Four moments in the recent annals of free speech in America. Actually annals is too fancy a word. This all happened in the past 10 days:
At Columbia University, members of the Minutemen, the group that patrols the U.S. border with Mexico and reports illegal crossings, were asked to address a forum on immigration policy. As Jim Gilchrist, the founder, spoke, angry students stormed the stage, shouting and knocking over chairs and tables. “Having wreaked havoc,” said the New York Sun, they unfurled a banner in Arabic and English that said, “No one is ever illegal.” The auditorium was cleared, the Minutemen silenced. Afterward a student protester told the Columbia Spectator, “I don’t feel we need to apologize or anything. It was fundamentally a part of free speech. . . . The Minutemen are not a legitimate part of the debate on immigration.”
On Oct. 2, on Katie Couric’s “CBS Evening News,” in the segment called “Free Speech,” the father of a boy killed at Columbine shared his views on the deeper causes of the recent shootings in Amish country. Brian Rohrbough said violence entered our schools when we threw God out of them. “This country is in a moral freefall. For over two generations the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum. . . . We teach there are no moral absolutes, no right or wrong, and I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children.” This was not exactly the usual mush.
Mr. Rohrbough was quickly informed he was not part of the legitimate debate, either. Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post: “The decision . . . to air his views prompted a storm of criticism, some of it within the ranks of CBS News.” A blog critic: Grief makes people say “stupid” things, but “what made them put this man on television?” Good question. How did they neglect to silence him?
Soon after, at Madison Square Garden, Barbra Streisand, began her latest farewell tour with what friends who were there tell me was a moving, beautiful concert. She was in great form and brought the audience together in appreciation of her great ballads, which are part of the aural tapestry of our lives. And then . . . the moment. Suddenly she decided to bang away on politics. Fine, she’s a Democrat, Bush is bad. But midway through the bangaway a man in the audience called out. Most could not hear him, but everyone seems to agree he at least said, “What is this, a fund-raiser?”
At this, Ms. Streisand became enraged, stormed the stage and pummeled herself. Wait, that was Columbia. Actually she became enraged and cursed the man. A friend who was there, a liberal Democrat, said what was most interesting was Ms. Streisand made a physical movement with her arms and hands—“those talon hands”—as if to say, See what I have to put up with when I attempt to educate the masses? She soon apologized, to her credit. Though apparently in the manner of a teacher who’d just kind of lost it with an unruly and ignorant student.
On “The View” a few days earlier it was Rosie O’Donnell. She was banging away on gun control. Guns are bad and should be banned. Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who plays the role of the young, attractive mom, tentatively responded. “I want to be fair,” she said. Obviously there should be “restrictions,” but women have a right to defend themselves, and there’s “the right to bear arms” in the Constitution. Rosie accused Elizabeth of yelling. The panel, surprised, agreed that Elizabeth was not yelling. Rosie then went blank-faced with what someone must have told her along the way is legitimately felt rage. Elizabeth was not bowing to Rosie’s views. Elizabeth needed to be educated. The education commenced, Rosie gesturing broadly and Elizabeth constricting herself as if she knew physical assault were a possibility. When Rosie gets going on the Second Amendment I always think, Oh I hope she’s not armed! Actually I wonder what Freud would have made of an enraged woman obsessed with gun control. Ach, classic projection. Eef she had a gun she would kill. Therefore no one must haf guns.
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There’s a pattern here, isn’t there?
It is not only about rage and resentment, and how some have come to see them as virtues, as an emblem of rightness. I feel so much, therefore my views are correct and must prevail. It is about something so obvious it is almost embarrassing to state. Free speech means hearing things you like and agree with, and it means allowing others to speak whose views you do not like or agree with. This—listening to the other person with respect and forbearance, and with an acceptance of human diversity—is the price we pay for living in a great democracy. And it is a really low price for such a great thing.
We all know this, at least in the abstract. Why are so many forgetting it in the particular?
Let us be more pointed. Students, stars, media movers, academics: They are always saying they want debate, but they don’t. They want their vision imposed. They want to win. And if the win doesn’t come quickly, they’ll rush the stage, curse you out, attempt to intimidate.
And they don’t always recognize themselves to be bullying. So full of their righteousness are they that they have lost the ability to judge themselves and their manner.
And all this continues to come more from the left than the right in America.
Which is, at least in terms of timing, strange. The left in America—Democrats, liberals, Bush haters, skeptics of many sorts—seems to be poised for a significant electoral victory. Do they understand that if it comes it will be not because of Columbia, Streisand, O’Donnell, et al., but in spite of them?
What is most missing from the left in America is an element of grace—of civic grace, democratic grace, the kind that assumes disagreements are part of the fabric, but we can make the fabric hold together. The Democratic Party hasn’t had enough of this kind of thing since Bobby Kennedy died. What also seems missing is the courage to ask a question.
Conservatives these days are asking themselves very many questions, but I wonder if the left could tolerate asking itself even a few. Such as: Why are we producing so many adherents who defy the old liberal virtues of free and open inquiry, free and open speech? Why are we producing so many bullies? And dim dullard ones, at that.