Table of Contents
‘So to Speak’ podcast transcript: ‘The First Amendment created gay America’
Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So To Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am your host, Nico Perrino, and our guest today is the writer James Kirchick. He’s been a longtime ally. I think I can say ally – of FIRE’s and the cause of free expression and – as of this week – is a New York Times best-selling author of a new appropriately entitled book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. James, good to have you on.
James Kirchick: Thank you so much for having me.
Nico Perrino: So, I assume you’re happy with the response your book has received thus far?
James Kirchick: Yeah, it’s been great. I really can’t complain. It’s been very gratifying to get such a positive reaction from folks.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, and I have to give a shout-out to my colleagues. Well, I have to admit first I haven’t picked up the book. I haven’t read it yet. It’s in my queue for Audible. But my colleagues Greg Lukianoff and Daniel Burnett – Daniel is our Director of Communications – are reading it and I walked in when Daniel had it on his desk and I was like, “Wow, this is quite the door stopper.” I'm reading Robert Caro’s LBJ books right now. It’s like, “This kind of looks like them.”
James Kirchick: Yeah, he was my model in writing this book was Caro.
Nico Perrino: Oh, was he?
James Kirchick: Yeah.
Nico Perrino: I read The Power Broker. I finished that at the end of last year and I've been working my way through his LBJ tomes and they’re just fantastic. It’s really a writing of the life and times of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which is how he puts it in there. It’s not just simply a biography. It gives you a sense of the time and place. But Greg was talking about how you fill the book with all these really interesting facts and anecdotes. He was saying something about how apparently the – for our listeners who don’t know her – Julia Child, the cooking TV personality worked at the precursor to the CIA before she became famous and he’s like, “Your book sold.”
James Kirchick: Yup, yup, yup.
Nico Perrino: So, it’s been a while since you and I last talked and, since then, you had mounted a historic and heroic petition campaign to become a member of the Yale Board of Trustees. You had to campaign to bring some sanity to the Yale Board and to advocate for free speech and academic freedom for students and faculty on that campus. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite turn out I think as many of us would have hoped in part – and correct me if I'm recalling this right – Yale threw in some shenanigans last-minute potentially to thwart your attempt or that might have been a different petition campaign at a different –
James Kirchick: I think it was the latter, the last petition campaign by another candidate named Victor Ash and he got on the ballot, and the same day that it was announced that he got on the ballot, Yale announced that there would be no more elections. There would be no petition candidates allowed, right? So, there’d be elections, but with preselected candidates but – the process by which I was trying to get on the board and Victor got on the ballot to get on the board – that process would be no more.
Nico Perrino: What’s the normal process like to get on? Do you just get appointed by someone in authority?
James Kirchick: Yes. Yale Alumni Association – which is basically an auxiliary of the university itself – they choose. They handpick two candidates – two alums – and that’s it. So, yes, so now it’s a completely undemocratic process, but –
Nico Perrino: You’re an alum. What do you think of all the stuff that’s been happening at Yale lately – the shout-down of the –
James Kirchick: At Yale Law School, it’s really terrible. I mean the events just a couple months ago and again with a lot of these issues – and we’ll be talking about this – related to transgender issues. A lot of these free speech controversies have to do with LGBT issues and yeah students in the name of protecting transgender people, basically shutting down an event and the university not doing anything to punish them for this – for violating the school’s free speech code –not a speech code, a free speech code. Yeah, it’s yeah, it’s a lot of institutions these days they are not led by people with a spine is the problem.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, with very much courage. All we need to do is look to the Ilya Shapiro case at Georgetown University to see that.
James Kirchick: Absolutely.
Nico Perrino: At Yale, they have this other legal dispute with a faculty member that is ongoing, and my colleague – I think it was Adam Goldstein who wrote it up although I might be wrong about that. Anyway, in the filings, the faculty member cites the Woodward Report, which was that famous statement from I think 1972, 1970s, where Yale claims that, “At this university, we can think the unthinkable, say the unsayable, and mention the unmentionable” something like that.
