Podcast / Start Making Sense / Mar 20, 2024

Jews Against AIPAC—Plus, Free Speech on Campus

On this episode of Start Making Sense, Alan Minsky talks about Jewish opposition to the Israel lobby, and David Cole makes a case against cancel culture.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Jews Against AIPAC, plus Free Speech on Campus | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

In the campaign to end American funding for Israel’s war in Gaza, a key front is the fight against AIPAC. This week, more than a hundred prominent American Jews have joined in a statement opposing AIPAC and its efforts to defeat Democratic candidates who have criticized Israeli government policy toward Palestinians. The signers include author Ariel Dorfman, actors Elliott Gould and Wallace Shawn, and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. Alan Minsky, Executive Director of Progressive Democrats of America, is on the podcast to explain.

Also on this episode: David Cole, National Legal Director of the ACLU, makes the case for freedom of speech on campus and against cancel culture, starting from the confrontation between Elise Stefanik and the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn.

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Joe Biden AIPAC

Then–Vice President Joe Biden addressing the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s 2013 Policy Conference in Washington.

(Susan Walsh / AP Photo)

In the campaign to end American funding for Israel’s war in Gaza, a key front is the fight against AIPAC. This week, more than a hundred prominent American Jews have joined in a statement opposing AIPAC and its efforts to defeat Democratic candidates who have criticized Israeli government policy toward Palestinians. The signers include author Ariel Dorfman, actors Elliott Gould and Wallace Shawn, and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. Alan Minsky, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, is on the podcast to explain.

Also on this episode: David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU, makes the case for freedom of speech on campus and against cancel culture, starting from the confrontation between Elise Stefanik and the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Trump's Very Bad Week, plus Prestige TV, from The Sympathizer to Shogun | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Donald Trump on Monday became the first president in history to face trial on criminal charges; his polls are down, and the stock price of Trump Media fallen has 60 percent. John Nichols comments – he’s National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation.

Also: TV right now is featuring several prestige historical dramas. John Powers compares and contrasts “The Sympathizer,” centering on a spy for the Communists in Vietnam and then California in the seventies; “Manhunt,” following the search for Lincoln’s assassin; “A Gentleman in Moscow,” portraying a Russian aristocrat after the Bolshevik Revolution, and “Shogun,” about feuding 17th century Japanese warlords. John is critic at large for Fresh Air with Terry Gross

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense.  I’m Jon Wiener.  Later in the show: the case in favor of free speech on campus and against cancel culture-David Cole of the ACLU will explain.  But first: Jews Against AIPAC: Alan Minsky has that story- in a minute.
In the campaign to end American funding for Israel’s war in Gaza, a key front is the fight against AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This week, more than 100 prominent American Jews joined in a statement opposing AIPAC in its efforts to defeat Democratic candidates who have criticized Israeli government policy toward Palestinians. For comment, we turn to Alan Minsky. He’s Executive Director of Progressive Democrats of America, a grassroots group working to advance progressive policies and help elect progressive candidates. Alan is also one of the producers of this show. Alan, welcome back.

Alan Minsky: Thank you, and great to be here, Jon.

JW: AIPAC is by far the most important Jewish American political group supporting Israel’s war on Gaza. They and their super PAC, which is called United Democracy Project, are spending $100 million dollars this year according to Politico, to defeat candidates who are not, in their view, supporting Netanyahu enough. AIPAC says, critics of their efforts defending Israeli policies are antisemitic. What do you say to that?

AM: This is explicitly, of course, a statement from Jewish Americans and it follows about a week after a coalition that Progressive Democrats of America is a part of, called the Reject AIPAC Coalition announced itself to the world last week. So, why this statement by Jewish Americans, which is again, something that we are coordinating, its release. The folks at Reject AIPAC know about it. They’re happy that we’re doing it. They recognize it as important because this is one of the ways that discussion about the United States’ foreign policy, and its relationship to Israel, and the Israeli government policy, particularly towards the Palestinians, does not get discussed adequately in the United States because the conversation gets shut down because critics of Israeli government policy, and therefore of the American government, support for Israel gets silenced by accusations of antisemitism. This is of course, a prime weapon in shutting down the conversation.
So in our statement, we understand that the use value of what we’re doing is to not just insulate organizations like Reject AIPAC, but to open up the conversation because as Jewish Americans we’re less likely to be called antisemitic for what we’re doing.

