WHEN the modern political commu- nity was being shaped at the end of the 18th century, it was thought
When the modern political community was being shaped at the end of the 18th century, it was thought by its founders that the consequences of republican or representative institutions in government would be the reduction of political power in individual lives. Nothing seems to have mattered more to such minds as Montesquieu, Turgot, and Burke in Europe and to Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin in this country than the expansion of freedom in the day-to-day existence of human beings, irrespective of class, occupation, or belief. Hence the elaborate, carefully contrived provisions of constitution or law whereby formal government would be checked, limited, and given root in the smallest possible assemblies of the people. The kind of arbitrary power Burke so detested and referred to almost constantly in his attacks upon the British government in its relation to the American colonists and the people of India and Ireland, and upon the French government during the revolution, was foremost in the minds of all the architects of the political community, and they thought it could be eliminated, or reduced to insignificance, by ample use of legislative and judicial machinery.
What we have witnessed, however, in every Western country, and not least in the United States, is the almost incessant growth in power over the lives of human beings—power that is basically the result of the gradual disappearance of all the intermediate institutions which, coming from the pre-democratic past, served for a long time to check the kind of authority that almost from the beginning sprang from the new legislative bodies and executives in the modern democracies. The 18th-century hope that people, by their direct participation in government, through voting and office-holding, would be correspondingly loath to see political power grow, has been proved wrong. Nothing seems so calculated to expand and intensify the power of the state as the expansion of electorates and the general popularization of the uses of power.
Even so, I do not think we can properly explain the immense power that exists in modern democracies by reference solely to the enlargement of the base of government or to the kinds of parliaments Sir Henry Maine warned against in his Popular Government. Had political power remained visible, as it largely did down until about World War I, and the manifest function of legislature and executive, the matter would be very different. What has in fact happened during the past half century is that the bulk of power in our society, as it affects our intellectual, economic, social, and cultural existences, has become largely invisible, a function of the vast infragovernment composed of bureaucracy’s commissions, agencies, and departments in a myriad of areas. And the reason this power is so commonly invisible to the eye is that it lies concealed under the humane purposes which have brought it into existence.
The greatest single revolution of the last century in the political sphere has been the transfer of effective power over human lives from the constitutionally visible offices of government, the nominally sovereign offices, to the vast network that has been brought into being in the name of protection of the people from their exploiters. It is this kind of power that Justice Brandeis warned against in a decision nearly half a century ago: “Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the governments’ purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
What gives the new despotism its peculiar effectiveness is indeed its liaison with humanitarian-ism, but beyond this fact is its capacity for entering into the smallest details of human life. The most absolute authority, wrote Rousseau, “is that which penetrates into a man’s inmost being and concerns itself no less with his will than with his actions.” The truth of that observation is in no way lessened by the fact that for Rousseau genuinely legitimate government, government based upon the general will, should so penetrate. Rousseau saw correctly that the kind of power traditionally exercised by kings and princes, represented chiefly by the tax collector and the military, was in fact a very weak kind of power compared with what a philosophy of government resting on the general will could bring about. Tocqueville, from a vastly different philosophy of the state, also took note of the kind of power Rousseau described. “It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in the great things than in the little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without the other.”
Congresses and legislatures pass laws, executives enforce them, and the courts interpret them. These, as I have said, are the bodies on which the attentions of the Founding Fathers were fixed. They are the visible organs of government to this day, the objects of constant reporting in the media. And I would not question the capacity of each of them to interfere substantially with individual freedom. But of far greater importance in the realm of freedom is that invisible government created in the first instance by legislature and executive but rendered in due time largely autonomous, often nearly impervious to the will of elected constitutional bodies. In ways too numerous even to try to list, the invisible government—composed of commissions, bureaus, and regulatory agencies of every imaginable kind—enters daily into what Tocqueville calls “the minor details of life.”
Murray Weidenbaum, in an important study of this invisible government, Government Mandated Price Increases, has correctly referred to “a second managerial revolution” that is now well under way in American society. The first managerial revolution, described originally by A. A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means in their classic The Modern Corporation and Private Property and given explicit identity by James Burnham, concerned, as Weidenbaum points out, the separation of management from formal ownership in the modern corporation. The second managerial revolution is very different. “This time,” writes Weidenbaum, “the shift is from the professional management selected by the corporation’s board of directors to the vast cadre of government regulators that influences and often controls the key decisions of the typical business firm.” Weidenbaum concerns himself almost entirely with the business sector—pointing out incidentally that this whole cadre of regulation is a by now deeply embedded cause of inflation—but the point he makes is just as applicable to other, non-business areas of society.
In the name of education, welfare, taxation, safety, health, and environment, to mention but a few of the laudable ends involved, the new despotism confronts us at every turn. Its effectiveness lies, as I say, in part through liaison with humanitarian rather than nakedly exploitative objectives but also, and perhaps most significantly, in its capacity to deal with the human will rather than with mere human actions. By the very existence of one or another of the regulatory offices of the invisible government that now occupies foremost place, the wills of educators, researchers, artists, philanthropists, and enterprisers in all areas, as well as in business, are bound to be affected: to be shaped, bent, driven, even extinguished.
Of all the social or moral objectives, however, which are the taking-off points of the new despotism in our time, there is one that stands out clearly, that has widest possible appeal, and that at the present time undoubtedly represents the greatest single threat to liberty and social initiative. I refer to equality, or, more accurately, to the New Equality.
“The foremost, or indeed the sole, condition required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community is to love equality or to get men to believe you love it. Thus, the science of despotism, which was once so complex, has been simplified and reduced, as it were, to a single principle.”
The words are Tocqueville’s, toward the end of Democracy in America, in partial summary of the central thesis of that book, which is the affinity between centralization of power and mass equalitarianism. Tocqueville yielded to no one in his appreciation of equality before the law. It was, he thought, vital to a creative society and a free state. It was Tocqueville’s genius, however, to see the large possibility of the growth in the national state of another kind of equality, more akin to the kind of leveling that war and centralization bring to a social order. It is only in our time that his words have become analytic and descriptive rather than prophetic.
