Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Does Anyone Care About Free Speech?
The war between Israel and Hamas clarifies, once again, the American situation
The United States is a very flawed country, but its great achievement remains free speech. The First Amendment has safeguarded what democracy we have today. Free speech is not merely about protecting private citizens from the government’s ability to heavily regulate what we say or defending media organizations from political reprisal; it is about inculcating a culture of free expression that permits open debate and a range of opinions in the public square. Left-wing organizers, until the 2010s, understood embracing the First Amendment was central to their mission. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, the gay rights movement, and multiple waves of feminism all rested, in part, on this singular American ideal. Part of the challenge of free speech is understanding that viewpoints you may find reprehensible must be protected so your own rights are never stifled. This was the bedrock of the old American Civil Liberties Union, which defended the right of everyone to protest, including the white supremacists. The ACLU of that era understood that the criminalization of speech never works in the long term; Europe, with its far more restrictive speech laws, has been faced with a resurgent neo-Nazi movement that outstrips any, in terms of sheer organization, witnessed in the Untied States.
Over the last 15 years, the progressive left has broadly questioned or even rejected the concept of free speech. Socialist justice or “woke” politics, for lack of a better term, has been predicated on the marginalization or outright defeat of any ideas that are seen as antithetical to the project of furthering racial justice. Social justice politics views language as the equivalent of violence and demands restrictions on those who purport to harm racial groups that have been historically oppressed. Well-intentioned in its early days, social justice politics evolved into an effective and baroque form of language policing that saw its apotheosis in 2020; after George Floyd was murdered, every major corporation in America, from Nike to Amazon, released their own tortured statements on race relations and promised to institute diversity trainings that would somehow eradicate racism from their companies. The explosion of DEI was as inevitable as its ultimate failure. Social justice politics never prioritized material goals—Amazon hated labor unions as much in the summer of 2020 as it did in the summer of 2019—and the aggressive regulation of speech could only go so far. Today, Ibram. X. Kendi’s anti-racism institute is crumbling and few people are rushing to buy Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Their moment came and went.
The overreach of the left gave new oxygen to an array of “anti-woke” figures with a rather wide range of political affiliations. Bari Weiss, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and Andrew Sullivan had relatively little in common from a policy standpoint—Weiss is a staunch Zionist, Greenwald is a regular critic of Israel, Sullivan is deeply alarmed by Donald Trump, Taibbi thinks overzealous Democrats are just as dangerous—but they all found common ground in flaying the excesses of the woke left. The so-called intellectual dark web flourished in the late 2010s and early 2020s as a place to critique identity politics, cancel culture, and the odd happenings on college campuses. Various liberal failures, like the inability of Russiagate to drive Trump from office or the incongruities and hypocrisies embedded in Covid politics, further fueled these movements. Conservatives themselves rebranded as free speech warriors and it was suddenly Republicans talking most about protecting alternative viewpoints. Caring about free speech itself, oddly enough, became right-coded.
Hamas’ slaughter of Israeli civilians and Israel’s disproportionate response—the blockaded Gaza strip has faced down a Dresden-style bombardment, killing more than 8,000 people—has scrambled this dynamic, perhaps permanently. Now that some segments of the progressive left are very critical of Israel and others, in the view of Zionists, aren’t supportive enough, conservative and anti-woke pundits have broadly abandoned any pretext of caring about free speech. Instead, they’ve abused every last “woke” tactic and trope they otherwise derided for the last decade: cynical appeals to identify, grievance mongering, speech suppression, and pleading with the hall monitors to please regulate this and that.
Very few politicians and people who care about American politics also care about free speech as an inalienable right. Politics is tribal warfare, red v. blue, and all values must be marshaled in support of your side against the other. Sullivan, one of the few writers to stay true to his principles regarding speech, argued recently that supporters of Israel “are engaging in a frenzy of defensive cancel culture.”
Tom Cotton, the Republican senator, wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security urging the deportation of “any foreign national — including and especially any alien on a student visa — that has expressed support for Hamas and its murderous attacks on Israel.” Bill Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager, demanded a blacklist of students who’d been protesting Israel to ensure he’d never inadvertently hire them in future. A conservative group paid for a mobile placard that went around Harvard Square with the names of students who’d backed the Palestinians as Hamas was first killing Israeli civilians. Numerous events around Palestinian culture have been cancelled. The famed 92NY canceled a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s reading because he signed a letter criticizing the Israeli government. A Jewish editor at a science journal was fired for retweeting an Onion article. Artforum’s longtime editor-in-chief was fired for calling for a ceasefire.
The anti-woke have been, for the most part, cheering this on. Josh Hammer wrote of those protesting outside the Israeli embassy: “Every single person here who is seen supporting Hamas and who is not a US citizen should be deported posthaste.” Dave Rubin called for the deportation of pro-Palestinian American protesters as well. The conservative National Review adopted some of the social justice rhetoric of the 2010s to justify their support for a speech crackdown. “Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence’ is an oft-repeated phrase by proponents of cancel culture. Though sometimes misapplied, the statement is obviously, on its face, true.” Conservatives are fine making politics a contingency of employment as long as their enemies are fired; the same is true on the left, of course.
The tragedy of this all is that every political faction is incentivized to care about free speech even less. For progressives and leftists, the fresh crackdowns on pro-Palestine advocates is a reminder of the right’s hypocrisy. The right, meanwhile, can recycle old arguments from the post-9/11 years to argue that this time, in fact, is different and civil liberties cannot apply any longer. The left cared most about civil liberties when the Bush administration was bent on crushing them. Barack Obama’s incursions mattered less because he belonged to the right political party. And the arrival of Donald Trump meant organizations like the ACLU had to behave as pure progressive advocacy groups, no different than Planned Parenthood or the Working Families Party. Struggles against Trump were framed in terms of resistance against the onward march of fascism; it was never less in vogue to argue for the speech rights of the so-called deplorables.
The turn against the pro-Palestinian left should, in theory, remind all liberals, progressives, and leftists of the value of the First Amendment and why it must be safeguarded at all times. The social justice left has long demanded the policing of speech to better protect the marginalized, forgetting that whatever tools they may want to wield against the far-right can easily be aimed at them. The debates over the regulation of online speech inevitably turn on these grounds. If free debate is going to be restricted in the name of cutting down on misinformation, a certain administration could easily decide all speech in defense of the Palestinians is beyond the pale, only aiding Hamas terrorists. A Democratic congressman’s calls for the federal government to “combat” anti-Semitism on college campuses will end up targeting students who simply express a difference of opinion with the Israeli government, which does not speak for all Jewish people. The carousel of crackdowns with continue apace. Few will care, as long as they think their side is winning.