In an effort to prevent President Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski from speaking at the University of Chicago, UC philosophy professor Anton Ford told a Tribune interviewer, “Sometimes there are people or views that are dangerous in and of themselves. The very ceremony of debating that is problematic. What is troubling about the general way this is talked about is that it is as if nothing is out of bounds.”
As befits a good scholar from the University of Chicago, Professor Ford has provided us with a teachable moment, albeit not necessarily in the way he intended. Put simply, in America no person should be considered dangerous in and of themselves, and peaceful debate should never be problematic.
Possibly Professor Ford, whose website says he has an especial interest in the fascinating combination of Aristotle and Karl Marx, has President Trump in mind when he opines about dangerous people and dangerous views. Or perhaps he is referring to historical monsters like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin (coincidentally a disciple of Karl Marx). But in the case of Hitler and Stalin, it is not so straightforward.
There were certainly others in Weimar Germany who said the same things as Hitler and many in the Soviet Union who held views similar to Stalin’s. Ultimately, what made Hitler and Stalin so dangerous was not what they said - but what they did, and the fact that their countries did not provide adequate safeguards against the outrages these tyrants committed. Significantly, one of the first things both Hitler and Stalin did when they took power was to outlaw free speech and imprison as dangerous those who disagreed with them - and there was little pushback. But with few notable exceptions, America has always treated people and ideas better than that.
History is full of people who were deemed “dangerous in and of themselves.” In Roman times, Jesus Christ was considered a dangerous man. In the 16th Century, the astronomer Galileo, who also studied Aristotle as a youth, was branded a dangerous man by the Cburch because of his belief that the earth and planets revolved around the sun (ironically, many of his theories contradicted those of Aristotle). Galileo was then convicted of heresy, threatened with torture, and placed under house arrest for nearly a decade.
Two hundred years ago, students and fellows at Oxford burned a pamphlet written by a nineteen-year-old student. Oxford dons subsequently expelled the student, who became the immortal Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
As a scholar of Aristotle, Professor Ford is undoubtedly familiar with one of history’s most dangerous men, Socrates. A philosopher like Professor Ford, Socrates was the mentor of Plato, who in turn became Aristotle’s teacher. Socrates was tried and executed for his dangerous beliefs in Ancient Athens, where freedom of speech was a fundamental right of civilized society - at least for the minority of privileged male citizens, even though it was denied to slaves and women.
According to the historian Xenophon, Socrates was charged and convicted of heresy, specifically, “refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the State, and importing strange divinities of his own; and further guilty of corrupting the young.” Socrates stripped naked before the Athenian court to demonstrate that everything must be out in the open, and he asserted that even if acquitted, he would not stop saying heretical things and asking forbidden questions. Considered a dangerous man by the Athenian elders, Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. With his classical background, Professor Ford must surely be aware that “nothing was out of bounds” to Socrates.
Perhaps as part of his future lesson plans, Professor Ford should include a more contemporary source, a movie that was a parable about a notable exception in American history, the McCarthy era. The classic 1952 film High Noon, one of the greatest Westerns ever made, starred Gary Cooper as a marshal targeted for death by four men. When Cooper comes to the local church to ask for help against the men, one of the church members asks why he simply doesn’t arrest three of the men waiting at the train station for their leader. Cooper’s marshal has obviously considered that option and rejected it. He answers the assembled worshippers, “I haven’t anything to arrest them for. They haven’t done anything wrong. There’s no law against sitting on a bench at the depot.”
The moral of that scene is that in a civilized society, the concept that some people are “dangerous in and of themselves” is ultimately not viable. Even though the men eventually turn out to be dangerous killers, Cooper has articulated a fundamental principle of American society – he cannot simply deem someone dangerous and take away their life or liberty (and this sets him apart from other great Western heroes).
An appearance like Corey Lewandowski’s at University of Chicago may offend Professor Ford, and he is certainly within his rights to be offended. But if so, maybe he should just pass it up and take in a good Gary Cooper Western.
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