White supremacist Richard Spencer is coming to the University of Cincinnati in March to deliver his message of modern-day apartheid. CNN host W. Kamau Bell, who once stood as a vulnerable black man at a Klan meeting in rural Kentucky, said that he was less afraid being at a Klan meeting than he was when meeting Richard Spencer.
To understand Bell’s remarks, you should know something about Richard Spencer. He is intelligent, educated, articulate, and looks like he should be on the cover of a men’s fashion magazine, although it is unlikely it would be GQ.
Bell, of course, did not fear that Spencer would attack him physically. What Bell feared was that Spencer’s intellectual attributes, good looks, and charisma gave him a certain credibility that traditional purveyors of racism could only envy.
If Bell thought harder about it, he would realize that Spencer’s greatest strength might not be his intellectual talents, but that people want to shut him down.
That mindset, much in vogue across the nation’s campuses where dissonant ideas are not to be heard, was articulated by University of Cincinnati junior Kendall Smith who wrote on the Cincinnati Enquirer blog, “While we know we do not want to hear Richard Spencer, some people do. We must stop them from hearing and supporting his hateful, threatening ideas.”
Smith is a product of the perverse notion that if you object to an idea, you don’t engage it with another idea — you shut it down. All the while, you arrogate to yourself the right to decide what ideas should and should not be heard.
Like many of her generation, Smith has received an inferior education and probably should go to the university’s bursar and seek a refund.
The First Amendment guarantees not only the right to speak; it also guarantees the right to be heard. Let us not forgot that Southern yahoos used Ms. Smith’s rationale in their attempts to shut down the civil rights movement.
In her seminal work on totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt reminds us that the evil genius of the Nazi movement was not the propaganda of the big lie, but the willingness to engage issues that other parties purposely chose to ignore. Goebbels’ selling point was that the truth is what you are not being told.
I believe that Spencer wants to be shut down as much if not more than he wants to speak, for being shut down gives him both a degree of credibility and access to the legal system. It is no accident that Spencer quotes Nazi anti-Semitic tropes in the original German. He understands how propaganda works, something those who want to silence him do not.
We should remember that 21st century America is a land of diversity, not just in university shibboleths, but in the reality of everyday living and even in the gene pool. Look around. Racial purity is a myth defied by experience and common sense.
The overwhelming majority of Americans value a diverse society. They are not going to be dissuaded from holding that value by either Richard Spencer or the Rev. Louis Farrakhan. Let Spencer speak and let him be challenged in the free marketplace of ideas. The best antidote for racism is the antiseptic of free speech.
Do we really believe the values we hold are so fragile that they require shutting down opposing and odious views? If so, Richard Spencer is not the problem. We are.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. Follow him @salomoncenter