Free Speech for Whom?
At a recent conference sponsored by the State University of New York, I debated the issue of free speech on campus with Nadine Stroessen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Stanley Fish, professor of English at Duke University. What emerged from our conversation was highly instructive about the ACLU’S interpretation of the kind of speech worth protecting.
Professor Fish’s position was consistent enough. Free speech, he argued, is not its own justification. It exists for some exterior purpose: to promote the search for truth, to allow an enriching diversity of positions to emerge, as a conduit for self-expression, or whatever. To state an objective for free speech, Fish said, is automatically to limit the parameters of permissible speech, because an argument can be made that certain kinds of speech do not advance the goals being sought.
Philosophically this seems sound, even if we disagree with Fish’s application of the free speech rule to limit politically incorrect views. When under pressure to specify what kind of speech he would outlaw, Fish struck a moderate note by confining his restrictions to racial epithets and speech calculated to provoke violence—the so-called “fighting words” exception.
Nadine Stroessen’s position, by contrast, was a little odd. Certainly, she insisted, universities should refuse to enact speech codes. If students shout racial epithets at each other, if they put up nude or offensive posters in full view of their roommates or in the common room, whatever the content of their speech, it should not be limited; indeed it should be answered with “more speech.” On the other hand, Stroessen said, the ACLU is deeply committed to affirmative action and multiculturalism, and therefore the organization strongly supports racial preferences, required courses on racism, a revised multicultural curriculum, sensitivity education, and so on.
This makes no sense, as I tried to point out. There is no epidemic of students on campus running around and calling each other “nigger.” There is no widespread problem of professors shouting racial or sexual insults at students in class. This is simply not the problem on American campuses. The real problem is that political and social taboos make it difficult, inside or outside the classroom, for professors and students to discuss a whole range of legitimate issues. Are racial preferences fair? Are there differences between men and women and do these have any social relevance? Is moral criticism of homo¬ sexuality permissible? These questions are virtually impossible to talk about, at least in public, without bringing the usual avalanche of accusations: “racist, sexist, homophobe.”
Ironically, the ACLU is fighting hard to permit racial insults that contribute nothing to civility or the search for truth, while encouraging universities to engage in sensitivity indoctrination that suppresses a candid debate over real issues. John Stuart Mill pointed out a long time ago that the free exchange of ideas is just as threatened by restrictions of ostracism and etiquette as by explicit sanctions. This view seemed to come as news to Nadine Stroessen.
Consider the infamous case at Brown University where student Doug Hahn was expelled for shouting racist and anti-Semitic epithets. Fifty years ago the case would have been handled like this: the dean would call in Hahn for a little chat, he would be told that this is no way to act in a university community, that he should not do it again, and if he persisted he would first suffer suspension of his athletic privileges, and if he still didn’t stop he would be sent home. Such rules of prudence cannot be easily reduced to legislative codes, but they are consistent with the Thomistic notion of tailoring the remedy to the specific nature of the problem.
A Pilgrim’s Regress
Last year, National Catholic Reporter columnist Tim Unsworth came out with a book entitled, The Last Priests in America, a collection of interviews with 42 liberal and left-leaning clerics that to the author’s mind represent beacons of hope for American Catholics. In the main, these priests showed themselves to be men of seething hostility against “the institutional Church” in general, and against the discipline of clerical celibacy in particular. Unsworth writes, “A common response was: ‘We can have the Eucharist or a celibate priesthood. We cannot have both.’ ”
One of the men given a gushingly sympathetic interview—”He survives creatively. He goes out to people. He brings them in…. He is an activist for his people… but he also knows how to survive as a priest”—is the pastor of a ghetto parish in a large midwestern city. A selection of the priest’s more acute observations follows:
“Not long ago, I visited with Monsignor Q. An incredible man! He knows the Church but he’s still excited about it.”
“I recall an old story about H. when he was rector of the major seminary. He used to tell his ordination classes, ‘When you leave here to begin your priesthood, your pastors can keep you from doing a lot of things, but they can’t keep you from thinking.’ And that’s what keeps me sane and excited.”
“Father K. taught me that being a priest was nothing more than helping people make sense out of their lives.”
“Not long ago, while in London, I concelebrated Mass at St. Paul’s, a wonderful experience. Who knows, I could die an Anglican vicar in one of those little English villages!”
“Who would I ordain? I don’t think I’d ordain anyone who doesn’t read the New York Times or who hasn’t written a sonnet.”
“We’ve got to talk about ordaining 400 married men and 400 women. We’ve got to talk about ordaining people from the community, or at least validating their natural leadership. When I’m not here, Josephine and Clara [pastoral associates] can run the place. They do a wonderful job.”
