By now the sequence of events seems to run like clockwork. Every now and then, one of those beige posters goes up bearing the face of Ronald Reagan and announcing a coming lecture by a political figure — such as Karl Rove, John Bolton or, most recently, fracking advocate Daniel Simmons — whose opinions fall far to the right of the Oberlin mainstream. Much ado is raised, and when the speaker comes, he (or occasionally she) is met with disrespectful interruptions and other forms of peaceful protest, causing a semi-regular flap over both the effectiveness of campus activism and the controversial speakers’ right to lecture uninterrupted. Perhaps fed up with this dynamic, the Oberlin College Dialogue Center is facilitating a forum on April 27 about the boundaries of free speech and political dissent, inspired by Voltaire’s famous axiom, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It’s important for any dialogue on these issues to acknowledge that disruptive public disdain toward controversial speakers, even those held in high esteem by large segments of the political establishment, has an established history in the loftiest citadels of intellectual discourse. To provide one excellent example, African-American writer/activist James Baldwin and “father of modern conservatism” William F. Buckley met at Cambridge University in 1965 to debate the question, “Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” After Baldwin received a long standing ovation, Buckley’s speech was peppered with conspicuous coughing, snide laughter and other disrespectful interjections, and at one point was interrupted outright by a student exclaiming that “one thing you might do, Mr. Buckley, is let [African Americans] vote in Mississippi!” and drawing applause warmer than any given to the speaker.
What did Buckley do to warrant this sort of reaction? He spoke with wit and abided by all the customs of the hall, so how could the audience have treated him so callously? The Cambridge students seemed to have too much contempt for the actual content of Buckley’s views to defer to his upstanding form — and particularly with the hindsight of half a century’s progress on racial issues, it’s easy to see why. His opening point was to patronizingly characterize Baldwin’s “most striking” objection to American racism as “the refusal of the American community to treat him other than as a Negro,” and he eluded the question of equal voting rights with a maddeningly off-topic appeal to the Cambridge audience’s underlying elitism, claiming that “the problem in Mississippi is not that not enough Negros are voting but that too many white people are voting.” Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates characterized Buckley as “neither regard[ing] Baldwin with any seriousness, nor the issue with any real concern,” and the audience evidently judged the moral consequences of his attitude to matter far more than his establishment bona fides in deciding how seriously to regard him in return.
This consequentialist mentality is featured prominently in one of the greatest scenes from one of the greatest shows on television. In the sixth episode of Season 2 of The Wire, notorious lone gunman Omar Little testifies in court against a lieutenant of the Barksdale crime syndicate, and faces cross-examination by Barksdale attorney Maurice Levy. As Levy turns toward the jury for his climactic argument belittling Omar as “a parasite who leeches off the culture of drugs,” Omar interrupts: “Just like you, man.” The courtroom is shocked into silence as he explains: “I got the shotgun… you got the briefcase… it’s all in the game though, right?”
The conception of moral authority expressed so starkly through The Wire’s overwrought courtroom drama is far from original: To quote another axiom from the pen of Voltaire, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” The natural conclusion of this sort of reasoning is that moral responsibility knows no dress code, dialect or flag, and that all those who work to maintain an element of the status quo must own up to its consequences no matter the emblems on their passports or the size or source of their paychecks. The drug lawyer relies on the horrors of gang warfare as does the hitman, and the camp guard torturing political prisoners in an authoritarian banana republic is scarcely any more culpable for his brutality than the American statesman who shakes the dictator’s hand and negotiates the latest arms shipment.
When people like Rove and Bolton who embody this breed of statesmanship come to Oberlin, they understand that despite our political sympathies, attending an institution like this marks us as members of the world’s elite. Obies can do our best to represent the uncouth yet entirely justified rage of the less fortunate, but it will never ring with the assured confidence of an establishment-aligned lecturer who accepts his place in the world and isn’t afraid to ignore the interests of the rest of it. And the condescension with which such figures view kooky college-age radicals in the cloistered bubbles of academia often seems like it will never stop until we all abandon the foolish goal of repairing the world, settling as any mature American should for the oblivious, self-serving complacency that is our birthright.
None of this is to discount the importance of listening to dissenting voices — in fact, precisely the opposite. Hedge fund manager Steven Shapiro, OC ’83, is providing a valuable service by bankrolling the Ronald Reagan Political Lectureship Series, and Obies who listen to these lecturers (even when speaking out against words they find misleading or offensive) still benefit from direct exposure to outside ideas and robust disagreement. But when respecting free speech amounts to pretending that lecturer after lecturer steps to the microphone wearing the regal robes of moral superiority, there comes a time when the most desperately needed voice is a naive, undereducated child crying out with shocking disregard for civility that the emperor has no clothes.