Sins of the Censors
Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other, by Nat Hentoff, New York: HarperCollins, 405 pages, $25.00/$13.00 paper
When it comes to literary censorship, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, is probably the American heavyweight champion. In its early days it was banned by prudes offended by its vulgarity. In 1885 the Concord, Massachusetts, public library expunged the book, calling it the "veriest trash," and in 1902 the Denver public library did likewise, decrying it as "immoral and sacrilegious." In modern times, politically correct Americans have been outraged by Twain's novel, which employs the term nigger some 300 times. New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, banished the tome in 1976 upon finding that it was "degrading and destructive to black humanity." The book now faces virtually constant attack from do-gooders across the fruited plain.
Left, right, and center, Americans have not been shy about censorship. Yet under whatever banner, book burning is itself offensive and insensitive to the values of a free people. As Nat Hentoff tirelessly details in his brilliantly argued, documented, and written book, Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee, neither does censorship do justice to those it purports to protect. The black school children who are spared the jarring confrontation with Huck's friend, Nigger Jim, will be less well-armed to surmount the travails of racism in real life. In fact, the censors generally seem to miss the whole point.
With Huckleberry Finn, the speech regulators miss the mark by an incredible margin: Twain's aim was to ridicule racism. And not just with some sterile, academic diatribe, or with some drippy account of victimization, but from the perspective of a white boy who figures out the stupidity of bigotry all on his own. Hentoff quotes Russell Baker's description of Huckleberry Finn's moral: "The people [Huck and Jim] encounter are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numb-skulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is black Jim, the runaway slave. 'Nigger Jim,' as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt."
Ah, good point, Mr. Twain. But just a tad insensitive for our young scholars, don't you think? OK, maybe it's not a bad book; Ernest Hemingway did say that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." But that word nigger is so hurtful! The black parents object strongly to that book in the classroom, and the white liberal administrators just don't want any trouble. As the principal of Mark Twain (!) Intermediate School in Fairfax County, Virginia, said after banning the book: "I just felt that a student of any race or nationality shouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable in a classroom."
Sometimes being protected means being disrespected, Hentoff notes. "Let us suppose it is true that Huck had paralyzed those black kids," he writes of a successful censorship campaign waged by African-American parents in Pennsylvania. "All the more reason for them to get all the way into understanding Huckleberry Finn. Otherwise, what a terrible thing to learn! That he is so fragile, so vulnerable, so without intellectual and emotional resources that a book can lay him low. And that is what the teachers and supervisors of the junior high schools in Warrington, Pennsylvania, had allowed the black children in their care to learn."
Hentoff is a marvelous tour guide in this cruise through modern American censorship. While it begins with Twain, it passes through a house of First Amendment horrors that now stretches coast to coast: hate-speech ordinances, speech codes on campus, flag-burning amendments to the U.S. Constitution, feminist-Moral Majority coalitions to ban pornography. A loyal civil libertarian, Hentoff dependably gives us his personal view of the friends and foes of free speech. He is particularly meticulous in charting the path of the American Civil Liberties Union—where it stands up for freedom and where it chickens out.
The book spins from an interesting political dynamic. A committed man of the left, a proud veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the counterculture publications of today (The Nation, The Village Voice, the Washington Post editorial page), Hentoff must expend virtually all of his ammo on left-wing censors. When one hunts for intolerance, that's where one finds the ducks. (He goes far and wide in search of right-wing censorship, however, going back to an interesting personal rendition of the campaign against his friend, the late, great comic and social satirist Lenny Bruce.) Hentoff is a marksman, and you trust his aim because his targets are not gratuitous.
The feminists, for instance. Hentoff, who labels one chapter "The Gospel According to Catharine MacKinnon," reports that a group of librarians in upstate New York recently suggested that the following label be put on particular books in school libraries, as needed: "WARNING: It has been determined that these materials are sex-stereotyped and may limit your sense of freedom and choice. (These labels can be typed and reproduced as a student project.)" How nice for our youngsters to absorb a bit of applied civics.
The politically correct crowd has so successfully chased out the dissenters from its ranks that it has become intellectually flabby, insulated as it is from any robust political workout. The PCers are blissfully ignorant of the laughingstock which their petty fiefdoms have become. Hentoff is not bashful about bringing them up to speed, gracefully savaging both Donna Shalala and Sheldon Hackney (writing before either was nominated by President Clinton's PG [pre-Gergen] administration). As the censorship-prone president of the University of Wisconsin, Shalala vigorously defended a "hate speech" code which the federal courts thought offensive and hurtful of the Bill of Rights. (She even counterattacked with yet another version before the U.S. Supreme Court snuffed such speech regulation in the June 1992 decision RAV v. St. Paul.) And the pathetic Hackney is exposed as having gone AWOL on free speech as president of the University of Pennsylvania: When irate black students destroyed an issue of the school paper because it carried a conservative student's editorial, he adroitly saw "both sides" of the difficult question—and took no action.
