Authoritarian Asshole Erik Loomis’s Free Speech Problems (@ErikLoomis)


Erik Loomis is a liberal history professor at the University of Rhode Island and the kind of career dipshit we love to hate around here. In fact, Loomis actually competed in Heat 1 of our #BiggestLiberalAsshole2012 contest, for equating anti-Kill List opposition to Obama with racism and sexism. Loomis wrote that post as a blogger for the web site, Lawyers, Guns and Money, which Glenn Greenwald  has accurately described as a cesspool of unprincipled partisan hackdom. . .the online successor of [The New Republic] circa 2002.

Immediately after the Newtown massacre, Loomis did what many careerist liberals did: he took to Twitter and, for several days, ostentatiously performed his passionate concern for spectacularly murdered children from wealthy Connecticut families. Naturally, these histrionics had the full complement of partisan anti-gun rhetoric, but Loomis cranked it up considerably, with repeated calls for draconian measures against gun advocates, particularly National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, whose “head” Loomis claimed to want “on a stick.”

In a way that should surprise no one except the clueless Loomis, some usual suspects on the right — chiefly the group Campus Reform, Michelle Malkin and Glenn Reynolds — made their patented fuss, with some even claiming that Loomis’s rhetoric about LaPierre was a violent threat. In the days since right-wing tongues started wagging, the Rhode Island State Police have questioned Loomis about his remarks, the dean has called him to account, and the URI president, David M. Dooley, issued the following statement:

The University of Rhode Island does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the University. The University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and equitable culture that aspires to promote positive change.

With the same robotic predictability as their right wing counterparts, careerist liberals uncritically closed ranks around Loomis, launching an advocacy campaign via this post on the web site Crooked Timber. They heaped opprobrium on the URI president in particular, reciting the usual talking points about how this isn’t just about Professor Loomis — who is not tenured — but about academic freedom and free speech as a whole. When you consider the history of the people involved, the stench of this campaign’s hypocrisy is very ripe indeed, but what’s most deplorable is how it unethically misrepresents Loomis’s detractors and whitewashes his Twitter frothing, which is now offline.

To hear the crowd at Crooked Timber and other advocates tell it, the dust-up is fundamentally about this one tweet —

@rmccrory I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.—

— because, allegedly, that’s the one Glenn Reynolds cited for ‘eliminationist rhetoric‘ and Campus Reform called a threat. But there were actually quite a few more.

Loomis’s post-massacre keening began with this retweet of The Rude Pundit –


and progressed with many tweets by Loomis himself that were only slightly less brownshirty, since they called for state, rather than street, violence. They were also obsessively directed at particular gun advocates, especially LaPierre:

You are goddamn right we should politicize this tragedy. Fuck the NRA. Wayne LaPierre should be in prison.

Wayne LaPierre is a criminal and should be in prison for complicity with murder. 27 counts.

Can we define NRA membership dues as contributing to a terrorist organization?

I bet terrorist NRA head Wayne LaPierre will sleep well tonight.

Larry Pratt and the group Gun Owners of America are terrorists and should be dealt with as such.

On and on it went in a similar vein for many tweets. A few days later, after the alleged right-wing ‘witchhunt’ ensued, Loomis clarified his “head on a stick” remark:

Dear rightwingers, to be clear, I don’t want to see Wayne LaPierre dead. I want to see him in prison for the rest of his life. #nraterrorism

Now it’s obvious that “head on a stick” is a figure of speech, not a threat, but as far as I can tell, only Campus Reform said otherwise. Other complaints were much more detailed and reasonable. I really shouldn’t have have to quote Wikipedia to show that Reynolds’ use of “eliminationist” is indisputably apt. Putting aside personalities, and looking at merits alone, is it really terribly wrong to complain about Loomis’s rhetoric as such? Is it wrong to take it up with the University of Rhode Island and to urge others to do likewise? Emphatically no on both counts.

If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around this, just do a substitution analysis with some issue or group you feel strongly about – peace, reproductive freedom, B. Manning, Occupy, feminism – and an advocate you find vastly more sympathetic than Wayne LaPierre – perhaps David Graeber, Medea Benjamin, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald. Then imagine yourself as one of Loomis’s students or colleagues, or perhaps a would-be history major considering URI.