“The parish priests are becoming less and less tolerant of the Church putting words into the mouth of the risen Christ.”
“We can’t go among the poor and holler at them with picket signs and protests about abortion. I’m beginning to wonder myself about our teaching on abortion…. I only know that we can’t bring the poor and the homeless into our shelter to feed them and then yell at them for 15 minutes about abortion.”
“When we need a new teacher, we advertise in [the local paper], not the Catholic paper. We get far more and far better applicants and we don’t look for those silly requirements that the Catholic School Board wants. We look for people with imagination and life.”
“We’ve got Mother Teresa’s nuns here. They run a soup kitchen and a shelter. Ultraconservative! They don’t even come to our liturgies very often.”
“All we ask of our people is that they leave their sins at the door and come in.”
This priest, named in Unsworth’s book, has recently been arraigned on charges of sexual abuse of minors, joining a long list of his fellow clergy. It is an instructive exercise, as we await the outcome of the case, to reread the specimens of Father’s wisdom cited above and, perhaps, to reflect ourselves on just what kind of church his “creative survival” has created.
Denunciations of Vice President Dan Quayle and the Republican Party’s emphasis on “family values” reverberated throughout the nationally telecast Emmy awards this fall. But afterward, several actors and stars complained to the Hollywood press that they did not like the overt political polarization generated by “Murphy Brown” star Candice Bergen, producer Diane English, and others. Tom Selleck told Arsenio Hall that he was embarrassed and ashamed. A studio executive told the Hollywood Reporter that the Emmys “made us look like a bunch of spoiled kids.” Actor James Woods told Jay Leno on the “Tonight Show” that the Emmys showed “a lot of gum chewing and Quayle bashing—I thought it was inappropriate myself.” And actor Markie Post said, “Let’s say the Oscars had decided they wanted to bash some Democratic icon, Hillary Clinton say, and went on and on. Would we have stood for that one? The problem is that we have polarized ourselves to the degree that if we don’t agree with somebody, it’s not just that you don’t agree with them, it’s that you hate them and they’re evil, and that’s just killing us.”
Sinead O’Connor’s recent outburst on “Saturday Night Live”—tearing up a picture of the Pope with a call to “fight the real enemy”—insulted not only Catholics, but thinking people in general. The intolerance and hatred O’Connor spewed into the cameras is the same unreasoned anger which produced such figures as Hitler and Stalin; it is—or ought to be—an abhorrence to any friend of civil society.
Nonetheless, the impact of O’Connor’s message, after its initial shock, was rather dulled by her incoherence: she seemed to be endorsing abortion through a song by Bob Marley, himself a Rastafarian and thus anti-abortion. But then, anyone who follows Sinead knows she is no slave to reason; in a recent Rolling Stone interview, for instance, she described selling marijuana as “one of the most respectable things anyone could do,” asserted that religion exists to distance man from God, emphasized the need for forgiveness while simultaneously applauding the violence of the Los Angeles riots, and finally, without a hint of irony she criticized the current generation for being out of touch with reality. The Church’s response, then, to this confused youth seems appropriate in its unthreatening—and unthreatened—tone of pity and condescension, best articulated in a comment by a spokesman for Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, New York: “It is a shame she embarrassed herself that way. She needs some professional help—and spiritual help wouldn’t hurt either.”
More disturbing, however, is the tepid reaction of the liberal media. What has happened to the great haters of hate, the zealous champions of tolerance? They have the courage of their convictions when contemplating from a distance a handful of sheeted rabble-rousers, but their mettle seems to melt away when hate comes into their living rooms armed with the power and glamour of fashion. One can easily envision the press outrage that would undoubtedly ensue if, say, David Duke appeared on national television and shredded a photo of Malcolm X. Or consider the media’s attacks on Pat Buchanan for “divisiveness” and “intolerance” when he told the Republican National Convention that the traditional forms of religion are under assault in America. Yet Sinead’s tirade, in which she literally demands religious war (her words were, recall, “fight the real enemy”), earned a media response apathetic or, at most, bemused. A piece in the Washington Post calmly takes note of her “trivialization” of rape and “glorification” of riots and recreational drugs before dismissing these thoughts as “distinctly Sinead.”
It is scarcely surprising that this media bias does not seem to reflect popular opinion. “Saturday Night Live” received over 900 calls protesting O’Connor’s actions, and at a concert in New York honoring Bob Dylan she was greeted with a round of boos before leaving the stage in tears. Even Madonna, no great admirer of the pope or Catholicism, was critical: “I cannot agree with her approach or how she physically dealt with her feelings.”
