Let’s Talk About Not Talking

The Left’s opposition to debate is dangerous – especially for anti-imperialists

by Caleb S. Rossiter

October 14, 2018

Some things have gotten a lot better in America since I came of age in the 1960’s. 

One big thing has stayed the same, though, because citizen protest helped discredit and end the Viet Nam war, but not the Viet Nam foreign policy:

The Pentagon’s latest excuse for its trillion dollar a year expeditionary force is “fighting terrorism,” which requires a “long war” to dominate the Middle East and North Africa.  Think Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Mali, Uganda, Bahrain, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and a score of other places where U.S. forces or their U.S.-armed and trained proxies are fighting, or ruling by force, not by democracy.  

And one big thing has gotten worse:

It has become normal, indeed applauded, in academic, literary, and political arenas not even to listen, or allow others to listen, to certain arguments, let alone evaluate them.  Today Bloom’s argument that laws and rules should be applied without regard to the consequences would be shouted down rather than, as was the case in 1969, considered and, thankfully, dismissed.

I grew up hearing my parents reverently citing Evelyn Hall’s paraphrase of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  I now seem to be living with the reality that everybody loves free speech until they disagree with it.  The situations in which many people, particularly on the Left of late, believe it is justified and even morally necessary to refuse to debate or to shout down speakers appear to fall into two categories: hurtful and harmful.

Limits on hurtful speech are justified by their proponents as good manners.  These are intended to shield people belonging to oppressed “identity” groups from emotionally damaging comments, opinions, statues, and the names of programs, buildings, and even holidays.  Limits on harmful speech are justified as forestalling the discrimination or injury that could result from certain views being “normalized” by the mere act of debate.  This argument is a private version of government officials claiming that in emergencies it may be necessary to override, temporarily, laws that make the necessary response impossible.  They acknowledge that their act is legally dubious but believe that the urgent circumstances require recourse to a “higher law.”

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The “emergency” argument

“Higher law” has been invoked by presidents, most notably Lincoln when declaring martial law at the start of the Civil War and Franklin Roosevelt when trading destroyers for British military bases prior to U.S. participation in World War II.  Lincoln’s justification was expressed in questions he posed to Congress when he asked it to review his actions:

“Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence? ... (A)re all the laws but one to go unexecuted and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?” 

Lincoln believed that, “my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government – that nation – of which that constitution was the organic law.”  Starting with Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson, even Supreme Court justices, the greatest advocates of legal constraints, have often agreed with Lincoln, and reminded Americans that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” 

President Jefferson similarly said, responding to criticism that he lacked the legal authority to make the Louisiana Purchase, “To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.''  And Presidents Obama and then Trump continued to wage war on new enemies in the Middle East and North Africa under a Bush-era law that specifically limited the fight only to members of al-Qaeda, claiming their authority on the remarkable grounds that Congress had failed to update the law. 

Writing on the question of constitutional constraints in a national emergency, my father, Cornell historian Clinton Rossiter, wrote in The Supreme Court and the Commander in Chief that, “the answer to it is not to be found in law, but in circumstance.”  He noted that not just Lincoln and Roosevelt, but Washington, Cleveland, and Wilson faced debilitating crises: “In each instance it has been for the President himself to decide what type and degree of force was necessary to remedy the abnormal situation.” 

My father listed numerous cases in which the Supreme Court demanded the end to a presidential action – but prudently only after it had been completed.  Durante bello, he noted about Roosevelt in Constitutional Dictatorship, the courts defer; post bellum they have “a lot of strong and unavailing things to say.”  (Sure, lots of historians have made these points, but it’s nice to rely on one from your own family!)

The higher law argument is problematic because it requires an overwhelming public consensus that there is an “abnormal” national emergency.  Consider President Reagan’s reliance on it when he took legally-dubious actions in the Central American wars of the 1980’s, such as asking foreign governments to undertake the funding Congress had banned.  He was motivated in part by a book by future Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that stressed the necessity of strong executive action, regardless of law. 