We’re often told that the best remedy for toxic speech is more speech, not less, but this extremely obvious point always gets lost in ad hoc free speech campaigns like this one, where condemnation is equated with suppression.  Yes, Loomis is free to shoot his mouth off about how certain people he disagrees with should be killed or declared terrorists and sent to prison. Others are equally free to say what an infantile, authoritarian ass he is for doing so. Among these others is URI president Dooley, whose rights to both free speech and academic freedom are no fewer than Loomis’s.

Nothing attests so much to the purely self-centered, painstakingly stupid and generally rotten character of today’s establishment liberals than that they will, with straight faces and indignant hearts, concoct something like this statement from Crooked Timber, without any qualifying remarks at all, in defense of something as irredeemably awful as Loomis’s stream of repellently authoritarian invective:

We are dismayed that the university president completely fails to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and of scholars’ freedom independently to express views (even intemperate ones) on topics of public importance.  This statement—unless it is swiftly corrected— should give alarm to scholars at the University of Rhode Island, to scholars who might one day consider associating themselves with this institution, and to academic and professional associations that value academic freedom.

As customarily defined and understood, the principle of academic freedom, which safeguards a professor’s right to make an ass of himself on Twitter, also safeguards his students’ and colleagues’ right to a civil intellectual environment free of intimidation and needless hostility.  Therefore, not only is the University president completely right to repudiate Loomis’s unalloyed authoritarianism — as something distinct from his opposition to the NRA — principle obliges him to.  While it’s arguably correct to fault Dooley for conceding to Campus Reform’s assessment of Loomis’s speech as overtly threatening, it’s hard to fault him for much else. Students and colleagues with misgivings about Loomis’s conduct should publicly repudiate him also.

Of course a purist might insist that by virtue of Dooley’s position, his repudiation contains an implicit threat to Loomis’s livelihood. But expecting Loomis’ superiors to keep silent for any grounds is certainly at odds with the kind of free speech absolutism that protects Loomis’s eliminationism. It’s also not compatible with academic freedom. What if Loomis had made disparaging remarks about his African American students, or claimed that feminism and good scholarship don’t mix? Would you really want University officials to say nothing?

These weighty matters might be worth haggling over if Loomis were at a private university. However, as a public employee, Loomis’s off-duty speech enjoys not only the customary protection of academic freedom, but Constitutional protection, which is more expansive. Any attempt to fire him or deny him tenure for this incident would undoubtedly result in a lawsuit he would almost certainly win.  Therefore, absent any explicit threat of reprisal, Dooley’s repudiation is exactly what it seems, a simple exercise of free speech. As with so much else, Crooked Timber’s hyperventilating on this point is completely misleading.

All of this is a long way of saying that the campaign for Loomis is corrupt from top to bottom: a campaign to dominate debate and suppress criticism dressed up as a campaign to do just the opposite. Maneuvers of this kind have become standard procedure for a political class overwhelmingly dominated by authoritarian little fuckers like Erik Loomis. I don’t expect better from them. It is, however, profoundly disappointing, disgusting even, that people who should know better are eagerly climbing on board and exhorting me to do the same.


Related Reading

A Radical Look at Free Speech

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36 Responses to Authoritarian Asshole Erik Loomis’s Free Speech Problems (@ErikLoomis)

  1. carol says:

    As Becket said “what matter who’s speaking?” i can’t agree that Loomis’ tweets are eliminationist or incitement because none of the people who saw those tweets are going to act on them as he was speaking euphemistically and even if someone acted on them, Loomis could not be held responsible for the actions of another. I do think that the attempts to silence him count as eliminationist rhetoric according to the definitions given at Orcinus as this is a concerted action by a group of people to isolate and remove him from the public sphere.