And the faculty member cites this as saying, “Well, this is a violation of my academic freedom rights” and then Yale’s lawyers disclaim that anything relating to the Woodward Report is actually university policy or values. So, this is something that they tout on their own website as being the ethos of the university, but here they are in court when faculty members try to appeal to it –to vindicate their rights – saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not what you think it is.” So, it’s the idea that it’s – in that case – not even a parchment barrier.
James Kirchick: Definitely. That’s really unfortunate.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, fun times at Yale Law School and Yale University. So, anyway, that’s not the reason why we have you on the show today. I was struck by an article that you had out on Bari Weiss’s Substack that came out last week – timed appropriately with your book, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. It’s called The First Amendment Created Gay America and you argue in it that every advance gay people have made in this country has been the result of the exercise of free expression.
But then you go onto say that the gay community – of which you are a member – doesn’t appreciate the importance of free speech to their cause and as a general principle, they don’t also appreciate the general principle that free speech should be upholded for all speakers. So, I wanted to get your thoughts on that. Why do you believe that? We’ve had some people on this show before – including Jonathon Rausch and Andrew Sullivan – who’ve made similar arguments as you about the importance of free speech to the gay community, but why do you feel as though those values are being abandoned?
James Kirchick: I think a lot in politics. Once someone or a movement or a party once they get into power, they are reluctant to perhaps maintain their fidelity to some of the values of the policies that they were advocating for when they didn’t have power.
Nico Perrino: Well, were gay rights activists always advocating for free speech values in particular, explicitly, or were they just utilizing free speech rights?
James Kirchick: That’s a fair distinction. I think well, it depends on what we’re talking about, but I certainly believe if you look at a man like Frank Kameny – who I write about in my book – he was a Harvard-trained Ph.D. astronomer who was fired from his job at the US Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. And he became the first person to challenge his firing, which was a real momentous event because thousands of people had lost their jobs for being gay up to that point. The social stigma of being identified as a homosexual in America was so strong that none of them wanted to publicly essentially come out, right, against it?
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
James Kirchick: He does and the arguments that he makes against the government’s firing him are all grounded in the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, in the Declaration of Independence, in the founding documents of this country. And he says, “I am being denied my equal rights that my being gay has no bearing on my ability to do my job. I'm being discriminated against. It is my First Amendment right to speak out against this cruel treatment” and he takes very strong advantage of it. And then they hold a meeting – the first meeting of the Mattachine Society of Washington – which was the first sustained gay rights organization in America.
They are meeting in the Hay-Adams Hotel room – in a room at the Hay-Adams Hotel – and they’re being surveilled by the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department, right – so a violation of their freedom of association. He launches the first gay rights picket outside the White House in 1965. So, I would definitely say that, yes, they were – Frank Kameny in particular, the Mattachine Society, they were absolutely making an explicit case for the First Amendment, for the freedom of association, right? Freedom of association is something that’s often left out when we talk about the First Amendment. We just usually think speech and –
Nico Perrino: Yeah, well it’s not explicitly stated in the First Amendment. You have the right to speech and assembly. Association is a subsidiary or closely related, yeah.
James Kirchick: Assembly, freedom of assembly, but that was something that gay people were absolutely their freedom of assembly was violated routinely. Gay bars were routinely raided. It was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals in many parts of this country. So, gay people were really facing the brunt of the government’s repression when it came to the violation of the First Amendment. The Stonewall Uprising – everyone knows about that – that was a response to police brutality, to police violating the freedom of assembly rights of gay people.
So, yeah, I'm not sure if it was the most explicit or that gay rights activists were necessarily making a case for the First Amendment, but they were absolutely utilizing it and using it in a very, very visible way. And it’s absolutely I mean that quote – the headline of my article – that the First Amendment created gay America, it’s actually taken from an article by a gay legal scholar, Dale Carpenter, who charts out the entire history. I mean the first gay rights cases that the Supreme Court heard did not have to do with gays in the military. They did not have to do with gay marriage. They had to do with the obscenity laws being used in a very unfair and discriminatory way against gay publications.
