In the hope of contributing to a clarification of the whole question of civil defense by bringing into focus the…
In the hope of contributing to a clarification of the whole question of civil defense by bringing into focus the precise points of disagreement between the two main contending positions, we invited Herman Kahn (perhaps the leading advocate of a more intensified civil defense effort) and Erich Fromm (who has become one of America’s most influential spokesmen for disarmament and whose collaborator in the present debate, Michael Maccoby, has been a prominent participant in the peace movement) to argue their respective cases for the readers of COMMENTARY. The two articles that follow were written independently, though the authors of course had access to each other’s previously published statements.
Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War has, since its appearance in 1960, earned itself a secure place among the most controversial books of our time. Formerly on the staff of the RAND Corporation, Mr. Kahn is now director of the Hudson Institute (a non-profit research organization concerned with problems of national security and international order). His new book, Thinking About the Unthinkable, is scheduled for publication in the spring by Horizon Press. Erich Fromm, the distinguished psychoanalyst and social critic, has recently been devoting much of his time to the study of the current international crisis (which forms the subject of his latest book, May Man Prevail?). Michael Maccoby holds a Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard and has taught both at Harvard and Chicago.
Herman Kahn: Nuclear war may be unthinkable, but it is not impossible. Obviously first priority ought to be given—and is being given—to the objective of deterring or otherwise avoiding a nuclear war. But because war is not impossible, we also have an obligation to allocate at least a modest proportion of our intellectual and material resources to the objective of alleviating the potential results of a nuclear conflict, in the event that one should occur. The fact that this is only a second-priority objective does not mean—as some people seem to think—that it is unimportant or that we have any cause to neglect it.
Of the many measures that the United States has been taking to reduce the harm that we might suffer in consequence of a nuclear war—measures intended not only to save lives and property, but also to facilitate recuperation—civil defense was until very recently underemphasized almost to the point of negligence. A much greater degree of attention has been paid to improving our active defense (antimissile and anti-aircraft systems), to strengthening our strategic forces, and to developing a more adequate system of Command and Control (including preparations to limit or terminate a war). To be sure, these measures also contribute to the double aim of saving lives and property and facilitating recovery, but they need to be complemented by an intelligent shelter program and a careful series of plans designed to cope with the medical, economic, social, and political problems that might arise in a postwar world. Indeed, if one evaluates our over-all military posture by its ability to protect people and property in the event of a nuclear war, it becomes clear that civil defense now deserves increased emphasis relative to the other things we have been doing.
In considering civil defense against nuclear weapons, we enter a field which is, in a critical sense, new: there is no adequate experience; no one has fought and survived more than a comparatively small and one-sided nuclear war. If, therefore, we wish to understand what the existence of these weapons of unprecedented destructiveness may mean for us, we have no choice but to rely on theoretical analysis and extrapolation, while trying to relate our theories as closely as possible to the known facts and lessons of the real past. So self-evident is this statement that it would hardly be worth making, except for the fact that a great many people regard nuclear war as “unthinkable” and refuse to think about it at all.
This refusal to “think about the unthinkable” takes a variety of forms, among them a primitive escapism (pretending that the terrible danger we are living under simply does not exist), the construction of a crude mirror-image (“I don’t want to hurt anyone—why should anyone want to hurt me?”), and even a deliberate overestimation of the horror of war that acts to justify a feeling of hopelessness and apathy. I must admit, a bit reluctantly, to believing that even many of the “realistic” and sophisticated objections to civil defense that have been made by its opponents stem from roughly the same escapist motives. Nevertheless these objections have been put forward with great force and intensity; they deserve to be confronted and analyzed as arguments, whatever the motives of the objectors may or may not be. On what, then, do the opponents of civil defense base their case?
According to one prominent school of thought, there can be no effective defense against a thermonuclear attack, and therefore a program of shelter-building and other preparations for survival involves a waste of money and energy that might better be spent on “waging the peace,” or, alternately, on improving our deterrent and our capability for waging limited war. A second school of thought opposes civil defense for exactly the opposite reason, arguing that our preparations for survival might become so effective that the Soviet Union would regard them as “provocative”; they would thus lead to an acceleration of the arms race or even to a Soviet attack. Nor do some opponents of civil defense rule out the possibility that we ourselves might launch a surprise attack if we were sure that we had effective protection against retaliation.
Though it would seem logically impossible to combine the view that civil defense is ineffective with the idea that it is too effective, some of its opponents reconcile the two positions by assuming the worst: either we or the Soviets will launch an attack out of the belief that civil defense makes a difference, and it will then turn out that the belief was unfounded.
Still another school of thought (mostly, but not completely, composed of certain conservative groups and some military officers) rejects civil defense because it is a form of Maginot-mindedness—that is, because it is defensive rather than offensive: “Brave men do not hide in holes.” Until recently these groups made up the most effective opposition to shelter programs. While, by and large, they have backed down somewhat (probably as a result of the Berlin crisis and through a sort of “right-wing” reaction to the extremism of the “left-wing” criticism of civil defense), they still probably constitute the most important political and bureaucratic opposition to increases in civil defense.
Before the main arguments outlined above are analyzed, one important point should be made clear: that civil defense is indeed likely to be ineffective in contributing to three major objectives. First of all, it cannot reliably hold casualties and property damage to “classical levels”; in fact, it is almost prohibitively difficult to give any great degree of protection to concentrated populations in target areas from a surprise attack directed at them. Second, civil defense cannot, by and large, contribute directly to the conduct of military operations, and third, it cannot contribute very much to deterring a Soviet attack.
If we go back to the First and Second World Wars, we find that civil defense functioned as an integral part of the war effort; the ability to mobilize men and materials after the war started was crucial to victory. Civilians, therefore, represented a second line of defense. They supplied men, materials, and morale to the fighting forces. A thermonuclear war, however, changes the situation entirely. Almost (but not all) strategists today believe that it is impossible—even by heroic achievements in civil defense—to mobilize the civilian society to contribute to a significant military effort after a thermonuclear war has started, if the enemy tries to prevent it. For one thing, a thermonuclear war is unlikely to last longer than thirty days, and it may even last as little as thirty minutes—hardly enough time for the operation of a “post-attack mobilization base.” Thus, the fact that we can give some protection to a factory worker or a machine tool or a mine or even a city would not, on the whole, make the Soviets fear the United States any more than if we could provide no protection at all.
For this reason, cities (with a few possible exceptions) cannot be considered high-priority military targets in a thermonuclear war, as they were in World War II. On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that any first strike would be aimed at the capacity to retaliate, and that cities would not only be secondary targets, but might well be deliberately spared.1 If we were ever to bomb Russian cities, we would be bombing them because we wanted to punish the Soviets; we would be bombing them for reasons of malevolence or reprisal and not because they were military targets. (The Soviet planners, in my opinion, would to some extent agree with this judgment from their side; or if not, it is likely that they will soon come to accept a similar conception.)
But the case for civil defense need not rest either on the degree to which it can contribute to the war effort or on its capacity to strengthen our ability to deter a Soviet attack. It is not the purpose of civilians to protect the military. People are ends, not means. Therefore the main question is: Can civil defense be used to give a worthwhile degree of protection to lives and property and to facilitate recuperation after a war is over? The answer to this question, under many plausible circumstances, is undoubtedly Yes. Taking adequate measures now could save the lives of forty million men, women, and children and reduce enormously the medical and genetic after-effects of a war. To be sure, in most situations forty million of the survivors’ fellow citizens would not have been saved, but this is no reason for needlessly condemning an additional forty million people to death or neglecting those measures which could certainly diminish the other harmful effects of a war. In an even grimmer situation, civil defense could save the lives of as many as a hundred million people, and under some not improbable conditions civil defense could keep casualties down to one or two million. It could also mean that the nation would recuperate in five years instead of twenty, or in twenty rather than a hundred. In this sense, civil defense can be considered at least partially effective against most forms of nuclear attack that we can now anticipate, and extremely effective in certain special cases that could very well arise if our programs for avoiding war should fail in their purpose. And since there is always a chance that these programs may fail, we have an inescapably compelling reason—which is at once moral and political—at least to examine, and very likely to take, the steps that would reduce death, suffering, and destruction as much as possible.
