Freddie deBoer recently phoned in a defense of free speech principles against “broad left-wing flirtations with abandoning them on [leftist] grounds.” As is normal for the genre of straight white dude condescendingly upholding the right of people to spew hatred and incite violence against classes of people he doesn’t belong to, the piece is a litany of bromides we all learn as children, unimpeded by a single fact or citation from history or common law. DeBoer even dispenses with the convention of providing a timely example of some odious piece of shit who wants to say, set up a fast food restaurant and donate proceeds to hate groups, or sell animal torture porn — that we must, if we are not complete authoritarians, defend because if the odious piece of shit can’t set up his fast food restaurant or the animal torture pornographer can’t torture animals for paying sadists, it obviously follows that nice lefty folks won’t get to topple the government and transform society.
First of all, is this country in peril of being too vigilant in the defense of women and marginalized populations? Is there some draconian Federal hate crimes law pending that I don’t know about? Why are we always talking about the policing of hate speech, when the straight, white dudes that benefit most by its defense still have the upper hand in all facets of U.S. society? If we’re going to invoke slippery slopes, wouldn’t it be prudent to work with an imminent precedent? Why don’t deBoer and his ilk agonize over timely assaults on the free speech of people we should support unequivocally, like the epidemic of Ag Gag laws that make it illegal to blow whistles on hideously cruel, unsafe and unsanitary practices in meat production? Is it really so hard to perform your wonderful commitment to speech in a way that actually defends speech leftists have an immediate — not simply theoretical — interest in defending?
It is not my intent here to make a pitch for hate crimes laws. I don’t like laws generally and I’m very much all over the map myself where free speech is concerned. What I want more than anything is a smarter conversation about it, where the participants actually seem to know things, like that historically hate speech has occupied a privileged place relative to radical speech. Like that free speech absolutism is working out particularly well for corporations. Like that many states have had hate crimes statutes since the 1980s and the sky hasn’t fallen. DeBoer ominously promises that “the day that the United States bans hate speech, such a law will be invoked against a pro-Palestinian activist, to pick one example” but has not burdened himself with showing a precedent at the state level or in countries where hate speech laws are much stronger.
DeBoer does all his fact-free bromide-reciting under the title “Power is not Our Friend” arguing that leftists “simultaneously [recognize] that we live within structures of intrinsic, intentional inequality and injustice, and yet [are] forever ready to abandon that skepticism towards those structures when it seems convenient to do so.” I ratify all of this, which is why the conventional view of free speech rights that deBoer espouses has always struck me as strangely starry-eyed and minimizing, imagining a state that plays by the rules no matter how power is distributed or what is at stake at a given point in time. But if deBoer is convinced hate speech laws will be selectively used against, say, pro-Palestinian activists, what is the basis for thinking the First Amendment or common law will apply any more fairly? When we talk about a hate speech law and the First Amendment are we not talking about an instrument of the state in both cases?
Of course we know that if the state gives clearance to a white supremacist church leader to call for a racial holy war, even after one of his acolytes goes on a killing spree, it does not obviously follow that U.S. Muslims have the the right to make an analogous call against Christians. See Ali al-Timimi, a Muslim cleric in Virginia, sentenced to life in prison for exhorting his followers to fight for the Taliban following 9/11, or Tarek Mahenna, sentenced to 17 years in prison for simply translating publicly available pro-jihadist documents and posting them online. We see this double standard reinforced in mainstream media, where there are few constraints on inflammatory speech directed at Muslims, but where an extremely tempered critique of militarism by a Celebrity Left necessitates a groveling apology.
Furthermore, the state has many ways of oppressing deBoer’s imagined “pro-Palestinian activist” without resorting to hate crimes laws, such as selective policing, or selective permit-granting, or “free speech zones.” If those methods fail, it can try tax auditing, infiltration, provocation, entrapment or murder. Most of the time it suffices for corporate-dominated media to keep worthy causes and struggles on the margins and atomized. Which is why surely it makes more sense to amplify these struggles than to make yet more hackneyed, infantile defenses of hate speech, “on principle”.
I just discovered this, from Greenwald/Omidyar contract troll “Mona Holland.” As odd as it may sound, she’s responding to this post. Apparently I write about Free Speech because of my obsessive hatred for Glenn. It can’t possibly be that among the things I find pernicious about GG is his reactionary First Amendment Absolutism
But nothing short of obsessive adoration will do for these people. That people defend this shit, that it doesn’t put them off GG at all, is almost as sickening as their constant smearing and pathologizing.