"Mighty Ira," a documentary about legendary former ACLU chief Ira Glasser, is simultaneously inspiring and unnerving
I think what I knew as “liberalism” is vanishing. I watched “Mighty Ira” with my wife a few months back. She is very smart and well educated. But she is also 14 years younger than me. I was surprised by her reaction to the documentary— she was “uncomfortable” with Ira’s commitment to free speech, and she was “much more sympathetic” to the Holocaust survivor who opposed Ira’s free speech absolutism. I realized at that point that there really is a generational difference in attitude toward the ideas of “liberalism.” It confounds me.
I have always described myself as a Jew who would march with Hitler in defense of free speech, and it was Glasser who put me on that path. And, I certainly would have stood in Charlotte with the torch carriers and "fine people" against the Nazis of Antifa.
But I do think you are wrong regarding the TV and film of the seventies and eighties and how conservatives and liberals were portrayed. This was the era of NYC coming out of one of the worst urban decays, with zero conservatives putting them in that position. Remember the Guardian Angles? Or, on the west coast, SF had the street patrols, gay men who were taking back the night, as that city, the city of my father's birth had gotten so shitty. As it is currently.
There was a reason that liberalism was portrayed as weak and damaging; we were suffering through the remains of the bad policy that it left in its wake. And make no mistake that I am a conservative, I come from an old Jewish Berkeley family, was a Democrat when that was the only way to convey how important free speech, due process, and other civil liberties were.
We have to remember that no matter how important liberalism may seem, it does need to have its excesses tempered with the other half of our politics. As we are currently seeing. And yes, it took me decades to learn that lesson.
Matt, you have just explained perfectly why I was on the left in the 80s, in college and law school and I'm on the right now. I'd argue that I haven't changed that much. On critical issues, the sides have switched.
There's a big difference between the Skokie thing and what's going on now. Nazis in Skokie were a very unpopular, extreme fringe element whose ideas were totally rejected by the vast majority of Americans then as they would be now. So fighting for their right to march may have been pro-liberty in the abstract, but hardly anyone would have been directly injured had they been stopped.
Today you have establishment media and major colleges censoring not extreme, fringe views but views that are held by sizable percentages, sometimes even majorities, of the public. I don't have to list examples. That's not tolerating unpopular opinions, it's suppressing *popular* opinions. Whole different thing. Not a civil rights issue. A political, consent-of-the-governed issue, which calls for a lot more than some kind of revitalized ACLU.
"But the team was disappeared, “kidnapped” to Los Angeles by owner Walter O’Malley, described by Glasser as one of history’s three great villains, the other two being Hitler and Genghis Khan (“I've always rooted for the San Andreas Fault to take care of the Dodgers in Los Angeles ever since,” Glasser quips)."
I guess Ira never met Larry Summers, Jabba the Hut of economists....
Matt's writings here remind of three takeaways:
A. Purposeful construction of the left-right divide over the last 40 years in this country has led us to react to individual feelings/reactions instead of how the substance of the issue may be used against us.
B. I am reminded of how big the Hidden Argument in our daily lives really is (Do we believe that people are smart enough to enact democracy and find ways to manage conflict or do we buy into the media narrative and elite agenda to make/to believe people are stupid and need a separate class of wealthy assholes to tell us what to do). This is the single biggest conflict in our society NOT being discussed. Thanks Matt.
C. The anti-establishment culture of the 60s and 70s has been silenced (via assassination, consumerism, distraction, and internal disruptions of large groups being dismantled by individualism and neoliberal policies).
If we want to any kind of change we'll have to address the best ways to challenge the current regimes (left or right). And we need to move away from the Bullshit Mountain patriotism of love this country or leave it type of ignorance. We need to stop glorifying "freedom" in a country where democracy is being squashed by a PMC bent on interviewing to the be the elites microphones and stenographers.
Corporatist D “liberals”/Ds don’t even realize what the hell they are getting in bed with vis a vis the new “woke” movement. I just finished reading “Antifa” by Mark Bray, a sympathetic analysis and history of Antifa as a movement, from the 1930s onward. The opening paragraph of the book specifically rejected the liberal consensus on free speech-it said “We reject Voltaire’s notion of I may disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”. Commendable intellectual honesty, but horrifyingly dangerous, and symbolic of the fire that Ds/liberals like to flirt with, w/out understanding the root motivations. Or, as an Antifa type quoted saying later in the book “If you think our attitude about the 1st Amendment is wrong now, just wait until the People’s Revolution”.
Alex P Keaton and Tony Montana-as characters-understood this back in the 80s, with their embrace of Friedman and unabashed capitalist zeal. When Tony Montana said “I kill Communists for fun. For a green card I carve him up real nice”, he is getting to the heart of the matter. The enemy doesn’t play by your rules-and needs to Glasser/baby boom hippy liberals were afraid to look at the true face of leftist thought-and thus act shocked when it’s methods are co-opted by corporations and the State.
I listened to Glasser on Joe Rogan recently and his whining about Trump as an “existential threat” to the nation showed where he and the old liberals minds are at. Being a stereotypical other borough loud moth is a worse crime than coopted cultural Marxism for corporate PR/HR. Noam Chomsky gets it, Ira Glasser doesn’t.
