On April 20 Mosaic convened a discussion about the film Mighty Ira and Jews and free speech with Samuel Goldman, the author of our April essay on the same subjects, and Ruth Wisse, the regular observer of Jewish life and the author of Jews and Power. First, our editor, Jonathan Silver, exchanges views with Goldman on the core contentions of his essay, and then Wisse probes Goldman’s arguments from another point of view. A transcript of the program follows, and a recording of it can be watched below.
“Skokie Then and Now” describes two different intellectual orientations to the question of free speech, two different orientations that follow from two different traditions in the history of liberalism. You call them the liberalism of fear and the liberalism of hope. I’d like to start just by asking you to explain these two views of free speech.
The categories that you mentioned require a word of thanks or citation. They’re not invented by me, but were rather articulated by the political theorist Judith Sklar, who had herself adapted or borrowed them from a remark by Ralph Waldo Emerson, so I stand at some remove from the original use of these concepts. But the way I use them is to designate two different ways of understanding the threat to free speech and the justification for protecting it.
The liberalism of fear, which is the title of a famous essay by Sklar, is an attempt to limit the coercive powers of government, to avoid the worst evils that those powers can inflict. And in the 20th century, this argument was associated with the horrors of Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes. The argument here was that if you give government the power to regulate speech, they will not only be able to dominate civic and moral discourse in a way that makes dissent and reform extremely difficult, but they will also very likely claim and actually use powers to control their citizens in other ways and to inflict unimaginable horrors upon them. In this view, free speech is a kind of insurance policy against the abuse of government power. And it can be characterized as the liberalism of fear because it’s inspired by fear of what governments can and have done in the past when they have disapproved of the opinions, the commitments, the beliefs of some of the people over whom they’ve ruled.
The other position, which I describe as the liberalism of hope, sees free speech as contributing to moral and political progress. The idea here is not only that governments must be restrained in their ability to coerce citizens in the things that they say and read and think about, but also that allowing citizens the freedom to think and read and speak will make governments, and society more generally, more successful, more just, and more fulfilling. This is the case for freedom of speech that I think you find in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which is often read, it seems to me, as if it belonged to the tradition of the liberalism of fear, but I think is better understood as bound up in Mill’s philosophy of history in which he saw modern Western societies progressing toward conditions of ever-greater justice.
Let’s just make this concrete. If you’re a devotee of the liberalism of hope or a devotee of the liberalism of fear, why stand up for the Nazis in Skokie?
I think the answer from the perspective of the liberalism of fear would be something like this: these people are reprehensible, their ideas are appalling and false, but if we make it impossible for them to express those ideas, those same powers may be used in the future against better and more respectable ideas. There’s no way to resist the slippery slope of coercion that begins with people or ideas that are indisputably bad, but doesn’t end there. Given the fact of moral disagreement, we don’t have a universal consensus on which ideas or people are bad, public officials or others who are able to suppress speech they don’t like may begin by doing so in a way that is relatively uncontroversial, but they will continue to do so in ways that suit their own opinions and preferences, even when there is much wider and more legitimate dispute.
So from that perspective, it’s a slippery-slope argument. It starts with the Nazis and that maybe doesn’t seem so bad. But then it extends to, choose a contemporary example, the Black Panthers, and maybe that doesn’t seem so bad, but eventually these powers are deployed against legitimate political opinions, movements, and agents. If you haven’t stopped this tendency early, it becomes much more difficult later on.
The answer from the perspective of the liberalism of hope might be a little bit different. It might say it’s actually good for the Nazis to express their views, and the reason that it’s good is that they will present this nonsense, they will expose themselves as fools and as a result they will be discredited. So it’s not simply that there is a risk of future abuse; the expectation or at least the hope is that the expression of bad and dangerous views is self-neutralizing. In that respect, you should want the Nazis to say their piece, at least as long as they do so in a non-violent way, because it’s actually contrary to their interests to be heard and recognized.
