Marcuse has caught up with his following. "An Essay on Liberation" is a love-letter written to the young, and to…
Marcuse has caught up with his following. An Essay on Liberation1 is a love-letter written to the young, and to the blacks too. But there was a time when Marcuse was above that sort of thing, his intellectualism proudly impervious to movements whose salient traits are, when viewed dogmatically, good looks and good intentions. He had a strict conception of what counted as serious. And the young and the blacks, if they were mentioned at all, were not treated as though they were serious or could matter very much. Indeed, Marcuse suggested that the young, anyway, were really working for the system by working against it. In the last two or three years, however, Marcuse’s line has been changing. The change is systematized in An Essay on Liberation. The book is thus a revision of his general theory. At the same time, because of other things it contains, it can be seen as a provisional completion of his general theory. Altogether, its publication provides an occasion for looking at some main elements in the body of his work.
A distinguished body of work it is—there can be no doubt about that. To those who observe with delight a rich mind move slowly, but move purposively, over an almost impossibly difficult field, Marcuse’s writings come as a precious gift. At a time when there is so much silliness and drunken rhetoric on the Left, Marcuse’s arduousness is, in contrast, almost startling—though he does not need the contrast to win praise. After years of comparative neglect he now exerts considerable influence on serious writers, Left, left-liberal, and liberal. This influence will grow. On the other hand, he has become a figure of publicity: venerated by students who, as Marcuse himself says, have not read him; made into a symbol of all radicalism by the press; and denounced by the Pope and by the chief ideologue of the East German government (who, in their denunciations do not indicate that they have read him either), and by others as well, Left, Right, and Center, capitalist and Communist. Ignorance fuels the love and hate. The love and hate have no objective correlative. It is as if Marcuse’s fate illustrates the very tendencies of the mass age he diagnoses. The dénouement of the farce was the recent threat on his life (signed by the Ku Klux Klan, but thought by Marcuse to be the work of others).
We must close our ears to all this noise and try to hear what Marcuse is saying. I think that his analysis—as presented in Eros and Civilization (1955), Soviet Marxism (1958), One-Dimensional Man (1964), An Essay on Liberation (1969), and in a number of articles—can be reduced to five theses.2 There are uncertainties, ambiguities, a few inconsistencies, vagueness of reference, and some changes. But at this point it would seem to me that Marcuse believes that:
- advanced industrial society, or the affluent society, in the West, with the United States farthest along, is preponderantly evil, both for the harm it does and the good it prevents, internally and externally;
- on balance, and internally, the Soviet Union is worse in actuality, better in potentiality, but with no guarantee that it will in fact become better;
- the evil of each system is not correctable peacefully, by those in control or by their likely heirs;
- in the abstract, revolution may therefore be justifiable;
- we may be witnessing the emergence of certain forces that could perhaps bring about qualitative, genuinely revolutionary changes in the West, while developments in the Soviet bloc are, if anything, more problematic.
It is clear that anyone who propounded these theses would not have many friends. Marcuse’s characteristic tone of voice is condemnatory, and the scope of his condemnation is almost universal. Still, those who hate him usually misrepresent him. Pope Paul, a generally careful scholar and a brilliant reactionary, wrongly charges Marcuse with advocating uninhibited sexuality. Soviet-bloc theoreticians abuse him unjustly for claiming that the capitalist and Communist worlds are becoming ever more alike. I am not saying that if they read him, or read him more carefully, they would hate him less. They would simply have to hate him for reasons other than the ones they give. As for those who love him, they too would have to adjust their emotion after reading him. Even at his most indulgent to the young, as in An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse is austere, complex, and full of doubt. No, his thought is too delicate for the rough hands of the world. He is a philosopher, and should be approached as any other philosopher: with respect, not idolatry; with skepticism, not blunt dislike. Above all, he should not be approached with a literal mind. His ideal reader is the conscientious liberal, who is either happy in his liberalism, but shouldn’t be; or unhappy in it, but doesn’t quite know why.
Let us try to understand the reasoning behind Marcuse’s beliefs. The first thesis is the most important: Advanced industrial society is preponderantly evil. One does not cheapen Marcuse’s thought by saying that he is predisposed to condemn, that he is inclined to hold an apocalyptic vision. He has been proudly and grandly in the Marxist tradition since his early days in Germany, though he is certainly not orthodox. And for all the severity of his philosophizing, he is a romantic: the romanticism keeps breaking through in lyrical passages, such as those in Eros and Civilization and An Essay on Liberation, on the qualities of desirable life. Who can say which comes first, the Marxism or the romanticism? In any case, the combination conduces to intellectual rebelliousness. When that rebelliousness meets continuous disappointment—the failure of the European Left after the First World War, the Stalinization of the Russian Revolution, the coming of Fascism and Nazism, the successes of American capitalism after the Second World War—despair is natural. From despair comes rage, which gets transmuted—or sublimated, as Marcuse would say—into a total radical rejection. The rejection is not sullen, it is not rancorous; but it is unremitting and may, after a while, appear to others, even those sympathetic, as exaggerated, almost, almost, mad.
Marcuse’s starting-point is the view that we live in a time of emergency.
. . . the whole society is in the situation of the theater audience when somebody cries: “fire!” It is a situation in which the total catastrophe could be triggered off any moment, not only by a technical error, but also by a rational miscalculation of risks, or by a rash speech of one of the leaders. . . . The whole post-fascist period is one of clear and present danger.
Even without nuclear destruction, the present order contains the possibility for “the advent of a long period of ‘civilized’ barbarism.”
Nuclear war, then, is Marcuse’s deepest anxiety, as it must be that of any sane person. He is aware, of course, that no one now in power wants to wage nuclear war, at least not against another nuclear power. (He does say that it “seems” that in Vietnam only American “fear of the other nuclear powers has so far prevented the use of nuclear or seminuclear weapons against a whole people and a whole country.”) The matter is more complicated. “The efforts to prevent such a [nuclear] catastrophe overshadow the search for its potential causes in contemporary industrial society.” Marcuse contends that advanced industrial society, epitomized by America, is in its essence a militarist, bellicose, aggressive society. It lives on the preparations for war, the tensions of the threat of war, and the waging of war. It is driven into an imperialist career. Though the war in Vietnam may have begun, as it were, accidentally, it “has become a test case for the productivity, competitiveness, and prestige of the whole.” Given that tendency, America permanently confronts the world with the chance that its inner drives will one day get so far out of hand as to plunge the world into nuclear calamity. (I know this transition sounds weak, but it’s the best I can make of what Marcuse says.) Russia is not blameless. Marcuse knows that. But he seems to be saying that the United States is by far the biggest source of danger. I think he would subscribe to the Chinese assertion that the United States is the greatest enemy of the peoples of the world.
There is no doubt that the war in Vietnam has made Marcuse’s opinions much more pointed. Before that war, however, Marcuse worried about America’s proneness to militarism. In that respect, he built on the work of C. Wright Mills, among others.
Why is war the essence of the advanced industrial system of America? Marcuse’s answer to this question of questions is not completely clear. Sometimes he stresses economic considerations, following the lead of earlier Marxist writers like Lenin, Hilferding, and Rosa Luxemburg. Sometimes he offers a psychological explanation which relegates economic compulsions to a decidedly secondary position. It is not that over time he abandoned one theory for another: both exist in uncertain relation throughout his writings.
The economic theory seems to me much less compelling. No one can deny that there are economic interests—as there are personal, partisan, and bureaucratic interests—that need war and the threat of war to thrive. But Marcuse is not much concerned with particular interests (he is characteristically not concerned with particularities of any sort). His analysis is of wholes. He gives no room to accident. His aim is to indict a system and foreclose the notion of significant, partial amelioration. So that it is not simply a matter of Presidential vanity, party rivalry over a good reputation for patriotism, the courting of ethnic and religious minorities, the desire of the military for larger rather than smaller budgets and for an arena in which to gain honor and experiment with weapons, the avarice of the aerospace industries. Not even the “military-industrial complex” casts a wide enough net. The system as a whole is to blame: to the degree to which we all benefit from it, we are all implicated in its evil. Its evil is fated, not contingent.
Though he does not attain clarity, Marcuse avoids crudity. He says, “. . . the classical concept of imperialism is outdated; there are certainly no basic United States economic interests that would explain the war in Vietnam.” What then of an economic nature would explain that war, and prepare us to expect others like it or worse than it? First of all, there is the apparent necessary link between American prosperity and the maintenance of military expenditures. Marcuse refers to the “permanent defense economy,” and to the Welfare-Warfare or “Welfare-through-Warfare State.” The premise is that war creates demand and thus helps to sustain a high standard of living, and that in the absence of this grotesque artificiality there would be recession or depression. Marcuse does not develop that point. I suppose he thinks that it stands in no need of elaboration, that it has passed into the conventional wisdom, that everybody knows it to be true even though some try to ignore or lie about it.
