Leftists and left-feminists always talk about freedom of speech and the First Amendment. However, they only seem to have their speech or the speech of terrorists in mind, not the speech of those who disagree with them or who might expose them. The subsequent, chilling effect on free speech is a serious problem. Muslim billionaires sue or threaten to sue those who, like Rachel Ehrenfeld and Oriana Fallaci, expose their funding of terrorism and jihad. Likewise, being hectored and drowned out at one’s own speeches is not uncommon. Perhaps the most serious effect is never being invited to speak or write at all and having your views slandered in those venues to which you yourself have no access. This occurs every day in the academy and in the media.
I wish to tell my own story about a campaign to squelch my freedom of speech, and how I persevered.
In June, my publisher asked me to deliver a lecture in mid-October about my new book, The Death of Feminism: What’s Next In The Struggle For Women’s Freedom. It was a routine request, but when they told me my talk would be co-sponsored by the Continuing Education Program at the CUNY Graduate Center and by the National Organization for Women of New York State, I wondered if I’d died and gone to heaven. Why would a profoundly left-wing university and a feminist organization that has almost become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party welcome me? I was skeptical, but very pleased.
Yet then I noticed I was the only NOW speaker on the agenda without a bio or photo and I was listed at the very end of all other speakers – even though I would be first to speak. I asked some questions and found some people were distressed by the title of my book and wanted to read it before they posted it on their website. I protested, and my photo and a review of the book were quickly posted.
Time passed. But then, on October 6, 2005, all hell broke loose. I didn’t know it, but NOW had been embroiled in an internal struggle about their decision to co-sponsor my speech. Apparently, Katha Pollitt of Nation magazine, whose bullying tactics I had once personally experienced on a left feminist listserv group, had been writing persistently and aggressively to NOW-NYS President, Marcia Pappas. Pollitt was “surprised” that NOW would promote someone whose work is “false and that slanders feminists.” Further, Pollitt wondered whether NOW members agreed with me “that the way to promote women’s equality is to support George Bush because the war in Iraq is against ‘gender apartheid.'” She likened my views to those of Ann Coulter and wondered whether NOW would invite Coulter to speak. Carefully, cleverly, she insisted that she was not asking them to cancel the speech, but she believed that the NOW leadership “owes the members an explanation of how this really bizarre invitation was extended in the first place.”
Orwell would love this distinction. In a second letter, Pollitt clarified that she would not dream of asking CUNY to cancel my speech and was quite “frustrated” because NOW leadership understood that to be her aim. She demanded to understand the “process” whereby NOW is suggesting its members hear me tell them they are the “dupes of a far-left anti-Semitic America-hating racist and sexist women’s movement, and that George Bush is the savior of Muslim women.”
She sent them to the description of my book – actually a Kirkus review of the book and a very good one. She then began to question NOW’s true views on The War, intimating that if they associate with me and listen to my views, they might become inoculated with a less than politically correct point of view and fail the Marxist test for conformity and purity. In yet a third letter, Pollitt grew testy about being asked what her own “real agenda” might be, because according to her, she was merely attempting to understand why NOW was promoting me. She then compared me to Camille Paglia and to the head of Feminists for Life, again noting her surprise that NOW was supporting me.
Simultaneously, Pollitts’ listserv colleague, Pam Martens, was calling and writing the CUNY Grad Center. Martens was outraged when NOW decided to back my right to speak despite the pressure from Pollitt. She dismissed my nearly forty-year involvement with NOW, and claimed I support a reactionary regime that wishes to roll back all progress made in civil rights. She pointed out that NOW had voted against the very war in Iraq that I continue to view as a “just” war. Like Pollitt, she likened my presence as a NOW speaker to that of Rumsfeld being invited to speak by United for Peace and Justice Alberto Gonzales being invited by Code Pink. She castigated me for not having seen the error of my ways concerning President Bush. Martens flat-out expected NOW to drop their sponsorship of my talk, and if they did not, she planned to inform the NOW membership that their dues and donations were not being responsibly used.
Note how well these members of the feminist-left tolerate diverse viewpoints. Note how they seem to believe the first amendment applies only to the sound of one (left) hand clapping.
The evening of my speech was wet, windy, and stormy. Nevertheless, a good-size crowd attended. To NOW’s credit, and the credit of Pam Weppner of the CUNY Grad Center, I mounted the stage and spoke. Disruptions were expected, but the rain was enough to discourage most, although afterwards three or four Marxists took to the microphones with their prepared speeches. Mainly though, a respectful silence reigned throughout the entire evening.
It was a historic moment, not only because both groups resisted the shaming, bullying, and threatening tactics of the feminist left but because they really listened to what I had to say. I argued the case that Afghanistan and Iraq were both just wars and described the dangers of demonizing both Israel and America. I said that even if they especially disliked President Bush, he was not the clear and present danger the Islamic jihad and al-Qaeda represent. I also reasoned that, as feminists, we can neither remain passive when our country and our way of life have been attacked, nor remain isolationists regarding what is happening to Muslimwomen and Muslim dissidents all around the world. I explained how multi-cultural relativism is failing the original feminist vision of a single standard of human rights for everyone, and implored them to start listening to diverse intellectual views, working with so-called opponents, tolerating “differences” both politically, ideologically, and religiously, and thinking independently. I suggested ways of formulating a feminist foreign policy and recommended they learn from NOW and from the Grad Center about dealing with attempts to silence all viewpoints other than their own.
They gave me a standing ovation. For the first time in a long time, my kind of truth-telling had not drawn a large demonstration, hecklers, disrupters, or ugly on-site protesters. I hope this happens again; I hope people stand up to pressure and begin listening to other crucial points of view. Our lives depend upon unmitigated freedom of speech.
Phyllis Chesler is a Member of the SPME Board of Directors