At Rutgers University, President Obama gave a commencement speech in which he argued against the campus culture of “safe spaces” and suppression of politically incorrect speech.
If participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you. I know a couple years ago, folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement. Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration. But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say—I believe that’s misguided. I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other. I believe that’s misguided.
If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments. And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything. And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe. Either way, you win. And more importantly, our democracy wins.
This is all very nice, and it’s a reminder of the fact that Obama became president in part because he had something of the style of an old-fashioned “liberal,” straight out of a time-warp from the early 1960s. The downside (for the country; it was a big selling point for Democrats) is that he acted as if big-government regulations and the welfare state were still fresh, promising, totally untried ideas, which had never produced any big failures or negative consequences. The plus side is that he still seemed to believe in old “liberal” pieties about colorblind politics and running for office “as if race doesn’t matter.” Or, as in this case, the old liberal pieties about being open-minded and tolerant of opposing views.
This was never quite what it seemed. The guy who promised racial reconciliation was the also the guy whose spiritual mentor was Jeremiah Wright. But that is what made him such an irresistibly perfect candidate for today’s Democratic Party: he had one foot in idealistic old-fashioned “liberalism,” and one foot planted very firmly in the illiberal far left. Just like the party he represents.
We can see that with these comments (and other recent comments Obama has made) opposing Political Correctness on campus. That’s all very good, but it seems to apply only to a narrow area—a safe space for free speech on campus. But go out into the real world and try to act on your conscience, and President Obama will bring the hammer down.
In fact, just a few days earlier, his administration announced a directive ordering all schools to allow boys into girls’ bathrooms if they claim to be “transgender.”
The Obama administration is planning to issue a sweeping directive telling every public school district in the country to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity…. It does not have the force of law, but it contains an implicit threat: Schools that do not abide by the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid.
This follows a decision by the Justice Department to prosecute the state of North Carolina under civil rights laws for rejecting the administration’s orthodoxy on this issue. In other words, President Obama believes in open debate and tolerance of opposing viewpoints—but make your bathrooms trans-friendly or else.
This is the same approach across the board. Debate all you like, but the Little Sisters of the Poor don’t get to avoid distributing birth control. (Unless the Supreme Court overrules the president.) And it goes without saying that this applies to every idea you might hold about economics, such as whether you should be forced to provide certain kinds of health insurance to your employees, as in the Hobby Lobby case.
This illuminates the basic contradiction in the old liberalism and the reason why it has slowly but inevitably rejected all of its old pieties about individual freedom (leaving “liberal” as a label to be picked up by somebody else). Liberal is as liberal does. The Left used to like the idea of being for “freedom,” but as a purely intellectual, theoretical phenomenon. Debate ideas all you like, just don’t dare act on your ideas. But of course people can’t help acting on their ideas, if only subconsciously, and bad ideas might lead to bad actions, and that cannot be allowed. So we’d better suppress the bad ideas just to make sure. In the soul of the American Left, the lust for control always struggled with pieties about tolerance, and the lust for control is winning out.
President Obama, with his support for tolerance in theory and his intolerance of dissidents in practice, is just reflecting this process, not opposing it.