentally frightened you. Nikogda. I must beg your pardon right away; there, I’ve done it. How magnificent you look, Mrs. Kipnis, in your blue evening dress, if I may make so bold. How magnificent, too, is the springtime in our Jerusalem on the eve of the great destruction. And the hot tap in the bathroom is dripping and dripping and knows no rest. Surely we ought to do something without further delay. How much time do we have left? There, I’ve apologized and I’ve gone. Da. Good night. May the name of the wicked rot, and the innocent shall see it and be glad. Now good night once again to you all. Happy is he who waits His coming.”
He nearly knocked the child over as he dashed back to his room, panting, his arms hanging limply at his sides, his fists clenched. But he did not slam his door; he closed it gently, as if taking great care not to hurt the door or the doorpost or the sudden silence he had left behind him.
Mother said, “The high commissioner could never understand how a boy like Mitya suffers. Even the king couldn’t help. Or the Messiah Himself, not that I believe in Him.”
She closed her eyes and continued in a different tone of voice: “But I could. I could easily rescue him from the madness and death that are building up inside him. Yes, me. That’s loneliness. Hans, that’s real exile, despair, depression, persecution. I could come to him in the middle of the night in my nightgown, sweetly perfumed, and touch him; or at least I could bring him another woman in the night and happily stand by and watch. I could put out the rising fires and give him peace and quiet. So what if he smells. To the forests and the sea, every man and woman in the world stinks. Even you, Hans. And then to hear him moaning between my hands, shouting in disjointed Russian, singing, grunting like a felled ox. Then resting peacefully. I’d close his eyes with my fingers and lull him to sleep. Even the stars and mountains would love me for it. Now, stop looking at me like that. I want you to know once and for all how much I loathe, yes, loathe, your Wertheimers and Bubers and Shertoks. I wish your terrorists would blow them all sky high. And stop looking at me like that.”
Father said, “That will do, Ruth. The boy can hear you; he understands almost everything.”
She drew the child violently toward her, pressed his head against her, and covered his face with rough kisses. Then she said quietly, “Yes, you’re quite right. You’ve already forgiven me, Hans. The red taxi will be here soon, and we’ll go to the ball. Stand still, Hans, while I tie your silly bow tie for you. I’ve really got no complaint against Buber and the rest of them. There, now you’ve remembered how to smile. At last. Why are you smiling?”
Father said nothing.
Mitya had left his kibbutz in the Jezreel valley because of an ideological argument at the end of the week in which Hitler had captured Warsaw. At the same time, he had also suddenly inherited some jewelry from his only relation, a forgotten aunt in Johannesburg.
He had hastily sold the jewelry to a crafty Armenian goldsmith in the Old City and decided to settle in Jerusalem to study, with the aim of proving once and for all that the natives of Palestine were descended from the ancient Hebrews. He tried to produce conclusive proof that all the Arabs, nomads and peasants alike, were simply Israelites who had been forcibly converted to Islam and whom it was our duty now to rescue. Their clothes, the shape of their skulls, the names of their villages, their eating habits, and their forms of worship all bore abundant witness, he claimed, to the truth that the Jewish Agency was trying to hush up. But they could not pull the wool over his eyes.
For a pioneer, he was a skinny lad, with drooping shoulders and abrupt gestures. He was an uncompromising vegetarian, who called meat eating “the source of all impurity.” His hair was thin, fair, almost white. When Mitya stood by himself in the kitchen making tea in his glass with its ring of worn gold paint, Hillel would sometimes observe a lonely, fanatical glint in his eye. His birdlike profile looked as though he were forever suppressing a sneeze. And he would chew the points of his shirt collar with his rotten teeth.
On his arrival, he had paid Father two years’ rent in advance, and was given permission to look over the headlines in the daily newspaper and to use the typewriter occasionally. Once he typed out with two fingers an “Epistle to Those Who Are at Ease in Zion,” in which he voiced various complaints and sounded a prophecy of doom. But the newspapers all either rejected his letter or simply ignored it. And once he hinted to Father that since the Babylonian beasts had murdered the heroic Abraham Stern, code-named “Yair,” he himself had become the secret commander of the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel. Father did not believe this any more than he believed Engineer Brzezinski, who said that Mitya was a dangerous Communist agent in disguise.
Mitya was ruthlessly clean and tidy.
Whenever he had finished in the lavatory, he would produce a small can inscribed in English, “Baby’s Delight,” and sprinkle the seat with perfumed talcum powder. When he had read the newspaper, he would fold it neatly in four and place it carefully on the end of the bookshelf. If ever he met anyone as he came out of the bathroom or the lavatory (which he called “the throne room”), he would turn pale and mutter an embarrassed apology. He cleaned and scrubbed his own room twice a day.
