FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Neoliberal Myths

by ANDREW TILLETT-SAKS

Every few years, protestors shout down a conservative speaker at an American University. Every few years, rancorous debate ensues. Every few years, the warring sides yell past one another; the opponents of the ‘shout-down’ uphold the sanctity of ‘free speech’ while the protestors decry the awful ‘real world impact’ of the conservative speaker’s message.

In the wake of the Brown University shout-down of Ray Kelly, champion of the NYPD’s racist stop-and-frisk policy and racial profiling in general, the debate has resurfaced. Rather than talking past the anti-protestors’ arguments, they need to be addressed directly. The prototypical argument in denouncing the protestors is not a defense of Ray Kelly’s racism. It is twofold: First, that a free-flowing discourse on the matter will allow all viewpoints to be weighed and justice to inevitably emerge victorious on its merits. Second, that stopping a bigot from speaking in the name of freedom is self-defeating as it devolves our democratic society into tyranny.

The twofold argument against the protestors stems from two central myths of neoliberalism. The argument for free discourse as the enlightened path to justice ignores that direct action protest is primarily responsible for most of the achievements we would consider ‘progress’ historically (think civil rights, workers’ rights, suffrage, etc.), not the free exchange of ideas. The claim that silencing speech in the name of freedom is self-defeating indulges in the myth of the pre-existence of a free society in which freedom of speech must be preciously safeguarded, while ignoring the woeful shortcomings of freedom of speech in our society which must be addressed before there is anything worth protecting.

Critics of the protest repeatedly denounced direct action in favor of ideological debate as the path to social justice. “It would have been more effective to take part in a discussion rather than flat out refuse to have him speak,” declared one horrified student to the Brown Daily Herald. Similarly, Brown University President Christina Paxson labeled the protest a detrimental “affront to democratic civil society,” and instead advocated “intellectual rigor, careful analysis, and…respectful dialogue and discussion.” Yet the implication that masterful debate is the engine of social progress could not be more historically unfounded. Only in the fairy tale histories of those interested in discouraging social resistance does ‘respectful dialogue’ play a decisive role in struggles against injustice. The eight-hour workday is not a product of an incisive question-and-answer session with American robber barons. Rather, hundreds of thousands of workers conducted general strikes during the nineteenth century, marched in the face of military gunfire at Haymarket Square in 1886, and occupied scores of factories in the 1930’s before the eight-hour work day became American law. Jim Crow was not defeated with the moral suasion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. Rather, hundreds of thousands marched on Washington, suffered through imprisonment by racist Southern law enforcement, and repeatedly staged disruptive protests to win basic civil rights. On a more international scale, Colonialism, that somehow-oft-forgotten tyranny that plagued most of the globe for centuries, did not cease thanks to open academic dialogue. Bloody resistance, from Algeria to Vietnam to Panama to Cuba to Egypt to the Philippines to Cameroon and to many other countries, was the necessary tool that unlocked colonial shackles. Different specific tactics have worked in different contexts, but one aspect remains constant: The free flow of ideas and dialogue, by itself, has rarely been enough to generate social progress. It is not that ideas entirely lack social power, but they have never been sufficient in winning concessions from those in power to the oppressed. Herein lies neoliberal myth number one—that a liberal free-market society will inexorably and inherently march towards greater freedom. To the contrary, direct action has always proved necessary.

Yet there are many critics of the protestors who do not claim Ray Kelly’s policies can be defeated with sharp debate. Instead, they argue that any protest in the name of freedom which blocks the speech of another is self-defeating, causing more damage to a free society by ‘silencing’ another than any potential positive effect of the protest. The protestors, the argument goes, tack society back to totalitarian days of censorship rather than forward to greater freedom. The protestors, however well intentioned, have pedantically thwarted our cherished liberal democracy by imposing their will on others.

The premise of this argument is neoliberal myth number two—that we live in a society with ‘freedom of speech’ so great it must be protected at all costs. This premise stems from an extremely limited conception of ‘freedom of speech’. Free speech should not be considered the mere ability to speak freely and inconsequentially in a vacuum, but rather the ability to have one’s voice heard equally. Due to the nature of private media and campaign finance in American society, this ability is woefully lopsided as political and economic barriers abound. Those with money easily have their voices heard through media and politics, those without have no such freedom. There is a certain irony (and garish privilege) of upper-class Ivy Leaguers proclaiming the sanctity of a freedom of speech so contingent upon wealth and political power. There is an even greater irony that the fight for true freedom of speech, if history is any indicator, must entail more direct action against defenders of the status quo such as Ray Kelly. To denounce such action out of indulgence in the neoliberal myth of a sacrosanct, already existing, freedom of speech is to condemn the millions in this country with no meaningful voice to eternal silence.

Every few years, an advocate of oppression is shouted down.  Every few years, the protestors are denounced. They are asked to trust open, ‘civil’ dialogue to stop oppression, despite a historical record of struggle and progress that speaks overwhelmingly to the contrary. They are asked to restrain their protest for freedom so to protect American freedom of speech, despite the undeniable fact that our private media and post-Citizens United political system hear only dollars, not the voices of the masses. Some will claim that both sides have the same goal, freedom, but merely differ on tactics. Yet the historical record is too clear and the growing dysfunctions in our democracy too gross to take any such claims as sincere. In a few years, when protestors shout down another oppressive conservative, we will be forced to lucidly choose which side we are on: The oppressors or the protestors. The status quo or progress.

Andrew Tillett-Saks is an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 217. He can be reached at:  atillett-saks@unitehere.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 20, 2017
Bruce E. Levine
Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback
Melvin Goodman
“Wag the Dog,” Revisited
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?
David Smith-Ferri
Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC
Kenneth Surin
Global India?
Norman Pollack
Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare
Patrick Cockburn
Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death
Susan Babbitt
Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?
Matt Peppe
New York Times Openly Promotes Formal Apartheid Regime By Israel
David Swanson
Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters
Michael Brenner
The Narcissism of Donald Trump
Martin Billheimer
Capital of Pain
Thomas Knapp
Florida’s Shenanigans Make a Great Case for (Re-)Separation of Ballot and State
Jordan Flaherty
Best Films of 2016: Black Excellence Versus White Mediocrity
Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
Steve Horn
What Do a Louisiana Pipeline Explosion and Dakota Access Pipeline Have in Common? Phillips 66
Brian Saady
Why Corporations are Too Big to Jail in the Drug War
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Peaceful Protest to Armed Uprising
Luke Meyer
The Case of Tony: Inside a Lifer Hearing
Binoy Kampmark
Adolf, The Donald and History
Robert Koehler
The Great American Awakening
Murray Dobbin
Canadians at Odds With Their Government on Israel
Fariborz Saremi
A Whole New World?
Joyce Nelson
Japan’s Abe, Trump & Illegal Leaks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump 1, Tillerson 0
Yves Engler
Is This Hate Speech?
Dan Bacher
Trump Administration Exempts Three CA Oil Fields From Water Protection Rule at Jerry Brown’s Request
Richard Klin
Solid Gold
Melissa Garriga
Anti-Abortion and Anti-Fascist Movements: More in Common Than Meets the Eye
Thomas Knapp
The Absurd Consequences of a “Right to Privacy”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail