To the Editor: As a senior member of the Israeli team negotiating with Syria for the first five rounds of…
To the Editor:
As a senior member of the Israeli team negotiating with Syria for the first five rounds of the peace process that started in Madrid, and as a close observer of the five additional rounds of talks that have been held since the change of government in Israel, I would like to add a few pertinent facts about that area of the peace process to the debate over Norman Podhoretz’s two Statements on the Peace Process [April and June 1993].
Syria refuses to sign a bilateral peace treaty with Israel. Nor is Syria ready for peace in the true sense. As defined by then-President Bush, true peace means the normalization of relations between the two countries, including the exchange of ambassadors, tourism, commerce, etc. Syria rejects this. It contends that the aim of the negotiations is the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242, which Syria interprets as commanding Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967 (though, of course, Resolution 242 does not use the word “all”), in exchange for nothing more than an end to the state of belligerency (though, of course, Resolution 242 calls for the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries”).
The Syrian position has not changed since day one. Even a major Israeli concession—the agreement by the Labor government to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights (the degree of which to be determined by the degree of peace to which Syria will agree)—has failed to produce any reciprocal Syrian move. “Peace is not a treaty,” the chief Syrian negotiator, Ambassador Muwaffaq al-Allaf, insists in repeatedly avoiding a contractual bilateral commitment, “peace is a state of mind.”
Ambassador Allaf has made the Syrian position clear not only behind closed doors but also in public. Thus, on September 20, 1992, in an interview with Radio Monte Carlo, he stated that “even after Israel’s withdrawal from all the occupied territories, the peace treaty will be left for the time being. . . .”
Indeed, when Syrian spokesmen, on all levels, speak about a “full,” “comprehensive,” or “total” peace, they never include the essential element of peace in its true sense: a bilateral treaty with Israel involving normalization of relations in (to use President Bush’s words) “all its aspects.”
President Clinton also used these words in a letter sent to Hafez al-Assad between the ninth and tenth rounds. In that letter Clinton strongly implied that if Syria would agree to such a peace, the United States would put pressure on Israel to make additional concessions. But Assad never replied, except indirectly through the press, where he once again made clear his refusal to conclude a contractual peace in all its aspects with Israel, and urged the U.S. to pressure Israel in order to advance the negotiations.
This refusal is what blocked any progress in the talks at the time of the Likud government, and it is precisely what blocks them now.
A document reiterating the Syrian position was officially submitted to the Israeli negotiating team in the second part of the sixth round (after the Israeli concession over the Golan!). Syria was willing to make the document public but Israel requested that it be kept secret.
Syria also rejects the following:
- An interim settlement.
- A “security settlement” in Lebanon to be concluded by Syria and Israel, as a first step. Both Israel and the U.S. proposed this but were turned down. (Syria has also prevented Lebanese authorities from disarming Hezbollah, which thus remains the only armed militia continuously causing crises on the Israeli-Lebanese front—the most serious of which, of course, erupted in the last week of July.)
- Confidence-building measures.
- Incremental agreements, such as one to refrain from hostile propaganda (in which Israel is not engaged anyway).
- A summit meeting between President Assad and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin or between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his counterpart Farouk al-Sharaa, who called this Israeli suggestion “a silly idea.”
None of this necessarily means that the Syrian position is written in stone and will never change. Conceivably Assad might some day follow Sadat’s historic example and opt for real peace. But he has not done so yet.
I am not against concessions in principle. On the contrary, I consider them essential to any peace process, and I personally support a willingness on the part of Israel to make concessions. What I do not support—and what I consider insupportable—are unilateral concessions by Israel. Such concessions are, in fact, a form of appeasement that should be judged—given the implications for Israel’s security and survival—first and foremost on a moral basis. Not to mention that appeasement never works.
To the Editor:
As a former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, I would like to respond to Norman Podhoretz’s criticism of the Rabin government’s peacemaking policy. Mr. Podhoretz categorically rejects the peace process. He argues that:
- The Middle East is still not ripe for peace.
- The Arabs have not indicated serious intent to make peace.
- The rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism further decreases prospects for peace.
Mr. Podhoretz could be right or wrong. There is no way to find out short of holding negotiations to assess the other side’s readiness for concessions. That is exactly what Menachem Begin did with Egypt from 1977 to 1979. And that is what Israel is trying to do today.
In my opinion, we may have a chance to reach an acceptable solution. And if we miss this opportunity we will not only lose time but will pay with blood and a growing socioeconomic burden. In several years we could end up back at the negotiating table under considerably worse conditions.
Every negotiation entails risks, but I fail to see where Mr. Podhoretz gets the impression that Israel, led by Yitzhak Rabin, will ever accept agreements that could jeopardize its security.
Let me now discuss first Syria and then the Palestinians.
1. Syria. Syria has no reason to believe that it can get all or most of the Golan Heights back without making full peace with Israel. Of course, Assad would prefer to avoid paying this price. Like Sadat, he would no doubt have been glad to see Israel disappear altogether.
The Syrians will accept a peace treaty with Israel only because of:
- A deep conviction that the Arabs are incapable of militarily destroying Israel.
- A psycho-political need to regain the Golan Heights.
- Increasing pressure within Syria, fueled by war fatigue, to change the national order of priorities.
When Syria offers us “Total Peace for Total Withdrawal,” we do not know what it means by “Total Peace.” But it certainly sounds like more than mere “nonbelligerence.”
Mr. Podhoretz asks, appropriately: even if we sign a treaty, how can we be assured that Assad’s heir will honor it? We cannot, and yet my answer is: Assad’s successor will likely be guided by the same considerations of Syrian interests that guide Assad today, as happened in Egypt; it is one thing to oppose a policy prior to implementation, and another to reverse a political reality after a treaty has been signed and implemented; and if the treaty includes reliable security arrangements (and Israel will never agree to anything less), then even a change in the Syrian regime is manageable. Security arrangements will be a major deterrent to renewed aggression.
Mr. Podhoretz sees no signs that Syria has changed its position regarding peace. . . . Yet if he read the Syrian media, he would see that since the beginning of the peace process, and especially in the last six months, Assad has been preparing Syrian public opinion for peace with Israel. A June 27 New York Times article, in which Syrian officials and ordinary people openly discussed peace with Israel, reinforces this assessment.
What does the Syrian citizen read in his own official press? Assad has become the “hero of war and peace.” The media again and again explain the importance of peace for Syrian welfare, prosperity, and economic development. They write, “Syria is heading for peace” and “Peace is a central Syrian interest,” while Israel is portrayed as resisting the peace process.
2. The Palestinians. Mr. Podhoretz asks whether Israel could prevent the transformation of Palestinian “autonomy” into an independent state.
This is the wrong question. The real question is whether an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel could pose a threat to Israel’s existence. For decades we held as sacred the idea that raising a Palestinian flag in a sovereign state would be tantamount to a death sentence for Israel. The time has come to reexamine this assumption.
A Palestinian state might or might not pose a serious security threat, depending on the outcome of the negotiations. Clearly, we cannot depend on Palestinian good will. I personally know many Palestinians whose intentions I fully trust, but they may not prevail. Moreover, a Palestinian state could someday be overtaken by radical Islamic fundamentalism, which rejects Israel’s very existence.
Also, we cannot trust international political and military guarantees. In the end, we can count only on the Israeli army’s ability to defend Israel under all contingencies.
A peace treaty must contain the following elements:
- The treaty must be comprehensive, including agreements on all disputed issues. With the Palestinians this means ending violent struggle, and agreeing on borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and the Israeli settlements in the territories. From talks that I have held with Palestinians, I believe that an understanding on these questions is feasible.
