November 21 2012
While we are all thankful to live in such a great country, this Thanksgiving I detect a sense of unease that is something new for Americans.
Heaven knows I don’t want to politicize Thanksgiving—too many aspects of our lives already are politicized—but this year Thanksgiving will no doubt have many of us thinking, even as we enjoy the festivities, about such matters as the fiscal cliff and violence in the Middle East. We'll be thinking about where we have been in the last 400 or so years and where as a country we are going.
Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Peter Berkowitz, who has a book entitled Constitutional Conservatism coming out momentarily, has a sobering piece on the “deteriorating condition of a basic American right: liberty of thought and discussion.”
The issue of liberty of thought and discussion was not addressed in the just-ended presidential campaign:
Other matters were also neglected by the candidates, ignored by the press, and overlooked by the electorate. But liberty of thought and discussion is unlike other vital national interests. When the economy and national security worsen, people feel more urgently its importance to the daily operation and long-term preservation of a free society.
The Obama administration has aggravated the problem. In April 2011, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights instructed colleges and universities to substantially curtail the due process rights of students accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault, or risk losing federal funding.
Beginning in August 2012, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, required most employer-provided health insurance plans (with the exception of churches and other strictly religious organizations) to cover contraception and morning-after pills, even when such reproductive technologies violated employers’ religious convictions.
And in September 2012, in the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and on the American consulate in Benghazi, high-level administration officials were quick to denounce a short, stupid film mocking Muhammad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it as “disgusting and reprehensible” and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice characterized it as “heinous and offensive.”
In the process, the administration squandered a chance to explain to the world, as well as fellow U.S. citizens, that toleration of sophomoric caricature is a price Americans proudly pay for the privilege of thinking their own thoughts, speaking their minds, and dissenting from or adhering to convention and orthodoxy as their consciences counsel.
Berkowitz recommends a book entitled Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, by Greg Lukianoff, a lawyer. A self-proclaimed atheist with a fondness for pop culture, Lukianoff is president of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). As such, he knows a lot about what goes on in colleges and universities. Berkowitz writes:
Lukianoff argues that our educational system is failing us. The trouble begins with K-12 education, which omits instruction in the basic principles of freedom and self-government. But betrayal of freedom and pedagogical responsibility by colleges and universities, which is the focus of Lukianoff’s book, is egregious.
To be sure, as in K-12 education, higher education has downplayed (where it has not abandoned) serious teaching of the principles of American constitutional government. But beyond that dereliction of duty, since the mid-1980s university professors and administrators -- in the way they run classrooms and the way they run campus life -- have been aggressively teaching undergraduates and graduate students to scorn free speech and fair process.
The mis-education of American students, Lukianoff argues, has a trickle-up effect. As graduates move into positions of prestige and power in law and business, in the media, in education, and in politics they bring with them the impatience with or contempt for dissent, and indifference to or cynicism about due process that they learn on campus.
Because the free exchange of ideas enables us to see what is flawed in our own opinions and what has merit in the opinions of others, and because due process gives institutional expression to the reality of human fallibility and our justified apprehensions about the tendency of those in power to abuse their power, the unlearning of liberty on university campuses erodes citizens’ ability to grasp the nation’s interests and undermines the country’s capacity to honor its obligation to protect equally the rights of all.
It sounds as if we're not only on the verge of losing this freedom--we don't really know how to exercise it anymore. Indeed, when discussion of an important public matter can be shut down by smearing somebody who holds different ideas a sexist or racist, then intellectual liberty is not served.
Perhaps as we gather together tomorrow for this particularly American holiday, we’ll be thinking what a miracle this country is and hoping that we’ll have the courage to preserve our liberties.