Just Don’t Go
By Patrick F. Cannon
William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008) and Norman Mailer (1923-2007) could not have been more opposite in their backgrounds and politics. Buckley was a Roman Catholic from a wealthy Connecticut family, who became the founding editor of The National Review, the country’s foremost journal of conservative political thought. Mailer was the quintessential New York Jewish liberal intellectual. They were, therefore, ideal debate candidates.
It was in this role that I saw them in person, although I later tried to hire Buckley as a speaker. He had a conflict, but sent me a charming letter of refusal. In any event, I attended one of their debates in the late 1960s at a synagogue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Chicagoans will know that Hyde Park is the location of the University of Chicago, and has a notably brainy population. Most in the audience would have been more politically in sympathy with Mailer, but they were quite happy to let Buckley have his say.
I really don’t recall what exactly they were debating about, but it was spirited. From the tone, you would have thought they were mortal enemies. Imagine my surprise when I later discovered they became friends, which was typical of Buckley, who seemed amazingly able to divorce the personal from the political.
I don’t know who sponsored that long ago debate. I do know, however, that if the University of Chicago or any of its related organizations invited someone like Buckley to give a speech today, all hell would break loose. Student and other groups would demand that the invitation be withdrawn; if it were not, they would do everything they could to disrupt the proceedings. If the speaker were bold enough to actually take the podium, they would try to shout him or her down. Often, unfortunately, they would succeed. In some cases, students and others have even resorted to violence to scare unpleasant ideas away.
This kind of betrayal of free speech – enshrined in the very First Amendment to our Constitution – is happening at universities throughout the country. Some have even withdrawn invitations to spare their poor students from hearing something the students have decided they don’t want to hear. This is a denial of the very idea of the academy as a place where students are exposed to the widest possible views as a preparation for being able to make informed decisions later in life. In many cases, they are aided and abetted by Marxist-leaning professors, who have somehow failed to notice that history has passed them by.
While there are some universities that still insist that their students receive at least a basic liberal education, many others are giving students wide latitude to design their own curricula, one that insulates them from anything they might deem unpleasant. The real world, alas, will not be so accommodating.
While I’m a great believer in mandatory courses, particularly in history and government, no one should be required to hear an invited speaker whose views they detest. The list of speakers I would avoid is long, just as is the list of songs, television shows, books and movies. I recognize, however reluctantly (sometimes!), that others have an absolute right to hear and see what they wish. Preventing them from exercising these rights runs counter to not only the First Amendment, but to our democratic principles as well. But perhaps these young people who would banish any ideas but their own have different role models. I can think of three anti-speech heroes: Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and that late darling of the left, Fidel Castro.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon