Let’s all take a deep breath. A Yale professor telling a few colleagues and students that she is “considering” suing “presumably for libel” so that the Yale Daily News would, in accordance with its own policies, remove several disparaging remarks about her from the same Web page that hosts an article she wrote is not quite the same thing as having “thought police.” Threatening legal action to get people to do what they were supposed to do in the first place is a time-honored America tradition; it’s what separates us from the animals.
You can still indulge your Ronald Reagan fetish on www.andrewsullivan.com; still spew bile about what the liberals have done to your country on www.freerepublic.org; or, God forbid, whine for 1,000 words about how Glenda Gilmore has oppressed you in the Yale Daily News. I’d also venture to say that such activity is not comparable with the worst excesses of the French Revolution, but I’m certain that would prompt Sullivan to unleash the anonymous troglodyte hordes upon my inbox.
Despite his best efforts, though, Davi Bernstein might have stumbled on to something with his column Monday (“Yale professors doubling as thought-police”). Many Americans of all stripes — particularly professors — have had to pay a harsh toll for exercising their rights in the post-Sept. 11 ubiquitous hysteria. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz was sued recently for recommending that Israel violate international law by using the threat of violence to coerce peaceful Palestinians into preventing violent Palestinians from attacking Israelis. Stupid and obnoxious, yes, but conservatives and liberals both jumped to his defense.
Dershowitz can relax. No defender of the status quo will ever have to worry about his or her freedom of speech; you can talk all day about how wonderful President Bush is or how the United States is the greatest nation in the world and you will, at worst, receive strong support and widespread applause. The First Amendment was not created to protect the cheerleaders of government policy (though it protects them too): It was created to protect the minority voices, the fringe and dissident views often subject to intimidation. What did Davi Bernstein get for his courageous criticism of Glenda Gilmore? Pages of praise from the peanut gallery on the News’ message board, a link on Andrew Sullivan’s Web site, and more than likely, the fear of his professors, none of whom want to repeat Gilmore’s mistake. And it was a mistake — she should have known to never say anything critical of the government’s policies. Do so, and you’d better be prepared to screen phone calls and to ignore every type of invective that can be thrown your way.
Because it will be thrown your way and your credentials will be questioned. Daniel Pipes and Andrew Sullivan will use their national forums to tell everyone how you hate America, and no one will rise to your defense because they’re afraid about what fate will befall them if they, too, step out of line. Let’s test this theory. I don’t entirely agree with Gilmore’s column; I read “The Threatening Storm” a few weeks ago and I can see why, if we fail to obtain United Nations support for an invasion of Iraq, unilateral action might be necessary within the next few years. Gilmore is my essay adviser; were she the anti-American freedom-hating fascist I keep hearing she is, then I have just doomed my senior essay. But I’m not worried about that part. I’m worried about this part: President Bush’s policy towards Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster, not least because of the administration’s inability to separate the new national security strategy’s stated goals from the action in Iraq, a blunder which has engendered hate and distrust around the world. Bush has also expended a significant amount of our foreign policy credibility on politically motivated bluster and braggadocio.
Now read this column online and see what replies it got: that’s the New America. How does it look to you?
Max Kennerly is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.