There is a great deal in common between military collectivism and the kind of society that must be the certain result of the doctrines of the New Equalitarians, whose aim is not mere increase in equality before the law. In fact this historic type of equality looms as an obstacle to the kind of equality that is desired: equality of condition, equality of result. There is nothing paradoxical in the fondness of equalitarians for centralized power, the kind that the military best evidences, and the fondness of centralizers for equality. The latter, whatever else it may signify, means the absence of the kinds of centers of authority and rank which are always dangerous to despotic governments.
Equality of condition or result is one thing when it is set in the utopian community, the commune, or the monastery. The Benedictine Rule is as good a guide as we need for the administration of this kind of equalitarian order, small enough, personal enough to prevent the dogma of equality from extinguishing normal diversity of strength and talent. For countless centuries, everywhere in the world, religion and kinship have been contexts of this kind of equality; they still are in theme.
Equality of result is a very different thing, however, when it becomes the guiding policy of the kind of national state that exists in the West today—founded in war and bureaucracy, its power strengthened by these forces throughout modern history, and dependent from the beginning upon a degree of leveling of the population. We may have in mind the ideal of equality that the monastery or family represents, but what we will get in actual fact in the modern state is the kind of equality that goes with uniformity and homogeneity—above all, with war society.
Tocqueville was by no means alone in his perception of the affinity between equality and power. At the very end of the 18th century Edmund Burke had written, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, of the passion for leveling that exists in the militant and the military: those, he wrote, “who attempt to level, never equalize.” The French revolution, Burke believed correctly, was different from any revolution that had ever taken place before. And the reason for this difference lay in its combination of eradication of social diversity on the one hand and, on the other, the relentless increase of military-political power that expressed itself in the timeworn fashion of such power. All that tended toward the destruction of the intermediate authorities of social class, province, church, and family brought simultaneously into being, Burke noted, a social leveling and a transfer to the state alone of powers previously resident in a plurality of associations. “Everything depends upon the army in such a government as yours,” he wrote; “for you have industriously destroyed all the opinions and prejudices, and, as far as in you lay, all the instincts which support government.” In words prophetic indeed, since they were written in 1790, Burke further declared that the crisis inherent in “military democracy” could only be resolved by the rise of “some popular general who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command.” Such an individual “shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself.”
The theme of military democracy, of the union of military and social equality, was strong in certain 19th-century critics. We see it in some of Burckhardt’s writings, where he refers to the future rise of “military commandos” in circumstances of rampant equality. We see it, perhaps most profoundly, in James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, though what is most evident in that remarkable work is much less the military, save by implication, than the implacable conflict Stephen discerned between equality and liberty. There were others—Henry Adams in America, Taine in France, Nietzsche in Germany—who called attention to the problem equality creates for liberty in the modern democratic state. Nor were such perceptions confined to the pessimists. Socialists such as Jaurès in France saw in the citizen army, based upon universal conscription, an admirable means of instilling in Frenchmen greater love for equality than for the liberty associated with capitalist society.
It is evident in our day how much more of a force the ethic of equality has become since these 19th-century prophecies and prescriptions were uttered. Two world wars and a major depression have advanced bureaucracy and its inherent regimentations to a point where the ideology of equality becomes more and more a means of rationalizing these regimentations and less and less a force serving individual life or liberty.
No one will question the fact that a higher degree of equality now exists in Western countries than at any time in the past. This is true not only of equality of opportunity and legal equality, each of which became a burning issue by the early 19th century, but of the more generalized equality of economic, political, and social condition. It is result, not opportunity, that is today the central perspective in equalitarianism; and that ideological fact is itself part of the larger reality of an extraordinary achievement of equality of condition or result, at least by the standard given us by history. Nor is there anything strange in the intensification of equalitarianism in such an age as ours, for, on the evidence of the history of social movements, powerful agitation in behalf of some social or moral value comes only when the surrounding social order can be seen to reflect that value in at least some degree, commonly only recently accomplished.
Equality has the great advantage of being able to draw upon both religious and political energies. It is only in the religious and political realms indeed that the cry for equality has been heard historically—much more often in the former than the latter, prior to the age of the French revolution. Whatever else equality is, it is a spiritual dynamic. Major social movements require such a dynamic, irrespective of whether they are primarily religious or political at the core. It is not so much the surrounding material conditions as it is this inner spiritual dynamic that in the long run determines, though by means which are complex and still inadequately understood, what the outcome of an issue will be. I think it would be hard to exaggerate the potential spiritual dynamic that lies in the idea of equality at the present time. One would have to go back to certain other ages, such as imperial Rome, in which Christianity was generated as a major historical force, or Western Europe of the Reformation, to find a theme endowed with as much unifying, mobilizing power, especially among intellectuals, as the idea of equality carries now.
Equality has a built-in revolutionary force lacking in such ideas as justice or liberty. For once the ideal of equality becomes uppermost it can become insatiable in its demands. It is possible to conceive of human beings conceding that they have enough freedom or justice in a social order; it is not possible to imagine them ever declaring they have enough equality—once, that is, equality becomes a cornerstone of national policy. In this respect it resembles some of the religious ideals or passions which offer, just by virtue of the impossibility of ever giving them adequate representation in the actual world, almost unlimited potentialities for continuous onslaught against institutions.
Affluence is a fertile ground for the spread of equalitarian philosophy, for the pains of affluence manifestly include in our age the pain of guilt over the existence of any and all inequalities. It is not enough, as we have been discovering, to create equality before the law—at least to the degree that this is ever possible—and to seek legal equality of opportunity. Vast systems labeled affirmative action or open admissions must be instituted. And then, predictably, it is discovered that even these are not enough.
The reason for this is plain enough. Equality feeds on itself as no other single social value does. It is not long before it becomes more than a value. It takes on all the overtones of redemptiveness and becomes a religious rather than a secular idea.
Like other historic religious ideas, and also ideas of political character, equality has an inherent drive that carries it well beyond national boundaries. The proper abode of equality, like any other redemptive idea, is all mankind, not simply this or that parochial community. We are already in the presence of this universalizing state of mind in discussions of equality. It is not enough that classes and groups in the United States, or in the West, should become equal. The entire world, especially the Third World, must be brought in. Yet simple arithmetic suffices to prove the impossibility of either the United States or the West extending its resources to this Third World—particularly in light of the population increases which would become inexorable and, also, the present spread in these countries of an ideology, Russian or Chinese in source, that, as the present record makes only too clear, reduces what productive power is presently in existence.
