The Enemies Within
Who’s the biggest threat to American freedom?
Muslims? Socialists? Kneeling black NFL players?
How about white nationalists? Trump’s Base? Anti-Semites?
None of the usual suspects, actually.
Rather, as recent events make clear, it’s the gatekeepers of our democracy who are doing the most to dismantle it. And in our desire to muzzle those among us whose views offend, we’re being far more complicit in this dismantling than we can afford.
Witness Congress’s bipartisan rush to silence Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from questioning the political influence of the Jewish lobby by denouncing her as an anti-Semite. House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) led the charge, threatening to punish the freshman congresswoman—who is young, brown, female, and Somali-born—even before she Tweeted about “the Benjamins” control over America’s elder statesmen. That smack-down played well with Republicans, who’d prefer that Millennials, people of color, women, and Muslims be suppressed if not barred from office. But in rapid succession, led by Majority leader Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats, too, disavowed Ilhan. Better to burn one of their own at the stake than have their prospects for future dominion be dimmed by association with a Deplorable.
Riveted by this public execution, we voters focused on Ilhan: was she guilty, or not guilty, of anti-Semitism? We overlooked, at our peril, the very chilling effect this execution might have on our own Constitutionally-protected right to express our views, however un-American, in order to push back against power we perceive as unrepresentative.
It’s as though we learned nothing from our first brush with McCarthyism, back in the ‘50s, when the senator from Wisconsin pre-empted scrutiny of his own imperial aspirations by siccing us on each other. Or we learned from it, but we got distracted.
Because while we did push back, in 1968, against unwarranted wire-tapping; and again, in 1978, against Nixon-era domestic surveillance; we didn’t push back in 2001 when the Bush administration reinstated and dramatically expanded the police powers of the State with passage of the PATRIOT Act. Nothing could have been less patriotic, nor more totalitarian, than this annulment of the Constitution’s First and Fourth amendments. Yet so great was our fear of terrorism, and so great was Democrats’ fear of being seen as soft on it, that we embraced these encroachments on our most basic rights—exceeding jihadists’ wildest dreams of destroying Western ideals.
It takes far less to distract us now. We’re consumed by the offensiveness of politicians wearing blackface in their youth, or of Tweeting about AIPAC, rather than the suppression of free speech by House leaders, or the existential threat to our democracy that the President’s invocation of “emergency powers” represents.
We’ve got to get our priorities straight. The real and present danger to our nation is not those whose speech offends, but those who would criminalize offensive speech. It’s not subversive ideas we should fear, but the fear that prevents their discussion. Offensive as we may find some of our fellow Americans, we’ve got to defend their right to dissent—lest our own power to protest be disemboweled when we need it most.