On what grounds do those critics of civil defense who call it ineffective base their judgment? One argument often advanced is that civil defense is ineffective because the long-range physical consequences of a thermonuclear war would make life impossible for the survivors, assuming that there were any. Now, it is true that—according to the best scientific estimates—the postwar environment would be more hostile to human life for some ten thousand years. However, objective studies also indicate that this environment would not be so hostile as to preclude, at least in the long run, decent and useful lives for the survivors and their descendants.2
People in the postwar world would for a time have to get by on a standard of living far below the one we consider necessary in the United States today. We must remember, however, that our standard today is far higher than the mere preservation of life would require.3 Even more to the point, the present standard of public health in America could be dropped without catastrophic consequences. For example, though much of the food supply in the postwar world would be contaminated by Strontium 90, much of it could still be used without necessarily causing death or even serious illness—and even more of it could be used if preparations were made in advance to combat contamination.
Under such conditions, the average individual would run somewhat greater risks of various types of disease and greater risks of having genetically deformed children, but statistically these risks would not be so much larger than those normally run today. Thus—to take the case that most horrifies people when confronted by the idea of a thermonuclear war—the percentage of children born with serious genetic defects might go up, after a war big enough to have exposed the survivors to an average dose of 250 roentgens,4 from the present level of about 4 to an estimated 5 per cent. It can, of course, be said that this is an intolerably large increase; even one more deformed infant is too many. One can hardly disagree with that proposition. Yet the fact remains that life would still go on. People, after all, have lived under far worse conditions than we are accustomed to in this country today, not only throughout most of human history, but even in vast areas of the contemporary world. To argue that an effort to save people’s lives is useless because life would not be worth living in the postwar world is tantamount to saying that people should not be saved because they would have to endure a lower standard of living and a lower standard of health. It is hard to think of any other equally preposterous proposition that serious men are still willing to back.
It is curious, moreover, that those who are most pessimistic in their estimate of the consequences of a nuclear war are generally to be found among the opponents of civil defense. If one believes that a thermonuclear war would be so horrible as to make life for the survivors more difficult than it has ever been in the whole of human history, then it would seem that one is all the more obligated to take measures that might ease the lot of the survivors rather than abandoning them to their fate.
Civil defense, then, is not rendered ineffective by the long-range physical consequences of a thermonuclear war. Nor is it likely to be rendered ineffective by the psychological consequences that some observers have claimed would follow from the traumas of such a war. One must recognize that for most people deep grief is alleviated by time, that people do recover in large part from tragedies, that life does go on. In fact, the detailed map exercises that have been made by students of nuclear war lead to the conclusion that most survivors would not go through as horrible a set of personal experiences as many Russians, Germans, Poles, Yugoslavs, Japanese, and others did in World War II. These people have been left with deep emotional scars, yet few of them now feel they would be better off dead; most are leading “normal and happy” lives.
None of this is to imply that we do not have good sound technical reasons for worrying about the effectiveness of civil defense. Any man today who says that we, as a nation, can survive a thermonuclear war is saying something very complicated. He is saying that we can handle all of the problems—military, social, political, economic, and medical—that would arise from a thermonuclear war; not merely some, but all. Furthermore, he is assuming that a civil defense program would be functioning on the day the war started and that it would not have been rendered obsolete between the time it was designed and the time it was completed. As I have pointed out above, many different kinds of thermonuclear war might conceivably occur. The worst kind—a surprise attack out of the blue directed against population—presents a virtually impossible problem of defense for those in target areas. But our weakness in the worst case (the very case on which opponents of civil defense like to dwell) does not settle the issue. For one thing, a surprise attack out of the blue directed against population is the least likely of all the possibilities. For another thing, programs which are designed to meet less ferocious and more likely wars (e.g., a “straight counterforce” attack which ignores cities and aims only or mainly at strategic capability) can still accomplish something; even in the worst case there is still a difference, after all, between 180 million dead and 90 million dead. One should not lightly condemn 90 million people to an unnecessary death by an undemonstrable supposition that nothing can be done to save them.
As for the problem of obsolescence, civil defense, like any other military system, must be improved and adapted over time. Actually, obsolescence is less serious a problem for civil defense than for many other military systems because even a civil defense system which has been outstripped by technological developments may nevertheless provide a large degree of protection (depending again on the kind of attack that is made).
Unhappily, it may soon be technologically possible to build (probably in less than ten years and at a cost of something in the neighborhood of $10 billion) what I have elsewhere called “doomsday machines”—that is, devices which could actually destroy all unprotected people, or perhaps eventually all people, for only the most elaborate measures could have any hope of protecting against such devices. However, so far as we know, doomsday machines are not now being built by either side, and there are good reasons for believing that they will not be built in the near future. This is not to say that they will never be built; I am not alone in thinking that there is a serious danger of one or more such weapons being built, in a matter of decades, if we do not first arrive at an adequate system of arms control. Of course, the weapons that already exist give us reason enough to want arms control, while the possibility of doomsday machines gives us no reason whatever to neglect civil defense against the far less destructive weapons that are now or soon will become part of the nuclear arsenal, and those which may be developed in the near future.5
Apart from getting a program inaugurated early enough so that if a war should break out we can rely on having a shelter capability in being on the day it starts, there are other problems to be considered in estimating the effectiveness of civil defense and the possibility of the nation’s recovering from a thermonuclear war. Would the social organism fall apart completely—that is, die in some sense—as a result of the tremendous shock it would receive from a large thermonuclear war? Obviously we cannot know for sure. In order to argue that society would reorganize itself after an attack, one must have faith in the ability of people to improvise, to meet emergencies with some intelligence and energy. Faith of this kind is not unreasonable. Insofar as there are historical examples to study (and some of them are close to thermonuclear wars in intensity, e.g., the devastation of Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II)—they provide evidence that people can and do rise to the occasion.
Undoubtedly we are moving here amid vast uncertainties. Many of our suppositions may prove wrong. Given these uncertainties, the advocates of civil defense should not claim too much, and neither should its opponents. It does seem, however, that if there is a reasonable possibility for the survival of society after a nuclear war, a moral obligation is imposed upon us to prepare facilities in advance that would help people to meet the emergencies they would have to face and that would improve their capability for improvising and organizing. That there is such a possibility is indicated by whatever serious studies have been made; these studies are only partial and they are certainly not infallible, but they do give us enough ground for supposing that the survivors of a nuclear war would not meet any objectively insuperable obstacles—especially if they were supported by proper preparations.
What do such preparations consist of? Among the most important are those designed to cope with immediate survival needs and to maintain or restore economic momentum. Plans must be made so that enough food, water, shelter, and clothing will be available immediately after an attack. That means having sufficient stocks on hand to last until production can begin again, and preparing schemes and facilities for distributing these stocks under the many different possible circumstances that could arise. One reason for optimism concerning U.S. recovery is that, as certain analyses indicate, enormous stocks of the highest priority items would be left after the kinds of nuclear attacks which might be launched against this country if a war should break out at some point in the early 1960’s. For example, according to the best estimates, we would not face starvation even if we were unable to get agriculture going again for a year or two.6 To take another example, studies also provide evidence that the national transportation system would continue to work adequately,7 and that therefore the preparations now being made to distribute food before an attack are not strictly necessary. But since, as I have repeatedly tried to emphasize, these studies are not infallible, it is wise to take out as much insurance as possible against the errors they may contain.
The question of political recovery is more difficult to answer. We live today in a very stable country. It is one of the few countries in the world in which the government does not worry about revolution and subversion as major problems. However, these problems might well exist in the postwar world. Even if we won the war, it is conceivable that we might no longer live in a democracy. But again, if adequate preparations were made, our democratic institutions could probably survive most kinds of thermonuclear war. For some very small wars this is almost certainly true; for others, it is a judgment based on the belief that while the lives and thoughts of all the survivors would be affected by the war, their character structure and value system would probably not be changed in any startling fashion.
On this point it has sometimes been argued that the only survivors of a thermonuclear war would be “backwoods reactionaries” who could not be expected to support the rebuilding of democratic institutions. But the argument is faulty, since it not only exaggerates the difference between urban and rural America but also fails to recognize that many or even most of our cities would survive the likeliest forms of nuclear war that we can anticipate. Yet even if it were true that the cities would all be wiped out, it would still be an indefensible moral position that implied—as this one does—that people who live in the country are less worth saving than those who live in cities.
