Free Speech, Fires, and Broken Glass


I love the freedom of speech. I love the First Amendment as the bedrock statement of what a democracy is. When I was a kid, one of the first political issues I paid attention to was Tipper Gore’s famous (infamous) crusade against “offensive” music lyrics that ultimately resulted in current Parental Advisory labels on music albums. I remember listening to Dee Snyder, his wild hair fanning over his bare shoulders, giving testimony to the Senate, and I was awed by how well spoken he was. Later, in college, I participated in efforts to protect rapper Ice-T from censorship over his song Cop Killer.

I wasn’t a rap fan, nor did I approve of the lyrics, but just a few months before I had read Aeropagitica, John Milton’s passionate defense of free speech and condemnation of “licensure.” I truly believed, and continue to believe, that if we are to have a democratic discourse, if we are to face the challenges of creating an inclusive and just culture and politics, then all ideas must be on the table. One’s voice should not be excluded because what they have to say may be offensive, or profane, or even wrong. I continue to hold, despite the current mess of our discourse, that good ideas win out over bad, and better ideas build on the good.

As a historian and a sociologist, I know from my studies that what starts as a courageous statement against tyranny can turn into a movement that can push and motivate, even overthrow entrenched power. I know that the powerful have gone and continue to go to great lengths to silence dissident voices. I’ve always been fascinated by ideas and the power of ideas to motivate populations, often for good, sometimes for ill. Ideas are the bedrock of civilization, in my mind, while speech, the communication of ideas, is the structure by which civilization perseveres and evolves.

Consequently, the power of speech, the power of giving voice to ideas and thus guiding the discourse of nations, society, even the world, is central to those who strive for power. In Fascist, totalitarian societies, the power of the state is predicated on how absolutely it controls the communication of ideas. A theocracy claims for itself divine status for its discourse while that from outside the established canon is heresy to be rejected by the Godly.

A democracy, however, must play by different rules if it is to survive. A democracy must advance speech, expression, as a right inherent in the people. A democracy must not only allow everyone from the top scientist to the man living under a bridge, to speak, to express, to signify, but a democracy must also empower the people to speak forcefully, en mass, in the face of power. For a democracy rises and falls based on the ideas of the Demos and the power of the Demos to act collectively on these ideas.

But this fact comes with its own innate challenge. For if all must be allowed to speak, then even those who hate democracy must enjoy this liberty. Yes, in a democracy, the racist, the bigot, the misanthrope, the ignorant, even the fascist must be allowed to speak, must be tolerated in this ecosystem of ideas. In other words, those who wish to live in a democratic society must hold sacred the Voltarean Principle, “I do not agree with what you say, but I shall fight to the death your right to say it.”

This principle is beneficial in two ways. First, what might be called a marketplace of ideas, I reframe as an ecosystem of ideas. Like any ecosystem, the diversity of its inhabitants is an indicator of its health. Ideas and their proponents must compete for institutional space, with the strongest ideas winning out. Also, ideas, in and of themselves, are rarely ever complete. They always have limitations, holes, and weaknesses. Other ideas may fill these holes and satisfy these limitations, creating a hybrid synthesis from which everyone benefits. This cannot happen when only one idea is allowed to proliferate. The old Soviet Union signed its death warrant by only allowing those ideas that confirmed communism. Nazi Germany was at a profound cultural disadvantage when it disregarded what it considered to be Jewish Science. So the Right will fail now that it insulates itself from facts that are not accepted by the approved propaganda machine.

The second great benefit of free speech is that it allows us to easily identify the fools, bigots, and autocrats among us. Our culture professes a belief in freedom and equality, but also group superiority and racism. Democracy demands a primacy on the former and marginalization of the latter. For a long time, overt racism had been so effectively marginalized that only our most extreme racists even dared make use of such discourse. Those who wished to speak in the mainstream public arena were consigned to silencing their racist ideologies or make use of coded language. Consequently, a dark undercurrent existed outside of mainstream awareness–until the bigots elected a President of the United States and now want their pound of flesh.

It’s this wholehearted belief in freedom of speech and the evolution of ideas that causes my stomach to turn when I see events such as those that transpired in Berkeley last week. In this case, the Berkeley College Republicans invited as a speaker a self-described “provocateur” famous for his bigoted cant and known to inspire violent outbursts on his college lecture tour. Doing so was their right. That College Republicans chose to exercise their rights by inviting this particular clown, of all the speakers they could have invited, is telling about the nature of the contemporary Republican Party. This should have been the singular focus of the inevitable protests that gathered in response. The protestors, disgusted by this speaker (No, I see no reason to name this speaker. This speaker get’s enough notoriety considering the quality of his message), were well within their rights to assemble and speak their minds.

Much could have come out of this interaction. We could have debated the role of bigotry and racism in politics, the nature of hate speech, the values of a society that strives to break free from its shameful past and build discourses of inclusion. There could have been

From The New York Times

a debate on the responsibility of public institutions with regard to exercising free speech. Is the exercise of free speech important enough to jeopardize the sense of safety or community of the rest of the campus? There’s much that could have been debated that would have been of great value and service to the discursive environment of our nation.

That’s not what happened. Instead, a group of idiots, dupes playing to the fiddle of the right-wing propaganda machine, whether they know it or not, annihilated any possibility that this protest might have made a meaningful impact. This group of masked morons known as the Black Bloc proclaims that they are fighting Fascism by vandalizing and assaulting people who “look like [Nazis],” or “by any means necessary.” They are delusional. At Berkeley, ground zero for the free speech movement, the masked morons did nothing but silence the cause of justice and hand incendiary fuel to the Regressive Right. The Right should have been held to account for their support of this racist, rhetorical robot. Instead, they needed to do nothing more than loop videos of a car on fire and black-clad maniacs breaking windows to discredit the left.

So much for fighting fascism. The Black Bloc accomplished exactly the opposite.

I cannot speak for their motives. Perhaps the Black Bloc, in all of their manifestations throughout the country, is sincere about its wish defeat fascism wherever it rears its grotesque head. If this is the case, then they are stupid. The Left cannot defeat fascism through violence and hatred. Violence and hatred and fear are the primary tools of the fascist. Reason and science, empathy, tolerance, and courage are the tools of the left, the only tools known to work for an ideology dedicated to liberty and justice. By embracing vandalism and violence, the Black Bloc is saying nothing. Not only are they contributing nothing to the debate, but they are poisoning the very ecosystem the left needs to plant its ideas. By stealing the camera’s from those who are actually saying something, the Block Bloc is actually silencing left dissent and discourse.

Which raises the possibility (which I’ll admit I cannot prove, but of which I must speculate) that the Black Bloc, instead of representing the dumbass wing of the movement, is actually a front for the Right Wing. As the Nazis were always suspected of setting fire to the Reichstag for the sake of discrediting the left, so the Black Bloc, hiding behind masks, may be a covert Right Wing force. At least, they might as well be for all the good they are doing.

The left must openly and loudly repudiate the Black Bloc, humiliate its operatives and force them and their masks into hiding. We have enough powerful enemies. The last thing we need are nihilistic allies.


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