The Age of Apoplexy

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 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.”

This was heady stuff to young American New Lefties, and even a lot of middle-aged liberal professors were seduced by the pseudo-heroism of shouting down speakers—if it was a matter, say, of preventing the South Vietnamese ambassador from addressing Harvard students.

Although it was the left that transplanted the earnest and awful Marxist-Leninist notion of “political incorrectness” to this country, once the idea was in the American air, everybody breathed it. And today, with “clear and present danger” now a neocon term of art, the right also insists on practicing intolerance toward the “radically evil.” When it came to Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia, the New York tabloids and the fist-shaking throng were downright Marcusian. “What possible good might come from giving Ahmadinejad an honored forum for speaking?” a Daily News editorial screamed. “Some things are beyond discussion.”

Sure, Ahmadinejad is a Fascistic provocateur, and his line on Holocaust scholarship—that he’s only out to encourage intellectual freedom—is monstrously disingenuous. But celebrated bad guys visit New York and speak at American universities all the time. Iran is supplying weapons to men killing American troops in Iraq? In the seventies, when China and the Soviet Union were supplying North Vietnam with arms, Nixon toasted Mao in Peking, and Brezhnev visited the White House to work on détente.

Columbia and its president, Lee Bollinger, seem chronically unable to get the free-speech thing right. Last fall, the men’s hockey team had its season canceled simply for handing out a team recruitment flier with the (funny) tagline “Don’t be a pussy.” (Overreaction alert: Days later, the punishment was drastically reduced.) That same day, Columbia students rushed the stage to prevent a campus speech by a right-wing anti-illegal-immigration militant. (A nonpartisan group planned to invite the guy back to speak this fall, but a few weeks ago, “after several productive conversations with other student leaders and our advisers,” decided, uh, well, maybe not.) And Bollinger’s absurdly inhospitable, gauntlet-throwing introduction of Ahmadinejad mainly served the political interests of two people: Lee Bollinger (Look, I’m tough on the Israel-hater!) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Look, I’m persecuted by the Americans!).

But at least the horrid little loon was allowed to talk. Alarmingly, it’s the legitimate scholarly speakers who are being denied venues because of what they have to say about Israel. Last fall, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee pressured the Polish consulate in New York to cancel a talk by NYU professor Tony Judt, who’s in favor of Israel and the Palestinian territories’ merging into a single country. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, were to appear last month at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to discuss their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy; people objected—“This one is hot,” the council’s president told Mearsheimer—and the talk was canceled.

Here and there, after an initial, instinctive display of spinelessness, calm and common sense reasserted themselves. Verizon saw the error of its ways as soon as the Times reported on the company’s refusal to take NARAL’s business. Even President Bush, after a bit of weaseling (“I’m not sure I’d have offered the same invitation”), concluded that Ahmadinejad’s speaking at Columbia was “okay”: “An institution in our country gives him a chance to express his point of view, which really speaks to the freedoms of the country.” Not quite Voltairean courage, but not bad in the present climate.

Is it really so hard to let pretty much anyone say pretty much whatever he wants? We would all do well in these instances to ask if we’re indulging in a double standard. What if NYU were staging a talk by Avigdor Lieberman, the ferociously anti-Arab deputy prime minister of Israel—how would the folks who attacked Columbia respond to people loudly insisting that no possible good could come from giving an honored forum to such a thuggish enemy of peace?

And consider the commandments of a typical college speech code, such as Ohio State’s: “Do not joke about differences related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability, socioeconomic background, etc.” Does it really make sense to try to outlaw in a dorm what half the residents are watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do every night on TV?

When it comes to free speech, we need to let a hundred flowers bloom. We need to chill. We need to stop being pussies.


The Age of Apoplexy