But it is the nature of providential ideas like equality that they are stayed by neither fact nor logic. They acquire a momentum of their own, and I can think of few things more probable than the spread of equalitarianism in the West—not despite but because of its manifest irrationality as the sovereign objective of national and world policy.
The significance of equalitarianism in our day is made all the greater by the profound affinity that exists, and has existed for many centuries, between equality and the distinctive nature of the Western state from the time of the Cleisthenean reforms at the end of the 6th century B.C.E. Those revolutionary changes put an end to the inequalities of traditional kinship society in Athens and ushered in the polis. Excepting only, as we are obliged to here, the class of slaves, a high degree of equality was instituted among the Athenian citizens. This equality was, of course, in part a function of the central power that was also inaugurated in the polis, a power that cut, often destructively, through all the intermediate loyalties which had been handed down from the most ancient times. Athenian equality, in sum, is comprehensible only in light of the leveling which resulted from political extermination of the traditional kinship diversity of Athenian society.
Neither Plato nor Aristotle liked equalitarianism, though there is assuredly an equality of sorts within the class of guardians that Plato creates to govern his utopian Republic. But like it or not, both Plato and Aristotle perforce gave equality a higher place than could be imagined in the minds of earlier Greek thinkers such as Heraclitus or statesmen such as Solon. Aristotle, who disliked intensely Platonic communism, nevertheless thought that some degree of equality of wealth was a prerequisite for political stability.
With rare exceptions, the Western philosophy of the political state has carried from that time to ours an imposing emphasis on the desirability of equality. The reason for this lies, in the first instance, in the nature of the power that has gone with the Western state since the Greeks. This power—sovereignty, as it is commonly called—seeks to go directly to the individual. The great difference between the Western state during the past twenty-five hundred years and the traditional state of Asia—as Karl Marx was one of the first to note—lies in the contrasting relation they have to the individual. In China, India, and other Eastern societies prior to the present century, governments reigned, as it were, but did not rule. Their claimed powers were at times certainly as centralized and bureaucratized as anything to be found in the West, but these powers almost never touched individual lives directly. Between the power of the government and the life of the individual lay strata of membership and authority—clan, village, caste, temple—which were almost never penetrated by the ruler or his bureaucracy. It was possible, in short, for the Asiatic state to exist for thousands of years in the presence of, as a superstructure of, a nonpolitical society founded on kinship and locality that was the real center of human life in matters of authority, function, and responsibility.
Very different has been the Western state. Omitting only the Middle Ages—and even then the idea of the centralized state remained vivid to those acquainted with Greek and Latin—the Western structure of political power has been a process of almost permanent revolution against the social groups and authorities which lay intermediate between individual and state. By virtue of its inherent centralization, its definition in terms of territory rather than social or religious function, its prized doctrine of sovereignty through which the state’s power is declared superior and supervening to all other powers, the Western state’s very existence in the ancient world and in the modern since the Reformation has represented a kind of built-in war against traditional society and its ingrained authorities.
In its struggle for individual allegiance the Western state has, in a very real sense, actually manufactured individualism. It has done this not merely as a result of the negative attitude political rulers since Cleisthenes have taken toward social, religious, and economic groups which seemed to be competing with the state, but, perhaps more crucially, in the positive creation of individual rights, freedoms, and benefits. Say what one will of the unique power of the state and of its ail-too familiar capacity for extending this power bureaucratically into the lives of countless human beings, creating coercions and invasions of autonomy all the way, the fact remains that the central power of the state has also been associated with some resplendent gains in liberty and welfare. It is no exaggeration to say that from the time of Pericles, through Alexander the Great, the Caesars, and down to the Cromwells and Napoleons of modern history and also the more centralizing of American Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Lyndon Johnson, a great many such gains have come directly from the use of central power. It was after all the central power of the American government, not the local or regional powers of communities and states, that brought about first the abolition of slavery in the United States and then, slowly but surely, increased civil rights for blacks and other minorities.
It is for this reason, no doubt, that the state in the West has attracted to itself what can only be called a clerisy of power. I refer to the long succession of philosophers and intellectuals from Greek and Roman times to our own who have made the political state the temple, so to speak, of their devotion. Religion is the only other value system that has had its clerisy—older than the political clerisy but, in modern Western civilization, possessed of much less power and influence. No other institution comes to mind that has won itself a clerisy as have religion and politics. Not until the early 19th century did economists come into existence in their own right, and it is hard to find in economic writings any of the sense of redemptive passion that is so common in religious and political works. It is possible, though I am skeptical, that technology today has a clerisy in the sense in which I use the word here. There is surely no other.
Through most of the history of Western civilization the political clerisy has given itself to the needs and values of the state, just as its great rival, the religious clerisy, has to those of the church. Each clerisy has produced its titans—St. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, on the one side; Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, on the other—as well as its vast ranks of lesser minds, its ordinary intellectuals and technicians. The political state can be seen to be a temple in Rousseau quite as much as the church is a temple in Augustine.
It is Tocqueville who, so far as I know, first made the relation between equality and power a principle not only of political sociology but of the philosophy of history. “In running over the pages of our history,” Tocqueville writes in the Introduction to Democracy in America, “we shall scarcely find a single great event of the last seven hundred years that has not promoted equality of condition.” The Crusades, the introduction of firearms, the rise of the infantry, the invention of movable type in printing, the Protestant Reformation, the opening of gates to the New World: all of these, Tocqueville notes, had been attended by a leveling of medieval ranks and a spreading equality of economic, political, and intellectual condition.
But equality is only half the story that Tocqueville gives us, not only in Democracy in America but also in his classic study of the old regime and the French revolution. The other half of the story is, of course, centralization of power. In the same Introduction he writes: “I perceive that we have destroyed those individual powers which were able, singlehanded, to cope with tyranny; but it is the government alone that has inherited all the privileges of which families, guilds, and individuals have been deprived. . . .”
