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The Earth Quake, Hurricanes, Political Madness and Dilemmas of Free Speech

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I wake up, too early once again. I turn on my local public radio station, WNYC. I read my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, as has been my custom since I was twelve years old.

I am bewildered.

How can so much bad news be happening at the same time? A major earthquake, one horrendous hurricane after another, the Republicans in Congress on the brink of finally making sure that millions — old, poor and infirm — can’t go to the doctor? Then there is President Trump pledging to destroy North Korea, and denouncing “rocket man.” This, from “sovereignty man”? Some suffering is beyond political control. I know. But the present regime appears to be dedicated to make matters worse. My dark morning thought: will nuclear holocaust follow human-assisted natural disasters?

That’s a bit too much. But such thoughts make it hard to move on, to go through my morning rituals. I drink my coffee. I start writing. I will go for a swim in a few minutes. I am committed to writing this week’s variations on my intellectual obsessions, but I must push through this early morning malaise. Despite everything, I tell myself that it still is important to understand, and to appreciate the efforts of those who help us understand.

This week I am impressed by the tension between opening and restricting public life wherever I look.

Timothy Stewart-Winter considers what Chelsea Manning might have taught at Harvard, reporting on her unique personal experience as controversial whistle blower and “the best-known trans prisoner in a country that locks up more of its citizens than any other.” Manning was disinvited by the dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Douglas Elmendorf, apparently out of concern for official and public reaction to her presence at Harvard. Apparently, it wouldn’t play well on Fox or in the corridors of the Pentagon and Langley. She’s out, but ironically Corey Lewandowski is in.

Michelle Jones is also out of Harvard. She had her acceptance into the History Ph.D. program rescinded, after two American studies professors interceded with the administration. Jones had served over two decades in prison for murdering her four year son, a reprehensible crime for which she served hard time, during which she became a paralegal, earned a BA degree and became an accomplished scholar, publishing an article in a professional journal and presenting her paper remotely to professional meetings. Fear of how her acceptance would play in the right wing media was cited as a major reason for excluding Jones from Harvard’s community of scholars.

For Elena Gagovska, the Nazi, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, along with Donald Trump’s response, led to participation in a counter rally in Berlin, but also to a serious consideration of what political views should and what political views should not be present in colleges and universities. As she puts it: “‘I don’t like black coffee’ is an opinion. ‘I don’t like black people’ is racism. At an academic institution, one of these should not be acceptable.” Citing a lecture Angela Davis, Gagovska asserts that universities should “stand up for the truth and for the betterment of our world.” Moving, but I wonder who decides and on what grounds?

On Wednesday, we published two pieces that reveal the complexities of this issue. Paul A. Passavant and Jodi Dean reported on a protest at the American Political Science Association against the appearance of John Yoo, the author of memos designed to give legal cover to torture during the Bush administration prosecution of its “war on terrorism.” The elegant peaceful protest was described and Samantha Hill and Roger Berkowitz’s post “Room To Speak” published by the Hannah Arendt Center, arguing against the protest, was forcefully criticized.

Soon after we published Passavant and Dean, Jeffrey C. Isaac, sent us his reflections on the controversy. He doesn’t oppose or condemn the protest, but he wouldn’t join it. If I were a political scientist, I think this would have been my position too. I agree that the label “war crime” should be used very cautiously (and is someone a war criminal if he has neither been charged or convicted as one?) I agree that silencing ideas and judgments that go against the grain of dominant opinion, of the left, right and center, is dangerous. I know from long experience, an experience Jeff and I share through our engagement in East and Central Europe over the years, that sometimes the relationship between truth and visions of the betterment of the world, whether it is by ridding the world of “Islamic terrorism” or a commitment to revolutionary socialist transformation and Marxist — Leninism (i.e. Stalinism) is more tragic than their advocates perceive.

Yet, I also know that sometimes it is important to not only silence, but to vanquish those with reprehensible views. Last spring, I gave a lecture in Charlottesville. It was a quick visit, but my friend and colleague, Public Seminar editor Michael Weinman, showed me around the center of the city. While I was inspired by the free speech wall, which included both noble and vile statements, I was uncomfortable with the Confederate monuments there. I would be quite happy to live in a country that no longer officially glorified the defenders of slavery. I support taking the monuments down, or putting them into museums on the history of racism in America, or something of that sort. I note with pride how the issues surrounding the monuments, the protests in support and against white supremacy in Charlottesville, and the issues following the protests have been consider in their full complexity here on Public Seminar, including Michael’s “Aristotle on Charlottesville.” We are even considering putting them all together in our first published book. More on that soon.

There are, indeed, dilemmas connected to the support and consequences of free speech, cultural freedom and a free public life. Tolerating the intolerable does not come easy and it shouldn’t, but a free public life depends on uneasy judgment. A free and open arena for speech and action can empower, but sometimes that which is empowered must be resisted, think alt right and the young lads and ladies marching with their Tiki torches in Charlottesville. But also consider that what is intolerable to some includes a transgender leaker of official secrets and a convicted murderer of a four year old child.

As I tune in the radio again and pick up the newspaper, tired after working on this piece, I wonder if there is adequate opportunity for dealing with such challenging dilemmas, between human assisted natural disasters and the political crises of the day, before it is too late.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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