JW: Less likely – but it could still happen.

AM: It still could happen. So, do allow me as a point of personal privilege, Jon, to let folks know, I am somebody who was raised, I am the person that I am as a product of Jewish American culture, literature, comedy, philosophy. Really, so much, everything that matters to me in this world, I have gained from, and learned from, and what has been a part of me, is Jewish American culture. I’m pretty happy with myself as a person, and I’m certainly happy about the contributions to me as a person that Jewish American culture has made. I absolutely want to see that culture continue to prosper and grow. By the way, not just Jewish American culture, but global Jewish culture. I am nobody’s anti-Semite. I wear that on my sleeve as a person, what I just said, I’m nobody’s anti-Semite. I know about 20 people who’ve signed on to this statement very well. None of them are antisemitic. If you hear the accusations that we are whatever, self-hating Jews or we’re somehow antisemitic, it’s balderdash, it’s absolute nonsense. It is really done, to try to shut down our voices and not have an honest discussion, which we need to have in this country, folks because of how important American policy towards Israel is.

JW: I’ve learned that AIPAC didn’t fund election campaigns until very recently. For more than 50 years, they were strictly a lobbying group. That changed just in 2022 when they spent $50 million supporting 350 candidates in both parties. Most notably, AIPAC gave money to 109 Republicans who had voted against the certification of Biden as the winner of the 2020 election. But most important to the signers of your letter, they funded candidates in Democratic primaries. They challenged incumbents they considered insufficiently enthusiastic about Netanyahu and his policies towards Palestinians. What kind of success did AIPAC have in that first effort in 2022?

AM: They had considerable success, even though, perhaps what became the highest profile race, Summer Lee who had an avalanche of money dropped against her in support of her opponent, and with attack ads against her from AIPAC and AIPAC affiliated organizations, she did survive that, and win a very narrow election victory, and is a member of Congress now.
But many other progressives who were running for Congress were defeated, albeit none of them at the time were progressive incumbents other than Andy Levin. That was the situation there, where the redrawing of the maps in Michigan meant he went up against another incumbent, Haley Stevens.
She was the beneficiary of, again, a really heavy amount of donations to Haley Stevens and targeting against Andy Levin, who of course was a Jewish member of Congress, because Andy Levin has not exactly toed the line, the AIPAC line, when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

JW: And Andy Levin, I believe, was the president of his synagogue in his hometown.

AM: Yes, indeed. I do want to clarify one other thing too, because Jon, as I mentioned, the accusation is leveled that people are antisemitic. The sort of second-level accusation is that you’re buying into antisemitic conspiracy theories when it comes to AIPAC. Let’s be clear, they are operating within the laws of the United States. This is no conspiracy. Everything that we are citing is documented. In fact, the statement that we’ve released comes along with a number of journalistic links if people want to read up on it. The Federal Election Commission, most of this information is available through them. This is no conspiracy at all. It’s not a conspiracy theory. While of course I myself want to see campaign finance laws change, they are operating within the laws of the United States. So that again, is a complete red herring. This is not an antisemitic conspiracy theory.

JW: In 2022, the first time they tried, they won six of the eight primary races where they intervened. Who are the top targets of AIPAC right now?

AM: They are the squad, Jon, and the squad is made up of nine young members of Congress, all people of color. I think four of them are likely to go to easy primary victories: Gregorio Casar in Austin, Texas, Delia Ramirez in Chicago, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib in Dearborn, Michigan. Now, AIPAC would want nothing more than to see her defeated. They’ve supposedly floated, and the AIPAC associated networks have floated, astronomical sums of money trying to lure people into challenging Rashida Tlaib, who’s tremendously popular in her district. It is a district with a large portion of Arab American voters in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan. So, she is likely to be safe as of right now in her primary.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was widely considered to be safe, but just this past week, some former Wall Street investor has jumped into the race to challenge her. I don’t think that’s likely to be a close race, but we’ll see. Who knows? Money can really distort things, and that’s the thing, is this avalanche of money.