This is by no means as complete a picture as can be drawn, and although the studies that have been made contain many gaps, there is good reason to conclude that civil defense is not completely—or even largely—ineffective. Precisely how effective civil defense can be depends on the kind of war that occurs and the kind of programs that are instituted. The recommendation by the Kennedy administration that we spend $207 million in 1962 for the identification, counting, and equipping of existing shelter space, for the improvement of air-raid warning and fallout detection systems, and for research and development, is both realistic and desirable as a first step. (In fact such a step was recommended in the RAND 1957 civil defense study.) But it is only a first step.
A reasonable program might involve a gradual build-up from about $1 billion annually to somewhere in the neighborhood of under $5 billion annually. An expenditure of that order would buy a valuable degree of protection against most forms of nuclear attack that might occur. The money would be used for the construction of various types of shelter, research and experimentation, educating civil defense cadres, and preparing plans and facilities for post-attack recuperation. But if an ambitious civil defense program should be implemented, it would be important to keep it small enough and to carry it out in a way such that it would be unlikely, by itself, to provoke an accelerated arms race.
This brings us to the second set of arguments often used by opponents of civil defense: not that civil defense is ineffective but that it is potentially too effective. The argument is this: If civilians are considered a target, then an attempt to protect them could touch off a greater effort by the Soviets to acquire the necessary power to destroy them even in their protected state. If we build an adequate shelter system, they may then go to heroic efforts to build larger missiles and a greater number of them. Or equally important, if the Soviets fear that our civil defense preparations increase the chances of our striking them in a crisis or in an emergency, they may then have to keep their forces more alert. This could, in turn, make them more accident-prone or trigger-happy. We would then be faced with what is known as a situation of “false preemption” or “anticipatory retaliation.” That is, they may strike us because they think that we are going to strike them.
Now, I agree that some of these problems might be raised by a large crash civil-defense program—say, one that was initiated at substantially more than $5 billion annually. But I do not believe that the kind of program recommended by the present administration—or even a program as large as the one advocated here—would greatly affect the arms race.8 In order to understand why, we have to consider the psychological aspect of a conflict such as the one we are involved in with the Soviet Union.
There is a widespread feeling that civil defense is a sign of war hysteria and militarism or an admission that war is inevitable, and that it will therefore bring about the very thing we fear: if we build shelters, we will have to use them. In other words, civil defense is an example of the mechanism known as “self-fulfilling prophecy.” In the present context, this term—whose original application was somewhat different from the use that is made of it by opponents of civil defense9—is invoked to refer to situations in which one side acts in a hostile manner because it suspects the other side of hostility; the other side, observing this behavior, responds by acting hostile itself, thus confirming the original estimate made by the first side, which then acts even more hostile and suspicious than before, and so on, until the spiral reaches a very high level of mutual distrust and belligerence.
I think there is no doubt that this process actually does operate both in personal and in international relations. But I also think that when the question is one of civil defense rather than of strategic force (which is a different matter), many of the people who appeal to the “self-fulfilling prophecy” are usually being less rational than superstitious: “thinking makes it so.” They object to civil defense in much the same way that some women will object to an examination for cancer or some men will object to buying life insurance. Yet it is not the examination which brings on the malignancy or the preparation for family security which causes death. On the contrary, it is an indisputable principle of everyday experience that appropriate precautions taken as a result of realistic fears ordinarily help to prevent such fears from being realized. Of course, the operative words here are “appropriate” and “realistic,” and it is on determining what constitutes an appropriate precaution and a realistic fear that we ought to concentrate our minds. Prophecies are not fulfilled magically, but only through communications and reactions that can be identified when they occur. And we may be willing to accept some small costs on the debit side of the ledger if the over-all balance is improved.
In short, the problem in launching a civil defense effort is similar to the problem that exists in all our military programs: to find the line above which we cannot go without provoking the Soviets into greatly accelerated efforts. To those of us who are not ready to accept any large degree of immediate unilateral disarmament, this quantitative question is crucial, since even maintaining our current establishment at its present level involves us in the danger of getting caught in a spiralling arms race. It is true that both sides—restrained by economic and social limitations and the knowledge that unreasonable efforts are likely to touch off similar responses on the part of the antagonist—are running neither as fast nor as hard as they could. Consequently, it is of the utmost (though still not overriding) importance to do nothing that could be interpreted as an excessive loosening of self-restraint.
So far as the over-all strategic balance is concerned, I believe that if we desired we could in the short- and medium-run obtain a meaningful and large increase in our “current superiority” over the Soviets (given their technological and economic limitations). However, it is unlikely that this could be done without making the arms race much more dangerous than it already is. Therefore, unless the Soviets force international relations to deteriorate drastically, we should be careful to avoid pursuing an undue degree of increase in the superiority of our over-all strategic force. So far as civil defense is concerned, I would—as I have already indicated—be opposed to current programs at the level of $5 or $10 billion a year, despite the fact that in my opinion such larger programs could be justified by an analysis based only on narrow military and economic considerations. The civil defense line probably should be drawn somewhere below $5 billion annually, and the U.S. should build up to that figure only gradually, so as not to involve itself in too abrupt a change of policy.
The third argument generally advanced by opponents of civil defense is that an American civil defense effort might lead to a preventive war by the Soviet Union (because such a program would convince the Soviets of our aggressive intentions). Alternately, it is asserted that a civil defense program might induce a preventive war by the United States (because by attacking at a propitious moment, we could hold casualties to a few million). Both these arguments seem almost completely incredible. They rest on the notion that unless one can guarantee total annihilation, the other side will not be deterred; that is to say, unless we can promise the Soviets that every single American will be killed in their reprisal, they will worry about a surprise attack against them out of the blue. Yet neither side has shown so great a desire to strike the other as this notion implies. In my opinion, if there were perfect protection for every citizen of both countries, and an invulnerable post-attack recuperation capability to boot, deterrence would still operate under most circumstances; after all, the empty cities—which have such immense historical and cultural significance—would still be hostages. In addition there would be uncertainties in the analysis : who would trust a hypothetical analysis enough to make him press a button in cold blood? But in the more practical case we can ignore these subtleties; no country is going to go to war lightly simply because by doing so it could reduce fatalities from 60 million in a possible future war to, say, 20 million. Twenty million is a very impressive number of people to sacrifice to an estimate of the future course of international politics.
There are, however, circumstances in which certain kinds of civil defense programs might tend to convert an especially tense crisis into a war. Harsh choices can arise. We may have to decide between the risk of immediate war and appeasement or surrender, with whatever that entails in terms of future risks. In such a situation some kinds of civil defense, in particular evacuation programs, could affect one side’s decision or the other’s, and thus would increase the risk of immediate war. But we must recognize both that the risk may have to be taken and that having a credible ability to accept that risk may deter the Soviets from deliberately creating the very situation in which it would arise. I would, in fact, conjecture that an appropriate civil defense program might even contribute to a relatively large reduction in the probability of war—by reducing the frequency and intensity of Soviet-inspired crises.
Still another argument that has been made against civil defense is that although it is ineffective, it can fool our leaders and make them more reckless, or it can fool the people who will then become more reckless themselves or allow the government to be. Since I have already set forth my reasons for believing in the effectiveness of civil defense, and since I have already indicated my objections to the notion that a danger of recklessness is involved, there is no need to discuss this argument further. However, it may be worth speculating on why people hold to such positions. The reasons, I think, range from a simple visceral desire to dismiss the whole subject of nuclear war; to a fanatic desire to concentrate all our energies—material and intellectual—on a single “approved” approach (whether this be deterrence, accommodation, or unilateral disarmament) with no insurance for contingencies; to an even more fanatic desire to construct an oversimplified “everybody red or everybody dead” argument.
In short, the critics of civil defense do not want to think about the possibility of a nuclear war actually being fought. They prefer wishing it away, ignoring it, denying its existence as a problem worthy of the most serious thought and consideration. Even professional strategists sometimes do not want to concern themselves with the details of the balance of terror—the obvious possibilities for miscalculation, unauthorized behavior, accident, or even war by calculation. They do not want to consider these possibilities seriously, in the sense of letting them affect programs. Most such strategists fear that civil defense competes financially with improved deterrent or limited war forces. Many also fear that it will weaken the morale of the civilian population by casting doubt on the capacity of SAC to deter or by making the risks of war seem more urgent and actual. Hence these strategists take refuge in the automatic balance of terror—the idea that there can be only one kind of thermonuclear war, a war inevitably involving mutual annihilation, and therefore a war that can never take place. Yet everything depends on how the war may start, how it may be fought, and how it may be terminated. And unless one understands that there is a whole range of possible situations, one cannot fully appreciate the potential effectiveness of the different kinds of civil defense programs which might be recommended.
