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.