In the essay you observed that the ACLU’s constitutional defense of civic rights was a defense against the government’s restrictions on speech—the city of Chicago or the town of Skokie that refuse to grant permits for the Nazis’ demonstration. The ACLU’s orientation at that time was to defend rights-bearing citizens from the government’s infringement of those rights. But you also acknowledge in the essay that now, most contentions over speech rights are no longer found in the legal and constitutional public arena. Speech is threatened now most of all in a quasi-public, but essentially private, non-governmental social arena on campus, in newsrooms, in the human-resources departments of major corporations. The women and men who feel their speech rights most at risk are those who dissent against critical race theory or raise questions about the transgender movement, or, of special significance to us, are religious traditionalists and friends and defenders of Israel. How does that transition from public to private change things for the friends of free speech?
I think these conditions make the issue more complicated than it has been at least in the relatively recent past, and also reduce the utility of some of the classic historical comparisons. As I discussed in the essay, many of the arguments for free speech that were influential in American liberalism around the middle of the 20th century were driven by the encounter and sometimes the personal experience of Nazism and Communism, which were centralized, totalitarian regimes that suppressed speech in an official and brutally direct manner. And as with the Nazis in Skokie, the argument was that the American regime or the American state shouldn’t do those things. That was constitutive of its liberalism or its commitment to freedom. That’s not what’s happening in the scenarios that you describe. Rather, people are faced with non-governmental penalties for speech in, one can say as you did, public-private or mixed settings where it’s not entirely clear whether political and legal entitlements to speak freely apply.
University campuses are a good example, particularly private universities, which aren’t bound by the First Amendment. When students are restricted in their ability to organize events or to protest based on their opinions as a result of university speech codes or regulations for public expression, that’s not quite the same problem as if they’re being arrested or threatened with jail. And at least nominally, they have consented to these conditions. The policies are relatively public, and when you enroll at a particular university, you consent to the terms that it imposes on residential and associational life. And yet, they’re close enough that many people worry, and I’m one of them, that they have a comparable effect. Not because they threaten imprisonment or death as in these classic nightmare cases of the middle of the 20th century, but rather because they make it very difficult to access goods and opportunities that are, if not essential to living a good life, at least make it much easier to live in a reasonably comfortable and satisfying sense.
Employment conditions are a similar case. You may have the right to be a Nazi, all well and good, but we wouldn’t want to say that you have a legal right to be employed as a Nazi. Particularly if your position involves representing a company in some public capacity. But it does become a problem when employees find that they are being penalized for expressing their opinions in non-work settings, without any suggestion that they are representing their companies. And I should mention, this is not a new problem. Labor organizers and other activists on the left broadly speaking have long argued that this is a risk. Now I think it’s coming to the right, that the legal doctrine of at-will employment—that you can be fired for any reason, including something that you say in your private life—can very easily be turned against the expression of unpopular opinion and even what in the past would have been regarded as core civic activity.
It just raises this large question though. The transition of the arena of conflict from the legal and constitutional to the social arena suggests that, for people who once, in a previous era, wanted the protections of free speech, they would go into civil society and ask for a private organization like the ACLU to protect them from the government. Now we see conservatives and others asking for the government’s protection against institutions of civil society that are exercising similar kinds of restrictions on speech. This is coming most to the fore in questions of technology and social media. I wonder if you can just explain how that figures into this.
I think social media is really a decisive change in the situation, and I think that’s true for at least two reasons. One is that it is in the nature of social media that everything is at least potentially permanently on the record. So in the past, if one might have made provocative or even regrettable remarks among friends or in some private setting, they would be forgotten and even if not forgotten, heard by no one else. And now what happens of course is that someone posts something on the Facebook page of a friend or family member or acquaintance, and the screenshot becomes available to everyone in the whole world forever. And that’s quite terrifying and I think was an unanticipated consequence of this technology. I’m deeply grateful that I am of probably the last generation that made it through college before everything was on the record in this sense. And the reason I’m grateful is that I’m quite certain that I said things that were just as stupid and offensive and dangerous socially as anything that people say today. I don’t think people have changed very much in what they actually say. But it was possible for it to disappear into memory. So that’s one problem, that everything is on the record and can be easily accessed and used as a basis for criticism and sometimes punishment.