Despite all this, a faint yet repulsive smell, like that of old cooking fat, always accompanied him in the corridor and escaped from under his door; it even clung to his glass with the worn gold ring.
No one was allowed into his room.
He had fitted a double Yale lock onto his door, and he always locked it even when he only went to wash. Sometimes he would cry out in his sleep in the early hours of the morning. In Russian.
During the last year of the world war, Hillel peeped through the keyhole and discovered that Mitya had huge maps hanging on all the walls of his room, from the ceiling almost to the floor. He had other maps spread out on his desk, on his bed, and on the straw matting. These maps were covered with thick black and red arrows, flags, buttons, and matchsticks.
“Daddy, is Uncle Mitya a spy?”
“That sort of foolishness is beneath your dignity, Hillel.”
“Then why is he like that? Why has he got maps in his room, and arrows?”
“You’re the spy, Hillel. You spied on Uncle Mitya. That’s not a nice thing to do, and you’ll promise me right now that you won’t do it again.”
“I promise, but. . . .”
“You’ve promised. Now that’s the end of it. It’s wrong to talk about people behind their backs.”
One day in 1944, Mitya proposed to Father that the British fleet should storm up the Bosporus and through the Dardanelles “like a rod of anger,” gain mastery over the Black Sea, ravage half of the Crimea with fire, land “myriads of armies” all along the Slavic coasts, knock the heads of the two tyrants together, “and grind to dust the dragon and the crocodile of Egypt.” Father considered this utterance in silence, proffered a mild, sympathetic smile, and remarked that the Russians were now on the side of the Allies.
“You are the generation of the wilderness. You are the seed of slaves,” Mitya replied vehemently. “Yau have all been stricken with blindness. Chamberlains. Arlosoroffs. Gandhis. Plebeians. Eunuchs. I don’t mean you personally, Dr. Kipnis, heaven forbid I I was speaking in the plural; you in general. I can see from your wife’s eyes that she agrees with me deep in her heart, but because she is wise and sensitive she prefers to remain silent, and of course she is quite right. Surely no remnant shall remain of all the eunuchs. When they cry with upraised voice and outstretched throat ‘eternal people,’ ‘forever and ever,’ ‘Jerusalem, the eternal city,’ surely every stone of Jerusalem bursts out laughing. Now I must beg your pardon and bid you good night. I’m sorry; good night.”
Once, when Father was out working in the villages and Mother was at the hairdresser’s, Mitya trapped Hillel at the dark end of the corridor and addressed his fevered utterances to him: “We who have returned to Zion, and especially your generation, whose souls have not been perverted by exile, have an obligation to make children by force by the women of the fellahin. We must give them children who look like you. Masses of fair-haired children. Strong arid fair and fearless. It’s a matter of life and death. A new breed, thoroughbred, lusty steppe-wolves instead of namby-pamby scholars. The old eunuchs will die off. Blessed are you, for you shall inherit the earth. Then a flame shall issue forth from Judah and consume Perfidious Albion. What could be easier? We know how they go out alone at night to gather firewood. They wear long dark dresses down to their ankles, but underneath their dresses they have nothing on at all. They must be conquered and mounted by main force. With holy zeal. They have women who are dark and hairy as goats, and we have rods of fire. We must spill fresh blood, dark, warm blood. Your parents may call you Hillel, but I shall call you Ithamar. Listen to me, young Ithamar. You are a new recruit: I order you to learn to ride a horse, to use a dagger, to toughen yourself up. Here, take a biscuit: you can’t refuse, I’m your commanding officer. This’ll all be a closely guarded secret between the two of us: the underground has no pity on traitors and informers. Who is this that cometh from Seir, with dyed garments from Edom? It is you and the rest of your generation. Nimrods, Gideons, Jephthahs, all of them skilled men of war. You shall see and behold with your own eyes, O new recruit Ithamar, the whole British Empire brought down into the dust like a rag doll. The Inheritor shall come marching from the east. He shall ascend the mountain and discomfit the plain with an iron hand until those lascivious, black, hairy she-goats of the fellahin scream at us in terror and delight. Lascivious she-goats! Now, take this shilling and run and buy yourself a mountain of chewing gum. It’s yours. Yes. From me. Never disobey orders. Now, scram!”
Suddenly his blazing eyes fell on Mother’s apron hanging on a peg beside the mirror in the corridor. He bared his teeth and hissed, “Painted Jezebel, mother of whoredoms!”
And he shuffled furiously back to his room.