JW: Which races will be close?

AM: Four races look like they could be tight. One is Ilhan Omar with the Twin City metropolitan area in Minnesota, and she’s been reelected twice, the first time pretty easily, but last time was quite close. I believe the same opponent who came close last time is running again. Again, will have backing, considerable backing again, from the AIPAC and AIPAC-affiliated networks.  It’s very important that Ilhan Omar, who’s done exceptional things in Congress, if people don’t know, she is the person who introduced the original universal student debt cancellation bill in Congress. 

JW: And the Sierra Club just endorsed her – they called her “a courageous champion for climate justice, and a more equitable, sustainable economy.”  The guy they are running against Ilhan Omar is a former city councilman – it’s an African American running against a Somali immigrant, a Christian running against a Muslim, a man running against a woman. Last time he lost by only 2 points.
But the Minnesota primary is not until mid-August. Which races come before that?

AM: The first squad member to come up is Summer Lee. Summer Lee has a different opponent than last time, and it does look like AIPAC is again – they really dropped a load of money into that race very late in the cycle, and that is coming up on April 23rd. Of course, early voting will start before that, and that is in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area. That promises to be a difficult race, again. We absolutely have to win that race as it sets the table for all of the upcoming competitive races with other squad members, as well as for other progressives facing the avalanche of AIPAC money.
Now, what I do think we should work to achieve is for all voters to recognize that candidates supported by AIPAC and Democratic Party primaries should be opposed. They’re accepting money, often from MAGA-supporting Republicans that will severely distort the Democratic primary process, and it is a race against candidates who, like the squad members are actually in sync with Democratic Party voters, not only on the positions on the Middle East, but with their entire progressive platform.

JW: AIPAC is not opposing the squad because they are all people of color.  AIPAC funds people of color – the biggest recipient of AIPAC money in the House is Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader and probably the next Majority Leader of the House. Why is AIPAC so eager to get rid of the squad?

AM: The squad were the leaders of the original group in Congress that called for a ceasefire — a position now held overwhelmingly by Democratic voters and also by many more members of Congress today. So, the organizers of the statement from Jewish Americans that was published today, “We want voters across the country to, in effect, turn the tables on AIPAC and their understanding so that they reject AIPAC endorsed and supported candidates, and uplift those candidates who AIPAC is attacking.” This race on April 23rd is the first race in which we can establish that message. It’s coming up fast, folks.
When we establish that message, we will strike a blow for democracy, for peace in Israel-Palestine, and the classic progressive message of human rights, and civil rights, and the right of self-determination and land for all peoples.
Having said that, looking forward, unless we can achieve that game-changing shift, representatives Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush face very challenging races later in the summer, and they’ll face a ton of money against them raised by AIPAC and AIPAC affiliated groups.
Jamaal Bowman’s reelection is in, sort of, the Northern Bronx and then out into Westchester County in Metropolitan New York City area. He is facing, I believe a former mayor of White Plains. Again, going to receive a tremendous backing, an avalanche of money backing him against Jamaal Bowman. That will be a difficult race.
Then out in St. Louis, Missouri, Cori Bush, a, I believe, former county district attorney, actually I think assistant district attorney has jumped into the race. Again, looks like he will be heavily, heavily backed by AIPAC. 

JW: There’s a history behind the squad that I think we ought to recall.

AM: they really are the heirs of the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign.  Those campaigns by Senator Sanders were so successful in two consecutive presidential elections. His campaigns energized young Americans and it really reestablished progressive politics on the American stage. That squad members, many of themselves were inspired by Sanders’ first run and second run, and they jumped into run for Congress, a few of them because of that. Some of them, obviously were probably planning for it otherwise, but they won, and they clearly are aligned with the politics of those campaigns, both loosely and directly. They represent a politics, also very embraced by young Americans.
To have these moderate Democratic candidates backed by AIPAC money go against the very politicians, who I’m guessing are the most popular American elected officials with young Americans across the country, is to shut down a whole wing that’s necessary, that needs to grow and flourish, in my opinion, for the welfare of American society. And AIPAC is going to have a massive impact on the future of the progressive movement.

