wo days after Islamists killed nine staffers of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in January 2015, a writer for the most renowned magazine in the English-speaking world compared the victims to Nazis. On the website of the New Yorker, the Nigerian-American author Teju Cole wrote that while the slaughter was “an appalling offense to human life and dignity,” it was nonetheless necessary to realize that such violence takes “place against the backdrop of France’s ugly colonial history, its sizable Muslim population, and the suppression, in the name of secularism, of some Islamic cultural expressions, such as the hijab.” Invoking a paradigmatic free-speech test case, Cole stated that Charlie Hebdo had a right to publish blasphemous cartoons in the same way that the National Socialist Party of America had had a right to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1979.
And Cole was just getting started.
Before Westerners start making generalizations about Islam and free expression, he averred, they must first acknowledge their own bloodily censorious history—a history they have yet to transcend. Connecting the “witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition” of yore to the more recent “censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Cole ridiculed the West’s pretension of seeing itself as “the paradise of skepticism and rationalism” (even as he left unmentioned which of his opponents George W. Bush had burned at the stake). Preoccupation with Islamist violence and the chilling effect on free speech such violence creates, Cole argued, diverts scrutiny from Western governmental infringements upon liberty that are equally if not more grave. Citing the fate of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Cole asserted that Washington’s “traditional monopoly on extreme violence” and “harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly”—Cole’s euphemistic word salad for Snowden’s stealing top-secret information and sharing it with America’s adversaries—is as much a peril to freedom of speech as weapon-wielding religious fanatics threatening to kill anyone who displeases them.
Cole’s characterization of Charlie Hebdo as a product of the far right—a publication that “in recent years…has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations” and carried out a “bullyingly racist agenda”—betrayed his ignorance. Anyone who actually bothered to acquaint himself with Charlie would have learned from two minutes on Google that its “politics,” such as they are, are best described as anti-politics. Founded and staffed to this day by anarcho-leftist veterans of the 1968 student rebellions, Charlie Hebdo is anti-clerical and anti-establishment to the core. A survey by Le Monde of Charlie Hebdo covers over the preceding decade found that the vast majority mocked French political figures, and of the 38 covers that lampooned religion, 21 targeted Christianity while only seven went after Islam.
2015 saw the ideals of free expression and open debate come under sustained, heavy assault. And as time bore on, the perverse logic Cole employed to rationalize the Paris murders would prove to be a feature, not a bug, of the New Yorker’s coverage of free-speech issues.
To be sure, one would have to be at least moderately conversant in France’s political discourse and satiric tradition to understand the meaning of the Taubira cartoon; at first glance and devoid of context, it does indeed look like a crudely racist image. But it’s precisely that mix of subtlety and cultural arcana that characterizes Charlie Hebdo’s irreverence, and knowledge of that mix is something one might have expected from a piece of New Yorker writing on the matter. But in a perverse way, Cole, along with the 200-plus writers who signed an unctuous letter protesting the PEN American Center’s awarding a free speech prize to Charlie Hebdo’s surviving staff, chose to revel in their ignorance.
All they needed to know was that the murderers were dark-skinned Muslims and the victims (for the most part) white-skinned French; that a police officer and copy editor of North-African Muslim extraction was among the murdered was conveniently ignored. Adhering to a post-colonial identity politics of Western guilt neatly expressed by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, who condemned his assassinated colleagues as practitioners of “hate speech” who “punched downward” against “a powerless, disenfranchised minority,” this worldview ranks Muslims as the worldwide “subaltern” existing at the bottom of a hegemonic power structure commanded by white Western men.
2015 was the most consequential year for global free speech since at least 2006, when the Muhammad cartoon crisis erupted, if not 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini placed his fatwa on Salman Rushdie. The challenge has been multifaceted, appearing in the guise both of religious fanatics and oversensitive college students. Beginning with the Charlie Hebdo attacks and ending with a spate of controversies on American university campuses, 2015 saw the ideals of free expression and open debate come under sustained, heavy assault. And as time bore on, the perverse logic Cole employed to rationalize the Paris murders would prove to be a feature, not a bug, of the New Yorker’s coverage of free-speech issues, readily adopted by other contributors and applied to the quarrels at institutions of higher education.
