Bring Back Civic Debate
by Quentin L. Kopp\
An anonymous wag once declared: “While living in a democracy, you can say what you think without thinking.”
Another savant observed: “Freedom not to listen is just as precious as freedom of speech.” I concur. If those declarations remind readers of any public figure from Donald J. Trump to the ex-mayor of Burlington, Vermont, now a United States senator, I fully understand.
With my eldest grandchild in college, and past service on my alma mater’s alumni council, I am increasingly saddened by the state of academic freedom in today’s America, together with the diminution of history, Western civilization and English language concentration in high schools, colleges and universities.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) surveyed 1,100 such institutions last year and concluded that only 81 percent of the institutions required students to take a single course in composition, only three percent mandated an economics course, 85 percent required undergraduates undergo a basic science class, 58 percent required a college-level course in mathematics, and 12 percent didn’t compel students to undergo a single course in any of those subjects.
Then, the problem exists of allowing unpopular speakers at college campuses. Astonishingly, student protests at Brandeis University caused cancelation of the world premiere of a play based on the life of comedian Lenny Bruce. Protesters attacked the play’s portrayal of the Black Lives Matter movement. The theater professors agreed, announcing that the play “may cause discomfort, including the legacy of Lenny Bruce” and additional educational programming must accompany such play.
Last November, Knox College, a liberal arts institution in Illinois, canceled a production of Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Good Person of Szechwan,” proclaiming any performance should not result in “the emotional distress of students” agitated by perceived racial insensitivity.
The university’s president wrote in the Boston Herald that both Bruce and Brecht were once attacked by right-wingers. Bruce was prosecuted in 1961 for “obscenity;” Brecht was summoned before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 because of the radical content of his writing. Brandeis University is named for Justice LouisBrandeis, historic guardian of the First Amendment!
The National Association of Scholars claims that hatred of America is now instilled in American schoolchildren from an early age, not as “hatred” itself, but in words such as “social justice,” “multiculturalism,” “resistance,” or similar language suggesting aversion to people who exploit everyone else.
Probably, the best and most courageous analyst of free speech on American college campuses is professor Amy Wax at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In the Wall Street Journal last February, she reported the reaction to a column she wrote with a University of San Diego Law School professor for the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 9, 2017, entitled “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.” Pointing out that American males’ participation in the labor force “is at Depression-era lows,” the authors identified widespread opioid abuse, inner city homicides, half of all American children born out of wedlock, and more than half raised by single mothers.
The column caused letters, statements and petitions from students and professors at Penn and elsewhere attacking the column as racist, white supremacist, xenophobic and hate speech
Five law school professors accused the authors of praising the ’50s. Later, 33 professors recommended students report any “stereotyping and bias” they might perceive from professor Wax. She reminds us: “The American way is to conduct free and open debate in a civil manner. We should return to doing that on our college campuses and
in our society at large.”
Like San Francisco, California is now a “sanctuary” jurisdiction. Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr. signed such legislation last year. How times change. In 1975, his first year as governor, Brown opposed immigrants entering the U.S. as refugees, despite federal approval. South Vietnam and Cambodia were defeated by communists in April, 1975, and hundreds of thousands of refugees sought entry.
Mario Obledo, founder of the Mexican- American Legal Defense Fund and Brown’s secretary of health and welfare, tried to prevent refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base and explored suing the federal government to stop such immigration.
Supporting Brown were U.S. senators Joe Biden of Delaware and the late George McGovern of South Dakota.
As always, the truth about aliens is malleable, and politicians are trimmers; they love illegal aliens as part of their politics.
As the son of a legal immigrant and husband of another legal immigrant, I scratch my head in dismay.
Quentin Kopp is a former San Francisco supervisor and state senator, retired judge and current member of the SF Ethics Commission.