Last Thursday night I went to an event co-sponsored by Spiked, the kinky British magazine, and the Institute for Humane Studies, an obscure institution domiciled at George Mason University, whose agenda, despite its title, does not include animal rights. It was hosted by the New York Law School in a spacious auditorium at 185 West Broadway, way downtown. 200 people were in the audience, everybody agitated by the issue of free speech.
I’m sitting there in the bleacher section, ten rows back, and I’m asking myself, who paid for this? Whose speech was legitimated by this setting? And what voices were excluded? I’m thinking like an economist, asking, what was the “opportunity cost” of this event—in other words, what alternatives were forsaken so that these ideas would be heard?
The event was entitled “Is the Left Eating Itself?” Translation: Is the Left destroying itself by relinquishing its aggressive, progressive claims on the First Amendment—by encouraging the “social justice warriors” who have tried to shut down hate speech on campus? The spontaneous, ungainly etymology that followed led, inevitably, to a larger question: what is the Left, after all?
The four participants on the panel were Brendan O’Neill, Angus Johnston, Bret Weinstein, and Laura Kipnis. Their answers were intriguing, at the very least. What I heard was of course edifying. But it was nowhere near satisfying—if I could have run shrieking from the room, or if I could have assaulted several members of the audience, all of whom seemed to be bearing the kind of libertarian credentials that would admit them to Ayn Rand’s bedroom, I would have.
Instead, I reminded myself that I have attained adulthood, and stayed put.
Is the Left eating itself? Brendan O’Neill says No. He is very sure that the “social justice warriors” he belittled are not elements of the Left because they reject the universalism of the Enlightenment. (Here I mumbled to myself about feminism and black nationalism in the early 20th century, which had already dismantled this feeble argument.)
Angus Johnston also says No. He, as a historian of dissent and disorder on campus, thinks the Left is in a new phase of development that doesn’t yet need a designation (I agree with him).
Laura Kipnis says No as well. She thinks the political valence of free speech on campus is problematic at best, because hate speech from fascists is not something any university should sponsor. She thinks the Left is a political formation that is, by definition, anti-capitalist and which thus must attend to a politics of identity on the path to a politics of redistribution. (I agree with her, too.)
Bret Weinstein says Yes. Having been ousted from his job at Evergreen State for telling students that their “experience” doesn’t qualify as refutation of what he, as a biologist, understands as race and racism, he thinks the campus Left has become irrational, anti-scientific, perhaps even delusional. (Here I mumble to myself about scientism and its weird progeny, wondering why it’s a biologist who becomes the poster boy for free speech.)
OK, that’s the capsule summary. I think O’Neill and Weinstein are kidding themselves. As Stanley Fish once said, there’s no such thing as free speech. Their pious appeals to the principle ignore or suppress the history of representation, shall we say, through which silenced peoples fought for centuries to claim their standing as men and women who could be represented, in the first place, and who would represent themselves, in the second. That “standing,” at the law and in the larger culture, is still the key issue of our time. For it animates what we call identity politics.
But here’s my less than innocent story, Augustine style. I sought to improve my own standing on Thursday night by making nice with the guy from the Institute for Humane Studies, who seemed quite smart—we bantered about the Nietzsche of the Genealogy of Morals—and who was far better groomed than I. I hoped, in other words, to get on his gravy train, take this tour, make some money. I hoped he would decide to hire me for another event on the tour, to put no finer point upon it.
Why not? I believe in free speech, and I believe in myself. I’m a professor of History, for God’s sake, I could be converting hundreds to his noble cause, and paying the rent as well! What was the downside?
But silly me, I went and Googled the Institute for Humane Studies at GMU. The Board of Directors has eleven members, one of whom is Charles G. Koch, two of whom are employees of the Koch foundation, three of whom are GMU professors—among them the most accomplished moron within 30 miles of the White House, the economist Tyler Cowen—and one of whom is the vicious James Arthur Pope, the guy who financed the Republican coup d’état in North Carolina, the legislature that produced the law about gendered restrooms.
There’s blood on this money. Well, duh, the trail of the serpent is everywhere, as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed—and every artifact of civilization is built on barbarism, as Walter Benjamin insisted. But the question is not, can I take the money and run? The question is, how did it become available? Why is the Koch Foundation so deeply involved in sustaining free speech on campus? What does free speech mean if Charles G. Koch via Brendan O’Neill is the spokesman for the principle?
I used to be as close to an absolutist on this matter as my colleagues at In These Times, when, back in 1976-77, we wrote supporting the right of the Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago where many survivors of the Holocaust lived. I have changed my mind in view of what Black Lives Matter has said and done, and in light of what the alt-right has said—and done.
I no longer think you have the right to threaten females or people of color—or me—just because you have the platform given you by university administrators, who are beholden to Republican donors and thus to the miniscule segment of the student population that believes Charles Murray or Tommy Robinson are reasonable interlocutors. You do not have the right to parade your weaponry as provocation, not here, where I make a living, on campus, or in my neighborhood.
You do not have a right to say things that would get you fired at any old private sector company, where the Human Resources crowd would send security to escort you from the building. You never did.
Long ago we used to say, “Put your money where your mouth is.” We meant something like “put up or shut up”—like, don’t fuck with me, throw down, make the bet, make the move, see what happens, I’ll kick your ass, don’t keep talking like a lawyer, show me something. That’s what I’m saying here. Don’t keep citing your principles, tell me how this works.
It’s not just Citizens United that changed my mind. Although, parenthetically, if the legal Left had half a brain, it would seize on that 2010 ruling and execute some corporations for cause, claiming that they’re persons liable at the law. No, BLM changed my mind by asking whose voices get heard, how and why? In saying this I am not checking my privilege as a white male, I’m trying, as a historian, to understand the circumstances under which the right to representation becomes contestable.
Thomas I. Emerson, who taught at Yale for thirty years, wrote the book on this, The System of the Freedom of Expression. It’s a great book to which I return every few years just to listen to an intricate mind at work on a difficult problem—to hear what a good teacher would say about something that troubles me. He insisted that there was a border between expression and action we could police, and adjudicate. Maybe he was right back then, even as the civil rights movement was testing, and sometimes violating, the border he marked. But not anymore. The line he drew has been crossed so many times that it’s erasable—or invisible.
But, if expression and action have become indistinguishable, as a result of the identity politics that began with the civil rights movement, and more recently as a result of Citizens United—which makes expression and action equivalent by announcing that the expenditure of money is no different than the enunciation of political opinion—then we are, against my wishes as well as yours, in uncharted waters.
Freedom of speech doesn’t mean what it used to. That takes some getting used to. But now that we know it, let’s get on with the argument.