- The timetable for implementation must link progress in resolving the above issues to the transfer of authority and Israeli withdrawal.
- A Palestinian state must accept indefinite demilitarization of its entire territory.
- Some Israeli security forces must remain stationed within the territories—by mutual consent—for as long as is deemed necessary.
Will the Palestinians accept such stringent conditions? Perhaps not. However, we cannot know until we negotiate fully.
The choice is not between a risk-free solution versus a dangerous adventure. The real choice is between two difficult and risky options. Eventually both sides will have to compromise and choose the lesser of two evils: a political settlement, offering the Palestinians a far-reaching and generous proposal that in no way compromises Israel’s ability to defend itself against any military threat.
If Norman Podhoretz is indeed right and the Arabs are not ready for such a solution, Israel is smart and strong enough to resist a disadvantageous deal. However, it would be foolish of us to quit the negotiations without fully exploring the chances for a real agreement.
I fail to see why, as Mr. Podhoretz suggests, we should forgo this opportunity to put the Arab side to the test.
Tel Aviv, Israel
To the Editor:
. . . Israel’s strategic situation has changed fundamentally in the last five to ten years, and the time factor is beginning to work against and not for us. As a matter of historical record, during the Yom Kippur war our first worry was to bring the Golan settlers and their families into safety in Israel, before even thinking of fighting the Syrians. An empty Golan may eventually be a fortress against an attacking army, but this is obviously not true of a populated one; instead of the Golan Heights protecting us, thanks to the settlers, we have to protect them! . . .
The Gulf war brought the fundamental change in the overall strategic situation to everyone’s attention. The advent of medium and long-range missiles in the Middle East has changed the rules of war for us and has brought the war to the main population centers of Israel. Norman Podhoretz rightly points out that Assad is arming himself with missiles; we are doing the same and for the same reasons, but with one small difference: we are producing them, while Assad has to buy them. However, the point of the matter is that our pain threshold is very low indeed. The few Iraqi handmade low-grade Scud missiles, which just made it and hit Tel Aviv, brought home to us that a demilitarized Golan Heights may perhaps be a better deal than having Tel Aviv destroyed and/or gassed by Syrian or perhaps Iranian missiles. While conventional missiles will not decide the outcome of the war, gas or nuclear ones may wipe out our population. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz says he does not believe Assad, Faisal Husseini, and Arafat, but what is the alternative? He quotes Kissinger saying that most wars have broken out between nations previously at peace; but then the opposite is also true: every peace begins by talking to your enemy. . . .
The danger for us lies not in any parallel with the destruction of the First Temple and Jeremiah’s prophecy, but rather with the destruction of the Second Temple and the role played in it by the Zealots, Bar Kochba, and their fundamentalist followers. . . . Some 600,000 Jews lost their lives to the Roman soldiers and Dio Cassius commented laconically, “all of Judea became almost a desert.” Today we have a lot of Rabbi Akibas, Bar Kochbas, and, especially, a lot of zealots.
Yes, Mr. Podhoretz should meddle in Israeli affairs, but he should choose the side of reason and democracy and not that of messianic nationalistic zealotry.
To the Editor:
As someone who fully shares Norman Podhoretz’s concern for Israel’s security and his skepticism regarding the Rabin government’s approach to current negotiations, I take every opportunity to listen to representatives of the governing parties in Israel, hoping, like Mr. Podhoretz, to have my concerns dispelled. But every such encounter only intensifies my misgivings.
A recent talk given in the Boston area by Knesset member and Meretz leader Ran Cohen is a case in point. I had anticipated that Cohen, a respected reserve officer whose military expertise must surely have included a capacity for clear-eyed assessment of challenging situations, would offer carefully thought-out arguments. Instead, he uttered the same nebulous and untenable analyses one hears from other coalition representatives.
To be sure, Cohen opened by asserting that he is determined Israel will remain capable of defending itself. But he also made clear his conviction that Israel ought to cede virtually all the territory captured in 1967, including the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley, and retain only Jerusalem. He said nothing of how Israel’s security might be maintained after such withdrawals.
Cohen went on to declare that war is bad, Israel needs peace, and the current government, unlike its predecessor, is intent on hammering out agreements with Israel’s neighbors. But those skeptical about the current peace process fear that, by its concessions in pursuit of unenforceable agreements, the government will undermine Israel s capacity to defend itself and increase, rather than decrease, the likelihood of war. Mr. Cohen never touched on this possibility.
Similarly, he stressed that Israel must move quickly to secure agreements because conditions for negotiations are more promising now than they might be later. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, for example, may eventually render the Arab parties less amenable to negotiations. But in arguing that negotiating conditions are better now than they may be later, Cohen failed to address a more fundamental point: are these conditions sufficient to attain a genuine, durable peace in return for Israeli concessions?
Cohen assured his audience that Syria is prepared for genuine peace, but referred only to some cryptic public statements by Assad as evidence. Nor did he address the issue of similar, highly ambiguous public statements having been made in the past by many other Arab leaders when they were wooing Western, particularly American, opinion, only to be withdrawn later. Examples include remarks by Saddam Hussein in the late 1980’s, shortly before he shifted to threats to incinerate half of Israel and, subsequently, to missile attacks on Tel Aviv.
Cohen also assured his audience that the future Palestinian state which he advocates would be democratic because, he explained, the Palestinians, having lived under an occupation, have come to appreciate the value of democracy. This novel piece of reasoning would no doubt startle the Palestinians’ Arab brethren, who, in their almost two-dozen countries, have invariably seen the achievement of Arab sovereignty accompanied by the installation of homegrown dictatorships.
Addressing the rising power of Hamas in the Palestinian community, Cohen attributed the influence of the fundamentalists to the absence of progress in the peace talks, decried the “negative” response of the government—the temporary expulsion of 400 Hamas militants—as simply promoting the prestige of the rejectionists, and called for “positive” steps to aid Palestinian moderates.
During a question-and-answer period, I asked why he attributed a rise in fundamentalist fervor among the Palestinian Arabs simply to Israeli policies when that same fervor is sweeping much of the Arab world. Moreover, its key social precipitants, including disgust with a corrupt secular leadership, are to be found among the Palestinian Arab population irrespective of the conflict with Israel.
Cohen’s response was merely to assert that while my comments had some validity, his personal friendships with Palestinians persuaded him that peace could be had. . . .
Other comments by Cohen were at once uglier and more peculiar. He informed his audience that evacuation of the settlers from the territories posed no problem because the settlers’ ultimate concern is money and they can be paid to abandon their homes and return to pre-1967 Israel. He believed that the Palestinians, despite their statements to the contrary, would allow the few Jews who actually might want to remain to do so on condition that Israel would be generous in permitting Palestinians into pre-1967 Israel. Apparently, he saw nothing wrong with Arab insistence on a Judenrein West Bank and Gaza and did not regard the nearly 900,000 Arabs already living as citizens in pre-1967 Israel as precedent enough for Jews being tolerated in potentially Arab-controlled areas. . . .
Missing from Ran Cohen’s talk, as it is from most statements by the current Israeli government, was any serious discussion of how well or ill the government’s negotiating objectives conform to the conditions necessary for a secure and lasting peace.
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz need make no apologies. The substance of his criticism of the Rabin coalition’s headlong pursuit of “peace” is totally consistent with his past positions. . . .
Clearly, any responsible critic of or commentator on the peace process has to treat seriously . . . the reality that—unrelated to the Arab-Israel dispute—the Middle East remains “a conflict-ridden and conflict-generating area.” It is a region dominated by inter-Arab tensions and hostilities; ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions; political and religious ferment. These divisive forces threaten every Arab ruling regime, exert decisive influence on Arab attitudes and policies, and thwart development of the basic political stability that is an essential precondition for peace.
