As you chew on some ’cue this weekend, consider this:
In the last weeks of America’s 234th year of independence, our political elites fired a general who spoke his mind and prepared to put on the Supreme Court a law professor who did her darndest not to speak hers.
Neither of these cases involved a legal barring of free speech. As commander of the war in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal served at the pleasure of the president, whom the general displeased with his remarks about his civilian bosses. McChrystal lost his command; he didn’t go to jail.
Similarly, Elena Kagan didn’t plead the Fifth in her confirmation hearings when asked whether Congress has the constitutional authority to require Americans to eat three vegetables a day. She just bobbed and weaved, as judicial nominees do in the post-Bork era.
We celebrate “free speech” but don’t reward candor from public figures (the cast of “Jersey Shore” excepted). Why? Political correctness.
It may sound odd to say Kagan was bound by P.C. norms that her fellow liberals largely created. But the impulse to avoid controversy — to become a “blank screen” through verbal shadowboxing and linguistic contortions — is a product of this forced inoffensiveness. And it’s a problem.
Twelve years ago, we heard Kagan’s then-boss say, under oath, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Wednesday, Kagan reprised that Clintonian line in the following exchange with Sen. Orrin Hatch about a memo for a medical association about partial-birth abortion:
Hatch: “Did you write that memo?”
[The senator and nominee clarify which memo he means.]
Kagan: “Yes, well, I’ve — I’ve seen the document. And the document is …”
Hatch: “But did you write it, that — your memo?”
Kagan: “The document is certainly in my handwriting.”
Read that again:
Did you write that memo?
The document is certainly in my handwriting.
Hatch wasn’t interested in the penmanship of the memo, but rather the thoughts expressed in it. Those thoughts mirrored the policy President Clinton supported at the time (allowing partial-birth abortions in limited circumstances). They may have reflected the opinion of the medical association; that matter is disputed.
Yet, here was a 50-year-old woman, one who represents the U.S. government before the Supreme Court and now stands to sit on that court and issue opinions that will affect millions of Americans on hundreds of issues, talking around her stance on a topic that has launched a thousand op-eds.
She knew that sharing her thoughts could doom her nomination. But I don’t consider her a coward. She’s just another product of the system.
I mean the system of political correctness that preaches tolerance but practices the opposite, by demonizing those who disregard it. That, coupled with too many people’s insecurity in the basis for their own beliefs, harms our public discourse.
It doesn’t take Congress passing a law abridging free speech. The dictum not to offend, and increasingly not even to be disagreeable, saps our willingness to exercise that right fully.
“Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression,” Albert Einstein said. “In order that every man present his views without penalty there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.”
That’s a tolerance we’ve lost, in the name of tolerance.