It is not only our first-priority objectives that are essential; there is a long list of things that we cannot safely do without. We need to eat and sleep as well as to breathe, and though human biology permits of no question about which comes first, neither can be ignored indefinitely. Similarly, there is no question that it is far more important to avoid war than to find ways of reducing its damage and of recovering from its effects. But since we cannot be certain that we will succeed in preventing war, it is essential that we take moderate and prudent steps to minimize the disaster that such a failure would mean. In the event of a war, civil defense could not only save millions of lives but could also prove crucial to the continued survival in the world of Western ideals and institutions.
* * *
Erich Fromm & Michael Maccoby
Up until 1961 few Americans took the possibility of nuclear war very seriously. Many were convinced that such a war would never occur because it would be too destructive; others did not think about it at all. The change which took place in 1961 was brought about in the first instance by the acute Berlin crisis and President Kennedy’s speech of July 25. The President told the nation after his Vienna meeting with Khrushchev that the Soviet leader had threatened to execute his Berlin plans within six months at the most, and since we were resolved not to accept such an ultimatum, the inference was that a thermonuclear war was a definite possibility before the end of the year. The President added in this context that he would announce the steps a citizen could “take without delay to protect his family in the case of an attack,” and proposed a new $207 million shelter program.
The President’s speech might not have been so effective had the soil not been prepared by the most vocal and most influential spokesman for civil defense, Herman Kahn, and a number of his colleagues, especially from the RAND Corporation. Mr. Kahn’s basic approach can be described as being close to psychoanalysis. Not so much because he makes many statements about psychological matters (such as the quality and duration of grief, the discipline of people during and after a nuclear attack, the capacity to be happy in the post-attack world, etc.), but primarily because his central thesis is that, out of fear, people repress the awareness that thermonuclear war may come, and consequently they ignore the possibilities of defense. Hence in order to enable them to prepare adequately, the thing to do is to make them aware that a thermonuclear war can occur. No psychoanalyst could quarrel with this principle. The question is only whether an awareness that thermonuclear war is actually possible leads to an increased sense of realism or whether, as we believe, old illusions are replaced by even more dangerous ones. Kahn, whose good will and great ability we do not doubt, has on the whole given the opinion leaders and the political leaders of this country the impression that nuclear war need by no means be catastrophic—that, provided we take the proper steps, the country can recover, and that after ten or twenty years people can once again lead happy and prosperous lives. He has, indeed, qualified this general thesis by many “ifs,” but it is the general thesis that has taken hold, while the qualifications have become the fine print which is forgotten.
There are two conceptions of the role of civil defense and, specifically, of a shelter program. The first—stressed in Kahn’s testimony last August before the Holifield Committee10 and also in President Kennedy’s speech of May 25—sees the shelter program as “life insurance,” and argues for it on the ground that it would save many millions of lives. At present the assumption is made that fallout shelters might save not only lives in rural areas, but also in the cities—since it is calculated that the Soviets are not likely to attack our cities. As we shall try to show later, this calculation is quite unwarranted, and the probability is that our urban population would be wiped out in a thermonuclear war. However, since millions of people living in rural areas away from population centers and military installations might be saved by fallout shelters, and since nuclear war is possible or even likely to occur, who would dare to dissuade a family or a community from constructing fallout shelters? We certainly would not.
Quite different from the “insurance” idea is the conception of civil defense as part of our national strategy. Many spokesmen for civil defense contend that it will greatly improve our strategic position, that it may help to avert war. We shall try to show: (1) that there are severe limitations to the effectiveness of civil defense; (2) that it is more likely to provoke war than to deter it; (3) that even if it were optimally successful in war, it would not prevent the replacement of our democratic system by a totalitarian one. If we are right on these points, then even the justification of civil defense as “insurance” may have to be reconsidered. The true situation may be analogous to one in which a man takes out life insurance under conditions that considerably increase the likelihood of his death. In such a case, one might still not try to dissuade him if he wished to buy insurance, but certainly he and his friends would be right to have severe doubts about its usefulness.
The first and most fundamental limitation of any shelter program is that it could not save our urban population in the event of an attack against our cities. Rather than frankly accepting this fact, Kahn and other advocates of civil defense argue that if the Russians strike first they will try to destroy our missile and SAC bases, not our cities. Given such a strike, the greatest danger to those city dwellers fortunate enough to be living well away from strategic centers would be from delayed fallout, and thus fallout shelters might lower the immediate death toll from fifty to ten million people.11
On what grounds do strategists suppose that the Russians would not direct a first strike against our population centers? Kahn, in his book On Thermonuclear War, gives several reasons: (1) they have so few missiles that they would have to choose between attacking our military installations or our cities, and therefore in order to neutralize our striking power they would choose to hit our military installations; (2) they would not wish to attack our cities first, in order to hold them as hostages against our retaliatory strike; (3) “almost nobody wants to go down in history as the first man to kill 100,000,000 people.”
The weakness of Kahn’s first point lies in its shortsightedness. Since it will take no less than a year for even a minimal civil defense program to bear fruit, calculations ought to be made not on the basis of present Russian missile strength, but on the number of missiles the Soviets may have a year or two from now. In addition, even if they did decide to make our military installations their main target, the Soviets might kill an additional 50 million people by diverting only a fraction of their missile strength to our ten largest population centers. (This is the kind of attack Kahn calls “counterforce plus bonus.”) Further, we have so increased our strength in the past year that a successful attack against our bases would no longer cripple our retaliatory power. The Russians would thus be foolish to limit their attack to our military installations, knowing that their own cities would remain as hostages.
As to the second point—that they would avoid hitting our cities in order to hold them as hostages—Kahn imagines that after having destroyed our military bases, they would command us not to strike their cities on pain of having our own cities destroyed in retaliation. But is it realistic to assume that after the destruction of our military installations and the death of ten to fifteen million people, the Russians would expect our government to wait and listen to their demands rather than to use all its strength immediately in a mood of fury and revenge against the Russian cities?
And finally, as for the reluctance of a political leader to go down in history as the first man to kill 100,000,000 people, such considerations did not interfere with the decision to saturate cities with bombs during the Second World War; nor did they restrain the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why then should we expect the force of moral considerations to be greater now when the survival of entire nations is at stake?
All this, it should be added, applies only to a first strike by the Russians. If we were to initiate a first strike—in retaliation for, say, a Soviet invasion of West Berlin—the Russians would not hit back at our empty bases; clearly, they would attack our cities.
Assuming, then, that our cities were attacked, what chance of survival would the urban population have? Almost none, given the effects of the megaton weapons. A 20-megaton groundburst leaves a crater 300 feet deep and a half mile in radius, destroying all underground shelters. Within a four-mile radius, the most heavily reinforced concrete structures are leveled. At eleven miles, the blast pressure destroys all conventional frame or brick buildings, and buries most basement fallout shelters, while winds of 160 miles per hour turn hurtling debris and human bodies into deadly missiles.
But blast is the least of the killers in thermonuclear war; fire, instant radiation, and delayed fallout would claim many more lives. Within at least a 25-mile radius of a 20-megaton blast—an area of about 2,000 square miles—any exposed person would die of burns, and raging fires would soon begin to consume the air in fallout and blast shelters.12 As long as there was fuel for these fires, they would burn on, unchecked. Even more widespread in its potential effect is the danger of blindness to those above ground at the moment of blast; anyone who glimpsed the explosion would be blinded, for it would emit a light pulse at less than 0.015 second (the time needed for a saving eye-blink).
While in the city itself almost nobody could survive, people living in the suburbs—even if they escaped these instantaneous effects of blast, flying debris, heat, blindness, and radiation—would still be threatened by delayed fallout. At 25 miles from a 20-megaton explosion one might expect doses of 3,000 roentgens per hour arriving after about twenty minutes—enough to kill a person within two minutes, unless he were in a specially constructed fallout shelter. If he could succeed in reaching a shelter with a large shielding factor within twenty-two minutes after the blast, and if he could avoid glimpsing the fireball, a hard fight for survival would then have only begun.