While the violence of O’Connor’s actions was particularly shocking, the proclivity underlying them is nothing new. Alasdair Maclntyre in After Virtue and, more recently, James Davison Hunter in Culture Wars, have observed that rational public discourse has largely been supplanted by emotional polemics and name-calling. “Liberal tendencies toward absolutism,” writes Hunter, “become more clear when we consider the symbol of liberal civility—dialogue. While progressivist groups love to express their penchant for it, there is little indication that they have actually sought dialogue with conservative groups.” O’Connor’s late-night diatribe is distinct evidence of this trend “toward absolutism,” as is the subsequent media apathy. If liberal journalists would truly oppose intolerance in our culture, they must assail this demon in all its manifestations, rather than selectively tackling those individuals who provide easy targets or whose politics they disdain. Yet for today’s liberal, it seems, some prejudices are more equal than others.
Will Balder Heads Prevail?
Public debate is brewing in Great Britain over whether judges and lawyers should dispense with the tradition of wearing ceremonial “robes”: the horsehair wig, gown, and white neckband that have been standard apparel since the late seventeenth century. The common argument behind this movement is three-fold. First, that seventeenth-century styles reflect poorly on the twenty-first-century needs of the courts; that, in other words, the costumes are “contributing to the notion that the legal system is out of touch with the modern world.” Second, they are expensive; according to the New York Times, $345,000 of government funds was spent just to subsidize these “relics” last year. Finally, formal judicial costumes are attacked as inconvenient. According to one British barrister, “they are tedious to remember and carry to court… and have a dismal effect on the average hairstyle.”
But surely if a lawyer’s wig (or briefcase, or shoes for that matter) slips his mind on too many occasions, a new line of work is probably in order. And no doubt wigs are uncomfortable, but so are neckties. We do not—yet—hear “reformers” cry out for the donning of tank-tops in courtrooms. As for the matter of cost, the Washington Post reports that the “buckled shoes” cost $260, and the stockings $30. Is it unusual for lawyers today to spend such amounts for civilian dress shoes and socks? In any event, many of the jurisprudential accoutrements, especially the wigs, are handed down from one generation to the next, and so are available “previously owned” (as Rolls-Royce would say) at a discount. Does the average British jurist really spend less on courtroom clothes than many of today’s American lawyers, who model Giorgio Armani suits so effortlessly?
This leaves us with the question of whether the robes symbolically present an obstacle to the Court’s ability to dispense justice. If the reformers think that those who favor retaining the robes are old, entrenched reactionaries “who tend to revere England as a kind of heritage theme park and want to preserve every hoary tradition, castle, and red phone booth,” they are wrong on two counts. First, according to the Journal of the Bar of England and Wales, an overwhelming majority of the British public is in favor of retaining the robes. A full 89 percent of those polled were in favor of the current formality because they reasoned that the traditional forms “lend dignity to Court proceedings” and “emphasize the importance for witnesses of telling the truth.” When asked whether robes make ordinary people feel that they are not understood by judges and lawyers, 69 percent disagreed. The public understand that the robes represent the authority of justice, not of the individual wearer; a person in uniform simply commands more respect and trust than a “civilian” because he stands for, and bows to, something more than just himself.
But the second and more important error of the revisionists is their disturbing acceptance of a uniformity of informality. Evelyn Waugh distinguished between intimacy, informality, and formality. He wisely noted that sacrificing all formality for informality led to less respect among men, because it made true intimacy difficult while also denying non-intimates the civility that formality brings. The crimes as well as the petty rudenesses of the modern world hardly result from too much formality; rather, they are encouraged by the trend toward eliminating formality from all our rituals, sacred and profane. The Church’s removal of Latin from Masses, for example, and the current proposals to homogenize the liturgy are glaring examples of this prevalent appeal to the lowest common denominator. Within two years the International Commission of English in the Liturgy plans to replace our traditional prayers with vernacular versions. I no more want to pray “Our Lord who is in Heaven” than see our Greco-Roman courthouses replaced with anonymous square redbrick buildings that can be made to measure so every town can have equally banal architecture.
England has enough problems with high unemployment, increasing inflation, and a disintegrating royal family without further tarnishing their civility by removing one of the few traditions that remind the citizenry of a better era. The problems of the British court system will not be solved with a cosmetic nod toward casual dress; in fact, they are likely to be worsened.
