Most discussions of nuclear power are conducted in a haze of misinformation: there are few areas of public controversy where…
Most discussions of nuclear power are conducted in a haze of misinformation: there are few areas of public controversy where so much of what everyone “knows” is not really so. Let us begin with a discussion of a few of the least controversial facts about the processes by which nuclear power is generated. These are neither many nor complicated, but it is essential they be understood as a basis for discussing the somewhat complicated issues that grow out of them.
The Promises and problems of nuclear energy rest on the fact that the atoms of some forms of each element are inherently unstable. Each atomic nucleus (except the common form of hydrogen) contains two sorts of particles: protons and neutrons. Protons have a positive electrical charge and neutrons have no charge. In a stable form of an element, the protons and neutrons stay closely bound together in the nucleus. Such forms will remain as they are forever, and are not radioactive. In an unstable form, or isotope, neutrons escape from the nucleus, with two important consequences. The first is that the atom is no longer what it was: it has become a different substance. The second is that the departing neutrons may hit something, with a variety of results. The result that is of interest in the present case is that when a neutron strikes a nucleus of the class called “fissionable” (those of uranium and plutonium are the best known), it may enter the nucleus and cause it to split.
There are three consequences of that split: the atom breaks down into two lighter atoms, known as fission products, typically highly unstable and therefore highly radioactive; other neutrons escape from the nucleus; and there is a release of energy. The other escaping neutrons may strike other nuclei, and these too will split; if enough fissionable material is present, there will be a self-sustaining chain reaction, releasing great amounts of energy. If the mass of fissionable material is great enough, such a chain reaction can, with considerable difficulty, be contained so as to produce an explosion.
A nuclear-power plant of the type now being built or scheduled to be built through this century uses the chain reaction as a source of heat to make steam to operate turbines which spin generators. Apart from the reactor itself, a nuclear-power plant is much like a coal- or oil-fired one.
The fissionable material in most common use is an isotope of uranium: U-235. (The number denotes the total protons and neutrons in the nucleus.) Only .7 per cent of all uranium is of this type; the overwhelming proportion of all uranium in nature is a non-fissionable isotope, U-238. In order to use natural uranium as a fuel, it is necessary to raise the proportion of U-235 in it by a process known as enrichment. Uranium for bombs must be enriched to nearly 90 per cent U-235. In the power reactors used in this country, 3 per cent will do. The enrichment process is extremely complicated and expensive, consuming vast amounts of capital to build and vast amounts of electricity to operate. It also leaves large amounts of non-fissionable U-238 for which there is at present no use.
Among other fissionable elements are thorium, which is more plentiful in nature than uranium, and plutonium, which does not occur in nature except in traces, but which is easily produced in reactors as a by-product. All uranium-burning reactors produce some plutonium incidentally, and plutonium breeder reactors produce it in large quantities deliberately.
There is a considerable variety of possible reactor designs, and the choice among them has become a major issue of public policy. Most of the nuclear reactors in the world today (and, with one exception, all those producing power in the United States) are light-water reactors. In these, ordinary water is circulated around the reactor core and heated by the nuclear reaction, thus serving to cool the core. In one type of light-water reactor, the cooling water is allowed to boil into steam which is piped directly to the generating turbines. This is known as the boiling-water reactor. In another type, the cooling water is kept under pressure, preventing it from boiling, and is piped to a separate steam generator. This is known as the pressurized-water reactor. Water also serves the necessary purpose of slowing down the neutrons flowing through the reactor core so that they will be able to split nuclei. For this purpose, the water is called a “moderator,” and its presence is no less essential to a chain reaction than the fuel itself. At present, light-water reactors are fueled with U-235, although they can also use plutonium or a mix of plutonium and uranium.
Getting the fuel for a light-water reactor is complicated. Uranium ore must be first processed to produce uranium oxide, known as “yellowcake.” This is then converted to uranium hexafluoride, a gaseous form essential to the enrichment process. After enrichment, the uranium hexafluoride is converted to uranium dioxide, and this is fabricated into fuel rods. This series of processes makes up the so-called “front end” of the cycle—that is, before the reactor. Each of these steps in the front end is, with present technology, mandatory for light-water reactors.
After an optimum period in the reactor, spent fuel is ready to be either discarded or reprocessed. It contains, in addition to wastes, unburned uranium and plutonium. In a complete “back end,” the uranium and plutonium would be separated from the wastes and fabricated into new fuel that could be used in several ways. The wastes proper would then be disposed of. Currently, however, no fuel is being reprocessed, and it is the position of the Carter administration that none shall be. So the back end of the cycle consists now simply of disposal, and this process is currently being held to its first stage, in which the spent fuel rods are maintained in pools of cooling water at the reactor site.
The light-water reactor is the basis of the U.S. commercial nuclear-power industry; it is also now the most common form in use worldwide. But the first experimental reactors used to generate power were breeders. In a plutonium breeder reactor, the fuel can be either U-235 or Pu-239, used to produce a chain reaction just as in the light-water reactor. But the core of a breeder reactor is surrounded by a “blanket” composed of U-238. Because it can be transmuted by neutron bombardment into plutonium, U-238 is called a “fertile” material. Neutrons escaping from the chain reaction are absorbed by U-238 nuclei, transmuting them first into a highly unstable isotope of uranium, U-239. Almost immediately this decays into a much more long-lived and fissionable isotope of plutonium, Pu-239. This substance is as useful for reactor fuel as U-235.
A plutonium breeder reactor is sometimes said to create more fuel than it uses, something which it of course cannot do without violating physical laws. What it can do is to produce more plutonium from U-238 than it burns. And this has made it both enemies and friends. There are other types of breeder reactors of which the most developed uses the common element thorium to breed the fissionable isotope U-233.
Beyond these facts, we enter the world of controversy. The opponents of nuclear power are more or less agreed as to what is wrong with it, and their charges are quickly summarized. These charges have been specified at impressive length in many sources, but as yet there has been no single influential exposition of the case against nuclear power as successful as, say, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Ralph Nader’s definitive statement, The Menace of Atomic Energy,1 has just been published. It is a thorough summary of the case contra, and Nader’s name on the spine will no doubt assure it a prominent place on the anti-nuclear bookshelf. It is an extraordinarily tendentious work (the “suggestions for further reading” list only firmly anti-nuclear authorities) and I will have something to say about its specific faults later. There is a good deal of useful information along with some dubious analysis in a recent Ford Foundation-sponsored work, Nuclear Power: Issues and Choices.2 This work appears to underlie most of the Carter administration’s nuclear policy. An organization active in opposing nuclear power nationwide has been the Union of Concerned Scientists, based largely at MIT, which, despite its name, does not require one to be a scientist to join and does not record how many of its members are in fact scientists. A Ralph Nader organization called Critical Mass, the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Earth, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have also all been active in opposition. The summary that follows is assembled from these and other sources, since most versions of the critique are interchangeable.3
- The routine operation of power reactors and their fuel cycle is said to be dangerous because such reactors release small amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, and it is said that there is unacceptable danger to humans from any amount of radiation, no matter how small.
- It was once alleged falsely that nuclear plants posed the additional danger of accidentally exploding like an atomic bomb, but this charge is now rarely heard, although it is sometimes implied on the jackets of anti-nuclear books. Instead, the most common risk talked about with regard to light-water reactors is that of “meltdown,” an accident which may be initiated if the water cooling the reactor core stops flowing. In such an accident, the loss of water removes the moderator and stops the chain reaction itself, but the inherent heat of the radioactive fuel and fission products, if not cooled, by water, will cause an inexorable rise in temperature that will eventually melt the fuel and everything beneath it, possibly leading to a serious release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. In 1965, an Atomic Energy Commission report estimated that the worst possible meltdown accident would kill 27,000 people, injure 73,000, and cause $17 billion in property damage. It is often said that in 1966 the Enrico Fermi reactor near Detroit went into a “partial meltdown” and that in 1975 a fire at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama came very close to causing a meltdown.
- Plutonium breeder reactors, besides producing plutonium, a fuel alleged to be too dangerous to permit in society, are also said to impose a risk of nuclear explosion.
- It is pointed out that homeowners’ insurance policies exclude nuclear accidents, and it is claimed that the risk of such accidents is so great that no company will insure against them.