The other issue is that social-media platforms have become central to civic life. It’s difficult to imagine how political organizations today would function if they weren’t on social media at least part of the time, and of course it’s become an important way for politicians to address constituents without the mediation of television or newspapers or radio. The spaces are even designed to feel as if they were public spaces, as if they were like the public parks where the Nazis wanted to protest in Skokie and Chicago. But of course, they’re not that. These are privately owned spaces that are subject to the control of their owners. Even if posting something on social media feels like planting a lawn sign in front of your house, it’s much more like trying to plant a lawn sign in the middle of a shopping mall, which belongs to a corporate owner or is responsible to stockholders and which is not legally required to act in a viewpoint-neutral manner the way that a government would be.
This combination of factors, the pseudo-publicity as it were of social media and the permanence of electronic memory, have placed us in a very difficult position. And that’s the genuine problem that I think has inspired at least some conservatives to request intervention by the federal government to ensure that social-media platforms and other Internet utilities are not able to use their power as owners to exclude provocative or controversial speech.
I want to ask you about the larger moral horizons within which this shift, from threats emerging from government to threats emerging from private associations, takes place. What I’m thinking about is the relative decline of Americans who attend a house of worship on a weekly basis and the relative decline of religiosity in the American public square. That decline has a very long trendline, it’s not new, and as you were mentioning before we are used to thinking about ourselves in relation to mid-century America. The trouble with that is mid-century America was a time of extraordinarily high participation in organized religious life. It hasn’t always been that way, but nevertheless, in our historical memory, in the experience of this generation, it seems as if the transition from America’s religious devotion at mid-century to America’s religious devotion now has dropped precipitously.
I believe, and I think a great many analysts of democracy likewise believe, that faith is the permanent condition of humankind and that we are religious animals. If human beings’ spiritual instincts are not channeled into a traditional religion—Islam, Christianity, Judaism—then they’ll be channeled into something else, and one cannot help but detect a correspondence between the sources of censure, the censorious attitudes that emerge from the most passionately devoted to critical race theory and transgender activism and other such causes of progressive activism, they attach themselves to such causes with the devotion that was once attached to traditional forms of worship. I wonder if you agree, and if you think that it’s relevant that one traces these two phenomena together? I’m not quite sure. I’m not prepared exactly to argue that one causes the other, but they certainly happen at the same time. The decline of religion in America and the rise of this kind of censorious moral attitude seemed to happen one after the other.
I share both your general intuition and your hesitation about making it a directly causal claim. I don’t think it’s simply the case that you have less religious faith in participation, and therefore the temperature of politics goes up. Contrary to some of our memory or imaginations of the mid-century period, the political temperature was pretty hot then too despite or because of the larger public role of traditional religion. And it’s worth remembering that one of the generative moments of modern civil libertarianism was the anti-Communist sentiment of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which is often I think mistakenly associated with Joe McCarthy—he was a product of that and a relatively late development of that mood, not its cause. This was a period in which there were more people participating in churches and synagogues, at least by their own account, but there was plenty of moral energy in politics and also a good deal of censoriousness. The same might be said, in a more favorable tone, of the post-war civil rights movement.
But I do think it’s true that many of our political debates have taken on a quasi-religious dimension even in the absence of formal religious influence. That was so obvious in debates over civil rights and other issues, 50 or 60 or 75 years ago. And in particular, since you have referred a couple of times to recent movements for racial equity or social justice, (of course people use different terms for these goals), I think some of those movements in particular have quasi-religious dimensions that look very much like secularized liturgy and ritual rather than more conventional political issues. These movements, I think, are not driven exclusively or even primarily by material considerations. They are at least partly about seeking meaning in history and even meaning in the universe in a way that more closely resembles religion than conventional politics. I think it’s true that if human beings don’t find outlets and structures for their demands for meaning and purpose and justice outside partisan politics, many of them will seek the same rewards in partisan politics. And sometimes that can be salutary. Sometimes we need what Alexis de Tocqueville called great parties pursuing great causes, but it can also be dangerous because it can make the compromise and negotiation that is essential to democratic politics extremely difficult.
Joshua Mitchell, the political theorist from Georgetown University, points out in his recent book American Awakening that the religious overtones that energize and fuel the movements for social justice you were just describing do share a lot with traditional religion. They have a liturgy and a cosmic worldview grounded in a search for justice. What essentially they lack, that Christianity and Judaism have, is an escape road. They do not have a way for the sinners to atone for the guilty, partly to seek an absolution and for the person who is made dirty by their travels in history to cleanse themselves. It’d be very hard for them to see the people they regard as sinners also as fellow citizens whom they can build a country with. Now, to return to our subject, those are the fellow citizens whose speech they most want to censure. The final question that I’ll ask you is what strategies do those citizens have recourse to when confronting so much spiritual energy that is irate against them?