    I also think your piece elides the way that power relations operate when it comes to free speech. Why, when a UK nobdy in a political party – that has no politicians in the Houses of Parliament – calls for compulsory euthanasia of the elderly, is this message amplified a million times in the media and his free speech protected and when an antiwar protestor is arrested for posting a picture of a burning poppy on facebook? Does having more free speech combat toxic speech when unequal power relations means that the further your politics are to the left, the less likely you are to enjoy the kind of easy access to media and amplification of message that rightwingers do because the media is owned by the bourgeoisie, and the more likely you are to be punished? And often people on the left who end up working in academe, like Loomis, have to keep their politics under wraps for fear of losing their positions. So free speech at the end of the day is a commodity that exists only for those that can afford it and further it is regulated by the state which assumes the right to confer this freedom and should one discover on expressing an unfavourable view that this freedom is curtailed, one can only contest it in a court of law. So it is not a freedom at all, but something that is granted which can equally be squashed when the state or interests find the opinions of an individual a hindrance. What is really being protected then is the furtherance of the rights of the bourgeoisie to dictate to the excluded others what can be said and it is therefore a tool of social control. The brouhaha over Loomis and other academics, such as Ward Churchill, demonstrate this clearly.

    I think we should support Loomis and insist oh his right to freedom of speech and forcefully push back against the powers who are attempting to ruin him.

  2. ohtarzie says:

    Carol –

    A couple things: I agree that Loomis’s tweets aren’t incitement, though I don’t think you can assume that no one would act on them. The vitriol being directed at gun advocates right now is quite violent. In any case, I never said Loomis would be culpable if something happened so this is all beside the point.

    You are on shakier ground conflating incitement with eliminationism , which is an ideological bent that insists on the elimination of opponents, either through separation from the public or murder. Insisting over and over again that a gun lobbyist should be thrown in jail for life is inarguably eliminationist, else we interpret it differently.

    I largely agree with you on the separate power relations with free speech and was originally going to approach the Loomis problem from that angle. We differ on how we see him in the power structure. White liberals like Loomis dominate the humanities at the moment, to the exclusion of Marxists, anarchists, women, POC and poor people. He is a well-connected partisan Democrat, and comparing him to a genuine radical like Ward Churchill is actually quite inappropriate. Loomis would be the kind of academic working behind the scenes to get Churchill ousted or smearing him outright. In my view, a dust-up between influential partisan rights and influential partisan liberals is one area where cliches about free speech and more speech actually apply. This is why I took this approach. I do intend, however, to take up problems with free speech and academic freedom in the spirit you suggest in another post.

    I see no evidence that anyone is trying to ruin him. I think objections to his speech, based on merits, are warranted. I think his job is quite safe. Furthermore, I do not hold the political class to which he belongs in higher regard than the class that’s attacking him. I do not see liberals as my allies for reasons that should be clear from other posts on this blog.

  3. carol says:

    Thanks ohtarzie, I don’t think that Loomis’ position or character or whether he is an ally or not alters the principle of defending freedom of speech or intellectual freedom one whit. Strive for more complete forms for these freedoms; use this situation to scrutinise what we mean by these freedoms and severely criticise any authoritarian attempts to curtail them. I’ll add that we know that there is no free speech for Muslims in Europe and America, that these limitations on free speech have meant secret trials and tortures for Muslims and Arabs, this has all become so commonplace it is therefore hardly surprising that the liberals you describe feel emboldened coming after the rights and freedoms of others through the enactment of the NDAA which now means anyone, anywhere, can be detained without charge or trial, simply for writing on a blog like this. Generally the state does not care one iota for the opinions and beliefs that we share freely among ourselves, even when we come together in our millions to oppose its actions, it simply ignores us and continues to do as it pleases. It now cares only for those opinions of its flatterers and the most precious of all, those which it believes it can extract on pain of torture. This is where restricting freedom of speech for some has brought us.

    I agree that it’s irrelevant arguing about whether Loomis meant what he said when he tweeted his comments or whether he’s guilty of incitement or eliminationism that is unless we are prepared to forcefully uphold his freedoms first.

  4. carol says:

    i meant to write “those truths which it believes it can extract…” is there no way to edit posts?