What about saving the urban population by evacuation? While many reject the idea of evacuation, others (including Kahn) consider it a serious possibility. It is hard to see why. If we were to evacuate our cities for every political crisis, we would probably have to leave them empty for several months practically every year. Even if this were feasible (which it is not), after one or two such evacuations no one would leave, for the warning signal would come to be considered a repeated cry of “wolf.” Further, every time we evacuated, we would give the Russians a reason for supposing that we were planning a first strike, and hence the chances of a preemptive attack would increase. As to evacuating cities after a warning, fifteen minutes would obviously not be enough time if the Russians struck first. If, on the other hand, we wanted to strike first, it would require many hours at the very least to evacuate all our major cities, and since such a move would be impossible to conceal from the Russians, they would obviously not wait for our attack, but would hasten to hit us first. At best we might secretly evacuate our leaders before striking, but how many of them would be willing to leave for safety knowing that their wives and children would soon be killed?
Finally, let us consider the possibility of protecting our urban population by vast underground shelters (which have also been proposed by certain enthusiasts of civil defense). In the case of a surprise attack it would take more than fifteen minutes to get people down to the streets from big offices and apartment buildings. The panic, and the struggle for elevators, doors, and the like could only result in the same kind of situation that arises in a theater when fire breaks out. Even if there were a shelter entrance not further than five minutes’ brisk walk from any point in the city, it takes little imagination to visualize how many people would be trampled to death before reaching the shelter, and how few—even of the strongest and most brutal—would be saved.
If everyone in the city and its suburbs is likely to be killed, what are the chances for survival beyond the 25-mile range? Here fallout would be the greatest menace. In some areas—say 50 miles from the blast—it would probably be necessary to remain in a fallout shelter for at least two weeks, and afterward it would be possible to leave it for only a few hours each week. How many people would find themselves in this situation depends on the magnitude of the attack, and on the amount of fallout generated by megaton bombs—something the experts have still not agreed upon. A problem in making any calculation is the lack of studies which outline exact fallout danger at different distances from the blast, or in accordance with various possible attacks. Neither are there sufficient data on the effects of other radioactive particles—for instance Strontium 90, which might make farming impossible anywhere in the country. There are experts who think that many farmlands might require forty replantings before becoming safe again, and no one has disproved this estimate. Norman A. Hanunian of the RAND Corporation, who prepared the statistics on heavy attacks used by Kahn in his book, concludes his testimony to the Holifield Committee by stating that “the outcomes of future attacks are anything but precisely predictable. Fallout could create overwhelming disaster, but it might not. Whether it would depends to some extent on factors we have not examined today—on wind, for example. But it depends most importantly on the kind of war that the potential combatants may be prepared to fight.” What kind of war can we expect? Ralph E. Lapp has written that present Soviet stockpiles are more than adequate for a 10,000 or 20,000 megaton attack, enough to saturate the whole nation with fallout.
Hanunian considers attacks of from 300 to 30,000 megatons, but the latter, as we have just seen, seems closer to Russian capability. In such an attack, with five-sixths of the bombs directed against military targets, Hanunian estimates that even a total fallout shelter system would be unable to prevent from 54 to 85 million people from being killed. What the experts have so far not studied are the long-range effects of 30,000 megaton bombings, which might so contaminate the countryside as to leave crops inedible, unstored water undrinkable, and food-giving animals dead from radioactivity. If a 30,000 megaton attack were to take place—as indeed is possible—what would become of Kahn’s optimistic idea of the “B country” (the rural areas and the small towns) rebuilding the “A country” (the 53 major metropolitan areas)?
In summing up our discussion of the limitations of civil defense, let us take a brief look at the possible types of shelter program and try to determine how effective each is likely to be in the event of the kind of war we consider most probable—a war involving attacks on our cities, either directly or as “bonus.”
The effectiveness of the current minimal program of marking and stocking shelter space mainly in urban areas would be most limited—except in the unlikely case that the enemy were to decide against attacking even the ten largest cities.
The next possible program—proposed by Walmar Strope of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratories—is the $10 to $30 billion network of well-stocked communal fallout shelters built to house everyone in both rural and urban areas. In our opinion, these shelters could not protect the population of the cities. Perhaps in suburban areas 20 miles or more away from the explosions, some people could be saved (provided, of course, that they were well-organized, disciplined, and able to weather severe stress and disease). However, it does seem to be true that, depending on the type of attack, the time of day, and many other unpredictable circumstances, this program could save a large proportion of the rural population.
A final possibility is the science-fiction program that Kahn has suggested, which would cost $200 billion. This envisages underground space for factories and urban blast protection that could—as Kahn puts it in On Thermonuclear War—“probably take direct hits of ‘small’ bombs (say less than 5 MT) and [might] even take ‘near’ misses of ‘large’ bombs.” Yet even after spending so much we would still have no security: since it is infinitely cheaper to increase striking power than it is to raise the level of protection, even the most hardened shelter cannot guarantee safety. If there were a possibility of adequate shelter, it would be found only in underground cities where we would have to live permanently. Is this troglodytic life the fulfillment of the American Dream?
Assuming, with all the qualifications introduced above, that a complete and thorough shelter program could save millions of people in rural areas, what would post-attack life be like for the survivors—psychologically, morally, economically, and politically? The situation in the shelters, of course, would vary with the different types of shelter and the amount of fallout in the particular locale. Privately owned luxury shelters would be comfortable, provided they were defended successfully and would-be intruders did not retaliate by blocking the air vents. In the public shelters, the danger of over-crowding would exist, especially if the program were not completed before the attack came. Moreover, we should expect that in many communal shelters disease and meager rations would exact a psychological toll.13 People might have radios, which would boost their morale (provided transmitting stations were not destroyed), but this might also be offset by hearing that all big cities had been leveled, and that there was widespread disease. Further, unless the attack were to have occurred at night, many families would have been separated, with people not knowing whether their wives, husbands, or children had found protection. Given all these conditions, what would be the state of mind of those in the shelters, immediately after the attack and for some time to come?
Kahn’s answer to this question is very optimistic. “It is my personal belief,” he told the Holifield Committee, “speaking less as an expert than as a man who has read widely, that these problems [social, psychological, political, and moral questions] have been grossly exaggerated. Most people will not be psychologically deranged. One is not, for example, going to break up family relations by a war. The family relation is a very stable one. . . . One is not even going to obliterate the fact that people are Americans. By and large, they will be about as honest, hardworking, reliable, and responsible as they are today. While everybody’s life and thoughts will be affected by the war the character structure of the survivors is unlikely to be changed in any startling fashion.
In his testimony Kahn also speaks about “post-attack grief” and argues against the notion many people have that “because of the enormous number of casualties, all of the pleasure, all of the taste will permanently go out of life for almost everybody.” “As far as I know,” he says, “that just hasn’t happened in anything that has occurred before, and one would not expect it to happen even as a result of a large thermonuclear war.” One reason for believing that it would not happen is that “in a sense, grief is family-sized. If one loses a close relative or close friend, one will grieve. If one loses one’s family, one will grieve even more. But, in some sense, that is about as far as one can go. Most people would not mourn for a million people much more than they would mourn for their family.” Kahn also claims (in On Thermonuclear War) that a shock spaced over a few days “is good, not bad” so far as its psychological effects are concerned, because “the habits of a lifetime cannot be changed for most people in a few days.” And here, finally, is how he summarizes his conclusions as to the psychological effect of a thermonuclear war in his book: “Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, objective studies indicate that even though the amount of human tragedy would be greatly increased in the postwar world, the increase would not preclude normal and happy lives for the majority of the survivors and their descendants.”
Bearing in mind that Kahn himself states explicitly that he does not speak as an expert on such matters, and that he also says that the disaster studies which have been made are not sufficient to establish his case on solid scientific grounds, let us now consider the picture he paints of the post-attack psychological situation.
To begin with, the problem of post-attack psychic shock is not one of families breaking up. The problem is how those families that would not be broken up would react to the break-up of the whole world around them. Kahn believes that the character structure of the survivors would probably not be “changed in any startling fashion,” but he fails to say why he believes so, and his patriotic appeal to the fact that “people are Americans” is not an adequate substitute for good reasoning. Indeed, one might more plausibly assume that non-Americans accustomed to totalitarian discipline would, if anything, be less radically affected than the average American. Moreover, the notion that sudden shock is less far-reaching in its effects than prolonged suffering is totally indefensible. Vast psychiatric experience and a huge body of literature are there to show that traumatic neuroses are produced both in peace and war by sudden fright and by tension of an intensity which transcends the amount our nervous system can tolerate. Such neuroses can result in severe depression, suicidal tendencies, self-accusations, amnesia and disorientation, and states of anxiety—all of which may persist for many years. To be sure, long-lasting states of despair can also produce severe psychic damage, but to ignore (as Kahn does) the effect of sudden shocks of great intensity is only to make the picture rosier than it really is.
