March 17, 2017 Print

Robert P. George, founder of the American Principles Project, and leftist philosopher Cornel West participate in an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) panel discussion about “The Examined Life,” in November 2016, moderated by AEI visiting fellow Ramesh Ponnuru.

The United States has entered a particularly divisive period in terms of political rhetoric, with widespread cases of belittling and sneering at ideological opponents, as well as groups who shout down or even attack those who have differing viewpoints. A recent article in the Atlantic, titled “A Leftist and a Conservative Join Forces to Defend Free Speech,” profiles the efforts of some Atlas Network partners to promote the classical liberal values of free speech, tolerance, respect, and rigorous intellectual discourse that many across the ideological spectrum seem to have abandoned.

“On college campuses, where members of successive generations are acculturated, old liberal truths are as vital as ever,” writes Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic article. “But they have never been unanimously embraced, and today’s most potent challenges include a faction that seeks to limit debate on subjects as varied as race, gender, sexual assault, war, same sex marriage, divestment from Israel, and whether administrators or students ought to shape norms surrounding Halloween costumes. At times, these conflicts go beyond mere peaceful protests of speakers alleged to be racist, sexist, imperialist, or otherwise wrongheaded or insensitive, and involve disinviting, shouting down, or even or violently attacking speakers.”

Robert P. George, founder of Atlas Network partner the American Principles Project, has joined leftist philosopher and activist Cornel West to draft a new statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” that encourages a culture of intellectual engagement rather than hostility to those who hold  differing ideas. Hosted by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, the statement has so far been co-signed by nearly 700 others, including scholars affiliated with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the American Enterprise Institute, the Acton Institute, the Independent Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, Liberty Fund, the Hoover Institution, Center of the American Experiment, Capital Research Center, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments,” George and West write in the statement. “The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.”

They point out that, although there is an inherent right to protest through peaceful means, tactics like disrupting presentations, disinviting speakers, demanding exclusion, and simply refusing to listen to others all serve to damage the cause of seeking truth.

“Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking,” George and West conclude. “Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.”

The Atlantic profile opens with a paragraph noting the work of Atlas Network partner the Niskanen Center, and its “new effort to revitalize liberalism rather than assuming its primacy,” as outlined in a November article by Will Wilkinson, the Niskanan Center’s vice president for policy.

“Commitment to liberal ideals and institutions is slipping around the world,” Wilkinson notes. “It’s happening in Great Britain, in Hungary, in Poland, in Turkey, in the Philippines. Illiberal nationalist leaders and parties are on the rise in traditional bastions of liberty, such as France, the Netherlands, and in these United States. That means it’s time—way past time, really—to restate the truths of liberalism for the era of Uber, Celebrity Apprentice, Twitter, Telemundo, terror panic, and type-2 diabetes. We’ve got to fix the pipes and patch the potholes, update from copper to fiber. We’ve got to roll the damn rock back up the damn hill.”

The Niskanen Center’s work includes a strong focus on what Wilkinson calls the “tent-pole principles of liberalism,” such as “the rule of law, freedom of conscience, toleration and mutual accommodation, limited government, economic freedom, separation of powers, free speech, the value of truth, etc.” — and Wilkinson makes a point of distancing this project from the “stale” legacy versions of liberalism, including the classical liberalism that is traditionally expressed in the overlap between libertarian and conservative ideologies.

“Liberal political order is humanity’s greatest achievement,” Wilkinson concludes. “That may sound like hype, but it’s the cold, hard truth. The liberal state, and the global traffic of goods, people, and ideas that it has enabled has led to the greatest era of peace in history, to new horizons of practical knowledge, health, wealth, longevity, and equality, and massive decline in desperate poverty and needless suffering. It’s clearer than ever that the multicultural, liberal-democratic, capitalist welfare state is far-and-away the best humanity has ever done. But people don’t know this! We are dangerously oblivious to the nature of our freedom and good fortune, and seem poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Happily, a great deal is understood about how the liberal political order works, and why it merits our allegiance. The task, then, is to fuse our accumulated wisdom with the best contemporary research in a campaign to restate and defend the old truths of liberalism in inspiring terms for an imperiled new era.”