I’m liking this article, and the term, on the Free-Speech Grifters. You know who they are: the usual suspects who go into a tizzy of denunciations of the illiberality of people who espouse liberal views; who want to use the First Amendment as a cudgel to silence protests; who constantly, shrilly complain about people who use their free speech to demonstrate against liars and neo-fascists, but are strangely mum on the actual goals of said neo-fascists. It’s all ‘free speech for me and my fellow travelers, but not for libs and progressives and feminists and communists and environmentalists, you guys need to sit down and shut up’. All this in a time when open, vocal protest is fully warranted.
Let’s see the author name-drop a whole lot of popular, influential people I just happen to despise.
On the topic of campus politics and free speech, Andrew Sullivan has written in New York magazine about a half-dozen articles, warning that “the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy.” His colleague Jonathan Chait has written another dozen on PC culture, arguing that “these episodes are the manifestation of a serious ideological challenge to liberalism.” In The New York Times, Bret Stephens regurgitated a speech as an article called “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort,” while David Brooks dedicated a piece to “Understanding Student Mobbists,” for which he spoke to exactly zero students. In ten months, Weiss has racked up three articles on the subject. You would think that these “mobs” on college campuses and Twitter were sending the unwoke to a Soviet-style gulag.
The enthusiasm to defend those triggering libs makes the Free Speech Grifters uniquely susceptible to right-wing propagandists. In her last op-ed, Weiss featured an obvious parody Antifa Twitter account, run by alt-right trolls, and YouTuber Dave Rubin fell for the same gag. In 2016, Sommers unwittingly did a full hour on a Swedish white-supremacy podcast. And the same year, in a since-deleted tweet, she announced she would be “defending free speech and reason” with Milo Yiannopoulos, who was recently outed by BuzzFeed for working with white nationalists to smuggle their ideas into the mainstream. He also appeared alongside Maher, railing about free speech, on Real Time. This isn’t all complete ignorance. Columbia University College Republicans invited Tommy Robinson of the far-right English Defense League, while the new Canadian free-speech club Laurier Society for Open Inquiry announced white nationalist Faith Goldy as its first speaker. In the National Review, Elliot Kaufman chided fellow campus conservatives for purposely giving the alt-right a platform in an effort to bait the left into doing something “silly and destructive,” so that they could play “martyrs for free speech on campus” and draw media coverage. “The left-wing riots were not the price or downside of inviting Yiannopoulos,” he wrote. “They were the attraction.”
What’s really amusing is how most of those named like to claim in public that they are soooo liberal and open-minded and prepared to give all sides equal support, yet somehow consistently only side with far-right extremists and centrists, and then misrepresent the left as a reason to dismiss them. Don’t be fooled. The Free Speech Grifters aren’t really about free speech, except as a noble-sounding excuse for their deeply regressive views. I would make two points in response to them.
First point: They tend to exaggerate the threat to fundamental liberties of protests. No one goes out to protest free speech: they use their freedom of speech to speak out against oppression and crimes against humanity. The left loves free speech — it’s a tool to use against the corruption and criminality that has taken over our country. Over and over again, we find that universities are hotbeds of liberalism and free speech values, simultaneously.
But the alarmist case put forward by civil libertarians — that, as the American university has become more open to people of color and women, conservative perspectives have been censored — is empirically false. Poll after poll shows that universities are incredibly tolerant of divergent perspectives, much more so than arguably any other major institution in American culture. A recent survey of college students conducted by FIRE (the very group that has done the most to raise the alarm) indicates that the vast majority of students, including conservatives, feel relatively uninhibited in expressing their views. In response to a question about the appropriate reaction to a speaker who holds repugnant political views, only 2 percent chose “make noise during the speaker’s event so he/she can’t be heard,” and just 1 percent chose “use violent or disruptive actions to prevent the event from occurring.” Generally speaking, American attitudes regarding free speech have held steady, suggesting that college radicals are not altering national opinions of the First Amendment.
In short, outrage about threats to free speech is overblown. It’s also ahistorical: The college campus — where young people, finding their place in the world, discover that the social order is not as it should be — has always been a breeding ground for protest. Sometimes these student actions displease the self-important graybeards who believe it is their job to police student behavior. Whenever there is student protest, there will be those who see it as a threat to American norms. (Gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan won the support of a majority of California voters in the 1960s by calling student protests “contrary to our standards of human behavior.”) And sometimes the demonstrations are uncivil and illiberal. But the long view shows us that campus-level revolts are not a threat to liberal values like free speech.
But why would the Dave Rubins and Bill Mahers and CH Sommers of the world want to exaggerate “outrage about threats to free speech”? Because free speech is only a stalking horse to them, allowing them to slide oppressive talking points into the discourse under the banner of something the majority already favors.
Second point: the protests have been working. The right has to be feeling a bit of panic, because while they were all over the news and getting a lot of PR, their tactics haven’t been successful at all, and instead have inspired a strong backlash. They would love to stomp down the protests that give some individuals notoriety and press attention, but in the long run that attention is going to lead to their downfall. Milo Yiannopoulos, anyone? But also, the alt-right can’t handle the pressure.
It’s a good time to offer an observation: on the terms it set itself, antifascist organizing in the United States has worked.
Consider the failure of Spencer’s long-planned address at Michigan State University. Though it was spring break, students and organized antifascist groups showed up to protest, and Spencer gave his pitch for a white ethnostate to an almost empty auditorium. He issued 150 tickets, but only managed to get 20 people along. Spencer himself blamed the protesters for the event’s failure, just as he is blaming them for his movement’s declining ability to muster any numbers in public.
And that non-event was not an outlier. The same weekend, a planned alt-right conference in Detroit fell apart after venues pulled out under public pressure and one of the organizers, lawyer Kyle Bristow, announced he was leaving the movement. Various “March 4 Trump” events around the country, featuring alt-right contingents, were also small, and met with significant counterprotests.
Other events in the latter half of last year were also poorly executed and sparsely attended. On a recent podcast, Spencer said the movement was “in a dark place”. And it has been put there by those determined to oppose it.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re winning — the right has managed to scramble their way into power, and are busily knocking apart the physical and cultural infrastructure of the United States to keep their electorate, the poor and ignorant, on their side — but what the evidence does say is…DON’T STOP. Keep hammering on the right. Protest. March in the streets. The alt-right are actually weak and not as bright as they think, so those tactics of vocally speaking out (you know, free speech) actually work, because what we’re fighting for is right.
There are embers of optimism glowing in the ashes. Keep fanning them into flame.