Free Speech and the The Left: The Harper’s Letter in Context

1) Given that it has been a central concern of the left for three centuries, it should surprise no one that a letter supporting free speech rights was signed by leftists. It should also surprise no one that various neoliberal ghouls whose demonstrated contempt for free speech is exceeded only by their capacity for hypocrisy also signed it.

2) One might think that the overwhelming response by the left would be to expose the latter, citing their cynical and opportunistic brandishing of a right to free speech they routinely deny to others.

3) Alas, what has occupied many of us has been something entirely different albeit familiar, namely issuing a constant stream of denunciations of those on the left who signed. Most of these targeted Chomsky, probably the most high profile signatory but also the most predictable with a sixty year record of signing similar appeals.

4) Chomsky’s critics point to his being among only a small number of leftists included and they are correct that this is a fact that calls for an explanation.

5) We do know one reason: some of the leftists who were asked to sign refused. Of those in this category, the response of one is worth mentioning: “I was invited to sign that letter but did not solely because I just can’t deal with more social media beatdowns.”

6) In this case, the beatdown in question is presumably limited to words. But it’s worth remembering that a few months ago, many of the same left contingent were endorsing violence of the real flesh and blood variety. The term for this brief fashion was Nazi punching with celebrations of “the kinetic beauty” of a well placed fist being all the rage reaching even the pages of The Nation.

7) Among those swept up in the craze was Eric Clanton, a former Diablo Valley College philosophy professor now on three years probation for having assaulted Trump supporters at a Berkeley free speech rally. Others included students at Evergreen College who reportedly roamed the campus with bats prepared to confront those who failed to participate in a “day of absence” commemorating minority students and faculty.

Another incident involved the assault of a Middlebury College professor by students protesting her invitation of right wing ideologue Charles Murray.

8) Chomsky’s response to these and other assaults was to recognize their kinship with the Weather Underground whose actions were “understood to have simply increased support for the war,” they were claiming to oppose- “a gift to the right” in Chomsky’s words.

9) It should be apparent that the leftists signing the letter are doing more than reasserting a longstanding commitment to free speech on principled grounds. They are also doing so on the pragmatic grounds that an unambiguous support of individual liberties is essential if the left expects to build a mass constituency.

10) Returning to point 1) above, it should be noted that it is not entirely accurate. While probably a majority of the left has strongly defended free speech rights, a significant minority have not. Conspicuous among these have been authoritarian Marxist regimes whose attacks on free speech and human rights were routinely defended by a segment of left intellectuals. To this day, one still finds denigrations of “bourgeois democracy” or “bourgeois rights” with the implication that these are ancillary, to be jettisoned when they become an impediment to the objective of mobilizing class forces.

11) 10) in part explains why self identified Marxists have been among those who either declined to sign the letter (Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara was apparently among these) with others expressing considerable hostility to Chomsky and others signing it.

12) 11) is a reminder that a gap divides the left between the libertarian socialist project associated with Chomsky and those committed to top down, centralized authority. The criticism  directed against Chomsky and the other leftists signing the letter reflects a deeper suspicion of individual rights and liberties on the part of the latter. While left unity will require that we avert our eyes to what is a profound difference, we shouldn’t be under any illusions that it will be easy to negotiate, or which side we are on.

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8 thoughts on “Free Speech and the The Left: The Harper’s Letter in Context”

  1. What do you think of Jordan Peterson?
    Maybe I’ve asked you before.
    My son took a liking to Jordan Peterson. That lasted a while, but my father & I objected to some arguments and also sometimes to the general tone.

    However, like Chompsky, JP has a strong sense that politically correct silliness is driving the right, emboldening the right,

    1. I’ve referred to Peterson as a “frat house Nietzschean” and basically hold to that description.

      Specifically, I’ve had students who regard themselves as acolytes and understand the appeal of having a source (other than one’s parents) to provide them certain common sense guidance, e.g to demand that they, clear up their room etc. That said, Peterson has some very troubling views and, while the term fascist has been seriously degraded (most notably by the cancel culture referenced in my piece), according to this article in Haaretz it is not inappropriately applied to Peterson.

  2. Thank you for this, John. Very thoughtful and provocative is the good sense.

    My question for you: What are your thoughts on the historical *why* of this left thirst for flushing away foundational principles? You’ve mentioned the Marxian tendency to dismiss democracy, and that is surely part of it. But why at this time do the identitarian liberals and the neo-Leninists rush onto this terrible common turf? I’m not sure I even have a good guess. Would enjoy knowing your thoughts here.

    1. Thanks. Good and important question. I’d suggest, in response, that, while it should be, for much of the left, free speech is not a foundational principle at all. The sector I’m referring to is the Professional Managerial Class whose core identity is bound up in the assumption of elite expertise-that those with superior education and access to data have a greater right to their views compared to those without. I should say that I’m not entirely unsympathetic to this attitude particularly when it comes to the hard sciences and challenges to their legitimacy, especially from the left-a topic I’ve written about. But it is crucial that we stress that the limits of our expertise are quite narrow and that claims for the “scientific” status of this or that political or social analysis (e.g. “scientific” Marxism) are not only intellectually dishonest but actively harmful in our attempts to organize a mass base.

  3. When you paint all opponents of ‘free speech’ (a term you have conveniently left undefined) as authoritarians and proponents of centralised power, you are disingenuously conflating the suppression of speech by those with power (state power, economic power, media ownership) with the suppression of speech by those with relatively little power in our current society (for example a fascist being no-platformed by a large crowd of anti-racists).

    In fact it is perfectly possible and consistent to oppose the use of state power, (economic power, media ownership etc) to limit speech, while supporting disruptive grassroots action to limit the speech of those who seek to take society in a less free direction generally.

    Yes, this should always be done in a way that is proportionate, and one should consider whether it is tactically wise in the context.

    But the struggle going on in our world today is about more than ideas – for many people it is a life or death struggle – and an abstract fictional ‘freedom of speech’ needs to be seen in this context, and in the context of struggles for freedom *in general*.

    1. Thanks for this comment. No one would dispute that “it is perfectly possible and consistent to oppose the use of state power, (economic power, media ownership etc) to limit speech, while supporting disruptive grassroots action to limit the speech of those who seek to take society in a less free direction generally.” What is also obvious is that in doing so a) one jettisons the slightest commitment to free speech as a principle, widely accepted by the public at large and b) as Chomsky argues, one is providing a “gift to the right”, one which they have historically taken huge advantage of since Nixon rode his “law and order” campaign to victory on the backs of the Weather underground destroying for at least two generations what had been a viable, organized left insurgent movement. One of the points of the piece was to establish a connection between the self-destructive Nazi punching tendency of a few months back and those arguing against free speech rights in this instance. Thanks for providing clear evidence that the connection is there to be made.

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