You don’t want to judge Christ by Christians, someone once said. He is perfect, they are not.
In a similar way you don’t want to judge capitalism by capitalists, or the legitimacy of democracy by the Democrats, or the vitality of our republic by the Republicans. You have to take the thing pure and in itself, while allowing for the flaws and waywardness of its practitioners.
I say this because here in America we have reached a funny pass. People are doing and saying odd things as if they don’t know the meaning of the thing they say they stand for. In particular I mean we used to be proud of whom we allowed to speak, and now are leaning toward defining ourselves by whom we don’t speak to and will not allow to speak. This is not progress.
Conservatives on campus are shouted down. A crusader against illegal immigration is rushed off the stage at Columbia University. Great newspapers give ad breaks to groups with which they feel an ideological affinity, but turn away ads from those they do not, such as antiabortion groups. And they call this a business.
So much silencing. It seems so weak, so out of keeping with who we are. We love the tradition of free speech in America, but you don’t want to judge its health by what we’ve done with it lately, or to it.
* * *
In 1960 the premier of the Soviet Union came and spoke in the United States. Nikita Khrushchev was our sworn enemy, and a vulgarian—sweaty faced, ill educated, dressed in a suit just off the racks from the Gulag Kresge’s. I was a child, but I remember the impression he made. He took off his shoe and banged it, literally, on the soft beige wood of a desk at the U.N., as he fulminated. His nation had nuclear weapons. They were aimed at us.
The new Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, was there too. He was young and bearded and dressed in camouflage; he too, soon, would have missiles pointed at us. He not only went to the U.N. and spoke to the world, he refused to stay at the Waldorf and sweetly chose instead a hotel in Harlem to show his solidarity with America’s oppressed. The Americans there seemed to get the joke, and welcomed him with laughter. They knew he was playing them. But then they’d been played before.
Khrushchev’s trip and Castro’s were all about propaganda, all about sticking it to Uncle Sam. And here’s what happened: Nothing. Their presence hurt our country exactly zero percent. In fact it raised us high, reminding the world we are the confident nation that lets its foes speak uncensored. As an adult nation would.
* * *
You know where I’m going. Is it necessary to say when one speaks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that you disapprove of him, disagree with him, believe him a wicked fellow and are not amused that he means to have missiles aimed at us and our friends? If it is, I am happy to say it. Who, really, isn’t?
But this has been our history: to let all speak and to fear no one. That’s a good history to continue. The Council on Foreign Relations was right to invite him to speak last year—that is the council’s job, to hear, listen and parse—and Columbia University was well within its rights to let him speak this year. Though, in what is now apparently Columbia tradition, the stage was once again stormed, but this time verbally, and by a university president whose aggression seemed sharpened by fear.
There were two revealing moments in Ahmadinejad’s appearance. The first is that in his litany of complaint against the United States he seemed not to remember the taking and abuse of American diplomatic hostages in 1979. An odd thing to forget since he is said to have been part of that operation. The second was the moment when he seemed to assert that his nation does not have homosexuals. This won derisive laughter, and might have been a learning moment for him; dictators don’t face derisive from crowds back home.
It was like the moment in 1960 when Khrushchev’s motorcade stalled on Third Avenue and a commuter walked by and gave him the finger. Actually I don’t know there was such a moment, but knowing Americans I’m sure there was. Talking and listening to the wicked is the way we always operated in the long freak show that was 20th-century world leadership. And I’m sure before.
If Jefferson had dined only with those who’d been a force for good in the world, Jefferson would often have dined alone. If we insist only good and moral leaders talk to us, we’ll wind up surrounded by silence. In fact, if we insist we talk only to those whose good deeds have matched their high aspirations, we won’t always be on speaking terms with ourselves.
* * *
Domestically, the Democratic presidential candidates appear only before supportive groups. They don’t speak to antitax groups and talk about their own assumptions regarding tax policy. They don’t go to traditional values groups.
It’s all very controlled. And it’s unworthy of a great nation. When people say the campaign feels artificial, that’s what they mean. It’s not John Edwards’s hairspray or Hillary Clinton’s makeup. It’s that they give every sign of being afraid to speak and listen to those who haven’t been patted down by thought-cops for unacceptable views.
The Republicans are the same. An invitation to debate on Univision, the Spanish-language network? They have scheduling conflicts. What about the Log Cabin Republicans? No time right now.
If you, candidate A, have clear and serious reasons for desiring the wave of millions a year illegally over the border to stop, you should be able to talk to Hispanic groups and audiences about it. You go straight to them and appeal to their patriotism, fairness and common sense. Why? Because they’re patriotic and fair and have common sense. It is a compliment to show you know this.
Will some of them boo? Yes, of course. So what? Too bad. That’s the price you pay for being truthful at a tough time. And in America it’s always a tough time.
The staffs, gurus and handlers of all the candidates are always afraid their guy will get booed. But do they realize how tired we are of hearing the tepid applause that follows the predictable pander?
I know they’re all always eager to laud Ronald Reagan. But Reagan began his fall 1980 campaign in the South Bronx, and argued his case with people on the street. After he was elected, he pleaded for peace in letters to Leonid Brezhnev. Too bad he wasn’t tough enough. Oh wait.
I think the problem is not coming from normal Americans but from our leadership class, our academics and political leaders. The new fearfulness has resulted in new foreign policy: “Let’s not speak to Buffy.” Great. How’s that working for ya?