And the first case that the Supreme Court dealt with was a magazine called One and it was not by any means obscene. It was a small, literary, intellectual magazine that just published articles about homosexuality, about gay literature, about what it’s like to be a gay person. This is all in the 1950s. But the Los Angeles Postal Department seized all the copies on the grounds that it was supposedly obscene and that case was brought to the Supreme Court and One magazine won. So, the whole history of gay rights in this country I think is really attributable to the First Amendment.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. You say that One magazine wasn’t obscene, but you write in your article that the headline for the magazine that was seized – prevented from distribution by the Postal Service – was Homosexual Marriage?
James Kirchick: With a question mark.
Nico Perrino: With a question mark, yeah. But I think it’s important to scene set for our listeners, right? You have this amazing statistic in your article that was something like 70 percent of Americans – I forget what year it was – believed that homosexuals were a threat to children and to the larger society, right? Today, most Americans are supportive of gay rights, of gay marriage. I think you put something like 55 percent of Republicans – who used to lead the opposition to it – it wasn’t too long ago that we had Barack Obama in 2008 running on a platform in which he opposed gay marriage. But now you have every corporation in the United States putting up gay pride flags or putting together events.
So, I think it’s hard for the modern viewer to quite understand the attacks on gay Americans in our history. And in the context of this one case that you’re talking about which – as you know sent to the Supreme Court – vindicated the rights of the magazine in 1958. But you talk about how the word printed in the front of that magazine “Homosexual?” was taboo at the time. You talk about how – upon the first outing of an American politician in 1942 – the majority leader of the United State Senate decried an “offense too loathsome to mention in the Senate or in any group of ladies and gentlemen.”
He was saying it’s too loathsome to mention that someone was homosexual in 1942. Contrast that with where we are at today. I just think it’s hard for the average American to understand the attacks that you talk about. Frank Kameny, for example, this is a guy who – as you said – was fired for being gay and then fast forward to – he’s passed, long since passed but – he was given what was it some said the highest civilian medal by Barack Obama or it was given to him by the leader of what was the successor to the map service who happened to, themselves, be gay.
James Kirchick: He apologized. There’s an official apology, yeah, in 2009.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. So, I think it’s just important to scene set some of that for people because it’s hard to understand how far the fight for these civil rights have come in a relatively short period of time. Again, both presidential candidates in 2008 ran on a campaign platform opposing gay marriage.
James Kirchick: Yeah. I mean that figure you cite of 70 percent of Americans believing that gay men in particular were potential child molesters. That was 1970 – so 50 years ago – and I think it is important to remember this because particularly for younger people who’ve grown up in a world where being gay or being LGBT or queer is cool and trendy, it’s hard to conceive of the fact that it was very much quite the opposite in this country and not so long ago. As you say, 2008 was a presidential election in which both major candidates ran very much so against gay marriage.
And you talk to public polling experts and they’ll tell you that there is no social issue in which there’s been a more dramatic or swifter change in opinion than the issue of homosexuality – not just gay marriage – but just the issue of homosexuality itself. Acceptance of homosexuality has gone up tremendously and I think it has a lot to do with the opposite of what my book’s title is, right, which is Secret City. And when things are kept secret, it’s very easy to be afraid of them. It’s very easy to have ignorance about those things or to be bigoted towards them, to hate gay people and think awful things about them.
And I'll draw a little parallel. I was just watching this new documentary the other night. It’s called The Janes. It’s about a group of women in the 1960s who organized an underground abortion network for women because this was when abortion was illegal and they interviewed some women who got abortions before they were legal. And I don't think it matters what your views are on abortion – whether you think it’s immoral or should be illegal and I'm not here to talk about that – but I think it’s really important that people know and people hear about what it was like to get an abortion when it was illegal, how risky it was, how dangerous it was, the lack of safety procedures, the criminal penalties.
And again, whatever your thoughts are on abortion, we should all be supportive of hearing more voices and more experiences. And watching that documentary it really struck a chord with me because being gay was illegal in this country. And the stories that these women were telling about having to get an abortion was very similar to the stories that gay people would tell about going to a gay bar and having to knock three times and meeting in these secret places and just how secrecy can really breed all sorts of negative consequences.
