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By Keith Yost

In 1858, a relatively obscure lawyer named Abraham Lincoln ran for a U.S. Senate seat against Stephen A. Douglas, at that time the most powerful senator in the country. The two candidates agreed to a series of seven (seven!) three-hour-long (three hours!) public debates on slavery, each to be held in a different congressional district of Illinois. Although Lincoln lost the election, the debates and the publication of their transcripts brought him to national attention, and two years later propelled him to becoming the 16th president of the United States.

Looking back, it seems almost quaint that one of our greatest presidents earned his office by engaging the most intractable problem of his time, unscripted and unmoderated, against an extremely capable opponent. By contrast, fellow Illinoisan Barack Obama broke onto the national scene by giving a prepared reading of elegant but hollow platitudes to a crowd of partisan supporters. Given the nature of modern politics as popularity contests, and the power that sound bites have in a world of YouTube and 24-hour cable news channels, such a shift was inescapable ­— politics will never be unconstrained of the need to minimize offense at the expense of free discourse. The real tragedy, and what we must now work to reclaim, is the extent to which political correctness has extended its grasp to other organs of our society. Whereas once the contagion remained contained to politicians, now it has spread to our press, our universities, and our civil and military services. No person occupying the public sphere, no matter how skilled, no matter how crucially employed, can avow himself for or against in any controversial matter without the risk of being cashiered. Lincoln, were he alive today, would not just find it difficult to get elected, he would find it nearly impossible to serve in almost any public capacity, be it journalist, dean, director, or general.

To steal Rousseau’s turn of phrase, our speech is born free, but is everywhere in chains. We are straitjacketed by the shibboleths of an ultra-polite society, its norms defined not by the tolerances of its average citizen, but of its most easily offended and anal-retentive. Today we sit in fear of the blacklist, its unspoken rules not as formal and defined as they once were in the days of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, but equally real, more insidious, and more broadly intrusive upon our political consciousness.

Consider the case of David Weigel, formerly of The Washington Post. Mr. Weigel was ousted when it was revealed, through the leaking of private emails he wrote prior to taking his job at the Post, that he disregards right-wing demagogues such as Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan. Having hired Mr. Weigel, a declared libertarian, to write an opinion blog covering the Tea Party movement, The Washington Post apparently had a funny-if-it-weren’t-real expectation that Weigel would never, in public or in private, in the past or future, ever express a disagreeable opinion.

Then there is the example of Helen Thomas, formerly of the White House Press Corps. As a second generation Arab immigrant, Mrs. Thomas held pro-Palestinian views her entire life, and judging from the plethora of awards and accolades she received during her 67 years of news work, her ownership of such views never interfered with the exercise of her journalistic talents. Yet, one afternoon, at 89 years of age, she had the audacity to share those views, and in that moment it seems the entire world decided she was unfit, and perhaps had always been unfit, for a career in journalism.

And who could forget the tale of Larry Summers, formerly of Harvard University? Mr. Summers was forced to resign from his job as president of Harvard after he gave a speech in which he mused openly on the possible reasons why women are not well represented in the upper echelons of math, science, and engineering. One hypothesis in particular got him in trouble, and it goes like this: studies reveal that on average, men and women score equally well on intelligence and aptitude tests (give or take a tenth of a standard deviation across test subsections). However, the preponderance of evidence also suggests that the variability of male intelligence is larger than that of women (see Hedges and Nowell (1995), Deary, Irwing, Der, and Bates (2007), Hyde, Lindberg, Linn, Ellis, and Williams (2008), Hyde and Mertz (2009) for examples). The study by Hedges and Nowell in particular finds that in the top and bottom 2 percent of the population, males outnumber females 2 to 1. If this variability is real, and aptitude tests are indeed a good predictor of performance, then those areas of society which enlist only the top percentile of a population — business, politics, high technology, and so on — will be male dominated even if there exists no societal bias against women.

We might not like the consequences of Mr. Summers’ logic (it implies, among other things, that the average male MIT student is smarter than the average female MIT student, and that Institute gender ratios — such as the 5 to 1 ratio of male to female MIT physics grad students — are justified), but does it really make him a bigot? When did we, as a society, begin asserting a right to muzzle him? When did we begin believing that public figures, even opinion bloggers such as Mr. Weigel, should be devoid of opinion?

The worst casualty so far is General Stanley McChrystal, formerly of the International Security Assistance Force. Many in the punditocracy have been quick to paint the general’s recent departure as a necessary evil. As the reasoning goes, were we to allow McChrystal to speak his mind openly, we would soon find ourselves on the slippery slope to some sort of Turkey-esque hybrid martial-democracy.

But let’s be clear — McChrystal was never insubordinate. He never disobeyed the president’s orders, he upheld both the letter and spirit of his commander-in-chief’s policy decisions, he spent every day of his duty conducting the war in Afghanistan in the manner he thought was in best concordance with the president’s wishes. Unlike that other famous general to be relieved of command, Douglas MacArthur, McChrystal never criticized Obama’s military policy in Afghanistan (indeed, the general designed it), and he certainly did nothing on par with MacArthur’s bald-faced attempt to usurp the presidential power to conduct diplomacy. McChrystal was stripped of his position for no greater reason than because he criticized (accurately, for what it’s worth) the policy preferences of Joe Biden and the diplomatic ability of Karl Eikenberry, in what he presumed was an off-the-record discussion with a Rolling Stone reporter.

McChrystal’s departure is a monumental blow to our war effort in Afghanistan. Not only is he one of America’s very best counter-insurgency minds, but he, after more than a year at his post, was uniquely positioned to manage the war. He had, through frequent meetings and force of character, earned the hard-won respect of Afghanistan’s tribal leaders. He had a close working relationship with President Karzai, and had crafted a highly functional leadership team. His successor, General Petraeus, may be an equally brilliant counter-insurgent, but he will have to start from a clean slate in building relationships with Afghanistan’s leaders, and, after McChrystal’s leadership team is liquidated, Petraeus will have to rebuild the command team from scratch. As the war enters one of its most pivotal moments, this is a tall-order for the 58-year-old cancer survivor.

Even if McChrystal was not irreplaceable, his ouster sets the wrong tone for civil-military relations. President Obama remains committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan when the conditions on the ground are right. But who will judge the conditions? How can we trust the assessments of our generals to be unbiased, when we know they will be fired for reporting conditions that are politically inconvenient to their masters? How can we avoid developing a credibility gap, when the American people rightfully have no reason to believe they are being told the truth by military commanders?

Should we allow the trend of political correctness to continue, what sort of dystopia would we face? The recent confirmation battle over Elena Kagan provides some clues. The strength of Kagan’s legal mind is not what has placed her before confirmation committees today — it is her disturbingly uncluttered record, the absence of any sort of recorded viewpoint on anything of substance, that has made her, politically, the ideal candidate for the Supreme Court. Fifteen years ago, she decried the “vapid and hollow charade” of the judicial confirmation process; today she has embraced it fully.

In the dark (and none too distant) PC future, we will find our public discourse dominated by an army of Kagan-bots, ultraconservative managers of their public record, unwilling to stand behind any belief except that earthquakes are bad, America is good, and everyone’s children are above-average. Demanding conformity in public expression does not produce strength — it selects for individuals who are willing to repeat statements they do not believe, and against individuals who are unwilling to refuse others their open and honest opinion. America needs to regain its stomach for free discourse. I write this not just as an ambitious person who has written too much for his own good, but as an American citizen concerned for his country.

Do you agree or disagree? Excellent. The Tech is looking for regular opinion writers for the upcoming 2010-2011 school year. Email opinion@the-tech.mit.edu to get information on joining.