JW: Where does the money come from that funds AIPAC’s political campaigns against progressive candidates in Democratic primaries?

AM: I’m sure AIPAC does raise a good amount of money from their base of supporters. It’s my understanding that these massive tranches of money that get dropped against progressive candidates, they come, generally from very rich people. A lot of the major donors are donors who have given to Republicans.

JW: Seems to me that rejecting Netanyahu and his policies, especially in the Gaza war is not far from the mainstream of the Democratic Party right now. I look at Chuck Schumer, majority leader of the Senate, the most prominent Jew in Washington, really. His speech to the senate last week took direct aim at Netanyahu. He described Netanyahu’s government as “An obstacle to peace.” He called for elections in Israel to bring a new government to power. Chuck Schumer said Netanyahu was, “Allowing his own political survival to take precedence over the best interest of Israel.” That’s not really so far from the argument of your letter.

AM: Yes, I think it’s good that Senator Schumer has shifted his position. However, I do think that what we have with the squad members also focuses on the welfare of the Palestinian people and points to a U.S. foreign policy position that is still a ways beyond what Senator Schumer has signaled in what he last said. This speaks to the human rights, and civil rights, and full rights to self-determination of the Palestinian people, which I don’t disagree is spoken of by the representatives of the Biden administration, but this has been necessary for a long time. And the people who are attacked by AIPAC are people who’ve called for it, even though again, it really does fold into what the official on-paper policy position, somewhat has been from the United States in terms of calling for a two-state solution. 
Now of course, a lot of advocates for the Palestinian people think any kind of proposal for a two-state solution the United States has been championing recently, especially given the fact that they’ve not blocked and demanded the end to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank is inadequate, let alone the treatment of the people of Gaza. So, they are calling for even more of a shift in U.S. policy.
Now, how does that resonate with Democratic Party voters? I think it resonates tremendously so. So you have this money pouring into these races, oftentimes by the way, Jon, it should be said and must be said, that Israel and Palestine and the details therein are sometimes never mentioned in the attack ads against these candidates.

JW: I know that opposition to Netanyahu and Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza is also the sentiment of a majority of American Jews. There’s a national poll conducted by the non-partisan Jewish Electorate Institute. They did this in early November. This is just a few weeks after the Hamas attack of October 7th. At that point, they found this was at pretty much, the beginning of the Israeli attack on the people of Gaza. Only 31% of American Jewish voters had a favorable view of Netanyahu last November. It’s got to be even lower now. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is saying, “Jews who vote Democratic, hate their religion.”
I can imagine that we might be moving towards a divide where Netanyahu’s main supporters in the United States will be Donald Trump and his people, while more Democrats and more Jewish Americans will support the opposition to Netanyahu in Israel.

AM: People talk about the Jewish community’s commitment to civil rights and human rights, and also often they then point to Mississippi Freedom Summer, marching with Dr. King. Well, I was born after the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and I’ve been a left progressive activist my entire adulthood, only increasingly so in recent years. So right up to the present, Jon, I can tell you that if Jewish Americans make up 2% of the population, they are overwhelmingly disproportionately present in progressive movements.
As we know among white Americans, and for those of you listening internationally, Jews are very much thought of as a subset of white Americans, Jews vote most heavily for the Democratic Party over the Republican Party.
In contrast to other white Americans, we are a very liberal and progressive constituency, opposition to the policies of a government like Netanyahu’s, and the current Israeli government, and the whole settler expansion that’s been going on. In fact, the whole maltreatment, which has been so extreme well before October 7th, of the Palestinian people absolutely fits in with the general tenor of Jewish American politics. Okay? Absolutely within the mainstream of the tendency towards embracing progressive politics among Jewish Americans.
So, it is not us, it is AIPAC that is out of sync with Jewish Americans. 

JW: It’s not us, it is AIPAC that is out of sync with Jewish Americans.  Yes!