Simply and sadly put, force and violence still are the usual means of conflict-resolution within and between Arab states. Respect for human rights and democratic norms is absent; international treaties, agreements, and the rule of law are paid little heed.
This last point is especially pertinent. The historical record testifies to the fact that treaties, pledges, and agreements among Arab nations are easily discarded when power alignments shift in the Arab world. By what conceivable logic can one argue that treaties and agreements with Israel would be treated differently?
Further, responsibility demands that the seekers of “peace now” directly address the continuing Arab boycott of companies dealing with Israel; the increased sponsorship of terrorism by Syria, Sudan, Iran, and others; the continued flow of anti-Semitic canards in the state-controlled media of Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and the race for long-range missile systems and other sophisticated weaponry that is now taking place throughout the Arab world. . . .
Responsibility also demands that rather than uncritically accepting the double-speak of Yasir Arafat or the whispered blandishments of a few Arab intellectuals, the seekers of “peace now” account for the ongoing spate of official and unofficial statements from PLO and other Arab leaders, prominently played up in the Arab media, which demonstrate their continuing rejection of Israel’s right to exist. . . .
And, of course, one cannot ignore Hamas, widely regarded as the fastest growing influence among the Palestinian Arabs. Hamas . . . simply states, unequivocally, that “Israel will continue to exist until Islam eliminates it, just as Islam eliminated what preceded it.” . . .
Where is convincing evidence that a hostile Arab world has been transformed and is prepared now to accept Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state in the Middle East? As the current peace negotiations themselves attest, such evidence still does not exist. And that is the most fundamental reality the seekers of “peace now” cannot or will not recognize. . . .
The long-term challenges to real Middle East peace and Israel’s survival can be met only if we demand a more sober-minded recognition of the history, culture, and political realities of the Middle East. The surrender of territory, an irrevocable act, in return for a paper peace that is easily repudiated does nothing to address those realities or to ensure Israel’s survival. In time, however, if Israel maintains genuinely defensible borders and an effective military deterrent, the Arab world can be brought to accept the pragmatic reality of Israel.
Only then will the chance for durable peace be real. Only then will we be able to speak responsibly of “peace now.” That, I believe, is the essential substance of Norman Podhoretz’s position, now as in the past.
Arnold M. Soloway
Center for Near East Policy Research
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s Statements offer, for the first time, a realistic approach to a situation which is becoming more and more untenable. We cannot simply be intoxicated by the word “peace.” We should, to begin with, be suspicious that the Arabs refuse to define what kind of peace they want, what form it should take, and whether it means more than the absence of war. . . .
The Arabs have learned that their “no” to every concession the Rabin government makes has produced more concessions. They are well aware of the fact that . . . Rabin’s promise during the election campaign that peace with the Palestinians would be achieved in nine months, and with the Syrians within a year, is coming to haunt him. He is also under pressure from the Americans who are chasing after their illusions and are eager to keep the talks going at any price. It is not a pleasant situation. . . . What the Arabs could not achieve on the battlefield, they want to gain at the peace table.
What kind of peace can we expect? Let us consider the case of Egypt, the only Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt has violated the military provisions of the treaty. . . . Trade between the two countries is one-sided: Israel imports Egyptian goods but Egypt buys only a limited amount of Israeli goods. Egyptian companies still participate in the Arab boycott of Israel. Hostile propaganda in the government-controlled press continues unabated. Israeli tourists go to Egypt, but Egyptian tourists do not come to Israel. . . .
Sixty years of preaching hatred, conducting wars, and indulging in every kind of terror have created an Arab attitude of unlimited hostility that cannot be wiped out by a peace conference. Although the Arabs have been deprived of their Soviet protector and ally, they have not grasped the fact that their value to the West is rapidly declining. The price and consumption of oil are going down; disunity among Arab governments is growing; dictators like Assad do not live forever. Future events will change perceptions of power and principles of diplomacy and strategy.
There is an alternative to the peace process, expressed in an editorial in the Jerusalem Post: “The obvious, painful conclusion Israel must draw is that its hopes of integrating into the region and establishing true and lasting peace will have to await a sea change in Arab attitudes.” The situation in the Middle East is fluid and developments quite uncertain. . . . If Israel does not succumb to Arab bullying and American “partnership” in the peace process, maybe playing a waiting game will result in real peace.
Union, New Jersey
To the Editor:
. . . No one in his right mind would object to the Arabs and Israel talking to each other—when the time is ripe. But is this the time? . . .
The Arabs have managed to split the peace process into two independent segments, “peace” and “process,” making the latter the dominant issue. They procrastinate, sensing that time is on their side and that delay may help them achieve their goal of an independent Palestinian state which would be a way station to the eventual destruction of the “Zionist entity.”
Neither side is sure of the direction that the third party, the United States, will take during the negotiations. Both sides see the inexperience and vacillation of the Clinton-Christopher foreign policy. Israel particularly is afraid that the Clinton administration will try to save face by imposing an unacceptable solution on Israel.
Instead of being maligned, Mr. Podhoretz ought to be praised for his far-sightedness. The political reality is that now is not the time for meaningful negotiations. Therefore, negotiations are not in Israel’s interest. Unless and until Rabin widens his coalition, he is in no position to achieve his promise for peace—real peace, not a scrap of meaningless paper.
Samuel L. Tennenbaum
West Orange, New Jersey
To the Editor:
I have been following the debate about “criticizing” Israel in COMMENTARY and in the Sunday New York Times. Let me say that there is no real contradiction between Norman Podhoretz’s new position and his earlier one: his consistency is the survival of Israel. The military facts cannot be denigrated as the product of either a “hard-line” or a “conservative” mentality. As I once noted, Napoleon said that geography is strategy. The new Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands this clearly. He points out that the Judean and Samarian mountain ranges make virtually impossible an invasion of Israel from the east. He also understands that, militarily, the Golan Heights are necessary to the military security of Israel (though Gaza is not). Militarily, the formula “land for peace” is a recipe for suicide.
Israel’s Arab and Egyptian neighbors are anything but stable. The area is being revolutionized by Islamic fundamentalism. What sort of “peace” under these conditions is worth diminishing military security?
Lyme, New Hampshire
To the Editor:
I recently summarized what has been happening in the Arab-Israeli peace process since the last Israeli elections as follows: the Israeli government has embarked on a process of self-induced suicide, with the U.S. State Department acting as Dr. Kevorkian. . . . My frame of reference is “The Peace Imperative,” an official document distributed . . . by Israeli diplomatic missions. From the June issue of COMMENTARY I learned that it was primarily written in response to Norman Podhoretz’s April “Statement on the Peace Process.” . . . In his June Statement, Mr. Podhoretz handled two of the most important issues raised by that document very well. Here I will deal with other sections which reveal the mind-set of the authors of the document, and which lead me to conclude that he was too mild in his criticism. . . .
“The Peace Imperative” . . . contains a strange mixture of fear (e.g., warning of potential danger from Iran) with an inflated sense of importance. For example, the claim that Israeli actions, which in this document invariably mean concessions, will significantly reduce “Islamic fundamentalism” in the region and the world. This obsession with Islamic fundamentalism raises some unsettling issues: (1) Here is another example of Israel trying to justify its existence not on self-evident right, but by claiming it can provide service to the world. (2) Israel used to encourage Islamic activities as a counterweight to PLO “nationalists”; this policy ended up facilitating the foundation of Hamas. (3) Now Israel has reversed course and is dangerously close to “koshering” the PLO, whose Covenant is not much less murderous toward Israel than that of Hamas.