Well, I do think that at least some legal and political goals are appropriate. Although there’s no single law or policy that’s going to fix the problem, some possibilities might involve revisiting employment laws that make it easy to fire employees for extramural speech or expression. I think at least some efforts to make elements of the Internet what are called common carriers, that can’t discriminate against particular groups of users, are promising. I personally am not so enthusiastic about attempts to do that to social-media platforms, per se. I think that might be more appropriate for some of the backend infrastructure of the Internet, including payment systems that in effect are necessary to participate in the modern economy. It’s a problem when you can’t transfer money because some private corporation has deemed your views intolerable.
There are also some smaller changes that might be useful. In the piece I talk about the recent controversy over the decision by the foundation that publishes the works of Dr. Seuss to withdraw from circulation six titles that they judged offensive. Part of the reason that’s an issue is that our copyright laws allow the owners of intellectual property to control it for an extraordinarily long time. I think it’s the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. That’s why the Dr. Seuss Foundation is able to make decisions about access to Seuss’s work, even though he died I think in the early 1970s. Shortening copyright, so that works enter the public domain more quickly, would make them accessible for circulation and republication by others, which would help reduce the influence of some of those private actors. All of that seems to me fair game for law and policy.
As for the broader question of culture, I fear that we are in for a bumpy ride. One of the lessons of the liberalism of fear is that we tend to forget how bad things can get when we reject too much of the liberal tradition, not only in formal law and institution, but also in culture. And we may be in for an experience in collective remembering as we discover the reasons that some of these restrictions on government power and public authority were discovered and popularized in the first place.
Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that those who are advocating for a more nationalist flavor of conservatism would very much agree, I think with that assessment and in fact, go on to say that it’s precisely the liberalism—take your pick, liberalism of hope, liberals of fear, any kind of liberalism—that’s brought us to this very place, questioning whether it’s wise to put our hopes for a civilized society back in liberalism at all.
I just want to preface this with a couple of remarks. One of them is that you don’t remember 1977, but in fact one of the only disagreements of its kind that I ever had with my husband was over the question of the march in Skokie. My husband is a lawyer. We were in Canada at the time and he was for allowing the march and I was firmly against it. I thought it was a provocation rather than a matter of free speech. In any case, I changed my mind, but it is easy to have done so because of what the film shows and what you really bring across in your essay as well, and that is because it demonstrated the weakness of the Nazi party and of Nazi ideas. So there wasn’t really the kind of problem involved that one was talking about. It was an abstract problem in a way and felt real at the time, but it was not critical. I do want to say also that I find your essay an excellent response to the film and more than that, I think it’s an important document about thinking about how to preserve America. So I’m going to probe a Jewish issue or two as I’ve been invited to do, but they are obviously inseparable from the general debate over our political future.
One question that you address is the timing and the political context here, since political disputes arise in specific situations, which are going to determine our decisions. Supporting that Nazi march in Skokie was a very good free-speech issue because there was no real Nazi party in America at the time, and certainly not one that contained or constituted a threat to American Jews. And the film makes it clear that the organizer was in fact a child of Holocaust survivors and that he was mounting a free-speech challenge, a provocation for its own sake. So the ACLU and the Supreme Court and the rest of us could support the march thinking strictly about the principle involved and not about any real danger that it posed.
But, now supposing that issue had arisen 50 years earlier in Berlin or Vienna, both very cosmopolitan cities at the time, would we, as Jews and civil libertarians, have been on the right side in supporting the march there? There would have been no theoretical difference in the rights to free speech, but there was a practical difference. There was a Nazi party with an antithetical platform against liberalism and it was growing in popular appeal. I must say that Jews who supported the politics of hope of that kind at that time facilitated the rise of the Nazi party. Historically speaking, we can see that. Actually there was a joke that a German Jew once told me that he told, of course, after the fact. He said that the pessimists went to Palestine, the optimists went to Auschwitz. This is his comment on the optimism of that hope in liberalism.
