“…the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong.”

— William Deresiewicz


Eons ago during the 1988 presidential campaign, President George Bush, running for a second term, accused his rival of being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” — as if that was a bad thing. Dukakis could hardly deny it — he was the one who said he was an ACLU member in the first place — but his polite Yale-schooled liberalism worked against him, and he lost in a landslide.

I’m a huge supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union — and yes, I’m a card-carrying member, just in case I’m asked to prove it. Coming from the UK, where there’s no Constitution, no Bill of Rights, just a mish-mash of common law going back to the Magna Carta of 1215, I’ve always been hugely impressed by the freedoms that the founders built into the law of the land. Especially that of the right to free speech and a free press, enshrined (I love that word) in the First Amendment.

Actually, I sharpened my free speech chops many years before arriving on these shores. At age 18, I was starting my civil engineering education at Queen Mary College (“dahn the Mile End Road, innit?”), a school within the University of London. The student union had invited Max Moseley to speak, and the debate — whether he should be disinvited for his far-right views — was acrimonious and lengthy.

Max Moseley is the youngest son of Oswald Moseley, leader of British “blackshirts,” a bunch of pro-Hitler thugs modeled on “El Duce” Mussolini’s 1930’s fascist paramilitary organization in Italy. Max’s father had once entertained the prospect of being Britain’s Prime Minister, and Max briefly took up the banner in the late 50’s and early 60’s under the guise of limiting immigration (sound familiar?) from Commonwealth (read: black) countries. We, the student body of QMC, ended up deciding to let the invitation stand, and Max Moseley did address us. We were hoping for fireworks, of course, but as I recall, it was more of a damp squib of a speech, nothing comparable to our current POTUS claiming, for instance, that Mexicans “…are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” But this was England, 1963. (Max soon grew bored following in his father’s right-wing footsteps, finding Formula One auto racing more to his liking.)


Fast forward to the recent anti-free-speech display at Berkeley, where the venomous ex-Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos was denied a platform after being invited to speak; and last week’s alarming scenes at Middlebury College, Vermont, where Charles Murray was shouted down and prevented from speaking. Murray is co-author of the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve, which claimed that 40 percent of intelligence is genetic, with the unsubtle sub-text that blacks are less intelligent that whites. (I tried reading it at the time, but got bogged down in statistics; the general consensus from reviewers was that the book was long on racism and short on hard facts.)

The plan at Middlebury was that Murray would be invited to take questions after his speech from Professor Allison Stanger, a left-leaning political scientist at the college and presumably a tough interlocutor for the right-wing Murray. (She’s been a member of the non-partisan Council for Foreign Relations think-tank for the past 13 years.) Didn’t happen. Instead, she ended up in the hospital after her neck was wrenched by a protester in a scuffle following the non-event.

Allison Stanger and Charles Murray. Photo: Middlebury College.

I quoted above from an article by author and critic William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar, in which he mourns the self-righteousness of students at liberal colleges who have convinced themselves that theirs are the only views worth listening to — and hence right-wing views don’t deserve a hearing. The popular refrain “It’s not a question of free speech, it’s a question of hate speech” is a shallow and unconvincing defense for objecting to anything you don’t like.

Deresiewicz’s final paragraph nailed it, when he asked, of private (liberal!) colleges, if they “want to be socialization machines for the upper-middle class, ideological enforcers of progressive dogma? Or do they want to be educational institutions in the only sense that really matters: places of free, frank, and fearless inquiry?” His accusation is a bit unfair: in the case of Berkeley and Middlebury, the college authorities supported the right of controversial speakers to be heard. It was the students, apparently, who objected.

But that’s what I love about the ACLU. Sure, they support a bunch of leftie causes. But this is also the organization that supported the right of American Nazis to hold a rally in predominantly Jewish Skokie, Illinois in 1978 (losing many members in the process). The ACLU has argued in the Supreme Court for the rights of a fundamentalist Christian church and for the International Society for Krisha Consciousness. It supported Oliver North in the arms-for-hostages debacle of the fading Reagan presidency. And much more. The ACLU models the notion that you don’t have to agree with Nazi fascism, or Charles Murray’s racist claims, or the misogynistic bullshit of Milo Yiannopoulos, to stand up for their right to speak.

And of course, nothing’s as black and white as my title implies. No one, in my view, deserves a platform to encourage violence, or pedophilia, or any one of a thousand “gotchas.” I remember, years ago, a representative of the ACLU spoke to our group of nuclear-freeze advocates in Bellingham. I naively asked if it was obvious which cases the organization took on. “You have no idea how tough it is,” she said, “We never stop arguing about what to advocate for and what to leave.”

Mostly, though, in a democracy, all you and I have to do is simply support the right of those we disagree with to be heard. When political correctness trumps free speech, all of us, left and right alike, are in trouble.