The only Jewish ideology recognized in “The Peace Imperative” is the East European turn-of-the-century socialist notion of a “new Jewish person,” . . . and we all know what happened to its cousin, Stalin’s “new Soviet person.” . . . Equally pathetic is the rather flimsy rationale used to justify dangerous concessions. For example: “Assad made a thinly veiled appeal to Israeli public opinion, noting ‘the increased number of Israelis who want peace.’” I read this again and again and it is clear to me that Assad is not offering anything, let alone peace. On the contrary, he blames the absence of peace so far on the alleged absence of peace-lovers in Israel. He also obviously wants to influence Israeli public and official opinion to yield to his demands, and in this he has had some success, as Mr. Podhoretz has shown.
Reading this document eliminated my earlier hopes that there was some hidden sophistication behind the strange moves of the Israeli government. Reluctantly and with trepidation, because I do not wish to insult honorable and otherwise intelligent persons, I have to conclude that the closest model into which we can fit recent Israeli moves is that of the simpletons of Jewish folklore, “the wise men of Chelm.”
How else can one explain the rather innovative “bargaining strategy” of giving away even before the sessions start much of what was supposed to be haggled over? . . . As could have been expected, the Arabs treated these concessions as a given and proceeded to demand further concessions. . . .
The following should remove any doubts about the Chelmite nature of such a “strategy.” Israel has given up, one by one, matters of principle and safety valves that had originally been part of the Madrid formula. One of the latest was agreeing that Faisal Husseini, who is a resident of Jerusalem, be an official leader of the “Palestinian” delegation (one no longer hears that these people were supposed to be part of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation). Rabin said that this would not affect the status of Jerusalem, which is the eternal united capital of Israel and is not subject to negotiations. Then, lo and behold, recently Jerusalem has been discussed . . . and it has already been decided to allow the Arab residents of Jerusalem to participate in the autonomy voting. . . .
The document contains lists of what Israel is giving up but no demands on the Arabs, not even that they stop the economic boycott now that no new Jewish communities are allowed in the territories. Even the not-too-friendly Bush-Baker regime demanded that. The only apparent exception—that Israel will not engage in discussion over the dimensions of withdrawal until the Syrians clarify whether they are prepared for full peace and normalization of relations—has already been violated. No such “clarification” was issued, yet Israel could not wait to make a major uncalled-for gift to Syria. An item on the front page of the July 1 Wall Street Journal says: “A senior Israeli official disavowed any permanent claim by Israel to the Golan Heights which he described as ‘occupied territory.’” Were I Assad, I would continue to sit tight and wait for the next Chelmite free gift, knowing that I would not have to wait long. . . .
Then there is the tinkering with history. . . . Consider the following: “Fate has decreed that the Israeli and Palestinian people share a narrow patch of land.” I don’t know who “fate” is and when he/ she “decreed” anything. The current situation is a direct result of what Israelis and Arabs did or did not do.
The next sentence is an abomination: “The resulting hatred and violence have slowly worked [their] poison on both sides.” I do not believe there is a single Israeli textbook containing anti-Arab instruction. In fact, I cannot recall an article in any of the many Israeli newspapers which denigrates Arabs as Arabs. This is rather remarkable given the history of the conflict. In the Arab states, on the other hand, the textbooks and the media are full of ferocious anti-Semitic and anti-Israel lies and hatred. And this did not start in 1967, nor did it start, as the Israeli document claims, “during the almost half-century of conflict which followed the creation of the state” (this is a typical internalization of the Arab line which maintains that trouble started when Israel was established). It started long before and was highlighted by the riots of 1920, 1929 (when the old Jewish community of Hebron was obliterated), 1936-39 (when quite a number of Jews were killed), and the years in between. . . .
The current Israeli government says that “Zionism emerged as the answer to perpetual insecurity. The Jewish catastrophe during World War II made the establishment of Israel an imperative.” . . . In other words, the government accepts the Arab version of why Israel was established, and, thereby, the Arabs’ collateral complaint that they have been asked to pay for the crimes the Europeans committed against the Jews. This official (!) document thus spits in the face of all those whose superhuman effort and dedication for more than a century (and the dreams of almost 2,000 years) came to fruition with Israel’s independence and subsequent flourishing. And these are the people in whose hands the future of Israel now lies.
University of Illinois
To the Editor:
At the conclusion of his June article, Norman Podhoretz writes that he is “praying with all my might that my analysis is wrong and the Rabin government and its spokesmen are right.” Save your prayers for the people of Israel, Mr. Podhoretz. If the anti-national, socialist ideologues of the present government succeed in their goal of peace-at-any-price, Israel will be stripped of its strategic frontiers and historic heritage and emerge as a tiny, indefensible enclave able to survive only as a protectorate of the United States or the United Nations—if it still exists and has not already been destroyed in a second Holocaust after the fifth Arab war against Israel. . . .
George E. Rubin
New York City
To the Editor:
It is clear, after reading both of Norman Podhoretz’s Statements, that he sees the “peace process [as] a trap from which it will be very hard for Israel to escape.” Why, then, does COMMENTARY continue to use the misleading label “peace process”?
The Israelis want peace, but history has shown that the Arab nations are, and have been, uniformly opposed even to the idea of a Jewish state. What in fact has been going on ever since Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt . . . should more accurately be called the “surrender process.” . . .
What the use of the phrase “peace process” accomplishes is to make Jews feel good with every step Israel takes toward the trap, and make them feel bad every time Israel balks at an outrageous Arab demand. Let COMMENTARY take the lead in calling this nefarious trap the “surrender process” that it is.
Matthew A. Rosenblatt
To the Editor:
The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s attack on Norman Podhoretz’s “Statement on the Peace Process” is a disturbing manifestation of the topsy-turvy policy some elements in the Israeli government seem to be pursuing: attack Israel’s American friends while coddling Israel’s enemies. Consider the following:
- An article in the Boston Globe reports that, according to a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Israeli embassies may no longer distribute (in the words of the article) “inflammatory PLO material, such as its charter which calls for the destruction of Israel.” Thus, statements which attack longstanding friends of Israel are freely issued by the Ministry, but even something as uncontroversial as a translation of the PLO Covenant may not be distributed, lest terrorists be offended.
- The recent forced resignation of Harvey Friedman, a vice president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), after complaints from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Friedman reported that in a meeting with three American Congressmen Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin expressed willingness to see Israel return to its pre-’67 borders (save for Jerusalem), a significant deviation from official Israeli policy. Beilin denied the report and took his revenge by having the Foreign Ministry intercede with AIPAC to force Friedman out. Incidentally, Friedman claims that his account of the meeting can be verified by the three Congressmen present.
- The highly partisan remarks of Avraham Burg, the number-three man in the Israeli Labor party, at a public meeting in Pittsburgh this past November at which he attacked AIPAC as radically right wing and excoriated the audience for not speaking out against the Israeli government during the period it was led by Likud.
Norman Podhoretz—like several other pro-Israel American commentators who have recently found themselves in the Foreign Ministry’s sights—has been a loyal and consistent defender of the Jewish state. Under his stewardship, COMMENTARY has been an important and influential voice speaking out on behalf of Israel. The hysterical reaction that greeted his April Statement says more about the character of his critics—and their dubious “peace-in-our-time” ideology—than it does about Mr. Podhoretz’s well-reasoned, temperate, and carefully-considered essay.
Mountain View, California
To the Editor:
I would like to express my disagreement with Norman Podhoretz. But let me say first that this does not stem from any quarrel with Mr. Podhoretz’s view that the current Israeli administration is leading itself down the primrose path in the peace negotiations and that it seems to have taken too literally the old admonition that it is better to give than to receive. I also have no problem with Mr. Podhoretz’s characterization of many of his “dovish” critics in Israel and in the U.S. as hypocritical. The hypocrisy of the “peace activists” in both countries is neither new nor surprising. . . .