- Waste disposal sometimes appears even to those who consider nuclear power safe in every other respect to be not only an insoluble problem but so dangerous as to be a sufficient cause for the abolition of nuclear power. The perilousness of nuclear wastes is widely asserted: the fission products of a nuclear reactor are said, besides being uniquely dangerous, to be “the longest-lived” substances known to man, and plutonium, not technically a fission product, has been called “toxic beyond human experience.” It is often pointed out that there have been leaks of wastes from the government storage facility at Hanford, Washington, and it is widely contended that there now exists no technology to deal with the wastes that will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, and that none is now foreseeable. Barry Commoner has spoken of the need for a “nuclear priesthood,” dedicated to the safeguarding of nuclear wastes into the infinite future.
- Critics of nuclear power say that nuclear plants are guilty of “thermal pollution,” that is, they can raise the temperature of the cooling water they discharge into lakes, rivers, and oceans by many degrees, with catastrophic consequences for aquatic life.
- Critics of nuclear power widely allege that nuclear power is uneconomical, partially because its routine costs are believed to be much higher than for other forms of power generation, and partially because nuclear plants are supposedly much less reliable than other types.
- Nuclear critics claim also that plutonium is a potential boon for terrorists in two ways: first of all, as a poison (a few kilos of plutonium, properly dispersed, could allegedly kill everyone in the world). Secondly, it is often said that a dedicated band of terrorists could acquire enough plutonium to construct their own atomic bomb, with predictably horrific results. To thwart both these dangers, it is maintained that it will be necessary to construct security systems that will amount to a garrison state.
- Finally, it is said that a nuclear-power industry is inextricably tied up with nuclear-weapons proliferation because nations that do not currently have a nuclear-weapons capability will be able to attain one by using plutonium-reactor fuel to make plutonium bombs. The best-known advocate of this view is the person best situated to build it into policy: the President of the United States.
These charges against nuclear power would be terrifying if true. Indeed, were no more than half of them true—or even plausible—nuclear power would almost certainly be too dangerous not only to be a solution to the energy crisis but also too dangerous to be allowed to continue at the present level. If these charges were true, there might even be some sense to the idiotic slogan, “Split wood, not atoms.” But they are not true.
The belief that a functioning nuclear reactor and its fuel cycle pose a radiation threat illustrates a common habit among the anti-nuclear lobby: holding nuclear reactors to a standard of safety that if generalized would forbid not only all other forms of power generation, but also most of the things man makes or finds in nature.
The standard measure of the biological effect of radiation upon humans is the “roentgen equivalent man,” abbreviated rem. The most commonly used sub-unit is the millirem, abbreviated mrem. The International Commission on Radiological Protection’s limit for annual exposure per person is 500 mrem a year. This is a conservative limit, and there are areas in the world where people are naturally exposed to as much as 1,500 mrem a year without apparent damage.
The first thing to understand is that exposure to radiation is an inescapable consequence of living on the earth: we are all exposed to “background radiation” from natural sources, including radioactive minerals such as uranium, and cosmic rays. In the United States this exposure ranges from as high as 175 mrem a year to as little as 50, depending on location. The U.S. average is 130 mrem. Radioactive materials such as granite, which is—in these exquisitely sensitive contexts—highly radioactive, add 10 mrem or so a year. Petr Beckmann of the University of Colorado4 has pointed out that if Grand Central Station were to be held to the Nulear Regulatory Commission standards for reactors, it could not be licensed. There is, additionally, approximately 120 mrem a year more in man-made radiation. Most of this comes from x-rays and other medical sources. Fallout accounts for 4 mrem a year, and color television for about 1 mrem. Nuclear plants add, in the United States, approximately .003 mrem a year. Without nuclear plants, the average American absorbs 250 mrem a year; with nuclear plants, he absorbs 250.003 mrem.
It is often argued by nuclear critics that radiation is so dangerous that no addition to the natural background is tolerable. If this be so, then it is a little hard to know why the critics are concentrating on nuclear plants. If one lives next to the property line of a nuclear reactor, the NRC permits an added exposure of 5 mrem a year. The added risk of cancer is equal to that imposed by smoking one cigarette a year.
These doses are perhaps put in perspective by the fact that a single chest x-ray adds some 50 mrem, and simply flying from New York to Los Angeles 5 mrem. Worse still, if one moves from Dallas to Denver, the additional annual exposure is nearly 100 mrem: that is, 20 times the radiation permitted to the neighbor of an operating nuclear plant. This is simply the consequence of Denver’s altitude. The practical effect of all this extra radiation is perhaps to be noted in the fact that Colorado’s cancer incidence is lower than the national average.
Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh5 has provided a neat illustration of the real risk from the emissions of a nuclear reactor. If one lives at its property line, and wishes to move away in order to escape the risks of the 5-mrem-a-year which is the maximum emission permitted—in practice, no reactor comes near the permitted maximum—one must take care not to move to a house more than 500 feet further away from one’s place of work. If one does, the increased risk from auto accident will outweigh the decreased risk from radiation.
Although the opponents of nuclear power talk as if it were generally accepted that minute amounts of radiation result in genetic damage to human beings, it is not generally realized that this assumption rests on laboratory results with animals that appear to be contradicted by actual experience with humans. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thousands of humans were exposed to levels of radiation that not even the harshest critic of nuclear power believes can come from a reactor. Thirty years later, there has been no detectable increase in genetic damage among the offspring of this population.
There are undoubtedly risks of cancer from exposure to radiation. That they are in any event tiny is evident from the fact that any number of highly radioactive (but non-industrialized) sections of the country combine high background radiation with low cancer rates. The important point is that nuclear reactors, routinely operated, are among the most negligible emitters of radiation, and thus among the most negligible causes of cancer from radiation.
The truth is that cigarette smokers pose a greater risk of cancer to their neighbors than all the nuclear plants in the country: and any smoker who opposes nuclear power on the grounds that it is carcinogenic lives in the grip of a potentially explosive contradiction.
So much for the dangers posed by routine operation of a nuclear reactor and the fuel cycle; those posed by accidents are a more complicated matter. By far the most serious accident possible in a light-water reactor is the so-called meltdown. A meltdown would begin with a break in one of the pipes carrying heated water or steam from the reactor core to a heat exchanger or a turbine. All reactors have redundant systems to supply emergency cooling water, but if all these were to fail, even though the lack of a moderator would shut down the chain reaction, the heat growing out of the fission products contained in the core would no longer be carried away, and the fuel would begin to melt. The stainless-steel pressure vessel, covering the reactor proper, is designed to contain the effects of this, but if it should fail, the domed containment structure is made to hold in the various radioactive products dispersed within it. Only if this containment structure fails—and it is designed to withstand the impact from a crashing jetliner—would there be a release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. What would happen next depends on the location of the reactor and on the weather. The consequences would range from none to very serious ones indeed. There would be none if a minimum of radioactivity were released and it were widely dispersed over sparsely populated areas. And there would be very serious results if a great deal of radioactivity were emitted and it were dispersed in a concentrated fashion over densely populated areas.
Now, although there is some disagreement as to the precise magnitude of casualties in the worst possible meltdown disaster, all parties agree that the worst possible meltdown disaster would be a major one. The real disagreement comes on probabilities, which are essential to understanding the real risk of anything. In general, the worse the accident the less the probability. The worst possible airline accident, for example, would be something like a fully-loaded 747 crashing into the Rose Bowl on New Year Day, an event which might kill perhaps 30,000 people. The worst possible electric-power generation accident would be not a nuclear meltdown but the failure of a hydroelectric dam at the head of a heavily populated valley. This might kill as many as a quarter of a million people and destroy many billions of dollars’ worth of property. If such an accident were very much less probable than a meltdown, we might discount the fact that it threatens a much higher death toll. As it happens, the dam accident is substantially more likely than a major meltdown accident.
In 1975, the Atomic Energy Commission published a study that attempted to calculate the risks of a meltdown, the Reactor Safety Study (RSS), known at the Rasmussen report from its director, Norman Rasmussen of MIT. The RSS concludes that the maximum credible light-water reactor accident would result in 3,300 deaths immediately, with 45,000 deaths from cancer over a period of thirty years, and $14 billion in property damage. It also concludes that the chance of such an accident is vanishingly remote, perhaps 10,000 times smaller than similar death tolls from such disasters as dam failures and tropical storms. The probability that, with 100 reactors operating, 1,000 people would be killed in a single accident is the same as for 1,000 people being killed by a single meteorite—once every billion years.