  5. ohtarzie says:

    Carol –

    As I have tried to stress, the merits of his speech and his speech rights are separate matters. I think his speech warrants the strongest criticism and I don’t think people are obliged to temper this criticism based on fear-mongering about his job security or because some of his critics are scoundrels also.

    Let’s be clear: Loomis wishes the most authoritarian state violence on his political opponents and articulates it with a power-worshiping endorsement of the state as a weapon against ‘terrorism.’ Making someone like this into a crusader/martyr for free speech and academic freedom is frankly disgusting to me. I might be more sympathetic if his supporters at least conceded how disgusting his speech is, but instead they have misrepresented it. This is an authoritarian maneuver also. Feel free to find common cause with these people. I’ll pass.

    Finally, I am coming to question the idea that defending the speech of someone like Loomis on principle somehow fortifies freedom of speech for people as a whole. This is a notion we are expected to accept on faith despite the absence of evidence. Increasingly, I think these battles are lost or won on the strength of the speaker’s constituency. Loomis has done far too little to win me to his side and I am quite sure the favor would not be returned.

    While I don’t think there are principled grounds for firing him, it makes no difference to me if he is. As I understand the workings of power, I do not believe the outcome of this case affects the speech rights of people I support one iota; however I do believe the professional advancement of people like Loomis is overwhelmingly toxic. Loomis is inarguably a ruthlessly authoritarian personality and a member of a political class dominated by authoritarians. I hold this political class chiefly responsible for the capitulation of the left before oligarchy and for things like the normalization of tyrannical executive authority that the NDAA embodies. I see no grounds for doing anything but repudiating his authoritarianism in the strongest terms.

  6. carol says:

    Ohtarzie, It’s incorrect to claim that I see his political orientation as closer to mine and therefore I harbour a hidden motivation in supporting his right to free speech and freedom of conscience. His political orientation is irrelevant and, as I said previously, it makes no difference to me. It is the principle of free speech, the right to be an asshole, that I defend. Much in the same way that the Cynics masturbated in public to test the limits of Athenian democracy in order to extend democracy for all.

    You in turn invite an authoritarian response to be meted out on this man by choosing not to defend his freedom of speech, limited as they are now in the West, and to allow an individual to be censured, punished and exiled from the public sphere based on a number of hot-headed tweets published by Loomis on the internet by the same authorities that you claim he is exhorting to bring the NRA’s head to him on a stick. If Loomis’ exhortations carried any power then it would not be him receiving a visit from the police, In this instance we can see where the power clearly lies – which returns me to my initial point about unequal relations of power.

    Once again, It’s not a question of whether I am persuaded by his campaign, his good qualities or not, it has do with the fact that I am bound by a commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience and therefore I defend it on principle. Regardless.

    The fact that you are able to draw judgement on whether his comments are defensible or not is irrelevant also. That’s your moral judgement. To act on your moral judgement implies that there exists a sliding scale of what can be said or not depending on some abstract values established by what? A higher authority? You? Who gets to decide what can be said in public? I mean we can benevolently agree on what speech we think is conducive to the greater good if we both share the same values & believe that we’re enlightened enough to make those judgements but we would be no better than the authoritarians we criticise here. The point is to extend these limited freedoms, to make them more complete and to fight to defend them when they are under threat.

  7. ohtarzie says:

    Carol, I was revising my comment while you were responding. I had reconsidered the remark about your political proximity to Loomis and deleted it, apparently while you were replying.

    I am not inviting an authoritarian response by not defending his speech and am quite exhausted by the equating of condemning speech with suppression. Condemnation is no less an exercise of free speech than Loomis’s wishing of lifetime imprisonment on gun advocates. As I have said, repeatedly, and for the last time now: I do not think Loomis’s job is in jeopardy. I resent the implication that condemning his authoritarianism – something you have yet to do except in the most general terms – is tantamount to opposing his speech rights. At the same time – based on the political calculations I described in my last post – I will not get worked up over the outcome of one more round of scoundrel vs. scoundrel.