The experts testifying last August at the Holifield Committee hearings on civil defense tell us that no disaster study yet made reports the psychological consequences of devastation as wide and as great as would result from a thermonuclear war. We, however, would like to recommend to Kahn and his colleagues that they look into one disaster which has been studied, and which is comparable to a thermonuclear war in terms of loss of life and disruption of society: the Black Death of 1348-1349. As the distinguished historian William L. Langer writes, the Black Death was “the greatest single disaster that has ever befallen European mankind. In most localities a third or even half of the population was lost within the space of a few months. . . .”14 Particularly relevant in the context of the present discussion is the fact that the cities were the hardest hit by the Black Death. Professor Langer notes that with the Black Death the phenomenal economic progress of the 13th century came to a halt, followed by a prolonged depression, but he also feels that in some sense the economic effects were secondary to the long-range psychological consequences of those mass deaths. He writes that “the horror and confusion in many places brought general demoralization and social breakdown. Criminal elements were quick to take over, looting the deserted houses and even murdering the sick to rob them of their jewels.” The period after the crisis was marked “by a mood of misery, depression, and anxiety, and by a general sense of impending doom,” so much so that it has been suggested that people hesitated to marry and raise a family. (According to reports, this has also been true of the survivors of Hiroshima.) Langer’s summation seems to us remarkably applicable to the most likely outcome of a thermonuclear war:
It is perfectly clear that disaster and death threatening an entire community will bring on a mass emotional disturbance, based on a feeling of helpless exposure, disorientation, and common guilt. Furthermore, it seems altogether plausible to suppose that children, having experienced the terror of their parents and the panic of the community will react to succeeding crises in a similar but even more intense manner. In other words, the anxiety and fear are transmitted from one generation to another, constantly aggravated.
Which brings us to Kahn’s idea that grief is “family-sized.” The trouble with this idea is that grief is not the only problem when a thermonuclear war is in question. We must remember that the survivors would witness a sudden tearing apart of the whole fabric of society. For most people, the sense of stability, and even of their own identity, rests on the meaning society gives to their lives. What then might we expect would happen to men if everything that seemed to be certain became completely unstable within a matter of hours? Previous wars supply no precedent for such a situation. The soldier was of course exposed to great stresses, but life remained stable for him precisely because he knew that his family and the rest of society were still relatively unchanged. In thermonuclear war, however, no part of the social fabric would remain stable. Half of the population killed; most of the leaders gone; no transportation; unburied corpses; epidemics; no communications, electricity, or water supply; divided families; many months necessary to create the minimum conditions for renewing a semblance of life as it was previously known—and for what? What sense would life make? What hope would there be? How much fury would be generated in those who had fared worse than others? How many would blame themselves for being alive when others were dead? What would be the reaction of those who were just managing to get by when refugees turned up to be fed? How much rage would there be against the leaders or scapegoats who would be held responsible for having brought the war on? No, for the majority of people the problem would not only be grief, but the destruction of a way of life which had given meaning to their efforts, which had produced a sense of identity, as well as a sense of hope for the future.
If these would be the psychological effects of a thermonuclear war, what shall we say about the moral consequences of such a war? Keeping in mind the fact that morality, like psychology, is in large part socially conditioned—that individual morality existing without support from the community is rare—let us try to imagine what the postwar moral atmosphere would look like. Let us imagine a situation in which millions of innocent people have been horribly killed; in which we may have defended our own safety by letting our neighbors die; in which we may have to fight for our minimum standards of living against thousands who come into our area to be fed and sheltered; in which we are envious of those who protected themselves better than we did; in which we are frightened and resentful of those who made thermonuclear war seem palatable and possible. What sort of ethics would develop in such a situation—something similar to a belief in God, in brotherly love, and in freedom, or the ethics of the jungle and the concentration camp? The question very nearly answers itself. Is it not indicative that even now people speak of the duty to defend their shelters with guns against those who have been less “provident” (or affluent), and that at least one “man of God” has said that such actions do not contradict Christian teaching? Yet not only do they contradict Christian teaching, they even contradict the ethics of military behavior which command the individual soldier to risk his own life in order to save his fellow-soldiers. In the light of all this, it seems quite obvious—and even the experts sometimes vaguely hint at it—that post-attack life would be possible only under a military dictatorship which used force to uphold even a minimum of social responsibility. Not morality but martial law would be the basis for whatever vestige of civilized behavior might survive a nuclear war.
In talking about recuperation, Kahn occasionally draws on the experience of the last two wars. Millions of people were killed, he points out, and billions were destroyed in property value, yet only a few years later things had more or less returned to normal, and most of the survivors were again leading “happy” and moral lives. This is simply not the case. The history of man since the First World War, though still to be written, would show an increasing brutalization; it would demonstrate that brutalization, approved by society, leads to further brutalization. The slaughter of the First World War was senseless; in contrast to the belief that this was the war to end all wars and to establish democracy, it was in fact fought for territorial aggrandizement and the ambitions of the contending political leaders. In that war, for the first time in modern history, a recognized moral principle—that unarmed civilians must not be attacked—was violated by the aerial bombardment of cities on both sides. Then came the state-approved massacres of Stalin and of Hitler, which were allowed to take place with astonishingly little moral protest, except for the kind motivated by political considerations. Finally—let us at any rate hope that it is the final development—came the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in the Second World War, first by the Nazis, then by the Allies in the mass bombing of German and Japanese cities. What we see here—to use a favorite term of the atomic strategists—is the “escalation” of brutality from 1914 to 1945; if it were not for this escalation, these same strategists would not be able to write about forty or sixty million dead being “acceptable,” nor would anyone be able to take such reasoning as “normal.” The very fact that a balance sheet of death can today be calmly drawn up is the result of the brutalizing influence of two world wars and the systems of terror that have operated in our time. Many experts are unaware of the degree to which this brutalization is contained in the very discussion of the “acceptability” of killing fifty million people on each side, and they are equally unaware of the further brutalization which a thermonuclear war would produce. Moral development, indeed, is always the moral development of a society, and when a society commands mass murder and mass suicide, only very few will be able to hold fast to Judeo-Christian or humanist ethics.
Let us next consider how a thermonuclear war would affect the economic situation of the country. Kahn’s estimates here, as in the psychological realm, are quite cheering. It is his thesis in On Thermonuclear War that “if proper preparations have been made, it would be possible for us or the Soviets to cope with all the effects of a thermonuclear war, in the sense of saving most people and restoring something close to the prewar standard of living in a relatively short time. But there is no reason to believe this will be true unless both nations investigate the problem more thoroughly than has been done so far, and then take the necessary preparations.” S. G. Winter, an economist of the RAND Corporation, in his testimony before the August hearings of the Holifield Committee, is equally optimistic. If his assumptions are valid, he says, “it turns out that capacity is back to the 470 million level in just over a decade.”
But what are the premises on which these estimates rest? In Kahn’s case, the premise (as expressed in his book) is that we succeed in holding damage down to the equivalent of something like 53 metropolitan areas destroyed, and that “seven optimistic assumptions” materialize: “1—Favorable political environment. 2—Immediate survival and patch-up. 3—Maintenance of economic momentum. 4—Specific bottlenecks alleviated. 5—‘Bourgeois’ virtues survive. 6—Workable postwar standards adopted. 7—Neglected effects unimportant.” Why these optimal conditions should all be fulfilled, neither Kahn nor Winter makes clear.
Winter arrives at his hopeful diagnosis by thus qualifying all his conclusions: “The issues are too complex to be fully understood, and consequently there is no possibility of providing answers that are beyond reasonable challenge.” “No amount of research,” he continues, “is likely to alter the fact that decisions will finally have to be based on a large measure of faith in, or skepticism about, the basic strength or resilience of the people and institutions of our Nation.” However, he goes on to admit in discussing the research concerning economic recovery: “A good deal of competent and important work has been done, but it does not really scratch the surface of this vast problem and there is in particular, a definite need for a systematic and comprehensive re-examination of the whole problem.” [Our italics.]
Such, then, is the scientific basis for the bright outlook of Kahn and Winter.