The RSS has been subjected to very severe criticism from both the American Physical Society and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Among the most telling claims made against it are that the system of analysis it uses was developed to predict relative, but not absolute, safety, and that the report pays inadquate regard to the possibility that failure in one component may lead to failure in another, as when water spilling from a broken pipe disables a safety device. It is not necessary to accept all the criticisms made of the report (for instance, that it ignores sabotage) to see that its critics have raised substantial questions about the validity of its predictions.
If the probabilities predicted by the RSS were not themselves so remote, however—that with 100 reactors operating, one person would be killed by them once every two centuries—the criticism would be more disturbing. As it stands, there is much sense in the conclusion reached by the Ford Foundation report, which is that although the risks of a meltdown may be greater than indicated in the RSS, they are still very remote. Moreover, they are not greater in likelihood and intensity than risks society already accepts and has learned to live with. In this century, the Ford Foundation report notes, the United States has already seen two hurricanes that have taken over a thousand lives each and resulted in billions of dollars of property damage.
Still, it should be obvious that we need a reactor-safety study in whose judgments there will be widespread confidence. Such a study, moreover, should compare the relative risks of light-water reactors to other types. If whatever risks inhere in the light-water reactor turn out to be substantially idiosyncratic to it, rather than typical of nuclear power, we need to know that.
The plutonium breeder is alleged to present even more serious safety problems than the light-water reactor. The principal allegation about the operation of the reactor itself is that should it suffer a meltdown, it is possible for the melted plutonium fuel to reassemble itself in such a way as to achieve critical mass and undergo a nuclear explosion. The technical community is divided on this issue, and it would be foolish in the face of such division for a layman to maintain that it could not happen. But it is important to understand what it would involve and how unlikely it is.
There is as yet no body of data on operating plutonium breeders that would allow any hard assessment of the risks of a meltdown. But the design of such reactors makes it very unlikely. The liquid sodium coolant is circulated at very low pressure, which makes a pipe rupture less probable in prospect and less serious in actuality. So a loss-of-cool-ant accident is very unlikely, as is the prospect that all emergency systems would fail. Even if they did, it is not certain that the fuel would reassemble so as to form a critical mass, and any explosion that did occur would be of a different order from a bomb explosion. Reactor-grade plutonium is heavily contaminated with Pu-240, which makes it a bad weapons material. (Nuclear critics consistently mislabel reactor plutonium as “weapons-grade.” While it can be used to make bombs, they are highly inefficient and likely to explode prematurely. There is a weapons-grade plutonium, but it is pure Pu-239, and’ it is not produced in power reactors.) Further, since much of the art of making an atomic bomb lies in the elaborate mechanisms to contain the explosion long enough for it to build up, an accidental reassembly would lead to a fizzle rather than a real explosion. It is probable that such an “explosion” would be held within a containment structure. The risk of such an explosion occurring and releasing radiation must be akin to that of being hit by a meteorite.
An overheating incident in 1966 at the Fermi breeder plant near Detroit has been the subject of John G. Fuller’s extremely ignorant and sensational book, We Almost Lost Detroit.6 Space and life are too short to catalogue the errors of this work, but it is perhaps sufficient to note that Fuller regularly characterizes the liquid sodium coolant, actually less viscous than water, as “syrup-like,” and he paints a picture of the site of the plant, eight years after the accident, still contaminated by radioactive sodium. In fact, the preponderant and most dangerous isotope created in a breeder’s coolant, Na-24, has a half-life of fifteen hours. It was effectively nonexistent a month after the reactor shut down. Even the much less dangerous Na-22, produced in far smaller quantities, has a half-life of only thirty months and was thus greatly reduced in amount after eight years had passed. Others have followed and expanded upon Fuller’s errors in this work. One is often told that the accident nearly involved a meltdown, although the plant did not yet contain enough fission products for this, and that it is now inoperative, without being told that it was an experimental reactor closed only after having been successfully repaired and restarted.
The tale of the Fermi reactor is the tale of a major reactor that suffered a very serious accident without a single human injury, much less a death. Citing it as proof that nuclear energy is too dangerous is like trying to prove that cars are too dangerous by citing examples of safety belts working.
But the case for the breeder is more than a negation of the case against it. The true potential of the breeder is almost never conceded by nuclear critics. For it could do more than allow us to outlast the present supply of uranium in the ground. Since it allows the conversion of our presently useless stock of already mined U-238, it would allow us to generate electricity for several hundred years without mining another ounce of fuel. This is what an all-breeder generating capacity would mean—true energy independence for the United States and the saving of thousands of lives in the mines.
The principal of the half-truth is nowhere better illustrated than in the anti-nuclear movement’s discussion of insurance. It is true that homeowners’ insurance policies exclude damage because of nuclear accidents. But this is because nuclear accidents are separately covered under insurance set up by the Price-Anderson Act. Under the Act, a coverage is established of $560 million per accident. A portion of this—currently $140 million—is covered by insurance purchased from private insurance companies. The balance is covered by insurance purchased from the federal government. By 1980, the private companies will have gradually taken over the entire coverage, and as new plants are built, the limit will be raised. And should an accident occur, all operating plants will be assessed a retrospective charge of $5 million.
The critics’ perennial question—“If a major accident that would cost $17 billion is so extraordinarily remote, why won’t the insurance companies sell insurance for it?”—is easily answered. Although the extreme case is highly unlikely over any span of years, it could—however unlikely this may be—occur tomorrow. Although no premium would have been paid remotely covering the cost, the cost would have to be paid. And because a major nuclear accident would make the death of the whole industry a high probability, there would be little chance of recovering the cost out of future premiums. A similar principle applies to the insuring of fireworks displays: the premium drops proportional to the experience and future stability of the firm lighting the fuse.
Should a nuclear accident occur beyond the insured limits, it seems very likely that the Congress would provide retrospective compensation. It must also be noted that Price-Anderson insurance is superior to other insurance in two respects: for the great majority of likely accidents, it would pay full compensation to the victims, and unlike all other disaster insurance, the premium is paid not by the beneficiary but by a third party.
It is evident that the single most frightening charge made against nuclear energy is that it produces extraordinarily dangerous wastes that must be guarded for millions of years. The anti-nuclear lobby calls on us to remember our obligations to our descendants, and regularly tells us that we have as yet devised no means to deal with the waste problem. No part of the anti-nuclear dogma is more suffused with ignorance, sensationalism, and downright dishonesty than this charge.
To begin with, the actual danger posed by these wastes is grossly exaggerated. The wastes are of two general types. Fission products, elements lighter than uranium and highly radioactive, are the debris of the split nuclei and have comparatively short half-lives. These are also called “high-level wastes.” Transuranics, elements heavier than uranium, are caused by its irradiation and have long half-lives. These are also called “low-level wastes.”
The best-known of the transuranics is plutonium, and it is also the most sensationalized. It is said to have been named for “Pluto, the god of hell,” a statement which is erroneous as to fact (it was named by astronomical analogy as the element beyond Neptunium) and ignorant of the Greco-Roman notion of Hades. It is regularly said to be the most toxic substance known to man, and sometimes even to be toxic beyond human experience. It is hard to disagree with Petr Beckmann’s characterization of such statements as “melodramatic piffle.”
It should be first observed that plutonium is a waste substance only if it is not used as a fuel. If it be a waste substance requiring long-term storage it is only because we make it so. Plutonium is of course a very toxic substance, but it is not uniquely so. Bernard Cohen has estimated that if the entire electric-power industry of the United States operated with fast breeder reactors, the annual production of plutonium would, if dispersed with maximum efficiency and then inhaled, be sufficient to cause 1 trillion deaths. This indeed sounds terrifying. But two things must be remembered. First, the annual production of plutonium could not possibly be dispersed with such efficiency. Second, we routinely handle far more dangerous substances: our present annual production of hydrogen cyanide, if similarly dispersed and inhaled, would cause 6 trillion deaths; our annual production of ammonia, 8 trillion; our annual production of phosgene, 18 trillion; and our annual production of chlorine, no fewer than 400 trillion deaths.