    Talk all you like about how you are defending him on principle, but the fact is, news of shredded liberty flies at us all day; however, it’s only when it happens in ways that are important to Loomis’s political class that we are exhorted from all sides to give a shit. I am less and less interested in turf wars between execrable political factions, the members of which all have vastly more power and freedom than I do. Loomis’s ‘academic freedom’ is only a matter for discussion because he has passed all the speech gates that keep people far less shitty than he is from getting anywhere near real influence.

    To me it is incumbent on you to demonstrate in specifics how you know it is Loomis’s job and not just the content of his speech that is under attack and, if so, how supporting Loomis has any social benefit beyond making academia friendlier to other statist authoritarians. Otherwise, we’ll just keep repeating ourselves.

    • carol says:

      Ohtarzie, I have to admit that I have come from that part of the unthinking authoritarian left that demanded no platform for the fascists but my view has changed because I don’t expect anyone further up the racial hierarchical ladder to instate this for me, unless I fight. I am poor, poc female and know that if I want to change anything is up to me and others to fight it. There are no laws that protect my freedom of speech when I might want to call for the murder of Cameron and all the warmongering racist, patriarchal shits. Every day I read the “eliminationist rhetoric” that calls for the incarceration, torture and murder of people like me. So this is not just an idle exercise of philosophical debate for me but something I am trying to show goes to the heart of my being and anyone caught in it. When I ask on twitter or here “what freedoms?” I am interrogating the lazy thinking among the white left that suggests there are universal freedoms. When I uphold the right of this white bourgeois male I am doing so because I know something about what it would mean for my being to carry this out. When you are prepared to allow those freedoms to be removed for even those who are upheld by this system you endanger my existence further and that disturbs me because people like me have not even begun to make an indent on that. Ending here. But there’s more…

      • carol says:

        Just to add no pasaran is the call to fight, physically. i can do that rather than relying on the benevolent other.

  8. Pingback: The Vocabulary of Professor Erik Loomis: ‘Motherf–ing F–kheads F–king F–k’ : The Other McCain

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  11. Kat says:

    This post is an early Christmas gift. I was wondering if I was going crazy– is there not some tension in grandstanding over your free speech rights and castigating those that would criticize your tweets?
    I have no sympathy for those that would threaten his job, but his tweets are hardly the sort that would stimulate reasoned debate. The primary purpose seemed to be to show how deeply Mr. Loomis cares about The Children. I am reminded of the folks that stood outside the prison the day that Ted Bundy was executed with signs such as “Fry,Ted.Fry!” Yes, yes, they alone cared truly about his brutalized victims in a way we could not comprehend.
    I checked out the debate on his odious blog. You know, the one that points out the crazies that would prioritize drone victims over reproductive rights (this argument requires you to believe that Democrats have been steadfast in their support for these rights. I know, a stretch…) . It appears Loomis is glorying in his martyrdom.
    The most depressing aspect of the debate to me is how narrowly it frames the free speech debate. From where I sit, the real problem in America is what doesn’t get said, what doesn’t get written, and what voices are ignored.

  12. Kat says:

    Did you have to include that photo though? Did you find it in the dictionary under “smug”?
    I’m going to try to pretend I never saw it.

  13. ohtarzie says:

    Carol –

    You lost me with the implication that this is an idle exercise for me but not for you. I am sympathetic to how my place in this debate is different from yours by virtue of being white and male, but since your situation at one time led you to “the unthinking authoritarian left that demanded no platform for the fascists”, I am not persuaded to its argumentative weight. I am not going to degrade myself proving what my investment in this is. Also not going to concede that my indifference to Loomis’s fate equates to indifference to yours. Allow me, however, to recommend Loomis’s blog post on how peace-based opposition to Obama equates to white male privilege. You might like it.

    I find your position – that you have none of the rights that Loomis has, that you feel threatened by eliminationism and that you are “interrogating the lazy thinking among the white left that suggests there are universal freedoms” completely at odds with your support for a white eliminationist on grounds of universally applicable principles. You have been doing what everyone else who argues with me on this has been doing: asserting a necessity to defend free speech as a principle, without showing how it produces a benefit commensurate with helping an authoritarian advance. You are also insisting that Loomis’s rights are genuinely under attack without showing how. He has said his piece. Other people are saying theirs. If you see condemnation as suppression, you may not be as far from the unthinking authoritarian left as you claim.

