Read a shorter version of this article in The Daily Caller.
Last Saturday, we drove down California 101 to Santa Barbara to see Milo Yiannopoulos speak. A few days later, I returned hopped up on three times my usual number of hypertension pills, massaging a cramp where my heart should be, with memories of a dog with an Old Testament name who did a walking handstand while peeing. I had the receipts for a small claim against my University Chancellor in one pocket. In the other was the inventory information of an antique dealer for two nineteenth-century sketches of performing animals for the London stage. They are upholding a shield with crest declaring “Unto God Only be Honor and Glory.”
And that was probably the least weird and bestial part of the circus of events that took me from the Bay Area to the Sacramento Valley to the California Riviera and back again in a number of days. On the night that I was supposed to be sitting with a large audience at UC Santa Barbara, instead I was sitting a few feet away from Judy Shepard, a prominent anti hate speech activist. On Tuesday, I wasn’t in a crowd of students cringing at the entertaining insolence of a man accused by left as making hate sexy. I was attending an intimate talk for donors and guests of the Anti-Defamation League at the posh University Club in Santa Barbara.
The mother of Matthew Shepard, the brutally murdered twenty-one year-old college student whose name is on the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act, shared the blow-by-blow story of her son’s murder and her life afterward. I had intended the trip to be part work, learning about the alt-right, and part indulgence. It combined the pleasure of a weekend in Santa Barbara with the sinful delight of observing firsthand the sass of the self-described “dangerous faggot.” It turned out quite differently.
The UCSB event was cancelled, but we still had a nonrefundable reservation for three nights accommodations in Santa Barbara. What are the chances that your AirBnb host will invite you to a talk by the mother a gay man whose name immediately invokes memories of hate crime on the same night you are supposed to see the gay equivalent of the Joker, a fellow often accused of hate speech against Muslims and fat girls?
I had gone to see Milo on a whim. I found out about him only a few months ago, and it was no small pleasure to see how the fast-talking insult machine would leave his sanctimonious, leftist antagonists stunned.
I have been in a state of cognitive dissonance, trying to understand how academics around me come up with claims that concentration camps and electro shock therapy awaits gays in a Trump-Pence America when the Man of the Red Cap has never said one negative word about the “LBGBT folks,” as he calls them. Rather, he invited Peter Thiel to speak at the RNC and thanked the audience for warmly welcoming the openly gay billionaire.
Judy Shepard’s experience is clearly different than mine. The seasoned speaker walked on stage and pointed to her safety pin, a symbol adopted by progressives the day after their electoral rout on November 8 meant to signal solidarity with minorities. She emphasized that she may be a white woman from Wyoming, but “I am not a Trump supporter.” To her, Trump is an incompetent joker, but “Mike Pence is truly an evil human being.”
She was there to tell the story of her son, and she did so with passion and heart in a way that made it feel immediate even after almost twenty years. Matthew Shepard would have been almost the same age as I am now, and when he was beaten and left to die, I, like so many other Americans of all stripes and colors, felt symbiotically violated. For the most part, America has changed since 1998. The society that Mrs. Shepard believes encouraged hate crimes against homosexuals from the pulpit and from the family room may no longer exist. But she fears that progress may easily be dismantled through executive orders and legislation.
She openly described her fear of “regressing.” While “we did not get to the American dream” under Obama, she commented. “We had an administration that cared about us.” Mrs. Shepard stated that “since the election people feel empowered to express hate.”
The audience sighed, and from several corners came the exclamations, “We are doomed” and “We’re screwed.” One well coiffed, pretty young woman confessed tearfully that while she had been only twelve when Mr. Shepard was tortured and left to die, it had changed the course of her life and her vocation. A Cornel West look-alike asked an important, but ultimately unanswered question: “We all know somebody who voted for Trump. How do we confront these people humanely?” Mrs. Shepard responded by elaborating on the racism that she believed prompted people to vote for Trump to “get as far from Obama as possible.”
The gentleman’s question, however, is an important one for people in despair over President Trump to come to grips with, and it is one I believe she never answered. It’s going to take a lot of open-mindedness and understanding for the left not to demonize people who voted for Trump. For their own sakes, they must not automatically brand people as bigoted, and then refuse to talk to them, as has been the case.
The fear in the room was palpable, and I get it. We have a documented and anecdotal record of hate crimes in our communities past and present. Mrs. Shepard is somebody who will have to live the consequences of prejudice and hatred.
