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The Silencers

books and culture

The Silencers

Two complementary new books sound an alarm about liberal hostility to free speech. August 16, 2016
Arts and Culture
Politics and law

The Intimidation Game: How the Left is Silencing Free Speech, by Kimberly Strassel (Twelve Press, 396 pp., $30)

I Find that Offensive!, by Claire Fox (Biteback Publishing, 179 pp., $14.95)

The intense polarization of American life was captured in 2008 by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, a product of Chicago’s big-city pugilistic politics. Referring to the Republican opposition, he told a Philadelphia fundraiser that “if they bring a knife to a fight, we bring a gun. Because from what I understand folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.” In The Intimidation Game: How the Left is Silencing Speech, Kimberly Strassel, a Wall Street Journal columnist, shows that Obama’s rhetoric was more than just a metaphor. Strassel presents a richly reported account of the political weaponry Obama and his allies have used to silence their conservative foes.

Strassel’s chapters on the politicization of the IRS in Obama’s hands make for a striking summary of Chicago skullduggery. In 2012, an election year, the IRS, led by liberal operative Lois Lerner, systematically sidelined conservative (often Tea Party) organizations. The broadest and deepest scandal in IRS history is more than three years old, but there is little chance that Obama’s Chicago-ized Justice Department will hold anyone accountable. Strassel also discusses the attempts led by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Dick Durbin of Illinois to criminalize criticism of the standard-issue UN position on climate change. The senators insist that manmade climate change is a matter of “settled science.” But climate is always changing, and science is never settled.

In late 2008, after Democrats took control of all three branches of government, the Left realized, writes Strassel, that it could use the federal bureaucracy to deploy campaign finance laws selectively against its opponents. The Left could also call upon “the extraordinary new power of the Internet and social media” to convince “a credulous public” that its assaults on opposition political activity “were aimed at ‘cleaner’ and ‘more open’ elections.” This dynamic constitutes what Strassel calls “the modern intimidation game” that “now defines American politics.”

In Wisconsin, Democrats enraged by Governor Scott Walker’s successful effort to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees played the intimidation game even while out of power. The state’s Progressive-era laws, designed to ensure fair elections, and its unique Government Accountability Board were turned against conservative activists who supported Walker. Democratic Party county prosecutors pressed an array of lawsuits and used armed sheriffs’ deputies to stage early-morning raids, guns drawn, on the homes of conservative activists suspected of having marginally violated state campaign finance laws—in this case, the heinous crime of having outside committees coordinate campaign expenditures with Governor Walker’s electoral efforts. Further, the accused were forbidden by state law of telling anyone, except their lawyers, about the raids. Most of this, as Strassel accurately notes, was “simple harassment.”

As for real wrongdoing, the Obama administration, as Strassel explains, has slow-walked documents required for the investigation into the IRS scandals and the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious fiasco, in which the federal government inadvertently armed Mexican drug cartels. Moreover, the House committee examining the Benghazi debacle still doesn’t have tens of thousands of Hillary Clinton emails. But the investigation did inadvertently expose the former secretary of state’s home-brewed email server.

Perhaps Strassel’s most powerful points concern campaign-finance disclosure laws, which were supposed to lead to cleaner, more accountable politics. Instead, she notes that “the laws that were designed to keep the political class in check are being used to keep the American people in check,” and that the “entire concept of disclosure designed to shed light on special interests buying political favors had been flipped on its head.” Indeed, instead of the electorate gaining greater insight into the workings of government through increased disclosure, “disclosure is trained on the electorate,” with the government gathering extensive information on citizens’ political activities. In practice, this means that donors to conservative organizations whose names are made public are subject to intimidation by “social-justice warriors.” Strassel’s Intimidation is a bleak but essential tour of contemporary liberals’ affinity for repressing free speech.

In I Find that Offensive!, Claire Fox of the British Institute of Ideas explains why the left-liberal disdain for free expression has taken hold in academia. In the United States, free-speech advocates such as F.I.R.E (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) point to the misuse of title IX of the 1972 Education Act, which banned discrimination based on sex, as the source of the problem. In recent years, the Obama Justice Department has unilaterally expanded Title IX’s ambit to include speech that might cause offense.

Title IX has proved a useful mechanism for American academic censors, but the bigger problem, Fox makes clear, is that British and American academics have turned against the Enlightenment ideal of reasoned debate. One of the many virtues of Fox’s book is that by drawing on developments in both England and America, she shows that speakers are being shunned and free speech repressed, on both sides of the Atlantic, without the need of a Title IX to justify the tomfoolery. Shorn of a commitment to reason, young campus snowflakes came to believe that a verbal lashing could do the same kind of damage as a whiplashing. Fox also found a curious conjuncture between precious young neo-Victorian women who demand “safe spaces” and Muslim students who insist on the right not to be offended by the secular strictures of science.

The downgrading of free speech, Fox explains, begins in the middle grades, where a therapeutic approach to learning puts anti-bullying at the center of the curriculum. “Anti-bullying’s contribution,” she writes, “to treating our over-offended young adults therapeutically has produced children unprepared for the rough-and-tumble of everyday life. At the same time, it has inculcated a heightened sense of harm caused by words.” Today’s conformist rebels, she believes, are strikingly unoriginal. They play the talking dummy to their tutors’ 1960s ventriloquist. Fragile, prone to mental illness, ill-educated, and entitled, today’s college students feel the obligation to tell others, including their teachers, what they can say and how they should live.

Strassel’s Intimidation and Fox’s I Find that Offensive are marvelously complementary. Together, they sound an alarm bell. They explain why, having been failed by their educational systems, self-governing peoples, who once relied on free and open debate, will have a hard time making a go of it down the road.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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