Charlton Heston Speaks Out
The following is a speech NRA President Charlton Heston gave at Brandeis University on March 28, 2000.
Thank you for the tenacity you've shown in having me here. I know the University gave you the financial and logistical burden of my visit here, and I appreciate what you've done against those heavy odds. So for me, please give yourselves a big round of applause.
I remember my son, when he was five, explaining to his kindergarten class what his father did for a living. "My Daddy," he said, "pretends to be people." Fortunately there've been quite a few of them. There were Prophets from the Old and New Testaments, a couple of Christian saints, generals of various nationalities and different centuries, several kings, three American presidents, a French cardinal and a couple of geniuses, including Michelangelo.
It's been my good fortune to explore several great men who have made a difference... risen above the ordinary to change the course of human events. So as I pondered our visit tonight it struck me: If my Creator gave me the gift to connect you with the hearts and minds of these great men, then I should use that same gift to reconnect you with something even more important: your own sense of individual purpose.
When he dedicated the memorial at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said this about those troubled times: "We are now engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." In many ways, those words ring true again. I believe that today, right here and now, we are again engaged in a great civil war. And this campus is one of many battlegrounds.
The war I'm referring to is cultural rather than military, but there's something very vital at stake. Today the battle is for your hearts and minds, for the freedom to think the way you choose to think, to follow that moral compass that points to what's right.
Let me offer an example. A couple of years ago I was swore in as president of the National Rifle Association. I believe strongly in the Bill of Rights, and its Second Amendment provision to keep and bear arms as one of those rights. I felt I could make a difference – that it was the right thing to do. And that's when the bombshells of the cultural war began to blow up all around me.
To some, I went straight from Moses to the devil. To some, I fell from celluloid saint to cultural sinner, because I felt obligated to defend an individual freedom our Constitution protects.
At first I thought the issue was just about guns. Should law-abiding citizens be able to own them, as the Founding Fathers mandated, or should a Big Brother government be allowed to dismantled the Bill of Rights? Seems simple enough, right?
Well, since then I've learned that the gun debate is a lot more complicated.What I confronted when I became president of the NRA was an overwhelming Orwellian tyranny sweeping this country, a fanatic fervor of politically correct thought and language.
Zealotry is not a pretty sight. It's ugly in the streets of Tel Aviv, where misguided young men strap bombs to their bodies and shatter not only mortar and steel, but also the lives of the innocent.
We used to think we were above all that. Then a federal building in Oklahoma City exploded, and we realized that the very same ugliness can smolder among us.
More and more we are fueled by anger, a fury fed by those who profit from it. Democrats hate Republicans. Gays hate straights.Women hate men. Liberals hate conservatives. Vegetarians hate meat eaters. Gun banners hate gun owners.
Politicians, the media, even the entertainment industry is keenly aware that heated controversy wins votes, snares ratings and keeps the box office humming.They are experts at dangling the bait, and Americans are eager to rise to it. Our culture has replaced the bloody arena fights of ancient Rome with stage fights on TV with Sally, Ricki, Jerry, Jenny and Rosie. Fear of ideas creates more divisions. As a result, we are becoming increasingly fragmented as a people. Our one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all now seems more like the fractured streets of Beirut, echoing with anger.
Back in the midst of another troubled era, as a young actor, I did something that was definitely not fashionable in Hollywood. I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963 long before it became fashionable in that strange city. It could have cost me my career.
That was a time when a black American couldn't even get a job as a union stage hand.
Those of us in the Civil Rights movement battled the studios over this blatant discrimination, and we won. Now black actors and directors are among the best in our business. I'm proud that some of us helped open those doors. Two years later, as President of the Screen Actors Guild, I walked behind Dr. King, leading the Arts contingent in his March on Washington. That was a proud day.
Now, fast-forward thirty-five years. I recently told an audience that I felt that white pride is just as valid as black pride or red pride or whatever color pride you prefer. For those words, I was called a racist.
I've worked with brilliantly talented homosexuals all my life. But when I told another audience that gay rights should be given no greater consideration than your rights or my rights, I was called a homophobe.
I served in World War II, and if you saw "Saving Private Ryan" you have some insight into what a savage conflict that was. But when I told an audience that I thought law-abiding gun owners were being singled out for cultural stereotyping much like Jews were under the Axis powers, I was branded an anti-Semite.
I love this country with all my heart. But when I challenged an audience to resist cultural persecution, I was compared to Timothy McVeigh!
After a couple of years with the culturally correct crosshairs trained on my chest, I must admit it was a whole lot easier being Moses. But I can say this: get involved with a politically unpopular cause and you'll quickly find out who your friends are. I've been blasted from Time Magazine to The Washington Post to the Today Show to the guy down the street. They say "that's enough, Chuck. It may be your opinion, but it's not language authorized for public consumption."
Well, if we'd been enamored with political correctness, we'd still be King George's boys.
1776 wasn't all that long ago, and we've got plenty of good genes left to fire our passion for freedom.
In his book The End of Sanity, Martin Gross writes that "blatantly irrational behavior is rapidly being established as the norm in almost every area of human endeavor. There seem to be new customs, new rules, new anti-intellectual theories regularly foisted on us from every direction..."
"Underneath, the nation is roiling. Americans know something without a name is undermining the nation, turning the mind mushy when it comes to separating truth from falsehood and right from wrong ... and they don't like it."
Let's stroll around your own campus just for a minute, and see if we can find a few examples. One that comes to mind is Freedom Magazine. Last year, I'm told, funding for this conservative campus publication was cut out entirely because members of the student senate didn't care for its message. "Didn't care for its message?"