Spike Lee, the man who would be Malcolm X, has adopted a unique pitch for his upcoming film on the infamous political figure. In an emotional plea to the National Association of Black Journalists, Lee implored: “Don’t go to work that day! Don’t let the children go to school! Go to this movie! We have to support this film.” While some may appreciate Lee’s marketing savvy, several prominent blacks have decried Lee’s celebration of racial separatist Malcolm X. Veteran civil rights campaigner Carl Rowan argues that his “record regarding illicit drugs and pimping is not one any movie should glorify before black kids who have been asked to cut classes to go to the theater.” Even Malcolm X’s daughter, Attallah Shabazz, has criticized Lee’s efforts: “I do not request nor do I think my father would want you to play hooky…. Stay in school and learn. Stay at your job and feed your family.”
A Shining Star over Hope, Arkansas
On the eve of the election, at least one Washington Post staff writer has found religion. Lloyd Grove writes as if he’s seen the Messiah in his “Style” Section article on Clinton, “The Man of the Aura.” “Oh my God, he’s God, I’m so happy,” Grove quotes one 16-year-old Mary Magdalene as saying after a hug from the press’s anointed candidate. Apostle Grove continues his hagiography with this miracle: “The eyes lock on to you and don’t let go, say people who have experienced them, suffusing you in a bluish warmth and making you feel briefly like the most important person in the world.” If that’s not enough to convince you of the Post’s epiphany, just read on about Clinton’s “expression of muted ecstasy,” how the bringer of the New Covenant “communed with a crowd of thousands,” or “descended into the throng.” While on the one hand, we rejoice that the Post’s soul has finally been saved, we are still forced to wonder why Clinton goes on and on about reforming health care when he can heal lepers with his touch. And who needs a detailed economic plan when we can pay off the deficit by exporting cheap loaves and fishes? We wash our hands of the matter.
S. Seward Smith
Looting Democratic Capitalism
In order to make intelligible the seemingly mad events which occurred in the City of Angels this past spring one has to consider, as precisely as possible, just what happened after the Rodney King verdict was rendered. A favorite word used by the media to describe these events was rage. And a popular cause which has been trumpeted as the main explanation for that rage has been “racism.”
But does either term really do justice to all the activities which ensued after the King verdict? Clearly arson occurred, looting occurred, indiscriminate beatings and murders happened, and racist attacks took place. At the very least, to an impartial observer, the events in Lost Angeles would have to appear as acts of violent civic disorder. What was the universal cause or causes of this disorder, if there were any? One might be tempted to say that, if it were not racism, at the very least, the universal cause was the Rodney King verdict. Yet there is no necessary connection between the Rodney King verdict and looting, arson, and murder. The Rodney King verdict, as such, did not cause these events. People caused these events, people who, in some way or other, were reacting, with one emotion or another, to this verdict.
The civic disorder in Los Angeles, in other words, was an act of human choice motivated primarily by human emotion on the occasion of the Rodney King verdict. Consequently, if we want a precise understanding of what took place in Los Angeles this past spring, we should examine five things: (1) the agents who committed the acts of civic disorder; (2) the specific acts which they committed; (3) the targets towards which those acts were directed; (4) the emotions which the agents displayed; and (5) the common justification or justifications which the participants gave for their activities.
When we examine the Los Angeles unrest in this way, we find that, first of all, the participants cannot be limited to any one ethnic, economic, cultural, or political group. Secondly, the specific acts which they performed varied in nature, but commonly involved violence against people and property, as well as theft. Thirdly, the targets of the violence and theft were not limited to any ethnic, cultural, or political group, but they involved attacks on businesses and on people who, in one way or another, were identified by the participants with something which in current American parlance is called “the System” or “the Establishment.” Thus, for example, one could observe Asian Americans looting food stores, which might well have been owned by other Asian Americans, as well as black Americans looting and burning black- and Korean-owned businesses. In addition, whites could be seen robbing and torching fashionable boutiques, while gang members were looting gun shops.
The emotions which were on display ranged from anger to glee. Most often observable, however, to the extent that these can be revealed by external behavior, were anger, hatred, envy, and greed. Finally, the justification most often given by the participants for their violent and vicious behavior was one of moral righteousness. These activities, it seems, were to be understood as justified attacks by exploited people against “the System,” represented by capitalism and by the white American middle and upper classes. What was being attacked, according to this justification, was some universal, surrounding condition which was an intrinsic evil, and anyone, no matter what his race, who was understood to be identified with the System was vulnerable to attack if that person were weak and ready at hand. And no matter what the nature of the act or its motivation, the attackers believed that so long as they assaulted “the System,” the attacks and their accompanying emotions were not morally wrong but, on the contrary, were of real moral worth.