Centralization and equality: these are for Tocqueville the two dominant tendencies of modern Western history, with the relationship between them functional. All that has magnified equality of condition has necessarily tended to abolish or diminish the buffers to central power which are constituted by social classes, kindreds, guilds, and other groups whose virtual essence is hierarchy. As Tocqueville—and before him Burke—perceived, some degree of inequality is the very condition of the social bond. Variations among individuals, in strength, intelligence, age, aspiration, ability of whatever kind, and aptitude, will always tend toward the creation of inequality of result. Only through operation of a single, centralized structure of power that reaches all individuals in a community, that strives to obliterate all gradations of power, rank, and affluence not of this power’s own making, can these variations and this inequality be moderated.
This is clearly the reason that all the great modern revolutions, with the single and mixed exception of the American, have presented the by now often described spectacle of enormous increases in governmental authority. Never mind the motivational value of the catchwords freedom and justice; the unfailing result of European revolutions, culminating in the Communist and Nazi revolutions of this century, has been immensely greater use of political power.
Not least of the reasons for this has been, of course, the role equalitarianism has played in these revolutions. For all European revolutions have been founded upon assault against the kinds of inequality which are the lineal products of the Middle Ages. The real issue was not capitalism but the lingering remnants of feudalism, even for the revolutions in this century which have taken place in the name of socialism. But the thrust toward equalitarianism inevitably led to a disintegration of old social unities, and only the power of the state was left to fill this vacuum.
The conditions for the spread of equality as a motivating value have been very fertile during the past two or three centuries. Populations have grown hugely; local and regional boundaries have eroded away in large measure, thus exposing many inequalities which had been concealed behind these boundaries. Industrialism, with its own machine-based disciplines, has done much, as Marx realized more vividly than anyone before him, to diminish inequalities, to concentrate them, as it were, into the single inequality between capitalist and worker. The immense spread of consumer goods, their cheapness of price, has also done much to bring about a generalized equality of patterns of living, at least as measured against earlier patterns in the West. And finally, as I have noted, there has been the incessant spread of centralized power, whether in the hands of king, military, or the people, during the past two centuries, to spread further equality by virtue of this power’s destructive effects upon social and economic differentiation.
In one of his excellent essays, the British political scientist Kenneth R. Minogue refers to the “suffering-situations” which modern history so abundantly reveals. These either are in fact or can be rendered into a fairly widespread, standardized kind of situation calling for sudden and heroic action, invariably political action. I think inequality will prove to be the single greatest suffering-situation of our age. As one thinks of it, one sees that feudalism and capitalism were regarded in earlier times as suffering-situations by large numbers of intellectuals concerned with political power. The word “feudal” did not come into existence until the 17th century, and when it did it took on almost immediate pejorative significance. By almost all of the key minds of the 17th and 18th centuries, feudalism was regarded as infamous; its localisms, decentralizations, and divisions of power were made tantamount to anarchy and evil. We would not, surely, have seen the central power of the national state increase as greatly as it did in these two centuries had there not been something large and evil, by designation at least, for the state to cope with. The philosophes common liking for highly centralized political power had behind it in great part their loathing of everything “feudal.”
In the 19th century “capitalism” replaced feudalism as the important suffering-situation. Modern radicalism was to a great extent formed around hatred of capitalism, and while not all radicals, by any means, gravitated toward the national state as the means of redemption, we find just about all of them, save only some of the anarchists, profuse in their appreciation of revolutionary centralization of power. If any single thing identifies the modern radical mind, it is the invariably negative reaction to private enterprise, profit, and competition. And just as the national state aggrandized itself in the 17th and 18th centuries at the expense of authorities which could be labeled feudal, so has the national state in the 19th and 20th centuries further aggrandized itself, in powers claimed and in bureaucracy, by virtue of the controls and restraints it has placed upon capitalist enterprise. That the controlling boards and agencies quickly become dominated by representatives of the very industries and channels of commerce they are supposed to regulate, leading to even greater exploitation of consumer and public, is a fact well attested by this time, but not one that ever enters the minds of legislators and others when some alleged suffering-situation leads to the creation of still another regulatory agency.
I am inclined to think that “capitalism” is in our time becoming as moribund, as archaic, a term as “feudalism.” What is surely succeeding these is “inequality,” though there are some serious observers of the present scene who believe that “technology” comes very close in this respect. There is no doubt that the powers of government have become greatly increased in very recent years on the basis of undoubtedly well-intentioned proposals for the regulation of technology, which so many of poetic or romantic disposition have seen as suffocating to the human spirit. Even so, the evidence is clear, I think, that inequality is the great suffering-situation of the late 20th century. In its name power will increase drastically; it already has!
Something more must be said about the mind that above any other I can think of exerts profound influence upon the New Equalitarians in the present age. Rousseau is, as conservatives and anarchists alike came to realize in the early 19th century, the representative of the special kind of power that is inherent in the modern, centralized national state. He is, I believe, the single most radical political mind in the West after Plato—whom Rousseau adored and regarded as the first of his intellectual masters. Only Marx exerts the kind of effect Rousseau has today upon the radical mind.
His influence is more than political in the ordinary sense. He is the real source of that subjectivism of political and social consciousness that has been growing steadily ever since the appearance of his major writings in the late 18th century. Not only in radical ideology, but in large sectors of education, psychology, literature, philosophy, and the social sciences, his distinctive blend of worship of self and of power conceived as community is all too apparent.
What gives Rousseau currency in so many areas of thought on man and the state is his extraordinary combination of emphasis upon the ego and power—the power that lies in the General Will. This is the will of the people, but only of a people that has been cleansed, so to speak, of all the corruptions and prejudices which lie in the historic social order. Equality is the very essence of Rousseau’s political community; but it is the kind of equality that exists when every form of association and every social value that could possibly rival the General Will have been exterminated. Equality of result is the great and overarching aim of Rousseau’s political writings. Freedom too, if we like; but, as nearly all commentators have stressed, Rousseau’s is a very special kind of freedom which is virtually indistinguishable from the equalitarian political community. No one knew better than Rousseau the intensity of political power that would be required to create equality in the political order. It is in this light that one of the New Equalitarians, Christopher Jencks, writes in our day:
If we want substantial redistribution we will not only have to politicize the question of income equality but alter people’s basic assumptions about the extent to which they are responsible for their neighbors and their neighbors for them. . . . As long as egalitarians assume that public policy cannot contribute to economic equality directly but must proceed by ingenious manipulations of marginal institutions like the schools, progress will be glacial. If we want to move beyond this tradition, we will have to establish political control over the economic institutions that shape our society.