Cohen also points out that there is more danger to us from the radium deposited in the earth’s crust than from prospective plutonium production. Specifically, if all the present generating capacity were fired by fast breeder reactors producing as much plutonium as they consumed, the total amount of plutonium in existence would be no more radioactive than the radium that already exists in a little over half a foot of the earth’s crust. Even this comparison overstates the danger from plutonium. When ingested, naturally-occurring radium is 40 times as toxic as plutonium, and it is a source of the dangerous radioactive gas, radon. If we correct for this, we will see that all the plutonium produced by an all-breeder power system would, if dispersed throughout the earth’s crust, be no more dangerous than the radium occurring naturally in 4 mm of that crust. It should hardly need pointing out that this plutonium would not be dispersed throughout the environment, but would be in reactors and processing plants.
Nor, in looking for things that are more poisonous than plutonium, need one confine oneself to naturally occurring radioactive substances. Arsenic trioxide when ingested is 50 times more toxic than plutonium, and we import this insecticide in quantities that would exceed the wastes from an all-nuclear economy. And we spray it about very nearly at random and have no plans whatsoever for disposing of it in any manner.
Plutonium is, additionally, often characterized by such terms as “searingly radioactive,” a phrase recently applied to it by Time. This is exceptionally ignorant and misleading. Plutonium radiation consists of alpha particles, and these are stopped by a sheet of paper or a few inches of air. Indeed, they are stopped by the epidermis, and pose a threat to humans only when ingested or inhaled. Their principal threat is as a carcinogen, and there is general agreement that in this regard plutonium is extremely potent. The depth of the extremity is a matter for debate, but no one regards the problem as something to be ignored. For a society that tolerates cigarettes to use this hazard as an excuse for rejecting the extraordinary benefits of plutonium is lunatic.
Further, a great deal is made of plutonium’s half-life of 24,000 years. (This is the half-life of its most common isotope, Pu-239. Its other isotopes have half-lives ranging from less than a second to 80 million years.) It is, on this basis, frequently called “one of the longest-lived substances known to man.” This characterization is particularly idiotic. For one thing, it obscures the fact that the longer-lived a radioactive substance is, the less dangerous its radiation is—for it emits radiation at a lower rate. Fission products—high-level wastes—have comparatively short half-lives because they decay at so furious a rate. But the characterization obscures something even more important: radioactive poisons are the only poisons that have half-lives as short as 24,000, or even 80 million, years. Stable isotopes are eternal and have infinite half-lives. A gram of plutonium will eventually end up as slightly less than a gram of lead. A gram of arsenic will always be a gram of arsenic.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has issued a brochure which describes the alleged qualities of certain high-level wastes, and then cites, as if it applied to these same wastes, a government estimate for a very large amount of nuclear wastes to be created by the year 2000. But the UCS suppresses the fact that the government’s estimate applies not to high-level wastes, but to low-level wastes, which are so feeble in radiation that they can be buried in trenches.
But these confusions and misstatements pale beside those made about the state of waste-disposal technology. A principal stock-in-trade of the anti-nuclear lobby is a series of leaks of high-level wastes from storage tanks at the government’s Hanford, Washington facility. These leaks, deplorable enough in themselves, are regularly cited as representative of the risks in current techniques. One is never told that the tanks in question are of early postwar design, and have long since been superseded. It is as if the safety record of the railroads in 1845, when accidents were very common, had been used in 1925 to justify closing them down.
The most common assertion one hears in this area, however, is the flat statement that we do not now know how to dispose of high-level wastes, which must be isolated from contact with the biosphere for many thousands of years. This challenge has already been met, and the endlessly repeated statement that it has not is the nearest equivalent in the debate over nuclear power to a classic Big Lie.
The technology for disposal, which has been demonstrated in a pilot project at Hanford, and actually used in Europe, involves first “calcining” the waste to a sand-like substance of greatly reduced bulk, and then using this “sand” as a component to make glass. The resulting glass is radioactive but chemically inert. It can then be buried deep in geologically stable salt formations, where no water has flowed for millions of years. It will require no surveillance, let alone a “nuclear priesthood.” If there were an immediate need for such storage, it would no doubt have already been implemented. But the fact is that there are not now enough wastes in inventory to make such a process economical, and there will not be for some years. It thus makes good sense to keep existing wastes in temporary storage and to hold up on final disposal while an already adequate technology is improved.
Most anti-nuclear prophets simply ignore this process or lump it together with a number of purely speculative suggestions, such as launching wastes by rocket into the sun. Nader and Abbotts ignore it except to quote an outdated press release of the Energy Research and Development Administration noting that it will not work for ERDA’s inventory of weapons waste. The problem has now been corrected by a new process developed at Hanford. But in any event, Nader and Abbotts conveniently omit to note that this problem was never applicable to existing or prospective wastes from power reactors. And although they cite the problem as an example of ERDA’s inability to manage “its own” wastes, they do not note that the neutralization of military wastes that led to the problem was carried out long before there was an ERDA. It is this sort of thing which raises grave doubts about Ralph Nader’s secular sanctity. The best that can be said for such tactics is that they belong to an advocate whose concern is not with truth but propaganda.
Elsewhere in their discussion of waste disposal, Nader and Abbotts make the claim that technology cannot guarantee geologically stable areas in which to deposit wastes. This is true but irrelevant. Nature provides such areas and technology can locate them. Nader and Abbotts misleadingly suggest that a false start at finding such an area in Kansas means that none exists. Had Nader been operating in the early 19th century, the railways would have had a very hard time getting started.
It is not surprising that anti-nuclear advocates should wish to perpetuate the lie that wastes are an insoluble problem. As they themselves often note, the issue is perhaps the strongest they have going for them, and it must be a terrible thought that some interfering scientist somewhere may have gone and solved it.
The “thermal pollution” charge laid at the door of nuclear power plants is a mixture of half-truth, exaggeration, and gross sentimentality. First of all, the root phenomenon is not peculiar to nuclear plants. All thermal-power plants waste a great deal of heat and must dispose of it, generally into bodies of water or through cooling towers into the atmosphere. Light-water reactors have a slightly lower thermal efficiency than fossil-fuel plants, and therefore discharge more heat, but breeder reactors are at least as efficient as fossil-fueled plants. If “thermal pollution” is really an argument for rejecting nuclear energy, it is also an argument for rejecting most of our electricity.
The most commonly attacked “thermal pollution” involves the discharge of waste heat into bodies of water. The critics are fond of citing the temperature rise at the discharge exit, which may be as high as 70 degrees. They are less fond of citing the temperature rise over a few hundred square feet, which will be only a degree or two.
But even this slight change will have an effect on the aquatic life near a reactor, as it makes the water an unsuitable environment for some species. In doing so, however, it makes it more suitable for other species. Lobsters, for example, thrive in the slightly warmed water near a reactor.
When a reactor shuts down, as for refueling, a species that has moved into warm water may have difficulty in surviving a temporary cooling of the water. Much has been made of the fact that menhaden, fish important in fertilizer and pet food, are enticed into the slightly warmed waters near reactors located on the Atlantic and then killed off when the water cools during a shutdown. A not dissimilar phenomenon occurs when the elderly of the species homo die of cold during a natural-gas shortage, but of this we hear little. If we had no need of energy, it would perhaps be possible to let our hearts bleed for the menhaden, who no doubt prefer ending up as fertilizer or cat food to death by thermal pollution. But the fact is that our need for safe energy is crucial, and it is only those who have never known what it is like to be without energy who can seriously contemplate a brutal policy of sacrificing human interests to those of fish. In a related piece of folly, the opponents of the Sea-brook plant in New Hampshire have opposed its cooling system on the grounds that it would inhale and destroy a certain diet of aquatic life each day. The amount involved is about what three or four whales consume, but one does not hear the same people urging a moratorium on the existence of whales.
“Thermal pollution,” in short, is a bugbear invented to cover for the embarrassing fact that nuclear-power plants do not assault the environment with the same ferocity as such putatively safe energy sources as coal. “Thermal pollution” is common to all thermal plants; it can be taken seriously only by indulging a studied contempt for human welfare in the interests, real or otherwise, of marine life.
