The Corner

On ‘Civility’ and Freedom

As one of the graybeards around here, I’ve been dealing with the modern Left since 1967, when I first encountered this mutant species of snarling societal and cultural vandals in their native habitat, a major American private university. Wrapped in their Tarnhelms of “tolerance,” which protected them in their vulnerable cocoons, they incubated in a toxic amniotic broth of second-hand Marxism and third-generation gangsterism — red-diaper grandbabies with the street-fighting ethos of the old Gophers, Eastmans and Five Pointers. In the summer of 1968, like the chest-burster in Alien, they exploded through the institutional retaining walls, took to the streets of Chicago, and they’ve been with us ever since; in fact, they’re now in power.

So now that young whippersnappers like Mark, David, Jason, and Jack have raised the issue, allow me to weigh in. I inadvertently adumbrated this discussion on Friday afternoon in this post, in which I quoted the seminal Letter No. 15 by “Cato” on the absolute necessity of freedom of speech in a free society. To briefly recap:

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know… Guilt only dreads liberty of speech, which drags it out of its lurking holes, and exposes its deformity and horror to day-light. Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together . . .

This is not only an argument against censorship, it’s an argument against preemptive self-censorship and — to take it to its logical conclusion (which is where this is all heading) — retroactive censorship. Is everything from the pre-PC era to be sent down the memory hole? The Rat Pack’s humor, Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, even Mozart’s The Magic Flute, all because they might “offend” someone? I’ve seen this coming as far back as the mid-Seventies, when in a provincial production of Zauberfloete someone changed Monostatos, the Moor, from black to fat to avoid this aria. And today, it’s routinely bowdlerized. Has something been lost? Something gained? What, exactly?

Which brings us back to “civility” and the Left’s constant, protective plea for same: requested, but never granted in return. From Rules for Radical Conservatives, by the noted radical, David Kahane:

Treat us with the same contempt with which we treat you Or, to put it in language you might actually understand: treat us with same respect we give you, which is none.  Same difference. 

After all, you don’t see us being nice to you, do you? (Unless it’s when we desperately need something, or when the “lone” foreign crazy manages to rattle us for a minute or two, or when we’re looking down the barrel of an electoral gun.)  You don’t see us ever reaching across the aisle, extending the olive branch, blah blah blah.  Laurel wreaths are for winners, but olive branches can go pound sand.  If a tie, to use the old sports cliché, is like kissing your sister, losing is like… well, don’t make me go there.  Remember that poor schmuck Sully in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1985 movie, Commando?  You know, the part where Arnold quips: “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last”? 

Like Arnold: we lied.

Think of it as the cage in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome:  two men enter, one man leaves…

 It was fun while it lasted, but once the Baby Boomers and their congenital high moral dudgeon came into their majority – yes, at the dreaded age of 30, over which no one was to be trusted – the old beneficial truce between God and Satan was abrogated.  Half that generation cast off its organized-religious moorings as quickly as possible, and “experimented” with alternate lifestyles, sexualities, belief systems and political movements.  When the time came to make a living, they gravitated back to what they already knew, academe, or landed positions in law firms and in government.  Today, we call them “activists” and “advocates.”  The other half graduated from college, found jobs, got married, raised children and went to work every day whether they felt like it or not.  We call them “suckers,” or “you” for short.

As I said in my Friday post, the First Amendment did not grant a right to political free speech, it codified a preexisting right, earlier limned by Milton in the Areopagitica and by Cato, among others; and this is a right that should apply to all speech, not just political speech. Especially when, as now, the distinction has been blurred — by the Left — between the two spheres; as they say, the personal is political.

NR’s publisher is right: This is a fight, not an academic exercise. It’s time everybody on our side started acting like it. 

Michael Walsh — Mr. Walsh is the author of the novels Hostile Intent and Early Warning and, writing as frequent NRO contributor David Kahane, Rules for Radical Conservatives.