The Republican dissent to the congressional report on the resulting “Iran-Contra” scandal mostly argued that the laws in question were intended to apply only to intelligence agencies and not to the White House staff, but it also supported Reagan’s position, citing the “inherent powers” of the presidency.  This was an executive branch version of Senator Robert Dole’s response to minority leader Robert Byrd’s apoplectic objection that Dole had violated Senate rules when he locked the anti-apartheid act in a safe in 1985 to prevent it from coming to the floor: “I didn’t become Majority Leader in order to lose.”   

Reagan administration National Security Council staffer Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, tried out the higher law claim when they were caught violating regulations and laws during the Iran-Contra scandal.  Even on their side of the policy dispute they found few people who seriously considered them in the category of Lincoln or Roosevelt facing a fight for national survival.

Hall actually used the phrase “sometimes you have to go above the written law” in her testimony before the Iran-Contra committee, and corrected House Majority Leader Tom Foley when he said that “under no circumstances” should she have been spiriting classified documents out of the White House as she did for North.  Hall countered that such an illegal tactic would indeed be justified, “when the KGB is coming through the door.”  Of course, as Senator Warren Rudman had told her earlier when she said she destroyed documents because they might be published and the “Soviets” could read them, “it wasn’t the KGB that was coming, Miss Hall, it was the FBI.”

“Higher law” is even more problematic when adopted by private citizens, like today’s opponents of debate.  It is precisely because we all have our own definition of an “abnormal situation” that we turn to a constitutional government to provide a common one. 

I do, however, sympathize with today’s “emergency” instinct.  I was in an earlier resistance movement, the draft resistance.  We broke the law by refusing to be drafted to kill and die in the invasion of Viet Nam.  I applauded all sorts of illegal actions by protestors, like trying to shut draft boards and stop troop trains and ships, or seizing the streets outside a building whenever the president came to town, and chanting so loudly that it could be heard throughout his appearance inside.  “Hey, hey, LBJ – how many kids did you kill today?” 

And while I was a non-violent protestor, I would not have turned in the anti-war bombers of the early 1970’s, like the crazed Weatherman cult, had they’d crossed my path.  I recognize today that my attitude on that was wrong, and was precisely why the FBI could never catch them, as they moved through a sea of people who opposed their violent tactics but supported their goal of ending the war.

So I agree with the argument that some emergencies in American have been so deadly that they justify “any means necessary.”  In that context, shouting down opponents is just another tactic in a life or death struggle.  I believe that the Northern mobs that practiced private “nullification” before the Civil War by blocking the removal of fugitive slaves were right.  I believe that Nat Turner and John Brown were America heroes, and I would have refused to convict if I’d been on their juries.  Slavery, Indian removal, and segregation were too “abnormal” for resistance to be judged by our usual standards. 

Trump’s reign simply does not reach this level of abnormality, even in the area that riles up the Left the most, which is immigration.  He may use ugly language about people who come into our country illegally, but his proposal to “build the wall” and the other steps he has taken to reduce the number of illegal immigrants and their government benefits differ only in degree from the policies of previous administrations.  Similarly, previous administrations have differed with Trump’s only in tone and breadth, and sometimes not even those, on methods to reduce legal immigration or block visits from countries with a recent history of religious-based attacks on civilians. 

On other controversial issues, such as rules of evidence for colleges adjudicating sexual assault claims, tax credits for private schools, the need for ethnic affirmative action, constraints on abortion, the impact of industrial warming gasses on climate, the “long war” to control the Muslim world, and investigations of Russian election influence, there is already a remedy available for Democrats who dispute Trump: elections.  And to win elections you need open debate.  Unfortunately…

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“The debate is over…”

Opposition to “political correctness” correlates strongly with support for Donald Trump and perhaps causes much of it.  The phrase is just highly-charged shorthand for the Left insisting that disagreement with its position is not just wrong, but illegitimate.  Consider this ever-expanding list of complex topics for which many on the Left, where free speech and rigorous debate were once core principles, have decided that “the debate is over,” and will brook no more of it:

People not on the Left’s team on these issues can expect to have their visits to restaurants and campuses, even in their own classroom, disrupted by screaming activists, their careers stalled or ended, and their friendships terminated.  A posting by those who drove Texas Senator Ted Cruz out of a restaurant captures the essence of the Left’s beliefs about its intellectual opponents:

“(R)acist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic right-wing scum: You are not safe.  We will find you.  We will expose you.  We will take from you the peace you have taken from so many others.”

