Dear Dispatches, Been thinking a bit about the Coulter nonsense and the sheer idiocy of aligning with cretins like her. So I think there’s probably more to this story and this column today starts to get at it:
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Dear Joe, Who is “aligning” with Coulter? This Counterpunch article is very weak in its arguments. The below passage, for one example, shows the guy just doesn’t get the essential issue. What should we do, then, hand the State an EXTRA excuse to repress “extremist” Left speech when things start heating up? The people who run the show—the real rulers, not the crazies like Coulter—want the nut jobs to be censored so the ground is prepared to suppress the folks they really want to shut up.
>Those on the left who decry the actions of the antiracist and anti-fascist protesters in Berkeley, Vermont and elsewhere around the United States fail to understand the aforementioned and essential fact. The right to free speech is selectively applied and selectively defended by the forces of law and order in the US.<
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After reading Jacobs essay I am tending toward Julien’s analysis that it really has nothing to do with “left” and “right”, that it’s two battling gangs of proto-fascists (http://dispatchespoetry.com/articles/letters/2017/04). Jacobs sounds like an intellectual thug masquerading behind leftist rhetoric. Itching for a fight. I spent 8 years on and off in a Maoist “party” where everybody talked like that. And beat people up—racists, fascists, competing left groups and others—just about everybody, actually, who didn’t adhere to the “correct line,” including angry anti-communist Hungarian refugees who had fled Soviet tanks, all of whom were deemed legitimate subjects for intimidating, often violent attacks in order to shut them up and it was OK because they were fascists or racists or Trotskyists (sorry, Kent). The fact is, they liked the violence. It was empowering.
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As I told you, I wasn’t criticizing you guys for posting the Coulter piece, with which I largely agreed—I was questioning myself for making common cause with cretins like her: strange bedfellows are one thing, but I have my standards! So I’m all for complicating an issue if possible. If you didn’t like the Jacobs piece, you really won’t like this one I’m attaching — still, if you have a few minutes, check it out. I’ve read it three times now and still can’t figure out his arguments, but maybe you can.
. . . I had actually at first liked the Coulter piece, seeing mostly Kent’s hand in it, and told him so. Then he asked me for a short letter of support for it that you’d place on the front page, and I slowed down . . . because, as I said a few e-mails down and to him, what does it mean to make common cause with cretins like Coulter and Bill O’Reilly? Is free speech always right, absolutely? I’d always pretty much thought so, thinking when I lived in Europe that the hate speech laws there were wrong, that publicity is the best disinfectant, etc. etc. Hell, I even thought it was wrong for Milo whatever-his-name to get shut down by defending pederasty, which is probably where our word “pedagogy” came from.
So I didn’t find Jacobs’ piece to be proto-Fascist or Stalinist at all. Specifically, I agreed with this: “It’s not like the fascist wannabes don’t have plenty of places to spread their swill. Their bank accounts indicate that they have an audience. Nor are they particularly interested in defending any right to free speech, real or imagined. They–like their undergraduate hosts–just want to stir up trouble and watch the liberals beat up on those to their political left. In instances where college administrators don’t back down and rescind those invitations to speak, the right-wingers hope for a protest. They hope that the protest will get out of hand when it is attacked by well-armed cops who have never given a shit about anyone’s rights, if they even think about such things.”
Sounds plausible to me. Actually, I find myself more and more agreeing with the general Counterpunch line, which, as I read it, is against globalization and for local workers (don’t know if you saw my Facebook reprint of their piece on the French elections, which I agreed with completely) . . . even if it brings back a shot of nationalism. Who really cares about the EU, especially when its reason for existence — to keep back big, bad Germany — is pretty much obsolete? I’m less on board with the article I sent you yesterday from the NY Times — I don’t think personal trauma trumps rational argument — although I’m not a huge fan of rational argument qua the Enlightenment at all. But I thought it was interesting that the two articles, that one and Jacobs’, shared a few assumptions.
So what I would say now is this: shutting down Ann Coulter, or disinviting her, or whatever Berkeley did, isn’t in and of itself a violation of her free speech. Anyone who’s curious about what she has to say, or what she would have said, is free to consult her 12 books and endless internet swill. It’s the same with Charles Murray: nobody’s burning books here. (I’m a lot angrier at the people who wanted to destroy that Emmet Till painting in the Whitney show — that was disgusting!)
So if you think any of this is worthy to air — I’m not so sure! — you certainly have my “permission”! I trust whatever you come up with.
Best wishes, Joe
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Thank you. This is terrific. It was 99.9% Kent’s hand. I do think we have to address these issues in a way that opens discussion. Personally, I see that as the issue rather than “free speech,” which is a bit of a straw dog and an old saw at the same time. Although I completely agree with Kent that the issue has to do with protecting a formal space where we can speak openly without fear of being shut down. Once you start shutting down that space—however cogent your argument—you are preparing the ground for your own enforced silence. And whatever Jacobs thinks about the current state of affairs, the fact is this is not China, not yet, though it is increasingly clear that Trumpf and his gang would like to see a little more of that Chinese control. Did you see that last night he stated that the Constitution was a bad thing for the country because of the separation of powers? That may just be one of his continuously thoughtless mouth farts, but there are those around him who take it seriously. I don’t think they can pull it off in the U.S., but then I didn’t think this buffoon would ever be President either. It really is Shakespeare as farce.
For us, the fundamental issue is that you cannot succeed in the struggle for more justice and more equality by silencing people. That’s not a strategy. It’s a reaction. And, as if we are involved in a cosmic Go game, suddenly you find yourself surrounded and you realize you have been suckered into playing their game. Big news today – Milo just announced someone gave him $12 million and he is starting a Mobile Provocation Centre. Guess where his first stop is going to be. Berkeley. The show will go on and the guys in the black masks and their followers who think they are taking serious political action will find themselves surrounded by Milo and turned into pawns in his game.
Imagine this: Milo rolls into town with his media circus, and no one shows up but his teenage groupies. And then in the next town, And the next.
There wouldn’t be a next after that.
We will advance by organizing people, not silencing people. To make silencing people legitimate in the political sphere is to prepare the ground (and the obsequies) for your own funeral. Speech is really secondary. You either fight for freedom or you fight against it. And all the claptrap about how we are already silenced by the state is just an excuse. And a whiny one at that. If we had equality, we wouldn’t have to be fighting for it. Nobody with eyes in their head could think this was a level playing field. To use that as an excuse to abandon the fundamental commitment to the principle and spirit of freedom is to become the thing you are trying to resist and move beyond.
One further thought coming out of this conversation. The fact that you can’t win by silencing people only matters if you have some further vision of possible resolution of the struggle for more justice and more equality, some deeper sense of the possibility of change, some idea and practice of effective action that people can take to make things better.
Perhaps that’s what’s missing from Jacob’s and Baers’s arguments. They offer nothing beyond silencing the enemies of their thought. What’s missing is any sense of transformative organizing that makes those ideas irrelevant, unattractive, and unreasonable, that moves people toward something new and better, that moves them to fight for something rather than against something. We’ve have lost a vision of the instrumentalities of historic change, and so we resort to attacks on freedom rather than creating a space where freedom overwhelms its adversaries.