The economic argument against nuclear power is made in multifarious ways. Sometimes it appears to grow out of simple ignorance, as when the utilities are alleged to prefer expensive nuclear plants because with great capital investment higher rates can be charged, quite as if that capital did not have to be recovered out of income. Sometimes it is based on the implied assumption that the government ought never to subsidize the development of a new technology, as when it is objected that the government does not make a profit on its fuel-enrichment operation. Those who make this charge have not been heard to object to the government subsidy of mass transport through Amtrak and the Urban Mass Transit Administration. Sometimes it is based on manipulation of the facts, as when figures for Western low-sulfur coal burned near the mine in comparatively cheap power plants are misapplied to plants burning high-sulfur coal in very expensive scrubber-equipped plants. And sometimes it is based on the lurid charge that the total energy needed to build and operate a nuclear plant is greater than what it produces—that the nuclear industry has made no net addition to the nation’s energy supply. In fact, building and operating a light-water plant, including the enrichment of its fuel, uses 6 per cent of its lifetime output. A coal-fired plant uses between 6.7 and 7.8 per cent, depending on whether it burns surface or deep-mined coal. There is hardly a better example of the disparity that exists between the anti-nuclear gospel and simple reality.
But the most reprehensible form of the argument is that nuclear plants are less reliable than other types. Part of this charge is based on a half-truth, namely, that stringent safety standards require these plants to be shut down for comparatively trivial reasons, and that the discovery of a problem in one plant may lead to a temporary shutdown in all plants of the same general type. Such incidents are sometimes badly misreported: thus, when a hairline crack, releasing no water or radioactivity, was discovered in a standby cooling pipe at the Commonwealth Edison Dresden plant near Chicago, 23 plants with similar standby systems were ordered to close down for inspection. No cracks were found in any of them, but the incident was reported widely as one in which 23 plants had been shut down because of cracks in their cooling systems. Less widely reported is the fact that Commonwealth Edison’s nuclear plants have proved just as reliable as its coal plants.
Still more dubious is the practice of stating reliability factors for nuclear plants in isolation, without comparing them to other types, and comparing them to much smaller conventional plants.
The fact is that over the nation, nuclear reactors are about as reliable as fossil plants of equivalent size. There are two basic measures of reliability: the availability factor, which measures the proportion of the time a generator is actually ready to generate electricity, and the capacity factor, which measures the proportion of capacity actually used. It is the capacity factor that is significant for the economics of power generation. In 1975 and 1976, nuclear plants used to generate base loads attained a higher capacity than either coal or oil plants used for the same purpose. In the same years, the nuclear plants attained availability factors a few percentage points less than coal and oil. And if fossil-fuel plants were held to safety standards as rigorous as nuclear plants, they would post a still lower availability factor. Indeed, as still unreliable scrubbers become more common on coal-fired plants, this is just what will happen.
In their summation of the economic issues, Nader and Abbotts maintain that
a definitive statement on nuclear economics is the number of plants that have been cancelled or deferred. By November 1975, 130,000 megawatts-electric had been cancelled or deferred, representing over two-thirds of all cancellations or deferrals of power plants within the industry.
This is statistical demagoguery; such figures are meaningless except in context. First of all, when a utility defers a nuclear plant, it does so because it plans to delay the adding of new capacity that had already been planned for. Recently such deferrals have occurred because the rate of growth in demand has finally slowed and we are not going to need capacity that before the energy crisis it seemed reasonable to plan for. But a deferral is not a vote of no-confidence in nuclear power: to the contrary, it is a statement that when there is adequate demand to employ a new plant, it will be nuclear rather than otherwise. Nader and Abbotts thus make an especially perverse use of the fact that nuclear plants have been deferred. And although utilities cancel power plants for a variety of reasons, most do so because of reduced demand projections. Had the electric industry, in the days when it was placing orders for future demand, regarded nuclear power as the only form worth ordering, it would have placed even more orders for nuclear plants, and would now be cancelling even more nuclear capacity. But the fact that “100 per cent of all capacity deferred or cancelled has been nuclear” would then derive from the industry’s confidence in nuclear power as opposed to other forms, not its mistrust of nuclear economics.
The statistics that really would be indicative of such mistrust would be the megawattage of nuclear capacity cancelled and replaced by some other form of generation. We should not hold our breath waiting for Nader to publish this figure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that no utility, having applied for a permit to build a nuclear reactor, has ever cancelled the nuclear plant in favor of a fossil-fuel plant. That is the measure of the industry’s confidence in nuclear power.
Nor should we expect Nader to publish an accounting of the net cost to householders of “environmentalist” delaying tactics. Each stage in the approval and construction of a nuclear plant is now routinely opposed by organizations of nuclear critics. The heavy legal fees thus incurred by the utilities end up on the electric bill. Still worse is the inflationary cost exacted by delay. Almost as sure as death and taxes is the continuing rise in construction costs. The anti-nuclear lobby delights in quoting cost overruns, but rarely notes the influence on these of the delays which they work to cause. These costs too are borne by consumers and are cruelly regressive upon the poor, a bit of brutal condescension from the middle classes where anti-nuclear sentiment is strongest.
The anti-nuclear lobby works to ban plutonium—that substance which contains more energy for its volume than any other—on the spurious ground that it will inevitably be stolen and used by terrorists. Plutonium is alleged to be a ready tool for these gentry in two forms: as a poison and as bomb material. The difficulties in acquiring a stock of the substance are the same in either case.
They are immense. The only time plutonium is vulnerable is after it has been separated in a reprocessing plant and before it is loaded into a reactor. At any other time, it is so poisoned by fission products as to be both dangerous and useless. It would be practically impossible to smuggle plutonium out of a facility in little bits. Because it is radioactive, plutonium on the person is detectable in amounts as small as a gram. In order to extract the minimum ten kilograms needed for a bomb, a smuggler would need to execute at least 10,000 separate thefts.
A recent demonstration in which an army assault team using mortars and high explosives required fourteen hours to get into a plutonium depository suggests the unlikelihood of covert theft from stationary deposits. This means that the plutonium would have to be hijacked from a convoy. The difficulties here are extraordinary. Hijacking a shipment of plutonium on the way to a reactor would, oxymoronically, have to be a covert semi-military operation. Plutonium has long been shipped in this country as part of weapons production, and formidable precautions have been developed. These include radio tracking of the trucks, devices that disable the trucks if hijacked, and escort vehicles carrying armed guards. A group of terrorists equipped to overwhelm such a convoy would be better advised to steal a tactical nuclear warhead ready-made. They would be mad to expend their energies on stealing unsatisfactory material for a bomb design that might not work and that might well explode prematurely and blow them up.
For it is essential to realize that building a plutonium bomb is a feat that has to date been accomplished by only a handful of nation-states. It ought to be readily apparent that there is very little likelihood of a small band of terrorists accomplishing what India accomplished only with difficulty.
As a matter of fact, building a bomb from plutonium-reactor fuel is a task even more difficult than that accomplished by the Indians. For reactor-grade plutonium, although primarily composed of Pu-239, is heavily contaminated with Pu-240, which can cause a bomb to explode prematurely and fizzle. The original discovery of Pu-240 very nearly ended the Manhattan Project.
One disturbing fact is that it probably will not matter whether plutonium is an ideal substance for terrorism as long as enough people think it is. If most people in New York City can be persuaded to believe that a few kilograms of plutonium can be so distributed as to kill them all, it will be appreciably harder for any government to resist demands made by terrorists allegedly wielding substantial amounts of plutonium. It can be seen that prospective terrorists are getting a good deal of help from those who go about spreading lurid falsehoods about the toxicity of plutonium and the ease with which the plutonium in reactors can be made into bombs.
A related fright widely merchandised is that safeguarding plutonium from terrorists requires a police state that will inevitably destroy our civil liberties. This view ignores the fact that we are already shipping plutonium around the country in substantial quantities for military purposes, that it is not hijacked, and that we have had to establish no repressive mechanism to achieve this result. It is possible that establishing a system to track down terrorists who make sensational but false claims involving plutonium as a poison or a bomb might require such a mechanism, but that problem will exist whether terrorists acquire plutonium or not, and is in any event largely the creature of the anti-nuclear movement.
