President John F. Kennedy, in Profiles in Courage, wrote the following:
“If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I'm proud to say I'm a ‘Liberal.’”
I, too, am proud to say I’m a liberal. But I am troubled by the whispers of a “Tea Party of the left,” manifest in New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly being shouted off the stage at an event at Brown University last week. Kelly, a fierce proponent of the controversial stop-and-frisk policy, was invited to speak by Brown’s administration, sparking protests in the days and hours leading up to Kelly’s talk. As the event got underway, however, what had been a vibrant display of American democracy in action became an example of über-liberalism turned into authoritarianism.
The protesters, who included both Brown students and members of the greater Providence community, “stood with their fists in the air and began shouting in unison” after Kelly took the stage, according to The Brown Daily Herald. After half-an-hour of unrelenting disruption, university officials were forced to call the talk off and Kelly left the room.
Doreen St Felix, a senior at Brown, wrote in The Guardian that she and the other protesters were expressing “unequivocal opposition to politically legitimized structural oppression.” Some other students and community members justified heckling Kelly off the stage by saying that he had the opportunity to speak in public more often than they. Still others on the left said that the protesters were simply exercising their own right to free speech.
Speech is not free when it is used as an instrument to silence, or to prevent listeners from hearing, other speakers. In fact, Brown’s Code of Student Conduct says that “[s]uch obstruction is a form of censorship, no matter who initiates it or for what reasons.” No matter how often you have the opportunity to speak in public, freedom of speech is protected. And free speech is free speech no matter how ardently I disagree with the content of the speech.
Admirably, Christina H. Paxson, the university’s president, wrote in email to the Brown community that, “Nothing is more antithetical to [the free exchange of ideas] than preventing someone from speaking and other members of the community from hearing that speech and challenging it vigorously in a robust yet civil manner.” St Felix’s reasoning, however, merits further attention. Behind her argument — that speech ostensibly “perpetuating systematic oppression” ought not to be protected — lies an attack on the American system and democracy as a whole.
Ironically, for people who agree with St Felix, the civil rights and civil liberties President Kennedy so eloquently championed do not apply equally to all people. Free speech, they say, does not apply equally to people in positions of power, to people who disagree with them on (albeit, racially-charged) policy, nor to people who they call “oppressors.”
Their philosophy, it turns out, sounds quite a bit like the philosophy of the Tea Party. The far-right, after all, includes many people who reject the legitimacy of elected officials. People who often refuse to listen to, and more often than not refuse to compromise with, people with whom they disagree on policy. People who do not believe rights apply equally to all people but who do think they are being “oppressed” by the government.
Former President Clinton was campaigning on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in Virginia on Oct. 27 when he said, in response to the Tea Party candidate, that “[principled compromise] simply recognizes that nobody’s right all the time, your life is as important as mine, your opinion is entitled to the same respect mine is, and we’re all in this together, so we might as well work together to row this boat and go somewhere.”
I am troubled by the whispers of a Tea Party of the left because the heckling at Brown was part of a strain of thought that rejects the idea that “we’re all in this together.” I am troubled because more and more of my friends on the left believe the republican form of government is broken, bent by money and power so far out of shape that the only way to fix it is to tear it down, starting with the liberal idea of equal rights and liberties for all.
Russell Brand, in a much shared Oct. 24 article in the NewStatesman, wrote that, “I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.”
I do not believe that all of the people who agree with St Felix also agree with Brand, but I do think both are appealing to the same group of people on the left who are disaffected with democracy as we know it, not least because of persistent social inequality and increasing economic inequality.
As a liberal, I too am distressed about inequality, but I also know that democracy and liberty are not to blame for it. We have to work to protect the American system because the ideas of one vote, one person and freedom of expression are at the core of who we are as liberals.
The overwhelming victory on Tuesday of Bill de Blasio, the unabashedly progressive Democratic candidate for mayor in New York City who has pledged to confront stop-and-frisk early in his term in addition to tackling issues of economic inequality, was an example of that properly protected democratic project at work. Let’s let the people — all of the people — speak. We may be surprised by what we hear.
Ben Schwartz is a sophomore Public Health Studies and Economics doublt major from Pittsburgh, PA. He is a News Editor for The News-Letter.