AM: Let’s be clear, by the way, American policy towards Israel, because of the military expenditures and how isolated the United States is in expressing international solidarity politically, the actions of Israel towards the Palestinians could not continue in this way without U.S. backing. So, the U.S. polity has a huge role to play in trying to achieve peace in the Middle East, justice for the Palestinian people, and a peaceful opportunity to pursue their lives for Israeli Jews.
Look, of course, what happens in the Middle East will be determined by the people there, but let’s not be blind to the influence that the United States has, and the outsized influence. So, we as Americans do need to act in that regard.
The Jewish American Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan has a brilliant line in the song, “Every Grain of Sand”: 
“Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.”
Clearly, given the conflagration in Israel and Palestine, given the power of the Israeli government over what is transpiring at present, and how essential the U.S. government’s heretofore blank check support for the Israeli government has been to that domination. We are at a point where we have to break this chain of events and pursue a different course.

JW: Alan Minsky. You can read the full text of the statement from Jewish Americans opposing AIPAC’s intervention in Democratic Party politics, and you can see the full list of signers, at thenation.com. Alan, thanks for talking with us today.

AM: It’s an honor, Jon.

Jon Wiener: We’re still thinking about that congressional hearing in December where Elise Stefanik asked the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania, whether calling for genocide of the Jews would violate their school’s codes of conduct. Each one replied, in effect, “it depends,” and each one came under massive criticism. For comment, we turn to David Cole. He’s National Legal Director of the ACLU, and he teaches at Georgetown Law School. He writes for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New York Review, where he wrote recently about cancel culture on campus.  And he’s legal affairs correspondent for The Nation. David Cole, welcome back.

David Cole: Thanks for having me, Jon.

JW: Here’s the thing about hateful speech on campus: people of color and other minorities, especially now in particular, some Jewish students, say that they feel personally threatened and unsafe when they hear some kinds of speech. Most famously, when this whole debate got started, the N-word back in the eighties, but also recently, protests with chants that seemed to imply the destruction of Israel: “from the river to the sea.” Defenders of freedom of speech on campus say those students have to learn to deal with it because that’s part of life in a free country. It’s one thing if somebody is threatening you directly, that’s not permissible. But otherwise, if you don’t like what somebody is saying, if you disagree, you should not try to stop them from speaking. Instead, you should argue back, you should speak out yourself.
And here’s the important part. But those students argue, “It’s easy for you to say that. You are a powerful privileged white man. You don’t know what it’s like to be an 18-year-old kid who lacks your experience and authority, who isn’t even really sure they belong at that school, who doesn’t want to have to defend herself all the time. You don’t know what it’s like, so you need to listen to them, and respect them when they say they feel frightened or fearful – instead of telling them to be more like you and do what you do.” What do you say to those students?

DC: Well, I hear them. I think that it is hard to hear views that you just deeply disagree with, views that might deny your equal worth in a particular community. And I think we have to recognize that that hurt exists. I also think we have to recognize though that you cannot have academic freedom, you cannot have an open dialogue if people feel that they can’t say things because somebody else is going to be offended, somebody else is going to be hurt in an open discussion or in a protest rally.
As you said in your opening, it’s different if it’s targeted speech at an individual because of his race, because of his gender, because of his religion. That can be discrimination. But much of what Elise Stefanik was talking about and much of what we’ve seen on campus today is not directed at any one individual, it’s actually directed at Israel, or it’s directed at Palestine. And the fact that you identify with one side of those debates and are offended by those who identify with the other side doesn’t make it discrimination and can’t be a basis for shutting it down.

JW: You do agree that creating a hostile learning environment is prohibited, but where’s the line? How do you define that?

DC: Yeah. So that is the $64,000 question. Courts have recognized that even non-targeted speech can create a discriminatory environment, it arose first in the workplace, where it creates a hostile work environment that is so severe and pervasive that it denies equal access to the workplace on the basis of gender, on the basis of race, on the basis of religion. So if you had antisemitic signs in the bathroom, if you had sexist pornography on the walls, it’s not directed at anyone but it nonetheless creates a hostile work environment on the basis of race or sex or religion, that can be discrimination.
And so that has been translated, that concept has been translated to the university setting, the hostile learning environment. And the standard is, when the speech is so severe and pervasive as to deny an individual equal access to education. That’s a very, very high standard. It can be met, but it is not met by a group of students claiming, yes, Israel should bomb Gaza, even if many Palestinian students feel very offended by that, and it is not met by a group of other students saying “from the river to the sea,” even if a number of Jewish students feel offended by that.