Hillel ran out into the garden. He climbed up into his hideaway among the boughs of the fig tree, the sweaty shilling tightly clasped in his hand. He was tormented by ugly yet persistent images. Jezebel. Fellahin women. Lascivious she-goats. Long dresses with nothing on underneath. Thoroughbreds. And the sweaty word “mounted.” His free hand felt for the fly of his trousers, but there were tears in his eyes. He knew that the asthma would start mercilessly as soon as he dared to touch his taut organ. Iron hand. Ithamar. Rag doll. Marching from the east.
If the old days of the Bible suddenly came back, I could be a judge in Israel. Or a king. Mitya could be a prophet in a hair mantle, and the bears would eat him like the wicked Turkish soldier. Daddy would pasture the royal flocks in the fields of Bethlehem. And Mommy wouldn’t be a Jezebel.
Among the flower beds, Father appeared. He carefully connected the rubber hose to the garden tap. He made sure it was well attached, and he regulated the flow of water precisely. He stood alone, quietly watering his garden in the early afternoon sunshine, humming to himself the song, “Between the Euphrates and the Tigris.”
The water carved out branching and interlacing furrows. From time to time, Father bent down to block its path and direct it where it was needed.
Hillel suddenly felt an ecstatic, overwhelming love for his father. He scrambled out of his hideaway in the fig tree, ran up the path through the summer bird song, through the breeze laden with the scent of the distant sea, through the streaming afternoon sunlight, flung his arms around his father’s waist, and hugged him with all his might.
Hans Kipnis passed the hose from his right to his left hand, stroked his son’s head tenderly, and said, “Hillel.”
The boy did not reply.
“Here, Hillel. Take it. If you want to water the garden for a bit, take the hose, and I’ll go and clip the hedge. You can. Only be very careful not to aim the water at the plants themselves.”
“Daddy, what does ‘Perfidious Albion’ mean?”
“It’s what the fanatics call England when they want to be rude about it.”
“What does ‘fanatics’ mean?”
“They’re people who are always sure that they know best what’s right and what’s wrong and what ought to be done, and try their hardest to make everybody else think and act the same way.”
“Is Uncle Mitya a fanatic?”
“Uncle Mitya is a sensitive man who reads a lot of books and spends a lot of time studying the Bible. Because he worries a great deal about our plight, and also perhaps because of his personal sufferings, he sometimes uses words that are not quite the words I myself would choose to use.”
“What about Mommy?”
“She’s having a rest.”
“No, I mean, is she also a fanatic?”
“Mommy grew up surrounded by wealth and luxury. Sometimes it’s hard for her to get used to conditions here; you were born here, and perhaps you are sometimes surprised by her moods. But you’re a clever boy, and I’m sure you’re not angry with Mommy when she’s sad or when she longs to be somewhere completely different.”
“Daddy, I’ve got something to tell you.”
“What is it, son?”
“I’ve got a shilling that I don’t want at all. And I don’t want you to start asking me who gave it to me, ’cause I won’t say. I just want you to take it.”
“All right. I’ll look after your shilling for you, and I won’t ask any questions. Only mind you, don’t get your new sandals wet when you’re watering the grapes. Now I’m going to fetch the shears. You ought to be wearing a hat in this heat.”
Toward sunset, when the mountains were shrouded and the wind swept knowingly through the woods and the valleys and the bell of the Schneller Barracks resounded forlornly, the preparations were complete.
All that remained was to wait for the taxi, say goodbye, and go. Nothing had been overlooked. Hans Kipnis, in his borrowed dress suit and impeccably polished black shoes, with his hair neatly parted and smoothed down with water, with his round glasses, looked like a mild, good-natured evangelical minister setting out with a pounding heart for his wedding.
“My own Dr. Zichel,” Mother said with a laugh, and bent over to straighten the white handkerchief in his top pocket.
She was a little taller than he, and her scent was the scent of autumn. She was wearing her blue evening dress with its daring neckline. The light shone in her drop earrings. Ruth was erect and sensuous as she walked with a slow, rounded motion, like a large cat, to wait outside on the veranda. She turned her bare back on the house and looked out into the desolate twilight. Her blonde plait had settled on the arch of her left shoulder. Her hip rubbed slowly, with a dreamy rhythm, against the cool stone parapet.
And how the bells had rung throughout Warsaw at the national festival. How all the marble horsemen had reared up in every square. How her warm voice had carried over the playground of the school as she had read the searing lines of the Polish national poet:
Slain cavalrymen never die,
They fly high through the air like the wind,
Their horses’ hoofs no longer touching the
At night in the storm in the snow you can hear
them flying past,
Foam-flecked winged steeds and valiant horse-
Forever flying over forests and meadows and
Ghost warriors eternally riding into battle.
