This is a book that had to be written — by a liberal. It won’t help Kirsten Powers for a conservative to say this, either. But in writing The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech Ms. Powers has done a service to liberals — if they even understand her significant contribution, which is doubtful. She is a profile in courage for simply writing the book — which in itself is a sad comment on the state of free speech in America. Once upon a time in America there would never have been a need for this book. The very fact that Powers felt the need — correctly so — to write it speaks volumes.
In the world of full disclosure, I’ve appeared on a Sean Hannity radio show paired in debate with Ms. Powers. A columnist for USA Today, she is certainly a familiar figure to Fox viewers as one of a number of liberal commentators on the network. Surely this review and other favorable notices Powers has received for her book in conservative quarters (aside from Fox she has been interviewed by Rush Limbaugh for The Limbaugh Letter) will only make her life more difficult in today’s world of leftist bigotry. Which all by itself is a testament to the surging tide of intolerance that has engulfed the Left.
Kirsten begins her clear-eyed look at the perils of free speech today in the hands of the Left with a story from the all-women’s Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The story revolves around a Smith panel at an alumnae event in New York City in which the topic was“Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts.” Suffice to say, Powers reports that some panelists — gasp! — took the topic literally, and after a discussion that included reference to “the n-word” the speech police moved in, the printed night sticks swinging.
The school paper, the Smith Sophian, ran a story headlined “Backlash Follows Use of Racial Slur at NYC Panel” and ran a transcript of this gathering of Klan members — er, sorry, Smithies — with this title atop the transcript:
Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs, ableist slurs, antisemitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynist slurs, references to race-based violence, references to antisemitic violence.
Powers wonders why the need for the headline, since in fact the transcript was, yes, censored. Including the word (hide the children) “crazy.”
I confess I found this story revealing the Hitler-youth mindset of Smith College to be amazing. As it happens, Northampton, Massachusetts, is my hometown. And in the day, my now almost 96-year old Mom worked as the executive assistant to the Smith English and History Department. I was a regular visitor to the Smith campus as a boy, stopping in to see Mom after school and in the doing I was befriended by some of the considerably distinguished — and liberal — professors who populated the department.
One of my favorites was Klemens von Klemperer, a Professor of History who was a refugee from Nazi Germany. At his death two years ago at 96, the New York Times said this in its obituary:
A privileged child who came from a family of German bankers and industrialists, he had taken a leading role in demonstrations against Hitler as a student in Vienna before fleeing to the United States in 1938.
As it were, Dr. von Klemperer knew a thing or two about free speech and its importance in a free society — and what happened when that free speech was snuffed out. He wrote about it at length in his 1992 book German Resistance Against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad, 1938-1945.
He took an interest in the kid hanging around his Mom’s office, talking of events of the day and at one point gifting a shy but eager seventh grader with John Maynard Keynes’ Essays in Biography. Sketches of “fifteen famous scientists, economists and statesmen” of whom Keynes was personally acquainted with all but three, the subjects included British leaders Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, and Edwin Montagu, economists Robert Malthus and Alfred Marshall, along with a look at “Newton, the Man.”
Another favorite was the father of one of my classmates, Professor of History Arthur Mann. Mann, who would later move on to the University of Chicago, was well known for his two-volume biography of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia — both volumes of which my mother transcribed.
What strikes home in reading Powers book is that what I benefitted from as a kid hanging around the Smith College professors was the open and challenging idea of — ideas. It would never have occurred to either von Klemperer or Mann to silence anyone else’s speech, academic and intellectual inquiry being the entire point of the college. Indeed, many of their colleagues were “liberals” — but liberals in the best sense of the word that Powers so astutely observes is now in serious danger on campuses like Smith. “Dissent from liberal orthodoxy is cast as racism, misogyny, bigotry, phobia, and….violence, “ Powers notes of today’s college atmosphere. As it happened, my mother was an enthusiastic Nixon fan, for which she was constantly teased by all those liberal professors exhilarated by the rise of John F. Kennedy. Today, in the environment Powers describes at Smith College, I’m not sure my decidedly independent-thinking mother could even keep her job.
Powers book stirs another Smith memory, a memory of one the most famous couples in America. In 1965 actress Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton came to Northampton to film a movie. The town was agog, and along with my pals I would pedal my bike over to the Smith campus to watch the mammoth Hollywood lights and camera enterprise as the couple filmed the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The movie, directed by Mike Nichols, also starred George Segal and Sandy Dennis, with Taylor and Dennis winning Oscars for their performances. It was based on Edward Albee’s Tony-award winning play of the same name that was set during one alcohol and rage-filled evening at a small New England college, with Taylor and Burton’s characters married, she the alcoholic daughter of the college president, Burton her much hectored history professor husband. The film was, to say the least, sexually charged. Safe to say, to this day I would never associate Klemens von Klemperer or Arthur Mann with the decidedly Broadway or Hollywoodized character portrayed by Richard Burton. Are you kidding? But hey. Long live Edward Albee’s God-given right to write the play he imagined.
What shocked in the day was the language Albee had used in his play, language that the screenwriter, the legendary Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, Hello Dolly, Portnoy’s Complaint) refused to change. This being an article on Power’s free speech book, I have gone back to check the film’s language. It included the following words and phrases, courtesy of the Wikipedia rendering: multiples of “‘goddamn’ and ‘son-of-a-bitch’, along with “screw you,” “up yours,” “great nipples,” and “hump the hostess.”
