Whither Voltaire?

Voltaire never actually said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Many Americans say it, however—knowing the likelihood of their having to lay down their lives for free speech is roughly nil—because, well, they’re Americans. Defense of free speech is baked into our collective DNA. Or at least it used to be. If nothing else, the Trump Circus of the last few weeks has laid bare a newfound, shall we say, flexibility when it comes to free speech. Forget about defending it to the death. Many of us seem to quiver at the prospect of getting unfriended on Facebook.

Now I take a back seat to no one in my revulsion for Donald Trump—the man, as well as the candidate. Saying he’s intellectually and temperamentally unfit for the presidency is like saying Keith Richards isn’t much of a morning person. You’re not exactly breaking news. But anyone with even a faint notion of what it means to be a citizen should be appalled that a ragtag mob of protesters—some chanting their support for faux socialist kewpie doll Bernie Sanders, others sporting Black Lives Matter! T-shirts—was able to shut down a Trump rally last week in Chicago.

The response?

Let’s just say it has lacked many defenses-to-the-death.

Trump’s three Republican rivals, for example, after perfunctory condemnations of the protests, said, in effect, Look at what happens when you’re not nice to people. Without naming Trump, Hillary Clinton condemned “divisive rhetoric.” Sanders was less shy: “What caused the protests at Trump’s rally is a candidate that has promoted hatred and division against Latinos, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities, and his birther attacks against the legitimacy of President Obama.” (You'd think Sanders would credit the protesters, given the number who were chanting his name, with a greater degree of moral agency, but, hey, he's a central planning kind of guy.) MoveOn.org took the whole thing up a notch, venturing into traditional brown shirt terrain: “Mr. Trump and the Republican leaders who support him and his hate-filled rhetoric should be on notice after tonight’s events.” Even President Obama got in a rhetorical sucker punch, again without mentioning Trump by name: "Our leaders—those who aspire to be our leaders—should be trying to bring us together and not turning us against one another.”

Well, yeah, Mr. President, it’s great if they do. But does their kumbaya-quotient determine their right to speak to a crowd that shows up to hear them?

The truth of the matter is that last week’s Chicago shut-down had little to do with Trump or his supporters. Rather, it had to do with a growing contingent of young people—the protesters’ youth is evident in every video clip of the incident—who feel entitled to silence speech they don't like. They want to claim the entire US as a "safe space" for their political orthodoxy because they know, in a reptilian-brained kind of way, that their orthodoxy cannot withstand rational scrutiny.

That last point should not be overlooked. The safe spaces we find on many college campuses are not places students go to avoid getting their feelings hurt; they’re places students go to avoid having their opinions challenged—which is natural since their deepest convictions are rooted in a perpetual sense of victimhood rather than in empirical evidence or logical reasoning. If you reject their victimhood, as conservative speakers are wont to do, you reject their entire identity. You reject them.

All of which makes Trump their ideal foil. Not only does he reject their victimhood, he’s as brutish, cliché ridden and bereft of self-awareness and self-control as they are; they detest his agenda (insofar as it can be gleaned from the word salads he tosses) and realize that few in the media (not even at the hated Fox News) will rise to his defense. He’s the kind of guy you can call a totalitarian, with only a Cliff’s Notes grasp of the term, based primarily on his jaw line. So why not shut him down?

Answer: Because you don’t shut down political speech. Full stop.

Ironically, there is a whiff of totalitarianism blowing across the political landscape right now. It’s the same one that’s already befogged many college campuses. And it ain’t coming from Trump.

Politics and the Writerly Imagination

My new essay for the NY Writers Workshop website:


As I type these words, we’re well into primary season for the 2016 presidential election. Social media—and by social media, I mean Facebook, which is the sum of what old farts like me can master—are abuzz, and often ablaze, with political opinion. Most FB pundits are risibly bad at it. They apply the approximate argumentative rigor of two drunks poking their fingers into one another’s chests after a long night at the pub: they trust news sources friendly to their side and dismiss those opposed; they pick the worst exemplars of their opponents and declare them representative; they parrot statistics so preposterously deceptive than no one with even a cursory acquaintance with the subject could take them seriously.

This shouldn’t come as a shock. Most people are too busy getting on with their lives to master the nuances of political discourse, let alone the geopolitical histories and socioeconomic theories that go into actual policymaking. Writers, as a subset of planetary inhabitants, are not exempt in that regard. The ability to find the right words, or to put together sentences in pleasing patterns, doesn’t confer particular insight into other realms of human experience. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Knut Hamsun, we may recall, actively and enthusiastically supported National Socialism, including the Nazi invasion of his native Norway.

That a vast majority of contemporary American writers are politically left-of-center shouldn’t come as a shock either. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll mention that I was a right-of-center political columnist for many years.) Writers are by definition manipulators: they create plots and pivot off readers’ expectations, they incarnate ideas in characters and breathe life into them, they bend the possibilities of language to their artistic vision. Any wonder, then, that when it comes to deciding how people should be governed, writers are often drawn to central planning? So, too, writers tend to be Romantics—they’re suckers for sentiment over logic, rebellion over conformity, nature over the inventions of man. In other words, they’re still feeling the psychic effects of the upheavals in American society during the late 1960s (usually without recognizing that the sixties were themselves a less literate rerun of the English Romantic Era of the early 1800s). They reflexively side with the underdog, without asking whether the underdog may be rabid. They assume might makes wrong.

The truth of course—and I use the words “of course” only to lubricate your ears for what follows—is that there are intelligent, well-meaning people on both sides of every major issue in American politics. For that very reason, political tolerance—or lack thereof—serves as an efficient indicator of a writer’s potential and limitations. Let me be blunt here: if you cannot imagine a character, a three-dimensional character, worthy of your authorial labor and your reader’s affection, who exemplifies everything you detest politically, you’ll never be a successful writer.

Writing is an exercise in both sympathy (compassion for another) and empathy (inhabiting another’s perspective to the point of feeling what he feels). Successful writers flesh out their characters—protagonists and antagonists alike; they love and inhabit them equally. Even when they create outright villains, they don’t demonize them. Shakespeare’s Iago may have a deeply corrupt soul, but he does have a soul; the reader senses it even as Iago’s words and deeds horrify. In fact, they horrify precisely because he’s not a demon. He’s human. He got to be that way.

Fortunately, real life Iagos are few and far between. But political adversaries are plentiful…and demonizing them is not a writerly thing to do. In each case, by some mysterious combination of life circumstances, your political adversaries got to be that way. They’re living, breathing outcomes of experiences and belief sets which may be alien to yours, but which, if you’re serious about writing, you should be able to love and inhabit. If you cannot imagine an intelligent, well-meaning person whose politics are the polar opposite of your own, then your imagination has failed.

That blank page has gotten smaller.


Mark Goldblatt is the author, most recently, of the novel Finding the Worm (Random House). His essay collection, Right Tool for the Job: A Memoir of Manly Concerns will be published in June by Liberty Island Press.