But the fact is that it would be hard to find any economist who would agree with the bare proposition that there could be no general prosperity without a “permanent defense economy.” To be sure, a rapid demilitarization of the American economy would produce terrible strains; equally true, there are sectors of the American economy that have grown to have a vested interest in war. But if these particularities were left aside, important as they are, economists would go on to point to other, non-military ways of creating demand, preserving full employment, and sustaining a high standard of living: some mixture of lower taxes, deficit spending, and public expenditure for civilian purposes. For America, at least, there is no impediment a priori to a permanent peace economy of general prosperity. The decisive factor would be the political will to create such a condition. Marcuse would be ready to declare that such a political will could never emerge. He may be right. Nevertheless, he would still have to distinguish economic necessity from political impotence. At this stage in the argument he would have to see that it is not capitalism as such that needs war to solve its contradictions. In our present and future reality war may intensify them. Vietnam may teach that lesson, even to those who rule. Only once, and in passing, does Marcuse perceive that. He says, “Corporate capitalism is not immune against economic crisis. The huge ‘defense’ sector of the economy not only places an increasingly heavy burden on the taxpayer, it also is largely responsible for the narrowing margin of profit.”
One’s confidence in Marcuse’s economic thought is not increased by some other remarks. He says that the weakness of capitalism derives from “the constant danger of overproduction in a narrowing world market”; and that Western capitalism has long since passed the stage where “it could grow on its own resources . . . market, and on normal trade with other areas.” So if Marcuse thinks, from one point of view, that war is made to prime the economic pump, he also thinks, from another point of view, that war is the servant of the exploitation of others, those in the Third World. The “classical concept of imperialism” is reintroduced. In the very passage where he calls it “outdated,” he writes:
In fighting against the wars of liberation, the affluent society fights for its future, for its potential of raw materials, cheap labor and investment. . . . Vietnam has to be seen in the global context: a triumph of the national liberation movement there may well be the signal for the activation of such movements in other areas of the world—areas far closer to home where basic economic interests are indeed involved.
More than that, defeat in Vietnam may be a signal for “rebellion at home.” Marcuse knows he is accepting some version of the “domino” theory. Nor does he depart from the classical concept of imperialism when he insists that capitalism is a global system, and that what is physically external to it—the backward countries—is in fact intrinsic to its functioning.
Without examination, Marcuse adheres to the assumption that the capitalist world stands in an exploitative position in relation to the backward countries. Yes, of course, American and Western European investments are great absolutely—if not relative to their total investments, or relative to the needs of the backward countries themselves. And, yes, America and Western Europe practice an often cruel neo-colonialism, up to and including subversion of governments and military intervention, when indigenous forces threaten foreign interests. But questions remain. Is it true to say that America will always intervene to defend these interests? Is not intervention the exception rather than the rule? And when there is intervention, is it certain that the motivation is primarily economic, and not political or even, sincerely though foolishly, ideological? The test cases, in recent times, are American involvement in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. Do we find here the economic motivation at work, even in the indirect and extended sense Marcuse mentions? I do not believe the answer is yes. Furthermore, is it not true that foreign investments in the Third World are not only, not importantly, exploitative, but in effect better for those countries than no investments, better than nothing? Isn’t the tragedy more one of neglect than exploitation? Marcuse himself acknowledges that the backward countries “depend, for the capital requirements of primary accumulation, on the advanced industrial societies and their imperial interests.” We must say that the Western world helps to solidify the control of sometimes loath-some indigenous elites; that America is pathologically, stupidly, afraid of leftist movements in backward countries. But is it only evil this country has done abroad? I would be willing to say that no amount of good could morally outweigh the evil perpetrated in Vietnam. The evil perpetrated there, however, does not cancel the good done elsewhere. It only means that we cannot be forgiven the evil because of the good. But though the source of good is self-interested, and, even worse, morally infected, the recipients of the good are better off.
In sum, I do not think that Marcuse has demonstrated conclusively that Vietnam is the perfect exemplification of the policies the directors of the American economic system must follow if they are to keep it alive. In addition, I do not think that Marcuse has shown the roots of nuclear war are to be found in the advanced industrial system of capitalism. It may seem a paltry thing to say what I have just said. But I only wish to trace out the presuppositions and deductions of Marcuse’s thought: nothing more.
I have already said that Marcuse also offers a psychological explanation of America’s proclivity to militarism and war. Perhaps some other word than “psychological” would be more appropriate—say, “sociological,” or whatever. The term does not matter, except to convey the sense that there is present in Marcuse’s writings another theory which is analytically independent from “the classical concept of imperialism.” This other theory resembles nothing so much as the rationale for the three superstates in Orwell’s 1984. (In places Marcuse refers to the Orwellian nature of the modern world.) The tendency to make a whole system out of preparing for war, threatening it, and periodically waging it, is attributed to the wish to preserve the prevailing relations of domination. We must notice that Marcuse does not spare the Soviet Union from the same attribution. I think it is correct to say, however, that America is more on his mind than the Soviet Union: because of its greater wealth and strength, America leads in all evil tendencies. He writes, “Neither the growing productivity nor the high standard of living depend [sic] on the threat from without, but their use for the containment of social change and perpetuation of servitude does.” We do indeed move from “the classical concept of imperialism,” if that concept assumes imperialism as a derivative of the quest for higher profits. What is at stake is not profits, or not profits alone, but power, power above everything else. Whose power? It would seem the power of the capitalists (in America). But the fact that Marcuse can so easily transfer his analysis to the Soviet Union must indicate that something like C. Wright Mills’s “power elite”—made up of capitalists, the military, and the upper reaches of the executive branch of government—is the object of Marcuse’s speculation. His description needs a larger base than the group of “monopoly capitalists.” I think Marcuse moves in Mills’s direction, and then goes past him, when he says, “. . . non-destructive full employment . . . requires the elimination of the particular interests which stand in the way of its fulfillment. Today, they include capital and labor, city and countryside politics, Republicans and Democrats. . . .” That is, nearly everybody; or, at least, the plural leaderships, those who manage what Marcuse calls the “subdued pluralism” of American life.
In Marcuse’s view, the regime of war maintains the prevailing relations of domination by doing three things. It calls into being the Enemy as a device of social cohesion; it wastes resources that could otherwise contribute to the decline in the need for domination, through the amelioration of life; and it provides a sanctioned release for an internally harmless way of discharging the aggressiveness built up unceasingly by life in advanced industrial society. (Some of Marcuse’s most brilliant writing is on the build-up and explosion of aggressiveness in modern life.) “The senseless war is . . . of the essence of the system.”
Marcuse says, “One can dispense with the notion of an innate ‘power-drive’ in human nature. This is a highly dubious psychological concept and grossly inadequate for the analysis of societal developments.” Yet I do not see how Marcuse can dispense with some form or other of this notion if his analysis is to be coherent. He cannot rest content with the view that the taste for domination is elicited only under the conditions of modern industrial life. Such a view would fly in the face of the historical record. The point is not to make the notion of a “power-drive” do too much work in social analysis, not to see all political behavior as the automatic outcome of one aspect of human nature. It turns out that Marcuse uses the notion of a power-drive. The only question is whether he uses it fruitfully.
Central to Marcuse’s theory is that the exercise of power at home, by American and Russian leaderships, is comparatively bland. The power is there, and is enjoyed. But it meets little resistance: most people are almost unaware that they are ruled. The feeling of power, the sharp pleasure power affords, is not produced at the expense of the immediate subjects of it. “Looking at the facts, geographical and otherwise, I would say that mobilization is carried out and war is actually waged against (and among) semi-colonial and formerly colonial peoples, backward peoples, and have-nots, Communist or not.” The Third World is therefore the victim of a ceaseless desire for power after power. The “have” nations share this common interest, while America, as usual, is the most blatant in pursuit of that interest:
The (objective) rationale for the global struggle is, not the need for immediate capital export, resources, surplus exploitation; it is rather the danger of a subversion of the established hierarchy of master and servant, top and bottom, a hierarchy that has created and sustained the have-nations, capitalist and communist.