And I think when homosexuality was this dangerous secret, gay people were accused of being – I read about how they were accused of being Nazis in World War II, and then they were accused of being Communists during the Cold War. They were accused of being pedophiles in the 1970s and we, unfortunately, see some of that similar rhetoric today. But the only way that you can break down those prejudices and those beliefs is by having a conversation.
It’s by talking to people and I really think what changed hearts and minds in this country when it came to homosexuality is that people started coming out of the closet and the average American – who might not have known anyone who was openly gay – suddenly, “Oh, my coworker is gay” or “My daughter is gay” or public figures, celebrities, all sorts of people coming out of the woodwork. And that might not be a First Amendment issue, but it’s a form of expression.
Nico Perrino: Well, I mean to a certain extent you frame it that way in your article and this is probably one of the more moving parts of your article. You write that, “The first thing that gay people intuit about our sexuality is that we have to conceal it such that coming out is fundamentally an exercise in free expression.” And then you quote the former – you describe him as Soviet Jewish refusenik Natan Sharansky who said – “Once I had done it, come out” –
James Kirchick: He’s not coming out as gay. He’s not gay. He’s talking about coming out against what he refers to as a double thinker, right? So, being he grew up –
Nico Perrino: Oh, he’s not gay? Okay.
James Kirchick: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. He’s talking about growing up under the Soviet Union and I'm drawing –
Nico Perrino: So, you’re drawing a comparison?
James Kirchick: I’m drawing a comparison between what he writes of as being a double thinker, which is when you live in a totalitarian country you have to be able to – you have to say one thing to the commissar and believe another thing separately. And I felt that’s very similar to what the gay experience was like. It was like being a dissident in a communist country. But go ahead, sorry.
Nico Perrino: No, no, no. No, that’s important because apparently, my reading comprehension wasn’t good at that part of your article. But he said, “Once I had done it, once I was no longer afraid, I realized what it was to be free. I could live with real people, enjoy real friendships – the cautious, constricted conversations of winks and nods – among fellow double thinkers.” You start your piece – and I think this is an important discussion or thread to follow. You start your piece by telling the story of – and I hope I get their names right – Rich Tafel and Urvashi Vaid. Can you tell us a little bit about them?
James Kirchick: So, Rich Tafel was the founder of The Log Cabin Republicans, which is the gay Republican organization. It was founded in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And Urvashi Vaid was the president of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which is the real left-wing arm of the gay rights movement.
Nico Perrino: So, these two probably don’t agree on much.
James Kirchick: On anything.
Nico Perrino: As far as –
James Kirchick: Anything politically. I mean Rich Tafel’s a Republican. This is in the early ‘90s, right? So, he’s a Reaganite. Urvashi Vaid is going to anti-war demonstrations and a kind of crunchy lefty progressive. And she died a couple weeks ago of ovarian cancer and Rich, who I know, he wrote just a very touching remembrance of her and about how they would collaborate on issues together and she would invite him to her conferences and he would invite her to his conferences of the Log Cabin Republicans because they did have some shared goals, obviously. They agreed that gay people should be equal and they might have had very different strategies for how to achieve it.
Namely, Rich thought that we should work through the Republican Party and conservative movement and whatnot, and Urvashi Vaid was a revolutionary and believed in overturning society. But they were willing to work together and they learned from each other. She understood that, “You know what? Having a gay man on the inside of the Republican Party and in the conservative movement is good for our cause because they’re probably gonna listen more to him than they will to me.” And I just thought that was a really remarkable relationship that we don’t have much of anymore, unfortunately, that more and more we’re just –in all forms of life, not just political activism but even –
Nico Perrino: Yeah, it’s a Ruth Bader Ginsberg/Justice Scalia friendship. It’s the Ira Glass or William F. Buckley friendship.