At night in the storm in the snow they wing
their way high over Poland.
Cavalrymen never die, they become transparent
and powerful as tears. . . .
Ruth’s voice conveyed a melancholy echo of violins, the tempestuous thunder of war drums, the roar and sigh of the organ. How they had all loved her. The handsome Tadeusz had stood stiffly at attention half a pace behind her on the platform, holding aloft the blazing Torch of Liberty. Elderly teachers who had themselves fought as cavalry officers in the great war for the liberation of Poland, and who still relived it in their dreams on happy nights, wept to hear her reciting. They stood with their eyes closed and strained toward her with all the force of their longing. She received their love and desire in her heart, and her heart was ready to bestow love on all good men.
She had never throughout her school days encountered bad men. She believed that if bad men really existed outside fairy stories, they must lurk in dark corners. They could never come near her, with her gleaming white tennis dress and her expensive racket. Hence she was inclined to feel a certain sympathy even for them, if they existed. Their lot must be a sad one. What a terrible thing it must be, to be a bad man.
By seven o’clock, the mountains were growing dark. The lights of Jerusalem came on. In every house the iron shutters were pulled closed and the curtains were drawn. The inhabitants sank into worry and longing. For an instant the hills of Jerusalem seemed to be heaving and swelling like a sea in the dark.
Hillel was left with Madame Yabrova the pianist and her niece, Binyamina. They would play the phonograph for him, give him supper, let him play for a little with their collection of dolls of all nations, and then put him to bed. Meanwhile the taxi arrived, with its yellow headlights, and gave a long horn blast that sounded like the cry of an animal.
The whole street came out to see Dr. and Mrs. Kipnis off to the May Ball at the high commissioner’s palace on the Hill of Evil Counsel.
Mitya the lodger stood grinning darkly on the doorstep of the house, his silhouette hunched with suffering. His lips were mouthing something in the darkness, a curse or a premonition of disaster. Professor Wertheimer raised his hat slightly and said sadly, as if they were leaving on a long journey to another continent, “Don’t forget us.”
Mrs. Vishniak the pharmacist waved them goodbye and good luck from where she sat on a wickerwork chair under the single Mandatory street lamp. Two tears hung from her painted eyelashes, because the announcer on “The Voice of Jerusalem” had said that times were changing and that things would never be the same again.
At the last minute, Engineer Brzezinski emerged on the other side of the road, slightly drunk, and holding a huge lamp. He was a big-boned man with thick red hair and freckles. He was panting like a woodcutter and trembling with emotion. He thundered to them at the top of his voice: “Just you tell them, doctor, tell them to their faces! Tell them to leave us alone! Tell them the whole country is getting more and more rotten every day! Tell them once and for all! And tell them that life as a whole is a rotten trick! Cheap! Miserable! Provincial! You let them know! And tell them that we, sam chort znayet, will never stop suffering and hoping until our last breath! Tell them!”
Suddenly he fell silent and pointed his great lamp furiously up at the dark sky, as if he were trying to dazzle the stars themselves.
Then the taxi choked, roared, and moved off in a cloud of dust.
The street was left to itself. Everyone had gone indoors. Only the square-paned street lamp continued to shed its forlorn light in vain. The wind blew. The fig tree ruffled its leaves and settled down. Its fingers were still empty. Dogs barked in the distance. It was night.
The guest of honor at the ball was the hero of Malta, Admiral Sir Kenneth Horace Sutherland, VC, KBE, Deputy First Sea Lord.
He was standing, tall, pink-faced, and broad-shouldered, on the edge of the illuminated fountain, resplendent in his spotless white uniform and gleaming medals. He was holding a cocktail in his right hand, while in his left he twirled a single magnificent rose. He was surrounded by officers and gentlemen, by red-fezzed Arab dignitaries with gold watch chains strung across their bellies, and by wistful, sparkling-eyed English ladies, while tall, pitch-black Sudanese servants moved everywhere brandishing silver salvers, with snow-white napkins draped over their hooked arms.
Admiral Sutherland was telling a slightly risque story, in a dry delivery spiced with naval slang, about the American general, George Patton, a performing monkey, and a hot-blooded Italian actress by the name of Silvana Lungo. When he got to the punch line, the men guffawed and the ladies let out shocked shrieks.
Colored lights shone under the water in the marble pool, more lights hung suspended in the air, paper lanterns glowed among the trees, and the light breeze ruffled the pines. The gently sloping lawns were dotted with rose beds and divided by impeccably kept gravel paths. The palace itself floated on the beams of concealed floodlights. Its arches of Jerusalem stone were delicately, almost tenderly, carved.
