Don Pesci: Accept that demagogues are also protected by the First AmendmentV


If  you want a functioning First Amendment that prevents Congress or state legislatures (or college administrators?) from making laws and regulations prohibiting free speech – you must suffer the demagogues to come unto you. The First Amendment is the baby, the demagogue the bathwater, and you do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is because we wish to preserve the right of statesmen to speak freely that we tolerate the demagogue. It may be important to point out that the word “demagogue” did not always have a negative connotation. The demagogue in ancient Greece and Rome was one who was uniquely able to speak to the populace in terms they might understand; he was the vox populi. In a society rigidly separated by class – rich and poor, privileged and non-privileged, free and slave – Greek and Roman demagogues were what today we would call populists, a term of approval in some quarters. The first notable Greek cynic, Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, would have found himself right at home in Twitterville. The demagogue is the populist with a golden tongue, popular because he is persuasive. No one very much minds unpersuasive political opponents, unless they are largely inarticulate anarchic mobs determined to destroy free speech.

The media favors the First Amendment – except when it doesn’t favor it – for the same reason toothpaste makers favor toothbrushes and the shrinking left in the United States favors Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive demagogue. We all like the fellow-traveler sitting next to us in our political pews attending rapturously to the demagogic sermon pouring from the pulpit. 

Milo Yiannopoulos is the latest, but by no means the last, canary in America’s free speech mineshaft. An address he was to give at the University of California at Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement in December 1964, was terminated by puritanical protest marchers and anarchists.

 Yiannopoulos has a number of strikes against him. He is alt-right, associated with Breitbart News, gay and a provocateur, but no greater a disturber of the peace than was Mario Savio a little more than a half century earlier, who opened the Free Speech Movement at Berkley with a ringing demagogic speech against the machine of the day: “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Some people who raged against the machine in the mid-sixties, after administering lessons on free speech to college administrators and their parents, went on, later in life, to reform the academic machine. Bernardine Rae Dohrn -- formerly of the Weather Underground, a terrorist group responsible for the bombing of the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, and several police stations in New York, as well as the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that killed three members of the Underground – spent some years as clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law. She married her comrade in crime Bill Ayers, also a terrorist, now a retired professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Education, whose specialty was teaching social justice, urban educational reform and how properly to stomp on American flags.

Yiannopoulos, who has little in common politically with Dohrn and Ayers, finds himself on the opposite side of their political barricades, though he is not an establishment conservative, according to the editors a National Review. He describes himself as a "cultural libertarian” and a “free speech fundamentalist.” During his “Dangerous Faggot Tour," he has shown little patience with observant Salafists who continue to throw gays to their deaths from tall buildings, third-wave feminists who are strangely silent on the proper treatment of women as ordered in fatwas by Islamic scholars, fake social-justice groups, authoritarian movements of every color, ideologies he regards as noxious products of the regressive left and, with barbed-wire vehemence, political correctness as embodied in the protests that recently and violently shut down his appearance at the home of the “Free Speech Movement.”

Sometimes men and women lesser than saints carry the First Amendment flag. Such is Yiannopoulos. It is never necessary to march in lockstep to advance the colors of liberty or justice; forward movement is still progress of a kind. We should not discard the message because the messenger is imperfect. It must be supposed that George Washington regarded Thomas Paine as imperfect, if only because Paine was a revolutionary atheist, but Washington most certainly appreciated “Common Sense.”

There are some signs that Yiannopoulos may be a closeted Catholic. The cross that he sometimes wears may be more than decorative. At the very least, he is not animated by the kind of hostility to religion boastfully exhibited by, say, Bill Maher, who lacks the elegance in anti-religious vituperation of a Christopher Hitchens or, for that matter, a Thomas Paine. But, lovers of liberty may agree, Yiannopoulos is a step-up from the confusing anarchism of Berkley protesters who hate, one deduces from their actions, windows, Starbucks, gays, and – incomprehensibly – disturbers of the peace such as Yiannopoulos.

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based political and cultural writer.