Some of us viscerally remember when American liberalism was defined by the American Civil Liberties Union’s courageous defense of Nazis marching in Skokie, Ill. Real liberalism says you can’t discredit an argument without recognizing its right to be heard.
But this cultural leftism that has been emboldened in the Trump moment — call it wokeism, I guess — espouses the opposite. Maybe it’s a generational divide — maybe if you didn’t grow up in the Cold War, the bright line between tolerance and tyranny doesn’t seem quite so relevant.
The new leftism holds that free speech is often a tool of oppression, an elitist principle wielded by white men whose speech counts for more than everybody else’s. Ezra Klein, the founder of Vox, recently echoed this argument, tweeting: “A lot of debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power.”
I’m not sure any Soviet-era autocrat could have made the case against liberal democracy more succinctly than that.
We in the media should make sure all sides of this debate are heard. But when we allow the cultural left to refer to itself as a “liberal” or “progressive” movement, we do a profound disservice to generations of political activists who stood up for a decidedly different set of principles. Those words get their meaning from a century of tolerance and dissent.