Until the last few years, there was what seemed to be an untouchable status quo in the United States that everyone was entitled to free speech, even if the person was a bigot and their speech was hateful. We had the First Amendment standing behind this protection. When word came, decades ago, that Nazis were planning a march on Skokie, Ill., home of many Jewish Holocaust survivors, this revitalized the discussion. The Nazis, led by Frank Collin, had published a plan to march through the town in full Nazi costume. When the Chicago municipality attempted to stop it by claiming that the marchers could not use the swastika symbol in their march, because that was “fighting words” meant to incite violence, not free speech, the case eventually landed before the U.S. Supreme Court. Later that year, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Illinois Supreme Court. By January 1978, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the march was constitutionally protected, even with regard to the right to wear swastikas.
I am revisiting this prior history just to point out that for the last 35 years or so this was the status quo belief. People could march, even self-identifying Nazi sociopaths, as long as they had done their paperwork, had their permits and there was no violence.
In less extreme cases, in universities and elsewhere, Americans used to be proud to say to each other, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This was a noble belief that bound Americans of all stripes together.
It’s a different world now. Instead, we get universities opening up safe spaces, so that their students can retire, quailing in fear, whenever someone comes to the university with strong contrary opinions. That is, when the same students are not protesting violently and shutting that speech down so that no one can hear it, as we saw during the prior academic year at Berkeley University, Middlebury College and Claremont McKenna College.
Instead of being a place of learned debate, where you can sharpen your rhetorical skills by hearing the arguments of your adversaries, universities are giving in to student tantrums by removing from sight anything that is offensive, including art. A year and a half ago, Yale University went so far as to remove three portraits of John C. Calhoun, which hung in Calhoun College, part of the university, while it was making the decision to rename the college, which was then announced in February 2017. At the time, Yale President Peter Salovey stated that, “We must be vigilant not to erase the past.”
Just this month, Yale announced in Yale Alumni Magazine that it had made another decision, to blot out part of a small curved sculpture on Sterling Memorial Library of a Puritan holding a gun with an Indian on the other side of the curve. That gun, deemed offensive to the Yale Committee on Art in Public Spaces, has now been covered over in a block of stone so it is no longer visible, making it look exactly like what it is, a statue erased by history, making quick work of President Salovey’s solemn proclamation to the contrary. Indeed, behold the genius behind this act of censorship, which simultaneously wipes the statue clean of white racism, as represented by the Puritan threatening a Native American, as well as removing a controversial gun on a campus where guns are not permitted. What a double whammy!
According to recent polls, there is very little public support for removing statues from public spaces to sanitize history. As for Nazis, my own thought on the recent march is that only a group of deeply disturbed, cretinous people are going to self-identify publicly as Nazis in America in 2017 and show up to march. Why pay them heed? However, the fact that the police stood down and did not stop the violence that the Antifa began is a true problem. And the public reaction that has followed has only strengthened them. That is the worst thing about this. America, left and right, for the most part, loathes Nazis. We proudly call our soldiers who fought against Nazis the Greatest Generation. Unfortunately, the media show put on in Charlottesville and all the hysteria that has followed since, including President Trump’s failure to connect with the populace in his speech, has emboldened them like nothing else has.
Mara Schiffren, a Campus Watch Fellow, is a writer and functional medicine health coach who lives in North Salem.