At the foot of the veranda clustered some prominent figures of the Jewish community, including many of the leading lights of the Jewish Agency, the two elderly bankers Shealtiel and Toledano, Mr. Rokeah, the mayor of Tel Aviv, and Mr. Agronsky of the Palestine Post. They were gathered in an excited semicircle around Captain Archibald Chichester-Browne, the British government spokesman, with whom they were engaged in a good-natured altercation. But for once the captain was disinclined to be serious. He pronounced one or two uncharitable remarks about the Arab League, which the prominent Jews interpreted as a favorable sign. Moshe Shertok dropped a hint to the others that they should be satisfied with this achievement and change the subject immediately, so as not to overstep the mark.
And so the conversation turned to the potash works that were rapidly being developed beside the Dead Sea. Captain Chichester-Browne took the opportunity to compare the Jewish kibbutzim with the early Christian communities that had once existed in the same region, and while on the subject, he even saw fit to praise Professor Klausner’s work on the origins of Christianity. His audience drew further encouragement from these remarks, and mentally noted with glee that he had voiced two favorable sentiments in rapid succession.
The captain then took his leave of the Zionist gentlemen with a charming, carefully modulated smile; he gestured ironically with his chin toward a group of Arab dignitaries from Bethlehem, winked at Moshe Shertok, and remarked confidentially that the other gentlemen were also demanding their pound of flesh. With that, he turned on his heel and walked over to join them.
After advancing slowly in a procession with other guests, Dr. and Mrs. Kipnis were eventually presented to the military governor of Jerusalem, to Lady Cunningham, and finally to Sir Alan himself.
Old Lady Bromley was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she had fainted again. Sir Alan and Lady Cunningham greeted Father: “Pleased to meet you,” “So glad you could come.” Sir Alan allowed his grave blue glance to rest searchingly for a moment on Mother’s black eyes as he said, “If I may say so, dear lady, your beauty and that of Jerusalem were molded by the same divine inspiration. I dare to hope that you will not be bored by our modest entertainment.”
Mother responded to the compliment with one of her beautiful autumnal smiles. It hovered on her lips, as fine and transparent as the tears of the slain cavalrymen in the Polish poem.
Then a steward showed them to the bar and handed them over to an American barman. Father immediately opted for a tomato juice, while Mother, after a moment’s hesitation, the smile still playing faintly around her lips, asked for a glass of cherry brandy. They were conducted to a pretty wicker table and seated between Mr. Tsipkin, the citrus king, and Madame Josette al-Bishari, the headmistress of the Arab National High School for Girls. They exchanged polite remarks.
Presently, the military governor of Jerusalem delivered a short, witty address from the veranda of the palace. He began with a reference to the crushing defeat inflicted on the enemies of humanity by Great Britain and her allies in May of the previous year. He paid a tribute to the guest of honor, Admiral Sir Kenneth Horace Sutherland, the hero of Malta, and declared that the world had not yet seen the German, Italian, or lady who could resist him. He also paid tribute to the holy character of Jerusalem. He delivered an impassioned plea for fellowship and understanding among the adherents of the various religions. He added jokingly that if love did suddenly spring up among the different religious groups, the first thing the lovers would do would be to kick out the British. It was well known, he said, that in a love affair there was no place for a third party. But we British had always believed in miracles, and the idea of a Trinity was not entirely unfamiliar to Jerusalem; so whatever happened we would continue to haunt Palestine in the role of Holy Spirit, for which, of course, we were uniquely suited. A toast to the Crown. A toast to the hero of Malta. Another toast to Sir Alan and his charming lady. And, if they would kindly refill their glasses, a final toast to the spring and to amity among all the inhabitants of the Holy Land, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and socialists.
Then the dancing began.
From among the trees, which were hung with colored lights, the musicians of the police and military bands advanced in threes, their buckles gleaming. The whole hill resounded with the sound of percussion and brass. From behind the palace, fireworks lit up the sky over the city and the desert. The admiral, flushed and tipsy, roared, “Heave ho, me hearties! Splice the mainbrace! All guns fire!”
How colorfully the ladies’ ball gowns blossomed by the light of the lanterns and fireworks. How riotously the music flowed into the heart of the night. How joyfully, how frenziedly, the couples whirled, the ladies twined like young vines, the men whispering sweet words into their ears. The Sudanese servants, coal-black faces atop white tunics, stared in amazement.