JUST A FEW MONTHS before racially tinged psychodramas erupted at universities across the country last fall, New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh published a long article anticipating the controversies. Sanneh was skeptical of the very premise that “free speech,” which he repeatedly placed in scare quotes, was being threatened in any meaningful way by the demands of student activists agitating for the penalization of “microaggressions” (words or behaviors deemed insensitive), creation of “safe spaces” (physical areas, up to and including the entire campus, where utterance of certain arguments and ideas is prohibited), and the inscription of “trigger warnings” (cautionary content notices) within textbooks and assigned reading. To take but one of countless examples, a “Bias-Free Language Guide” posted on the website of the University of New Hampshire advised students against using the words “homosexual,” “American,” and “Arab,” in class conversations or written assignments, because they are “problematic.”
According to Sanneh, the threat to “free speech” at college campuses is chimerical. Mentioning an incident at a Minnesota university where students protested the presence of a camel at a party as a sign of anti-Arab racism, Sanneh wrote that “there is no advocacy group or high-profile politician avowedly devoted to the cause of cracking down on political speech, no national spokesperson for the war on camels. So [free-speech advocates] are forced to argue with evanescent Facebook groups or obscure junior faculty members or young people who had the misfortune to be quoted in the college newspaper.” Considering the extant institutionalization of speech codes at the majority of college campuses, however, the enemies of free speech don’t need “advocacy groups” to push their agenda, as speech-limitation is the status quo.
Sanneh’s attempt to discredit concerns about the increasingly Orwellian atmosphere on college campuses as right-wing fearmongering is undermined by significant oversights, beginning with his assertion that “restrictive campus speech codes have been widely repealed.” That is untrue. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization advocating for free speech on campuses, more than 55 percent of the top 437 colleges and universities it analyzed “maintain speech codes that seriously infringe upon the free speech of students.” Nationally, the Department of Education’s definition of “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” encompasses “verbal conduct,” a legal interpretation by a federal agency that many universities will regard as binding, meaning that “the right not to be offended has been enshrined in a federal mandate,” according to FIRE president Greg Lukianoff.
Why would Sanneh write off the danger to free speech in this way? Perhaps because by doing so he could more easily dismiss its defenders—much as Cole did the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo—as ideologues insensitive to racism, if not actual racists. “Speech nuts, like gun nuts, have amassed plenty of arguments, but they—we—are driven, too, by a shared sensibility that can seem irrational by European standards,” Sanneh wrote, casually linking those who defend an unfettered right to say what one wishes with those who defend an unfettered right to amass deadly weapons.
Like the writers who protested the PEN American Center, Sanneh sees freedom of speech and social inclusivity (of racial, religious, and sexual minorities) as mutually exclusive ideals, with the latter taking precedence. The “instinctive preference for ‘free speech’ may already be shaping the kinds of discussions we have, possibly by discouraging the participation of women, racial and sexual minorities, and anyone else likely to be singled out for ad hominem abuse,” he says of online political debate, which as those who have partaken in it can attest, often degenerates into noxious incivility. Sanneh’s preference is simply to stifle that discussion. “America’s free-speech regime is shot through with exceptions, including civil (and, in some states, criminal) laws against libel,” he wrote. “By what rationale do we insist that groups—races, communities of faith—don’t deserve similar protection?” A rather simple one, actually: libel and slander laws protect individuals from defamation. There is no such legal “protection”—nor should there be—for racial, religious, or any other “groups,” as instituting such restrictions would create a slippery slope toward full-on censorship.
It isn’t just neo-Nazis or blasphemous French cartoonists who should smile upon America’s unparalleled free-speech culture but also the supposedly threatened and fragile minority communities who are the recipients of the new censors’ purportedly benign attentions. It was the rights to free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment that enabled the civil-rights movement to stir America’s conscience in the fight against racial prejudice. That the same First Amendment also gives hate-mongers the right to gather and spew their hate does not invalidate its special power. Indeed, every movement for social progress in the United States has benefited from the rights so plainly enumerated in the Constitution. Contrary to the claim that improving the lot of minority groups must come at the expense of free speech, it is the assurance of free speech that leads to greater understanding and social harmony in a diverse population.