And Democrats are still trying to figure out why Rust Belt whites voted for Trump?  They don’t have to go much farther than looking in the mirror if they’ve failed to denounce this sort of ostracism of their political opponents, which follows logically from Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of the “deplorables” or President Obama’s explanation that “they get bitter (so) they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

The Left’s trend toward limiting debate is a surprising and counter-productive development.  It’s especially damaging for those of us opposed to America’s wars and the general imperialism from which they continue to flow.  This is sadly ironic.  It was liberals who in the 1950’s invented the general notion of challenging the “conventional wisdom.” 

The marches and demonstrations of the civil rights movement were essentially symbolic debates about whites’ legally-sanctioned beliefs of black inferiority.  The Viet Nam anti-war movement’s “teach-ins” were designed to air and analyze competing views, not silence them.  The expectation was that in a debate, experts like former foreign aid official Bob Browne and Cornell Asianist George McT. Kahin would show how weak the government’s case was.  Administration officials or their supporters were always invited.  If none came, a chair would be placed on the stage with a sign on it reading “Reserved for the State Department.” 

National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy actually agreed to come to the inaugural teach-in at the University of Michigan in 1965, although he feared, as Leftist proponents of “the debate is over” do today, that the debate itself could be dangerous.  Teach-ins, he said, “can give encouragement to the adversaries of our country.”  He cancelled at the last minute to travel to the Dominican Republic, which the United States had invaded two weeks previously. 

(Bundy asked the young foreign service officer who picked him up at the Santo Domingo airport what his assessment was of the situation.  Bob White, later ambassador to El Salvador and president of the anti-war Center for International Policy, answered, “I think we’re on the wrong side.”  Bundy’s response?  “It’s a little too late for that, young man.”)

The teach-ins started the spread throughout the mainstream of opposition to the war, and more generally of the important notion that the best and the brightest, the “experts,” could be and often are wrong.  This notion is often misunderstood: it does not support the illogical ad hominem argument that the experts are wrong because of whom they represent.  That approach is for the weak-minded who are not confident enough of their beliefs to test them, and change them when required by evidence and logic.  As I implored my statistics students when I was a professor, don’t tell me what someone says and who’s paying them, tell me what reasoning and facts they are using to justify what they are saying, and then assess those.     

In the 1960’s anti-imperialists were the dissidents to the conventional wisdom that America’s global role is benign, even heroic.  We play the same role today in reminding Americans that like the colonial empires, we use or threaten dominant military force to impose order on our terms, and for our benefit.  Open debate is the only way that our ideas can reach the broader audience that is bombarded daily with propaganda about our noble soldiers sacrificing their lives for our freedom and “to free the oppressed” (the motto of the Green Berets).  The very act of refusing to listen to or even allow the expression of views we oppose weakens our credibility and appeal.  It’s also just plain rude, stupid, and embarrassing.  

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Silencing: How it’s done

I first witnessed the Left’s aversion to debate in a small conference room in the U.S. Capitol in the 1980’s.  I worked at the Arms Control and   Foreign Policy Caucus, which was founded in the 1960’s because anti-war Members of Congress couldn’t get good information out of the military and foreign policy committees, since their chairs were allied with the departments they oversaw.  To help our 140 Members master the subjects they’d need to promote legislation, director Edie Wilkie often organized discussions with administration officials whose proposals our members were opposing. 