Second, I have no argument with the distinction he draws between his own criticism of Israeli policy, which is motivated by a sincere desire for Israeli security, and that of the Jewish Left, which, in spite of its protestations, is frequently not so motivated. Nor, in contrast to the Jewish Left, does Mr. Podhoretz argue that criticizing Israeli policy is legitimate, while criticizing the critics of Israeli policy is McCarthyite suppression.
Having said this, I am nevertheless unhappy with the implicit message in both of Mr. Podhoretz’s Statements that American Jews should take sides in internal Israeli partisan politics. Let me briefly summarize my views:
- Representation without taxation is just as objectionable as taxation without representation. (Any American Jew who thinks that contributing to the Jewish National Fund or other charities is the moral equivalent of taxation should try living in Israel and paying Israeli taxes.)
- U.S. Jews do not bear the consequences of Israeli policy choices. Hence it is unethical of them to try to influence those choices. Israelis bear the consequences, economic and strategic, of their decisions, including their foolish ones. It is morally uncourageous to try to particpate in internal Israeli political debate without taking the admittedly quite difficult road of actually living in Israel.
- In the last election, 37 parties ran for office in Israel, not counting political groups who chose not to run (like Peace Now). If American Jews were to pick sides in Israeli electoral politics, they would squander their energies and resources on partisan bickering. If politicization were carried to its logical conclusion, with U.S. Jews allied with the Israeli parties of their choice, and if each group were to withhold financial and moral support for Israel when its party of preference was out of power, the bulk of American support for Israel would disappear, regardless of who was in power.
- U.S. Jews, who do not face daily conditions of life in Israel and who do not know the language, are at a disadvantage in terms of information and so should be cautious about second-guessing the Israeli electorate.
- Advice and pressure from outside Israel probably have little effect on Israeli public thinking and choice, and may even have a perverse effect, given the famous Israeli “davka” syndrome (doing the opposite out of orneriness).
- Media misrepresentation notwithstanding, the Israeli consensus on most strategic issues is broad enough so that friends of Israel may endorse that consensus without taking partisan sides.
University of Haifa
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s argument about Jewish dissent on Israel leads inevitably to two propositions: (1) no American Jew, liberal or conservative, has the moral right to say anything about any Israeli security policy, and (2) Israelis themselves do not even have the moral right to criticize their own government’s policy if that government is in the hands of Likud.
Mr. Podhoretz writes that in the days of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir he counseled against American Jews criticizing Israel on security issues: since their lives were not “on the line,” they did not have the “standing to participate in the public debate.”. . . But American Jewish supporters of Likud’s Greater-Israel-Forever approach were also participating in the “public debate,” and their lives were certainly not on the line. . . .
Another way that Likud’s American Jewish advocates had of muzzling dissent against their favorite government was to say: “We don’t have the right to urge Israel to give up territory because we won’t have to bear the consequences.” Now no one really knows what the consequences of such a withdrawal might be; they could be either good or bad. But we do know what the consequences of a Likud-favored status quo on the West Bank and Gaza already are, the most obvious being that to keep the territories forever, Israelis must forever risk their lives policing the Palestinians there. That is a real and current consequence, not a hypothetical one—and American Jewish Likudniks do not have to face it, do they? So what moral right did they have to speak out in favor of the Likud government’s policy? . . . (There is a saying about such blood-and-fire right-wing American “Zionists”: they will defend Israel down to the last drop of Israeli blood.)
So, based on Mr. Podhoretz’s notion of the dues one has to pay to enter the debate over the occupation, not even American Jewish hawks have the right to open their mouths. But he actually goes one step further. American Jews, he writes, were morally forbidden from criticizing Likud policy because such criticism had
dangerous political consequences. For one thing, [it] provided cover for ideological enemies of Israel and even outright anti-Semites, who were overjoyed at being able to quote Jews instead of having to rely exclusively on their own easily discounted forms of vilification.
I doubt whether these American Jews helped Israel’s enemies. But if Mr. Podhoretz is correct, and Likud’s American Jewish critics did bring joy to Israel’s enemies, imagine the ecstasies these enemies must have experienced upon hearing Likud’s Israeli critics. It follows, then, that if American Jews were morally required to fall in line behind Begin and Shamir, Israeli Jews were required to stand at the head of that line. . . .
Tel Aviv, Israel
To the Editor:
. . . Like Norman Podhoretz, I was infuriated during the Begin-Shamir era by the incessant hectoring of Israel from the Diaspora Jewish Left, which often abetted Israel’s most unrelenting enemies. Certainly Mr. Podhoretz is correct to note that with the arrival of Yitzhak Rabin and the departure of George Bush, political reality has changed dramatically. Criticism of Israel may subject Mr. Podhoretz to the charge of hypocrisy, but it no longer exposes Israel to Diaspora sabotage.
As a Diaspora Jew, however, I remain uneasy about criticism of the government of Israel on security matters. Diaspora Jews cannot save Israel from itself if its own government is committed to the dubious proposition that relinquishing the Golan to Syria and Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians will, miraculously, increase the security of the Jewish state. . . .
To frame the issue exclusively in “security” terms, however, narrows the debate needlessly. If Diaspora Jews are not Israelis, certainly we share some common concerns as Jews. About these, at least, all Jews may speak; and Israel, which identifies itself as a Jewish state, for all the Jews in the world, may even be obligated to listen. In its proclamation of independence, the “Land of Israel” was identified as the “birthplace of the Jewish people,” the source of our “spiritual, religious, and national identity.” Israel declared itself the reconstituted national custodian for covenantal promises made long ago to the entire Jewish people. (As David Ben-Gurion once asserted, “The Bible is our mandate.”) If Jews, all of us standing at Sinai, were not silent then about assuming our responsibilities as a people, why should we be silent now?
To some of Mr. Podhoretz’s critics (like Alfred H. Moses writing in the June issue), this begins to sound suspiciously like an argument for a “‘greater Israel’ based on religious grounds or Revisionist ideology”—as though religion or Revisionism were, ipso facto, reasons for instant dismissal. And the Israeli embassy, clearly stung by Mr. Podhoretz’s initial Statement, conveniently narrowed Zionist purpose to “spiritual and ethical goals,” excluding religious imperatives or historic rights. But in any inclusive understanding of Judaism, or Zionism, these are not so easily relinquished.
Take what one fervently hopes is an extremely slim possibility: the government of Israel decides, for peace and security with the Palestinians, to relinquish the Old City of Jerusalem forever. Given the centrality of Jerusalem to Jews for historic and religious reasons, would anyone seriously question the responsibility of Diaspora Jews to participate in that debate? Is the answer to be found in “security,” or in the very essence of the meaning of Jerusalem within Judaism? What about Hebron, an even more ancient holy and historical place for Jews? And Shiloh, where the ark of the covenant rested on its journey from Sinai to the Jerusalem Temple? Or Judea and Samaria in their entirety, the geographical and historical heartland of the biblical Land of Israel? . . .
Ultimately, exclusive focus on the debate about Israeli security is misplaced. Issues of national security may indeed be for Israelis to decide. But as long as Israel claims to be the national home of the entire Jewish people, certain decisions with Jewish consequences are far too important to be left solely to Israelis. No government of Israel may relinquish the Jewish historical patrimony and expect Diaspora silence. It is not a question of who may speak, but whose speech is most faithful to Jewish imperatives. Jews, in the United States or Israel, who continue to align themselves with the demands of Israel’s implacable Arab enemies, can hardly make this claim in good faith.