However, I can also empathize with the fear and terror that many decent Americans have of Islamist violence and of the U.S. becoming like Europe, a maelstrom of unchecked immigration from non-Christian countries. This may insult the easily offended ears of progressives, but they cannot afford to not listen with an open mind and heart. That there are white Americans who may be uneasy about or hostile to the ethnic and racial demographic shifts in the country can’t just be condemned either. Yes, there is bigotry in that, but you cannot just repress such feelings and expect that because they are silenced they don’t exist. Speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos bring those issues out into the open and for us to process on an emotional and intellectual level.
While the feelings of the majority of Americans, especially young Americans, have changed on the subject of marriage equality, there is still a significant minority that sees marriage equality as a threat to tradition. Vilifying, spitting at, calling them deplorable, ostracizing, and condemning those people won’t help matters.
Just a few days earlier I had been on line, something I never do, with a crowd of students (something I most certainly don’t do), on the other side of the barricade from a mob of angry protesters declaiming “hate,” “fascism,” “racism,” and homophobia. It was surreal to experience a less diverse group of protesters condemning a much larger and heterogeneous group of attendees of bigotry and chauvinism.
After the UCSB event was cancelled with no warning because of objections by the UCSB community and administrators, Milos’ tour manager invited me as a VIP guest of the speaker to his UC Davis event with the even more notorious Martin Shkreli.
There I was in Davis talking to a bunch of fun gals, not Eva Braun clones. It was the usual multi-ethnic, multi cultural group of people we see all around California waiting on line to see the controversial Milos and Shkreli. There were Hispanics, Asians, gays, and a group of Muslim-Americans next to us. I know because I spoke to many different people. There was conviviality and community.
In contrast, across the way were the people acting as if we were a congregation of Aryan Nation skinheads because we were observing our first amendment right to peaceful assembly. They were screaming, throwing objects, and carrying on.
However, they had the administration on their side. Ralph Hexter, the inept replacement for a Chancellor fired for her involvement in the pepper-spraying of Davis students, was totally on board with the demonstrators’ violence. The cyber grapevine reported that the police deemed the menace of the mob–its potential for assault, battery, or damage to property–urgent enough that the event should be called off. For example, somebody punched Milo’s guest, Martin Shkreli and supposedly shit was thrown at him. Mr. Hexter did not intervene, nor did any of his minions, and the Davis College Republicans were forced to cancel the event.
In the conduct of protesters there was no compassion, only tyranny demonstrated through an attempt to censor ideas that they don’t personally approve. They were not concerned with the thoughts and feelings of their neighbors—a “love-in” as they called it—but only the control and censorship of their peers. They demonstrated that free speech is dead on college campuses. The U.C. is but another casualty of the Orwellian silencing of ideas across American universities.
The same man who asked how to converse with Trump supporters wanted to know how Mrs. Shepard dealt with her trauma and didn’t turn to self-destructive activities. I had to subtract the diatribes about Trump and the Republicans to get to the core of her journey. It was telling her story that allowed her to escape suicide or poisonous bitterness and help others. She was brutally honest, and spoke at one event after another about the events in her life, her emotions, and her ideas about a tragedy that was agonizingly personal. In doing so she turned hearts, and no doubt it is not through her political commentary, which was alienating to me, but through her personal story that she has helped move the needle on the public’s awareness of violence born of hate speech.
The kind of violence and censorship, both among the great unwashed, kale-eating, garlic-chewing folks who protested, and the politically-motivated fat cat administrators who did nothing to intervene, has the potential to create precisely the reality that the left fears. There may indeed be a hardening of hearts by Republican politicians and their maligned constituents if the left does not learn to listen to those they see as the enemy with open hearts and minds. There is a great deal of fear on both sides.
I am thankful that I was invited to the Anti-Defamation League event because it made me realize the extent of the fear that undergirds the expressed indignation of the progressives who now see themselves as politically vanquished. But in another association involving animals, I was also reminded, looking at the back of my Lhasa Apso’s furry legs, which look like ballooning bloomers, and of her handsome Habsburgian underbite, of Queen Marie Antoinette.
Edmund Burke, describing the storming of the Bastille by a mob, drew attention to the irrational and inhuman tendencies of enraged revolutionary mobs. Although the highest Enlightenment ideas inspired the French Revolution, the conservative philosopher reminds us in his description of the assault on Queen Marie Antoinette in her chambers, of a mob’s self-righteous abandonment of compassion and propriety.
I don’t think I am disrespecting Mr. Yiannopoulos by saying that we, too, were waiting for the Queen of Free Speech. The mob drove him hence.
The circus continues off stage here at the University of California. But I hope at least I will get the cost of attempting to attend twice reimbursed.
Small consolation for the end of free speech.