James Kirchick: Yeah, exactly and it’s become almost fashionable to mock those types of relationships to say that “This is of the past. We’re in a new era politically. You can’t be friends with these people. They’re fascists or their communists” or whatever, which is personally I mean I've always found that I've always enjoyed debate. I've always enjoyed – maybe I'm just an argumentative person, but I just I was president of the debate team in high school and at Yale again. Some of my fondest memories at Yale were of the Yale Political Union – which is a very unique institution. It’s like if the Oxford Union met the British Parliament. So, it’s like a debating society where there are parties.
Nico Perrino: Is it as stuffy? Are you wearing tails to your debates?
James Kirchick: Well, the right-wing parties do. I mean you have to understand there are students stretching from the furthest left –probably communists – all the way to the neo-traditional Catholic right. But every week, we would come together in a lecture hall and there’d be an invited speaker from somewhere – a journalist, a professor, whomever – and we would engage in a very spirited debate and at the end, we’d all go out for beers together. And I don't know if that still happens at Yale, frankly.
I have a feeling that it doesn’t because I think it’s the atmosphere has become too toxic and people aren’t able to take political differences in stride or they’re not able to distinguish between a political argument and a personal attack and it’s happened all so swiftly. I mean your boss, Greg Lukianoff, is obviously he expert on this having written the Coddling of – or co-authored, The Coddling of the American Mind. But I mean, for me, it was very personal because the Nicholas Christakis episode at Yale – which obviously your listeners are very familiar with – I mean that, to me, was a real wakeup call because that happened in 2015 and I graduated Yale in 2006 and that’s nine years.
And what happened in that video was something so foreign and appalling to me. I mean never in my worst nightmare when I was a student at Yale – and we had all sorts of political debates and controversies and whatnot – to see something like that occur on the Yale campus to me was really shocking and a sign that something was really off in our culture.
Nico Perrino: Well, to close out the Tafel and Vaid discussion, you interviewed Rich for your piece and he said, “She and I created a special friendship. We both took hits from our side for being friends, but this cross-ideological personal affinity is unimaginable today, he lamented. We’ve lost the ability to disagree on strategies but respect each other as we fight for the same cause.” It is disappointing and I created the movie behind me, Mighty Ira, where I discuss how William F. Buckley and Ira Glasser couldn’t agree on most issues, but they put those issues aside and they debated them publicly often.
But when it came to things that they could agree on – like drug decriminalization, for example – they joined together to do what they considered good and they didn’t cast off those who they disagreed with as being evil – which I think is fairly fashionable today. And I'll never forget Andrew Sullivan – it might have been on his podcast – talking about how essential it was to speak to the other side and not to dismiss them as bigots when advocating for the rights of gay people. He said, “If we had done that, we would have never won. We would have never been where we are today.”
And I think the same goes for almost every successful movement, right? Do people actually think if they sit down and reflect and ask themselves, “What is the most effective mechanism or tactic to convince people that my position is right?” If vilifying them, if calling them bigots, if making them feel defensive is in the top 50 of those tactics, I would be surprised. I don't know anyone who’s changed their mind except through self-censorship and maybe feeling cowed, but not actually changing their mind because they’ve been called a bigot.
James Kirchick: I tell a really powerful story in that article that you mentioned that was in Barry Weiss’s Substack. It’s in my book as well. In 1978, there was a ballot initiative in the State of California to ban gay people from teaching in public schools and it was winning by a very large margin. And one of the men who was running the campaign against it – a man named David Mixner – who was a left-wing Democrat. He had gotten his start in politics in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
He had a pretty smart idea and he figured, “Well, Ronal Reagan, who’s the very popular former governor of the State of California, he’s a conservative. I also know that he comes from Hollywood so he has gay friends – him and Nancy have gay friends – and I think I can convince him to oppose this measure and I'm gonna try to get a meeting with him to convince him to do it. And if I can succeed in this, then we’ll be able to persuade enough of those conservatives who are probably the ones opposing this or probably the ones supporting this measure to ban gay people from teaching in public schools.”