For one discussion, Wilkie invited Richard Perle, a Reagan administration defense official who castigated arms control agreements as symbolic at best and dangerous at worst.  As Perle began to explain why he backed replacing the anti-ballistic missile treaty with missile defense systems, Representative Berkly Bedell of Iowa got so upset that he stuck his fingers into his ears and said, “This is so outrageous and upsetting that I’m not listening.”  That is essentially the attitude adopted in these bizarre but telling examples from the fall of 2018:

The juxtaposition on YouTube of “Deconstructing Global Warming,” a well-reasoned talk on the flawed science and logic of climate catastrophe by MIT atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen, with its link to a Wikipedia page that no professor would allow as a reference in a college paper is hilariously instructive.  The linked Wikipedia entry starts out with: “Global warming, also referred to as climate change…”  This is already incorrect: temperature is just one aspect of climate, and nobody would get excited enough by the measured one degree rise over the past 140 years to limit fossil fueled-electricity and transport.  “Climate change” actually refers to claims that heat waves, droughts, sea level, and hurricanes have increased to deadly proportions because of the purported one-degree rise.    

None of those claims, by the way, is supported by the data reported by the United Nations panel that climate alarmists cite as their gold standard.  Analysts such as Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado have repeatedly made that clear for general audiences.  (See, for example, his 2014 book Disasters and Climate Change, or his posts on the most recent UN alarmism.)  Nor do we know how much of the one-degree rise is due to industrial emissions rather than natural fluctuation, because of the complexity of the climate and the difficulty in modeling it with computer runs of atmospheric differential equations that are based on “guess-timates” of hundreds of key parameters (e.g. the amount of heat trapped by a carbon dioxide molecule). 

The Wikipedia page fudges all of this by citing reviews of research abstracts that purport to find a “97 percent” consensus among scientists for the climate catastrophe narrative, when in fact the only area of agreement (100 percent, actually) is that industrial gasses have a warming effect.  Despite billions of dollars of modeling over the past 30 years, their power relative to natural fluctuation and the impact on climate of the warming, whatever its cause, remain opaque.      

Here are, word for word, some statements that have been made to me by Left-leaning opponents of free speech in recent years:

At least I’ve never faced a Lysistrata moment, as when a friend of mine said of her husband’s invitation to a colleague’s swearing in as a Trump appointee, “If he’d gone to that there’d be nobody in his bed when he got home that night.”  (As a 12-year old New York football Giants fan, though, I did face the devastating choice of continuing to wear a Goldwater “AU-H2O” button so I could romance a junior high stone fox whose father ran the county Republican party, or going with my LBJ-backing father to the big city to see my heroes play.  I chose the pigskin over the brown lipstick, and have regretted it ever since.)

These statements remind me of the attacks of similar illogic and invective I have become inured to from the Right during my 50 years as an anti-imperialist: “Sit down and shut up, you (traitor!  Communist!  Marxist!).”  That can happen anywhere, recently at:

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Quo vadis?

What’s next for the speech suppressors?  Will they say, because of the emergency of blocking Trump’s supposed fascism, that anything goes?  Violence is lurking in the harassment suggested by Democratic Representative Maxine Waters’ recent advice:

“And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd.  And you push back on them.  And you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

The two Democratic Minority Leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, properly rejected Waters’ call, calling it “un-American” and “unacceptable.”  The response from their “base” voters was expressed immediately in an outpouring of hundreds of comments appended to a video of their statements, virtually all making the argument that the emergency of fighting a fascist takeover justifies Waters’ position.  It’s instructive, and terrifying, to read them over verbatim, to get the flavor of the “resistance.”

This litany of drivel is just a leftist version of Trump’s odious insult not just of football players who protest during the Star Spangled Banner but of all of us and our heritage as the land of free speech and the home of brave conscience: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!”  The litany is enough to make me don a MAGA hat to show solidarity with Trump supporters who are harassed for wearing theirs. 

I don’t agree with them on much politically, but if I don’t stand up for their free speech and their freedom from harassment, how can I expect Americans who disagree with me -- which on any number of issues is most Americans -- to stand up for my speech rights?  I certainly can’t rely on Hillary Clinton, that tone-deaf gift that keeps on giving to the Republicans, who addressed the incivility toward Republicans during the Kavanagh confirmation by saying, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.” 

Still, just talking with each other isn’t likely to resolve the deep differences that exist in our country.  In the end, if policy is going to change, somebody will have to make a deal.  Nobody is going to win it all.  That takes centrists who can survive the inevitable primary challenge from the base of their party, but centrists have been virtually eliminated from the two parties’ congressional delegations over the past 30 years. 