When the film finally came out, my parents refused to let me see it. Years later I saw it, of course, and in light of Powers book the obvious question occurs. Would the Smith College of today, much less the collection of, in Powers phrase, “illiberal liberals” and “illiberal feminists,” ever allow the film to be made on the Smith campus in the first place? Call me doubtful. One suspects that instead of gawking townsfolk standing around to stare at the movie-making spectacle and the sight of La Liz and her famous paramour-turned-husband there would have been nothing but constant and loud demonstrations, making it impossible for Nichols to direct his film in peace. All filled with shrieking allegations that everybody from playwright Albee to director Nichols and his star cast were immortalizing a misogynist rape culture that was nothing but hate speech and unsafe for Smith students. There would have been a trigger warning issued for the entire campus and possibly the whole town of Northampton. The stars were also all white, surely a fact that would today draw an accusation of racism.
One reads Powers’ book and feels compelled to ask: What in the world is going on in America when American college campuses resemble chapters of the Hitler Youth that Dr. von Klemperer literally encountered in his native Germany? Rather than the open, inquiring mind that was so freely on exhibit on the campus of the Smith College of 1961? Or 1965 when the college hosted Taylor, Burton, and Nichols? Not to mention what is happening today in the larger, off-campus, post-college world of liberalism that Powers cites in chapter and verse. A new yet very old “liberal” world run along the lines of those Stormtrooper seniors of the Hitler Youth that eventually forced a young Klemens von Klemperer to flee his native land for the safety of America?
The Silencing is Kirsten Powers’ tour de force guide to the mindset of the modern American Left. As a liberal herself she is clearly not merely disappointed but horrified at what she has found — and experienced first hand. In fact, I would argue that the leftist mindset of today is a direct descendant of the 1960s so-called “New Left” which erupted on college campuses across the country and began spawning all manner of intolerance, famously including the “unrepentant terrorist” Bill Ayers. Time has moved on, and the leftist mindset, while arguably less violent than in the 1960s and early 1970s, has made considerable progress in spreading its intolerant ways. Make no mistake, in the world that modern leftists are trying to create it takes courage for Powers simply to appear on Fox, much less write this book.
Piece by piece she takes the reader through chapters with titles like “Repressive Tolerance,” “Delegitimizing Dissent,” and so on.
Among her targets is the leftist insistence that “All Dissent is Racist.” As conservatives knew with certainty, to criticize Barack Obama as either candidate or president was to draw allegations of racism from the Left. Powers documents the leftist game, among other things citing former President Jimmy Carter’s accusation that criticism of Obama was based on racism. As documented in this space repeatedly (as here), the Left in general and Carter specifically have long depended on racism to push their political agendas. It is a standard since the Democratic Party was founded in 1800, and what Powers is all-too-accurately describing of today’s left is merely the latest version of a very old and disreputable game. Powers does an absolutely superb job of describing the race-card game the Left plays, replete with targets ranging from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to conservative activist Deneen Borelli and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
The ominous turn in the debate over same-sex marriage in which Christians or anyone else who disagrees for reasons of religion are abruptly depicted as “bigots” is examined. Powers is a life-long supporter of same-sex marriage. Yet while not surprised given the environment she is unafraid to bluntly say that the “authoritarian demands for intellectual conformity and the relentless demonizing of people who don’t support same-sex marriage are inherently illiberal and wrong.” As the nation awaits another Supreme Court decision, one can only wonder if the justices are thinking through the realization that if they are not careful they will wind up effectively criminalizing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all at once.
And speaking of Islam, Powers zeros in on the delegitimizing of individuals that goes well beyond the race and same-sex marriage issue. Opposition to radical Islam has now become the all-purpose target of Leftist intolerance, with individuals ranging from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Bill Maher targeted if they dare to speak out as critics. The treatment of Hirsi Ali, who has been on the receiving end of death threats for criticisms of her now ex-faith — and among other things the Islamic treatment of women — is particularly disgraceful. Powers notes that Ali “is portrayed as a pathological provocateur, not a woman’s advocate fighting to lift the oppression of Muslim women.” Of the many outright hypocrisies Powers illustrates, one that catches the eye is the contrast between the treatment of Hirsi Ali and the sharply critical view of Islam contrasted with the praise author Anne Rice received for her equally sharp criticisms of the Catholic Church. This is, of course, all part of the phony “diversity” game the Left loves to play, with Powers concluding that America is being prodded to “the end of freedom of speech, thought and debate, to uniformity — all in the name of diversity.”
One could go on here, but suffice to say Kirsten Powers has not just written a great book, she is perhaps the only person who could have written the book. And sadly perhaps she is the only liberal out there who has the courage to write it. Already challenged by her fellow liberals for simply appearing on Fox, the release of The Silencing has brought the deluge of the unhinged left, as Richard Grenell writes here.
Ronald Reagan once took note about the role of each generation of Americans in preserving our freedoms. He said:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
One only has to read Kirsten Powers’ book to understand just how right Reagan was. How vital it is to understand that it is the exact responsibility of both liberals and conservatives to make sure that freedom in America— specifically the freedom to speak, to disagree, to challenge, to dissent — is preserved not just for this generation, but the next. To make sure, in other words, that America does not find itself becoming the very kind of land that a young future Smith College professor of history was forced to flee because that freedom had been lost.
I may disagree with Kirsten Powers on some of the issues of the day — but it is very safe to say that when it comes to one of the fundamentals of freedom — the right to free speech — she gets it. And she’s not afraid to say so.
Good for her.