Thank you, Matt. Wonderful piece. Great points about liberalism. However I don't think you get satire - Family Ties was satire. I don't think you get satire at all, actually. We all have our weak points and that seems to me to be yours. You're too damn earnest for your own liberal good. How much stronger liberalism was when it could laugh at themselves. This is why liberalism is dead. We aren't allowed to laugh at our own liberal beliefs and god forbid you do. We need a show like Family Ties now.
>Meanwhile, Michael J. Fox’s Alex Keaton character, who worshipped Milton Friedman instead of Salinger and kept a portrait of Nixon where most kids kept the Blue Oyster Cult poster, was the rebel.
This is a false binary. Friedman’s message was not anti-liberal or anti-government programs. It was anti-government programs that did not achieve the results upon which they were predicated, which is invariably, every single one of them.
Whaddaya mean? You can have all the free speech you want as long as you agree totally with the latest edicts of the "woke" mob.
I like this Post. Good stuff, Matt. Ebbets Field as a metaphor for once-grand old-school liberalism works.
But I don't think framing speech as uniquely a core old-school liberal value eroded by cultural changes is convincing. It was old-school conservative too. The "blunt right wing" cultural message was more about economic efficiency and power of free enterprise unencumbered by unions and self-dealing management -- whether one agrees or not, and I largely don't.
As you note, even Buckley applauded the ACLU's values while arguing only that "you've gone too far". Speech absolutism was the strange attractor that pulled ACLU-style far-left and constitution-loving far-right so close they could touch. It wasn't just a liberal value.
But it is dead now. Why? In my view it's an artefact of a vast loss in cultural self-confidence, largely driven by economic stress. I don't believe economic data -- particularly since 2008 -- paints an accurate picture of social conditions. It's no coincidence that protests from Occupy Wall Street to BLM have blown up in the past decade. In 1977 America, when Mr. Glasser's ACLU defended Nazis) a blue-collar man could have a house, car and family. Young people today have nowhere near those economic opportunities. There's a sense of betrayal, abandonment and humiliation -- and it's legitimate. The anger lashes out and finds scapegoats and villains to ventilate the pain. Racists, white nationalists, hate speakers, "extremists", Trump supporters, etc. etc. Anything but humans or countrymen with whom one disagrees, they are demons, all of them.
Free speech becomes the privileged weapon demons use to taunt, humiliate and oppress the innocent. It becomes a clear and present danger, the antithesis of freedom. And then the demonic possession is complete.
The scene where 96 year old Ben Stern tells Mr. Glasser how proud he is: that's amazing and brilliant stuff, that's such an iconographic portrait of the arc of psyche from fear to self-confidence to liberation to recognition that yes, Mr. Glasser was right all along. The way to prevent Nazis is to let them speak and to let everyone else speak. Trusting in natural moral sentiments to sort it all out better, as you point out too, than the alternatives.
I don't think that's a particularly old-school liberal value, but it certainly is a core American value in our founding documents and philosophies. I recall a famous quote from Vincent Van Gogh about painting which I relate from memory because I can't find it online that "a painter can't take up where another left off. He has to start from the beginning, with the same integrity and the same interest." I suppose that's also a metaphor for the human experience and it's true for all forms of freedom -- speech included.
One hopes the current crop of liberals will reflect with integrity and interest on the origins of free speech. If not, Sisyphus in some future age will have to push that boulder up hill, one more time. And those alive then will look back on now with scathing contempt for the cowards and dull blind souls who squandered their magnificent philosophical inheritance and so badly impoverished the future.
Matt, great piece. I’m not entirely sure if you are a fan of Glasser’s style of liberalism, but it sounds like you definitely prefer it to what’s happening now. For the record, I’m a former “The West Wing” writer — Sorkin had to share his only writing Emmy for the show with me, and it tickles me to see how you view the show. I guess I’m a bigger fan of yours than you are of it, but that’s ok. I would love to talk with you about consulting on a new series I’m working on... one about the media... if I hear back from you, great, if not, that’s ok too.
Once "Hate Speech" was accepted as valid, it was just a matter of time.
Also, this article has me just begging you to do an article on the West Wing and the garbage toxic influence it has had on politics and the left in general, since I've been waiting AGES for someone to call that turd sandwich out for the damage it's done to the modern left and politics in general.
Fundamentally, I think the left has finally surrendered to a stream of thought that was always present, if not dominant, in liberalism...namely that some people cannot be trusted to make their own choices and make up their own mind based on available information.
It's always been a facet of progressivism, that those in power know better than those they are ruling. But now, it's become the central tenet to the point that the only proper way to manage things is to prevent the unwashed from being exposed to the wrong think, wrong speech, wrong people.
What's horrifying about it is that they think they are doing good by behaving in this way...which makes them far more dangerous than if they recognized the evil in what they do.
Interesting read, I hadn’t known about Glasser.
And yes, it’s a dangerous time to be a free thinker. Liberalism is surely dead.
The Dmocrats are coalition of globalist billionaires and intervention hawks that keep loyal voting blocs through uber-identity swords and shields. The Republicans are too stupid to recognize this. We’ll crash and burn, and who knows what comes out the other side, but my doge coins are on something less than a tolerant utopia.
Americans have a weird definition of liberalism because there's no labor party in the US. In the rest of the world, liberalism means the ideology of free enterprise and is a discourse of the rich. That's why, when the US government says it's defending freedom around the world, the main freedom to them is the right to exploit labor. The rest is secondary or even unimportant