National Review cruise — The First Amendment

A fascinating view of George Town in the Grand Caymans
A fascinating view of George Town in the Grand Caymans
Today’s seminars were about the First and Second Amendment discussions. Both panels were interesting but I was absurdly gratified to discover that, with few exceptions, nothing was said that we at the Bookworm Room (both authors and commenters) haven’t already addressed, analyzed, concluded, or otherwise worked over factually and intellectually.

I wasn’t bored by the redundancy, though, because the panel members were unusually informed and witty. I did not take notes, but I will try to dredge up from the dim recesses of my memory some of the things that particularly struck me.

The first panel, which is the subject for this post, was on the First Amendment. James Lileks moderated a panel composed of David French, Charles Cooke, Jonah Goldberg, and Ramesh Ponnuru. They spent a quick hour looking at freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The point that most struck me was one that Jonah Goldberg made about Citizens United. He explained that the Left is being disingenuous at best when it waffles on that corporations are not people, and therefore shouldn’t have speech rights. In fact, the Left loves corporations that have speech rights: the news media and Hollywood. When Saturday Night Live or Jon Stewart or the New York Times are speaking, that’s sacrosanct, because the speech is already inherent in the corporation — and it’s Leftist speech. What the Left actually opposes is competition. It’s that simple.

Jonah made another excellent point about the fragile flowers on college campuses (a point, I believe, that he attributes originally to Jonathan Haidt). The craziness we see now started after I finished my education in the mid-1980s. What the late 1980s and early 1990s saw were some horrible, high profile cases of child abductions and murders. Polly Klaas springs to my mind because, although I was not a parent then, it happened within 50 miles of my home.

The result of these incidents was that parents became panic stricken. The childhood we remember — one of free play and, up to a point, free roaming — vanished. Kids were now kept in the perpetual ambit of an adult.

And adults, when they really took the time to see kids at play, were appalled. The reality, is that kids aren’t nice, they do bully, they don’t share, they have temper tantrums, and all that other fine stuff. Traditionally, there have been two ways to deal with these issues, ways that worked in tandem, not alone. Mom and Dad were minatory, stating the rules and nagging about them constantly. The kids’ peers were the ones who drove the parents’ lessons home. Moms and Dads were okay with this parallel discipline system, because they saw no need to have the kids with them all the time and therefore missed out on much of the useful brutality that is child’s play.

At the playground, in the school yard, in playrooms, and in the places in which kids created their own little worlds, peer lessons were swift and harsh. If you didn’t share, you were isolated or someone more enterprising might engage in self-help. If you had a temper tantrum and your friend had one too, you’d both have to figure out how to calm down. If you were a bully (within reasonable, non-adult intervention parameters), eventually the little worms you bullied would turn. Comeuppance was inevitable (something The Simpsons celebrated in an early episode before free range childhoods because a thing of the past). And of course, if you had a fight with your friend(s), you learned how to make up.

The new paradigm is that adults constantly supervise their children and their children’s friends and the children of their adult friends. Jonah pointed out that there are some children who have never had to navigate a difficult situation without adult intervention.

Certainly at my children’s schools the adults pared back playtime and instituted all sorts of bullying anti-bullying initiatives. The worst to my mind was their deputizing some children to become the “trained arbitrators” for their peers’ disputes . . . in elementary school. These supercilious children were roundly despised by the others but, with backing from school authorities, they were unavoidable.

The saving grace for my children was that they grew up in a free range neighborhood. After school, on weekends, and during breaks, we parents let them run free. They moved from house to house and park to park like starlings, responding to some swiftly interpreted messages that no grown-up could understand. My house was a particularly popular spot because, being a lazy, laissez faire kind of mom, I stated my rules (no illegal substances, no blood, no broken things, whether furniture or people) and then left them alone, rightfully confident that they could work everything else out.

Too many children, though, never escape the stifling embrace of adults determined to perfect them. When they leave their parents home, they’ve never faced down a bully, never resolved a fight, never been independent, and never been exposed to an idea they didn’t like. (As it happened, part of my laissez faire attitude came about because my mom, a woman ahead of her time, responded to her horrific childhood by wrapping me in cotton wool. I was helpless in my 20s, and I had a very rough time learning to be an independent adult. Indeed, I’m still learning that lesson in my 50s.)

When these swaddled children arrive in college, they expect the cotton wool to arrive with them. Sadly, the Leftist faculty on America campuses is more than happy to oblige. By teaching these young adults that they have the right never to be offended, frightened, or challenged, they create the perfect conditions for a society in which the right to speech, rather than being unalienable is, in fact, subject to emotional censorship: If your speech makes me uncomfortable in any way, I have the right to silence you, with government assistance if necessary.

Charles Cooke spoke about the way in which the English, through the medium of banned “hate speech,” have given themselves entirely over to this form of emotion-based censorship. The British are still relatively free in that utterly foolish cases will be kicked out of criminal court, but the reality is that if a case has a smidgen of “seriousness,” you can find yourself in jail (or because I’m talking about England, gaol). Self-censorship abounds.

Speaking of self-censorship, David French pointed out that his non-profit, which litigates cases defending freedom of speech and religion, wins because the courts are still respectful of the First Amendment (although we should be worried about the 400 federal justices Obama put into place). The risk now comes from cultural censorship. He said that cases can take years to get vindicated in the court system and, in the meantime, his client are suffering hellacious abuse from their peers on campus, up to and including death threats. It’s the rare person who has the stomach for this abuse so, as in England, increasing numbers of people self-censor.

There was a brief discussion about social media, and how the Left uses it to stifle speech, while the Alt-Right uses it simply as a medium for abuse. Regarding the Left, the current hope is that they go too far — as they seem to have done with their initiatives under Obama.

As for the Alt-Right, Ramesh Ponnuru expressed the hope that their numbers are a mere, minute, infinitesimal part of the Trump revolution. I think he’s right, although I agree with John Hillen that Trump, now that he has a bully pulpit, would do well to have his own Sister Souljah moment as a way to assure ordinary conservatives that, not only is he manifestly not a bigot, but he in no way condones bigotry amongst his supporters.

And now I must run. I’ll try later to sum up the Second Amendment talk.