The picture grows even darker when we study the conditions Winter specifies for avoiding “complete failure in the recovery effort.” Such failure would occur if “the effectiveness of the federal government and many state governments is greatly diminished, the banking system disrupted, most surviving firms are bankrupt, electric power and water supply systems are severely damaged, and the transportation network broken in many places, and where few survivors have the responsibility, authority, and plans to do anything about it.” Is it not likely that this is precisely what would occur, even with a vast civil defense program? Another condition for recovery is a release from the necessity of spending money on rearmament; that is, the war must “produce a substantial or fairly permanent reduction in the external threat.” How could this be expected to happen? If we were to have destroyed Russian military power, China and other nations probably would still have escaped the worst of the war, and might by then have acquired nuclear weapons. Or are we to assume that after a war we would get universal disarmament, which now appears impossible?
There is yet a further condition which Winter believes important for a rapid recovery and the avoiding of bottlenecks: the willingness and ability of foreign nations to trade with us, and even to provide assistance for our reconstruction. This assumes, apparently, that the European countries and Japan would not have been involved in the war, for what other nations would trade with us or give us assistance? The Soviet Union? China? Australia and New Zealand? Or Latin America, which needs our assistance now? Eventually, Winter adds another condition to his prognosis for recovery: that all analysis of the economic problems hinges on relatively optimistic answers to the psychological problems that would arise in the post-attack situation. If this is the case, then it seems to us that the whole prognosis rests on a house of cards, many of which are themselves shaky, being made up as they are of questionable or improbable premises.
Apart from all this, both Kahn and Winter take insufficient account of the interaction of the various disasters that would result from a thermonuclear attack. To mention only a few such interactions: people would need instruction by radio, but most transmitters might be destroyed; people would need hospitals, but most would probably be demolished; certain injuries would have to be treated by extensive washing, but not enough water would be available; the dead would have to be buried in heavy fallout areas, but no one would be able to leave the shelter without getting lethal doses of radiation himself, while the bulldozers which, according to Kahn, might be necessary for mass burials would not be available. Our whole mechanized agriculture depends on gasoline, but the refineries situated near population centers (which make up two-thirds of all refineries in this country) might be destroyed; how could the remaining one-third be made sufficient to supply all agricultural and other needs? Winter, in answering questions after his testimony, was forced to admit that his optimistic calculations are based on the premise of an uninterrupted national transportation system. What value has an analysis of economic recovery that depends on such unrealistic assumptions?
If we bring some of the factors neglected by Kahn and Winter into the picture, what would the economic situation after a thermonuclear war look like? Let us assume that all urban centers, more than half (at the least) of the “survival industry,” and two-thirds of the heavy industries are bankrupt. Many of their stockholders, who had lived in cities, are dead. Their stocks and bonds have been burned. Under such circumstances how many would be able to prove property rights? What about money in banks whose books had been destroyed by fire? Winter tells us that “a number of financial institutions are microfilming their vital records . . . but this is not by any means universal.” Others, according to the same testimony, would be able to microfilm and store records in a safe place “if they had a day or two of warning.” But what about the records of small firms and of individual wills, all of which would be destroyed in the population centers? We must expect that a disappearance of paper from our highly complex economy would wreak havoc with private property.
But even if it turned out to be possible to find records of ownership, another and much more serious threat to the free enterprise system would arise. Some parts of the country would be less devastated than others and would have to help those in worse condition. This could be done only if the state took over the economy and divided goods according to need. Even accepting Winter’s optimistic estimate of recovery on the basis of a 25 per cent rate of growth in order to build up destroyed industries, the state would have to control capital investment, and manufacturing would have to be centrally directed in order to secure the production of the most vital necessities. Even if half the population and half the industrial plant were not destroyed, much of our capitalist economy would have to be replaced by a state-directed, centrally managed industrial system. Whether this system would be managed by a small group of industrialists or by the state, and whether individuals would to some extent retain nominal ownership while the state took over ownership of a large chunk of the national wealth, of one thing we can be sure: even the most favorable possible outcome of a thermonuclear war would lead to a centrally controlled managerialism. We have to consider, in addition, that the severe sacrifices and discipline necessary to recovery would make it imperative to introduce a system of total control not only of production, but of the population. To be sure, such a system might be imposed in the name of freedom rather than by martial law, but it would be totalitarianism all the same. The fact is, then, that even a “successful” thermonuclear war would leave the survivors with a political and economic system not too different from the one we are supposed to be fighting. The alternative, in other words, would not be “better dead than red” but “better red than ‘red.’”
If no civil defense program can save our cities or the fabric of our society from the ravages of a thermonuclear war, can an extensive system of shelters nevertheless serve as a deterrent to the enemy? There are two very different forms of deterrence: deterrence against attack, and deterrence against political provocation (Deterrence I and II in Kahn’s terminology). No one claims that shelters would deter an enemy from attacking us first, and President Kennedy has stated explicitly that civil defense “cannot deter a nuclear attack”; according to most experts, the only attack deterrence is a powerful second-strike (or retaliatory) capability. But what about political deterrence, the attempt to restrain the enemy from political provocations by threatening to strike him first?
According to Kahn and others, civil defense makes it more credible to the enemy that we might strike first; if we cannot protect ourselves against a retaliatory strike, the enemy might call our bluff, discounting the possibility that we would risk our population merely to defend, for example, access routes to Berlin.
Though—as we have seen—civil defense would not save our cities and would even in the “best” case leave us with 50 to 70 million dead, it can be admitted that a shelter program does increase our first-strike credibility and thus improves our political deterrence. However, the enemy must still become convinced of our willingness to make such a sacrifice, and we are therefore forced to gamble on whether he would believe that a particular political aim was important enough for us to accept destruction of these dimensions. (As Kahn himself points out, most of our leaders would not start a war if they expected to lose more than 60 million American lives.)
But in addition to this, civil defense tends to provoke war precisely because it improves our political deterrence. The more credible we make our resolve to strike first, the more the Russians will expect us to attack during a crisis, and hence the more they will be likely to launch a preemptive strike. (Kahn himself writes in his book: “The one circumstance under which almost all Soviet experts agree the Russians might strike is the one in which they anticipate a strike from us.”) Our own fear of Russian preemption will in turn make us more prone to strike first, and so on up the spiral. Thus, to the extent that our first-strike capacity becomes more credible, Russian preemption becomes more likely; in balance-sheet language, what we gain in political deterrence we pay for in an increased probability of war.
Aside from the war-provoking aspect of first-strike credibility, a large civil defense program tends to indicate that we are getting ready for war, and this might start a vicious circle of preparations, counter weapons, and counter preparations—which would have the combined effect of hastening the onset of war. Even if we could build a system of civil defense so perfect that it would reduce fatalities to the 3-5 million range—a prospect that at the moment seems no more than a dream—is it likely that the Russians would sit back while we were making ourselves invulnerable enough to force them into any concessions we chose? Notwithstanding our second-strike capability, they might attack before we had gotten very far in building our fortress. For, as Kahn points out, they tend to view strategy more in terms of chess than poker—and in chess one exchanges queens in order to maintain a tactical position that will otherwise deteriorate.15
Another way in which even a national fallout shelter program could increase the chances of war is by lulling the nation into a false sense of security. We are even now being led to believe the claims of Life magazine or Dr. Edward Teller, that with some fallout protection most people could survive a thermonuclear war, while the probable fate of our cities is hardly publicized. To support this illusion of safety, all the tricks of modern advertising are being drawn upon: gay pictures of teenagers chatting in shelters, survival statistics based on minimal attacks against military installations, claims of overwhelming military superiority on our side, and even appeals to individuality and the spirit of the old frontier, as though winning a thermonuclear war were a matter of showing manly courage. Thus Kahn says that “We are in a position much like the pioneer. He had to carry a gun because the Indians might attack him.” (This analogy makes sense only if one substitutes “neighbors” for “Indians.”) Under the spell of this false sense of security the American people may become more willing to support an adventurist military policy rather than more fervent in demanding disarmament negotiations, just as our leaders may become less hesitant about pushing their terrible buttons.
The belief that thermonuclear war need not be catastrophic increases the possibilities of thermonuclear war. As Walter Millis wrote in reviewing On Thermonuclear War, “Unless thermonuclear war can be re-established in the official mind as something which it is possible both to fight and to survive, it is unlikely that there will be a thermonuclear war.” We share with Millis the opinion that thermonuclear war has been avoided until now because neither side believed that it was possible to survive such a war. Once it is accepted that thermonuclear war is essentially no more catastrophic than past “conventional” wars, a major restraint will be gone. It is precisely for this reason that we consider it so dangerous to underemphasize the fantastic damage that a thermonuclear war would surely bring about.