It would take only a few weeks after Sanneh’s article was published, with the beginning of the academic fall semester, for his article to be overtaken by events. From the University of Missouri to Yale, thousands of students across the country joined protests calling for ever-harsher speech codes and punishment for those who violated them, and they received enthusiastic support from prominent journalists, faculty, and political leaders.
Unsurprisingly, given the pedigrees of New Yorker readers, it was the events in New Haven that would most capture the magazine’s interest. In October 2015, a Yale student posted to her Facebook page the hearsay accusation that a fraternity had turned away a group of black women students from a “white girls only party.” Protests were convened, the rolling of heads was called for, and an investigation was launched. Around the same time, the administration sent an email to all undergraduates warning them not to wear Halloween costumes “that threaten our sense of community,” along with a handy list of “costumes to avoid.” Many Yalies understandably read the email as patronizing, and some complained to Erika Christakis, a professor of child psychology and the wife of the Master1 of Silliman College.
To allay the concerns of students who felt they were being treated like toddlers, Christakis replied to the missive with her own email that was a model of erudition and reasonableness. Drawing on her expertise in the field of child development, she asked whether it was really the role of an Ivy League university to instruct a group of 18- to 22-year-olds as to what Halloween costumes they should wear, and whether the faculty and administration had “lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure” and “in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you.” Little could she expect that students would behave so much like the pre-adolescent children who comprise her research cohort. What followed was a hysteria not dissimilar to the 1980s child-sex-abuse panic married to the inquisitorial paranoia of the Salem witch trials.
Like the four-year-olds at Fells Acres Day Care Center telling improbable tales of occult sodomitical rituals, innumerable Yale students poured forth with fantastical stories of omnipresent, yet never quite definable, racial transgressions committed against them. And as the 17th-century villagers in a small New England town accused their neighbors of possession by the devil, they went on the offensive against their perceived enemies, in this case, Erika Christakis and her husband, Nicolas. In the most infamous incident to make the online rounds, video emerged of a Yale senior at the head of a mob surrounding Nicolas, to whose face she delivered an expletive-laden tirade, highlights of which were the rhetorical question “Who the fuck hired you,” the accusation that he was “disgusting,” and the demand for a “safe space”—all for defending the honor of his wife from those insisting she be fired for questioning the propriety of an email about Halloween costumes.
It soon emerged that the occurrences at Yale were hoaxes or semi-hoaxes. After 1,000 students—about a fifth of the student body—descended upon Cross Campus to make various “demands” of the administration, a university investigation into the so-called white-girls-only party found that no such event had taken place and ruled that the frat would not face disciplinary charges. Those who initially publicized the accusation could at least claim that they were unaware of its fabricated nature; what was less excusable were the many people—students, faculty, media commentators—who lent credence to the narrative that the Christakis email was somehow inappropriate or racially insensitive. Lost in the massive news coverage about the Halloween costume brouhaha was any inquiry into whether there had even been incidents of Yalies donning racist costumes. Had there been such incidents, then perhaps a preemptive email to the student body discouraging racially or culturally insensitive pagan bacchanalia garb would have been appropriate. In the absence of such episodes, however, the suitability of the administration’s message was moot, at best, and Christakis’s response was entirely justified.
But that’s not how the New Yorker viewed the controversy, at least judging by the responses of its two writers who chose to weigh in on the matter, Meghan O’Rourke and Jelani Cobb. “Christakis was not responding to an actual event in which a student had been penalized for wearing such a costume, or to a prohibition against such costumes,” wrote O’Rourke, a poet and the magazine’s former fiction editor, faulting the professor for her “strangely tone-deaf” missive. One might similarly point out that the administrators who sent out the reproachful email to which Christakis replied were not responding to an actual event (or events) in which a student (or students) had worn such costumes, making their message strangely tone-deaf. “Christakis and her husband were privileging abstract free-speech rights over the immediate emotional experiences of those who are likely to experience discrimination at the university,” O’Rourke continued. This reasoning has the matter entirely backwards. It’s the “emotional experiences” of students to imaginary racial trauma that is “abstract,” not free speech, the most basic and tangible right afforded to every American.
Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and director of the Africana Studies Institute at nearby University of Connecticut, wrote that invocations to the sanctity of free speech were a “diversion” from the racist superstructure that lay at the heart of the campus upheaval. “The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights,” he asserted, without naming what “violation of principles relating to civil rights” had occurred on the Yale campus. Much in the same way that Cole and Senneh did before him, Cobb outlined a hierarchical system of values in which free speech is negotiable, not absolute, and is a right that can, and often should, be overridden in deference to the exigencies of what’s invariably described as racial or social “justice.” Denouncing “free speech purists,” he scandalously compared the Christakises and their defenders to southern segregationists who complained that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would “necessarily infringe upon the rights of whites.”
In one sentence, Cobb encapsulated the moral logic linking rationalization of the Paris murders to the demands of the New Haven protestors: “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.” This was a more florid version of Trudeau’s admonishment that satirists should never “punch down.” Drawing cartoons of Muhammad, writing emails that ask college students to behave like adults; these may, in the eyes of Cole and Cobb, not be morally “equivalent” to a “disenfranchised” Muslim denouncing “infidels” or a young black woman shouting imprecations at her white male professor. But they are no different in the eyes of the law, and making sweeping, categorical statements about the relative virtue of different forms of expression based entirely on the identity of the persons expressing it is a fundamentally illiberal concept.
This is the problem with the worldview proffered by the New Yorker. Free speech is a clear and definable right, with a discernable end, that all citizens equally enjoy. But the pursuit of racial and social “justice” is a vague and arbitrary agenda, has no clear end, and necessarily privileges certain groups over others. For Teju Cole, “social justice” demands that humanity defer to the sensitivities of an allegedly marginalized Muslim world (1.5 billion people, 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation). For Sanneh, Cobb, and O’Rourke, it demands that the proclaimed desire of (some) ethnic minority students to inhabit a “safe space” trump the constitutionally enumerated rights (not to mention educational experience) of everyone around them. In both instances, it is important to note, the New Yorker vanguard claims to speak on behalf of an entire group, as if every Muslim were offended by Charlie Hebdo and every black student outraged at Erika Christakis’s email.
Paul Rudnick is comforting the comforted—the New Yorker’s metropolitan liberal readership—by jeering at religious conservatives, much as the mandarins of mainstream American culture have been doing since long before the magazine’s signature cover model Eustace Tilley ever raised a monocle to his discerning eye.
Had Rudnick stuck to his well-justified ribbing of millennial obnoxiousness, “My Demands” might have been the most biting piece of satire to ridicule the nationwide campus controversies. But that wasn’t the path Rudnick chose. His narrator, the reader soon discovered, isn’t a social-justice warrior attending a prestigious liberal arts school, but rather a Nebraska Bible-college student. Included on her list of 12 demands: “In my class on harvest imagery in Leviticus, I would like Professor Stamwray to stop saying ‘Wheat is neat’” and “I insist on more diversity, by which I mean that the college should admit at least one qualified Lutheran student.” Far be it from me to advise a brilliant humorist like Paul Rudnick on the subject of comedy, but recognition—of mankind’s absurdities, hypocrisies, and failings—is essential to a joke’s landing successfully. If students at American religious colleges could be mocked for anything, it would be their obedience and submission to authority; they aren’t the least bit pretentious in the manner of the protesting denizens of Yale or Missouri.