The irony is that—and here, once again, I can only make an inference, at the risk of misstating Marcuse’s position—without the assault on the Third World, the internal position of the leaderships in the First and Second Worlds would be threatened. Though a high standard of living helps to appease the masses, its psychological cost could not be endured without the factitious creation of an enemy, and the release of pent-up aggressiveness against him. Furthermore, societies in the Third World may one day be created that do not have the same relations of domination as the First and Second Worlds, and hence would by their example jeopardize these relations. Marcuse is thinking of Cuba, China, and North Vietnam.
Foreign policy flows from peculiar domestic considerations as it does under “the classical concept of imperialism”; but in the light of Marcuse’s alternative, these considerations are not narrowly economic. And where Marcuse used to think that the Enemy for America was Russia, he now transfers the designation to the Third World (without dismissing altogether the rivalries between America and Russia). “Is the Enemy still communism per se? I think not.” We must say, however, that for Marcuse to continue to believe that we live in a period of “clear and present danger,” he would have to see in the wars against the Third World the source of a possible nuclear war between the great powers. Unless, that is, the “clear and present danger” comes from elsewhere—the suicidal impulse. In a tentative but dark sentence, he says.
If Freud’s theory is correct, and the destructive impulse strives for the annihilation of the individual’s own life no matter how long the “detour” via other lives and targets, then we may indeed speak of a suicidal tendency on a truly social scale, and the national and international play with total destruction may well have found a firm basis in the instinctual structure of individuals.
Let it be clear that Marcuse charges no conspiracy. He rejects the suggestion that those in power consciously follow this scheme for perpetuating their domination. In that regard Marcuse’s picture of the world is somewhat less sinister than Orwell’s. It is also more cloudy. On the one hand, Marcuse says that he does not refer to
. . . individually experienced social needs, and consciously inaugurated policies; they may be thus experienced and inaugurated or they may not. I rather speak of tendencies, forces which can be identified by an analysis of the existing society and which assert themselves even if the policy makers are not aware of them. . . . These objective tendencies become manifest in . . . supraindividual needs and goals in the different social classes, pressure groups, and parties.
On the other hand, he says, “Social engineering, scientific management of enterprise and human relations, and manipulation of instinctual needs are practiced on the policy-making level and testify to the degree of awareness within the general blindness.”
I do not think I understand Marcuse’s meaning when he speaks of “objective tendencies” working independently of the conscious plans of the policy-makers. I do know that he feels he finds warrant for such a conception in the thought of Hegel and Marx on the philosophy of history: the meaning of developments is unknown to political actors, and becomes clear only after the pattern of action is completed. In Hegel and Marx, no reference is made to unconscious human motives: rather, political actors are seen as the playthings of some larger purpose, again not clearly named or defined. It would seem to me that all Marcuse accomplishes with these metaphysical ideas is to exonerate men from responsibility for their actions. At its most extreme, Marcuse’s theory thus gives a lurid interpretation of the world while absolving those whose behavior supposedly makes the world open to a lurid interpretation. Even worse, if Marcuse is confronted with the charge that his description of American policy simply does not accord with the facts, he can too easily reply that he is not describing, he is interpreting. But where does that leave us? At the mercy of our feelings: we agree with Marcuse if we want to believe the worst, or we dismiss him because we cannot bear to believe the worst, though it may be true. I would say that the degree of deliberateness in, the nature of the intentions of, American policy is a matter of supreme importance. It should not be disposed of by reference to anything “supraindividual.” Nor should we disable ourselves from perceiving that the most routine intentions may issue in the most awful consequences, so preposterous has the scale of political power become, and yet so closed off from the reality of what they do are the ordinary mortals who wield that power. It is satisfying to the imagination to believe that motives are commensurate with results; but that sadly or happily may not be the case. Just once Marcuse shows he is alert to this consideration. He says, “. . . the affluent society itself hardly notices what it is doing. . . .”
But however adequate we may find Marcuse’s analysis of the “clear and present danger,” we must go on to see what he has to say on the conditions that help to keep the danger alive. Why do people put up with a structure of power that is so malign in its deeds and so portentous in its future possibilities? What is the life lived in advanced industrial society?
In brief, Marcuse’s answer, often repeated, is that advanced industrial society “delivers the goods” for those who inhabit it. There is an astonishing standard of living for most of the people. From their point of view, the system works, life has never been better, life must keep on getting even better. The goose that lays the golden eggs should not be killed. The capitalist capacity to produce far exceeds the limits set it by Marx. The working classes have not become progressively more miserable. The reverse is true. That would seem a sufficient answer.
But Marcuse is not willing to rest there. In One-Dimensional Man, and elsewhere, he undertakes to expose the falseness of mass contentment. He wants to show that the goods delivered are, some of them at least, false goods; that the goods give false satisfaction; that underneath the satisfaction are terrible but repressed impulses; and that if the proper alternative to capitalism were to emerge, there could be real goods, real satisfaction, and few if any terrible impulses that had to be repressed. “There can be societies which are much worse—there are such societies today.” But the affluent society is more than bad enough (even leaving aside its cost to those outside it), and in comparison to what it could be—the only philosophically valid standard—it is systematically evil.
If Marcuse’s vision of the international situation is nearly Orwellian, his vision of the domestic situation in advanced industrial society approaches that of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Marcuse makes much of planned obsolescence, waste, superfluous gadgets and luxuries, bloated abundance. These are the false goods. The indictment is familiar. Familiar though it is, it can stand repetition. And Marcuse dwells on the horror of sustaining such an expense of matter in a waste of shame. There is the pollution of the environment, the depletion of the inheritance of resources. And yet more awful, “The still prevailing impoverishment of vast areas of the world is no longer due chiefly to the poverty of human and natural resources but to the manner in which they are distributed and utilized.” The contrast of overindulgence and underdevelopment is morally abhorrent. On these subjects, Marcuse speaks directly and eloquently to the affluent conscience. (One can say this, however, and still think that the envisaged redistribution of the world’s wealth, if ever it could take place, would still leave enormous numbers uncared for, and create new problems of material sufficiency of a Malthusian sort.) A curse is on the bread we eat. May it be that none should be full unless all are? Marcuse helps to remind us, at a minimum, of the unconscious cruelty of health in the face of misery.
But I think, for all that, that Marcuse has overlooked some things in his rush to condemn. Are most of the goods false? Does not Marcuse grossly exaggerate the quantities at the disposal of the large majority in the affluent society? I do not speak of the poor, only of the great mass neither rich nor poor; say, 70 per cent of the whole. They live in luxury compared with most other people now alive or who have ever lived. But do they live in such a way that no obstacles stand in the way of a full realization of their will? Is it a matter of having every fancy, whim, caprice catered to? Is it not rather a matter of having a few more things than one needs; perhaps a few more things than one wants; a few things that one would not miss if one were to lose them? The society as a whole is affluent beyond the fantasies of early Utopia. But look at the daily life of the millions. How much really could be taken away without the return of a stingy bleakness? Marcuse hates “healthy and robust poverty, moral cleanliness, and simplicity.” But he thinks that a substantial diminution in the standard of living would only amount to a “reduction of overdevelopment.” Surely that is a miscalculation.
Then, too, some portion of the wealth has gone into more education and the spread of culture throughout the society. Marcuse takes a complex view of this phenomenon: I shall come to it shortly. It is sufficient to say at this point that affluence has made possible a qualitative change in the level of awareness, of sophistication, of cultivation. This is not all, or mostly, an increase in shallowness or glibness. It is not all vulgarity. The cultural goods are not typically false, and huge sums of money are spent on them. Marcuse makes the admission grudgingly: “. . . wide access to the traditional culture, and especially to its authentic oeuvres, is better than the retention of cultural privileges for a limited circle on the basis of wealth and birth.” From this wider access has come the youthful rebelliousness in which Marcuse now places so much trust.
Lastly, there is an aesthetic argument for denying that the goods are false. The affluent society has its own unique and novel beauty. There has never been as much sensory richness as there is today, never as much facility of movement and connection, never as much remoteness from nature, never as much fluidity and plasticity, never as much rapidity of alteration in the surface of life, never as many temptations, never as many capacities, never as much actual surrealism, never as many breathtaking juxtapositions, never as many possibilities of experience. Marcuse knows it. These achievements are “. . . tokens of human ingenuity and power beyond the traditional limits of imagination.” He concedes that “the willful play with fantastic possibilities, the ability to act with good conscience, contra naturam, to experiment with men and things, to convert illusion into reality and fiction into truth, testify to the extent to which Imagination has become an instrument of progress.” But all Marcuse sees is abuse of these powers, the “obscene merger of aesthetics and reality.” “It is with a new ease that terror is assimilated with normality, and destructiveness with construction.” This judgment will not do. To say that the aesthetic defense of the affluent society is not sufficient is not to say that an aesthetic argument is irrelevant. Indeed, the aesthetic argument is more consolation than defense. But the affluent society has conquered regions of experience hitherto unknown or unexplored. The human record has been added to, in defiance of the pessimism of “eternal recurrence.” There is something new under the sun, which only advanced industrial society has made possible. It is the over-rich soil in which beautiful, horrible flowers have grown. Without that soil, no flowers like these. Sometimes decadence has an unimpeachable fineness. If Norman Mailer, our best poet of technology, has done nothing else, he has made us understand that.