So, he’s able to get a meeting with Reagan – through a closeted gay advisor of Reagan’s – and he sits down with Reagan and Reagan is quite receptive and the case that he makes to Reagan is a conservative-libertarian one. It’s, for instance, he knew that Reagan had built a lot of his reputation battling student activists, anarchists, at Berkley when he was governor and he would call them anarchists and that they wanted to unleash anarchy on the campus. So, he says, “Look, if you make homosexuality a fireable offense, then you’re gonna have all these students lodging accusations against their teachers because they’re angry about a grade.
You’ll basically have the inmates running the asylum. Authority will break down and you’ll have all these lawsuits and you’re gonna be increasing the role of the regulatory state over local school districts.” So, he made a very compelling case. If you’re trying to convince someone who’s a conservative or a libertarian why they should oppose this measure, he made a very convincing case to Reagan. He ended up convincing Reagan and Reagan announced his opposition to it and the measure failed. To this day, David Mixner who’s still alive – and I interviewed him for my book – he credits Ronald Reagan almost singlehandedly with reversing that measure. So, that’s an example of how politics is supposed to work. I feel like today – not just in politics –
Nico Perrino: Or any advocacy for that matter.
James Kirchick: I feel like so much of journalism today is basically fan service, right? It’s like you’re reading journalists, you’re reading newspapers or columnists, and they’re not trying to persuade anyone. It’s just, “Let’s give red meat to my base” and that’s true of the right I think. It’s true of the left. There are very few people in my business of opinion journalism who I think are actually trying to persuade people who are persuadable which – by the way – I think a lot, if not the majority, of the people in this country are persuadable.
They’re in that middle ground where you can convince them of something if you have a strong argument. But for a variety of reasons, it’s become more profitable or just easier. It’s really – I can tell you as someone who writes for a living – it’s a lot easier just to say whatever it is you think without having to think about maybe toning it down a little or thinking through the argument in a more careful way so that you can persuade people who might be in the middle. That’s just –
Nico Perrino: Or putting yourself in the shoes of those who might disagree with you to figure out what their values are so that you can meet them and meet them at their values and convince them a shared interest.
James Kirchick: Exactly. Yeah. I mean look we were talking about abortion earlier and I'll just be – I'll be upfront. I support the right to abortion. That said, I think there are a lot of people who are pro-choice who just assume that everyone who’s pro-life is pro-life because they want to control women’s bodies. They don’t accept that – for many if not most people who are genuinely pro-life – they believe that life begins at conception and, to them, it has nothing to do with controlling women’s bodies or they don’t think of that way. They don’t think of it that way.
They think of it as, “This is a human life and it has to be protected and that outweighs the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy.” Likewise, there are people – there are lots of pro-life people – who think that pro-choice people are baby killers and that they take pleasure in this and that they don’t understand that there’s any moral complexity to this whatsoever. So, I think that’s an issue where it’s very easy to demonize the other side. And you can go through every issue, right?
Gun rights, I mean the way people talk about guns in this country there’s very little attempt to understand the other side and I think this is why – And look, I think this is why the gay marriage movement ultimately won is because they realized that we have to appeal to people at their level and we have to show them that we are willing to be American citizens just as good as they are and we want to serve in the military, we want the same responsibilities as them, we are your sons, we’re your daughters, we’re your cousins, your coworkers and that’s why it was successful.
Nico Perrino: Yeah your abortion debate comparison is apt. I listen to NPR, I read the news, and it just seems like the two sides are talking past each other. It’s like all the arguments made by the pro-choice side do not address the main argument on the other side and perhaps vice versa, right? It seems like they’re talking past each other.
James Kirchick: Yes.
Nico Perrino: But I want to circle back again to what was essentially the crux of your piece. So, we had the Rich and Urvashi friendship, we had the lobbying of Ronald Reagan in California. We had this. We had the efforts of the early gay rights activists like Frank Kameny and Andrew Sullivan to reach across to the other side and make a strong moral case. But in your piece you say activists today do not seem interested in that.
