Liberals who once preened as free speech absolutists sound increasingly like censors. Their customary enthusiasm for diversity of opinion has vanished as their gains in society erode under conservative free speech.
Liberals want the drawbridges to public opinion pulled up before conservatives dislodge them from power completely. Bill Clinton’s lament last week about a “docile establishment press” was essentially a call for the liberal media to stamp out the growing number of conservative voices in it. A week earlier Al Gore had spoken bitterly of the slowness of mainstream journalists to recognize a “fifth column” in their midst. Gore might as well have said: “Hey, liberal journalists, get your act together and make sure conservatives don’t enter your profession.”
Clearly liberals are no longer in a Voltairean mood to defend to the death anyone’s right to free speech. No, the disciples of Voltaire now prefer the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Witness Tom Daschle accusing Rush Limbaugh of yelling fire in a crowded radio theater.
Liberals recognize that free speech absolutism is a poor guardian of their power. So they will suspend it for now, but are of course ready to revert to it should the recovery of power require it again.
If liberalism seems more unprincipled and opportunistic than ever, that’s because there are no real principles underlying it. Nothing is consistent in modern liberalism save its willfulness. The will remains constant while the intellect operates randomly. The intellect is useful to it only in devising arguments that serve ever-changing appetites. The liberal intellect selects arguments not according to reasoning rooted in reality, but according to the demands of the will. If, say, a cramped argument about the proper limits of free speech happens to serve a desire of the moment — such as “campaign finance reform” or stopping pro-life protests — the liberal intellect will seize upon it, then discard it once a new desire pops up. And if words such as free speech must be willfully redefined, so be it.
The censorship of liberals appears under the guise of “civility” and “standards.” When New York Times editor Howell Raines got caught out using the paper for liberal agitprop against Augusta National Golf Club, he couldn’t just say, “We want the club’s single-sex policy to change, so we are not running anything that defends the club.” He had to say instead that he spiked columns deviating from the paper’s crusade because they had problems with “tone and structure” and created an appearance of “intramural squabbling” at the paper. A few days earlier one of Raines’s deputies was put in the ludicrous position of having to say that one of the columns was rejected because it contained a “logic” that “did not meet our standards.” Curious since sloppy reasoning had never bothered the Times before.
And apparently it doesn’t bother the editors now. Punctuating the absurd arbitrariness of the episode, Raines has now run the unacceptably illogical column. Under pressure from fellow liberals embarrassed at his maniacal riding of his faux “civil rights” hobby-horse, Raines relented. But he still denies the baldly ideological reasons for rejecting them earlier. “There is not now, nor will there ever be, any attempt to curb the opinions of our writers,” he says implausibly. Censorship, he says, “is simply not in our thinking, tradition, practices.”
Selective support for free speech is in fact an important component of liberal culture, since it can only succeed if conservative voices are restricted. Toward this end, liberals are now overstating the conservative representation in the media, hoping to cause a backlash against conservative free speech. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. speaks of the “rightward press,” which is “heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians.” And he asks, “What will the rest of us do about the new bias?”
From Clinton to Dionne, the liberal alarms are being sounded. The “new bias” is producing in them a new censorship.
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