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Americans should be grateful to Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger for once again reminding that even world-class scholars can be completely ignorant about what’s genuinely important in their fields and what’s not.

According to Bollinger, writing in The Washington Post, Americans shouldn’t get up on their high horses (though he didn’t use that recent phrasing by President Obama) about all the anti-free-speech government repression and extremist group violence that seems so distressingly common around the world today. His reasoning: “[T]the protections for uninhibited expression in this country are just a half-century old.” Even better, writes Bollinger, also a law professor at the university, ‘The way that Americans learned to adapt to changing times, and to tolerate discordant views, shows how others can, too.”

The reason? America’s own free speech protections “were not attained quickly or easily, nor were they simply a product of judicial edict. They took hold because they emerged from larger forces that are visible again today around the world: expanding economic markets, quantum leaps in communications technology and a set of urgent social problems solvable only through previously unavailable levels of concerted action.” 

No one can doubt that Americans today are freer to express themselves in a greater variety of ways in a broader range of circumstances than before the landmark cases of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century that Bollinger cites. But that’s not to say that the author is remotely correct to imply, per his unmistakable line of argument, that that earlier America was comparable to today’s repressive societies.

For despite Bollinger’s reputation as one of the country’s foremost First Amendment scholars,” he seems not to know that the First Amendment established, and therefore began protecting, free expression rights, starting in 1791. Did barriers to unfettered speech continue afterwards? Of course – as Bollinger’s article usefully shows. But was the vast majority of Americans unable to voice a wide variety of opinions on a vast array of political, economic, and social issues? Were ordinary citizens and writers and cartoonists routinely prosecuted for portraying public figures in the most insulting possible ways? Were governments able to muzzle expression sufficiently to keep themselves in power illegally? To prevent the rise of political parties and movements with fundamentally different views? Of course not. Have protests been declared illegal from the get go? (Strikes were forbidden early in the republic – but recognized as a freedom in 1839.) Was even a significant share of the population ever barred from worshiping as it pleased? Of course not again.

Again, it’s valid, and worthy, to point out that America’s commitment to free expression has been a work in progress, and has been too often honored in the breach – especially in times of high civil tensions or peacetime foreign danger, when the most demanding tests of principle emerge. It’s just as important to remember the country’s history of slavery and denying the vote and other civil rights to non-whites and women (although Bollinger seems to distinguish these and similar major historic wrongs from anti-free-speech laws and policies per se, and in my view is analytically right to do so).

But it’s way off base to suggest that America before the mid-twentieth century was as thoroughly and fundamentally unfree and intolerant as modern Islamic theocracies and other majority Muslim countries, Russia, China and the like. And it’s positively dippy to contend, as Bollinger does, that free expression norms could spread strongly and quickly into such lands because of “the transition to a global society occurring today” that mirrors the prior transformation of “the United States into a truly national American society.” For a strong ideological consensus in favor of free expression already existed in the United States, and simply never developed in most of the rest of the world.

As a result, although Bollinger is right to warn against hastily “casting judgment on foreign governments and their people,” his article disturbingly indicates an overpowering reluctance to arrive at any reasonable, historically rooted judgments at all.

These truths are so self-evident that I feel almost embarrassed to articulate them. As a matter of fact, I suspect they’re evident to Bollinger, too, as well to the Washington Post editors who published his piece.  That they were apparently shunted aside by a prominent American academician and president of one of our greatest universities, and by the editors of a leading newspaper, in order to traffic in sophomoric moral equivalence, speaks volumes about what’s wrong with much of America’s guilt-ridden chattering classes. 

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