Following the letter issued by the Lewis & Clark law school’s chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, et al., proclaiming Christina Hoff Sommers a “known fascist,” Bari Weiss took to the New York Times to say “we’re all fascists now.”
The letter added that her invitation amounted to an “act of aggression and violence” and went on to offer a curious definition of free speech: “Freedom of speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals.”
Yes, these future lawyers believe that free speech is acceptable only when it doesn’t offend them. Which is to say, they don’t believe in it at all.
In fairness, the NLG was radically incoherent back when I went to law school as well, but Weiss took a huge chance in stating the obvious,* as it was an invitation for others to prove that she, together with Sommers, deserved the epithet.
Just in case you’re unconvinced by Amanda Marcotte’s deepest thoughts, Glenn Greenwald castigates Weiss for “her involvement in numerous campaigns to vilify and ruin the careers of several Arab and Muslim professors due to their criticisms of Israel.” Then again, as Cathy Young reminded us, Nat Hentoff addressed this at the time, a matter of pro- and anti-Zionist dispute, where both sides took their shots at the other. In other words, Weiss engaged in free speech, which was still allowed back then. Today, it’s cause for sliming.
Rather than indulge in the war of epithets, Slate’s Chief Political Correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, takes a different path. So what?
There are real threats to free speech in today’s America. Just not the ones that are getting the most attention.
The most prominent concern from those who say they care about free speech is that the threat comes from left-wing students at elite colleges and universities who shout down or block controversial speakers, like Bell Curve author Charles Murray or the feminist critic Christina Hoff Summers. The columnists Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens of the New York Times are preoccupied with these and similar incidents, as are—to varying degrees—writers at New York magazine, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post.
By “preoccupied,” is he suggesting that certain writers, of a certain persuasion, maybe even a certain complexion, are obsessed? Why are they focused on a handful of, perhaps, overly passionate students, when there are “real” threats to be addressed?
This concern is understandable. These writers are either graduates of similar institutions, and some have been combatants themselves in these college controversies. As people in the business of speech, argumentation, and occasionally, provocation, they are disturbed to see what seem to be attacks on open dialogue from students who will be the tastemakers and powerbrokers of the future. For these critics, an illiberal campus left might eventually become an illiberal political left. (Although recent data throws cold water on the idea that the far left is hostile to free speech, and—a generation after the “political correctness” wars of the 1980s and 1990s—similar warnings of illiberalism have failed to pan out.)
So he raises a bit of a strawman, as the concern extends beyond the possibility that the overwoke will be the powerbrokers of the future, but that even the lesser-woke won’t be able to overcome their indoctrination and Orwell will be muttering, “I told you so,” about the abuse of words to eradicate ideas among the educated class.
And, needless to say (which means I shouldn’t even say it, if it was truly needless), the PC wars of the past aren’t at all the same as social justice today. Sorry. You already knew that, didn’t you? My bad.
What actually looms are more traditional threats to free speech, from the state using its power to suppress dissidents and minorities (or protect those who would), to extremist groups using the threat of violence to monopolize and control public space. Focusing on campus protesters in the face of this danger is like worrying about the crumbs on your floor when your kitchen is on fire.
Putting aside Bouie’s omission that almost everyone he accuses of being “preoccupied” also condemned efforts to pass laws that impair First Amendment rights, a detail that somehow eluded him, his metaphor doesn’t withstand scrutiny.
In the wake of recent civil rights and environmental protests where activists blocked roads and highways as acts of civil disobedience, Republican lawmakers in several states proposed bills that would protect drivers who caused injury or death to someone blocking a roadway, as long as they exercised “due care.” Floated in Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas, these bills were written with a clear wink and nod toward those who would disrupt protests with their vehicles. None passed, but the intent was clear: To suppress unpopular speech with the threat of state-sanctioned harm.
None passed. As fires in the kitchen go, these flamed out immediately. And had they been taken seriously, the very “preoccupied” writers would have been the first to fight them, condemn them, challenge them as violations of the First Amendment.
We should confront the threats to free expression. But let’s make sure we’re looking in the right place and aiming at the right actors. It is not radical college students who truly threaten free speech, it’s those people—like the sitting president of the United States—who hold actual power.
We can confront all threats to free expression, but there is a difference between Trump, who carries no actual suasion among intelligent people regardless of their politics, and college students who believe that ideas are violence and their comrades can’t be allowed to hear them. They may not “truly threaten free speech” in the same ways, but both are threats, and when one considers the impact on malleable minds on campus, it is fair to argue that social justice indoctrination is a far greater threat than anything Darth Cheeto has to say.
Trivializing radical campus political correctness in comparison to the “power” of laws never enacted is certainly more polite than calling Bari Weiss, et al., fascists. While one can disagree with Bouie, at least he makes an argument in support of his position rather than just an ad hominem attack. Will anybody care or will the name-calling persist because it’s so much easier to yell fascist, or sexist, racists, etc., than think, as if there is only one “real” threat.
*Being called fascist, like misogynist, racist, rape apologist, etc., has become a fact of life for anyone who doesn’t adhere to the social justice orthodoxy. Once you get past the idea that there is no way to avoid being branded as “literally Hitler” short of total obsequiousness, there isn’t anything one can do about it but shrug and move on.