We must now ask why Marcuse thinks the goods give false satisfaction. The answer is that people are manipulated into wanting and liking what they buy; and into wanting more and more insatiably. The entire instinctual basis of people is formed for them; and it is formed in such a way as to make consumption compulsive, irrational, and inhuman. Marcuse lays great stress on the role of the mass media in constantly arousing desire, teasing it into renewed dissatisfaction, and sending it on the vain search for lasting satisfaction. Profits depend on this steady Tantalus-like pattern. And not just the profits of this or that interest, but the profitability of the system as a whole. The chase for goods keeps the people enslaved to the prevailing structure of domination. “We may distinguish both true and false needs. ‘False’ are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice.” Whatever else may or may not be the result of conscious effort on the part of the leaderships, the maintenance of men in bondage to consumption is most definitely so.
I do not know how one settles the issue Marcuse has raised. We know about the pervasiveness of advertising, conspicuous consumption, the wildly trivial forms consumer sovereignty takes. We know that titanic energies go into the packaging and marketing of goods, into making people think that great differences exist among products that are substantially the same. We know that we memorize jingles, and jest in the slogans thought up by highly paid traffickers in human irrationality. We love our brands, while knowing we are conned. But is that the whole story, or even the important part?
I would suggest that Marcuse has perhaps taken the racket too seriously. I find he makes no reference to empirical studies on the actual impact of manipulative efforts on the minds of those allegedly manipulated. How does Marcuse know that the masses are taken in? Has he not accorded the media the awe they claim for themselves, without trying to ascertain whether or not they deserve it? I also find no reference to the powerful cynicism that is so marked a trait of American life. Marcuse wants too desperately to believe the worst. Furthermore, I think that Marcuse has failed to distinguish between manipulated wants and wants that would, as it were, naturally arise in any society that had a fair amount of money in its pockets. Men do not have to be manipulated into taking pleasure in consumption. The love of objects, of novelty, of convenience, of foolish expenditure is not a creation of advanced industrial society. The consumer’s paradise is an age-long dream. Disgusting it is in some of its more extreme manifestations; but it is the paradise most men crave. Once some approximation of it has been attained, men will live in it gladly. Those outside would seize it, if it were offered, and not ask too many questions. What has held this country of immigrants together if not the fact that it is so truly in congruence with universal aspiration? Prosperity kills many fine things, but does so not through artifice.
The consumer’s paradise is not a violation of human instincts. But some deliberate alternative to it would be. Think of the Chinese example. In the abstract, a case could perhaps be made for such violation, but violation it still would be. There is no cause for amazement, no need to look for complicated explanations of American behavior. It is in continuity with all human striving. Once basic needs are satisfied, other needs are felt; and if they too are satisfied, they come to be felt as basic themselves. The very satisfaction of needs generates new needs. The only way of quieting the dynamism of the appetites is to live in a meager world that forecloses all hope of material change, or to make the world one Sparta: permanent poverty or universal terror.
But what of the human cost? The people have “. . . innumerable choices, innumerable gadgets which are all of the same sort and keep them occupied and divert their attention from the real issue—which is the awareness that they could both work less and determine their own needs and satisfactions.” Much labor is idiotic, alienated, boring, repetitive. Reality is determined by the “performance principle.” It creates deep unhappiness and resentment; it promotes feelings of aggressiveness. It is all the more unforgivable because it goes to sustain needless consumption. Though consumption is not perceived as needless, owing to manipulation, the nature of the labor done is perceived for what it is. And even manipulated consumption in the affluent society does not suffice to reconcile men to their labor. Yet they must labor. The system will not support them otherwise; the capitalist economy cannot function in any other way. It perpetuates an excessive need for labor.
The system reacts by stepping up the production of goods and services which either do not enlarge individual consumption at all, or enlarge it with luxuries—luxuries in the face of persistent poverty, but luxuries which are necessities for occupying a labor force sufficient to reproduce the established economic and political institutions. To the degree to which this sort of work appears as superfluous, senseless, and unnecessary while necessary for earning a living, frustration is built into the very productivity of this society, and aggressiveness is activated.
Because the aggressiveness is satisfied vicariously for the most part, through machines rather than direct personal and physical contact, and because the machines are at the disposal of seemingly impersonal collectivities rather than individuals, aggressiveness is not truly satisfied after all. Under advanced capitalism, “. . . the more powerful and ‘technological’ aggression becomes, the less is it apt to satisfy and pacify the primary impulse, and the more it tends toward repetition and escalation.”
Marcuse’s psychological description is internally coherent. As a display of imaginative power it is stunning. But how true is it? Grant that many workers dislike or hate their labor; do they feel it as senseless, or as greatly in excess of the requirements for maintaining a decent life? Do they feel that they are paying a high and unnecessary cost? Does aggressiveness then build up as the direct result of this feeling? Or does it come about for other causes, some intrinsic to man, some intrinsic to all labor, some intrinsic to industrial life under any system of political economy, some intrinsic to mass society under any system of political economy, some intrinsic to civilized life under any system of political economy? The conclusion seems irresistible: the elimination of capitalism would not eliminate the mortal play of aggressive impulses. As long as men must labor, frustration and aggressiveness are inevitable. Indeed, the elimination of labor may make the problem of aggressiveness worse. Marcuse says, “. . . the ‘abolition of labor’ does not seem to be the problem of the future, but rather how to avoid the abolition of labor. . . .” The specter is boredom. Marcuse seems to see boredom as a problem only for the future of societies as we know them. I think this is an illicit circumscription. In any case, to talk of the elimination of labor, or even a drastic reduction of it, is beside the point. The material problems of the world will demand labor for as long a time as we can foresee.
All in all, I believe that Marcuse’s attempt to undermine the legitimacy of mass contentment in the consumer society is largely unsuccessful. There is too much plain assertion, too much easy pessimism, too many tenuous connections in the development of the argument. The deficiencies peculiar to capitalism, though great, are in my opinion minor when compared to the terrors of modern life: the existence of nation-states, the existence of nuclear weapons, the growth in population, the misery of great numbers of people, the desecration of the environment in behalf of mere survival, the perniciousness of some technological tendencies, the powers and problems that accrue to ordinary human beings who must be extraordinarily good if they are to be adequate. At one point Marcuse acknowledges the obvious: “. . . even the most authentic socialist society would inherit the population growth and the mass basis of advanced capitalism.” But he is not stayed by this observation. He hurries on. Capitalism intensifies some of these problems, just as it alleviates others. It has evils besides, which Marcuse does not explore. But it is not the Enemy he is looking for Beyond that, the expanded political-economic concept of advanced industrial society does not locate the Enemy. By using it, Marcuse does not demonstrate with a large enough degree of certainty that there is an unbreakable tie between the internal structure of America and little or nuclear wars, or between it and an impulse toward mass suicide.
All that I say could be right, however, and still not touch upon the other aspect of Marcuse’s indictment. Advanced industrial society is preponderantly evil not only for the harm it does but also for the good it prevents. Its knowledge and wealth are used, at least partly deliberately, to block the creation of a great good, the Good Life. The Good Life could be had, or efforts toward reaching it could be made, if the present system did not stand in the way. Marcuse has a utopian vision to go with his apocalyptic vision. His writings contain the extremes of affirmation as well as of negation. We should look briefly at what he loves. The major texts are Eros and Civilization and An Essay on Liberation.
Marcuse thinks that a demand for specific blueprints of the new society is meaningless. The new society will be created by liberated men, and no one can prophesy how they will create. It is more profitable to determine what is not conducive to a free and rational society than to determine its content in advance. Still, Marcuse is willing to anticipate in a tentative manner. He is convinced that the rational use of techniques and resources on a global scale would end “poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future.” But that is only a beginning, and the goal is not reached with the addition of workers’ controls over the means of production. Domination and exploitation would remain in the form of a “bureaucratic welfare state.” The world has advanced, however, to the point where the means are on hand not only to do away with poverty and scarcity, and with inequalities of power, but also with “surplus repression.” A genuinely free life is potentially available to all. The improvement of life is only a step on the way to the transformation of life.
