Commentary  Why yesterday’s Left is “right” today

A s I waited to get back into the Great White North (for 45 f’in minutes) after a BBQ at my American history professor’s house in upstate New York, I was desperately trying to pass the time. So naturally freedom of speech and the recent University of Ottawa – Ann Coulter debacle crossed my mind as I crossed the border between two nations with increasingly divergent views on the matter.

That day I had challenged one of my fellow students to define and explain the process of “spreading hate,” an almost ethereal concept and one that I have been unable to find someone to define. Opposition to “hate speech” has seemingly become the Left’s raison d’être. In any case, my friend admitted that he couldn’t really explain how spreading hate worked, though he proceeded to explain how much of a bitch Ann Coulter is – which is absolutely true, but beside the point.

This is a new era for freedom of speech in this country. In the glory days of the ’60s, it was “student radicals” who fought against the oppressors of free speech on the Right. While researching a paper recently, I read an article discussing how Ivy League student groups invited George Wallace, a far more incendiary figure than Coulter, to come speak during an election year. The Left then had it right: you grant these people their right to expression and let them make fools of themselves.

Today in Canada, we’ve inverted the equation. Almost half a century after Wallace’s failed 1964 presidential election campaign, we have conservative commentators in Canada à la Margaret Wente on one side and “student radicals” on the other. If you don’t agree with my conception of the divide, I suggest reading Wente’s enlightening and entertaining debate with University of Ottawa professor Paul Saurette on the Globe and Mail’s web site. Or, for the other side, just read Max Silverman’s column in the Tribune’s March 30 issue (“Crazy like a fox,” Opinion). They both speak to the same divide.

Have the human rights tribunals spiked the water in Ottawa? How does “spreading hate” actually work and how does it make campuses or any part of Canada unsafe? Will Coulter’s words magically hurl the average student across the political spectrum to the far right to drink tea and incite hatred? I don’t understand why these students try to suppress the likes of Coulter. As Wente points out, all you’re accomplishing is the complete opposite and handing them the microphone.

I’m with those ’60s Ivy League student radicals who have aged to become the conservative commentators of 2010. They knew how it worked. Give Wallace a platform and let him fall off. Today, freedom of expression and speech are losing ground in this country, specifically at universities. McGill is not the University of Ottawa (our administrators, to give them due credit, are much savvier and would never have invited such a public relations fiasco upon themselves), but we are hardly immune. In fact, the recent Choose Life controversy makes us an exemplification of, not exception to, the rule.

Perhaps it is an offshoot of what another “conservative commentator,” the Tribune’s own Ricky Kreitner, has identified as the average McGillian’s need to have an opinion on everything – apparently including the opinions of others. While our student representatives and both student newspapers condemned Choose Life, it was our, ahem, older administrators defending the group.

Freedom of expression should be extended even to people we find deeply unsavoury. In the oft-quoted words of American writer H. L. Mencken, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

Will Johnston is a U2 Honours History student. Write him at