Lieutenant Weinberg’s Lament

If it makes you feel any better, Americans are not all THAT divided. For example, there’s what NYT’s Frank Bruni called “the recent ugliness at Evergreen State College.” Long story short, student activists invited Evergreen’s whites to report to an off-campus “all-day program focusing on allyship and anti-racist work” rather than going to class. The so-called “Day of Absence,” held this year on April 14, is an annual Evergreen event that usually sees students of color meeting offsite for programs and conversations. This year, organizers opted to flip the script.

The shitshow began when biology professor and self-proclaimed progressive Bret Weinstein, like Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, took to the internet to register his outrage. But let Bret tell it: “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves…and encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”

Okay. If you buy that anti-racist activism is good for the community—and as a good progressive, Prof. Weinstein should—then how is it an “act of oppression” to ask whites to perform the community service that others have habitually done? Imagine we’re roommates: If I clean our communal bathroom week after week, I’m sweeping the leg of the logic of oppression. But if I ask you to clean it one week, I’m a sad study in historical irony?

Prof. Weinstein’s opposition to the Day of Absence resulted in him being cornered by a crowd of incensed, swearing students demanding his resignation. (As of this writing, he’s kept his job.) You can see what transpired in videos posted online. It’s hard to watch them and not feel at least a little sympathy for the guy. And here’s where we find a heartwarming moment of consensus amid the wrenching political divisions of the early Trump era. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson’s perpetually faux-astonished expression—as if crazy never set foot in Rupe’s house!—reflects the rhetoric in not one but two NYT op-eds on Evergreen. “These Campus Inquisitions Must Stop,” blares Bruni’s headline. The videos of student activists cussing, writes Times opinion editor Bari Weiss, “must be seen to be believed.” “It’s like something from another country,” opines Carlson, because the screams of teenagers have ne’er before been heard on these shores.

The campus activists, we’re constantly told by both libs and cons, trample freedom of speech. They nefariously shut down alt-right speeches on campus—forget that such speakers have no business at a university; their public appearances have no substance, unless you count picking on people who belong to groups they don’t like. They are the late-night infomercials of the marketplace of ideas. Small chance that anyone, gazing mistily back at youth from middle age, would recall “that lecture where Ann Coulter called Al Gore a fag” as a highlight of their schooldays.

To the character-molding rough-and-tumble play of ideas that sentimentalists seem to associate with “free speech,” college protesters are said to prefer “safe spaces,” zones of protection from dissenting speech. In the respectable American imagination, the two terms have almost assumed the status of opposites. The ears of the helicopter-parented are too delicate for the real world’s clangor, goes the popular perception. So we good Americans owe them a rude awakening. Exchange of ideas, in this mindset, becomes sand kicked in the face of the 98-pound weakling—which Americans always love. We love anything that brings the underdog out of his superior repose and into the democracy of violence.

Liberals’ love of whatever they think “free speech” is must run pretty deep, if it makes them so solicitous about alt-right honoraria (“How many n’s in Yiannopoulos?” inquired the bursar). How to explain it? The movie A Few Good Men (1992), written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, culminates in a scene we all know. Jack Nicholson’s tirade, a chew toy in the chops of such an able performer, treats of the damnable weakness and ingratitude of liberals who can’t handle the dirty truths of an impure world (“You want me on that wall, you NEED me on that wall!”), the bad things a patriot must do to save people’s not-necessarily-worthy lives. Even as it made Sorkin’s career, the scene rapidly entered the annals of high unintentional Hollywood comedy.

It’s strange that Nicholson’s Oscar moment could be at once so celebrated and so widely ridiculed—unless, that is, one recognizes that Sorkin agrees with what Nicholson’s character is saying, even as it inflames all his post-Vietnam ambivalence and Baby Boomer tsuris. “Yes, I am right, it’s a bloody mess of a world,” Sorkin would say. “We need ruthless men atop a rigid hierarchy, or else all is chaos. But we needn’t have an Establishment—we can have a meritocracy! And I’ve taken the liberty of having business cards made up.” Whether we know it or not, Sorkin’s chutzpah is what we laugh at, while applauding, in A Few Good Men—that, and the slickness of his softshoe. He summons his generation’s nightmares of authority only to justify his own compromises.

Sorkin’s scripts are shining examples of liberal “free speech.” With the inimitable Sorkin touch (combining pseudo-intellectual arrogance with cocaine volubility), his characters serve as PR agents for the meritocracy. It is a world apart from talking-head debates on cable news, where crosstalk usually precludes clear victory or defeat. Sorkin is all signal, no noise. Whether they win or lose, his heroes reassure us that the right men (and empowered gals) are in charge of things.

“Safe spaces” are anathema to purveyors and staunch defenders of this sort of “free speech,” not because of what they really are but what they connote: the hope of a social order which would not depend for its safety on violence or the threat of violence. Put another way, as a figure of speech, “safe spaces” has come to represent the now-despised possibility of public peace in an impure world. The cultural belief that anchors the established order—that without hierarchy and its violence there could be only chaos—would find no purchase in this notional society. So the Sorkins of the world do all they can to yank the yearning for it, which is the seed of it, from our imaginations.

We hear echoes of the same game in Britain now, whenever commentators mock Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for supposedly being more comfortable “tending his allotment” than upholding the national interest or somesuch. The mockery is meaningless—who doesn’t have a hobby?—if you don’t grasp that “allotment” fulfills the same rhetorical purpose as “safe space,” and is therefore an ideological indictment. It is meant to be symbolic of Corbyn’s putative quasi-Marxism, his lack of fealty to the established order, his disbelief in the meritocracy. Above all, the allotment represents for Corbyn’s opponents his refusal to use violence to protect the nation, and to show the proper deference to those who do.

“Free speech,” then, is not the bulwark against violence that many assume it is. The moral borderline presumed to separate words from action does not exist in all cases. Jeremy Christian, the Portland stabber, is an extreme (putting it mildly) but instructive example. Left-wing and right-wing groups are blaming Christian on one another, based on conflicting evidence from his social media posts. He supported Bernie Sanders, yet abhorred Hillary most of all. He vowed to vote for Trump, yet seemingly didn’t go through with it. He vehemently denied being a racist or a fascist. He did a Nazi salute at an alt-right rally, yet claimed he didn’t mean it—he was trying “to provoke both sides.”

His one constant—the fulcrum of his madness—emerged in open court on May 30, when he entered screaming “Free speech or die!…You’ve got no safe place!” Christian, too, would not allow crosstalk to muffle his message. He wanted the ultimate freedom of speech: a captive audience compelled by fear to silently hear whatever he chose to say. Anyone who had the temerity to try to impede his First Amendment rights would be slaughtered like a pig.

His aim was to shatter the public peace of a progressive city, to kick sand in the face of the cucks of Portland. It was no more “political” than that. With a 3.75-inch folding knife, he etched the lesson that the social ideal that the “safe space” implies was, as yet, a nascent imagining. Point taken. 

Ben Kessler can be reached at Kessler_b@yahoo.com. His Twitter handle is @koolfresh

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