The transformation of life would consist in the creation of an aesthetic reality, a reality in which relations between men and men and between men and things are permeated with the erotic, though not in the sense of genital sexuality. Sexuality would be less intense but more diffuse: it would be “polymorphous.” There would be an increase in the feminization of life. There would be a “pacification of life.” The image of man is “. . . the determinate negation of Nietzsche’s superman: man intelligent enough and healthy enough to dispense with all heros [sic] and heroic virtues, man without the impulse to live dangerously, to meet the challenge; man with the good conscience to make life an end-in-itself, to live in joy a life without fear.” In the eighth chapter of Eros and Civilization, “The Images of Orpheus and Narcissus,” Marcuse produces his most beautiful passages, climaxed by this cry:
The Orphic Eros transforms being: he masters cruelty and death through liberation. His language is song, and his work is play. Narcissus’ life is that of beauty, and his existence is contemplation. These images refer to the aesthetic dimension as the one in which their reality principle must be sought and validated.
Art would no longer be a separate segment of life, more beautiful than life, condemning life by its beauty while consoling men with its beauty. The art would be the life. Imagination would exhaust itself in conduct and in material creation, and not seek refuge in the intangible, the abstract, and the unrealizable. Art as we know it would be abolished because reality as we know it would be abolished.
Marcuse respects certain limits. In his critique of Norman O. Brown (originally published in COMMENTARY3), he insists that some kind of property must exist in the good society; that human otherness cannot be wholly effaced, and that Brown is wrong to dream of its effacement; that pleasure cannot be conceived of as a constant state:
To be sure, alle Lust will Ewigkeit, but this Eternity can only be that of ever returning moments of joy, of the ever-returning solution of tension. Tension can be made nonaggressive, nondestructive, but it can never be eliminated, because (Freud knew it well) its elimination would be death. . . .
Elsewhere he goes so far as to say that “‘Alienation’ is the constant and essential element of identity . . . and not, as it is made to appear today, a disease, a psychological condition.” But these remarks do not detract much from Marcuse’s joyous affirmation.
To those who have read him, especially among the young, Marcuse’s utopianism may very well be the element they find most compelling. Imprecise though it may be, this utopianism catches the often unuttered longings of many hearts. It is not for me to take issue with another man’s Utopia, or to try to persuade those under its influence to forsake it. All that would be a futile endeavor, even if I were inclined to make it. The only question it is seemly to ask is: Does Marcuse’s Utopia prefigure a reality attainable if the present reality were somehow dismantled, or is it only a Utopia? I ask a political question. As we have seen, part of Marcuse’s indictment is that a great good is now blocked. If Marcuse’s definition of that great good were only an impossible fantasy, some of the force of Marcuse’s indictment would be lost. Room would of course be left for other definitions. But for our discussion they do not count.
The heart of the matter is whether the world could ever have the material basis to sustain the quality of life Marcuse desires. Are there the resources? Would so little labor be required that large amounts of “free time” would be at the people’s disposal? That is, can poverty and scarcity be abolished for everyone in the world, and abolished despite a shortening of the work-day? Such questions cannot be answered, even roughly, without much more scientific inquiry than Marcuse or anyone else has made. These are the questions Marcuse forces on his reader. They cannot be met with mere assertion or with wishful thinking. I certainly cannot answer them myself. But my suspicion is that if global political and economic arrangements were more rational, some small progress in the alleviation of the poverty and scarcity of the Third World, and of sectors in the other two, could be made. But it would be made at the expense of the majority in the more advanced portions of the earth. And it could not be made if labor-time were cut. I feel sure that Marcuse has grossly inflated the potentialities of science and technology. Or, to put it the other way, he has grossly underestimated the actual misery of the world, the intractability of its most elemental problems. I am simply reinforcing the points I tried to make when discussing Marcuse’s analysis of the relations between the Third World and the rest of the world, and of the standard of living in advanced industrial society.
Marcuse’s optimism is supported by two considerations. The first is faith in automation; the second is the view that the good life could be had without the kind of abundance now supposedly present in the advanced parts of the world. For Marcuse, automation means that mental energy will almost completely replace physical energy in the processes of production: “The workers would cease to be the ‘principal agents’ of material production, and become its ‘supervisors and regulators.’” It may be that the need for physical labor will decrease significantly in the industrial sector. But what about the other sectors? More important, would mental and supervisory work be free from tensions and frustrations? Would it take up appreciably less time than work now does? Marcuse vacillates before these questions. At times he says that any sort of labor, except artistic and philosophical labor, must be alienated, must be unfree and unsatisfactory. The aim is to lessen it as much as possible, and reserve liberation for free-time. At other times he distinguishes between labor and work (non-alienated labor). Work can become play, and the imperative to lessen work as much as possible vanishes. “Thus it is the purpose and not the content which marks an activity as play or work. A transformation in the instinctual structure . . . would entail a change in the instinctual value of the human activity regardless of its content.” But I think he vacillates between equally unsatisfactory conjectures. The conjecture of greatly lessened labor-time does not square with the necessities of material production. The conjecture of the transformation of work into play does not square with the near certainty that whatever the spirit in which work is done, work will remain work, and rarely become play.
Similarly, he vacillates on the question of abundance:
The material as well as mental resources of civilization are still so limited that there must be a vastly lower standard of living if social productivity were redirected toward the universal gratification of individual needs: many would have to give up manipulated comforts if all were to live a human life. . . . The reconciliation between pleasure and reality principle does not depend on the existence of abundance for all.
Yet he also says, “Non-repressive order is essentially an order of abundance: the necessary constraint is brought about by ‘superfluity’ rather than need. Only an order of abundance is compatible with freedom.” I do not find that he ever decides the issue for himself. I think he is caught in a self-defeating cycle: there can be no liberation without abundance, but there can be no abundance without alienation. The means for abundance hurt the ends for which abundance is itself the means. Talk about the possibility of liberation without abundance seems to me radically inconsistent. Talk about non-alienated work seems to me terribly unrealistic.
The Soviet system is worse in actuality, but better in potentiality. The major text on this theme is Soviet Marxism. To read it is to understand why theoreticians in the Soviet bloc ought to loathe Marcuse. The few pronouncements of theirs I have seen, however, are off the mark. They claim that Marcuse’s point is that the capitalist and Communist systems will one day “converge,” and must do so because they are essentially two variants of the same thing: industrial economy. Now it is true that Marcuse thinks that the Soviet bloc could very well come to the same end as the Western system; but he would also seem to think that the more natural tendency would be for the Soviet system to develop in a more acceptable direction than the West. Indeed, it would take a calculated and monstrous act of will on the part of the Soviet leadership to choke off that tendency. They may wish to make that act, and they may succeed. It is impossible to say with any certainty. But Marcuse is convinced that conditions are more favorable in the East than in the West for the coming of a liberated society.
But the actuality under Lenin, Stalin, and their successors is something else again. It is worse than the West. Quite simply, “With all its limitations and distortions, democratic tolerance is under all circumstances more humane than an institutionalized intolerance which sacrifices the rights and liberties of the living generations for the sake of future generations.” And,
Still, for the administered individual, pluralistic administration is far better than total administration. One institution might protect him against the other; one organization might mitigate the impact of the other; possibilities of escape and redress can be calculated. The rule of law, no matter how restricted, is still infinitely safer than rule above or without law.
And, the culture of Eastern Europe under socialism is “gray-on-gray.” Speaking on a specific matter, Marcuse says that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia is a “brutal expression” of Soviet power policy, and “one of the most reprehensible acts in the history of Socialism.”
In addition to these remarks, there is the thorough analysis in Soviet Marxism. What is amazing about this book is that it is a proving-ground for the arguments Marcuse later turns against advanced industrial society in One-Dimensional Man. There is of course no step-by-step repetition of the pattern. The many differences between systems would preclude that. The American system is far more affluent; its history is significantly dissimilar; its institutional life rests on other norms; it is capable of a more aggressive foreign policy; its global influence is altogether greater. Though the two systems share some qualities, especially some evils, the fact is each has some peculiar evils. Or, they pervert the same sorts of things differently.
