The Last Adults Left in the Room

At Georgetown University, Jeff Sessions accused American universities of having ties to Russia. At William and Mary, Black Lives Matter protestors labeled the ACLU a white supremacist organization. And in Indianapolis, Vice President Mike Pence staged a walk out of an NFL game rather than witness black athletes kneeling during the national anthem.

Trigger warning: irony can no longer contain our politics. We are beyond an Age of Fracture, a Politics of the Absurd.

The most recent dust-up over campus free speech happened at William & Mary College in Virginia, where ACLU lawyer Claire Gastañaga was scheduled to give a talk. Given that the ACLU helped white supremacists get a permit to march in Charlottesville, one would expect some hostile people in the crowd and, in what is an all-too-rare experience on college campuses these days, some spirited discussion. One would even expect protesters. Gastañaga did, and she generously welcomed them. The protestors were having none of it. They shouted her down. Even after she threw in the towel, they prevented one-on-one discussions between students and Gastañaga. “The ACLU conspicuously chose to intervene on behalf of organized white supremacy in Charlottesville,” the group said in a statement.

Heil Kroger

Well, this is certainly true. The ACLU’s defense of unpopular organizations—whether Nazis in Skokie or their latter day iteration—is based on a fundamental belief that for constitutional rights to matter, they must be equally applied. This means that everyone, including white supremacists, have the right to assemble, to petition, to speak, and to publish. Black Lives Matter disagrees: “Speech that condones, supports or otherwise fails to explicitly condemn injustice must be directly confronted.”

That’s a hell of a standard. But let’s grant it for a moment. Did Clare Gastañaga fail to explicitly condemn injustice? Did she condone it? Well, we’ll never know. She was prevented from speaking. Then again, that was the point. The lure of censorship has nothing to do with ideas. It is instead the thrill of power—the ability to tell someone “you can’t.”

The protestors are certainly winning this point. To their defenders inside and out of the academy, I can offer only one word of warning: there is no “slippery slope” when you grant any group (I care not how righteous, or how oppressed) the power of censorship. There is only a chasm into which all reason disappears. We are left only with the censor and his/her/their will.

As if to prove this point, William & Mary protestors chanted “liberalism is white supremacy.”

It is probably unfair to ask the Revolution to be coherent, let alone respectful of the Constitution.[1] In theory, one might expect more from the Attorney General of the United States. But that ship sailed a week earlier. On September 26, Jeff Sessions appeared at Georgetown University to lecture the nation about free speech. Much of his talk was anodyne and offered little to disagree with.[2]  He exulted the free exchange of ideas as part of the academic mission of discovering truth. He recalled the persuasive power of Martin Luther King’s rhetoric in overcoming the segregationist hatred of George Wallace. In what was perhaps his best rhetorical moment, he reminded everyone how uncomfortable Dr. King had made white audiences.

Area youth angrily returning Girls Scout cookies

Apart from such hoary rhetoric, Sessions’s speech was entirely ungenerous. The only modern speech rights he defended were those of religious radicals and conservatives. He might have condemned right-wing scripts for the chilling of speech, as illustrated by the case of Princeton scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who had to cancel speaking events across the country thanks to numerous death threats or Lisa Durden, who was unceremoniously dumped by Essex County College after appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to defend an all-black Black Lives Matter event. There is a long list of scholars of color being hounded by online trolls and organized retaliation, which is just as effective and perhaps more sinister than protestors shouting down speakers. But our attorney general took no notice. Instead, in what was an awkward rhetorical moment, he compared American university administrators to malicious dictators. Such as… oh I don’t know, Vladimir Putin?

Then there is Jeff’s boss. I mean President Donald J. Trump, who called for NFL owners to retaliate against black athletes who have taken a knee during the national anthem. “Fire the sons of bitches,” Trump shouted at a rally. Sessions, when confronted with this unseemly use of the bully pulpit to polarize the country and chill dissent, replied in a kind of aw-shucks voice, “the president has free speech rights, too.”

Weak, Mr. Attorney General. Weak.

If Sessions really wanted to live up to Dr. King’s legacy, he might have recalled that it was not just public power that was brought to bear against the NAACP. The economic and financial power of white supremacists was a powerful bar to speaking freely against segregation, especially in postwar America, when one’s employment and meager subsistence depended in no small part on the goodwill of whites. The fact that Donald Trump publicly calls for white billionaires to fire black athletes who protest is a powerful argument for continuity in our sordid history of race relations. That he and his crony Mike Pence have whipped up more racial animosity rather than seeking to calm the situation speaks volumes about their craven populism.

Sad, or very sick persons! #MAGA

All is not lost, however, for our free speech culture. Enter America’s last intellectuals—NFL athletes. On Sunday, September 23, Alejandro Villanueva, an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was shown in photographs standing on the field for the national anthem while his team waited, unseen, inside the tunnel. Villanueva became an instant hero to many Americans for appearing to stand up (and alone) for patriotism. He became a hero to me when he went before the press and spoke up for common-sense decency. “I’ve learned that I don’t know what it’s like to be from Dade County, I don’t know what it’s like to be from Oakland,” said Villanueva. “I can’t tell you I know what my teammates have gone through, so I’m not going to pretend like I have the righteous sort of voice to tell you that you should stand up for the national anthem.” The right to protest is, Villaneuva argued, an enduring American value. “It’s protected by our constitution and our country.”

Consider what Eric Reid, a teammate of Colin Kaepernick’s, wrote in the New York Times. He did not initially join Kaepernick’s protest and, when he did, brought together Kaepernick with a Green Beret to discuss how their protest might convey the right message without offending war veterans. They settled on kneeling, an act of respect, rather than sitting on the bench. Now, it turns out that such nuance is lost on many, and Kaepernick’s critics continue to howl. To them, Reid invoked the great intellectual James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”[3]

Eric Reid plays defensive safety, the position reserved for lunatic athletes in the tradition of Chuck Cecil, Ronnie Lott and Jack Tatum. Alejandro Villaneuva is a six-foot-nine, three-hundred and twenty pound giant of a man with a terrifying beard. And they are the last adults left in the room.


[1] In addition to chanting “liberalism is white supremacy,” protestors also shouted “the revolution will not uphold the Constitution.” This is not okay.

[2] Aside from his misguided attack on free speech zones, and his tendentious set of examples, which privileged the free speech rights only of only a few. But I digress, and don’t want to get caught up in arguing the specifics of his vision of free speech. More pertinent was his overall message.

[3] I would love to speak to Reid about James Baldwin. Did he also mean to invoke Baldwin’s ferocious individualism? His solitude? The fact that he was a critic of Hollywood, of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, and everybody else? That, in the same essay in which he promised to be a persistent critic of America, he also wrote “I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.”