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Just Like Free Speech Blues Revisited


Now and then it is good to restate things of importance. The conservative view on Free Speech is an important thing, so here is my bald and hasty recapitulation of it.

As a generality conservatives are, by temperament, inclined to tolerate wide and eccentric opinion. Human variety perplexes or amuses them, but it does not alarm and agitate them. The censorious cast of mind is really quite rare among normal American conservatives. Only people who don’t really know any normal American conservatives can suppose otherwise. Conservatives are temperamentally tolerant in their approach to dispute and argumentation, especially once a rapport of professional or civil respect is established.

Put the other way, and much more polemically, the loudmouth inquisitors are preponderantly liberal or leftist.

A glimpse of conservative indulgence of dissent can be seen in the utter incapacity of the Right in America ever to achieve a working orthodoxy of political action. Not a few influential and brilliant conservatives refuse to vote in national elections at all, for instance. But Voting Conservatives are perfectly content to let Non-Voters speak their full mind, and vice versa.

Meanwhile liberals fly off in paroxysms of inquisitional tyranny every couple days. Social media has really accelerated these distempers, often to hilarious effect. Stephen Colbert was dragged toward the tweet-guillotine, and more conservatives came to his defense than liberals; who can satirize such marvelous irony?

But conservatives never imagine that their temperament might constitute a binding political principle. Orthodoxy does not emerge out of personality trait. Conservatives thus always do allow that, off at the end, necessity may include the suppression of dissent. Every sedition law, they do not suppose a reckless plunge into evil. Some such laws may be necessary and wise. So conservatives acknowledge and affirm that Free Speech cannot be absolute or universal.

It is possible to structure a formidable argument to the effect that American conservatives are too damned tolerant of too many damned things. Some might say the Non-Voters should shut their yappers until they can put their sovereignty where they mouth is. Others would have done forever with the Distributists, Agrarians and Crunchies. Interventionists and Noninterventionists are constantly at each others’ throats.

But it is part of my own loyalty to Conservatism that, in the end, most folks come around to tolerating even their most fearsome opponents in debate. Free Speech and Toleration, rightly understood, are principles worth fighting for, as comrades in arms against this betrayal by the Left.

Comments (6)

Worth a read even though (or perhaps, especially because) it comes from a lefty. The reference to Marcuse is key.


Paul, this is an excellent observation. It sometimes seems that the liberal fold veers from a perspective of "every kind of speech that is not mandated is forbidden" (PC codes and so on) to then a perspective of "every kind of speech that is not forbidden is mandatory" (in which the only celebrated and lauded speech is that which is evil, ornery, disgusting, or just plain nuts). And they switch from one to the other at random moments according to signals nobody knows until after the fact, like an enormous flock of starlings or school of fish. Or maybe like lemmings.

Alan Kors' The Shadow University is a catalog of the illiberalism of institutional leftism that is without peer. I don't personally know a single liberal who has ever been willing to read it cover to cover (and I've known a few who tried), because it is absolutely devastating to their unjustified view of "their side" as practically a 10th choir of angels. There's an entire chapter on Marcuse.

Kors is fond of the Justice Jackson quote, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act." The number of liberals who would steadfastly endorse that statement has dwindled dramatically in my lifetime, and I think every honest liberal probably knows it. I know that many of the liberals I know personally can only mumble shame-facedly when the subject of "toleration" comes up, saying something like, "Well, it's complicated."

Meantime, a quick story: I was at a shop yesterday where I sometimes play cards, and one young and urbane Northern Virginia liberal law clerk came strolling in. He and I are on friendly terms, so he walked over and we were chatting about nothing much, when we overheard someone mention that some famous professional wrestler had died (I have no idea know who it was, since watching pro wrestling is not exactly how I spend my evenings). My acquaintance shrugged and said--here I'm quoting word for word--"Yeah, he also once said that 'queering is bad for society,' so to hell with him. He deserved to die." This was offered in a most matter-of-fact, irony-free tone. I objected that that was a terrible thing to say and I was surprised to hear it, but he only furrowed his brows at me, and responded, "Well, it's true, isn't it?"

Needless to say, he and I won't be on friendly terms after that, but it's not an uncommon experience any place where a lot of thoroughly educated (or at least, thoroughly schooled) liberals congregate to hear unbelievably hateful things like this--I had quite the fill of it after spending ten years in college--and it's almost always something to do with homosexuals. Obviously, this issue of homosexual sodomy has become a litmus test of the most unreasoning and demented kind on the left, and every day it gets worse, particularly since for the most part, it isn't based on any actual thought, but on the ruthless enforcement of conformity and the dehumanization of anyone who won't toe the line.

But boy, what a bunch of independent thinkers we're dealing with. If you don't believe me, just ask them.

On another note, there was a brief, confused time in my life where I thought myself something of a "liberal" in the American sense. I read an interesting quote by some conservative author or other, who said that as of right now, all the really interesting debates are happening within the political right. That sounded perfectly impossible to me at the time, but it got me thinking and, lo and behold, I found it to be true.

Absolutely. There is far more lockstep 'orthodoxy' on the left than on the right.

I'm ordering the Kors book, Sage. Tx for the tip.

No problem, glad to hear it. It's certainly polemical in style and intent, but it stands apart from most right-of-center dime store polemics in that Kors is a pretty insightful and erudite scholar, not to mention a courageous and principled one. He was one of the leading intellectual lights in the formation of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He's a civil libertarian, which I'm not, and so I'm not quite as far down the road of free speech "absolutism" as he is, for lack of a better term. For example, he approvingly cites court cases that affirmed an Incorporation Doctrine approach to the First Amendment, which I reject, but the anecdotes he provides and much of the intellectual history makes for some very valuable reading.

Very sane post, Paul, thank you. What's astonishing is that this shouldn't be blindingly obvious.

Maybe part of the problem is that all the liberals who were more tolerant by temperament got mugged by reality twenty-five years ago and are now conservatives of some stripe or other, leaving the self-identified liberal camp a more and more concentrated solution of intolerance. Come to think of it, I witnessed a bit of that process in the 90's when the whole campus speech codes movement got going.

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