Yesterday a group of elite intellectuals and journalists published an “open letter” in Harper’s Magazine defending the idea of “free speech.”
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.
On the surface the letter sounds reasonable. You shouldn’t be fired from your job or have your life ruined just because you have an unpopular opinion. Take it from someone who has been “canceled” on social media by a digital mob who accused me of being “ableist” and “transphobic” simply because I recommended that people read Mark Twain on the French Revolution, social media “illiberalism” on the left has gotten out of hand. The letter was signed by people I admire, Noam Chomsky and David Blight, by people that I despise, Malcolm Gladwell, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and by a few nobodies trying to make a name for themselves.
So what’s not to like? Open closer examination you notice that the letter was also signed by several prominent opponents of “free speech,” Bari Weiss, who spent her undergraduate career at Columbia snitching out professors she considered insufficiently pro-Israel, and Carey Nelson, who destroyed Steven Salaita’s academic career at the University of Illinois. It also includes Michelle Goldberg, who jump started her career in journalism by providing “liberal” cover for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The anti-war movement, she argued back in 2003, were all a bunch of dirty commmies. The Harper’s letter, in other words, is a massive exercise in hypocrisy.
But it goes a lot deeper than that. Just because a few neoconservatives and Zionists signed a letter supporting the idea of “free speech” doesn’t make the letter wrong. You don’t refuse to sign an “open letter” because someone you don’t like signed it the day before. Half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, the most famous “open letter” in history, hated one another’s guts.
Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill defined the liberal idea of “freedom” in the late 18th and early 19th Century. Back then you could disagree about politics, or even about the meaning of words, but everybody in the educated, English (and French) speaking-world were, to state the obvious, “educated.” They were elite, bourgeois men, and some women, who grew up writing letters, spending long periods of time reading books, who studied Latin and Greek in college, and who agreed upon certain “rules of debate.” For the British government, who gave Karl Marx political asylum, that he argued for the destruction of capitalism was less important than the fact than he was a “gentleman,” that he had a PhD from a German University and the support of rich capitalists like Frederick Engels. It also didn’t hurt that he had been kicked out of Paris by the French since pissing off the French has always been a favorite British pastime. “Hey we English value open debate. What’s wrong with you Frogs and Krauts?” Had Marx been Indian, African, or even Irish his treatment would have been a lot different, but even then, as the example of Frederick Douglass shows, if you could master the language of the educated bourgeoisie, you could get an audience, even among people who disagreed with you.
These days words are meaningless. Words are no longer words. They’re more like “variables” in Python or C++. The ruling class, the people who have access to the media and the universities, can redefine, or to use the more appropriate term, “overwrite” them any time they want. So for a Zionist like Bari Weiss, Carey Nelson or Michelle Goldberg, supporting Palestinian rights and criticizing Israel isn’t “speech.” It’s “antisemitism.” For people like Cary Nelson, banning Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois is no different from the German government banning statues of Adolf Hitler in the public square or the French government outlawing Holocaust denial. There’s no contradiction in their minds between destroying Steven Salaita’s academic career and signing an open letter virtue signaling about “freedom.”
Over the past few years, Bernie Sanders has been “canceled,” labeled “racist and sexist” by the educated, liberal elite because he argues that we should abolish the health insurance industry, that healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. In other words, he’s a threat to their yachts and their kids trust funds. Joe Biden, who has vowed the veto Medicare for All if it ever came up for a vote, and Hillary Clinton, who has pointed out that single payer healthcare in the United States will “never ever happen,” don’t come out and say “I’m in favor of for profit health insurance and 8 figure salaries for the CEOs of companies who produce Oxycontin.” Of course they’re for the idea of healthcare as a human right. They don’t even bother pointing out that they’re for “access” to healthcare and not necessarily “healthcare.” They simply say what they think you want to hear and carry out the agenda of the ruling class anyway. What exactly are we going to do about it? Nothing. Without the power to overwrite words, words are meaningless.