Neocons and Free Speech

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A key point that my polemic on the neocons and free speech failed to make is that the issues being discussed go back a long way. Already in the seventies the Straussian wing of the neocon persuasion was expressing the judgment that the First Amendment only serves to protect "good" speech. Walter Berns, of Georgetown and AEI, dealt at length with this subject in The First Amendment and the Future of American Democracy, a work that condemns the practice of extending tolerance to the opponents of "liberal democracy," as understood by Bernes and his friends.

Furthermore, neocons made a slanderous racket against Southern conservative scholar M.E. Bradford, when this well-mannered gentleman was being considered for the directorship of the NEH in 1981. The attacks that the neocon press unleashed against Bradford strongly suggested that his published critical remarks on Lincoln and, more generally, on the civil rights movement had no place in the "democratic" society that the neocons were then fashioning.

In my own book on The Conservative Movement, particularly the second edition, I focus on these odious events of the early eighties. Note that there is no justification for the impression that the tirades against politically incorrect speech, launched from the Left, in the New York Post represents a new phase of neocon mischief. Conspiring against liberty has been the practice of that group all along.

What did separate their old arguments from their most recent ones was an attempt until recently to dress up the fear of rightwing expressiveness in a diversionary garb. Thus the anti-free speech polemics published by Berns, Kristol, Sr., and other Straussian ideologues twenty or thirty years ago went after pornography and the use of the First Amendment by Communist Party members.

There was also a preference expressed, at least in the case of Kristol, for having local authorities do the restricting of published material and an emphasis on the morally harmful effect of sexually degrading materials. As a strict constitutionalist and a moral traditionalist, I personally had no problems with this position at the time. There also seemed to be some merit in the arguments made by Straussians against free speech absolutists, who wished to treat all ideas as having the same intrinsic moral or intellectual worth.

One might also endorse up to a point the then-popular neocon (and Buckleyite) reminder that a lunatic should not be allowed to cry "fire" without ample justification in a crowded place — and, by extension, to incite the violent overthrow of the American constitutional order.

But such rhetoric concealed unstated premises: that the federal government has the same right to censor as does a town or a state, that controls that might be appropriate for a community in dealing with pornography should also be extended to federal bureaucrats enforcing "democratic" ideology, that because an idea is wrong political censors are necessary, and that one can go on regulating "subversive" thought without this practice becoming addictive.

By the eighties what had been probable turned into fact: Neocon publicists were making the federal government into the protector of public morals and identifying such morals with their own political concerns.

One must still look in vain for a single complaint in a neocon publication directed against the criminalization of speech and writing that has gone on in Europe. The bizarre coverage of the battle between David Irving and (my fellow-German Jew) Deborah Lipstadt by the rising neocon star Jacob Heilbrunn in National Review (April 2) is a case in point. Heilbrunn celebrates Lipstadt’s success in defeating Irving’s libel case against her as a victory against anti-Semitism being fomented by Holocaust-deniers.

Contrary to the apparently easy-going British establishment historians, Heilbrunn insists on following Lipstadt’s course, "to deny the deniers the publicity they crave." He also strongly indicates that the refusal to embrace this course, and to treat Irving as a serious historian of the Second World War, reflects lingering anti-Semitic attitudes. But what Heilbrunn offers is less a defense of historical accuracy than a whitewash of Lipstadt and of the Simon Wiesenthal Center that sponsors her.

Lipstadt and her sponsors having been working famously, ever since I can recall, to stamp out politically incorrect speech and publications as a dangerous source of anti-Semitism. Every time a European government muzzles rightwing critics, it is the Wiesenthal Center’s "concern" that is cited as a consideration. The view of civil liberties that the Center and Lipstadt embody is impeccably totalitarian, and it is quite possible that Irving, or someone distributing his books, will soon be going to jail somewhere in Europe because of the policies that Lipstadt advocates in order to deny the wrong sorts of people "the publicity they crave."

One should not hold one’s breathe until the neocons or their kept conservative movement gets exercised over such issues. That kind of stuff, we can expect to be told, is not what conservatism is about. It is about "values," or, more accurately, about what is defined as such by the Beltway think tanks and the New York Post editorial office.

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of the highly recommended After Liberalism.

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