Jerold S. Auerbach
To the Editor:
. . . The heart of all the criticisms of Norman Podhoretz is that he is, at best, inconsistent, and, at worst, hypocritical in his attitudes toward the Likud and Labor parties in Israel.
Mr. Podhoretz’s response to his critics includes partly pleading guilty and partly explaining the circumstances and the manner in which he intends to criticize Israel. But the charge against him is left essentially unanswered. One must conclude that the editor has gone a long way downhill between “J’Accuse” a decade ago [September 1982] and his two Statements. In the distinguished history of Norman Podhoretz as writer, journalist, editor, and Jew, these pieces will not be recalled as high points. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz ends his second Statement with the hope that time may prove him wrong and his critics correct. To which I can only add a fervent “amen.”
Teaneck, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz is not to blame for the misconception of his critics that his “Statement on the Peace Process” contradicts his earlier call for silence by Jews outside Israel who object to Israeli government policies. Inconsistent perhaps, but not contradictory: to contradict his earlier position, Mr. Podhoretz would have to defend the expression of all such disagreement, and he explicitly denies this by setting two conditions. So (he writes in the June issue), there is “all the difference in the world between attacking Israel as an immoral or criminal state . . . and expressing doubts and anxieties over the prudence of the policies being pursued by the Israeli government. . . .” And then: “The political dangers involved in Jewish criticism of Israel’s policies have for the moment faded.”
I take these conditions to mean that external criticism is legitimate with respect to practical but not to moral issues and only if the criticism is unlikely to affect adversely the attitude toward Israel of other governments (principally, of course, the U.S.). But does Mr. Podhoretz really mean this? He says himself that he hopes for the failure of present peace negotiations. Would he not also hope, or allow the possibility, that his reasoning will influence readers, perhaps even members of the Clinton administration? . . . And would he not then be encouraging American pressure on Israel to prevent the concessions he opposes? If not this, for whom is he writing?
Perhaps having moved this far, Mr. Podhoretz may yet grant what in easier times would be commonplace: that of course it is Israeli citizens who will in the end decide Israel’s policies—and that of course Jews outside Israel are entitled to express their views about these policies, even if the country they live in does not subsidize their implementation, but especially if it does. The alternative to this is a pretense of consensus that no knowledgeable observer would credit—a forced unanimity that does not exist in Israel itself and that new Israeli governments with other priorities may rightly resent—and the assumption that in order to support Israel one has to defend every one of its policies or acts. What is there to recommend this alternative on either prudential or moral grounds?
West Hartford, Connecticut
To the Editor:
In his last two articles, Norman Podhoretz discussed whether American Jewish criticism of Israeli policy is appropriate. What must be understood is that some types of criticism hurt Israel’s image while others do not. . . .
Many American Jews have good reason to be legitimately concerned about extremist Arab attitudes, such as not even accepting Israel’s right to exist. The PLO still sponsors most anti-Israel terrorism and refuses to amend its Covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel. The PLO’s Yasir Arafat told a group of Jewish journalists in Tunis recently that “Israel’s goal is to capture all the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates.” And the PLO continues to claim that the Holocaust did not occur. . . .
Syria continues its feverish efforts to develop chemical, biological, and other weapons, while its Minister of Information claims that Israeli policies are “reminiscent of Nazi methods” (Jerusalem Post, June 8, 1993). Faisal Husseini, the new leader of the Palestinian Arab delegation to the peace talks, has recently called for the dissolution of the Zionist entity in stages. When one adds to these belligerent statements and actions the fact that Arab regimes have repeatedly broken signed treaties (the Israeli-Arab armistice of 1949; the Iraqi recognition of Kuwait of 1962; the Iran-Iraq peace treaty of 1976)—it is no wonder that many American Jews look with skepticism upon current Arab rhetoric about making “peace” with Israel.
Morton A. Klein
Zionist Organization of America
Greater Philadelphia Chapter
To the Editor:
. . . Ironically, the same Israeli Labor-party officials who are now reportedly so upset about American Jewish dissent from Israeli policy were until recently actively involved in instigating such dissent—when it suited their purposes. When criticsm by the American Jewish Left helped Labor undermine Likud, it was hailed by Laborites as “courageous” and “a legitimate attempt to facilitate peacemaking.” From 1977 until Likud was toppled by Labor last year, prominent Israeli doves frequently visited America to whip up criticism of the Israeli government. Shimon Peres deserves a “frequent-flier” award for his many such trips, as does Abba Eban, whose torrent of op-ed pieces and lectures attacking the Israeli government made him the darling of the State Department and Israel-bashers in the American media. . . .
How ironic that the new Israeli ambassador in Washington, Itamar Rabinovich, who was so vividly offended by Mr. Podhoretz’s April article that his embassy sent a two-page rebuttal to all Jewish newspapers, himself denounced the Likud government during many of his U.S. appearances when he was associated with Tel Aviv University.
Rabin, Rabinovich, and the others, having urged U.S. Jews to exercise their right as American citizens to speak out on Israeli policy, cannot expect anything less today from American Jews. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . There is absolutely no comparison between Norman Podhoretz’s newly formulated position with regard to criticism of Israel and the Israel-bashing of liberal American Jews when Likud was in power. . . . Mr. Podhoretz has expressed reasoned concern, a position hardly comparable to the actions of such groups as American Friends of Peace Now, which placed an ad in the New York Times alleging that Israel constituted the only impediment to peace in the Middle East, or to other groups which have called on the U.S. to put pressure on the Israeli government or which have met with enemies of Israel. . . .
West Orange, New Jersey
To the Editor:
How can we begin to talk about consistency and inconsistency without first agreeing on a frame of reference? . . . Certainly in an unchanging world it would be perfectly reasonable to make a fetish out of constancy. But, as we all know, people in political life tend to be as flighty as break dancers.
Consider, for example, Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin: on the eve of last year’s election, he asserted that “anyone who comes down from the Golan forfeits Israel’s security interest.” That was last year. This year, as Prime Minister, he seems quite prepared to compromise this security interest.
Or consider the U.S. State Department: Washington is undoubtedly prodding Jerusalem to accede to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, but there is no similar prodding by the State Department for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
Then there is the argument that only Israelis have the right to determine Israel’s security needs. But that is precisely the point. According to a recent Gallup poll, 75 percent of the Israeli electorate would insist upon a national referendum before making any territorial concessions. . . . Given all these contradictions, all these vacillations, isn’t it just a little glib to complain about inconsistency? . . .
I suspect that this debate has more to do with infidelity than with inconsistency. There are some Jews who would like to remain, at least in some measure, faithful to our ancient covenant, and there are others who would seek another covenant. Up until a few generations ago, Jewish civilization could be characterized as a religious civilization. Today, however, there are some Jews, both here and in Israel, who are indifferent to our religious past. What is particularly distressing about this development is that in the process of separating themselves from this past, these people have also abandoned large chunks of Jewish history. Without this history, without this past, there is really very little to keep the Jewish state, or, for that matter, the state of world Jewry, from becoming unglued. . . .
Of course I share Norman Podhoretz’s anxieties. The peace process is a cul-de-sac whose only exit is a return to the 1967 lines. Such an Israel would be terminally vulnerable, a mere garrison state. Such an Israel would have to commit every possible resource just to stay alive. How could such an Israel possibly achieve its prophetic fulfillment?
Silver Spring, Maryland
To the Editor:
In his extremely astute Statements on the Peace Process, Norman Podhoretz has provided a valuable service to the American Jewish community. Even those whose initial reaction was negative would be well advised to contemplate objectively the significance of what Mr. Podhoretz has written.
Another related matter affecting American Jews was the decision last spring by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to grant membership . . . to Americans for Peace Now (APN). The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) made energetic efforts to inform the Conference and the community at large of APN’s positions, and it succeeded in alerting those who had previously been unaware of APN to the true nature of the group. But in spite of these efforts, APN was accepted as a member of the Conference.
