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John Kass: Biden seeks an end to ‘uncivil war,’ but will he defend free speech?

As Joe Biden was sworn in as our 46th president, he delivered a simple yet eloquent speech about America’s “uncivil war” and preached unity to a politically divided nation.

“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.

“If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we are willing to stand in the other person’s shoes — as my mom would say — just for a moment, stand in their shoes.”

It wasn’t literature. It wasn’t supposed to be. It was a good check-all-the-boxes Biden speech.

Are you opposed to racism? Yes. Me too. So is the president. Do you support terrorists? No. I don’t, and neither does our president.

It was earnest, well delivered, reasonable — a study in urgent yet affable beige. But there was something missing.

He didn’t want to agitate anyone, particularly his party’s left wing, the new ally of Big Tech that is stamping out dissent. Biden wants to be seen as agreeable. He has always been a decent, amenable man, having spent 50 years in the Washington establishment sandbox.

Biden is our president. He’s my president. And though I disagree with him, I prayed for him and for America. And I figure many of you did as well.

But I did hope for more substance from his speech, delivered with tens of thousands of federalized troops on guard against violence. Why? Because Big Tech has been censoring its platform users and stifling dissent, which protects Biden’s politics. And because his party’s thought leaders in the compliant Washington establishment press corps and elsewhere continue to shriek about fascism while continuing their push to “deplatform” or “deprogram” dissenting voices.

And mostly because tens of millions of Americans who did not vote for Joe Biden needed reassurance that they did not get.

They’re worried about the cultural purge targeting them for doing what once was supremely American: standing up to speak their minds.

And so, what was missing in Joe Biden’s speech? A full-throated commitment to defending the core values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which include the right of all Americans to speak their minds without fear of retribution. And I don’t mean wing nuts calling for violence of any kind.

But maybe he could have tipped a hat to those civil libertarian Democrats many of us remember.

What happened to them?

They were liberals mostly, and many were part of what I call now the hard left. But there were some conservatives too.

They were our teachers, editors of our newspapers, professors at the university. They would not silence dissent. They’d read history and knew what came of that.

They knew Voltaire didn’t speak that quote so often misattributed to him: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

But they revered the idea.

They understood free speech was at the heart of being an American. They warned about the excesses of the McCarthy era and the blacklists. They welcomed intellectual combat. And they knew that free speech protections in the First Amendment were critically important. They also knew that without a culture that supports a free exchange of ideas, our constitutional liberty would be lost. They revered liberty.

If you just agreed with their politics for a good grade in a college class, or prattled some facile sarcasm of others to curry their favor, the best of them would know instantly they were being made fools of, and they’d become furious.

It’s all changed as the left’s politics have permeated the institutions, including universities and American media where woke newsrooms seek to silence politically dissenting political views.

At least CNN Political Director David Chalian, who shapes political coverage at the network, isn’t worried about keeping an objective posture for his liberal audience. He talked of Biden’s visit Tuesday evening during a COVID-19 memorial at the National Mall, and it sounded as if the thrills ran up and down his leg.

“I mean, those lights that are just shooting out from the Lincoln Memorial along the reflecting pool, it’s like almost extensions of Joe Biden’s arms embracing America,” Chalian gushed.

Like Joe Biden’s arms embracing America. I get it.

The rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 gave new voice to the calls for a silencing of the right. Some conservatives understand the fraught nature of this, as do some on the left, like Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who questioned whether acts of free speech will now be criminalized.

“What acts should be criminalized by new ‘domestic terrorism’ laws that are not already deemed criminal? They never say, almost certainly because — just as was true of the first set of new war on terror laws — their real aim is to criminalize that which should not be criminalized: speech, association, protests, opposition to the new ruling coalition.”

The immediate tussle to direct the Biden administration will be between the Washington establishment and the hard left. Both sides know him to be malleable.

But in Biden’s new coalition — of the establishment, the bureaucracy, Big Tech, corporate America, the liberal Washington press corps and the hard left — there is little if any constituency for civil libertarians.

And one thing they have in common is a shared hostility toward conservatives and the desire to scatter their voters to the four winds.

So how does this decent but fundamentally malleable man, historically susceptible to pressures from within his party, end the “uncivil war”?

We’ll find out soon.

(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His email address is, and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)