JW: Your concern is that American universities have been going too far in banning too many kinds of speech and punishing too many kinds of speakers. Of course, there are cases that are ridiculous and easy to criticize that get talked about a lot. We should just cite a couple of these. In my hometown of Saint Paul, at Hamline University, a professor teaching a course on the history of Islamic art was fired after one student complained that the professor showed images of the prophet Muhammad in class. The professor was teaching that images of Muhammad were not banned in earlier periods of Islamic art, and these were works of art that were meaningful and insignificant. And let’s note that the fired professor was immediately hired at a nearby college, Macalester College, a much better school. I’m sure you have some other favorites. In The New York Review, you cite the case of the professor at USC in Los Angeles who got in trouble teaching a Chinese language course.

DC: Yes, for a phrase that Chinese use kind of in the way that we use um. It sounds like the N word. It’s not the N word, but it’s roughly, it can sound like that. And so he was not using the N word, he was using a Chinese word. He was talking about something that had nothing to do with race. And nonetheless, he got into serious trouble for having done that. I think there are many examples like that and it’s easy to keep repeating them. In my review, I say, “Look, I think there is a real problem with ensuring that on campuses today, people feel free to express themselves.”
And I think the problem stems mostly, at least on elite campuses, from progressive students and progressive faculty who have a particular line and are not willing to hear conservative students. It comes at the same time from conservative and Republican politicians who are attacking schools and universities for expressing views that they don’t like. I’m thinking in particular of Ron DeSantis in his effort to eradicate discussion of our racial heritage through the Stop WOKE Act, a law that identifies eight ideas that cannot be endorsed at peril of losing all the schools state funding. And we at the ACLU have challenged that law as unconstitutional.
So I think there’s this kind of cancellation on both sides, on the left, of conservative voices, and on the right, of liberal voices. And the honest to God truth is that if you’re going to have a university where you bring people together to explore ideas – and one of the few places, by the way, in our highly polarized and divided society where you do actually bring people together who disagree. Oh my God. People have to have the room to disagree. And if you silence one side or the other, you have failed.

JW: We’re told that cancel culture, prohibiting speech and punishing speakers is worse today on campus than ever before. And that’s because of liberal domination of the universities that the right is being silenced. But remind us about the history of American universities and what now is called cancel culture.

DC: So first of all, there is no cancel culture thermometer that can assess whether it’s worse today than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago or 40 years ago. But here’s what we do know. We do know that colleges, and particularly elite colleges, were far more homogeneous back in the day. They were white, they were male, they were privileged. And the notion that somehow today’s heterogeneous, diverse populations are less tolerant of difference than those all white, all male bastions of privilege seems to me crazy, on its face.

JW: Thank you. Thank you for that. We’re also told that this is the new McCarthyism. I just want to cite one example of what McCarthyism was, a fascinating article by Carol Tavris in The Times Literary Supplement. She says that, in the early 1950s, her brother was dishonorably discharged from the US Army and banned from teaching because of his prolonged and unrepentant association with a known member of the Communist Party. She says, “Our father, who had briefly joined the party in the 1930s.” This was a case that went to the Supreme Court and eventually it was overturned the discharge and her brother was allowed to teach again. That was McCarthyism. Just highlight how is that different from what we have now?

