10 July 2014
When Eleanor Roosevelt came to speak at Vassar in 1948, she was vilified by many Conservatives as a “left-wing Communist sympathizer.” The national climate was peppered with insinuation and accusation as the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, the Rosenbergs dominated the headlines, and the view of Russia as a monolithic evil took hold. In this grim prelude to the McCarthy era, anyone to the left of Bill Buckley, another campus visitor, was suspect. The Vassar campus climate, on the other hand, was one of fierce protection of the right of any invited speaker to speak his mind.
During that year, as a freshman, I went to a lecture by the head of the Jefferson School for Marxism which was then on the Attorney General’s official list of subversive organizations. Speaking to a full house, he called for the overthrow of the United States Government. During the question period, I called out in anger, “How can you attack the government that allows you to speak?
The next morning, a note in my mailbox read, “President Blanding would like to see you in her office.” “Come in,” she said. “Let’s talk about the First Amendment.” She explained her determination that Vassar would bend to no pressure in welcoming speakers representing any point of view, especially in times of controversy. She asked that we listen to all speakers, weigh the input, and argue the issues in the public forum that Vassar offered. Her words to me were an elegant incitement to a student to protect the public forum as the battlefield of ideas.
Sixteen years after our encounter, President Blanding returned to walk in an inaugural parade for a new Vassar president. When she spotted me, she leaned over and whispered, “Would you have let the Nazis march in Skokie?”
For sixty-six years after that meeting in her office, her words and the atmosphere she created on that campus have formed the bedrock of my personal and political beliefs.
Today we are in another unenviable mess. Liberals want to make laws against offensive speech that hurts others. Conservatives exercise their first amendment rights with varying kinds of destructive behavior – in speech particularly, in actions sometimes. They have painted swastikas on college dorm doors; they hurl racist insults; they attack President Obama with contrived insults from a well of deep hatred. They talk of his “exotic heritage” and blame him for the chaos in the Middle East. They have paralyzed Congress.
We are paying an awful price for people like Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Cliven Bundy, and most of the teapots. They are terrified of the rolling wave of history that is obliterating their power over nations, over women, and over employees. They are flailing as they drown. But outlawing their opinions is no solution. Left to their own, they will drown in their own foolishness. They are a generation accustomed to deference and they are livid at their loss of influence.
The First Amendment can never protect citizens from hatred and hatred is never a justification for limiting speech. The tough case is always the true test of democracy. The Nazis marched in Skokie exposing their hate to spectators. Joseph McCarthy flamed out in his own bile as citizens watched his hearings on that new invention – television. Derision is the answer to vicious thinkers. Outrageous ideas always rot in sunlight and spread in suppression. I’m grateful to have learned that in 1948.