But in actuality such control will almost certainly have to go beyond strictly economic institutions and values, which are the express concerns of most proposals today for equality of condition. For, as Rousseau realized so prophetically, once equality has been made the dominant value of a social order, it must, and will, reach toward cultural, social, educational, even psychological spheres of human life, for it is in these that the real consequences of economic inequality are most deeply felt. We have Rousseau’s Confessions as witness of the fact that, in his own life, it was less the occasional poverty he experienced that gnawed at him than the subtler gradations of prestige, influence, and power he encountered when he made his way to the Paris of the Sorbonne, the glittering salons where brilliance of conversation was so much prized, and the philosophes, whose intellectual superior Rousseau was in most respects but whose general love of the haute monde he found repugnant.
Moreover, Rousseau realized, and stated eloquently in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, that the springs of egoism, ambition, and desire for social eminence lie deep in human nature as it has been formed over the long period of man’s history following the original instituting of private property and the rise of the agricultural and mechanical arts. All of man’s ills, his torments and subjections to oppression, originated, Rousseau tells us in the second Discourse, with inequality, when with private property there appeared “social interdependences” which made inequality of status fixed and inevitable. Given the length of mankind’s history since the early “fatal departure” from natural equality, it is evident that corrective measures must be encompassing and powerful. Men may want equality, once its virtue is made evident to them, but more than simple popular desire by majorities is required to root equality securely in human nature. Hence Rousseau’s call, in the Social Contract, for a Legislator, as Rousseau calls him, who will not hesitate to remake human nature itself in the pursuit of equality:
He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions ought to feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual who is by himself a complete and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which he in a manner receives his life and being. . . . He must, in a word, take away from man his own resources and give him instead new ones alien to him, and incapable of being made use of without the help of other men.
Elsewhere Rousseau tells us with the candor that is so typical of his political writings that “if it is good to know how to deal with men as they are, it is much better to make them what there is need that they should be. The most absolute authority is that which penetrates into a man’s inmost being, and concerns itself no less with his will than with his actions.”
How well Rousseau knew! He records in his Confessions that from an early age he had become aware of the fact that men are entirely what their form of government makes them. Hence there must be no reluctance in the uses of power, the power, especially, that lies at the core of the absolute, total, and unremitting General Will. If we would have virtue, Rousseau wrote electrically in his Discourse on Political Economy, we must be willing to establish it!
Western society is rarely lacking in those who, in one way or other, religious or political usually, are obsessed by the mission of establishing virtue. Most clearly, the West is not lacking now in such individuals. And in our time, by a rising number of persons, chiefly intellectuals and politicians, virtue is defined solely and exclusively as equality; again, let it be emphasized, equality of condition or result.
And there is no want either of ingenuity or cleverness in demonstrating that virtue is equality—nothing less, nothing more. Undoubtedly the most highly praised work in philosophy of the past decade or two is John Rawls’s Theory of Justice. Although there is excellent reason to believe that the almost ecstatic response to it will shortly abate among professional philosophers, it is certain that this book will be for a long time to come the central work in moral philosophy for the clerisy of power. It is tailor-made for the needs of those to whom equalitarianism and central power are but two sides of the same coin.
Justice, we discover, is for Rawls “fairness,” which is surely a reasonable definition. What is a good deal less reasonable is the author’s further conclusion that justice and fairness are—equality! And for John Rawls, as for all others in the cult of equality, equality has little to do with historic equality before the law. Through two dubious rhetorical techniques which he labels “the original position” and “the veil of ignorance” Rawls seeks to demonstrate that all men of reason and good will, when liberated from the misconceptions and prejudices of the social order they live in, will easily reach the conclusion that society is built on the rock of equality; that is, equality of “social primary goods,” the economic, cultural, political, and even psychological attributes which are so variously distributed in society as the result of equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Social primary goods, which may be stretched to include even “bases of self-respect,” are to be made equal, or at least equitable, through what he calls “the difference principle.”
This principle means simply that there shall be no inequalities of “social primary goods” in society unless it can be demonstrated that such inequalities are in the interest of the less advantaged. There must be no differences among individuals in social position, the fruits of knowledge. talent, and enterprise, as well as in income and property, except insofar as superior possession among some can be demonstrated to redound to the welfare of others. This, succinctly stated, is Rawls’s difference principle.
The mind boggles at the thought of the political apparatus necessary to give expression to and to enforce such a principle. Rawls seems not to have heard of political bureaucracy, but even if he had, he would no doubt take refuge in his stated principle that the “liberty” of each individual is primary, not to be violated by interests of utility or expediency. Liberty, however, turns out to be for Rawls very much what it is for Rousseau: mere equal shares of something called liberty which bears little relation to the autonomies and immunities which are the true hallmarks of liberty. Equality is the dominant value in Rawls.
The New Equalitarians of our day seem to detest the central elements of the social bond quite as much as Rousseau did. I refer to the whole tissue of interdependences—interactions, conflicts, coercions, conformities, protections, and disciplines—which are the molecules of social order. It is with good reason that our equalitarians detest such interdependences, for, in whatever degree or form, inequality is the essence of the social bond. The vast range of temperaments, minds, motivations, strengths, and desires that exists in any population is nothing if not the stuff of hierarchy. When associations are formed for whatever purpose, cooperation and mutual aid included, inequality is immediately apparent. Even the New Equalitarians would presumably balk at the thought of holding all musical talents to the same limits; and no doubt they would feel the same way with respect to academic and intellectual talents. It is the “economic” they have in mind. But, as I have said, it is cultural, psychological, and social inequality that galls once equality is declared the ascendant ideal. Rousseau detested the arts and sciences, just as he did all social interdependences, seeing correctly that in these areas inequality is impossible to contain.
