Sunday, March 28, 2010

Frum, conservatives and free speech

I consider David Frum a friend, so I was saddened by the news that his relationship with the American Enterprise Institute had been abruptly terminated.

And even though David is not coming out and saying so directly, it seems his termination was politically motivated ---the AEI didn’t like his attacks on the Republican Party.

Certainly, I can identify with all this.

After all, I was fired from my job at the National Citizens Coalition a few weeks after I had criticized the Conservative Party.

So it seems that in both Canada and the United States speaking out against politicians can be a risky career move for conservatives.

What a sad state of affairs for our movement.

Now don’t get me wrong. I vehemently disagree with many of David’s contentions concerning the Republican Party and conservatism.

In my view, he concedes far too much to the left and promotes a wishy-washy, watered down ideology that as a conservative I find completely unappealing and ultimately self-defeating.

But at the same time, I respect the intellectual power of his arguments.

And more than that, by raising legitimate and thoughtful questions, David forces us as conservatives to look in the mirror and to defend our beliefs and our tactics.

This makes our movement stronger.

Indeed, as conservatives we must and should welcome the ideological combat that takes place in a free market place of ideas.

It keeps us vibrant, it keeps us growing intellectually.

That’s why organizations like the AEI and the NCC should allow and even encourage criticism of the political powers that be.

Yes, standing up to a political party can take a little courage, but at the end of the day aren’t these groups supposed to be about ideas?

And one idea conservatives must always embrace is the importance of free speech.


Matt said...

Here, here!

Anonymous said...

Sorry Gerry, but I don't see any intellectual heft in Frum. It's bad enough that he's a big government neo-conservative, but his political advice is terrible and sometimes hilariously inept. He once thought the GOP should make an issue out of combating obesity. It's exactly his ideas that are the problem with the CPC. He is your enemy and the AEI was right to give this weakling the boot.

Kenneth P. Green said...

Dear Gerry -

David Frum is indeed a nice fellow, and I'd like to be able to say that I consider him a friend, but I really can't. For despite working at the same place for about four years now, I think I saw David at AEI perhaps half a dozen times, and then, only in passing at official events like our annual board luncheon.

I can't think of a single time for example, that David sat at the scholar's table in the AEI dining room, which, while good enough for Jeane Kirkpatrick, apparently wasn't good enough for David. I've dined with Charles Murray more than a few times, and had fascinating lunch discussions, and the same is true of virtually all of AEI's high-profile scholars and fellows, from Norm Ornstein, to Chris DeMuth, to Arthur Brooks, and on down the line.

I also can't think of a time that I saw David attend a regular AEI event such as a panel discussion, book panel, etc. He certainly didn't show up for events I've been involved in. Nor did I see David involved in publishing to AEI's blog, to AEI's print or online magazines, nor did I see him involved in things like email round-robins that periodically include most of AEI's researchers.

The fact is, AEI's management has made it eminently clear for the entire time I've been there that they place a very high value on collegiality, and on-site presence. I would much prefer to work from home, in some other city - I am not fond of the DC metro area - but I don't because my job requires my presence, and that presence is beneficial - interaction with other scholars leads to new ideas for research and intellectual development. And AEI's preference for on-site scholars is perfectly logical, especially when money is tight. That's when you most value people who can perform the full panoply of AEI functions, from writing, to organizing and hosting events, to moderating panels at colleagues' events, to being in-house (or local enough to turn up quickly) to brief visiting policy makers, or AEI donors, or to chat with visiting intellectuals. David acknowledges that he didn't do much, if any, of this.

Like many at AEI, I am unsettled by this public spat, and somewhat disgusted that people like Bruce Bartlett have tried to profit themselves by distorting what happened at AEI as regards David Frum. I think it is despicable for people whose intemperate and arrogant behavior cost them the respect of their peers to use events like this to portray themselves as martyrs.

In conclusion, the idea that AEI would tell people what to think, or terminate them for their ideas is completely at odds with what I've seen at AEI in my time there. I know, for example, that my own non-dismissive view of climate science angers some of AEI's supporters. I am sure that my avowed atheism (which finds its way into my writing) isn't amusing to others. When I wrote that a carbon tax would be better than cap-and-trade, some other think tanks tried to get me censored or fired, and their efforts were laughed at by AEI's management.

In short, the Frum affair has been, I believe, completely distorted by those with an axe to grind, and those who want to bask in the pathos of self-proclaimed intellectual martyrdom. Through their actions, they are impugning the reputation of others, many of whom they don't know, but are happy to paint with a broad brush. These people should be ashamed of themselves.

Anonymous said...

Good points. I find it ironic that in the US you can argue for real conservatism and be on program and in Canada it is the opposite, argue for centralism and moderation to stay in the fold. Oh well some day conservatism will arrive in Canada too. (real conservative)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I think Frum's a RINO.

ww said...

"Indeed, as conservatives we must and should welcome the ideological combat that takes place in a free market place of ideas.

It keeps us vibrant, it keeps us growing intellectually."

Hear, hear. When did we become so AFRAID of debate.

Ww said...

"Indeed, as conservatives we must and should welcome the ideological combat that takes place in a free market place of ideas.

It keeps us vibrant, it keeps us growing intellectually."

Quite right. There is a distinction that many are missing. One may disagree with the content - or some of it- but when did we as a society, or as conservatives, become afraid of hearing it - of owning its existence!

Anonymous said...

Have to agree that most of them are RINOs indeed. (real conservative)

Blame Crash said...

Your post title implies that “free speech” was somehow violated by the “termination” of David Frum. How could that be? Does the AEI owe Mr. Frum a podium and a pay cheque to say and do anything his heart desires?

Now, how is it that you know why the AEI and Mr. Frum parted ways? I’ve read several blog posts that explained the situation exactly as described here by Kenneth P. Green.

This reminds me of that line in that Dire Straits song named Industrial Disease.

“I go down to Speakers Corner, I’m thunderstruck”
“They got free speech, tourists, police in trucks”
“Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong”

So who’s wrong here?

P. M. Jaworski said...

I'm not so sure, Gerry.

First, Institutes like AEI and the NCC ought to have their freedom of association and freedom of contract upheld. They don't owe David Frum a living, or a spot at the AEI.

Second, if Frum turned into Michael Moore, I find it hard to believe that AEI should have to put up with him. Firing Frum-turned-Moore would be good for the AEI.

Finally, the real trouble is this. AEI and the NCC should not be too eager to please Republicans or Conservatives. I dumped the NCC when they lost you, because the NCC turned into a silly partisan organization, fighting for ridiculous causes that have nothing to do with their motto or founding principles.

"More freedom through less government" dammit! I'm going to hold you to it, or I'll stop being a part of your group.

Also, you're awesome, and it spoke extremely badly of the organization to let someone like you go. (I can't say the same of Frum, whose opinions I disagree with about as often as I disagree with Michael Moore).

We can lodge moral complaints against the AEI and the NCC, but it certainly has little to nothing to do with freedom of speech. You're free to say and think what you'd like, but I'm free to associate with whomever I'd like. It's not a violation of freedom of speech to fire you if I don't like what you say. You're still free to say what you'd like.

Freedom of speech is not a veil that protects you from getting fired, or from other consequences. It protects you from going to jail. That's all.