I was the last speaker at the tension-filled meeting on March 29, 1993, when the issue of admitting APN was voted on. I concluded my remarks with the following statement:
While all of us in this room may have different philosophical, ideological, religious, and political points of view, every member of the Conference of Presidents is totally in agreement on one fundamental issue: that Jerusalem is and will remain the undivided capital of the sovereign state of Israel. If the conference votes to admit Americans for Peace Now it would be the first member of the conference which has failed to support, unequivocally, the one historic position which has universally united our community.
This plea did not succeed in changing the minds of those present. And thus, major Jewish organizations, both religious and secular, which in the past had been united on the question of Jerusalem, voted to bring into their ranks a group which believes that there are “many options” in connection with the status of Jerusalem—that, in other words, Jerusalem is “negotiable.” . . .
APN boasts of its love for Israel and claims that its criticisms are voiced only out of concern for Israel’s welfare, security, and future. Yet the course it advocates—an accommodation with the terrorist PLO—is detrimental to all three. APN’s support for dialogue with the PLO is in fact contrary to the policies of Prime Minister Rabin’s government. . . .
Of course, APN has a right to urge Israel to negotiate with the PLO, and it has a right to vacillate on the issue of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the question must still be asked: should an organization whose leadership holds such views be a member of the American Jewish community’s highest decision-making body?
Executive Vice President Emeritus
Zionist Organization of America
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . In his June Statement, Norman Podhoretz calls Jacob Amir’s letter in that same issue “moving” and says that Mr. Amir “makes the case for Palestine statehood in a way that gives me pause and avoids lending aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies.” Having been a resident of Israel in 1951-52, and from 1954 to 1960, and as an avid reader of every news item during the pre-1967 period, I hereby attest to Jacob Amir’s total memory loss.
Contrary to what he says, Israeli civilians did not live a remarkably normal life during this period, and the terrorist infiltration was most certainly not confined to the border moshavim and kibbutzim during this period. Terrorism was explosive and pervasive in most of Israel, ranging from attacks on civilian buses with multiple fatalities to the massacre of schoolchildren in the city of Lod near Tel Aviv and the firing on buses on the Petah Tikvah-Tel Aviv route. In the north of Israel, death and destruction rained down from the Golan Heights and from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
All travel in the Negev (two-thirds of Israel’s territory) was accompanied by armed escort or the mandatory carrying of weapons. . . .
As for the tranquility of Mr. Amir’s post-midnight walks in Jerusalem “just a few yards from the border,” his safety lay solely in the darkness of night because in daylight he could easily have become one of the victims of Jordanian Arab Legionnaires who were constantly firing on and, yes, killing and maiming Jews from the safety of their outposts on the Old City walls and their reinforced bunkers facing Jewish Jerusalem.
In fact, the overwhelming popularity of the Sinai campaign of 1956 lay in the absolute necessity to distance fedayeen terrorist squads from their access through the Gaza Strip. The formation of the famed anti-terrorist commando unit headed by a young army officer named Ariel Sharon and the unprecedented latitude granted to it were motivated by the desperate need to reduce terrorism against the civilian Jewish population.
As for the peaceful Israeli Arabs in the fantasyland of Jacob Amir’s pre-1967 Israel, I will make only two brief observations.
First and foremost, the government and army of Israel deemed it necessary to impose martial law on Israel’s Arabs and maintain it for a number of years.
Secondly, I was in the audience during a speech made by David Ben-Gurion in which he emphatically stated that, given the opportunity, the Arabs of Israel would support any war dedicated to the destruction of Israel and would rather live under the iron fist of an Arab dictator than be ruled by democratic Jewish sovereignty. These remarks were duly reported in the next day’s newspapers with little or no reaction.
Finally, if Mr. Amir intends to include Jerusalem in his fail-safe Jewish state, how does he intend to protect Jewish children from the stabbings in Jerusalem that he so poignantly described? The bulk of the hostile Palestinian population that he insists “Israel must separate itself from” lives both within or in very close proximity to that very Jerusalem.
If Mr. Amir has full confidence in the ability of Israel’s army to protect the 1949 sieve-like armistice borders from hostile and “sworn-to-war” Arab nations hovering above and around it, plus an autonomous Palestinian state seething with hatred and determination to regain its “conquered land,” why does he not find it possible for the army and the police and an alert, armed citizenry “to make the streets of its cities safe once again,” those streets which at their very worst are far safer than the cities in which most Americans live?
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
Jacob Amir forgets that the peaceful days in Jerusalem in the 1950’s that he describes in his letter were a fool’s paradise. That idyllic “peace” was punctuated by the war of 1967, when the Arabs used the territories they had illegally seized to launch hostilities against Israel. This means that there are no “good old days” for Mr. Amir to go back to. The events of 1967 show that Arab enmity is not related to possession of the territories, but to the existence of Israel itself. The plain fact is that there is no peace that the Arabs have the capacity to deliver. . . .
The Arabs must never get a second chance to repeat 1967. Israel should under no circumstances go back to the vulnerabilities of its pre-1967 borders . . . which, at a minimum, must ultimately be annexed by Israel so that they will never play a role in any potential Arab attack. . . .
Mr. Amir worries about radicalizing the 900,000 Israeli Arabs. What will he say when they become 2,500,000 in a few short decades and show even less capacity for understanding the defense needs of the Jewish state? If those Arabs do not support action now to counteract potential dangers to the state, they must be written off and encouraged to leave, in the interest of preserving the lives of the 4.5 million-plus Jews. . . .
It is such facts that the Amirs do not wish to face. It is bizarre that they would trust agreements with the Arabs—trust to pieces of paper that history has shown to have had no efficacy—instead of demanding the objective condition of militarily secure borders, which is what all other nations of the world demand for themselves. . . .
I note that at least one observer, in a recent New York Times op-ed article, maintains that population transfer for the purpose of saving lives is a legitimate solution to the problems of Bosnia. It is even more valid in the case of Israel. There is no reason for Israel to risk its future or to apologize for taking the proper action to protect its people.
West Hartford, Connecticut
To the Editor:
. . . The tragedy in Israel today is that there is essentially no difference between the Right and Left; both are motivated by fundamental selfishness for power. . . .
And, of course, dishonesty. The Left speaks of achieving peace by making insane concessions. The Right speaks of coexistence with the Arabs in our midst, and denies any demographic danger. Meanwhile, mention of the only real solution is prohibited and punishable.
Scarsdale, New York
To the Editor:
. . . All over the world ethnic cleansing seems to be the order of the day. In Germany we have xenophobia. In Japan ethnic cleansing has been in effect throughout the nation’s history, since only ethnic Japanese can become citizens and even Koreans, who have lived in Japan for generations, are denied citizenship. England has had to limit the number of Pakistani immigrants. And in the former Soviet Union we are probably about to find the ultimate ethnic cleansing, with the various republics anxious to rid themselves of the Russians who had been sent among them to maintain Russian-Soviet hegemony. And we all know about Bosnia and the Sudan. . . .
Today Israel is at risk. Yet the entire world insists that Israel alone may not resort to the almost universal practice of ethnic cleansing. Israel’s survival depends on guaranteeing its current boundaries. If possible, Israel should buy up the land owned by Israeli Arabs, or get the 22 Arab nations to welcome their co-religionists and rescue them from what they call the persecution they suffer in Israel. After all, Israel welcomed the unfortunate survivors of the Holocaust; why can’t the Arabs be as hospitable to their own? Maybe Jordan, which is already 70-percent Palestinian, should set an example. . . .
