Free Speech Extremism and the New Neo-Nazis

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The foundations of liberal (small R) republican (small d) democracy depend on a variety of presumptions. Some of these were never actually in place, but we were hopeful they’d eventually come together. Some of these were in place but have unraveled.

And some of these are suspiciously similar to the presumptions undergirding the largely theological beliefs of how markets work.

It’s presumed in both that you have a completely rational public that makes perfectly logical decisions, or at the very least that the outliers are ironed out by a rational majority. Both take for granted a very flattering enlightenment derived notion of the individual and the mind then set it loose presuming it will do the right thing. Faith in man’s goodness replaces faith in God’s but along suspiciously similar lines.

It’s a fear that man is impeccably rational and self-interested that creates the “need” for an enormous and still metastasizing advertising and propaganda industry. Maybe without advertising the free market and republican democracy would work perfectly. However, we live in a world with advertising so that’s a pointless hypothetical.

Contemporary man is more the aesthetic child of Ernest Becker and Deleuze than the enlightenment or Jung. How can we look at the election results and think otherwise? Hillary Clinton wanted to be our super ego; to represent our high minded ideals and to crowd out the possibility America could be defined by its cruel racist id. She was professionalism, being an adult, the part of the collective consciousness that says we’re cultivated and civilized creatures despite slips. She ran on the promise she could repress the collective id; the part of the popular consciousness that wanted to childishly lash out because it was angry; that wanted gratification regardless of logic, consent or ideals; that wanted to brag about its transgressions because it only understood morality in terms of the rush of feeling like it got away with something. And if anything her losing the election was paradoxically a result of her being too convincing in this role.

Trump’s victory came as suddenly and unexpectedly as a Freudian slip because it was a Freudian slip. The return of the repressed. The various lies we all told ourselves about how he could never win, lies that seem ridiculous in retrospect, lies like “there isn’t a large enough white electorate, the demographics will do him in”, were all attempts to reassure ourselves of the immortality and resilience of our way of life; that despite history consisting of little else in the long run we alone were immune to radical upheaval. Scandals didn’t stop him because his voters wanted to transgress against society-his “grab them by the pussy” remark probably helped solidify his appeal and his brand more than it lost any votes. His base continues to support his reckless and ridiculous actions since taking office because their assurances he’d somehow magically grow up-that there was in fact some magical transformative power of the office, of our institutions, was a lie told in order to make sure he could be allowed to transgress in full. The nihilism of his “lulz” flank, the Gang of 4chan, gets closer to the truth for its lack of substance and ideology. We seek to find a cogent ideology we can call “Trumpism” as a final pathetic reassurance that the enlightenment rules still work, that history is a battle between stable coherent ideologies and ideas and that we can wage war with the noxious ones and be done with it.

Has anyone who’s had an argument with a radicalized conservative in the last 8 years, possibly even since 9-11, had any luck selling rationality as a replacement good? Facts? Has calling the right hypocrites really changed their minds? The empirical truth is not and was never what these people wanted. They wanted blood. They wanted revenge. They wanted to be able to regress without consequences. To be able to act out in tantrums like a guest on Jerry Springer but also have a billion dollars and fuck supermodels. And if they couldn’t do that directly to at least be able to imagine they could do so by proxy. And they found their man.

Blahblahblah. We’ve all read a million election post-mortems. What am I getting at?

I’m getting at this: while weaknesses in enlightenment ideology have gotten us to this point, and a pedantic, impotent and frankly boring adherence to enlightenment principles in their most abstract form aren’t going to get us out of it. Constantly pointing out that Fox News is lying about shit hasn’t really accomplished much to convince the other side. The arguments in favor of free speech fundamentalism have the same fundamental flaws as the other “in a free market of blank the universal good will always prevail” logics. They only work if everyone else believes in them in good faith. That the overall response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings would be an uptick in international racist far right politics was pretty predictable. That “free speech” posturing would be used as a trojan horse to sell racist jingoism through vehicles like the Seth Rogen film The Interview was similarly predictable because the only people who’ve whined about free speech issues since the Naked Lunch trial have been the extremist right, whose only interest in free speech is was and has always been the freedom to stifle all other speech that isn’t their own.

The concept of free speech is best defended as a legalistic one, not a moral/ethical one, specifically because speech is a Foucaultian interplay of different power centers. Freedom of speech is a good legal standard for a society because it somewhat levels the playing field in this interplay. However, the idea that perfect “freedom” comes through a completely hands off approach ignores both the greater importance of other freedoms (freedom from being harmed, reasonable expectations of privacy, etc) and the larger void of power problem that arises in any right-libertarian free-for-all fantasy-eventually, especially in a capitalist system, a small number of parties consolidate power and leverage this consolidation to curtail the freedom of all other actors in the system.

Speech is particularly important because in a media saturated society, speech is quite literally what constitutes and defines reality for the individual. Because speech in (post?) late capitalism is commodified and needs to reify its own commodification, it has to train individuals from a young age that their self-definition must come from their relationship to the act of consumption and the ways that the proximity of given objects imply a specific relationship to the act of consumption. Reality is a territory and must be treated as such tactically. This is the basic premise of advertising and public relations, and their open embrace of this worldview is a large part of why they’ve managed to make themselves the defining social engines of postmodern society.

The Milo/4chan crowd are free speech extremists. 4chan first became politically active against Scientology not because Scientology is awful but because 4chan users were pissed off that Scientology was trying to block internet access to a viral video of Tom Cruise jumping on a couch. Free speech extremism is an outgrowth of the shift in individual political self-identification from worker/owner/lumpen to consumer. The consumer identity is however schizophrenically split by its very nature . The consumer feels both the entitlement of the boss and the humiliation of the lumpen. The consumer identity is a balm that absorbs this tension. The high youth unemployment has led to numerous “consumer revolts” which are the only sort of uprising that would seem natural to a large crowd that never developed an identity as a proletariat, much less a coherent theory of resistance. They feel frustrated and that frustration has to be expressed in terms of grievances against pointless blockbuster movies and video games that no longer cater directly and specifically to them.

Both the free speech extremism of the right-wing trolls and the free speech fundamentalism of the liberal “don’t punch the Nazi” crowd evade the larger and more complicated problem of figuring out the new rules of engagement. Despite our laws and folk understandings revolving around such a binary, we all know that speech isn’t a discrete category from action, never was, and is even less so now.

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One comment

  1. This is one of the best things you’ve written.

    it articulates a lot of thoughts about free speech that I’ve had bumping around in my mind for awhile, but have never been able to express.

    The part about the market, free speech and advertising is particularly astute. My copy of Wealth of Nations is heavily marked up with notes about Adam Smith’s inability to anticipate advertising and mass culture.

    I still think the concept of free speech and property needs more exploration. The right in the USA never explicitly argues against “free speech” but always argues for repressing speech in the name of property rights.

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