Nuclear proliferation is, of course, an excellent thing to be against because so few people are for it. The problem is that it is very doubtful that U.S. energy policy can have any effect whatever on the course of nuclear proliferation. The most obvious reason for this is that those countries that lack a backstop of coal and oil—France first among them—will develop breeder technology for their own needs whether we do so or not, and will finance that development by exporting breeder technology. There is simply no possibility that the United States can prohibit the worldwide production of plutonium by sitting on the breeder reactor. Indeed, it cannot sit on the breeder because the French, with their Superphénix, are rushing to commercialize it.
Moreover, diverting plutonium from a power reactor is a highly inefficient way of making plutonium suitable for weapons. It is far more efficient to use a research reactor for the purpose, and as a matter of fact that is precisely how the Indians appear to have made the plutonium for their bomb: in a research—not a power—reactor supplied them by Canada. This fact is obscured by constant misstatements to the contrary by people who should know better, including the New Republic’s TRB. And the United States, having no monopoly on research reactors, is just as powerless to prevent nuclear proliferation by putting an embargo on them.
The prevention of nuclear proliferation is a very serious problem, but it must be solved on its own terms if it is to be solved at all. It cannot be solved by false nostrums that require the adoption of a suicidal energy policy. It might be solved, though, by the adoption of reactor systems that do not lend themselves at all to bomb production. One of these, the gas-fueled reactor, is fueled only with non-fissionable material, and never has more than a few kilograms of fissionable uranium in its core at one time. This is still in the design stages, but there is another reactor design that is not only very hard to adapt for bombs but is actually now in use and development: the Canadian heavy-water reactor known as the CANDU. This reactor has a form of water as coolant and moderator that contains deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, rather than normal hydrogen. The superior moderating abilities of heavy water permit the employment of natural unenriched uranium, useless as bomb material, as the fuel, and such a reactor needs no expensive and complicated enrichment plant. Because it uses pressure tubes in its boiler rather than the tea-kettle design common to light-water reactors, even the theoretical likelihood of a loss-of-coolant accident is tiny, and its possible consequences far smaller. The CANDU core design also enables it to be refueled without being shut down, thus allowing a theoretical availability of 100 per cent. There are a number of CANDU reactors generating power in Canada at extraordinary proportions of capacity.
The CANDU design is adaptable to a number of fuel cycles. The Canadian nuclear industry is now turning its attention to modifying the CANDU to operate on the thorium-uranium cycle. In this cycle, the plentiful fertile thorium is bred to the fissile uranium which is then burned as fuel without being removed from the reactor. Such a CANDU reactor could gain the advantages of the plutonium, breeder while avoiding even the residual dangers of plutonium.
If the anti-nuclear lobby were genuinely and intelligently interested in safer energy sources that do not raise even hypothetical problems of nuclear proliferation, it would be urging ERDA to acquire a CANDU reactor for demonstration-and-development purposes.
If the risks of nuclear energy are very much less than its critics allege, they are still not negligible, and indeed would be sufficient ground for its rejection if there were a workable technology with fewer risks. But it is in comparison with the alternative that nuclear energy really begins to shine. Far from being our most dangerous source of energy, nuclear energy is our safest.
The widely-held impression to the contrary depends on a habit of forgetting the actual deaths caused by existing technologies, and comparing the void thereby created with hypothetical deaths caused by nuclear energy. As we have seen, the hypothetical deaths of nuclear energy are still no more than that. But the actual deaths caused by other technologies are countable and many.
We can begin with coal. Coal-fired electricity now costs a great many lives each year, a figure, even on the most conservative estimate, well into the thousands nationally. The electricity generated by a 1000 mwh coal-fired generator carries two price tags, one in dollars and one in lives. D. J. Rose and colleagues at MIT have calculated this second price tag. If we add up the number of coal miners killed in accidents, coal miners killed by “black lung” disease, and workers killed in transporting coal from the mine to the power plant, we see that each such plant kills at least 11 people a year. One can imagine how quickly the nuclear industry would be shut down if a single plant killed 11 people a year. Furthermore, if we add in the people killed by pollution from the plant, the exact number of which is a matter of controversy, we see that the price tag will list between 20 and 100 more human lives. This, it must be remembered, is the cost per year of one large coal-fired plant: between 31 and 111 lives a year. These deaths, it also must be remembered, are of actual people who die every year in order that coal-fired plants may be operated. In contrast, when we calculate all the deaths caused by a 1000 mwh light-water reactor—including all those killed by the fuel cycle, by the operation of the reactor, and by waste disposal, we arrive at a total of one-half a death a year. This half-death, by the way, is still largely hypothetical, since it includes amortized figures for a number of accidents that have not yet happened. While a few uranium miners are killed each year, no one has ever been killed by a commercial power reactor.
The death ratio between the two systems of power generation is thus seen to be between 60 and 225 to 1, favor nuclear. It is not surprising, given such figures, that nuclear critics rarely dwell on the dangers of coal. Nader and Abbotts engage in a particularly neat bit of footwork, in which an attempt to conceal the truth is paraded as an attempt at candor:
It should be pointed out that, compared to workers in other energy industries, particularly those in the coal fuel cycle, the numbers of workers injured by the atomic industry are smaller. But it should also be recognized that nuclear power produces much less of the nation’s energy than coal power. Moreover, because the occupational dangers of nuclear power include cancers which will not become evident for several years, the full toll of the atomic industry can only be estimated.
This sleazy evasion suggests that the numbers of workers killed in the coal cycle are approximately in proportion to the amount of energy produced from coal, and that the occupational hazards of coal mining are limited to those killed in accidents. The facts are quite otherwise, and the fact that Ralph Nader could put his name to this scandalous paragraph suggests that his admirers overrate either his intelligence or his integrity.
It is one of life’s little ironies that coal contains small amounts of radioactive elements, mostly radium and thorium, and that the typical coal-fired plant has a level of radioactive emission greater than that allowed for a nuclear plant. If the NRC had responsibility for regulating our coal-fired plants, they would have to be shut down.
The anti-nuclear lobby implies that waste disposal is a problem uniquely of nuclear power. The fact is that coal-fired plants solve part of this problem by disposing of their wastes into the air and thence into our lungs, and the rest by dumping. The amount disposed of into the atmosphere comes to some thirty pounds a year for each American. The solid wastes carted away to the dump from coal-fired plants total tens of millions of tons a year: some 36,500 truckloads a year for a 1000 megawatt plant. These contain not only such non-radioactive poisons as mercury, selenium, vanadium, and benzopyrene, but radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium in amounts that would be impermissible for emission from a nuclear plant.
It has been misleadingly suggested that the airborne disposal of coal wastes can be prevented in a benign fashion by the use of “scrubbers,” expensive and unreliable devices that remove pollutants from smokestack effluents and trap them in millions of tons of sludge, itself a major form of pollution. This is the sort of “solved” waste-disposal problem that the anti-nuclear lobby wishes to saddle us with.
A massive commitment to coal would raise yet another problem, the possibility that a substantial increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide would lead to a long-term warming of the earth—the so-called “greenhouse effect.” A recent report by a blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Scientists under the chairmanship of Roger Revelle estimates that the worldwide temperature might, within two hundred years, be raised as much as 11 degrees by this effect. The possible results for agriculture and for marine life thoroughly justify the panel’s conclusion that the consequences of increased coal use would be “highly adverse.” There is a pathetic irony in the sight of self-proclaimed “environmentalists” proposing to tamper with the earth’s climate in this fashion.
Compared to coal, almost any technology looks safe, including oil. But even if political and other considerations made oil a reasonable source for generating power, it would pose terrible dangers. High-sulfur oil is environmentally far from benign, and when stored in large tanks, all oil poses a very serious hazard. The Bayonne fire of 1973, in which tankers and shore tanks caught fire, produced clouds of smoke that, had the wind carried them over Manhattan, and had there been an inversion, would have made the London “killer smog” of 1952, with its nearly 4,000 deaths, seem tame. The same can be said for the Brooklyn fire of 1976.
While natural gas produces minimal pollution, its potential for explosion is very considerable, and has killed people in the hundreds. There is considerable evidence that we are learning to handle natural gas safely, but had uranium built up a record similar to that of natural gas, we would never have gotten the chance to learn how to live with it.