We talked about the Yale Law School debate that happened back in March where students advocating for transgender individuals – hundreds of them – disrupted what was a bipartisan panel on civil liberties drowning out the conservative speaker with shouts of “Protect trans kids.” And then when the professor presiding over the event told the crowd that their behavior was in violation of the policy, they flipped her off.
James Kirchick: Yes.
Nico Perrino: Him or her off. I forget who exactly was the –
James Kirchick: I think it was a her. It was a her.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, that’s what I thought as well. But then you also talk about the Dave Chappelle example and this person went up and assaulted Dave Chappelle; might have tried to kill Dave Chappell. I don't know. I think he was charged with a misdemeanor – not a felony – which I found pretty astounding. But Isaiah said, “Chappelle should consider first running his material by people it should affect.” You say appropriately, “Forget the hecklers. This is the assailant’s injunction.” It makes me sound like the fad going through publishing right now with sensitivity readers.
So, okay, now comedians need to run their jokes by the people that they’re making the jokes about – or maybe not making the jokes about, but you think they’re making the jokes about them – intentionally missing their point. And then you cite some of our research we’ve done like we’ve polled last year I think it was 34,000 college students across the country and we were able to get some pretty statistically significant data from that along demographic lines and you pulled out a statistic that we didn’t.
It wasn’t a top-line for us, but you went and found it that said that LGBT students who identify as LGBT are significantly more likely to support shouting down a speaker or trying to prevent them from speaking on campus – born out, of course, by the Dave Chappelle and the Yale incidents. So, it seems as though – and I don't know if this is unique to the LGBT community or it’s just indicative of larger, liberal trends we’re having in the society. You would be able to speak to that better. But it’s definitely not Andrew Sullivan, Rich, and Urvashi – the opposition to California Prop 6 that we’ve talked about earlier in this podcast.
James Kirchick: Yeah. No, I think they are part of a broader trend on the left where we’re seeing less and less support for free speech and I think this has to do – you would know a lot about this too – but I think as the left has taken control over these cultural institutions that – Like I was saying at the outset of this conversation that – once you control these institutions, once you’re in power yourself – it becomes more of a free speech for me, not for the type situation, right?
Nico Perrino: Even if you don’t intend to do it. Cass Sunstein’s research shows that the more people you’re surrounded with who are likeminded, the more radicalized you get, the more dogmatic your positions become because nobody challenges them – the more that you think that they’re right and good and just and everyone else who disagrees with it is bad and evil, right?
James Kirchick: Well, I think there’s a problem with this and we’re seeing it in our politics. I mean we’re seeing a backlash to a lot of left-wing progressive orthodoxies. I mean we’re recording this on June 9th – two days after the recall election in San Francisco of the District Attorney – the very far left-wing district attorney. And this is a real wake-up call or should be a wake-up call that – when you live in these ideological bubbles – you get a very incorrect impression of what’s actually happening in the world.
And I think that a backlash is brewing to this and it’s going to – We’re gonna see it in November with the way the Republicans are gonna win the House and Senate and so it’s just not from a political perspective. In the short term, it might feel right. It might feel right to ban this speaker or take this really ideologically extreme position to please some group of employees at your institution but – on the whole, and in the long run – I think it’s very self-destructive and self-defeating.
Nico Perrino: Well, we’ve learned a little bit of that in our work at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. The name has changed. Over the past year, we’ve been doing some market research – both through private focus grouping and surveys – but also in market testing we’ve done some campaigns that are more astute supporters will notice, such as the Enes Kanter Freedom campaign and some stuff we’ve been doing in the New York Times. And FIRE institutionally opposes some of the trends that underlie cancel culture. We think they run contrary to what Greg has termed “culture of free expression.”
But I work in Washington, DC. I'm surrounded by people. I spend time on Twitter as part of my job. You think of cancel culture as a pejorative and we were wondering –if we want to fight back against trends relating to cancel culture – can we actually use the phrase? Do people know what it means and do people have a reaction to it that would have a positive effect on what we’re trying to achieve – what our goals are of the campaign – which is to win liberal, small L, liberal values. And we found that the average American is overwhelmingly opposed to cancel culture, but you don’t see that reflected in our media.