DC: Well, and the reason I say it’s different is because the book I’m reviewing suggests that this is as bad as McCarthyism or on as par with McCarthyism. And I think that’s just presentism. That is a failure to recognize the difference between an official state organized and mandated targeting of people because of what they believe in. Loyalty oaths, loyalty inquiries, blacklists, criminal trials, all led by the state to target people for their political viewpoints. That was McCarthyism. What we have today is what we call cancel culture. It’s not the government. It’s some private citizens being intolerant of other private citizens. And private citizens have a right to be intolerant. I think we should struggle to be tolerant. I think private universities have a particular obligation under academic freedom to be tolerant and to try to enable and model tolerance.
But there’s a world of difference between a state sanctioned system of suppression, which is what the McCarthy period was, and what we see today. Which, on the right, some of its state sanctioned, the governor DeSantis example I indicated earlier. But when the right talks about cancel culture, they’re basically talking about private students and sometimes private administrators and private faculty, but mostly private students being intolerant of other private students. And again, I think that’s bad for academic freedom. We need to fight against that. I also think that private students have probably been intolerant of other students with whom they disagree as long as they’ve been brought together in communities with people who are different from them.

JW: So what is to be done? The University of Chicago has set the standard for one kind of policy. Starting in 2015, all incoming students were notified that they would “not be shielded from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” You think that’s a good idea?

DC: I do think that’s a good idea. I think it’s incumbent on universities to really orient students and educate students about the importance of being open to difficult conversations, acknowledging how difficult they are, acknowledging that this is something that most of us don’t have to do in most of our lives because we can live within our own bubbles and not have to confront people with whom we disagree. But that in the university setting for this period of time, for this enterprise to work, we have to try to be able to speak to one another and to hear viewpoints with which we disagree. And you do that by both, by having a very strong free speech policy in your campus student guidelines or by having processes by which people can complain if they feel that their speech rights were violated, just as you have processes through which people can complain if they feel like they were discriminated against.
But you also do it by modeling and by training, by getting faculty comfortable leading these conversations because they’re often not, by modeling for students that people who deeply disagree can disagree, and by building into curricula opportunities for debate, opportunities for disagreement, giving students roles so they feel less exposed when they take a position. There’s a whole host of things we can do. And what I find heartening – I’m the chair of a working group at Georgetown to make free speech and difficult conversations a reality, not just a policy on the page. And so I’ve been looking at what other schools are doing.
And what I find heartening is that across the board, universities recognize this problem and are undertaking measures to try to make their policies a reality through orientation, through curriculum, through training, through modeling of talks, through bringing in different points of view that are not heard. And so, to me, we’re at a turning point. To me, those who yelled “cancel culture!” — good for you, you have actually changed the culture. And now, I think, at least the institutions are really committed to inviting and creating a real open dialogue. Whether that will succeed in a highly polarized society, remains to be seen. And whether universities will continue to have that commitment in the wake of what happened with Representative Stefanik, remains to be seen.

JW: Let’s get back at the end here to Elise Stefanik. What about advocating genocide of the Jews? Let us know, first of all, as far as I know, there are no recorded incidents on any campus where anyone advocated genocide of the Jews. Even Hitler did not openly call for genocide of the Jews. He kept it a secret. It’s really holocaust denial that has been more of an issue than open advocacy. But I guess we need to answer Elise Stefanik’s question. Should advocating genocide of the Jews or anybody else be tolerated on campus? What is your answer?

DC: So I think the right answer is, actually, “it depends.” It wasn’t the right answer politically at the moment. And I think you need to say more than “it depends.” You need to explain that these are horrific ideas, and they should be condemned and that they are in fact illegal in particular context, when you are targeting an individual, for example. But that in other contexts, at a rally, in the open, the fact that somebody chants, “from the river to the sea” or “intifada,” which representative Stefanik equated with genocide of the Jews, that, you can’t shut that down. You can’t penalize the student for merely doing that if you have a commitment to free speech.
If someone was outside of Elise Stefanik’s office on the sidewalk in D.C., holding up a placard that said genocide of the Jews, there is nothing the state could do to punish that person because that speech is protected. As hateful, horrific as it is, it is protected. And so the answer is, in fact, “it depends.” And our commitment to free speech depends on our willingness to accept that that is actually the proper answer and not an answer to be lambasted and to call for investigations and beheadings of college presidents for giving the right answer.

JW: David Cole: he’s National Legal Director of the ACLU. He wrote about cancel culture on campus for The New York Review. David, thanks for all your work — and thanks for talking with us today.

DC: Thanks to you, Jon.

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