Bob Ehrlich: The Left Has Completely Abandoned Free Speech

What theory of governance encourages the banning and burning of books, coerces agreement with its central tenets, practices revisionist history, perfects virtue-signaling, disparages dissenting opinion, invents social constructs to minimize speech, indoctrinates gullible students, revels in civil disobedience, holds idealistic appeal for young people, specializes in utopian platitudes and never, to be charitable, quite works?

If you guessed socialism -or its cousin, fascism — go to the head of the class. If you guessed anything else, you are likely a victim of progressive instruction at a tender age. But can you spot the missing element in these descriptions?

The answer, of course, is freedom — a response that is unfortunately not so automatic for so many of our educated elites.

Indeed, there is a reason that so many of the really smart people are so often the ground troops for the latest iteration of authoritarianism. These folks tend to dismiss the uniquely American principles of limited government and individual liberty, values that have been far out of fashion with a tremendously high percentage of those who have been administering and instructing on our college campuses for decades now.

But the dangers associated with taking our way of life for granted is nothing new.

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A number of our more important leaders have cautioned about this attitude for years. Why, ol’ Ben Franklin famously admonished us that we indeed had a republic “if you can keep it.”

Two centuries later, President Ronald Reagan reminded us that the loss of liberty is “never more than one generation away from extinction.”

Perhaps the most prescient lesson came from the revered Australian economist Friedrich Hayek, who opined in “The Intellectuals and Socialism” (1949):

“It may be that a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, that once freedom has been achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued, and that the free growth of ideas which is the essence of a free society will bring about the destruction of the foundations on which it depends.”

Not so long ago, right and left wholeheartedly agreed with these thoughts. Free speech was sacrosanct, especially after it provided the intellectual fuel for the transformative movements of the 1960s: civil rights, women’s rights, the anti-war movement. You can bet that few of today’s “safe zone”-friendly college students know that Berkeley, California, was the epicenter for free speech circa 1968.

But a dangerous turn occurred approximately twenty years later, about the time most Americans naively hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union would end Western intellectuals’ fascination with socialism.

On the contrary: A renewed appreciation for authoritarianism and its offspring, speech control, began to take root. Even as new autocratic regimes popped up in Central and South America and a reconstituted Russia once again returned to its despotic ways, it became increasingly acceptable to degrade diverse opinions in America — especially within the academy.

Free speech advocates of different political philosophies began to worry and write about the problem (think Bill Buckley on the right, Christopher Hitchens on the left).

But then another important corner was turned: Liberals began to disengage from the fight. Their silence created a vacuum and further energized progressives who were as willing to indict Democratic liberals as they were conservative Republicans. Here, dogmatism recognized no party labels.

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As time wore on, more of these progressives challenged traditional Democrats in their “safe” seats. A few won. More importantly, liberals got the message. Most stayed quiet as the campaign to denigrate and even eviscerate free speech gained momentum.

All of which brings us to our present conundrum, and a personal note.

Being born and raised in Maryland meant early and relentless exposure to left-leaning blue-state politics. Nevertheless, I repeatedly challenged the status quo during my public life, winning and losing campaigns in the process.

But rare was the circumstance in which an opponent would attempt to silence me, to make it politically and socially unacceptable to espouse my positions. Most would never have thought to degrade an opponent in such a manner. That would have been the demagogue’s way out. They would rather have won the argument on its merits.

Today, times are a-changin’ — and not for the better.

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