Israel can survive only by an exchange of populations, which has already been done several times in the modern era. Half of this process has already been accomplished—there are almost no Jews left in Arab lands. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Laguna Hills, California
To the Editor:
Four years ago, in his article “Israel: A Lamentation from the Future” [COMMENTARY, March 1989] , Norman Podhoretz wrote: “It was therefore clear from the start of the U.S. dialogue with Arafat that it was likely to lead . . . to an American endorsement of a PLO state.” Recent news seems to point to the accuracy of this prediction. Mr. Podhoretz’s haunting article was written from an imaginary future in which Israel no longer existed. Though details of Israel’s demise were left out, Mr. Podhoretz made it clear that what had happened was that both the well-meaning and the cynical were seduced by the idea of peace and made territorial concessions that left the state unable to defend itself. In his two Statements on the Peace Process, Mr. Podhoretz has only been pointing out that many of those who are now seduced by the idea of peace are in positions of power in Israel today. . . .
To the Editor:
Reading Norman Podhoretz’s penetrating though sobering “Statement on the Peace Process” (and the published comments on the article) brings to mind another article he wrote some time ago, “Israel: A Lamentation from the Future.”
Has the “future” arrived?
Brooklyn, New York
Norman Podhoretz writes:
Having gone around the track twice now in these pages, and a few more times in interviews with the press, on the issue of why and how I have violated my old rule of staying out of the debate over Israel’s security, I am content to let my critics have their say without reiterating my position yet again. Nor do I have anything to add (except for my thanks) in response to the supporting letters on this particular issue. But Berel Lang raises an objection I have not adequately addressed before—an objection also raised by Abraham H. Fox-man, the executive director of the ADL, in a piece published both in the Jerusalem Post and in a number of Anglo-Jewish papers here in the U.S.
Neither Mr. Lang nor Mr. Fox-man is persuaded by my argument that to criticize the Rabin government for being too conciliatory, unlike the old left-wing attacks on the Shamir government for being intransigent and immoral, poses no political danger to Israel. How, asks Mr. Foxman, do I know what use will be made of my criticisms? And Mr. Lang, spelling out explicitly what Mr. Foxman only hints at, declares that I am “encouraging American pressure on Israel to prevent the concessions [I] oppose.”
What world do these people live in? Can they really envisage a situation in which the Clinton administration would pressure Israel to make fewer concessions or to take a tougher line in negotiations with the Arabs?
There is, however, a more plausible variant of the idea that my criticisms of the peace process pose a political danger to Israel. According to this variant—which, I am reliably informed, has been put forward in private conversation by an Israeli diplomat in Washington and has also been alluded to in a story in the Boston Globe—the Rabin government might at some juncture want and need American pressure so that, in making concessions that would be very unpopular at home, it would be able to blame Washington for leaving Israel no alternative. But, said this diplomat, if Clinton were persuaded by outcries like mine that such pressure on Israel would be unpopular with American Jews as well, then he would be reluctant to apply it for fear of losing Jewish votes in 1996.
Well, if Israeli officials believe that the deal they are contemplating can only be rammed through their domestic opposition under cover of American pressure, then they are on even shakier ground than I thought.
Moving on now from the question of my right to participate in the debate, I want to return to the substantive issues involved in the peace process which are, after all, the true heart of the matter. Before doing so, however, let me just say that “transfer” or “ethnic cleansing”—the solution proposed in a number of letters above—is in my judgment so unrealistic that it is hardly worth discussing. Even setting aside the obvious moral objections to so repellent a policy, can anyone seriously imagine its being adopted by a country which cannot even expel a few terrorists without tearing itself apart and incurring the wrath of the entire world? And even if, in spite of these considerations, transfer were to be attempted, can anyone seriously imagine that it would be permitted to go forward without an all-out military assault against Israel by the Arabs, quite possibly with the support of the UN?
But back now to the peace process itself.
When I was in Jerusalem this past June, I gave a talk based on my two Statements. There were many doves in the audience, and during the lengthy question period they did not fail to tax me with being callous about the sufferings which would continue to afflict both the Israelis and the Palestinians in the absence of a peaceful settlement. I was also accused by Professor Shlomo Avineri (a former Director General of the Foreign Ministry) of being a Manichean, from which he concluded that I must be as wrong in my analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict as, in his view, I had been about the U.S.-Soviet conflict. (To this I replied that in confronting evil—Nazi Germany, Soviet Communism, and the Arab dream of wiping Israel off the map—a Manichean was the only honorable thing to be, and that of course I had been right, not wrong, in my ideas about the cold war.)
Yet, astonishingly, in an hour-and-a-half of discussion, not only did it become apparent that the audience largely shared my doubts about the negotiations; it was also clear that the doves had nothing to say about the content of my analysis. That is, not a single person rose to argue that I had been mistaken on this or that detail of the Syrian position or the Palestinian position or even the position of the Rabin government. In fact, the only point that came seriously into dispute was my contention that the peace process is a trap from which Israel will find it very hard to escape without winding up weaker and more vulnerable to military assault.
Thus, Professor Yehoshua Porat of the Hebrew University, one of the leading academic authorities in Israel on the Arab world and a supporter of the leftist party Meretz (which is a member of Rabin’s governing coalition), shook most of the audience by agreeing “100 percent” with my analysis. At the same time, however, he disagreed with me about the peace process. Israel must, he contended, go on negotiating, because (I quote from memory) “unless our sons are convinced that we are doing everything possible to make peace, they will jump out of the tanks in the next war.”
My response was that if this was how young people in Israel actually felt, then they had been tragically miseducated to believe that it was up to their country to make peace when in truth only the Arabs could call off the war they had been waging against the Jewish state from the minute it came into existence. (I was later assured that only the children of doves, if even all of them, correspond to Porat’s description.)
I tell this story by way of confirming and adding to Kenneth Levin’s illuminating description of his encounter in Boston with a visiting Israeli dove. Yet even if I had not had this experience in Jerusalem, I would by now have known from the critical letters I have received (including, with all due respect, the one from Shlomo Gazit that appears above), as well as from articles in the public prints, that the position of the doves is based on little more than wishful thinking about the Arabs and about the terms they are willing to accept.
Just how wishful, so far as the Syrians are concerned, can be gauged from what Yigal Carmon tells us in his important letter about their intransigence. Furthermore, the Syrians, having turned down an Israeli request to disarm Hezbollah, then used it as a proxy for attacking Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and Israeli civilians in the Galilee, thereby provoking the retaliatory strikes of late July.
As for the Palestinians, they now insist not only on pushing Jerusalem to the top of the negotiating agenda but on making the “return” of East Jerusalem a condition for going on with the process. It is hard to know what this means. Are the Palestinians once again resuming their old habit of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity? Or do they believe that the Rabin government is so desperate for a deal that even East Jerusalem is now up for grabs?
If the Palestinians do believe this, and if it should turn out that they are right in believing it, then I would no longer be inclined to characterize a letter like the one from E.B. Ayal as overly harsh. To be sure, these are very big ifs indeed. Yet as Paul Flacks points out in his letter about the admission of Americans for Peace Now to the Presidents’ Conference, the solid front that used to exist on Jerusalem is already beginning to crack (and not only, I might add, among American Jews, but also on the Israeli Left).
On the other hand, I have discovered from the response to my two Statements that the fears and anxieties which led me to go public are very widely shared. It is also clear that they are not being allayed by the distressingly weak arguments put forward by the Rabin government and its apologists in defense of a strategy that looks less and less realistic and more and more dangerous (see David Bar-Illan’s powerful piece beginning on p. 27 below for the details).
The Peace Process (Cont’d.)
Must-Reads from Magazine
t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.