    I have no idea what your last comment means.

  14. ohtarzie says:

    Kat –

    Thanks for dropping by. Agree on all points, except perhaps the photo. To me, Loomis looks like the serial killer his more hyperbolic detractors insist he is at heart.

  15. carol says:

    I didn’t say that it was an idle philosophical exercise for you. Please don’t twist my words. The point of that comment was to show that _I’m_ not speculating idly and how I’m positioned in the discussion. I’m beginning to think your dismissal of my arguments are made in bad faith and you want to uphold him as an authoritarian who must be shot down while pretending not to understand the consequences of what you advocate, although I have clearly spelt it out in my previous comments. You have a lot invested in Loomis as you’ve said. I don’t so it’s perhaps easier for me not to fall for your emotional appeals. Ergo, I still defend the principle and when I mention this previous stance about no platform for fascists as where I have travelled from, it is to show that sometimes you can get something wrong. Why are supposedly thinking people so touchy about their ideas being challenged? Is it because they really don’t believe in the democratic ideal, in free speech, and as authoritarians quest for the power to squash the others. Fascists will be the first people to remove the right to free speech, so you can’t pin that one on me. I really can’t believe you are trying to construct a case for Loomis being an authoritarian based on tweets that any sensible person would understand were made in reaction to the shootings and the initial one – a euphemism – those allies that you are attracting have yet to make a case for that still struggling with the F word tweets. That is how debased this entire debate is.

  16. ohtarzie says:

    Carol –

    On rereading, I’ll concede I saw an implication that may not have been there, though I’m a bit confused why you clarified that you weren’t speculating idly since I hadn’t even hinted otherwise. There are a lot of argument-stoppers these days to the effect of ‘Look this affects me more than it does you, so yield’ and I may now be over the deep end as a result, seeing this kind of ‘argument’ even when something else is intended. In any event, apologies if I gave offense. I’d get huffy at you for saying I am arguing in bad faith had I not moments ago subtweeted to the same effect about you. Perhaps we are just two well-intended people disagreeing, frustrated with our diminishing returns.

    I’m curious – have you written the University of Rhode Island about this? Did you complain to the Rhode Island State Police about their inquiry? If not, I’d say we are, for practical purposes, in the same place on this: supportive of free speech in the abstract; disinclined to do much in this particular instance. If so, I see no cause for additional heat.

    This discussion has provided much food for thought, so thanks for that. Had a longer reply, but half of it I’d already said, and the other half seemed a good foundation for another post. Content to leave this where it is for the moment.

  17. Rob says:

    This is pretty straightforward and uncontroversial to me, I was suspecting something a little different judging from the conversation we had over Twitter. Those tweets really are heinous.
    Brainstorming, but I’d have more to say on the issues of hypocrisy, power relations, public/private sphere, and on whether or not free speech should be considered an absolute principle, or placed in the context of power and privilege. I have to go, so maybe I’ll comment more tomorrow (if I’m able). Cheers.

  18. ohtarzie says:

    Rob –

    I have been more radical about this on Twitter, true. I decided on the first outing to argue inside the belly of free speech doctrine, because, one, I was really tired of being called an authoritarian and two, I wanted to first focus on how dishonest and corrupt the pro-Loomis campaign is, even on conventional terms. As you should see from this comment thread, this approach was not entirely without detractors.

    Am planning another post that goes after some of the other issues you mention, particularly free speech as an absolute principle, which has been touched on a little in the discussion above. The hypocrisy side for me is not worth much more than a passing glance except from the standpoint of doing political favors you know will not be returned. Liberal hypocrisy is like dog shit to me. Commonplace, ugly and not in the least bit interesting, though in this case the irony it imparts is almost surreal.

    Increasingly my preoccupations are all tactical: what obligations radicals have, if any, when stuff like this comes up. Are tactical alliances with scumbags ever warranted? What are the limits?

