There are those who claim that the left is by nature totalitarian, but even if this is an exaggeration, the anti-liberal trends that are flooding America today should cause surprise and worry.
It was worrisome and incredible to see hundreds of armed American soldiers spread out in the halls of the Capitol in Washington for Joe Biden’s inauguration, but it was necessary following the serious failure of security two weeks before. It is perhaps no less worrisome to see how American democracy is being trampled now, not only by the political right but also by the left. The Democrats in Congress, with the encouragement of the major networks, are exploiting the acts of barbarity on Capitol Hill and what came before, including former President Donald Trump’s “I am with you” speech, to take revenge and humiliate not only the former president but also the almost 50% of Americans who voted for him. They are wasting a historic opportunity to repair the tears in American society and to establish themselves as those who can unite the people. The initiative to establish a process of an ill-advised impeachment against Trump, whose days as president are over, is adding fuel to the fire.
The United States is justifiably proud of its tradition of tolerance, of the protection of freedom of speech and expression established in the First Amendment to the Constitution, but almost from the day that it was established, and even before, the United States has experienced periods in which a mockery was made of these principles. It was not always clear where it came from — like COVID-19, which hit us like a bolt of lightning. The witch hunts in Salem in 1692 were the first of many examples of the disregard of free speech, but it was not only religious or political issues that created these fires in American society, but also cultural issues. So, for example, in 1849, the police in New York were forced to get involved when a crowd was incited to set fire to a theater in which William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” was playing, leading to street fights as a result. Twenty people from both sides were killed and hundreds were injured. The fights were caused by differences of artistic taste, but actually, behind that rather superficial motivation for the bloody strife lay class struggle and xenophobia. (The troupe of actors was mostly British.)
As unusual as that event seems, cultural life and the world of enlightenment continue to be one of the central areas of tension in America, and conflicts break out every so often between tolerance and freedom of expression — for those attacking it on both on the right and left. The 1940s and ’50s saw the McCarran Internal Security Act, actually sponsored by a Democratic senator, whose clauses canceled many of the basic freedoms of the Constitution, paved the way for McCarthyism and spread to all walks of American life, especially culture, when scores of artists were fired from their jobs and forced to go into exile. Now it’s time for the McCarthyism of the left — and not only as a reaction to Trump, but as a phenomenon that preceded him.
In universities, there is a widespread phenomenon of “political correctness” among the lecturers and also among the students, including anti-Semitic and anti-Israel diatribes whose goal is subjugation of thought that does not align with the left; unofficial (or sometimes official) excommunication of writers and directors who do not accept the prevailing opinion of the left. Professors and teachers have been fired for criticizing Biden or backing away from cooperating with Black Lives Matter, the organization established to protest police violence against Black people, but which became a radical movement. Those who have come out against radical leftist organizations such as antifa have been censured. There has been a call to ostracize educators and teachers based on their views. There has been increased engagement in revisionist history and a demand to remove books by Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe and others from the shelves of public libraries.
These are all warning signs on the path to “cancel culture,” which reminds us of similar journeys under other dark regimes. One hundred fifty artists and writers with a variety of opinions from all over the United States published a letter last year in which they warned the public against a cancel culture under the heading “The Threat to Cultural Institutions,”* and decried the curses and slander by the left in cultural settings and the media. In addition, suppression of freedom of speech and expression gained traction in the wake of recent political events. Social media networks blocked Trump and other organizations and individuals who were accused of excessively admiring him, actions which may not even be legal, and even earned strong criticism from Angela Merkel and the French government. And even a contract for a book about Silicon Valley, a book with no connection to current politics and which was written by a Republican senator and supporter of the president, was canceled by the publisher, Simon and Schuster.
It is a shame that even Jewish organizations, like the American Jewish Congress and the Organization of Reform Rabbis, have jumped into the fray — a decision that damages their apolitical status and is likely to bring anti-Semitic reactions. There are those who claim that the left is totalitarian at its core. And even if this is exaggerated, the anti-liberal trends floating around today in America must arouse surprise and worry.
*Editor’s note: The letter, published on Harper’s Magazine’s website on July 7, 2020, was entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”