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The Illiberal Left

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Russell E. Saltzman - published on 08/20/15

Kirsten Powers says the Left is killing free speech--is she right?

First story: When I was editing a regional Lutheran church publication in the 1980’s, I editorially expressed what I regarded as a mild critique of church lobbying efforts. The legislative lobbying was church-sanctioned and paid legislative offices produced policy endorsements for specific pieces of pending legislation and, accordingly, organized church-related pressure groups to influence passage. The bills selected were always to the exclusion of other choices that may have been in the offing. That made it partisan, beyond a simple Democrat or Republican partisanship, because as soon as you “bless” this single legislative initiative, you’ve “damned” other possibilities that may deserve discussion.

Suddenly, though, I was fighting for my editorship. I was told I was “too conservative” for the publishing board. This at least was the case made by two or three of the board members who had voted to appoint me only the year before. When publishing the editorial I simultaneously announced that a counter point would appear in the next issue. Fair and balanced, as they say now. But that wasn’t enough for the detractors.

With help from a bishop plus the editor-in-chief of the denominational magazine, I kept my job. But as the controversy was going on, I realized it wasn’t so much the question of what I said or how I said it; nor did they care if I published a view opposing my own. It was that I had questioned in the first place whether church outfits should be making endorsements for specific legislative bills. To my challengers there was only one permissible view, and I didn’t have it.

Second story: I approached a young doctoral student I know well, asking if he’d care to review a book for Aleteia. Initially, he said yes, but after speaking with his advisor, declined. He is Roman Catholic and the anti-Christian bias at his school, one of the better ones in the Ivy League, is palatable. His advisor warned him against doing it. Overt identification as a Christian on that campus, and in print no less, might affect his immediate future. He is doing duck-and-cover until his Ph.D. is in hand. I do hear that from a lot of the students I know.

Opinions and views divergent from a certain slice of the culture increasingly are fair game for exclusivists of every stripe, and they can get nasty about it.

So I can agree, mostly, with Kirsten Powers’ chronicle in The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. The major effort to suppress free expression is coming from what she calls the “illiberal left.”

Powers is pretty clear she isn’t speaking of liberals. She is one as she tells it, and she did support Obamacare, after all. But she is not an “illiberal” liberal. She does, of course, work for Fox News, so perhaps to some her liberal avowal is automatically suspect by association. That―guilt by association―does seem to be a tactic of the “illiberal” left as she goes on to describe matters.

There are other tactics. She catalogs an array of techniques “illiberal” liberals employ. Rebranding: Opposition to, say, mandated contraception in the Affordable Health Care Act becomes a “War on Women.” Further, the opposition is also racist since a black president proposed it. Slurs: African-American conservatives are “race traitors” and blond female news reporters are part of a “bimbo” cadre. Labeling: Dissent from liberal orthodoxy becomes racism, misogyny, bigotry, hate speech, or some variety of many possible phobias; and insisting on due process for accused campus rapists is “rape-enabling,” advocated by “rape apologists.”

Commencement addresses are fertile ground for speech intolerance. Between 1987 and 2009, a twenty-two year period, according to a study she cites, 138 protests resulted in 62 rescinded invitations to speakers. From 2009 through 2014―just five years―151 protests blocked another 62 campus speakers. The targets overwhelmingly were conservative speakers.

The list does go on, backed up with some very chilling anecdotal tales as well as by sixty-eight pages of hard footnote references, about a quarter of the book.

I said I mostly agree. From Powers I get the feeling the “illiberal” left is the Borg out to assimilate us, or else. One is frequently reminded that when it comes to the “illiberal” left, “facts don’t matter, only ideology does, and vilifying your opponents.”

Yes, I’d say that is so. Yet equally, I would also say that is something my liberal friends, including an illiberal or two (and you know who you are), would say of conservatives. Words cut both directions. Perhaps it is the illiberal left that works hardest at suppressing unpopular speech in public life, but vilification can travel a two-way street.

What is missing, maybe, in public life these days is a sense of perspective, a little bit of distance from our own opinions, and a slightly more humorous grip in holding them. Perspective: history portrays an American political scene always in contention. Distance: there is still the notion, however hard we argue, that the other guy just may be right. Humor: everyone should watch

the Obama/McCain exchange at the Alfred E. Smith dinner
from the 2008 campaign.

What her book does lack, though, are any hard suggestions toward restoration of civility, except to develop some diversity in your own life and to be prepared to speak up for it. Well, as suggestions go come to think, maybe that is hard enough.

Russell E. Saltzman, Aleteia’s book review editor, is a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com.

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