If language is vulgarized, made into an instrument of public lies, infected by the manipulations of the behavioral sciences, and enslaved to empirical reality in the West, it is changed into magic, into ritual incantation in the East. The Soviets systematically confuse what is with what ought to be: they speak as if what is, is already what ought to be. If Western reality destroys art by exceeding it in everyday reality, and by spreading it cheaply to the masses, Soviet “socialist realism” kills off the power of art to challenge imperfect reality. If the West subjects men to the bondage of unnecessary labor in order to preserve the power structure, the Soviets hold out the promise of a society in which all men are converted into technicians and engineers, and thus renege on the hopes of Marxist humanism. The Soviet “competitive work morality” is proclaimed “with a rigidity surpassing that of bourgeois morality.” Common to both systems is the spread of the idea that security is better than freedom. Common to both systems is the “socialization of privacy,” where the private space of the individual is invaded by the noise, the clamor, the oppressive values of the mass. More strongly present in the Soviet system is the “politicalization of ethics,” which means that the realm of the individual conscience is repressed, and replaced by the authority of centralized leadership. By doing that, by trying to cancel the very possibility of a conflict between the individual and the state, the Soviets threaten to end “dual morality,” and with it, “an entire period of civilization.”
It is a staggering indictment. And one would think that having said all this, Marcuse would simply write off the Soviet bloc. But he clings to hope. The main source of his hope turns out to be the main source of his fear: the international rivalry between the two power blocs. Marcuse’s reasoning is complex. Its premise is that “The history of Soviet society seems to be fatefully linked to that of its antagonist.” The peril, real or imagined or invented, from the Soviet Union has made the West stronger and more cohesive. It has allowed the growth of a war economy and thus saved capitalism from its inner weaknesses. It has facilitated the spread of American control over the capitalist economies of other Western countries. It has given America its Enemy. At the same time, the Western threat strengthens the entrenched bureaucracies in the Soviet system, by giving them a pretext for keeping power totalitarian and for diverting productivity to military uses, and away from a free, or more free, life. But there are pressures in the Soviet Union to “catch up” with the West: the pressures come from quasi-Marxist ideology, and from the desire to show that state socialism is superior to advanced capitalism. The very “backwardness” of the Soviet economy militates against expenditures for waste and destruction. The nationalized economy offers fewer obstacles to a rational economy. But to catch up, the Soviets must try to thaw the cold war, and therefore lay the basis for greatly increased civilian productivity. And by trying to thaw the cold war, the Soviets also contribute to the undermining of the Western system. The Western system would be undermined by internal economic contradictions, which would be heightened in conditions of peace, and by the “contagion” of successful socialism. But there is nothing in Marcuse’s analysis to suggest that he thinks the West will cooperate in its own demise: “. . . as long as the East-West conflict remains a determining economic and political factor, it precludes the decisive transformation. . . .” Because of the weight of the international situation, Marcuse calls his hopes for the Soviet system “eschatological” and “utopian.” He nevertheless feels he must utter them.
The only comment I wish to make about Marcuse’s indictment of the Soviet system is that for all its harshness, it may not be harsh enough. It seems to me that in his allocation of blame for the existence of a totalitarian system in the Soviet bloc, he overplays the role of the West. I have no doubt that the Western threat has been, and still is, perceived as genuine. But how important has this threat been as a cause of totalitarianism? How important is it to the continuation of totalitarianism? Is there any evidence for believing that the Soviet system would become more civilized if it had less dangerous enemies? Is there not some inner momentum that accounts for the totalitarian record? Surely state and party controls have always been far in excess of the security needs of the Soviet system. Surely cruelty has been made normal. By now, may it not be that totalitarianism has become ingrained, and that no change in the international situation would seriously alter it?
The systems are not self-correcting. It must be obvious from all that we have seen so far that Marcuse does not believe that peaceful evolution will lead to the elimination of radical evil or to the introduction of real good. To the contrary, the prospects are that eventually the evil will become even greater: the thrust to war is the natural thrust of established society. And the presence of spurious good, and its likely growth, help to ward off the emergence of real good. To say it again, both West and East are implicated in the horror, though not quite equally.
Without violent alteration, Marcuse sets very narrow limits to what can be done merely to ameliorate life, to achieve a net increase in unambiguous good. He does not adhere to the view that in all cases the worse things get, the better the chances for revolutionary upheaval. He is aware that unexpected crisis in America may, without prior enlightenment and organization, lead to an even worse life than the one we have now: “. . . the most immediate force of rebellion may be defeated, or become the mass basis of counterrevolution.” No, real suffering could very well be stopped by the peaceful workings of the two systems. In America, poverty could be abolished, and the opposition may finally end the war in Vietnam; and certain humanistic values could be taken care of. In Russia, a reduction in personal private unhappiness could be achieved. All these things are positive advantages: only a nihilist could think otherwise. But the systems can go no farther. The cost of their benefits is insanely exorbitant.
If it were only a matter of the leaderships, and of vested minority interests, the situation would be a good deal less frightening. But it is Marcuses cardinal point that the masses in both nations accept their systems. If the Soviet system is totalitarian in the conventional sense, it still is true that terror does not by itself hold the system together. It is possible that repressions from above may meet repression from below. “The Soviet system would then repeat and reproduce that determinism which Marx attributed to the basic processes of capitalist society.”
In America, and potentially in other Western capitalist societies, the process of acceptance is more thorough. Marcuse speaks of a new sense of the word “totalitarianism” which applies to America. “For ‘totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.” We have already dwelt on Marcuse’s analysis of the way in which instincts and mind are controlled in advanced industrial society. We must now see why he thinks such control is so pervasive that “totalitarian” is suitable to describe it.
There is a growing passivity of the materially satisfied people. But “. . . there is at the same time a growing dependence of the elected leaders on the electorate which is constituted by a public opinion shaped by the predominant political and economic interests. Their dominion appears as that of productive and technological rationality.” The social machine works so smoothly that it would be mistaken to think that the great mass must make a conscious effort of adjustment. “Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual. . . . The result is not adjustment but mimesis: an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with society as a whole.” The social bonds of primitivity reappear at the highest level of technical sophistication. While the role of the stern father has declined in the family, other authorities also assume a bland exterior. When they are not hidden they appear all too publicly to retain their aura. Because authorities are depersonalized, they no longer provoke and punish the desire to revolt. The individual ego “. . . has shrunk to such a degree that the multiform antagonistic processes between id, ego, and superego cannot unfold themselves in their classic form.” The majority is “. . . ‘closed,’ petrified; it repels ‘a priori’ any change other than changes within the system.” Only the universities are reformable from within. By practicing “repressive tolerance,” democracy “would appear to be the most efficient system of domination.” Intolerance is felt only by those marginal groups that actively threaten the system. Those who are merely critical or eccentric are tolerated, and for good reason: they strengthen the system by making it appear that the system is more humane and more open to change than it really is. They provide diversion and entertainment for the mass. The worst aspect of “repressive tolerance” is that the great majority tolerate the system which, unknown to them as manipulated creatures, threatens and deprives them. Marcuse is trying to show that the very things on which the democratic system most prides itself work to the most deadly effect. The background conditions of inequality and legal violence deprive freedom of its substance, and make it largely formal—a charade. All is infected at the source, and appears in a distorted or perverted form.
If one were to confine oneself to the evil of nuclear war, one could probably agree with Marcuse, and say that a peaceful evolution to a world free of nuclear peril is not likely. On that score, there is ample warrant for the deepest despair; the systems do not seem to be self-correcting. (Who can imagine any way out? There is no precedent for our danger.) But on other matters, is it right to think that America, anyway, is incapable of some changes beyond the limits set by Marcuse’s analysis? He did not—no one else did either—predict the civil-rights movement, the peace movement, the urge to more participatory democracy, the youthful cultural revolution, the radicalization of the young. All these things he praises after the fact; and only very recently has his praise become warm.
More than that, these things have arisen out of the same conditions that Marcuse finds ripe only for a new totalitarianism. He never traces the origins of what he admires. He loves the dialectic, but he has never applied it to middle-class life. If these late developments are not organically related to the middle class, whence have they come? They have come from affluence, from middle-class domesticity, from middle-class liberalism, from the new instruments of mass culture. They have not been imposed from without. They are not simply defiance or rejection: nothing as mechanical as that. The middle class has prepared the way for them both by its shortcomings and by its strengths. And as no one predicted their coming, so no one can predict their destination. Who knows what the future holds for American culture? Things may get worse, but they may get better. And the worse and the better may be symbiotically dependent. I do not see how, at this time, the maxim, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, could possibly be taken as the key to the future. Now, less than ever. The rigidity of Marcuse’s theory is truly oppressive.
Revolution may be justifiable. Revolution, in Marcuse’s opinion, is necessary if the time is to be redeemed. This is a preliminary proposition. It does not necessarily follow that revolution is justifiable: the evil of violence may be even greater than the evil of acquiescence. Revolution not only kills, uproots, corrupts, breaks ties with the past, and removes good with bad; it also is unpredictable in its effects. It may fail. To say, therefore, that revolution may be justifiable is to take a further step. Only after an anguished examination, and one that is, in the nature of the case, highly speculative, can one be prepared to hazard the contention that revolution may be justifiable.