Put it this way: Jews, more than any other people, are obliged to treat theoretical issues in practical terms, and to subject the theory to the actual circumstances rather than the other way around. And it seems to me, if I’m not mistaken that this is the way talmudic law is often applied. The way Jews figure in the politics of other nations makes it imperative for them to weigh liberal ideals against liberal realities on a daily basis. Had there been a real danger to the Jews of Skokie and hence to the American democratic fabric, then democrats would have had to respond differently. And I think that freedom and the degree of freedom is always subject to the assessment of the danger to the system that guarantees that freedom. I think the essay that you wrote points in that direction, but to what extent would you be prepared to accept this approach to legal principles?
Well, the talmudic considerations are above my pay grade, so I’ll have to beg off that part of the question. But broadly speaking, I don’t disagree and I don’t think that I suggest in the essay that free speech is an absolute right that must be upheld regardless of consequence. That’s a vulgar Kantianism that I think can be very dangerous. Clearly there are situations when it may make sense to restrict freedoms of speech and expression and assembly. I don’t think Skokie was one of them, but it doesn’t follow that none are.
That said, I think that in the spirit of empiricism or situational reasoning, we have to ask how well these restrictions actually work. Here I think the relevant comparison is perhaps not to Berlin or Vienna in 1930, so much as to Berlin or Vienna today and over the last 50 or 60 years. European states, precisely because of the historical experience that you described, have much more restrictive approaches to questions of speech and association than we do here. It’s not clear to me that their policies on hate speech, Holocaust denial, or restrictions on political movements that are deemed anti-constitutional have actually worked very well. On the contrary, I think all three of those phenomena, anti-Semitism in particular, are at least as common in Europe as they are in the United States and probably more so, although I don’t know exactly how to quantify that.
All of that is a long-winded way of saying that speech or expression are not a shortcut to combating threats to small-l liberalism. And if those threats rise to the level that they did in the early 1930s in Vienna and Berlin, merely restricting speech probably isn’t going to resolve them anyway. To continue the thought experiment, I don’t know if banning Nazi party rallies in Germany in 1930 would have prevented their rise to power three years later.
I tend to agree with you on that point, simply because of how functionally this seems to work. To put into play a banning of hate speech, for example, is I think a misidentification of the problem to begin with, and it can’t be solved on that level. But it still comes back to the question of what Jews are to do in those situations, because the appeal to free speech is, as you said, an appeal to the intelligence. It’s an appeal to the better side of the argument, to the better side of human nature. Now, when Jews can see that in terms of what attacks them in particular, it isn’t the better side of human nature that is revealing itself, but rather a politics of grievance and blame, which is specifically directed against them as part of white nationalism or whatever it is, but directed at them in every case. There they find themselves in a very strange position in relation to the question of liberalism in general and this aspect of liberalism in a democratic society in particular.
Another issue that I really enjoyed your raising: you point out very rightly that a lot of the movie, a lot of this film that we saw, is about nostalgia. It’s in general a very nostalgic film, a nostalgia basically for Ira Glasser himself and he’s nostalgic then. And so much of the documentary seems to be captured in his looking back so fondly at the Ebbets Field of his youth, and this is associated in his mind with the civil-rights movement, symbolized in baseball of course with Jackie Robinson as first baseman for the Dodgers. Incidentally, Jackie Robinson played first in Montreal where it was safer for a black player to appear as part of a team.
Jews appear in the movie, and in fact they were great supporters of integration, disproportionate to their numbers and to their obvious credit. What the film omits about that period, and I find that this is an omission that goes across Jewish life in America, is that the Jews were also involved in disproportionate numbers in a movement that was to their obvious discredit. They were heavily invested in the Communist movement’s attempt to undermine American democracy by shaming its economic freedoms, by calling out its liberal institutions. Those Jews also thought that they were working to improve America. They were the so-called progressives of their time, and they are the direct precursors of the so-called progressives of today, who also want to replace America of its founders by something ostensibly more equitable, a better system.
