In a moment I’m going to ask you to help with NR’s ongoing Webathon, but first I want to tell you a story.
One night, back when I was in college, I got into a heated political argument at one of the ancient subterranean bars that were dotted haphazardly around the campus. I’d never met the guy I was sparring with before — we just sort of slid into it, slowly — and, unaware of what I was up against, I lost badly. In truth, I didn’t know enough about our topic, was over-encouraged by the wine, and, even when I was on more solid ground, simply wasn’t as good a debater as he was.
And so, chastened by my apparent inability to make my case as well as I would have liked, I started screaming and crying and carrying on like a banshee. “You have made me literally unsafe,” I yelled, while a friend frantically called the police to see if he’d broken any laws. Later that night, after I’d paid my substantial bar tab, I went to the headquarters of the student newspaper for which my interlocutor wrote, and I burned it to the ground. That, I thought, will be the last argument he ever wins.
Of course, I actually did nothing of the sort — because I wasn’t a frickin’ child. Instead, I resolved do some more reading on the topics we had been discussing, contrived to learn from my antagonist’s impressive rhetorical style, and — get this — realized that, on a few of the issues that had come, I had actually been wrong. It has now been 15 years since that evening, but I still think about it a great deal. All told, it probably did as much for my education as any of the classes I attended. Sometimes, it helps to be told that you are wrong or that you don’t know enough to engage with a subject properly — or both.
Until recently, this idea was a relatively uncontroversial one in America. And then, all of a sudden, that changed. At lightning speed, “free speech” was reclassified as a tool of oppression; “debate” was recast as a euphemism for the “denial of humanity”; and, most perverse of all, the two places in America where discussion is supposed to flow more freely than anywhere else — the college campus and the newspaper editorial page — became leading venues in the charge against open inquiry. By these lights have the dissenters been forced into the wilderness. Time was when a controversial or unpopular writer might expect to be deemed “wrong” or “misguided” or even “evil.” But now? Now he is so “dangerous” that he must be “canceled” from public life entirely.
Underpinning this tendency is an assumption of the most destructive kind: That there exists in the United States a benign clerisy, which is not only in possession of the truth, but which is obliged to act as the arbiter of taste on behalf of everyone who is not. Integral to this way of thinking is the conviction that open dialogue is less the vital means by which people of differing opinions might interrogate contentious claims, examine competing values, and, ultimately, reach peaceful and salutary compromise, and more a precarious loophole that permits those with bad ideas to corrupt the perfect aims of those who know beyond doubt what is best.
Writing in 1955, William F. Buckley Jr. introduced his new magazine by proposing that “there never was an age of conformity quite like this one” and vowing to smash that conformity up. There is little doubt that he was correct in his assessment, but, there being no such thing as permanent victories, one cannot help but suspect that he would have been equally concerned by our own. Evidently, we exist for the same reasons today as we did then: Because the opponents of our classical liberal order never, ever give up.
As I see it, there are three great challenges before us. The first: To fight against the spread of the inherent wrong that is “cancel culture,” wherever it may be found and irrespective of whether it affects us directly. The second: To show the journalistic universe that it is trending quickly in the wrong direction, and that sturdy debate and the magnanimous acceptance of difference are not the outmoded vestiges of a different age, but the very prerequisites of a thriving republic. The third: To use our unalienable rights to speak and write and argue and appeal to stand up for what we believe to be true.
With your help, this is precisely what we will do. One of the best things about National Review is that it gives its writers the chance to thumb their noses at the cancelers and say, “Not today, buddy, and not here.” Unlike at the New York Times, National Review’s staff do not spend their days bullying each other or trying to get their colleagues fired, and when profound differences of opinion do arise, they take the only honorable course available: They argue it out in public. But they can only do this thanks to your ongoing generosity, which serves in effect to build a tall wall between us and the mob. With your help, we can keep the pitchforks out for yet another year.