In choosing these kids as his object of ridicule, and not the absurdly sanctimonious little Maoists cursing out professors for expressing incorrect thoughts about Halloween costumes, Rudnick was unintentionally publishing satire of the sort denounced by Garry Trudeau: He was punching down. For New Yorker readers, it’s inconceivable that racial minorities attending one of the country’s top Ivy League universities might occupy a higher plane on the socioeconomic ladder than their peers at obscure, religious institutions in the flyover states. According to this exclusively racialist conception of American society, a black Yale student on scholarship choosing among job offers from McKinsey, BCG, and Blackstone is more disadvantaged and “marginalized” than a white Brigham Young University counterpart working two jobs and taking out massive loans to pay for his education. Rudnick presumably believes he’s afflicting the comfortable by ridiculing students at Christian universities, where there have been no such controversies like the ones he is actually attempting to mock (the signal failure of recognition that explains why the piece isn’t funny). In reality, Rudnick is comforting the comforted—the New Yorker’s metropolitan liberal readership—by jeering at religious conservatives, much as the mandarins of mainstream American culture have been doing since long before the magazine’s signature cover model Eustace Tilley ever raised a monocle to his discerning eye.
Ironically, one of the best defenses of free speech ever mustered remains the 1974 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale. Drafted by a distinguished committee chaired by C. Vann Woodward, then the dean of American historians, the proximate cause for the “Woodward Report” was the decision by the Yale Political Union (YPU) to host a debate featuring William Shockley, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who later became a vocal supporter of eugenics. Delving into a 15-year history of racially charged free-speech controversies at Yale, from a cancelled George Wallace address to the campus takeover inspired by the New Haven Black Panther trials, the report—along with its dissenting statement—illustrates the remarkable consistency of pro- and anti-free speech arguments 42 years after they were published.
Warning against “paternalistic solicitude for minority welfare and feelings,” the report counsels against the sort of patronizing attitudes of those who support “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” today. In light of the current Yale administration’s craven surrender to student demands (apportioning $50 million for a “diversity” initiative), one grows nostalgic reading the denunciation by once Provost, future President Kingman Brewster (no conservative, he) of the “storm trooper tactics” students used to disrupt Shockley’s speech. His observance that “the capacity for responsibility which emerges from exposure to irresponsibility is far stronger, far tougher, far more impressive than the kind of responsibility which is either coerced by restraint or molded by paternalism,” is the same advice Erika Christakis, whether consciously or not, gave in her letter to the students of Silliman College.
Likewise, the arguments marshaled against free speech at Yale were remarkably similar to the ones employed today. Echoing Meghan O’Rourke, the chairman of the YPU’s Progressive Labor Party declared free speech “a nice abstract idea to enable people like Shockley to spread racism.” The author of the dissenting opinion, a Yale law-school graduate named Kenneth J. Barnes, argued that “free expression is not the only value which we uphold, either in our society or in our universities. Under certain circumstances, free expression is outweighed by more pressing issues, including the liberation of all oppressed people and equal opportunities for minority groups.” Barnes immediately sauntered into a disquisition on Marcusian theory, describing free speech as essentially a bourgeois right standing in the way of revolution. Free speech, Barnes wrote, “serves the cause of oppression,” for, as the radical Yale clergyman William Sloane Coffin declared at the time, “unless social justice is established in a country, civil liberties, which always concern intellectuals more than does social justice, look like luxuries.”
It’s worth remembering that the Woodward Report was written in response to a potential campus address by an actual, bona fide racist, not the specter of imaginary “white girls only” parties and phantom racist Halloween costumes. Considering how gutlessly administrators cave to far pettier, latter-day student concerns, it is frankly impossible to imagine an institution of Yale’s caliber drafting a statement so resoundingly supportive of the most basic liberal principle. Similarly, it would once have been impossible to imagine the New Yorker, or any other serious-minded magazine, being so cavalier about the principle that allows it and its writers to function freely. And it should be wary, as the New Yorker is itself a bastion of white male privilege, and intellectual surrender of the sort it has engaged in here will not slake the thirst of those who seek to dominate through the repression of speech. It only makes these foes of freedom more thirsty, and more likely to turn their pitiless gaze toward Eustace Tilley.
1 After some students complained that the very title of “Master,” the honorific given to heads of residential colleges and which originates from the scholastic nomenclature of Oxford and Cambridge, is racially traumatizing, the Master of Pierson College haughtily announced he would relinquish it because “there should be no context in our society or in our University in which an African-American student, professor, or staff member—or any person, for that matter—should be asked to call anyone ‘master.’” Harvard College has since officially followed suit and retired the title entirely.