If we consider the object of the attacks, the justification given for them, and the lack of remorse on the part of the attackers, then one conclusion reasonably follows: the riots were aimed at the system of democratic capitalism by people who believe in some form of social and moral determinism.
When Michael Novak in his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism asked the question, “Can any political system or economic system long survive whose moral-cultural guardians loathe it so?”, he recognized something about the American political order which had escaped the ken of many commentators on modern politics and economics. He grasped that the coexistence of democracy and of capitalism in the United States was and is no accident. Rather, it was something intended by the Founders of the United States as a critical element of the new political order they sought to establish.
The Founders hoped to decentralize political power by liberating human inventiveness. They recognized that any political order consists of at least three systems of association—what Novak often calls the political system, the economic system, and the moral-cultural system. Each of these systems exercises a certain power to influence human choice, and when the three systems are concentrated in the hands of one or a few individuals, the circumstantial freedom which people need in order to direct their own choices and to be inventive becomes seriously impaired.
In addition, the Founders had insights regarding the creation of wealth which were first beginning to reach formal maturity in the works of Adam Smith. That is, they recognized that the mercantilist view of the production of wealth, which had primarily viewed wealth as something static, achieved through the discovery of various natural resources, was wrong. Wealth is not a static commodity to be discovered; rather, it is primarily the product of human invention.
The Founders, in short, sought to create a decentralized political order, an order of limited government. One of the essential means they chose to achieve this goal was the separation of the economic sector of the body politic from the governmental bureaucracy and from the church. In order to achieve this separation, however, they recognized that they had to encourage human inventiveness, but to encourage human inventiveness, it was necessary to develop habits of association that would encourage people to trust and to invest in human inventiveness. Thus democracy in America gave birth to a stock exchange, business corporations, investment banking institutions, patent and copyright laws, and a moral order which encourages teamwork, trust, risk-taking, saving for today in order to reap rewards for tomorrow, a strong family, and accompanying religious and cultural supports.
Democracy in America depends upon, and cannot survive without, the system of democratic capitalism Yet, as Novak has rightly observed, it is the powerful success of the American experiment in the political and economic order which has helped to obscure its underlying principles for the theory-oriented members of the “moral-cultural” order, for the genius of the principles of democratic capitalism is a genius of the practical intellect, not the theoretical. The people who excel at democratic capitalism excel at the application of political and economic principles, but their very excellence in these activities has not given them the time to articulate to the academic and cultural elite just what it is that they do. They are like chefs who know how to produce a banquet but who cannot explain in the abstract chemical processes at work in their cooking. Consequently, as Novak has rightly observed, “the moral-cultural guardians” of democratic capitalism (philosophers and theologians, writers and other artists) do not understand and have not been able to articulate for public consumption precisely what the principles of democratic capitalism are.
As a result, capitalism in the United States is confused with economic monopoly, and it is popularly viewed as an accidental and evil accretion to our democratic political order. Thus we find, tragically, that the primary means for checking centralized tyrannies and for expanding human liberty and inventiveness, and one of the best hopes for lifting the poor out of the cycle of poverty and for breaking down class barriers, was the very object of major attack in the riots—namely, businesses!
How did this happen? To a large extent because the moral-cultural guardians of the American political order have failed to educate the American public in the principles of democratic capitalism. In particular, minority Americans have been led to accept mercantilist and zero-sum economic theories, as well as determinist and socialist views of ethics and of politics. Thus because of a perceived injustice on the part of the American judicial system in Los Angeles, people of all sorts imprudently chose to attack an entirely different system—the economic one—and, in so doing, did immense damage to a tool which is full of promise for their own aspirations. If, as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had recognized centuries ago, human actions are predominantly determined by habits, then people who find themselves mired in impoverishing activity are likely to discover that they have poor money-making habits. And further, nothing short of the elimination of these habits and their replacement by good money-making habits will improve the situation. Attacking capitalist institutions, then, to achieve judicial redress is foolish and unproductive.
What might lessen the likelihood of a repeat of the Los Angeles riots? What is needed, I believe, is on the one hand justice in the courts and in the behavior of police nationwide. This is obvious. But what is also needed is for Americans in all walks of life to understand better the nature of democratic capitalism and the means of producing wealth. We need, in other words, a vigorous, cooperative effort by successful entrepreneurs and educators to teach how all citizens, especially the poor, can prosper as the Founders intended.
Peter A. Redpath
CORRECTION: A proofreader who has not had a course in church history changed Pope Damasus into Damascus in Leon Podles’ September article, “Who Is That Jesus Dude?”, in yet another demonstration of the lamentable lack of religious literacy, even in our own midst. We apologize.