Caitlin Flanagan, a staff writer at The Atlantic, is one of America's most incisive essayists. In her articles about a wide range of topics including modern motherhood, the politics of higher education, and the state of the abortion debate, she skewers consensus views with her trademark wit.
In this week’s conversation, Caitlin Flanagan and Yascha Mounk discuss her coming-of-age in 1960s Berkeley, the evolution of freedom of speech, and whether America has a future.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I didn't know that you grew up in Berkeley at the height of the Free Speech Movement. Tell us a little bit what that was like and how it informs how you see the world today.
Caitlin Flanagan: I was born in Berkeley in 1961. I was there as a small child, and my father was at the university. My father, like most Berkeley professors at that time, wasn't from California. My parents came from other places because there was this huge expansion of American universities in the post-war years. And so my father had survived the war in the Pacific—and the war with Lionel Trilling—and he wrote his dissertation and got a job at Berkeley. And they were New York intellectual lefties. My mom was, strictly speaking, a housewife, but also a very well read and very interesting person.
So my childhood, my infancy, everything, was just imbibing the revolution, and I didn't think about it as being abnormal. The city got occupied twice by troops. And Mario Savio gave this great speech on top of a car in the middle of Sproul Plaza, saying “There are times when the machine is so odious that you can't take part—you can't even passively take part—and you have to throw yourself upon the gears and levers of the machine and make it stop.” And that was a speech about stopping universities from preventing students from having free speech. Because, ironically, what started it all, were some kids in Sproul Plaza.
In those days, you know, Berkeley was not a liberal city that became more liberal. It was a conservative city that became radical in about a year. The students had a Democratic Party Club, and they figured this was the time to talk to other students about being Democrats, but the university paternalistically said, “We don't allow you to do political speech on campus.” And the students said, “But this is a public university, and we're 18, so we're free. The constitution doesn't stop at the college gates and doesn't stop anywhere in America, and so we have the right to say what we want to say.” And it went from there—to Columbia and to Michigan—but Berkeley was where it really started. These were California kids who had grown up with the “California dream,” so to speak, and the beautiful suburbs and the beaches and all that. And they said, “We don't want that if we can't have free speech.”
I hear all these kids now, who are much quieter than the loud kind of “social justice kids”—I don't know what I call them, but whatever the term is—backed by many professors. But there are so many kids saying, “This is terrible, I hate this, I disagree.” And it's going to take the courage of those kids to throw themselves upon the gears and levers of the machine and say, “I can't stand it anymore; the machine has become too odious.” And so there are a lot of kids now who are in the position—which I understand and would probably be doing myself—of just passively taking part. “I need to get my degree, and then I'll get out of here.”
Mounk: I'm a little puzzled by how this transformation took place. I'd love to hear your view on why it is that the left today is anti-free speech, to such an extent, and what's missing?
Flanagan: Well, there’s this whole idea of it being intolerable to hear other ideas. I always say about abortion—the reason that argument is pitched at a screaming level is that both sides know if you had to sit down and listen to the best argument of the other side, I don't think it would change anyone’s mind. I have a clear position on abortion. I don't think the other side's position, if articulated extremely well, would change my mind. But I have heard it articulated extremely well, and I can say that is a really strong position.
When you're miserable, it means free speech is working. The American Nazi Party got a permit to march in Skokie, Illinois, when I was 12 or 13. And Skokie didn't just have a very large Jewish population—a huge number of families there had been Holocaust survivors, and had settled together there. And I was just outraged. I was outraged, as rightly you'd be outraged at everything the Nazi party would do, and I rushed home to tell my lefty Dad. “Can you believe this?” “Yes, Cait, I've heard of that,” he said. I said, “What do we do to stop it?” and he said, “Well, the ACLU is fighting to allow it to happen.” And I had in my mind as a child that the ACLU was a great organization. They're on the side of good people. How could the ACLU be on the side of these bad people?
There were lot of Jewish people in the ACLU at that time—some of them founded it—and they were large enough in understanding this principle: that if the Nazis don't have the right to assemble and if they don't have the right to say their vile things, then other people won't have the right to talk about legal abortion, or have a pro-choice march in the same streets. The ACLU and leftist America had enough faith in the American people, that if the American people heard the arguments of Nazis, they would not be persuaded by them; they would be disgusted by them.
Mounk: I was at a conference in France recently, and I have my criticisms of certain forms of French universalism, but I was struck by the fact that the French elite really still believes in the idea of a republic, and they are willing to risk things for those principles. They are willing to fight for them. And it struck me by contrast, that there's really nothing that the American elite seems to believe. The “woke” believe in something and they even may be willing to pay a price for fighting for it. But the reason why a relatively small number of people with sometimes quite extreme and sometimes, in my opinion, quite unconvincing views is able to hold such tremendous political and cultural influence is that they are the only ones who really believe anything.
Flanagan: I think you're absolutely right. I'd never thought of America as anything except this all-powerful, invulnerable, monolithic thing that I just took completely for granted. But when 9/11 happened, and then everything else happened after it, I thought, “What am I going to do?” I was in Los Angeles with very small children. It was kind of like John F. Kennedy's speech actually meant something. What am I going to do for my country? What the hell can I do?
I remembered that on July 4th that year, some real estate company put these little American flags on everyone's lawn—I guess to drum up business. They were a foot high little plastic flags. And I remember I stuck them in the garage, because I thought that maybe the kids would want to play with them in the sandbox or something. That's how much respect I had for the flag. And I remember going through the house and finding them and planting them in the front of my yard and for the only time in my entire life feeling like I'm an American, and I love this country, and I stand for this country. I just felt tears come when I did that. And it was, as I say, the only time in my life that I ever thought that this is a good place. Growing up the way I did, all I'd ever thought about was things like the School of the Americas teaching torture in Latin and Central America—all these terrible, terrible things America has done.
When everybody always says, “You know, the history of America you got in school was wrong.” I say, “You know, the history of America I got in school was that we were just an imperialist, colonialist country,” which is true. But it's also true that when we fall apart in the next couple of decades, our descendants can at least say, “I came from the country that invented freedom as we know it.” And I think whoever went first would be the first to fall, because whoever went first in creating this thing of freedom and equality was historically bound to make huge, hideous mistakes. In America, slavery happened because they weren't coming out of the modern world; they were creating it. I think we're going to fall, and I think that the rest of the West needs to stand up. And America needs to be remembered as the place where it first happened.
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