Even hydropower, which is environmentally pretty benign as long as everything goes right, has great potential for catastrophic accident. The Vaiont disaster in 1963 killed 2,000 people, and a University of California study has identified a number of dams the failure of which would cause tens of thousands of deaths. One of these is estimated to have a potential of 260,000 deaths. This is in fact a larger death toll than anyone has ever suggested might result from a nuclear reactor accident, and its probability is substantially greater than the most serious nuclear accidents.
Sometimes nuclear critics, conceding that existing non-nuclear sources of energy are unsatisfactory, propose certain innovative technologies. Although all of these are safer than coal, and some even rival nuclear power in this respect, all have the disadvantage of being unworkable.
Solar and wind power are the most commonly promoted of these. Both have a place in a rational energy plan, but neither can fulfill the claims made for it by less critical supporters.7
Solar power is most useful for heating hot water and, in the proper climates, providing heat for houses. At present this use of solar power is so expensive as to be competitive only with electric heat. When it comes to providing electricity itself, cautious optimism suggests that solar power may one day be an option for individual homes—exploiting the one great advantage of the sun as an energy provider, that it is delivered to the doorstep—but the technology for such individual systems is now prohibitively expensive.
Solar power is less promising as a means of central generation. Solar energy for this purpose can be captured in two ways: by mirror systems that boil water to spin conventional turbogenerators, and by photovoltaic cells that produce electricity directly. Both types are at present too expensive to contemplate. Additionally, the photo-voltaic system requires very large land areas. With luck, a 1000-megawatt plant (comparable to a large nuclear installation in capacity) would occupy 50 square miles.
Although wind power has real promise for very small demands at exotic locations, such as mountain-top weather stations, it too has been over-touted by nuclear critics. ERDA is sponsoring the construction of a very large wind-rotor that will produce all of 1.5 megawatts and cost $7 million. Producing as much electricity as a conventional nuclear plant would require 666 150-foot high towers, costing nearly $5 billion and completely dependent upon the weather. Only fantasists imagine such a technology as a significant source of energy.
The most promising source of energy under development is the fusion process. In fusion, the energy release occurs when two light atoms are fused together to make one. Because the fusion requires an immense amount of energy simply to maintain itself, any defect in a fusion reactor shuts it down; moreover, the basic fuel is almost limitlessly available in seawater. The disadvantage is that we do not yet know how to make the process work. Researchers now work with microscopic reactors that have only recently begun to generate more energy than is needed to sustain them. It is clear that commercial use of the fusion process at best is very distant, and there are those who doubt that it will ever pan out.
The fact is that for the foreseeable future our choice is between nuclear fission and coal. All our choices should be so easy.
The anti-nuclear movement has mounted campaigns to abolish nuclear power in seven states, and has failed in each case. Probably because polls indicate that the majority of Americans favor the development of nuclear power, none of the referenda was candidly drawn or promoted as a ban on it. Rather, each was drawn and promoted as a nuclear-safeguards proposal which would make nuclear energy safer rather than nonexistent. And each was loaded with standards which no nuclear reactor, present or projected, could ever hope to meet. The effect of these referenda would have been to stop the development of nuclear power in six of the states and to close the industry down entirely in a seventh.
One provision in the California referendum hypocritically required that all reactor-safety systems, including the emergency core-cooling system, undergo tests on an operating reactor. That is, it would have been necessary to initiate a loss-of-cool-ant accident in an operating reactor, an accident which the proponents of the referendum tell us is too dangerous ever to risk. Another section of the California referendum (substantially duplicated in the other states) required that the legislature certify that no radiation from waste escape with harmful effect into the atmosphere or the land. No coal-fired facility could meet an analogous requirement that no sulfur dioxide escape into the atmosphere. Indeed, no coal plant could meet a requirement forbidding it to emit radiation.
In the seven states, 20 per cent of the population of the country had a chance to vote on nuclear power. But in discussing the rejections of these referenda, Nader and Abbotts treat them as victories rather than as defeats, and adopt the cynical explanation that the opponents outspent the proponents. That is, the people really are too dumb to be trusted with such decisions.
These referenda have in the long run probably done actual harm to the cause of nuclear safety. An intelligent California referendum need have done little more than propose some new teeth for present federal regulations, such as fines so great for noncompliance with safety regulations that utilities would find compliance cheaper than defiance. There is of course no excuse for $10,000 fines for noncompliances that save $200,000. As it stands, such referenda have been given a bad name as disguised moratoria, and it is likely that their failure will make development of genuine safeguards legislation and referenda more difficult. It is the old story of the mindless extreme destroying the sensible middle.
Far from being cast down by its failures in these referenda, the anti-nuclear movement appears to be metastasizing. The spring of 1977 saw the sudden development of a new direction to the nuclear debate, the birth of a movement dedicated to stopping nuclear power through the tactics of civil disobedience.
By April 1977, the proposed nuclear plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire was already in trouble as the result of environmentalist suits and Environmental Protection Agency rulings on its cooling system, which was alleged to be harmful to clams;8 on April 30, it became the target of a group of activists under the name of the Clamshell Alliance. Several thousand of these occupied the construction site, and when about 1,400 refused to move along, they were arrested for trespass. These the State of New Hampshire foolishly refused to release before trial on their own recognizance, but held them at various locations where before they were finally released there assuredly occurred much effective organization of the anti-nuclear movement.
The Boston “alternative” press reported on the incident with immense relish, announcing that the activism of the 60’s had returned and that nuclear energy was going to become a domestic Vietnam. It could hardly have been happier news had the United States gotten involved in a new war in Southeast Asia.
The infant direct-action movement is patently and passionately anti-democratic. The construction of the Seabrook reactor is already regulated by laws passed by democratically elected legislatures and signed into law by democratically elected executives. These laws have been administered by constitutionally appointed officials and judges. The whole process has been a model of democracy and reflects the fact that a majority of Americans favor the development of nuclear power. But with the Clamshell Alliance and its like, the bottom line is that democracy has come up with the wrong answer, and so much the worse for democracy. The issue must therefore be decided riot through democracy but through the physical actions of an elitist and highly organized minority that takes over for the degenerate and plutocratic state. Sam Lovejoy, the leading spirit of the alliance, has been quoted as putting it neatly: “No Jaw ever closed down a nuke.” What Lovejoy wants, he must have, whatever the law says. The legal arm of the movement, however, is nearly as peremptory; its flavor is admirably conveyed in a quotation attributed to an “environmentalist” lawyer: “It’s about time we put the Seabrook reactor out of its misery.”
Judged in the light of the Zeitgeist, nuclear power is the perfect demon. Kick it and you kick large corporations, the government, and technology, all with one blow of the foot. Since almost no one yet understands that his welfare depends on nuclear power—even though the welfare of many already does—moral indignation against it comes unusually cheap. The movement is also rather callous, as evidenced by its calm willingness to sacrifice the lives of coal miners—that is, the actual lives of the actual coal miners who are killed over the decades in their thousands—to prevent the hypothetical deaths of hypothetical people from nuclear power. Endangered individuals, especially if they are mere humans, appear to be much less worthy of protection than endangered species. The Seabrook reactor may fall victim to the interests of the clam, and the Dickey-Lincoln hydroelectric project in Maine has been stymied to save a few specimens of an otherwise extinct plant called the furbish lousewort, which appears to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a noxious weed having nothing to recommend it but its name.
The anti-nuclear movement combines a number of strands that have come to the fore in the last decade or so. One of these is the Manicheanism that can only see technological development as a choice between savage despoiling of the earth and apocalyptic risk on the one hand and a concern for “the environment” that puts clams before people on the other. Because we are in the early stages of the environmentalism fueled by this Manicheanism, none of those now calling the dance has to pay the piper, and indeed many may be able to escape altogether, leaving the problems they have created to their descendants.
Another is a kind of fashionable semi-Luddite fear of the unknown that fixes on certain new examples of industrial society as horrid and to be dispensed with while silently embracing all the others. This is entirely consistent with the history of Luddism, which has been by and large a conservative movement that seeks fresh targets when familiarity has put to rest its fear of the new and unknown over old ones.
Uneasiness with affluence has also bred a similarly selective asceticism that has become a commonplace perhaps best exemplified in communards who take their stereo sets—and hence a considerable proportion of modern technology—into the hills with them. This makes it easy for well-heeled suburbanites to preach a more restrained use of energy when all it means to them is giving up their electric can-openers. Such people in effect tell the billions in the undeveloped world who have only begun to sight liberation by the industrial revolution that they must give up cake.