Radical Jews, including the descendants of those thousands of Jewish members of the party and their children and their liberal fellow travelers, never came to terms with their support for the second-most evil regime of modern times, if one is prepared to say that it was second. One of the ways in which they could do that so easily was because of McCarthy. Senator McCarthy’s pursuit of Communists crossed lines in violating the rights of some of those he charged with crimes. And so then charges of McCarthyism became the way of never having to deal with the involvement in the actual evil that the Communists supported.
Now I find that that’s exactly what radical Jews and American radicals in general and their liberal fellow travelers are now trying to do with Trump. They are taking attention away from the present threat to Jews that have been so well-described by Jon and by yourself, mostly now the thread through the war on Zionism, the so-called anti-Zionism, but which is really just a reconstituted anti-Semitism and war on liberalism basically.
So interestingly enough, the film does exactly that, you see. It doesn’t draw any attention to that aspect of it, to the dangers of the left, but what it does is it ends with Charlottesville and the Holocaust, and draws us back into those fears of the right and how horrible that is, and completely away from the dangers to liberalism in which Jews are actually involved on campuses and in their writings and in journalism and in thinking on a daily basis, and to which Jewish organizations themselves are falling prey. I wonder what you think about that. When you see a film, you tend to respond to what it is, not what it isn’t, but I’m always very sensitive to these films that really warn you against the right and these Holocaust memorials that really insist on that side of the danger, and I’m always suspicious of how much of that has to do with silencing one’s own complicity.
It’s an interesting question and of course I can’t speak for the intentions of the filmmakers. I do know and can say that the organization that produced the film, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has been admirably broad-minded and open-handed in the students and faculty members and organizations whom it defends from restrictions on their constitutional freedoms from all sides. So to some extent, that’s just not what this film is about, but there’s no reason we should restrict ourselves to the explicit content of the film.
I think that part of the answer has to do with the peculiar optimism of the American Jewish experience, or at least that generation of the American Jewish experience. The sense that there were no truly fundamental threats to American freedom and security and prosperity, and that therefore the charges made, we can set aside McCarthy, even by more responsible anti-Communists were exaggerated or were attempts to whip up nativist sentiment rather than grounded in reality.
I agree with you that that was a somewhat false optimism. It’s understandable, it seems to me, in retrospect and as a member of a much younger generation, given the experiences that many Jews of that generation had, but ultimately did have something naïve about it. And I think that’s particularly true of Jews on the far left, some of whom without question were committed ideological Marxists who wanted a violent revolution in America and to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. But a much larger number of whom were attracted to the left and to some extent even to the Communist party out of a vague and naïve sense of historical optimism, that this was the way that justice was being done, and maybe some mistakes were made in Russia, but that kind of thing could never happen here. It seems to me that you’re right that there hasn’t ever been a reckoning with that, partly because the moral gravity of the Holocaust sucks all other issues into it. It becomes very difficult to criticize anyone for anything else.
Sam, what do you make of Ruth’s contention that one should see an analogy between the apologists for Communism and Jews’ complicity in that then, all of which could be wiped clean by their correct assertions that Senator McCarthy had crossed the line, with the situation now in which the most censorious voices against free speech are also fueled, inspired, helped, assisted by radical Jews who themselves are complicit and whose complicity is obscured by their correct accusation that President Trump had crossed the line, as he has in fact crossed lines.
Well, all one can do is call them as you see them. To return to Ruth’s observation a few moments ago, rather than looking for the single universal principle that can guide our responses in every situation whatsoever, the only responsible way to approach these questions is to look at the matter at hand, and it’s possible to be right about some things and wrong about others. So in that respect, there is no contradiction between saying that Trump or McCarthy or any of these other demon figures of the Jewish liberal imagination really do things that were wrong and dangerous, but that does not necessarily mean that they were wrong and dangerous about everything. And even more importantly, it does not demonstrate that people who opposed them in some of the ways that they were wrong are therefore right about everything.
These are the dilemmas of politics. I think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s distinction between the children of light and the children of darkness. Americans, and maybe especially American Jews, are susceptible to these kinds of stark moral distinctions that are never going to account very well for the complicated reality of politics. We’ve been talking about nostalgia, and it would be grotesque to say that anyone has nostalgia for the 1930s or 1940s, but there is an appealing feature of that period, which I think explains its hold on our moral imagination. At that point, it was really, really clear who the greatest enemy was. The moral choice was easy and that’s very rarely true historically and I think is certainly not true today.
