During a well-known scene in the 1989 film Field of Dreams, Amy Madigan’s character takes righteous umbrage at a proposal by her daughter’s school library to ban the books of a certain author. She references the spirit of her 1960s youth; she declares herself to be willing to stand up against the opponents of liberalism who seek to ban books such as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.
The former was banned by public libraries in Chicago and Detroit in the 1920s and 1950s, respectively, as well as being the target of a more contemporary attempt in Tennessee in 1986. The latter has been the subject of multiple banning attempts both before and after the film, including most recently a 2010 court case in Culpeper County, Virginia. The 1960s spirit she references in that scene was the influence of the Free Speech Movement, which originated at the University of California in Berkeley in 1964, and coalesced around certain leaders of the emerging New Left of that time. Their politics focused on concepts such as free speech and academic freedom, two key classical liberal values that, sadly, are nearly impossible to imagine any current leftist movement galvanizing around. Today’s left demands complete and total conformity to their preconceived, unchallengeable notions and brooks no dissent to their package of ideas and values. You either buy in 100 percent on every agenda item, or you are cast out as a virtual heretic.
Books are ideas put into words and onto pages that are then bound up in nice and neat packages for distribution. Today, it can be difficult to distinguish the stodgy old illiberal “them,” who banned books, from leftists who are unfortunately, and often erroneously, referred to as “liberals.” Seeking to ban books is no different than seeking to similarly expel from society ideas and ways of thinking themselves, whether wrapped in covers or not. A prominent example of a book where these two sides of censorship frequently collide can be found with To Kill a Mockingbird, where calls are made to ban the book both for its historically accurate language and content (which admittedly can shock some by today’s standards), as well as for the ultimate lesson it taught. This was a truly anti-racist book (published in 1960, no less) in the literal sense of that similarly abused phrase, yet it is also one that can draw equally outraged opposition from groups who would otherwise be diametrically opposed to each other politically.
The book, like all groundbreaking literature, was intended to shake people out of their comfort zones and make them reevaluate their ways of thought. Classical liberals respect and encourage this individualistic process, allowing people to come to their own conclusions, while leftists prefer to preach and demand deference without precisely explaining why people should think the way that they’re told.
The current craze of “cancel culture” is certainly not anything new or innovative. Socrates was executed for expressing inconvenient ideas. Numerous religious scholars throughout history were banished or worse for their theories, opinions, and ponderings. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated for eliminating the evil institution of slavery in the United States, while a little over a century later Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered for his success at working toward ending the disgusting practices of discrimination and segregation against African Americans that followed.
Right now, the stakes are obviously (with some exceptions) not the same as the more prominent examples that have been mentioned above, but “canceling” follows the same practice of intolerance, which if we tolerate it, leads down a very slippery and dangerous slope. We began to see a clear turn toward illiberalism and against the liberal values of free speech and free thought on the left with Salman Rushdie’s experience. In 1988, the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses ultimately led Iran’s then-leader, Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, to a call for Rushdie’s murder. Just a bit more than 25 years later, two terrorists shot up the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, murdering 12 and injuring 11 others, all because of a cartoon that the magazine had published.
After that tragedy, a clear distinction became evident between classical liberals who oppose censorship and leftists posing as liberals who consider It acceptable to murder cartoonists and secretaries as long as one can provide an ideologically appropriate justification. Just five years later we now have illiberal leftists celebrating the firing of literary agents such as Colleen Oefelein simply for having an account on the social media site Parler, which is “known” to be conservative (hello, shades of Bizarro McCarthyism).
Free speech is the absolute key to classical liberalism and all the values we hold dear. It is the underlying value without which no one is truly free. This is liberalism 101.
The United States, now near the 250th anniversary of the establishment of the greatest and longest-running experiment in classical liberalism in world history, based upon such documents as the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, and texts such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, finds itself in a troubling situation where radicals currently seek to undermine the foundations of society. Tragically, these radical individuals are not regarded now as mere mischievous malcontents spoiled by generational privilege, but rather are often considered to be serious people representing a serious movement by the current American government, as well as by institutions such as the media, universities, and even major corporations.
It is now vital for those who value the opportunities provided to succeed in the United States, and who hope to pass along this place to their children and grandchildren and further generations down the line, to stand strong against this current challenge. The same applies to those in other democracies and republics throughout the world which were based upon classical liberal values that are also being similarly challenged by illiberal, destructive forces that today are masquerading as the opposite.
Jason D. Paluch is a Contributing Writer for White Rose Magazine.