Fortunately, Hentoff sees no such ambiguities, only spineless hacks abrogating their duties to educate young truth seekers in the challenges and opportunities of a free society. Escaping from nihilism, Hentoff celebrates those students who reject repression in favor of open forums and applauds those pitifully scarce scholars and judicial warlords who demonstrate the courage of their free-speech convictions. Stand up and give a hand to Yale's C. Vann Woodward, Guido Calabresi, and Benno Schmidt, and to a cadre of federal judges who prefer to bring "offensive" speech into the light of open debate rather than to cover up reportedly evil thoughts in the darkness of taboo.
Keeping suspicious ideas in the dark can lead to two sorts of mistakes: People fail to see unpopular truths, or what is patently false never meets combat. In the latter instance, heinous ideas gain a new life underground, free of challenge, and their expositors become martyrs—dangerous social critics too hot to handle!
This is the great irony of censorship. Every radical yearns to be branded an enemy of the state. What could sell more tickets than "Banned in Boston"? Call me "America's Most Dangerous" anything, and I'll fill the coliseum. Hentoff says: We activists ought to know how powerful it is to be a subversive agent, because so recently we were one. His most poignant remembrances are of the civil rights movement and how the First Amendment did make us free.
It's a key point, because today the very cause of civil rights is trotted out as grounds for suppression of speech. When a law student at Georgetown had the audacity to publish statistics showing that black law-school applicants were admitted with lower grades and achievement-test scores than whites, the "whistle-blower" was denounced by black students, and the two distinguished civil-rights lawyers (Tom Mack and Bob Catz, both professors at the D.C. School of Law) who defended his right to free speech were condemned as accessories to racism. (No Georgetown faculty member would take the case.)
Hentoff writes: "What if a student at another school had discovered…that the school had been discriminating against blacks? The very D.C. Law School students who were attacking Mack and Catz for their 'disloyalty' would have very much wanted Mack and Catz to defend that student.
"But many of the black students remained angry. One scornfully told the two professors that this First Amendment that they so prized 'drove my family out of Alabama' because the Ku Klux Klan had had the First Amendment right to speak and demonstrate. But had the First Amendment not been available to black protesters in the South, the marches and demonstrations that led to the Civil Rights Act might well have been crushed."
When Hentoff probes the bounds of free speech, school administrators often tell him what Dean William L. Robinson of the D.C. Law School said about this episode: "Civil liberties, while being within the pale, are not the focus here. Faculty members must keep in mind the hurt their actions will do to the community of the law school." To which Hentoff responds: "Students are being taught to see themselves as fragile victims. That is not the way to learn empowerment."
Ultimately, censorship ensnares those whom it supposedly protects in the self-defeating web of victimization, while bestowing hero status on social scofflaws. True civil-rights activism deploys controversial ideas, Hentoff reminds us, and will forever remain in need of protection by the Bill of Rights. Radicals are in the minority. They make dangerous demands. They are offensive to the status quo. They may stir a violent reaction. Each of these offenses are now reliably trotted out to justify suppressing unpopular expression as "hate speech," "fighting words," "unpatriotic," "subversive," or "inciting a riot." Hentoff is fooled by none of the rationales—not even by the "hecklers' veto." ("Oh, we'd love to hear Dr. Provocative's campus lecture—but we just can't be responsible for the violence that is sure to follow.")
Hentoff's book makes a plea: Free speech has served many a radical cause well; don't turn soft on me now, comrades. Hentoff, while failing to see the reflexive authoritarianism of the "pass a law" generation that now dominates the left-wing political cells, and the instinctive nature of the legislate-and-crush approach that is passed along in the DNA of the right, gets virtually the whole of this story dead-on correct. (His most disappointing slip-up is in the increasingly important area of electronic speech. He sees government-mandated access to cable TV, for instance, as a logical extension of the First Amendment. In fact, it is a profound reversal of the "Congress shall make no law…" paradigm.) Thanks to Hentoff's vigilance, we have a champion of the First Amendment's libertarian spirit whom every school child in the country should be forced to read.
(Just kidding about the "forced" part, Nat.)
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Sins of the Censors".