Now I don't know if the philosophy expressed on those pages was right or wrong. But it deserves to be heard, don't you think? Isn't that what college is all about? Examining a diversity of ideas before you draw conclusions?
I've also been told that here on campus, there's a push for more affirmative action in the admissions process.Well, I'm for affirmative action. I believe it starts in grammar school, survives the growing pains of high school, and reaches fruition during college entrance exams.
And I also believe it should be color-blind. I've fought against racism all my life. So why would I tolerate racism in reverse? Skin color litmus tests hearken back to carpetbaggers and Reconstruction. I believe in level playing fields, and the equality that comes with accomplishment. One standard for all, no more and no less.
But we have to be careful here, because telling us what to think has evolved into telling us what to say. So telling us what to do can't be very far away.
I argue passionately for the freedom to keep an open mind, because in audiences like this one I sense and see America's best and brightest. Brandeis remains a fertile cradle of American academia, and each of you are the best hope we have for a productive, livable, spiritual future.
But I submit that you, and your counterparts in colleges from coast to coast, also appear to be the most socially conformed and politically silenced generation since Concord Bridge. And as long as you shrug your shoulders and abide it, then by the standards of your grandfathers, you are cultural cowards.
If you talk about race, it doesn't make you a racist. If you see distinctions between the genders, it doesn't make you a sexist. If you think critically about a given denomination, it doesn't make you anti-religion. If you accept homosexuality but don't celebrate it, it doesn't make you a homophobe.
A free people can use a new revolution every day, and I challenge you to resist the dogma of cultural and social stereotyping. Don't let America's universities serve as incubators for a rampant epidemic of this new brand of McCarthyism. Stand up, speak out, follow your heart, even if it goes against the conventional grain.
Take heart in the fact that others have walked that same path. Jesus. Joan of Arc. Gandhi.
Jefferson. Lincoln. Martin Luther King. Susan B. Anthony.
I think the germ of disobedience is in our DNA. Who here doesn't feel a certain kinship with the rebellious spirit that tossed that tea into Boston Harbor? It's the same spirit that sent Thoreau to jail, that refused to sit in the back of the bus, that filled our streets with Vietnam War protestors. But let me warn you -- it ain't easy. Dr. King stood on a lot of balconies. The police dogs in Montgomery were vicious. The water cannons in Selma were painful. Modern versions of the same weapons of oppression exist today.
Just a few weeks ago my good friend Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, spoke candidly on national television about the president's gun policies. In return, he was personally and professionally crucified for daring to speak his mind.
During the past eight years, President Clinton has fought hard for every kind of firearm restriction imaginable. Yet at the same time he has, as a matter of policy, refused to vigorously enforce federal gun laws already on the books.
Wayne said that prosecuting felons with firearms is the only proven policy that has cut gun murders --- by half! He watched it work in Richmond, Virginia, under a program called Project Exile. Every felon caught with a firearm there serves a mandatory five years in prison. No plea bargain, no deal. Believe me, not many felons carry firearms in Richmond any more.
The NRA helped fund that project when the Clinton administration wouldn't. So I think Wayne LaPierre spoke the simple truth when he said the president seemed willing to accept a certain amount of firearm-related violence, because enforcement interfered with his personal anti-gun agenda. The words were no more out of Wayne's mouth when the media erupted. For two solid weeks he was demonized, scorned, vilified.
But during those same two weeks, the media was far more interested in reporting what Wayne said than investigating what Clinton did, or failed to do. In fact the President has been miserably lax in enforcing federal gun laws. But it was easier to condemn a good man for making a politically incorrect statement than it was to dig out the facts and exonerate a victim of cultural warfare.
To me, political correctness is just tyranny with manners. The spectacle of Wayne LaPierre's media crucifixion appalled me. Yet at the same time it stiffened my determination to speak out even louder, with all the breath I have, about this cultural cancer that is eating away at our society.
So in closing, let me challenge those good young minds of yours. Dare to consider both sides of any issue. And find the courage to question authority.
Don't always believe everything you hear from a Bill Clinton, or a Dan Rather, a George W. Bush or an Al Gore. Dig deeper than the headlines or the stump speeches or the television news. Don't trust any of us – not a Michael Jordan, or a Dennis Miller, not even Charlton Heston. Because we all have our prejudices, and it's your job to sort through all the rhetoric, weigh and measure each word, and decide on your own.
And then, just as I felt compelled to stand with Dr. King, you'll find yourself compelled to act, too.
When a fatherless kid in a crackhouse finds a stolen gun and shoots a schoolmate, stand up and say giving drug dealers triggerlocks isn't a solution.
When a mugger sues his elderly victim for defending herself, jam the switchboard at the district attorney's office and raise the roof with your outrage.
Or when your university is pressured to lower standards until 80% of the students graduate with honors, choke the halls of the board of regents in a unified show of disgruntled force.
When an 8-year-old boy pecks a girl's cheek on a playground and gets hauled into court for sexual harassment, descend on that school like avenging angels ... until someone in charge exercises common sense.
And when someone you've elected is seduced by the power of the office and betrays you, muster the collective will to banish them from public life.
Because unless you do these things, freedom as we have known it cannot endure.
So I challenge you to take up the torch that freed exiles, founded religions, defeated tyrants and provoked an armed and roused rabble to break out of bondage and build this country.
There is still some of them in all of us. So don't give up just yet. We're not quite finished with their revolution.