Suppose, however, that we are mistaken in our arguments and that Kahn’s most optimistic estimates are right. What would the future look like in that case? We would have a totally effective civil defense program, and so—it must be assumed—would the Russians. The stabilized deterrent would work and war would be avoided for the next ten years, or, if a war came, only 3 to 5 per cent of the population of each side would be killed. But where are we then? Each new generation of weapons becomes more destructive; people get more frightened; the protection that shelters may give today will be useless against the much more destructive weapons of 1970. The shelter idea, adopted, may logically lead to building our cities underground, or—as has been seriously suggested—to selecting small numbers of people to live in such deeply buried shelters that they would be sure to survive; thus a new nation might be built up from a few thousand survivors. Against even this last hope for survival, Kahn admits that ten years from now we, or another nation, might develop a “doomsday machine” which could literally wipe out all life on this globe. What use, then, is even a good shelter program now if it will not halt the march toward doomsday? Or are we to believe that after a thermonuclear war in which only 3 per cent of the population has been killed, the leaders will gain enough wisdom to decide on complete disarmament?
To sum up: in debating the position of Kahn and other experts on civil defense we have been forced to accept their data on technical problems, even though we suspect that their data are themselves not free from the bias which quite naturally comes from their intention to prove that thermonuclear war is not only possible but also “acceptable.” Not being physicists ourselves, and not having the facilities of big research organizations at our disposal, we can at least examine the logic and mode of thought on which the studies of Kahn and the others are based. Our main criticism is that their approach to the question of the survival of our nation, and even of civilization, is the approach of a gamble. That is, they tend to accept the idea that thermonuclear war need not be catastrophic on the basis of (1) complete uncertainty in many important areas of investigation; (2) an optimistic slant which leans more heavily on estimates of better rather than worse conditions; (3) unproven or definitely wrong assumptions; (4) neglect of various important factors as well as the interactions between factors.
At best, what these experts are giving the American public is a piece of optimistic guesswork governed by the logic of a gamble. With the life of a nation and perhaps of all mankind as the stake, it is neither wise nor sane to gamble. Herman Kahn’s arguments leave us convinced that there is only one moral and rational way out of the grim predicament we are in: universal disarmament, combined with a political settlement in which neither side tries to upset the other’s present position.
1 I have discussed the different kinds of thermonuclear war at length in my book On Thermonuclear War and in my testimony (August 6, 1961) before the Holifield Committee. One of the most important distinctions depends on the target system the enemy chooses for his first strike. These can be characterized very roughly as:
- Countervalue (attacks against people and property);
- Countervalue + counterforce (attacks against people and property and also against retaliatory forces; i.e., bombers and missiles);
- Straight counterforce (SAC, ICBM's, Polarises, etc., are the only objective);
- Counterforce + “bonus” (people and property are included as secondary targets whenever they can be hit without distracting from the primary military objectives);
- Counterforce + avoidance (people and property are carefully avoided where possible and only military objectives are aimed at).
Only numbers 3 and 5 seem to be rational for the attacker (who would then try to use the cities as hostages either to intimidate or to try to force his opponent to negotiate), but any of these attacks could occur. Even the simplest civil defense programs would be extremely effective in the last three cases (keeping casualties in the 1—25 million range instead of the 10—100 million). Quite elaborate programs, however, might fail to protect much more than half the population in the first two cases.
2 Indeed what evidence there is suggests that relatively normal and happy lives would not be impossible even under the relatively harsh conditions that might prevail after a nuclear war, and in spite of the personal and social traumas that would have been experienced. This assertion seems to arouse the utmost hostility in many people, yet it is as well documented a conclusion as many that we have in this uncertain field, and substantially better documented than the opposite view. (See for example Air War and Emotional Stress by I. L. Janis, or the series of studies on disasters and their aftereffects by the Disaster Research Group of the National Academy of Sciences—National Research Council.) It should be clear that to say that suffering would be great but not unlimited, or even to say that one would recover in some sense, is neither to advocate such suffering nor to view suffering callously.
3 Studies that have been done (mainly by RAND, the Stanford Research Institute, and OCDM) indicate that after the first year or so, assuming there is a successful reorganization, the standard of living (including life expectancy and probability of a normal birth) would be higher than the standards prevalent in the U.S. between 1900 and 1930.
4 This is a reasonable estimate of what might happen, given modest precautions against fallout, in the most likely kinds of war that could occur in the early 60's.
5 Actually, because of the desire on both sides to procure weapon systems that are relatively invulnerable, the current technological trend is toward less destructive systems. For example, a Polaris submarine carries sixteen missiles with a total yield in the five to twenty megaton region. A B-52 squadron (fifteen planes)—which under current conditions may be a less reliable deterrent—might be capable of carrying ten to fifty times as much yield. The Minuteman missile which replaces the Atlas-Titan missiles is also likely to carry much less yield per missile than its predecessor.
6 See “Report on a Study of Non-Military Defense” (RAND Report R-322-RC) and “Post-Attack Farm Problems” (Stanford Research Institute, Part I, December 1960; Part II, October 1961).
7 “A System Analysis of the Effects of Nuclear Attack on Railroad Transportation in the Continental United States” (Stanford Research Institute, April 1960) and “Effects of Nuclear Attack on Rail Activity Centers” (Stanford Research Institute, July 1961).
8 It is very difficult to see how any “aggressive” implications can plausibly be read into the current program. Far from contributing to deterrence, a program of concentrating much of our population in fallout shelters that are vulnerable to blast and thermal effects, makes people ideal hostages for an enemy who deliberately spares them on his first strike. However, very few people who have considered these issues would take the position that the probability of war in the absence of this program is so low that the hypothetical decrease in deterrence is enough to outweigh the savings in life and property in the event of a war.
But there is a more legitimate objection to the $207 million program currently being carried out. Even though it emphasizes using existing structures as community shelters, there is still a heavy reliance on individual and local community efforts. This leads to all kinds of exhortatory and sometimes inflammatory speeches or exaggerated claims by civil defense enthusiasts, and raises the “Shoot Thy Neighbor” and other divisive problems. A great country ought not to proceed permanently in such a fashion with the business of defending its citizens against the potential hazards of nuclear war.
9 The phrase, I believe, was first given wide currency by Dr. Robert K. Merton in an article published in 1948. Merton's concern was with how the treatment of ethnic out-groups by ethnic in-groups sometimes acts to bring about the very characteristics condemned in the original stereotypes. He tried to outline the different conditions under which prejudiced prophecies might be defeated rather than fulfilled, and to emphasize that “deliberate institutional controls” could prevent such fears from being translated into reality. Certainly the expectation of hostility from other nations that underlies national defense can have both a self-fulfilling (arms race) and a self-defeating (deterrent) aspect. Which aspect becomes more important depends entirely on our goals (unilateral disarmament, deterrence unless and until better arrangements can be worked out, bargaining from a position of strength, etc.), on the specific situation, and not least on the type (first-strike capability, second-strike capability, active, civil, etc.) and quantity of defense which is under consideration. How much is often as important as what kind.
10 “Hearings before a Sub-Committee of the Committee of Government Operations,” House of Representatives, August 1961. All quotations in this article, unless otherwise designated, are from the record of these hearings.
11 This calculation assumes a strike with a yield no larger than 3,000 megatons, in spite of the fact that we have the power to launch over 40,000 megatons, and there is no proof that the Russians are behind us.
12 In the fire-bombing of Hamburg during World War II, the firestorm caused a ground temperature of 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit in which all exposed humans were incinerated, while those in shelters were asphyxiated or burned.
13 This expectation runs contrary to the experiment of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratories showing “positive” reactions and “considerable satisfaction in the communal experience” after two weeks. But the NRDL's study has limited applicability; the subjects were volunteer prison convicts who could leave at any time, and are therefore not comparable to survivors, fearful of surfacing to death, chaos, and despair, yet stifling in cramped quarters while they remain sheltered.
14 “The next assignment,” The American Historical Review, January 1958.
15 Kahn himself comprehends the war-provoking aspect of a large civil defense program, and suggests that even a nationwide program of community fallout shelters should be constructed slowly, so as not to “seriously perturb our own people, our allies, and the Russians.”
The Question of Civil Defense-A Debate
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.