The Freedom To Think

The Freedom To Think

The Freedom To Think
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 7 2002 1:34 PM


Dear Stuart,


What better whipping boy could we have to start this conversation than Harvard? The university that the right loves to hate. The extreme critics, like the Wall Street Journal, really pine for the days when there were few or no blacks at Harvard, when the undergraduates were largely stamped from the same upper-class and middle-class mold. That's the way it was when I was an undergraduate. Believe me, it is much better now. The students are far smarter and far more interesting. There are lots from outside the United States and quite a few with skin tones other than pink. I doubt that you, Stuart, would want to go back to the old days.

The serious issue here is race. It remains the great unsolved problem of American society, though we have made enormous progress in eliminating official discrimination. I think it is vital that African-Americans have first-rate academic leaders, setting a high standard for them, and teaching the many (very many) interested white students about black history, writers, and so on. When Neil Rudenstine was Harvard's president, he built up a department of Afro-American studies that performs those functions brilliantly—it is a model for the country. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a superb literary scholar, William Julius Wilson a recognized leader in the study of the economic underclass, Anthony Appiah an outstanding philosopher. Cornel West is an original, and I do not want to get into the war over his work. But the way Larry Summers made him a target was bound to be offensive. Summers seems to think he is the CEO of a corporation. University presidents cannot be dictators; it doesn't work that way. Professors have tenure and much pride. You can't bawl them out if you want to make progress. And the West episode is not the only one in which Summers' bull-in-the-china-shop style has offended people.

Enough of Harvard—except to say that I loved your phrase "a feast of victimology." Now, a legal question for you. (By the way, I deny having tried as your professor to lure you into journalism. I always saw you as a future Supreme Court justice.) An obscure paragraph in yesterday's New York Times report of President Bush's speeches on the West Coast said this: "Mr. Bush also used the Portland speech to suggest for the first time that voicing a terrorist creed would be viewed by his administration in the same terms as committing an act of terrorism. He told the crowd that anyone 'who espouses a philosophy that's terrorist and bent, I assure you we will bring that person to justice.' His aides did not elaborate." In other words, a man who stands on a soapbox and shouts, "Osama Bin Laden had the right idea" is not just a fool but a criminal who will be prosecuted. What ever happened to the First Amendment? Justice Holmes said the most important thing in the Constitution was the guarantee of freedom of thought—"not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate." That is what makes this country different and wonderful. But I do not think George W. Bush understands the real meaning of freedom. His remark in Portland fits with his peremptory order allowing two-thirds of a military panel to sentence a suspected terrorist to death without appeal.


Anthony Lewis was a New York Times columnist for 32 years.