The usefully infantilizing role models of the left like free speech absolutist Noam Chomsky conjure a U.S. that has made huge strides since the bad old days of overt and often murderous state repression. While admonishing leftists for “paranoia about concentration camps,” the world’s most important living intellectual averred, “The state may try to repress you, but they can’t do a lot….It hasn’t always been like this–but thanks to the struggles in the past there’s a tremendous amount of freedom.”
Those “struggles of the past” in Chomsky’s inspiring story produced better laws and fortified them with court precedents we can draw upon in the rare event that our own rights are trampled more than usual. They also brought about cultural changes such that “popular reaction” keeps the repressive state from going too far. For Chomsky, “…power really is in the hands of the governed if they’re willing to use it.”
Chomsky said this in 2012, when Anwar al-Aulaqi, his son and Samir Khan had been dead close to a year; Chelsea Manning was in year two of pre-trial imprisonment; and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was in its 11th year of holding presumed Islamic anti-imperialists without charges. But no matter. In this view, the fast-moving assault on civil liberties that commenced in 2001 is a fluke, the result of terrorist calamity colliding with Bad Apple president. Surely the arc of history will resume bending toward justice after the ACLU has filed enough briefs challenging the Kill List.
To his credit, Chomsky at least pays some lip service, though not enough, to the dependence of rights on the enforcement power of the mob. Most First Amendment Absolutists omit this bit entirely, falsely advertising a justice system in which civil liberties are more contingent on Supreme Court decisions than political clout. In this parallel universe, The Bill of Rights and Supreme Court precedent have supernatural powers that constrain the state no matter what state agents want to do at a given time. Hence, a court victory for Nazis is a court victory for The Black Panthers. Obviously. My pal @BanjolinBuddha calls the Constitution of this fantasy, “Magic Paper”, and with his inspiration I call the absolutist ahistoric understanding of power Magic Paper Theory.
Here’s an alternative theory of repression: Far from steady, though slow, progress toward justice, U. S. history is marked by surges in political repression commensurate with unusual political ferment in the masses. At all times, government indulgence of political expression is contingent not so much on the Bill of Rights or Supreme Court precedent, but on the political expression’s harmlessness or utility to white supremacy and the ruling class. If political expression threatens white supremacy or the ruling class, the state will persecute it in inverse proportion to the political leverage of its target, and use surveillance, harassment, ostracism, blackmail, imprisonment, indefinite detention and murder as needed.
Within this framework, there are relatively calm periods, not because a battle against repression has been won — as Chomsky suggests — but because it’s been lost. If the battle weren’t lost, it would continue until white supremacy and the ruling class were eradicated. The high perch from which Chomsky tells us how free we are was likely only vacant because state agents murdered all consequential Black leaders and squashed every other left-wing movement. In the ensuing years, white guys writing books supplanted visionaries with megaphones while the prison population grew.
Along with the war the FBI waged in the 60s and 70s that brought this about, the country’s two Red Scares attest to the cyclical nature of repression and just how extreme it can be. We get little reminders of how this works from time to time, such as during Occupy, which was so effectively crushed at the outset, a 60s-style protracted struggle leading toward murder was unnecessary. It was enough to pepper spray, beat and jail peaceful protestors while the media smeared them. The state response to the brave and inspiring challenge to white supremacy in Ferguson provides the same reminders.
- Frat Boys, Redskins and Ramsey Orta
- There’s No Such Thing as First Amendment Absolutism
- Magic Paper Theory
- The White Supremacy Difference
- Precedent Hardly Matters
- Putting the Libertarian in Civil Libertarian
- Free Ramsey Orta