The last days of Rome must have been like this, Father thought to himself. As the idea flashed through his mind, his optimistic blue eyes may have reflected a momentary sadness behind his round glasses.
Mother was immediately snatched up by Mr. Tsipkin, the citrus king. Then she could be seen, blonde and radiant, in the arms of the Swedish consul. Then again resting lightly against the shoulder of a dark giant sporting a pair of Latin mustachios. With hardly a pause to draw breath, she was swept up by a one-eyed, battle-scarred colonel with predatory yellow teeth.
Father looked away. He struck up a desultory conversation with his neighbor, Madame Josette al-Bishari. No doubt he was telling her all about the cattle he inspected, or perhaps preaching with ill-suppressed zeal about the benefits of drinking goats’ milk.
The high commissioner himself was wandering, lost in thought, among the guests. He paused for a moment at the table where Madame al-Bishari and Dr. Kipnis sat; abstractedly he picked up a cocktail biscuit, eyed it cautiously, and returned it to the dish. He smiled faintly at Madame Josette or Dr. Kipnis or perhaps toward the lights of Jerusalem behind their shoulders, and eventually he spoke: “Well, well. I see you are both sitting it out. Why aren’t you dancing? I expect you’re secretly hatching some sort of intrigue; but I’ve caught you red-handed, in the name of the Crown. Just my little joke. Good evening to you both.”
He turned and moved away, a slim, erect figure, to continue his tour of the tables.
Father said, in English with a heavy German accent, “I know a man who superficially resembles Sir Alan but hates him bitterly.”
Madame Josette answered at once, in fluent German, with a kind of strangled fervor, “Anyway, there’s no hope.”
“I am unable to agree with you on that point, madam,” Father said.
Madame Josette smiled patiently. “I shall try to explain myself by means of a small illustration. Take yourselves, for example.’ You have been leaving Europe for Palestine for forty years now. You will never arrive. At the same time, we are moving away from the desert toward Europe, and we shall never arrive, either. There is not even the ghost of a chance that we shall meet one another halfway. I suppose, sir, that you consider yourself a social democrat?”
Father expressed surprise. “Surely we are meeting at this very moment?”
To these words he received no reply.
The headmistress of the Arab National High School for Girls slowly gathered up her belongings from the table, her silk handkerchief, her Virginia cigarettes, her fan with its picture of Notre Dame; she apologized in French, which Father could not understand, and a feminine slyness glimmered for an instant in her eyes. She moved slowly away from the table, an elegant yet unremarkable woman, thickening slightly around the hips, in a long Marlene Dietrich dress. Then she was gone.
He followed her with his eyes until she had vanished in the throng. Then he caught sight of his wife, thrown high above the lawn, with her mouth gaping open in a soundless exclamation of pleasure, then landing gently in the broad hands of the hero of Malta. She was disheveled and excited, her lips parted, her blue dress lifted above her knees.
Admiral Sutherland laughed hoarsely and gave an exaggerated bow. He seized her hand and raised the palm to his lips, kissing, blowing, nuzzling. She touched his cheek quickly. Then the music changed, and they started dancing again, pressed tightly together, with her head on his shoulder and his arm around her waist.
The fireworks had finished. The music was dying away. Guests were already leaving, and still she whirled with the hero of Malta on the dance floor, on the lawn toward the wood, until the darkness and the trees hid them from Father’s sight.
Meanwhile, the high commissioner had withdrawn. The military governor had left, in a convoy of armored cars and armed jeeps, for the King David Hotel. The last guests had taken their leave and disappeared toward the parking lot. Captain Chichester-Browne and even the Sudanese servants had deserted the lawns and vanished into the inner recesses of the palace.
Darkness fell on the Hill of Evil Counsel. The paper lanterns went out one by one. Only the searchlights continued to claw the gentle slope and the bushes that were gradually sinking into ever-deeper shadows. A dry coldness rose from the Judean desert, which bounded the palace on the east. And groups of palace guards armed with Bren guns began to patrol the grounds.
Father stood alone beside the deserted fountain, which was still pouring out jets of light and water. Now he spotted a single goldfish in the marble pool. He was cold, and desperately tired. His mother and sisters had probably been murdered in Silesia or somewhere else. The cattle farm in Galilee would never exist, the monograph or poem would never be written. Hillel would have to be sent to a boarding school in one of the kibbutzim. He will hate me for it all his life. Dr. Ruppin is dead. Buber and Agnon will also die. If a Hebrew state is ever established, I shall not be running its veterinary service. If only the underground would come this very minute and blow the whole place sky high. But that’s not a nice thought. And I—
In his borrowed dress suit, with a white handkerchief peeping out of his top pocket, with the strange bow tie and his comical glasses, Hans Kipnis looked like a pathetic suitor in a silent film.
