|Dante death mask|
Monsieur l’Abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write -- Voltaire
The trouble with bad manners, Bill Buckley used to say, is that they sometime lead to murder. The late Charles Manson and his maenads, we can agree, had deplorable manners.
Anyone who has met President of UConn Susan Herbst will tell you she has exquisite manners. And the author of “Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics,” also is an authority on political manners. Unfortunately, there are no mandatory courses on good manners at UConn.
And so when Lucian Wintrich, a provocative speaker invited by UConn’s College Republicans to give a talk that nearly everyone on the left has deplored at length, attempted last November to deliver his address to university students, he was shouted down by disrupters, and his speech was stolen by a professor attached to a different college. Wintrich’s address had been successfully censored, and there was little indication that those deploring the speaker as an intolerable incendiary, had actually read his undelivered remarks, which later were printed by Gateway Pundit sometime after the speaker had been suppressed.
The Courant reported at the time: “The incident brought a swift end to a speech marked by continuous interruptions from the audience of 350 people, including chants of “Go home, Nazi,” and shouts of outrage when he made certain statements, such as that the country was ‘run by illegal-immigrant, tranny communists.’ That and other inflammatory moments of his talk were meant to push boundaries and poke fun at people who consider certain topics off-limits, Wintrich said. And the talk overall was meant to end with a message of anti-racism.”
Wintrich did not succeed in saying the unsayable. The thrust of his address was not very much different than Voltaire’s stinging satires.
Some college presidents who subscribe to Herbst’s view – “… it’s censorship that leads down a slippery slope to authoritarianism and the crushing of freedom of expression” -- have in the recent past paid lip service to the brave declarations of Voltaire and John Milton, the author of the “Areopagitica,” a defense of freedom of speech delivered to the English Parliament, subtitled, “For the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, To the Parlament of England."
Neither Voltaire, a provocateur routed from country to country by proto-totalitarians, nor Milton tempered their remarks when protesting the want of free speech. Here is Milton: “This is true Liberty -- when free born men having to advise the public may speak free; which he who can, and will, deserv's high praise; who neither can nor will, may hold his peace. What can be juster in a State than this?” And then again here -- and remember these were words, flaming oracles I should say, addressed IN parliament TO parliament: “We can grow ignorant again, brutish, formall, and slavish, as ye found us; but you then must first become that which ye cannot be, oppressive, arbitrary, and tyrannous, as they were from whom ye have free'd us. That our hearts are now more capacious, our thoughts more erected to the search and expectation of greatest and exactest things, is the issue of your owne vertu propagated in us; ye cannot suppresse that unlesse ye reinforce an abrogated and mercilesse law, that fathers may dispatch at will their own children.”
The lesson we should draw from Herbst’s defense of free speech is this: unless colleges that have assented to a speaker are able to provide a sanctuary for free speech, none are free to speak. The proto-totalitarians who shouted down Wintrich have a firmer understanding than many college presidents of the necessary connection between real safe spaces and Miltonian free speech.
Milton was a fierce republican, but even he stumbled after Cromwell had dissolved Parliament. Following Cromwell’s death, Milton returned to his ardent defense of republican government. He twinkles today in the constellation of uncompromising republicans such as Dante Alighieri, exiled for political reasons by his beloved Florence. Both Milton and Dante shaped the language of their countries through their pamphleteering and poetry. Even today, the purist Italian is spoken in Florence, largely because Dante's "Divine Comedy" was printed in the vernacular tongue of his day rather than Latin.
The questions students should put to college administrators and their professors are these: Right now, here where we stand, what do YOU stand for? Dante was not permitted to return to Florence; he died in Ravenna, where his bones still sweeten the earth. Voltaire was knocked about the world like a shuttlecock. Milton’s politics influenced future generations, not his own.
In the “Paradiso,” Dante looked back on his exile with a melancholy born of despair:
“You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
of others' bread, how salty it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others' stairs ...”
These were large-minded men who suffered for the truth. And you professor, if you do not defend the liberty to profess, what do you profess, and is it worth the price of admission to your university?