Marcuse undertakes the anguished examination, and, I believe, concludes that revolution may be justifiable. To put it better: Marcuse seems to believe that revolution is morally justifiable in the abstract, despite its awfulness. He nowhere makes the flat assertion; but I do not see how any other inference can be drawn. At the very least, his sympathies are strongly with all forces seeking a break with the present. The main text is an essay called “Ethics and Revolution,” and there are some relevant passages in “Repressive Tolerance.” When writing on this subject, Marcuse is free from a historicism that would sanction any atrocity in the name of progress. He drops his Marxism—to put it crudely and ungenerously—and speaks like a bourgeois rationalist. The argument is painstaking, and contains, as it must, a perplexed and unsteady movement.
He takes it for granted that in the Third World, revolution against oppressive regimes is not morally problematic: the evil endured is too palpable for any alternative to be worse. As far as Russia is concerned, the scale of the revolution would be smaller. He says, “. . . the ruling strata are themselves separable from the productive process—that is, they are replaceable without exploding the basic institutions of society.” But the transition to a free society would still have to come about by revolutionary means, “even on the foundation of a fully nationalized and planned economy.”
His main argument deals with revolution in America and Western Europe. “The proposition ‘the end justifies the means’ is indeed, as a general statement, intolerable—but so is, as a general statement, its negation.” Marcuse lets that tension dominate his thought. He is aware that if all life is held sacred, the entire revolutionary enterprise is morally indefensible. But he seems unwilling to make the injunction against the taking of life into an absolute. He takes refuge in the fact that historically men have not acted on the principle of the sacredness of life. Furthermore, the established order sacrifices life daily. Would the lives lost in revolution be more than those lost in the normal operations of the established order? Yet the calculus of sacrifice is “inhuman.” It is odious to quantify death, and lesser suffering. But what other method of reasoning is possible?
Then, too, it is certain that the established order not only works intolerable evil, it also forecloses the attainment of positive good. Should not that positive good be included in the calculus? “What seems to me most important in the European New Left is the deep conviction that unless a socialist society is essentially different from the established society, no matter how good it may be it is not worth fighting for.” Yet the comparison of present evil and future good is just as odious as the comparison of the sacrifice exacted by the present and that exacted by the forces working for the future.
These considerations can never justify the exacting of different sacrifices and different victims on behalf of a future better society, but they do allow weighing the costs involved in the perpetuation of an existing society against the risk of promoting alternatives which offer a reasonable chance of pacification and liberation.
But no revolutionary situation can justify “arbitrary violence, cruelty, and indiscriminate terror.” These means kill the ends for which revolution is made. The Soviets went beyond the rational requirement for coercion: the Moscow trials, the permanent terror, the concentration camps, and the dictatorship of the party over the working classes cannot be justified. Yet where would civilization be without such violent movements as the English Civil War, and the American and French Revolutions? On balance, a revolutionary movement “would, in terms of the calculus, allow the presumption of historical justification.” But that is only a presumption; and it is “subject to correction” as events unfold.
I think it could be rightly said that Marcuse has given us the more or less correct form that any argument in behalf of revolution must take. He has asked the right questions, and pondered the excruciating dilemmas. Two things, however, must be said. First, Marcuse’s position is acceptable only if one accepts his premise that the prevailing system is in fact preponderantly evil, and is not self-correcting. This is an obvious point. Second, the notion of preponderant evil must itself be examined. It is my view that Marcuse gives too much weight to the good prevented in his moral calculus. I think that the old utilitarian precept that pain is the more important category than pleasure is sound; it means that the infliction of pain on some to give or enhance the pleasure of others is morally unacceptable. The proper reckoning is pain against pain, suffering against suffering—the suffering (present and future) under the present system weighed against the suffering created by violent revolution. Insofar as the good life means more than the absence of radical suffering, it cannot be used as a main reason to support revolution in the abstract. Involved in revolution are not small sufferings—inconveniences, annoyances, petty frustrations. Death and destruction are involved, not only for the “guilty” but for the innocent as well. The good life does not justify death and destruction, unsatisfactory though present life may be. Marcuse would have to confine himself to the comparison of pains if his argument, formally, were to be not more or less correct, but simply correct.
There are emergent forces that give hope. Central to Marcuse’s concept of revolutionary action is that a revolution, to be morally acceptable, must be made by men who are, up to a point, already liberated. They must feel a vital need to live in a liberated society, and they must be free of present vested interests. In our time, revolutionary groups must, before they act, possess a consciousness of the possibility of a non-repressive existence:
. . . the consciousness of this possibility, and the radical transvaluation of values which it demands, must guide the direction of such a change from the beginnings, and must be operative even in the construction of the technical and material base. Only in this sense is the idea of a gradual abolition of repression the a priori of social change—in all other respects, it can only be the consequence.
Without such a prior liberation the system will go on as those who control it want it to; or it will be overturned by men who bear the deforming characteristics of the system they overturn, and thus be replaced by a new system of oppression. Revolution demands organization, but if it is to achieve a morally acceptable result, it cannot be the work of an elite who are only the reverse image of the masters, and who manipulate an unprepared, an unfree mass. The revolutionaries need not, however, be a majority: “Once the chain is broken, the majority would be in a state of flux, and, released from the past management, free to judge the new government in terms of the new common interest.” Marcuse concedes that there has never been a revolution in accordance with the pattern he sets out.
Until fairly recently Marcuse saw little reason to hope. One-Dimensional Man was written by a man who “vacillated” between despair over the imperviousness of the systems in the East and West, and in the Third World as well, to qualitative change, and the tendencies that moved toward breaking the domination. Actually the predominant tone of the book was pessimistic. So much was dependent on events in advanced industrial society; yet the rigidity was greatest there. In a forlorn conclusion he referred to the “substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable.” He failed to see in any of them a revolutionary consciousness.
But since that time his hopes have risen. They have risen with the Vietnam war: both the resistance of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese and the radicalization of American youth have encouraged him. (The events of May 1968 in France took place after the composition of his last book, An Essay on Liberation.) I do not know of any writing in which Marcuse discusses the Cultural Revolution in China, but I would be surprised if that, too, did not contribute to the diminishment of his gloom. He is now prepared, in any case, to join a number of elements and see in them a considerable revolutionary potentiality—though he certainly makes no prediction of ultimate success. Among these elements are: 1) the national liberation movements; 2) the new strategy of the labor movement in Europe; 3) the underprivileged (but especially the activated blacks) in the affluent society; and 4) the “oppositional intelligentsia” in the Western world.
It is evident that in his new hope, Marcuse places the greatest emphasis where he has always placed it: on developments in advanced industrial society. The other elements are, in the long run, more important. They after all comprise millions of men. But I think Marcuse is saying that they must await the proper conditions in America, especially. The “oppositional intelligentsia” of this country are the indispensable “catalytic” agent. In the forefront of the oppositional intelligentsia are the students.
In Marcuse’s eyes students are not themselves the revolutionary class—there can be no revolution without the workers—but its prefigurement. They answer, however, to the requirements Marcuse holds out for a revolutionary class: they are, or are on the way to becoming, liberated. Their very instincts rebel against the manipulation and overdevelopment of life in advanced industrial society. In their language, their music, their dress, and their consciousness, they have broken with the society in which they live. Their clownishness is itself weighted with philosophical meaning. They are, as it were, biologically different, new; “protest and refusal are parts of their metabolism.” Marcuse even extends his indulgence to the intrusion of politics into the university, the one domain he had hitherto held sacred.
At the beginning of the present youth movement Marcuse was skeptical. The “hot” and the “cool” life, though liberating to those who led them, were vehicles “of stabilization and even conformity.” They left “the roots of the evil untouched”; and they testified “to the personal liberties that are practicable within the framework of general oppression.” Worse, private release weakened the intellect and thus prevented the perception of the terror of the whole system. Liberation should express itself as greater self-repression. But from roughly 1966 on, Marcuse has changed. The conversion does not seem to stem only from a desperate urge to find something to believe in, but also from an engagement of affections and sympathies. To be sure, Marcuse still indicates that a purely private release from the prevailing standards leaves the system intact, even stronger. He is ironic about “the wild ones” and the “non-committed, the escapists into all kinds of mysticism, the good fools and the bad fools. . . .” He knows that liberation can become faddish pseudo-liberation or can be exploited by the market. But when personal liberation does not destroy political activism, as it may, but is joined to political activism, the ideal blend has been reached.
