Epigraph of the Series
“the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition their Government for redress of grievances.” U.S. Constitution, Amendment 1
Taxonomy for the Series
“If you … then you are a … ”
peaceably assemble/petition … protester
attack/threaten innocent people … thug
torch buildings/toss hard objects … rioter
break into stores/steal merchandise … looter
organize/direct violent acts … domestic terrorist
desecrate monuments/statues … vandal
topple/demolish/sink statues … member of a mob
This is the second of three articles on recent turns in the convulsions that have wracked the country since May 25, upon the possible unlawful killing of a criminal suspect resisting arrest. The first article, “The Urban Anarchist Cookbook: Cop-Free Zones,” focused on the consequences of allowing mobs to carve out autonomous zones, and of caving in to radicals demanding the defunding of police. This article focuses on how restraints on speech have morphed into totalitarian assaults on our history, laws, and our free, prosperous lives. The third article, “Married to the Maoist Mob: Revolution by Riot,” will focus on how mobs are transforming what originally were group riots into a revolution, aimed at toppling not merely statues and monuments, but the lawfully elected government of the United States.
Orwell Returns. Orwell’s choice of “1984” was not prophecy as to the arrival of dystopia; he simply reversed the last two digits of the year he wrote the novel. But in every other aspect his dystopian world portrayed in 1984 is chillingly coming to pass. He identified the future ruling class: mostly “bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists and professional politicians.” He wrote that there are only four ways such ruling elites can be dethroned: conquest by foreign power, grossly incompetent governance, rise of a large discontented middle class, and loss of elite confidence.
Freedom, Orwell said, is the freedom to say that 2+2=4; if the Party says it is 5, and prevails, freedom is lost. He adds that in philosophy, religion, ethics or politics, 2+2 can equal 5. But not, he cautions, when designing a gun or an airplane. The Party slogan was, “Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” If history is erased, and lies are told repeatedly for a long enough period, eventually no one alive will have living memory of the truth. When Winston Smith’s Party interrogator, O’Brien, connected Winston to the pain apparatus in Room 101 of the Ministry of Truth, he explained to his victim that the Party’s goal is not punishment; rather, it is to cure the patient and restore his sanity. O’Brien tells Winston:
[A]lways there will be the intoxication of power … the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, for ever [sic].
1984 followed on the heels of Orwell’s 1945 novella, Animal Farm. In it the ruling pigs gradually rewrite the history of their uprising against their erstwhile human masters, and evolution of governance from utopian commune to Party dictatorship. Along the way, the pigs transform themselves from having been villains to heroic founders. All animals are by declaration equal, except that some are “more equal than others.” In modern parlance the elites hold implicitly that rules are for “thee, not for we.” A recent example of this is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s clandestine visit to a hairstyle salon shuttered six months ago when her nephew, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, ordered a statewide lockdown (albeit those exempted included abortion clinics and head shops).
Inversion of Language. In his Appendix to 1984, Orwell explained the goal of Newspeak: “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to [its devotees], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”
In 1984 its creator saw Newspeak completely supplanting Oldspeak by 2050. There is reason to believe that the fictional date of its triumph could be accelerated by a couple decades, if certain alarming trends are not rapidly reversed, or, at least, pushed into a growing retreat from tyranny.
Thus, in today’s racially correct parlance, “All lives matter” is racist and exclusionary; “black lives matter” is inclusionary. “Silence is violence” rejects a person’s right to decline to participate in public debate; “check your privilege” ignores numerous examples of nonwhite groups outperforming whites. One professor in training would have 2+2 = 4 banned (not a misprint) as a legacy of Western (read: white race) imperialism.
These new rules have proven so powerful that the most celebrated and influential newspaper — “All the news that’s fit to print” — fired a star editor hired to bring viewpoint balance to the New York Times op-ed page. James Bennet was asked to resign for approving publication of an op-ed arguing that President Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act and send federal troops to quell massive rioting in several states, which effectively destroyed civil order in large sections of major American cities. The article was written by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). This did not faze the young staffers, who rose in revolt against this violation of norms of political correctness sacred to them. They demanded that Bennet resign, and got their wish.
A month later, op-ed page editor Bari Weiss, another rising star, resigned due to bullying by her staff colleagues, for her having published pieces by conservative writers. Her July 14 resignation letter to the Times warned,
[T]he lessons that ought to have followed the election — lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society — have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.…
All this bodes ill, especially for independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they’ll have to do to advance in their careers. Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.
Jonathan Tobin sees in the bullying of Bari Weiss the end of classic journalism. Donald Devine sees the triumph of mass-media panic-mongering, pushing the secular religion of submission to total cultural power. Leftist journalists are increasingly radicalized in college years.
John Steele Gordon chronicles the 1835 advent of the New York Herald, the first newspaper to report factually and confine opinion to the editorial pages. Founded by James Gordon Bennett, the Herald pioneered the witness interview, weather, sports, and stock pages, coined the word “leak,” and got the first interview with a sitting president, Martin van Buren, in 1839. By 1850, the Herald had become the leading newspaper and transformed the industry. We may, Gordon notes, be seeing the reversion of the news model to raw partisanship. And so history is rewritten, and the past erased.