Actually, on the contrary, you see media put it in quotation marks or belittle it or compare it to political correctness, which I also think had a salience for people that was dismissed by – as Christopher Hitchens might have put it – linguistic correctness. Yeah, so I mean we’ve – as a result – we found we can win the day using it. We’ve leaned into it to a certain extent and I think – if you take what’s happening at the Washington Post right now with Dave Weigel’s suspension – you take the joke that he tweeted about and ask people, “Should the guy be suspended without pay for a month for retweeting a joke about the opposite sex, which husbands and wives and friends make all the time?”
I think the overwhelming majority would say no. But in the Washington Post, it’s a cause célèbre and Dave Weigel isn’t working right now as a result of it.
James Kirchick: Yeah, that’s terrible. No, it’s terrible and yeah, I don't know what to say about that. I'm not gonna wade into that, actually, because I think it might get me into trouble. So, I'm gonna have to –
Nico Perrino: Oh, yeah.
James Kirchick: I'm gonna have to stand up against my own –
Nico Perrino: Point taken. No, I know I didn’t ask you to come on to talk about Dave Weigel. I only feel empowered to talk about it because my boss, Greg, has said that – in those sorts of controversies in his conception and our conception at FIRE, the culture of free expression – the thumb should be on the scale of free expression, of charity, of the presumption of goodwill.
James Kirchick: Well, I absolutely agree with that and I know Dave and I think that the punishment meted out to him is very grave and unfair frankly and I'm absolutely willing to say that. Yeah, I think our society would benefit a lot from people being more charitable to each other in general.
Nico Perrino: I agree. Well, James, I think I covered everything I wanted to cover. Oh, I have one last question. I mean to ask this earlier. Ronald Reagan, right? We talked about Reagan and the activist appealed to his values on Prop 6 way back in the day. You mentioned how the activist got a meeting with him through a closeted advisor. What was Reagan like? I mean what was his position on these issues?
James Kirchick: Well, I mean it ended up being rather tragic, obviously, because – when he becomes president – this is when the AIDS crisis is.
Nico Perrino: AIDS, yeah.
James Kirchick: And he’s really –
Nico Perrino: But you said he had gay friends.
James Kirchick: He had many friends.
Nico Perrino: In Hollywood?
James Kirchick: Yeah, but one of the more tragic stories I tell in the book is of Rock Hudson – who was an actor, quite a famous actor – who dies of AIDS in 1985. He’s really the first celebrity to die of AIDS. And it really puts AIDS on the front pages in a way that we hadn’t seen before up to that time. And in the papers of the Reagan Library, I discovered the draft of the statement that he and Nancy released upon Hudson’s death and I could see in Reagan’s own handwriting he’s crossing out words and phrases and – in one case a whole sentence – that basically reduced any sort of personal connection to Hudson.
For instance, he crossed out profoundly saddened. There’s a sentence, “We knew him and will miss him dearly.” That’s crossed out. So, the statement just becomes this very anodyne expression of regret, and, to me, that was a very visible example of the real lack of involvement in the issue and just wanting it to go away and not be associated with it – the real silence on AIDS. So, yeah, Reagan’s support for anti-discrimination in the 1970s, unfortunately, was not – it did not really presage the way his administration would act with regard to the AIDS epidemic.
Nico Perrino: Well, James, I think we’ll leave it there. I encourage folks to check out your book, which I again admit I have not picked up yet. I'm working through a biography of Albert Einstein right now and that is also a doorstopper of a book – Walter Isaacson. It’s pretty good. But I would encourage people to check out your book, the Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. I have colleagues who are reading it right now and speak very highly of it. I'd also, obviously, encourage people to read the article that inspired today’s conversation, The First Amendment Created Gay America. James, thanks again for coming on the show.
James Kirchick: Thank you for having me.
Nico Perrino: This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleague, Aaron Reese. To learn more about So to Speak, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel, which is linked in the show notes. Most of our episodes – including this one – feature video of the conversation.
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