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The Age of Apoplexy

Are the controversial comments of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (or Larry Summers or Bill O’Reilly or NARAL) really so threatening?

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Illustration by Ward Sutton  

For a while now, I’ve fretted that we’re turning into a nation of weenies and permanently enraged censors, that too many of us are afraid of letting disagreeable or uncomfortable ideas into the limelight. If it’s not the p.c. overreach of campus “speech codes” or the attempts to criminalize “hate speech,” it’s the FCC’s crackdown on cussing in PBS documentaries and the Secret Service’s keeping protesters fenced off in “free speech zones.” But during the last month, this impulse to squelch—indulged by the left and the right and the milquetoast middle—seems to have reached some kind of tipping point, as if we’ve entered a permanent state of hysterical overreaction.

For me, the opening moment of this scaredy-cat season came during a radio interview I was recording with Sean Penn. While we were discussing Into the Wild, his new movie celebrating balls-out American freedom, I asked about his recent visit to Venezuela. Penn’s endorsement of Hugo Chávez’s socialism is fine with me, I said, but how did he square his embrace of Chávez with the régime’s depredations against liberty in Venezuela? Penn tensed up, but he seemed game to thrash it out, to explain why I was a tool of the Republican Big Lie Machine—until his personal publicist, eavesdropping from the next room, popped in to insist that we stop speaking freely about restrictions on free speech in Venezuela.

Days later, the former president of Harvard, Larry Summers, was disinvited as a dinner speaker by the California university system’s board of regents because of his controversial suggestion in 2005 that the underrepresentation of women in science might be the result of more than just sexism. And at Stanford, students and teachers became apoplectic over the appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as a visiting fellow by the university’s conservative think tank.

Then it was the East Coast’s turn to get all hysterical and drama-queeny: During a single week at the end of September, everyone from the Daily News to the Democratic speaker of the New York City Council denounced Columbia for inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak (and Hillary Clinton joined the mob in saying he should be turned away by police—at gunpoint?—if he tried to go near ground zero); Verizon refused to broadcast NARAL’s abortion-rights text messages; Bill O’Reilly’s goofy can’t-we-all-just-get-along attempt to sow racial harmony was called racist; and Congress, after wasting its time officially condemning MoveOn.org for its stupid, over-the-top “General Betray Us” ad, was asked to waste its time condemning Rush Limbaugh’s stupid, over-the-top crack that only “phony soldiers” criticize the war in Iraq.

Some of these episodes were trivial, some significant. Some were about trying to prevent speech (Ahmadinejad, Summers, NARAL), some only about stupendously overreacting to it (O’Reilly, MoveOn). But they all reflect a common temperament: an instinct to repress the disagreeable or the impolitic.

Almost any argument about race, gender, Israel, or the war is now apt to be infected by a spirit of self-righteous grievance and demonization. Passionate disagreement isn’t sufficient; bad faith must be imputed to one’s opponents: skepticism of affirmative action equals racism, antiwar sentiment equals anti-Americanism (or terrorist sympathy), criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic, and so on. More and more people think they’re entitled to the right not just to ignore or disapprove, but to veto and banish. And the craven fear of triggering tantrums leads the responsible authorities—university administrators, politicians, corporate executives—into humiliating, flip-floppy contortions of appeasement.

Maybe, I tell myself hopefully, it’s all a spasmodic reaction to the unfettered discourse that the Web and cable TV and talk radio have unleashed—that because freedom of expression is rather suddenly greater than ever in so many ways, people are trying desperately to reestablish limits on what can and can’t be asserted in their vicinity. And no doubt this sort of panicky, anti-democratic exceptionalism—freedom of speech for us, but not necessarily for you—is fed by the chronic sense of emergency that has prevailed since September 2001, when the White House press secretary warned that “Americans … need to watch what they say.”

Maybe the fever will pass. Or maybe a lot of us are permanently losing our taste for liberty, devoted to “freedom” in the abstract but unprepared to endure all its messy particulars.

This struggle is yet another way in which we’re still dealing, for better or for worse, with the legacy of the sixties. The seminal student uprising, the takeover of the UC Berkeley administration building in 1964, was driven by the all-American urge to expand the discourse: The Free Speech Movement protesters, liberal and conservative, demanded the right to hand out political fliers on campus. However, the following year, the émigré German Marxist Herbert Marcuse, newly tenured at UC San Diego, published his influential essay “Repressive Tolerance,” arguing that the free expression of every sort of idea lulls us into accepting a larger oppression. We should not practice “tolerance toward that which is radically evil,” he wrote; at a time “of clear and present danger” to progressive dreams, “tolerance cannot be indiscriminate … it cannot protect false words.”


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