He closed his eyes. He suddenly remembered the wandering Bavarian ornithologist with whom he had cut a virgin path many years before to the remote sources of the Jordan in the farthest corner of the country. He recalled the coldness of the water and the snowy peaks of Mount Hermon. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Lady Bromley. She appeared like a wizened ghost from among the bushy oleanders, old, spoiled, seething with venomous zeal, in a dark shawl, doubled up with malicious glee.
“What you have lost tonight, sir, you will never find again. If you like, you can leave a message with me for the head gardener. But even he cannot save you, because he is a drunken Greek and a pathetic queer. Go home, my dear doctor. The party’s over. Life nowadays is just like a stupid party. A little light, a little music, a little dancing, and then darkness. Look. The lights have been turned out. The leftovers have been thrown to the dogs. Go home, my dear doctor. Or must I wake up Lieutenant Grady and have him drive you?”
“I am waiting for my wife,” said Father.
Lady Bromley let out a loud, ribald guffaw. “I have had four husbands, and none of them, I repeat, none of them ever said anything as fantastic as that. In all my life I’ve never heard a man talk like that, except perhaps in vulgar farces.”
“I should be deeply grateful, madam, if you could give me some assistance, or direct me to someone who can help me. My wife has been dancing all evening, and she may have had a drop too much to drink. She must be around somewhere. Perhaps she has dozed off.”
Lady Bromley’s eyes suddenly flashed, and she growled wickedly. “You are the native doctor who poked his fingers into my corset ten days ago. How rotten and charming. Come here and let me give you a big kiss. Come. Don’t be afraid of me.”
Father rallied his last resources. “Please, madam, I can’t go home without her.”
“That’s rich,” gloated Lady Bromley. “Listen to that. That’s wonderful. He can’t go home without his wife. He needs to have his wife next to him every night. And these, ladies and gentlemen, are the Jews. The People of the Book. The spiritual people. Huh! How much?”
“How much what?” Father asked, stunned.
“Really! How much will that rotten drunkard Kenneth have to pay you to calm down and keep your mouth shut? Huh! You may not believe it, but in the twelve months since the end of the war, that stupid young hothead has already sold three woods, two farms, and an autographed manuscript of Dickens, all for cash to silence the poor husbands. What a life. How rotten and charming. And to think that his poor father was once a gentleman in waiting to Queen Victoria!”
“I don’t understand,” said Father.
Lady Bromley gave a piercing, high-pitched laugh like a rusty saw and said, “Good night, my sweet doctor. I am really and truly grateful to you for your devoted attention. Jewish fingers inside my corset. That’s rich! And how enchanting the nights are here in Palestine in springtime. Look around you: what nights! By the way, our beloved Alan also used to have a thriving sideline in other men’s wives when he was a cadet. But that leech Trish soon sucked him dry. Poor Trish. Poor Alan. Poor Palestine. Poor doctor. Good night to you, my poor dear Othello. Good night to me, too. By the way, who was the raving lunatic who had the nerve to call this stinking hole Jerusalem? It’s a travesty. Au revoir, doctor.”
At three o’clock in the morning, Father left the government palace on foot and headed in the direction of the German Colony. Outside the railway station, he was given a lift by two pale-faced rabbis in a hearse. They were on their way, they explained, from a big wedding in the suburb of Mekor Hayim to their work at the burial society in Sanhedriya. Hans Kipnis arrived home shortly before four, in the misty morning twilight. At the same time, the admiral, his lady friend, his driver, and his bodyguard crossed a sleeping Jericho with blazing headlights and with an armed jeep for escort, and turned off toward the Kaliah Hotel on the shore of the Dead Sea. A day or two later, the black-and-silver Rolls Royce set out eastward, racing deep into the desert, across mountains and valleys, and onward, to Baghdad, Bombay, Calcutta. All along the way, Mother soulfully recited poems by Mickiewicz in Polish. The admiral, belching high-spiritedly like a big, good-natured sheepdog, ripped open her blue dress and inserted a red, affectionate hand. She felt nothing, and never for an instant interrupted her gazelle song. Only her black eyes shone with joy and tears. And when the admiral forced his fingers between her knees, she turned to him and told him that slain cavalrymen never die, they become transparent and powerful as tears.
The following day, a heat wave hit Jerusalem. Dust rose from the desert and hung over the mountains. The sky turned deep gray, a grotesque autumnal disguise. Jerusalem barred its shutters and closed in on itself. And the white boulders blazed spitefully on every hillside.
