A failure of democracy. Antithesis to American values and the Constitution. These are common phrases you may hear in the aftermath of the Milo Yiannopoulos protests, but neither are entirely true. From the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, to the riots that erupted on Sproul Plaza, there is a long history of ineffective censorship emboldening the opposition.
In 1798, the Adams administration was faced with an impossible choice: Public sentiment was geared against France for the humiliation of the XYZ Affair. The people wanted war, but Adams knew it was impossible. He allowed for small skirmishes, but it did little to satiate public bloodlust. Thusly, he passed the Alien and Sedition Act which allowed him to detain any critics. Despite this, Adams lost the election of 1800, and Thomas Jefferson repealed the act, returning freedom to the people.
Though there were certainly some upsets along the way, the next would come during WWI when President Wilson, a Democrat, passed the Espionage Act. While wartime censorship is a normalized idea in modern history, it should be noted that wartime presidents Lincoln, Madison and Polk did not pass such laws. Yet despite this tradition, Wilson revived censorship and jailed dissenters of the war. The “Sedition” sections of the act were repealed after the war, but not before being used to arrest high profile dissenters like Eugene Debs.
The next great censure would come with the Red Scare in the 1920s. Initially justified by isolated communist and anarchist attacks, the Harding and subsequent Coolidge administrations, both Republican, allowed tough crackdowns on alleged communists. This first Red Scare would be later followed by the more famous second Red Scare. This one was much more thorough and involved high-profile witch hunts of any person perceived as deviant. Most famously, Joseph McCarthy, a Republican, interrogated suspects in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. A subsection of this Red Scare was the “Lavender Scare,” in which LGBTQ+ individuals were hunted and purged from government jobs. Interestingly enough, this exact period of time would have reacted the same way to a homosexual speaking against political norms as the far left did to Milo last night.
Though often overlooked, censorship of Black activists was commonplace in the Jim Crow South. In one darkly comical instance, a children’s book called “The Rabbits’ Wedding” was banned from Alabama because it displayed a marriage between a black rabbit and a white rabbit. Other demonstrations such as plays and novels like “Roots,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Jubilee” were either banned or unavailable for purchase. During the early years of the modern Civil Rights Movement, many Black activists were banned from appearing on public radio. Medgar Evers, a famous activist of the day, was shot and killed in his driveway after becoming one of the first Black men to speak about civil rights on radio in Mississippi in 1963.
Now that I’ve given an overview of history, I should like to make a comment on the implications of all of this as it relates to the modern day. Despite the charges that I will get, I am not equating Milo to MLK or his censorship by the left to that which Communists and LGBTQ+ people faced 60 years ago. Republicans can speak publically and occupy the highest positions in our society, and in fact, one currently does. What I am trying to demonstrate is that censorship does not stop a movement.
Eugene Debs was arrested for being a left-wing radical at a time when the Ku Klux Klan could march openly in the streets of my hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee. Black Americans were lynched and censored at a time when literal, swastika-armband-wearing Nazis were able to speak in Madison Square Garden in the heart of Democratic New York City. Yet America elected its first Black president in 2008 and in 2016, a man who openly identified as a socialist and was at times laudatory or apologist for communist tyrants was able to run for president. How did we go from where we were then to where we are now? Free speech.
The KKK wasn’t brought to its dismal state by left-wing anarchists bombing their headquarters or shooting them in the streets. It was brought down by the public witnessing their evils firsthand. It was brought down by people speaking out and being listened to, and it has been kept down by that. Nazis in Germany were destroyed by violence, but they also needed it to gain power. Before Hitler used martial law to kill his opposition, the Nazis failed to win a majority in the Weimar Republic.
It is a proven truth that the moral arc of the universe favors the silenced and the mistreated underdog. Milo is a troll and the movement he stands for might not be the best course of action for this country, but the left would be wise to learn from the trends of history. I will leave you all with a quote from Hemingway’s book “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a story about revolutionaries fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War, which Hemingway participated in.
“To kill them teaches nothing … You cannot exterminate fascists because from their seed comes more with greater hatred. Prison is nothing. Prison only makes hatred. That all our enemies should learn.”