Inevitably there is opposition to kinship. The family, final enclave of political and economic privacy, is correctly perceived by the New Equalitarians as the most powerful barrier to the redistribution of goods and statuses which is called for in their strategy. In this they are also in harmony with Rousseau, who did not hesitate, in the final pages of the Discourse on Political Economy, to recommend virtual abolition of the family, chiefly as a means of separating the children from what Rousseau described as the “prejudices” of the fathers. There were a number of radical equalitarian movements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that frankly proposed that children be separated from family at a very early age and brought up in state-operated schools. Only thus, it was believed, could the family’s inherently destructive effect upon the ideal of the accomplishment of mass equality be offset.
There is much less awareness of this vital necessity among present-day New Equalitarians, or, if there is in fact awareness, much less courage and forthrightness in recommending abolition of the family. It is much easier to concentrate upon private property as the target, not giving emphasis to the well-attested fact that wherever there is private property there will be a strong family system. After all, the origins of private property lie in clan and kindred; and even after the conjugal family, the household, became the chief element of kinship, its relationship to property remained very close. As Joseph Schumpeter noted in his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, it was not the isolated individual, so dear as an abstract concept to the classical economists, but the household that was the main engine of modern capitalist development. Not economic man but, quite literally, the head of the household working for the present and future of the members of his family, and hence saving and investing, in however small degree, is the central figure in the capitalist drama, as in all earlier forms of economy.
Unquestionably it is this fact that will offer the New Equalitarians their greatest single challenge. For, although equality is a prestige-laden word in contemporary Western society, it is largely the more traditional types of equality—in law and economic opportunity—which are the referents. Individuals at all levels may at times burn with the sense of injustice where the multiple rewards of social life are involved—social and cultural as well as economic—but it is far from certain that a mandatory redistribution would only issue in choice; would wish for a generalized policy of equality, whether of income or anything else. The realization is too strong that, given the immense range of aptitudes, desires, aspirations, strengths, and motivations in any population, any genuine effort to offset this range by a national policy of mandatory redistribution would only issue in novel forms of inequality: those which result when differently endowed human beings are obliged to submit to a single measure of result. Ordinary majority will in democracy, then, can hardly be counted upon, certainly at the present time, to support and give acquiescence to the kind of equality that is dreamed of by those members of the clerisy of power who have result and condition, not law, in their minds.
All of this is true; but we are living in strange and frightening times. Whereas majority will, merely polled by Roper or Gallup, might very well even today register strong opposition to the New Equality, the blunt fact is that an operating and motivated majority will shows clear signs of becoming one of the casualties of the decline of the political habit of mind, of the revolt against politics in any and all of its forms.
The politics of virtue, from Plato to Bentham, has rarely if ever corresponded with emphasis on majority will any more than it has with emphasis on historic individual rights and immunities before the law. Plato thought majority will in the good state as absurd as in matters of mathematical truth. Rousseau made a careful, and absolutely vital, distinction between majority will as such, which he termed the mere “will of all,” and the General Will which might or might not, Rousseau candidly states, be congruent with what a simple majority might wish at any given time. It is interesting to note that in Theory of Justice, while not actually abrogating majority will in a democracy, John Rawls has given it a somewhat lower status among the crucial verities than certain other elements of his just society.
I have perhaps paid too much attention to the writings of the New Equalitarians, for, ascendant though they assuredly are at the present time in the intellectual world, and fertile though they will undoubtedly prove to be in the preparing of political manifestoes and platforms, there is no more reason to believe they will be crucially responsible for egalitarian tendencies in the future than their intellectual forerunners—socialists, social democrats, progressives—have been in the past.
If we plot the development of social equality in Western society over the past few centuries, we find that it follows almost perfectly the development of centralization and bureaucratization in the political sphere. Even more strikingly, the development of equality follows the trajectory of war. It is in periods of national, mass warfare that we observe the greatest advances of the egalitarian ethic in many areas. The point is that even if no egalitarian ethic existed, if there were not the vein of equality in the modern Western mind that there so plainly is, the mere existence of political and military centralization in the modern world would have brought about pretty much the same patterns of equality we see around us.
My own estimate is that a good 75 per cent of all the national programs which have been instituted in Western countries during the past two centuries to equalize income, property, education, working conditions, and other aspects of life have been in the first instance adjuncts of the war state and of the war economy. Equality is far from least among the qualities which go with social and economic programs of nationalization during times of war.
“Every central power which follows its natural tendencies,” wrote Tocqueville, “courts and encourages the principle of equality; for equality singularly facilitates, extends, and secures the influence of a central power.” And it was Thomas Jefferson who observed that the state with power to do things for people has the power to do things to them.
I do not say that the ethic of equality necessarily leads to the demand for absolute power. Philosophers, like the rest of us, are entitled to be taken at their word, and, however naive the New Equalitarians may be in their common indifference to problems of political power, we cannot justly accuse them of wishing to bring about either military socialism or political absolutism. Moreover, there are ages in history when diffuseness of power, fragmentation, and the concomitant forms of local oppression and inequality are so great that even the most ardent libertarian could properly wish for an increase in central political power and the leveling of ranks in society that goes with it. The West has seen such ages. Nor will we soon forget the morally repugnant inequality of legal right imposed upon the blacks right down to very recent times. I do not see how anyone who prizes a free and creative culture could oppose the extension of the forms of equality which have been, over and over, the crucial circumstances within which long-oppressed minorities have broken free and given their talents to the arts, the sciences, politics, and other areas of leadership.
But the evidence is clear enough that we are looking well beyond legal equality in many circles today, and a very different kind of equality is becoming ever more widely prized. With it, or with such achievements of this kind of equality as have been thus far a part of the social order, goes a degree of political power and of political intrusion into once autonomous areas that a rising number of persons will, I am convinced, find odious. Ongoing experience with certain programs of equalitarianism—affirmative action, mandatory busing to achieve ethnic quotas, open admissions, among others—certainly suggests this. All other things being equal, it is more than likely that popular opposition to such programs would increase and even become successful.
Alas, all other things are not equal. For the equalitarianism of such programs is only one facet of a much larger reality: the existence of a bureaucratized welfare state that prizes uniformity above all other things and that, as a large number of recent instances suggest, will stop at nothing to enforce this uniformity. Uniformity is prized by all bureaucracies, political or other, simply because it saves bureaucrats from the always agonizing responsibility of dealing with the individuality and the complexity of real life.
