One of the unfortunate after-effects of the so-called “Red Scare” of the early 50’s was the triumph of the “no limits” interpretation of the First Amendment, which has poisoned American political thought ever since. It goes something like this: the McCarthyite “reign of terror” permanently discredited the idea that you can suppress speech in a free society, whatever the reason (in this case political treason). Once you start to draw limits on free expression, whether it be political, artistic, or literary, you are setting up a situation in which the opinions and standards of the few are imposed on the many. Only if every member of society has the freedom to say, write, read, or buy whatever he pleases can we be assured of the access to ideas that is the guardian and embodiment of freedom. Words or images can never harm people; only the attempt to suppress them can.
In this view, “expression” is construed so broadly that almost no behavior falls outside its purview; it encompasses everything from pornography to flag-burning. This absolutism with regard to expression (which now holds sway at the majority of law schools and with a majority of the Supreme Court) has its roots in relativism: in a world in which truth is impossible to determine, no idea may be safely forbidden. It follows that the vitality of a culture can be measured by the diversity of “expression” therein—one of the sillier liberal conceits.
For Nat Hentoff, the “no limits” theory of speech is something of a creed. In his new book, Hentoff explores the current threats to this ideal of a tolerant, free society. He finds—despite the book’s subtitle, which implies a rough equality of offenses from right and left—that the vast majority of attempts to suppress speech today come from a new generation of leftists committed to enforcing sensitivity, tolerance, and politically correct thinking by any means necessary. The tendencies of the Religious Right don’t even come close (indeed, Mr. Hentoff has to resurrect the story of the obscenity convictions of comedian Lenny Bruce—who died over a quarter century ago—to find a good example of right-wing persecution). The fact that the existence of this new thought police does not raise the ire of the very same crowd that goes ballistic when someone suggests taking hard-core porn off the stands at the local 7-Eleven might lead one to think that many of them never really believed that stuff about freedom of expression in the first place—they were just using it for the purposes of secularizing the culture. With Hentoff we have a genuine believer: an old-style First Amendment liberal who is consistent in his application of the “no limits” theory of speech, even when that means tolerating politically incorrect viewpoints.
Those who deny that we arc in the midst of a war over culture in this country need only read Hentoff’s book to be disabused of that delusion. It is a collection of tales from the front lines of that war, focusing on battles over free speech in academia and the public education establishment, where the stakes are highest. The picture that emerges is frightening. Never has the intellectual atmosphere at our institutions of higher learning been so stifling, and, as Mr. Hentoff documents, it is perhaps most stifling in the most elite of these institutions. Today, it is no longer Main Street but the Ivy League where one finds the most narrow-mindedness, conformity, and simple ignorance. It seems, from Mr. Hentoff’s account, that the young people who populate these supposed bastions of free discussion and thought are so lacking in historical perspective that they firmly believe the solution to the world’s problems is to eliminate all “discriminatory” and “offensive” language from our cultural discourse, both public and private. Even tenured professors try to steer clear of “controversial” subjects for fear of being denounced as “insensitive” by zealous thought police (a fear much more evident today than during the largely fictional McCarthyite “reign of terror”).
Because radical feminism and multiculturalism are the reigning orthodoxies at these institutions, what this sensitivity means in practice is an all-out assault on the Western tradition in philosophy and morality. The extent to which these insidious ideologies serve as covers for a shallow materialism just beneath the ideological surface is truly extraordinary. Anyone who dares, for instance, to point out that the feminist agenda of sex-without-consequences has been a disaster for both women and children, leading to soaring rates of illegitimacy, divorce, and abortion, can be dismissed as one who wants to keep women from positions of power and influence. By successfully putting such talk outside the realm of civilized discourse, feminists are able to ignore the question of how much their polities are driven by a desire to avoid the consequences of irresponsible behavior rather than by some altruistic concern for women’s rights.
Likewise, the battle over cultural diversity in the curriculum at elite universities often obscures the fact that the roots of the controversy are the quota policies of the schools themselves. Unfortunately, the effect of admitting woefully unprepared minority students in order to meet quotas is not diversity but bitterness and resentment. When faced with “core curriculum” courses that require a high degree of intellectual discipline, many of these students are confirmed in their suspicion that the entire university system is stacked against their success and hence demand that other cultural perspectives be represented. The real scandal is that so many universities cave in to such bogus claims instead of reexamining their own admission policies. The fiction that those policies are motivated by a genuine concern for the welfare of minority students is belied by the fact that so large a percentage of blacks admitted to college in this country drop out before graduating. As Thomas Sowell has suggested, these same students would fare much better at local community colleges or vocational schools that have less prestige than the elite four-year colleges. Why have these cynical admissions policies not provoked more protest? Precisely because the appearance of compassion and sensitivity toward minorities is easier than the application of hardheaded policies that would actually work to their benefit.
What Hentoff sees as a struggle over the right to full expression, the participants view as a battle over who will control the culture. And they are correct; arguments of constitutional interpretation become irrelevant when the same First Amendment is used to ban public displays of Christmas scenes and to demand public funding of a crucifix submerged in urine. This is how shamelessly inconsistent the arguments of the secularists have become. They ban classic literature like Huckleberry Finn on the grounds that it includes offensive racist language and force students to read modern trash that offends their religious beliefs; expel students for satirizing gay activist groups or displaying Confederate flags; shout down conservative speakers they disagree with; set up centers for women’s rights that systematically exclude women who are anti-abortion; enact speech codes that enforce sensitivity toward everyone but white males and Christians; conduct smear campaigns against prominent public figures who challenge p.c. cliches; prevent debate in law schools over the issue of homosexual custody of children . . . Hentoff’s list is just the tip of the iceberg. One senses his amazement at the sheer gutlessness of today’s campus radicals; rather than engage the opposition with arguments, they are all too willing to shut down debate where the} have the power to do so—which is almost everywhere in the media and in academia. Revolutionaries once were made of tougher stuff.
But ironically, the roots of this new fascism grow from the no-limits absolutism of Hentoff and his fellow First Amendment ideologues. The notion that there is no higher expression of democracy and freedom than a society that tolerates absolutely everything must ultimately fail. Democratic societies by their very nature seek a sort of corporate expression whereby they act to set standards and make laws regarding acceptable behavior. Whether those standards should be derived from a relativist secularism or a moral tradition infused by Christian revelation is the only relevant question in our declining Western society. At this point, you must pick a side or step aside. Mr. Hentoff, in the current feminist jargon, “just doesn’t get it.”
[Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other, by Nat Hentoff (New York: Harper Collins) 392 pp., $25.00]