What then is to be done? Should the oppositional intelligentsia strive for an “educational dictatorship,” a “dictatorship of intellectuals”? Marcuse is tempted. He argues that an elite already rules, and that its replacement by another, non-repressive one would not make things worse. But he says that a terrible risk is involved. Dictatorship is dictatorship. To say that an educational dictatorship would not be more harmful than the present elite is to offer a “weak excuse” for it. “. . . The alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy.” The struggle for a real democracy means the struggle to break “the tyranny of public opinion and its makers in the closed society.”
How then is that to be done? Marcuse advocates something he calls “liberating tolerance” or “discriminating tolerance,” the contrasting terms to repressive tolerance. This includes the use of demonstrations, confrontations, extra-legal resistance, as well as the attempt to enlighten consciousness by teaching, writing, spreading the word. Words are deeds, deeds are words. The aim should be to deny tolerance to all advocacy of war and of the resistance to helping the poor, and to deny it by coercion. The distance between advocacy and act is so small today, that certain advocacies must be repressed, if their “clear and present danger” is not to materialize. Toleration is justified by the contribution it makes to the truth, where truth is defined as that which conduces to the pacification and amelioration of life. To permit the toleration of all views is to permit the toleration of untruth: there are not two sides to every question. To accept tolerance for the truth while permitting tolerance for untruth is, in the present, to accept the triumph of untruth over truth. The system is immeasurably stronger than its adversaries: it rests on an indoctrinated, unfree majority. The Left must slant information to break indoctrination. Of course, in some realms like private life, the academy, science, religion, there must be total tolerance. But not in the public realm. “. . . Within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game.” And, “the democratic process . . . is discredited to such an extent that no part of it can be extracted which is not contaminated.” Illegal and extra-parliamentary tactics are therefore morally defensible. And they alone can bring a shift in the prevailing distribution of power. A conspiracy does not exclude the Left from a powerful voice: it is simply too small and poor. It must make its impact in any way it can, in the hope that one day it will create a “subversive majority.”
Marcuse’s theory of toleration is the most notorious part of his work. Both for the way in which he reduces the system’s tolerance to another and covert form of manipulation, and for the way in which he redesignates apparent intolerance as real tolerance, he has earned a reputation for verbal sleight of hand and, more seriously, for preaching the very totalitarianism he claims to hate. He is thought to contribute to a cynicism about one of the few unmistakably good features of contemporary life; a feature, further-more, that has been bought with blood over the past three centuries. He adds defamation to injury when he seeks the cover of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty for views that Mill could not possibly have sanctioned. The case becomes all the more appalling when it is remembered that Marcuse is a refugee from a kind of systematic intolerance he has never had to face in the country that took him in and gave him refuge.
I think that the attack on Marcuse’s theory is just. There have never been social conditions in which total toleration has been practiced that fit Marcuse’s scheme. Mill disliked majority opinion in Victorian England no less than Marcuse dislikes our majority opinion. Mill saw in the power of custom as relentless a foe to liberation as Marcuse sees in the technological creation of the mass mind. Mill worried about the majority impulse to punish deviation as much as Marcuse does. Mill no more thought that the majority wanted to be liberated than Marcuse now does. Mill viewed his political system much as Marcuse views ours: Mill did not think that the English political system worked by impartial reason, but by the clash of equally partisan, selfish, and narrowminded interests, each with a fragment of the truth, but among whom, for all their passion, no truly radical disagreements were apparent. Mill wrote against the same background of inequality and legal violence that Marcuse does. All Mill sought was the sufferance of the homogeneous majority for the gifted minority. Though he did not value toleration only for its social utility, he did think that the gifted minority would make an indispensable contribution to progress.
I do not see how Marcuse can invoke Mill’s name. As an abstract theory of toleration, which Mill’s was, Marcuse’s deserves the abuse it has received. It is laughable. But I think it must be said that because of the manner in which he has chosen to present his views, he has disguised his true intention. He writes about toleration when he really means to write about the moral justifiability of revolution against a democratic political order he does not really think democratic. And he writes, as I have said, with the burning conviction that we live in so dangerous a time that the established system cannot be allowed to continue much longer. Naturally, if he writes for an audience accustomed to revere the principle of toleration, he must weaken that principle in order to shed legitimacy on the illegal opposition. It is a matter of clumsy rhetorical strategy, not a matter of producing a philosophical treatise on the nature of toleration. If you think that there is a “clear and present danger” you will not care about toleration; if you do not think so, you will find Marcuse’s theory of toleration sophistical.
It is a great burden, then, that Marcuse puts on the radical young. By their exertions they are to take a non-revolutionary but pre-revolutionary situation and bring it to a head. They are the vanguard. Their natural allies are the blacks. If automation and temporary peace combine to generate a crisis, then perhaps workers will be on their side. Perhaps the technicians will more and more feel the absurdity of the system which their skills keep going. In any case, for the great problems of the world to be faced, advanced industrial society must be profoundly altered. The Third World movements can come to fruition only if the capitalist order begins to disintegrate. “The chain of exploitation must break at its strongest link.”
* * * *
Marcuse gives us a vision of the modern world. It is not sufficient to score easy points off him, or to dismiss him as hysterical. He raises all the issues every conscientious man must care about. The only adequate answer to him is another vision. I do not have one. In concluding, all I can do is offer a few assertions to go with the criticisms I have made.
The deepest ills of the world—nuclear danger, overpopulation, human misery—do not come from affluent capitalism. The nuclear danger would exist no matter what the system of political economy was, as long as there were not a unitary world state. There are no revolutionary forces working to create such a state. The tension that aggravates the danger has little to do with capitalist economics, but rather derives from human interests and motivations that are not economic in nature. Affluent capitalism does not create overpopulation. Its waste would not be nearly enough to remedy the misery of the Third World. By tracing ills to affluent capitalism, Marcuse tries to prove them corrigible. They may not be corrigible. The world may be, probably is, in worse shape than even Marcuse says it is. In the face of its greatest problems, the whole world is blameless and hopeless.
On a lower level, there is no certainty that little wars must be perpetually fought. There are emergent tendencies—some of them praised by Marcuse—that may, just may, make a repetition of Vietnam unlikely for some time to come. The American system has possibilities for good which Marcuse does not wish to see, or does not wish to explain as emanating from that system itself. The American young are American young. They have attained some liberation. Some of them represent an extraordinarily high human type. If they engaged in coercive action they would forfeit their liberation, they would become corrupt. The tyranny of action is that cruel. They would have little to show for their corruption. To urge them to coercive action is to lead them to failure whether they made a revolution or not. They would experience the failure of failure or the failure of success.
1 Beacon Press, 91 pp., $5.95.
2 A list of Marcuse's writings up to 1967 is found in Kurt H. Wolff and Barrington Moore, Jr., eds., The Critical Spirit: Essays in Honor of Herbert Marcuse (Beacon Press, 1967) . I have quoted from the above-mentioned books by Marcuse, and from the following articles by him: Preface (1961), Soviet Marxism; Prefaces (1961, 1966), Eros and Civilization; “Repressive Tolerance,” 1965, and Epilogue, 1968; “Remarks on a Redefinition of Culture,” 1965; “Socialist Humanism?” 1965; “Ethics and Revolution,” 1966; “The Obsolescence of Marxism,” 1967; “The Individual in the Great Society,” 1968; “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” 1968; “Varieties of Humanism,” 1968. Some of Marcuse's early and late essays are reprinted in Negations (Beacon Press, 1968). Some of Marcuse's remarks at a symposium are printed in the New York Times Magazine, May 26, 1968. Portions of an interview with Marcuse are printed in the New York Times Magazine, Oct. 27, 1968.
In English, the following writings on Marcuse are most helpful: David Spitz, “Pure Tolerance,” Dissent, Sept.-Oct. 1966; Richard Greeman, “A Critical Re-examination of Herbert Marcuse's Works,” New Politics, Fall 1967; Allen Graubard, “One-Dimensional Pessimism,” Dissent, May-June 1968; Maurice Cranston, “Herbert Marcuse,” Encounter, March 1969; Peter Clecak, “Marcuse: Ferment of Hope,” the Nation, June 16, 1969; Paul A. Robinson, The Freudian Left (Harper & Row, 1969); and Richard Poirier, review of Robinson, the New York Times Book Review, Oct. 26, 1969.
3 “Love Mystified,” February 1967.
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The Political Thought of Herbert Marcuse
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
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Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
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Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
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When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
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He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
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In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.