Politics maven Michael Barone warns that the most biased journalism in our lifetime (for his generation, 1945) is about to get worse. He writes of young, militant leftists driving news coverage:
For these media denizens, verbal disagreement is violence, while violent rioting is “mostly peaceful” verbal disagreement. They say, or feel compelled by newsroom pressure to say, that Trump is divisive because he’s accusing them, accurately, of being divisive.
During the Charlottesville controversy around the statue of Robert E. Lee, Trump was ridiculed for predicting that statue protesters would target Washington and Jefferson.
On September 1, an advisory commission chaired by D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser called for those memorials — and many others — to be “removed, relocated or contextualized,” due to their being “racist.”
The “real cancel culture” is free speech assault. It relies on “coded” words — modern Newspeak. Princeton has canceled a classics professor by ostracizing him for dissent. A Twitter mob got a Michigan State University professor demoted, then fired, for a study proving that police do not target blacks more than whites.
The result: a recent poll shows 62 percent of Americans — 77 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats — afraid to share political views. Andy McCarthy notes leftist support for UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 — an Islamist “heckler’s veto” aimed at shutting down free speech by transforming unintended offense into intentional incitement.
The great Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky draws a distinction between a “fear society” and a “free society.” In the former, a dissenter speaks out in public at peril of punishment by the State; in the latter, a dissenter can freely and safely criticize the powers that be. The distinction was a generation ago the subject of an actual Russian joke President Reagan told Soviet leader Gorbachev and repeated (1:01) back home. An American and a Russian were arguing about those country was truly free. The American said that he can go into the Oval Office, pound the desk, and tell Reagan he doesn’t like the way the president is running the country. The Russian replied that he can go into the Kremlin, pound Gorbachev’s desk, and tell him that he does not like the way President Reagan is running the country.
What We Have Lost: The Steep Price of Unfree Speech. In 1965, the Cambridge Union hosted a formal debate (58:57) between celebrated black author James Baldwin and conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. Begin with historical context: The exact date is not indicated, but clearly it was in advance of the midsummer passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It thus was held less than one year after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and months after LBJ’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Several other huge historical milestones preceded the debate: the summer 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his storied “I Have a Dream” speech; and the summer 1964 Harlem riot (ironically, a fortnight after passage of the 1964 Act) that augured a series of long, hot summers of race riots. Roughly contemporaneous with the debate was LBJ’s 1964 “Great Society” speech, delivered at the apogee of public confidence in government’s ability to eradicate poverty, end racial injustice, guarantee a good education of all once and for all. Although LBJ paid lip service to federalism, in reality it inevitably became overwhelmingly a series of federal programs imposed upon the states and localities.
Into this maelstrom stepped the debaters, as well as the two students who preceded the star attractions, with the debate being pro/con on the question of whether American progress was essentially the product of oppression of blacks. In the end, the students attending voted 544-164 in favor of Baldwin’s position. But what matters for our purposes is not which side won a debate conducted 55 years ago, its protagonists long gone.
What matters — what we have lost — is the ability to stage for television a spirited debate, between two masters at the peak of their rhetorical powers, addressing highly contentious questions surrounding race and racial discrimination. The forcefulness, passion, and acuity of their presentations exemplified what the Supreme Court, in a 1964 libel case arising out of civil rights marches in Alabama, called “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” debate protected by the speech and press clauses of the First Amendment.
No one was savaged, let alone, canceled, as a result of the debate. The debaters showed mutual respect, and order was maintained throughout the debate, with few, brief — and polite — interruptions. A debate like this could not be held today on television, and few universities, if any, could do so, if there was media attention, and if social media were not neutralized by requiring all devices to be checked at the door. Even with these safeguards, something would leak out, and pandemonium would ensue.
A personal note: During my college days at the University of Miami, Florida (1965–69), UM had a speakers program. Among those who spoke were Saul Alinsky, whose radical leftism was absorbed by Hillary and Barack Obama; cartoonist Al Capp, who leaned rightward as the 1960s student protests and antiwar sentiment became a staple of American public life; and Muhammad Ali — after he had refused induction into military service. I doubt any major university could hold a similar series today. And no one heckled speakers, or tried to prevent them from speaking — let alone demanded safe spaces to be sheltered from anyone’s ideas.
Bottom Line. Open debate is most needed when radicals drive the conversation, seeking to censor the views of others. It is then — when radicals try to stifle debate with recitation of an endless list of multicultural P.C. sensitivities —that freedom of speech is most needed, and now, least available. Free speech is being driven from the public square by a coalition of radicalized elites. Orwellian ministries of amnesia have turned plain language upside down. With a president unwilling to face censorious mobs, the public square would die, with private sanctuaries next on the target list.
John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (Discovery Institute Press, 2d. ed., 2014).