There is a measure of equality without which any community must suffer. And although I would not rank equality among the very highest of the West’s moral values—not as high, assuredly, as liberty and justice—its ethic is no mean one. The tragedy in our time is that what is good in the ethic of equality is fast becoming swamped by forces—of power above all—which aim not, really, at equality in any civilized sense but at uniformity. leveling, and a general mechanization of life.
There is, obviously, inevitable conflict with liberty. I mean the kind of liberty that goes with differentiation, variety, individuality, and a very wide spectrum of social and psychological traits; the kind of liberty that is involved in all creative work, whether in the arts and sciences or in the economic sphere. It is nonsense to say that the pupil in public school today has the same freedom to learn that was once present before uniform programs took command in the country, as the result of the ever-greater penetration of the school system by the federal government and its central bureaus of education. Given these conditions and also the constantly increasing emphasis upon equal grading, or upon no grading at all, with differences between the bright and dull wiped out symbolically, how could there possibly be the freedom to learn that is always stimulated by visible incentive?
There is, to be sure, another kind of freedom that does not suffer from the spread of equalitarianism: the kind best seen in totalitarian societies; the kind that is divisible into equal shares irrespective of the talents and motivations of those holding these shares. The Russian and Chinese governments are scrupulous in their attention to this kind of mass freedom, for there is nothing to worry about in the way of consequences. What such governments do have to worry about is the kind of freedom that is simply impossible to divide equally among a people: the freedom to be creative. The problem of the intellectual, the artist, and the scientist in contemporary Russia is evidence enough of the strain presented to a social order by this kind of freedom, which is inherently incompatible with any kind of equality except equality before the law and of opportunity.
It is extremely unlikely that political power could be as encompassing of life, as penetrating of privacy, were it not for certain changes in the nature of power. If I were to seize upon a single phrase for these changes it would be “the softening of power.” The power of the state is no less—indeed it is far greater—than it was even during the divine-right monarchies. But where the exercise of power over individual life was then nakedly coercive, commonly brutal in infliction, and above all direct and personal, the same exercise of governmental power is today blander, more indirect, engaged in the immobilization of the human mind when possible rather than in the infliction of corporal punishments. A great deal that is commonly ascribed to popular welfare, to humanitarianism, even to increase in individual freedom, might better be ascribed to the softening of power, through organization, technology, social work, psychiatry, equalitarianism, and various other techniques and values whereby the impact of government upon human life has been lessened in the experiencing, all the time that political control of human life has vastly increased.
We have been recently made aware of profound changes in the nature of power in Soviet Russia. Rare today are the brutality, torture, and terror which were so manifest in the Age of Stalin. Rare too are the public trials before state tribunals which in the 1930’s were means not only of exterminating declared enemies of the state but of terrorizing the public at large. I think it is exceedingly unlikely that we shall see again in the world the kind of direct, naked use of force on large numbers of persons which the governments of Stalin and Hitler brought to such heights. Very probably Stalinist and Nazi concentration camps, torture chambers, and death camps represent a watershed in the history of the use of power by government over individual lives. For it is notable that even the Nazi government felt it necessary so to organize the torture and destruction of Jews and others as to conceal so far as was possible these enormities from the German public. To a lesser extent, that was true of Stalin’s Russia as well. Once, in almost all nations of the world, such torture and execution, far from being in any degree concealed, would have been flaunted before the public. I am inclined to think that the advances of humanitarianism during the past century or two, together with advances in technology which have made possible a liberation, through drugs and machinery, from the incidence of pain our ancestors knew, have combined to give people a very different attitude toward the visible infliction of cruelty and brutality.
“Not many people,” writes Sir Dennis Gabor in The Mature Society, “could stand the sight of a tumbril moving slowly through the streets, with the delinquent tied to a stake, and the executioner with the brazier next to him digging the red hot poker into the screaming wretch.” Indeed they could not; not today. Yet a surprisingly short time separates us from ancestors who not only could stand it, but who solemnly regarded such spectacles, along with public hangings and floggings, as indispensable to the maintenance of order. We do not have to go very far back in Western history to find otherwise humane and gentle minds in perfect composure at the sight of floggings, drawings and quarterings, and flayings which it is unlikely that more than a tiny handful of the pathological could today bear the knowledge—much less the sight—of as public policy.
In substantial part, as Sir Dennis observes, the changed attitude toward the more brutal uses of power by governments has come from the changed place of physical pain in almost all human lives. It is difficult, in our age of pain-preventives and pain-liberators, to realize the extent to which physical pain was once commonplace. It is rather horrifying today to read of the agony that was once the unavoidable accompaniment of a long list of diseases, not to mention injuries and disabilities of one kind or other. And, as Sir Dennis well notes, in a society in which physical pain is the common lot, there is not likely to be the same reaction to, the same perception of, pain deliberately inflicted upon individuals either for amusement’s sake or for the protection of society. A social order that could, in its lower classes, find diversion in the frequent spectacle of bloody, knock-down, eye-gouging, nose- or ear-mutilating fights—among women as well as men, we read of the English 18th century—would not be likely to react as we do to the torturing, flogging, and hanging of miscreants.
That kind of society has almost wholly disappeared in our time, and with it the shape of punishment and of power. But such transformation of police or governmental power in no way means that such power has lessened. It can mean actual increase, especially if power is disguised as a form of therapy. The relative absence of Stalinist torture and mass murder in Russia does not mean that a power vacuum now exists. No doubt the memory in the older generation of Stalinist terror is sufficient to restrain dissident impulses, but, as we have recently been made aware, the art and technology of therapy, so called, have become in present-day Russia the commonest guise of power over the unruly or dangerously creative. Techniques lumped in the public mind under the label “brainwashing” have manifestly assumed far greater use in the totalitarian countries than would once have been thought either desirable or necessary by their rulers.
It is not as though such uses of power had not been foreseen—by Huxley, by Orwell, and before both by Samuel Butler in Erewhon, a utopia in which the delinquent and criminal were put in hospitals. It is a commentary on the time we ourselves live in that we are less likely to find Erewhon as humanitarian as our Victorian ancestors might have, for we are too well aware of the employment today of hospitals and other contexts of therapy for the express purposes of punishment and overt behavior control.
