Last week, George Will wrote a column about how progressive politics have fomented "rape culture" on college campuses. The column was not well received by some, or even, as a great many of the histrionic responses would indicate, well understood. I received the following press release yesterday, headlined: "87,000 Call on The Washington Post to Address Sexism, Fire George Will." A group called UltraViolet was touting the success of an online petition they'd whipped up over the controversy. From the release:
“The past week has seen the Washington Post devolve to violent and shameful rhetoric that normalizes rape and violence against women. In the face of a national epidemic of sexual violence, The Washington Post should take a stand against rape-- starting by firing George Will, said Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet. “From mocking survivors to misleading the public on demands for college sexual assault reform and blaming women for violence against them-- the Post has left the realm of honest debate and entered the realm of hate-speech and dog whistles.”
Let's be clear, absolutely nothing about Will's column rises to the level of "hate speech" and the bit about dog whistles is absurd. The more relevant question is: Who is UltraViolet co-founder Nita Chaudhary? In 2004, she was the Democratic National Committee's first director of online. And she is the former campaign director at MoveOn.Org. While with MoveOn.org, Chaudhary aggressively defended the organization's infamous "General Petraeus is likely to become General Betray Us" ad. (And no, the irony of revisiting how MoveOn.org was wrong about the surge in Iraq as we're currently making plans to evacuate the Baghdad embassy is not lost on me.)
Chaudhary is also the wife of Jesse Lee, the White House's director of progressive media and online response. In fact, Valerie Jarrett helped Lee propose to Chaudhary at a State Dinner. In past administrations, positions such as the one held by Lee charged with partisan media strategies and rapid response were outsourced to the party organizations, so as not to politicize the presidency. Alas, this White House lacks that kind of respect for the office.
Lee is also no stranger to media controversy. In a 2009 post on the White House web site defending Obama's embarrassing trip to Copenhagen where he tried and failed to secure the Olympics for Chicago, Lee accused Fox News of "lies." Regarding those supposed lies Fox was telling, the Associated Press's Jim Kuhnhenn summed up Lee's accusation this way:
It mentioned [Glenn] Beck's mistaken reference to losses Vancouver sustained hosting the Olympics. Vancouver won't host the Olympics until 2010, and Beck meant to say the Calgary Olympics. But the blog entry did not address the underlying point — that the Olympics can be an economic drain on host cities.
The blog also rebutted a suggestion by a Beck guest that Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett had participated in a controversial August phone call that attempted to recruit artists to create works that promoted President Barack Obama's policies. The White House noted that Jarrett did not participate in the call. It did not point out that one of her aides did. ...
Calling a news networks' assertions "lies" is unusually confrontational — and calculated.
"The degree of toughness — calling something a lie — is an interesting one," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who has been a consultant, adviser and speechwriter to presidents dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. "At times a president loses his cool, but most often than not they regret that."
And so I ask a genuinely scary question: does the broader progressive movement, which includes the White House media team, believe in free speech? By that I mean the actual kind of free speech, not the increasingly common progressive view where you profess fealty to the First Amendment as an anachronistic legal technicality solely so you can deflect criticism when someone calls out your totalitarian impulses. Real free speech means a culture of free speech, where we all confront opinions that bother us, in the understanding that regularly challenging our assumptions makes us a more thoughtful, cohesive, and, yes, tolerant people.
I think we can safely conclude that Chaudhary and Lee don't believe in the meaningful kind of free speech. Certainly, the demand to fire George Will and otherwise pressure the Washington Post is punitive and calculated to enforce conformity of thought on a difficult and contentious topic, not promote understanding. And when the common response to disagreeable opinions becomes political organizers unleashing social media lynch mobs, it opens a backdoor to total oppression.