When I first worked on the congressional staff in the mid-1980’s 120 of the 435 Members would be on a typical House “swing list” of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who might be swayed to either side in an upcoming vote.  Of the 100 senators, perhaps 25 would be up for grabs.  Today both counts are effectively zero. 

There are many reasons for this sharpening of our divisions, but the most important one is clear: the voters want it.  Americans who held to a centrist position have fled or been pushed out of the middle, or have dropped out in dismay to join the 50 percent of adults who don’t vote.  Democratic and Republican voters generally regard each other today with contempt, and their extremes think of their own party mainstream in the same way.  It’s hard to get from contempt to compromise on contentious issues where people have deeply-held opposing beliefs.  This has always been true for the differences between the mainstream and anti-imperialists on our proper global role. 

Quoting from God’s call in Isaiah 1:18, President Johnson loved to say, “Come, let us reason together.”  LBJ conveniently left out the passage’s subsequent threat that those of us not becoming “obedient” to the Lord’s commands after the discussion “shall be devoured with the sword.” 

It proved impossible for anti-imperialists to reason with someone who was using bombs, artillery, assassination, and torture to firm up a bargaining position.  LBJ was truly taken aback when his domestic critics laughed at his 1964 offer to fund a “Mekong Valley Authority” to eradicate poverty like the Tennessee Valley Authority had during the depression, if only Ho Chi Minh would just give up on unifying his country.  The Vietnamese nationalists spurned the offer without a second thought.  Similarly, Democratic leaders could never grasp that anti-war activists simply couldn’t vote for Hubert Humphrey for president in 1968 if he didn’t promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Viet Nam.  The logic that his Supreme Court picks and civil rights credentials made him the obvious lesser of two evils just didn’t work.  Reason can’t always prevail.

I’ve written in The Chimes of Freedom Flashing, a book on the Viet Nam anti-war movement, about the limitations of reasoned debate: “When history lurches forward in a crisis, reason is a minor part of that tumultuous process.  Irrational, amoral desire without regard for others’ rights is at the core of any eruption, personal or historical.  Reason unleavened by passion will never rise in the direction of the reforms that all societies need and make.” 

Or as Cornell professor Walter Slatoff said during the student uprising that was the subject of Allan Bloom’s cri de coeur, “reasonableness can be a hindrance to change” because it can lead to “endless talks and endless committees.” 

The reasonable, non-violent civil rights movement probably needed the unreasonable urban rioters to get LBJ’s anti-poverty programs and Nixon’s affirmative action on the agenda.  (“Non-violent” has to be carefully defined here: in a South where there were guns in lots of black as well as white households, civil rights activists in some states were often guarded by armed groups like the Deacons of Defense.)  The shout-them-down protestors of the Keystone pipeline inherited their moral compulsion to break the law from the debate-happy, draft-record burning priests in Catonsville, Maryland. 

But being unreasonable is a slippery slope.  How far of a jump is it from illegal pipeline occupation to eco-terrorism?  We non-violent Viet Nam anti-war witnesses were soon dethroned and discredited by the Weathermen, a terrorist group that employed “armed propaganda,” bombing offices they decided contributed to war abroad or oppression at home. 

At the core of the problem of not talking is the anti-intellectual, undemocratic notion that “the debate is over.”  Let’s talk, let’s listen, let’s debate, let’s try to understand another’s position before we analyze it, and try to analyze it before we attack it.  It’s just possible that in doing so we might learn something, as Benjamin Franklin implied when he called for compromise at the Constitutional Convention with this admission:

“For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”

Being Franklin, of course, he then summarized his point in a story, poking fun at “a certain French lady” who said, “I don't know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with nobody but myself, that's always in the right — Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison.” 

We can certainly fault compromise, and indeed we should fault the ugliest compromise in the Constitution, which was the trade of slavery for union.  But it is in the nature of compromises never to please either side.  Without compromise we can have no country, but without talking we can have no compromise.

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