Attaching invidious labels to those ideas, as a way of trying to isolate them from polite company, represents an insidious form of illiberalism of which we ought to be wary. ~Alan Wolfe
Thus wrote the man who called D’Souza’s book a “national disgrace” in a review called “None (but Me) Dare Call It Treason” and called on “decent conservatives” to “distance themselves, quickly and cleanly” from D’Souza. That sounds a lot like shunning and ostracising someone and also quite a lot like “running” someone out of polite society. But perhaps this is where Wolfe would agree with Stephens that there are some ideas that are simply too foul to be granted a real hearing? Or is this where Wolfe says that he was merely “joining” the debate by telling everyone to treat D’Souza as a political leper?
Now, as it happens, Wolfe’s response to Bret Stephens’ last argument (which is that he would cast Near East policy dissenters such as Jimmy Carter, Mearsheimer, Walt and Judt into the political equivalent of outer darkness if it were up to him) is basically correct. To label people (falsely) as bigots in the hopes of driving them to the margins is insidious and it is illiberal (the two don’t necessarily have any connection–there can be times when it is very good to be illiberal). Failure to drive your enemies into the wilderness does not prove that there is nothing wrong in the attempt. The difference between those who understand this and those who don’t is the difference between people who think free speech is a burden we must endure because we lack the means to shut up our opponents and those who think it is actually a net good for the health of political discourse and government. Failure in maliciously libelling your political enemies as a way of intimidating them does not prove that you were not trying to shut down the debate. As Wolfe writes:
To call someone anti-Semitic because you disagree with them intends to stifle. It is a testimony to the vibrancy of our democracy, but not, alas, to the liberal sensibilities of those who wildly throw around charges of anti-Semitism, that they fail to do so.
Imagine an official censor assuring the people he was regulating that he wasn’t really engaging in censorship because he had been unsuccessful in stamping out all disapproved activity. You would then have some sense of the lameness of Bret Stephens’ claim that there is no attempt to censor or suppress debate.
After conservatives have endured so many years of being berated (almost always baselessly) as racists or fascists or homophobes or any other label that demonises the person to whom it is applied, it is particularly pathetic that the one arguing most strenuously for suppression of opponents through such shabby name-calling tactics would be someone representing an ostensibly conservative newspaper.