Critics of nuclear power generally set great store by conservation as a means of reducing demand and thereby the need for new nuclear capacity. The first problem with this position is that it is not in any event desirable to generate all our power with fossil fuels. That is, over the long run, nuclear power is needed not only to add to the present capacity, but to replace it. The second problem is that all too often among the critics of the atom “conservation” is a euphemism for “de-development.”
There is no way to argue against genuine conservation. Waste—that is, the unnecessary expenditure of anything—must be one of the most indefensible of all categories, and there clearly are a number of ways in which the United States could engage in genuine conservation, i.e., the elimination of true waste. But much of the waste alleged by the anti-nuclear lobby is in fact simply expenditure on ends they do not approve (like air-conditioning).
One chestnut beloved by the lobby is that the Swiss and the Swedes maintain our standard of living but use only half as much energy as we do. Ergo, half our consumption must be waste. The short answer to this is that in common with the rest of the industrialized world, the United States has an extremely low energy consumption for its GNP, and our use in fact lies on the curve of lowest consumption. A somewhat longer answer has been given by Beckmann, who points out that we could get by with less energy if we had no energy-intensive industry and instead made watches and wrote insurance, imported most of our food, and arranged to acquire a new topography that would allow us to generate most of our electricity with falling water. Like so so much of the economics of the critics, the thought of Scandinavianization turns out to be a romantic fantasy.
The critics of nuclear power have concentrated on alleging that it is unsafe. Although no large-scale energy conversion can ever be totally safe, we have seen that on the critics’ own criterion, nuclear power is to be preferred to the available alternatives.
But safety is not the only grounds for preferring nuclear energy to other forms. One reason is of course political. A nuclear economy based on breeder reactors, whether on the plutonium or thorium cycle, would make the United States forever safe from energy blackmail. Thorium is one of the most abundant elements in nature, and the existing U-238 supply already mined would feed an all-breeder economy for several hundred years.
Furthermore, pace the anti-nuclear lobby, nuclear power is especially desirable if we mean to fulfill our obligations to our descendants. That movement is informed with a very tender concern for generations yet unborn, and regularly asserts that our obligation to these generations prohibits us from leaving them with an insoluble waste-disposal problem. This is true but irrelevant: as we have already seen, we are not leaving them any such problem. But we are leaving them a negative legacy much more serious. For we are consuming vast amounts of petrochemical feedstocks—coal, oil, and gas—as fuel. It happens that it has been our good fortune to find a substitute for these materials used as fuel. For their use in the fabrication of much of our world, we have developed no replacement, and if we go on using coal, oil, and gas as fuel we shall insure that at some point in the future our descendants will run out of petrochemicals. Had we any real sense of responsibility in these matters, we would be working to make the term “fossil fuel” seem ludicrous. Our present behavior will very probably force our descendants to return to the industrial economy of the early 19th century. Our waste of their heritage is the more scandalous because it is unnecessary.
Recently a funny thing happened at the National Council of Churches, a division of which has declared plutonium morally dubious and called for a moratorium on its use. Defenders of this bizarre intrusion of theology into science, which awoke echoes of Galileo’s encounter with the Inquisition, explained that because the scientific community was split down the middle on plutonium, the theological community ought to have a deciding vote. Plutonium, they said, was not a technical or scientific issue, but a moral one.
It is of course always very much easier to argue for or against anything in the soft morasses of “moral issues,” and one can hardly blame the plutonophobes for trying to get the discussion into this marsh. The problem is that the alleged split within the scientific community finds, almost without exception, all those with the relevant expertness—the specialists in nuclear physics, health physics, and radiation medicine—for, and scientists from almost every field that does not bear on the problem, against. This is as true for nuclear energy in general as for the carefully controlled use of plutonium.
The real importance of the National Council’s nuclear ukase, however, is to recall that some years back it had actually endorsed nuclear energy as a gift from God. And so it seemed then, and so it would still seem had our society not long since learned to believe that such gifts must be unambiguously delightful, harmless, and without serious inconvenience or challenge.
The fact is that historically such gifts take considerable courage on the part of mankind if they are to be grasped and used for benefit. We remember with amusement those who opposed the railroad because it would stop the cows from giving milk and because the human constitution could not endure speeds as great as thirty miles an hour. Our amusement will be no more than condescension, however, if we think that we are safe from similar attacks of ignorant terror. If we are lucky, our descendants will be no more than amused by the nuclear Luddism of our time.
1 With John Abbotts, Norton, 414 pp., $10.95.
2 Ballinger, 418 pp., $6.95 (paper).
3 The nuclear bookshelf is growing wider. Among works not mentioned elsewhere in this essay, the most noteworthy—sometimes for useful information, sometimes as specimens of pathology—are Sheldon Novick’s The Electric War, Sierra Club, 376 pp., $12.50, a very highly undisciplined work whose publisher seems to regard editing as anti-ecological; Jacqui Srouji’s Critical Mass, Aurora, 409 pp., $11.95, a mixture of good sense, extreme naiveté, and courage, but as undisciplined and unedited on the pro-side as Novick on the anti-; John J. Berger’s Nuclear Power: The Unviable Option, Ramparts, 366 pp., $4.50 (paper), a canonical brief work against nuclear power; The Fight Over Nuclear Power, by Fred H. Schmidt and David Bodansky, Albion, 154 pp., $4.95 (paper), a highly informative and lucid work by two distinguished physicists; Peter Faulkner’s The Silent Bomb, Vintage/Friends of the Earth, 282 pp., $3.95 (paper), an anthology of snippets, not very clearly identified as such, from other anti-nuclear old-reliables, plus connecting material by Faulkner with some curious scientific errors, a preface by Paul R. Ehrlich which is itself a syllabus of anti-nuclear errors, and a very useful and fair-minded list of the sources of information.
4 Beckmann publishes Access to Energy, a witty and profoundly informative newsletter on the nuclear debate and new energy technologies. His book, The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear (Golem Press, 190 pp., $10.95 hardbound, $5.95 softbound), combines vigorous polemic and a wealth of information. Both the newsletter and the book are available from Box 2298-H, Boulder, Colorado 80302.
5 It is symptomatic of the situation that Cohen is not a better known figure outside his professional field. A distinguished physicist who has been president of the nuclear division of the American Physical Society and who is also a graceful, lucid, and thoughtful writer, Cohen has published a number of devastatingly thorough analyses of nuclear safety. These have attracted much less popular attention than routine yelps of hysteria from scientific illiterates. It is especially regrettable that Cohen’s Nuclear Science and Society (Anchor, 1974), an admirable introduction to the subject, should have gone out of print.
Curiously, some nuclear opponents make a virtue of ignorance, maintaining that experts in the nuclear area have a commitment that prevents objectivity, and that experts in nuclear industry should stay out of the debate because of conflict of interest. This attempt to exclude the opposition conveniently overlooks the fact that many leading opponents of nuclear energy themselves earn their living by opposing it. Although a nuclear engineer will not advance his career by becoming a nuclear critic, he need not become a nuclear publicist in order to draw paychecks. A professional critic, by contrast, lives quite directly by opposing nuclear energy. He is like a public-relations officer in the nuclear industry, and one ought to apply some skepticism to his alleged disinterestedness, as well as to that of “environmental” lawyers. One should be especially skeptical of anti-nuclear “martyrs”: speaking of three General Electric engineers who resigned over the issue of nuclear safety, Paul Ehrlich praises their “sacrifices.” He does not note that when they resigned they had become members of a para-religious organization that guarantees them an income should anti-nuclear activities prove insufficiently lucrative. They are also reported to be continuing their participation in the General Electric profit-sharing plan.
6 Ballantine, 288 pp., $1.95 (paper).
7 The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for even more exotic forms such as geothermal power and wave power.
8 The EPA has recently reversed its regional administrator and approved the cooling system, a decision that has been appealed by the Friends of the Clam. In a related action, some of them went to the site and deposited thereon a quantity of dead fish and clams, who no doubt were glad to die that others might live. It was a scene anticipated a century ago by Lewis Carroll: “I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.” “He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee.
The War Against the Atom
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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.