    Curious – who are you on Twitter?

    • Rob says:

      I’m @exxonBP on Twitter. And I hope you’re not referring to me when you say that people were accusing you of being an “authoritarian” – I think I referred to the IDEA of making free-speech dependent upon who exercises it as an inherently authoritarian principle, not YOU personally. Looking forward your future discussion on this.

      If I interpret this correctly, basically you’re criticizing the liberal academics for being tribalists and looking out for their own, their alarm in this episode being triggered by some self-interest, which seems to be the case for many of them – one could say the same thing, though, about almost any identifiable group on the planet. Nobody’s totally immune from it from what I can tell, though some are less hypocritical than others (American so-called “conservatives” and “liberals” are champions in this domain).

      It’s difficult to find people who concern themselves with applying certain principles or moral codes universally and without any distinction, and most of us emphasize or concentrate on what we consider most important and worthy of our efforts. So, it’s a question of priorities, and not simply identifying what’s objectively right or wrong in some kind of societal vacuum. We shouldn’t be wasting our energy on cases which involve people like Loomis, as there are more important battles to fight. So far, so good.

      I mean this in a broader sense, and not just to apply to “academic freedom”: The question is: do we apply these free speech principles evenly across the board, or not? If every person with a Twitter or Facebook account were sanctioned by petty interest groups who find the occasional ill-thought out tirade or offensive and stupid rant to be deserving of punishment, half of us would be out of a job. Clearly there need to be spaces of open and free inquiry where almost anything is permitted without without fear of retaliation and punishment, otherwise people will have a tendency to self-censor, constantly evaluating whether or not their statements are acceptable – this seems intolerable to me, reminiscent of totalitarian societies. As you say, this is also partly what motivates the idea of academic freedom. You’re right that president Dooley had every right to make the statement he did, it makes perfect sense, as Loomis’ tweets were rather disgusting. However, the issues of context, power and authority do enter the picture here, even if on a smaller scale, as Dooley is theoretically Loomis’ boss, and pressure from him can result in loss of employment. So Dooley’s statement isn’t completely anodyne, as a possible threat looms behind it.

      It’s true that we live in a political economy of systemic injustice and inequality, the same which selects for people like Loomis to succeed in higher education (and elsewhere) and filters out other, less obedient and conformist individuals. We can’t simply characterize speech as an apolitical phenomenon, as there are thousands of structural, more subtle ways in which the game is rigged, and underprivileged people are disempowered, silenced, or simply ignored. I think this lays it out well:
      I don’t think we solve this by restricting speech rights of people we don’t like, though, that doesn’t strike at the root of the problem. Such a contextual approach to punishment doesn’t work when considering speech, in my opinion. There need to be hard and fast rules, even if they’re not always fairly applied. Regarding your idea of “tactical alliances”, I see this more as an issue of defense of certain principles, and not as specific to Loomis, or as an approval of liberal academia – free speech is just a core issue of classical liberalism, something which conservatives and others worried about giving too much power to the state can agree upon. A “tactical alliance” implies a consequentialist morality (outcome is for the greater good, ends justify the means), and I think there will always be gray areas, but I’d distinguish between matters of tactics and matters of principle. Tactics should be chosen for maximizing the positive outcome for sectors of society suffering from structural oppression, but there should be principles on which we shouldn’t budge, in my opinion. “No pasarán”, so to speak.

      To make the principle more concrete, imagine an organization of pro-Obama groupies who who notice the Twitter feed of an anarchist complaining of how Obama is a mass murderer, wants his head on a stake, should be tried for war crimes, etc. – and find her employer, petition the employer to terminate this employee because of the egregious statements (the fact that they may be more factual than Loomis’ rantings is beside the point). I should hope you’d be against this sort of thing. One’s livelihood shouldn’t be dependent upon whether or not some interest group finds your online statements offensive. We don’t get to pick and choose who deserves to be punished, and the fact that less privileged individuals than Loomis do suffer from this treatment isn’t a good reason to permit it.