It would be comforting if power-as-therapy were confined to the totalitarian societies, but it is not. As I write, there has just been released a 651-page report by Senator Sam Ervin’s subcommittee on constitutional rights which describes in great detail the number and variety of projects, mostly sponsored by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, whose essence is the control of behavior through drugs and related means. Alcoholics, shoplifters, child molesters, and homosexuals are, the report states, but a few of those on whom therapy is being used, often in clear violation of constitutional rights, as a means of alteration of mind and behavior. “There is a real question,” Senator Ervin is quoted as saying in connection with release of the report, “whether the government should be involved at all in programs that potentially pose substantial threats to our basic freedoms.”
Dr. Thomas Szasz has been writing eloquently for years now on the extent to which legal pleas of insanity and mental inadequacy, with consequent commitment of individuals to asylums rather than jails, have intruded into the once sacrosanct area of individual ethical responsibility. Our villains have vanished along with our heroes, and each disappearance is related to a spreading state of mind that sees less and less responsibility devolving upon the individual for his acts. The same overall set of mind that snatches the chronic rapist or the mass murderer from the ranks of villainy and places him among the mentally disturbed is likely to remove the occasional great man or woman from the ranks of heroism and subject this individual instead to relentless examination of private life and to public exposure. Not a Washington or a Lincoln, surely, would have been able to maintain the image of greatness in circumstances such as those the media, the social sciences, governmental investigative agencies and committees, have created.
The greatest power, as major political theorists from Plato to Rousseau have declared, is that which shapes not merely individual conduct but also the mind behind that conduct. Power that can, through technological or other means, penetrate the recesses of culture, of the smaller unions of social life, and then of the mind itself, is manifestly more dangerous to human freedom than the kind of power that, for all its physical brutality, reaches only the body. We shrink today from the infliction of physical pain upon our contemporaries—except, that is, in time of war, and even then we prefer the kind that is dealt out at thirty thousand feet in bombs to the kind revealed at My Lai—but we do not shrink from projects in government, in the social and behavioral sciences, and in the media by which mind and spirit are invaded and thus affected by power, in however soft a form.
Privacy is an excellent litmus test, it would seem, for the actual state of freedom in a culture. I do not think many people would argue seriously that the extent of individual privacy today is even close to what it was a few decades ago. The exposure that Governor Rockefeller was required to make of economic, family, and personal life—and, I think, much more could have been required without serious outcry—during the consideration that followed his nomination to the Vice Presidency would have once been utterly inconceivable. So gross a violation of privacy would surely have converted our political heroes of the past, from Washington to FDR, into beings of somewhat less than heroic mold. I am aware that a strong case can be made for the propriety and safety (to public weal) of detailed penetrations of economic and political privacy. But we shall, I think, find that an equally strong case will shortly be made in justification of identical invasions of sexual and other equally intimate recesses of privacy.
Large-scale government, with its passion for equalitarian uniformity, has prepared our minds for uses of power, for invasions of individual privacy, and for the whole bureaucratization of spirit that Max Weber so prophetically identified as the disease of modernity. We do indeed see, and take a measure of comfort in, certain liberties of an individual kind in the realms of the theater, publishing, and public speech which our ancestors did not know. Rights to obscenity, pornography, public display of body and mind, and others of related character exist which were once absent. If these are in some way connected with the larger structure of freedom, especially political freedom, and might even be reckoned forces in the long run toward ending the kinds of invasion of privacy which governmental, military, and paramilitary agencies now represent, we can perhaps overlook the crudities and vulgarities which such rights so plainly carry with them.
It is well to be reminded, though, that more often than not in history license has been the prelude to exercises of extreme political coercion which shortly reach all areas of a culture. That is one observation that history makes possible. Another and related one is that very commonly in ages when civil rights of one kind are in evidence—those pertaining to freedom of speech and thought in, say, theater, press, and forum, with obscenity and libel laws correspondingly loosened—very real constrictions of individual liberty take place in other, more vital, areas: political organization, voluntary association, property, and the right to hold jobs, for example.
I believe it was Napoleon who first sensed the ease with which, in modern society, the illusion of freedom can be created by strategic relaxation of regulations and law on individual thought, provided it is only individual, while all the time fundamental economic and political liberties are being circumscribed. The real barriers to the kind of power Napoleon wielded as emperor are not individual rights so much as the kinds of rights associated with autonomy of local community, voluntary association, political party. These are the real measure of the degree to which central political power is limited in a society. Neither centralization nor bureaucratized collectivism can thrive as long as there is a substantial body of local authorities to check them. But on the other hand there is no reason why a considerable degree of individual freedom cannot exist with respect to such matters as sexual conduct, speech, writing, and religious belief without serious impact upon the structure of political power. There are, after all, certain freedoms which are like circuses. Their very existence, so long as they are individual and enjoyed chiefly individually as by spectators, diverts men’s minds from the loss of other, more fundamental, social and economic and political rights.
A century ago, the liberties which now exist routinely on stage and screen, on printed page and canvas, would have been unthinkable in America—and elsewhere in the West, for that matter, save in the most clandestine and limited of settings. But so would the limitations upon economic, professional, educational, and local liberties, to which we have by now become accustomed, have seemed equally unthinkable a half century ago. We enjoy the feeling of great freedom, of protection of our civil liberties, when we attend the theater, watch television, or buy paperbacks. But all the while we find ourselves living in circumstances of a spread of military, police, and bureaucratic power that cannot help but have, that manifestly does have, profoundly erosive effect upon those economic, local, and associative liberties which are by far the most vital to any free society. From the point of view of any contemporary strategist or tactician of political power, indulgence in the one kind of liberties must seem a very requisite to diminution of the other kind. We know it seemed that way to the Caesars and Napoleons of history. Such indulgence is but one more way of softening the impact of political power and of creating the illusion of individual freedom in a society grown steadily more centralized, collectivized, and destructive of the diversity of allegiance, the autonomy of enterprise in all spheres, and the spirit of spontaneous association that any genuinely free civilization requires.
The New Despotism
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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.