All the neighborhood was gathered excitedly in the garden. Father stood, in khaki shorts and a vest, staring tiredly and blankly up into the fig tree. His face looked innocent and helpless without his round glasses.
Mrs. Vishniak clapped her hands together and muttered in Yiddish, “Gott in Himmel.” Madame Yabrova and her niece tried angry words and gentle ones. They held out the threat of the British police, the promise of marzipan, the final threat of the kibbutz.
Engineer Brzezinski, red-faced and panting, tried unsuccessfully to join two ladders together. And Mitya the lodger took advantage of the general confusion to trample the flower beds, one after another, uprooting saplings and tearing out plants and throwing them over his shoulder, chewing his shirt collar and hissing continuously through his rotting teeth. “Lies, falsehood, untruth, it’s all lies.”
Father attempted one last plea. “Come down, Hillel. Please, son, get down. Mommy will come back and it’ll all be like before. Those branches aren’t very strong. Get down, there’s a good boy. We won’t punish you. Just come down now and everything will be exactly the same as before.”
But the boy would not hear. His eyes groped at the murky gray sky, and he went on climbing up, up to the top of the tree, as the scaly fingers of the leaves caressed him from all sides, up to where the branches became twigs and buds, and still on, up to the very summit, up into the gentle trembling, to the fine delicate heights where the branches became a high-pitched melody into the depths of the sky. Night is reigning in the skies, time for you to close your eyes. Every bird is in its nest, all Jerusalem’s at rest. He saw nothing, no frantic people in the garden, no Daddy, no house and no mountains, no distant towers, no stone huts scattered among the boulders, no sun, no moon, no stars. Nothing at all. All Jerusalem’s at rest. Only a dull-gray blaze. Overcome with pleasure and astonishment, the child said to himself, “There’s nothing.” Then he gathered himself and leaped on up to the last leaf, to the shore of the sky.
At that point, the firemen arrived. But Engineer Brzezinski drove them away, roaring: “Go away! There’s no fire here! Lunatics! Go to Taganrog! Go to Kherson, degenerates! That’s where the fire is! In the Crimea! At Sebastopol! There’s a great fire raging there! Get out of here! And in Odessa, too! Get out of here, the lot of you!”
And Mitya put his arms carefully around Father’s shaking shoulders and led him slowly indoors, whispering gently and with great compassion, “Jerusalem, which slayeth its prophets, shall burn the new Hellenizers in hellfire.”
In due course, Professor Wertheimer, together with his cats, also moved into the little stone house in Tel Arza. An international commission of inquiry arrived in Jerusalem. There were predictions and hopes. One evening Mitya suddenly opened up his room and invited his friends in. The room was spotlessly clean, except for the slight persistent smell. The three scholars would spend hours on end here, drinking tea and contemplating an enormous military map, guessing wildly at the future borders of the emerging Hebrew state, marking with arrows ambitious campaigns of conquest all over the Middle East. Mitya began to address Father by his first name, Hanan. Only the famous geographer, Hans Walter Landauer, looked down on them with a look of skepticism and mild surprise from his picture.
Then the British left. A picture of the high commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, appeared in the newspaper Davar, a slim, erect figure in a full general’s uniform, saluting the last British flag to be run down, in the port of Haifa.
A Hebrew government was finally set up in Jerusalem. The road in Tel Arza was paved, and the suburb was joined to the city. The saplings grew. The trees looked very old. The creepers climbed over the roof of the house and all over the fence. Masses of flowers made a blaze of blue. Madame Yabrova was killed by a stray shell fired on Tel Arza from the battery of the Transjordanian Legion near Nabi Samwil. Lyubov Binyamina Even-Hen, disillusioned with the Hebrew state, sailed from Haifa aboard the Moledet to join her sister in New York. There she was run over by a train, or she may have thrown herself underneath it. Professor Buber also died, at a ripe old age. In due course, Father and Mitya were appointed to teaching posts at the Hebrew University, each in his own subject. Every morning they packed rolls and hard-boiled eggs and a thermos of tea and set off together by bus for the Ratisbone and Terra Sancta buildings, where some of the departments of the university were housed temporarily until the road to Mount Scopus could be reopened. Professor Wertheimer, however, finally retired and devoted himself single-mindedly to keeping house for them. The whole house gleamed. He even discovered the secret of perfect ironing. Once a month Hanan and Mitya went to see the child at school in the kibbutz. He had grown lean and bronzed. They took him chocolate and chewing gum from Jerusalem. On the hills all around Jerusalem, the enemy set up concrete pillboxes, bunkers, gun sites.
The Hill of Evil Counsel
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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.
Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.