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Liberal Faux-Outrage on Freedom of Speech

One cannot but be awestruck by the hypocrisy of intellectuals who pretend to adhere to points of principle–for transparently partisan ends.

A recent manifestation of the distinguished tradition of elite hypocrisy is Nicholas Kristof’s two-columns-long exhortation to liberals and leftists (whom he characteristically conflates) that they be more tolerant of conservatives. Thus he joins a growing army of fellow intellectual luminaries–including Jonathan Chait, Catherine Rampell, Edward Luce, Damon Linker, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, and many others (Jerry Seinfeld, Donald Trump, etc.)–who bemoan the rise of an intolerant political correctness on social media and university campuses.

“On campuses at this point,” Kristof laments, “illiberalism is led by liberals.” Conservatives often feel discriminated against, are less likely to be hired in certain departments, and sometimes provoke student protests if they’re scheduled to give a talk on campus. “[E]ven Democrats like Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state, have been targeted [for protest],” Kristof writes, as if the absurdity and injustice of such targeting are too obvious to merit comment.

In a similar vein, other “liberals” denounce the far left for not respecting the free-speech rights of its opponents. The most obvious example is the wave of outrage that followed Chicago students’ shutting down of Trump’s rally on March 11. They were denying his right to free expression! “Shutting down Trump rallies is a dangerous, illiberal, self-defeating tactic,” Jonathan Chait tweeted, as Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) admonished activists to take their grievances with Trump to the ballot box, not the barricade. “Confine protests to the marketplace of ideas!” the liberal elite shouted in chorus.

(Evidently this highly educated–indoctrinated–sector hasn’t learned one of the clearest lessons of history, that progress happens not through ideas battling it out in some ethereal Platonic realm in the liberal imagination but through disruptive protest, popular struggles sustained over decades and centuries. The very democracy that the intellectual class pretends to cherish and to want to guard against “illiberal” activists was achieved by generations of activists throwing their bodies on the line in challenges to mainstream norms of propriety.)

The proper response to such liberal and conservative complaints about a rising left-wing generation is not to let oneself be dragged into a debate about activists’ tactics or the excesses of political correctness; rather, it is simply to point out that rank hypocrisy scarcely deserves a response at all.

The Kristofs and Chaits are right that our society routinely violates the principle of free speech on a massive scale. What they seem not to recognize is that this is nothing new. It has always done so, since before the country’s founding. Suppressing free speech is more American than apple pie. The aggrieved, however, have typically not been the Madeleine Albrights and Donald Trumps of the world, or the white male Republicans who don’t feel welcome in an anthropology department; they have been the millions of dissenters from mainstream ideologies and institutions.

They have been the workers slaughteredagain and again–for mobilizing against employers, and the IWW soapbox orators imprisoned for exercising their right to free speech on street corners. They have been the thousands of people locked up for opposing World War I, and the civil rights protesters of the 1960s violently attacked for marching against racism.

They have been the Fred Hamptons murdered by the state for organizing inner-city African-Americans.

More recent examples are not hard to come by. For truly massive and systematic suppression of viewpoints, Kristof need look no farther than his own newspaper. The perspectives of labor unions, for instance, are, as we know, virtually anathema to the corporate media, from the New York Times to the Chicago Tribune, from CNN to Fox. Were it not for organizations like Labor Notes, In These Times, and Nation of Change, labor stories would suffer an almost complete media blackout. Which amounts to a blackout of the views and interests of tens of millions of workers. This counts as rather severe censorship.

Or, if academia is what we’re concerned about, consider the countless scholars who have been punished for expressing politically incorrect opinions–incorrect because they were too left-wing. How many of the elite public figures wringing their hands now over left-wing “intolerance” leapt to the defense of Steven Salaita when the University of Illinois fired him for angry tweets about Israel’s Gaza massacre in 2014? How many defended Ward Churchill’s right to free speech when he was fired for suggesting that some of the victims of 9/11 were complicit in American imperialism? Was Nicholas Kristof publicly outraged when Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul for repeatedly criticizing Israel?

Who criticized MIT when its political science department denied Thomas Ferguson tenure explicitly because of his materialistic scholarship? (See Understanding Power, p. 243.) Which New York Times or New Republic intellectuals were scandalized by academic persecution of the brilliant materialist historian David F. Noble?

In general, it is hardly news that elite intellectual culture suppresses writers and ideas on the political left. How friendly, after all, has the mainstream media been to pillars of the left from Noam Chomsky to Glenn Greenwald (or, especially, to leftists without such name recognition)? The obviousness of these points, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call out the guardians of ideological orthodoxy on their hypocrisy and cowardice when they publish columns like Kristof’s “The Liberal Blind Spot.”

The proper course of action for people who genuinely care about free speech and healthy intellectual debate–i.e., who are not cynically exploiting the issue for ideological ends–is to defend, first and foremost, the free expression of the relatively powerless, not the powerful. It is sheer farce to complain about the occasional ultra-mild “censorship” (by a few university departments or students) of businessmen, politicians, conservative intellectuals, and racists if one does not first devote overwhelming attention to the systemic censorship of anti-establishment views.

So, to sum up, the appropriate left-wing response to the emerging fad of denouncing “political correctness” for its alleged shutting down of debate is to tell the whiners, “Yes, you have the right to speak, but until you defend free speech consistently and on principle, you don’t have the right to be taken seriously.”

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Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground HumanistWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, and Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.

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