Essay: 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.) 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.