It’s very well put, but it’s not completely persuasive because of course the moral categories were not at all clear. The Communists’ real ace-in-the-hole as far as the Jews were concerned is that they were trying to say that we are the only force that can stop Nazism, and of course, they were the force that was collaborating with Nazism and making it possible. And to fall into that trap at the time is one thing. To feel nostalgia for it, to cultivate the nostalgia for it, unthinkingly cultivate the nostalgia for it, is a tremendous danger. I think that you’re right, the reason that this is so poignant is that these filmmakers were obviously not about trying to rehabilitate that radicalism and yet they do it anyway by not ever having seen the clean slate.
There were people in the 30s who understood Jews in the 30s, who said you have to have two enemies at one time, you have to fight Communism in the same way that you fight fascism. It’s at least as dangerous to the Jews as a people and you have to fight the left and you have to fight those ideas that really are against your religion, are against your nationalism, and use the Jews in particular as the people who most offend both of these things, both religion and nationalism, and are against internationalism and so forth. It just occurs to me that this discussion of free speech is a good opportunity to really begin, as one of the dimensions of it or one of the threads of it, to really say where the Jews are most susceptible in going wrong. They’re never going to be more susceptible going wrong and becoming pro-right, pro-fascistic, because that side will always exclude them explicitly. Their danger will always be towards the kind of hope that suggests that they are on the side of the angels.
Another period when this became relevant to which I think the film alludes briefly and gently, but on which it doesn’t focus, is the late 1960s and early 1970s. A period when Glasser I think was still working as a journalist before he began his career first at the New York Civil Liberties Union and then at the national ACLU, when some of the tensions between the older style of progressive liberalism identified with people like Bobby Kennedy of whom Glasser had been a supporter and the New Left were becoming clear. And in that situation too, I think there was a lot of wishful thinking about what these liberationist groups really wanted to do, and whether that would be good for Jews. Even though that’s a descendant in certain ways of the debates about Communism that you’re describing, it’s a more immediate precedent because it’s in that period that the caricature emerges—which like most caricatures has some degree of truth—of the Jewish liberals who will defend terrorists and pornographers and all sorts of terrible people and who are convinced, and I think in many cases seriously convinced, that somehow by doing this, they were defending the interests of Jews in particular, but also of an American order for which I think most of these people were sincerely patriotic and to which they were sincerely grateful.
Let me just ask you the last thing. At the end of the first segment of this, you asked the specific question and I would put it the same way: did you come away with any better tactical, practical suggestions for Jews in the current situation regarding the preservation of American liberties, really that are so necessary to them, and that are really in many crucial ways being undermined? Is there any task that you see for the Jewish community or for Jews in particular in this?
I think as I suggest toward the end of the essay that American Jews, or at least American Jews who have a sense of communal interest and identity, which of course isn’t everyone, really should recommit to the principle of free speech.
I think there are examples, particularly on campus, where well-intentioned Jews and Jewish organizations have embraced the logic of speech restriction, but have in essence demanded that they be included, saying we should have restrictions on hate speech, but we have to make sure that anti-Semitic and even anti-Zionist or anti-Israel speech is included on the list of things that are bad. In the spirit you demand, which is to be concrete and situational and empirical, I think tactically that’s just a very bad bet. The danger of particular events or speakers expressing anti-Semitic or anti-Israel views is much less than the danger of affirming and legitimizing a regime of speech restriction in which an administrator decides what is and isn’t acceptable to be pronounced on campus.
So that’s a tactical suggestion which I would imagine is at least somewhat controversial. Because again, there have been cases, and I think they continue, of Jewish organizations that want to ensure a place for Jews and a place for Israel on the list of protected categories as it were rather than challenging the existence of these lists and the attempt to prevent or penalize offense to them.
Now that excludes, I should say, threats, harassment, and policies that discriminate directly against Jews or Israelis. Those are a different matter that quite properly should be rejected and opposed. But I do think that it’s possible to separate the expressive questions from matters of policy. There’s a difference, to make it yet more concrete, between calling for a boycott of Israel, which I think American citizens and members of an academic community are entitled to do however wrong I think that is, and university administrations actually imposing such a boycott in a way that penalizes Jewish or Israeli students or scholars.
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