      The same permissiveness which results in horrible, authoritarian rants like Loomis’ is also the same permissiveness which results in all of the other positive things, and the random and nonsensical statements on platforms like Twitter (which is a private corporation, by the way) that make online spaces like it so interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile.
      (Sorry for being long-winded, feel free to ignore any redundancies)

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  20. carol says:

    Ohtarzie, the reason I point to my position is to avoid falsity in this discussion and it seems to me there is a lot of falsity and hypocrisy in the debate around Loomis. As I have already said, I have nothing invested in the man that is Loomis, apart from his right to speak freely on twitter, before his students, or wherever. That, if we believe in freedom of speech, then we should defend his rights, regardless of whether we agree with him or not. If we are prepared to remove his rights then why does it matter that people are tortured to extract the “truth”? If one cannot speak freely then this is where we go.

  21. ohtarzie says:


    I appreciate the comprehensive reply, but to the extent that you summarized me, you got a few things wrong. I did not criticize liberals for looking out for their own. In fact, in my first reply to you, I specifically said their hypocrisy is uninteresting to me. So is their tribalism. What I clearly faulted them for in my post was the misrepresentation of Loomis’s now self-censored Twitter tirade, hyperbole with respect to the president’s remarks/Loomis’s job risk and the equating of condemnation with suppression. Your reminder that we are all of us flawed is really quite unnecessary generally and irrelevant in the present case, but you get a cookie for being such a broad-minded and self-aware person.

    Like so many others, you concede that the game is already rigged in favor of riff-raff like Loomis, but insist that this can’t possibly impact how we approach the problem of providing or withholding support. As you did for over an hour on Twitter, you insist on this without providing a sound reason why. I am just expected to concede that despite how perfectly our system works at insuring that people like Loomis have platforms and people like you, comrade Carol and I don’t, I am forbidden from taking what looks like the obvious practical course of providing and withholding support until things even out. Instead, I am, on principle, obliged to weigh in when one of the establishment’s anointed factions has a dust-up with another, even when the speech in question is an authoritarian diatribe that is explicitly against free speech. Sorry, I won’t concede that on faith no matter how many times people bore me with their unsubstantiated insistence on it. I don’t do religion.

    As with Carol, I have more to say, but I feel a lot of this stuff is worthy of another post, which I don’t wish to cannibalize here.

    • Rob says:

      ohtarzie :

      OK, we’re talking past each other and hitting ground on some deeper questions here, which maybe aren’t going to be resolved in the comments.
      I’m not sure anyone was conflating condemnation with suppression (in the case of the NRA and Loomis). We agree that basically speech is not a neutral, objective reality, but rather conditioned by some concrete societal realities which give some “more” free speech than others – no one said otherwise. Basically there are two ideas : First Amendment rights on the one hand, and one’s real exercise of speech in society on the other hand. I wouldn’t equate the rights of an organization like the NRA or an institution like RIU with an individual like Loomis (or any individual). In terms of relations of power, like it or not, Loomis is the underdog in this situation, regardless of how terrible the nonsense he spews is.
      I also don’t think anyone said withholding support for someone like Loomis was unacceptable, obviously you choose to support who you want, which was what I was saying. As I said, it’s a matter of priorities. Nobody’s obliged to speak up for anybody.
      As far as exaggerating the threat, many people have been fired for their political advocacy, whether it be university professors, journalists, others, and that includes privileged and much less privileged people. There’s no way of knowing how credible a threat is when confronted with a hierarchy like the one in an employer/employee situation. The question I was asking was whether or not you would think it would be acceptable for someone to be terminated simply for their statements on social media (not simply a written rebuke, or statement), to which you didn’t reply. I don’t think it is, no matter who it is. If you deem it acceptable for some university professor, but not for somebody else, then you have double standard – which is fine, but then you’re the one who needs to make a case for it. You’re basically saying that we should enact double standards because society itself is one big double standard – in terms of lots of issues, I’d agree with this, but not with speech, there’s just too much potential for abuse, and I don’t think you’re considering all the implications of it.

      When I have time I’ll go through your new post, it looks like you tackle a lot of these issues, thanks.
      P.S. You can keep your cookie.

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