Free Speech: Conditions Apply (Street art photographed by Wired For Lego, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

Jour­nal­ist P.E. Moskowitz’s lat­est book The Case Against Free Speech is provoca­tive­ly titled, but does a good job of per­suad­ing why we ought to regard free speech more like mag­i­cal uni­corn horns: as some­thing that does not exist, has nev­er exist­ed, and fun­da­men­tal­ly can nev­er exist in the world we’ve created.

The Case Against Free Speech by PE Moskowitz book cover
The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amend­ment, Fas­cism, and the Future of Dis­sent by P. E. Moskowitz (Hard­cov­er, Bold Type Books; pub­lished August 2019)

But the author goes fur­ther, and they demon­strate how those who fight in the name of “free speech” end up work­ing on behalf of fas­cists, trans­pho­bes, misog­y­nists, and petro-bil­lion­aires — to extend the anal­o­gy, active­ly aid­ing rhi­noc­er­os poach­ers on behalf of defend­ing the prin­ci­ple that mag­i­cal uni­corn horns should exist.

For lib­er­als, this is a hard teach­ing. Who can accept it?

But from a jump­ing-off point of the ulti­mate­ly dead­ly white suprema­cist “Unite the Right” ral­ly in Char­lottesville in 2017, Moskowitz thor­ough­ly dis­abus­es read­ers of many of our com­mon-held notions.

For U.S. his­to­ry, I’m a lit­tle ashamed to admit that I did­n’t real­ize the Bill of Rights was­n’t even sup­posed to extend to peo­ple in the par­tic­u­lar states till 1868 when the 14th Amend­men­t’s estab­lish­ment clause pro­vid­ed that jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. This was espe­cial­ly impor­tant for all of the restric­tions around what free peo­ple could say about slav­ery.

I was­n’t at all aware that it took till Git­low v. New York (1925) for the First Amend­ment to apply to indi­vid­ual states, and that alone rad­i­cal­ly altered how I thought of it in the con­text of our sense of Amer­i­can self.

And Moskow­itz’s The Case Against Free Speech taught me that Supreme Court Jus­tice Oliv­er Wen­dell Holmes’ quote about “not false­ly shout­ing ‘fire’ in a crowd­ed the­ater” is regard­ing an anti-World War I pro­test­er pass­ing out pam­phlets that said men should refuse the draft because it vio­lat­ed the 13th Amendment.

In oth­er words, the lim­its of free speech are to, on Con­sti­tu­tion­al grounds, make a left-wing case against for­eign wars.

Before read­ing this book, I’d rec­om­mend you read Free­dom for the Thought We Hate by Antho­ny Lewis, now deceased. It was rec­om­mend­ed to me as a rebut­tal of this one, but it does­n’t real­ly hold up in that capacity.

That’s a fal­la­cy of out­look as well as tim­ing. A book writ­ten in 2007 might well have had more rea­son for opti­mism, but it’s strange that Lewis cov­ers the same his­to­ry Moskowitz does and comes to so rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent a con­clu­sion than Moskowitz.

The idea that the law is a force for good rather than an expres­sion of pow­er is a curi­ous one, and acknowl­edg­ing how con­sis­tent­ly the peo­ple in pow­er have not been forces for good should make it eas­i­er for a stu­dent of his­to­ry to be mis­trust­ful of the law and its application.

Lewis con­cludes that the free press achieved a mean­ing­ful vic­to­ry by uncov­er­ing that the Bush admin­is­tra­tion lied to push the Unit­ed States into invad­ing Iraq.

With ben­e­fit of fur­ther time, we know there were no actu­al reper­cus­sions for any author­i­ty fig­ures in that admin­is­tra­tion who invent­ed a cause for inva­sion, killed hun­dreds of thou­sands, tor­tured hun­dreds, and desta­bi­lized an entire region.

It’s hard­er to feel rosy about free speech when lib­er­als fight hard­er to force elim­i­na­tion­ist rhetoric on col­lege stu­dents than they ever did to hold account­able those who con­trolled mass sur­veil­lance apparatuses.

The Case Against Free Speech is the bet­ter book because it cen­ters actu­al pow­er rela­tion­ships rather than abstract ideals.

No mat­ter how much I might like to, I can’t con­trol how Mark Zucker­berg is able to inter­act with his friends and loved ones the way he con­trols how I do with mine.

I can’t force my idio­syn­cra­cies onto Jeff Bezos’s eye­balls the way he can do to mine. And while I have just as much of a hypo­thet­i­cal right to leave my job as my boss does to fire me for our polit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, I can’t put him and his fam­i­ly on the verge of liv­ing on the streets the way he can do to me.

Pow­er matters.

And while I’m sure Lewis would pre­fer to believe “the thought we hate” is white suprema­cy, misog­y­ny, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, and anti­semitism, there’s nev­er been any evi­dence this is actu­al­ly the case.

Fred Hamp­ton, Mal­colm X, and Mar­tin Luther King Jr. were all assas­si­nat­ed and had been under active sur­veil­lance by var­i­ous law enforce­ment and domes­tic intel­li­gence agen­cies. Strom Thur­mond, David Duke, and Richard Spencer have noth­ing com­pa­ra­ble in their his­to­ries despite active­ly seek­ing to increase vio­lence on, forcibly expel, or exter­mi­nate non-white people.

Milo Yiannopoulus is a per­fect encap­su­la­tion of what the game real­ly is among the right when it comes to free speech and hat­ed speech.

You may remem­ber that Yiannopoulus was run­ning around “trig­ger­ing snowflakes” by doing stuff like open­ly tar­get­ing trans peo­ple for harass­ment, and engag­ing in ram­pant Islam­o­pho­bia, and grotesque misog­y­ny. He did such things while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly active­ly work­ing to laun­der white suprema­cist move­ments via Bre­it­bart so they’d be more palat­able to the wider media.

Right-wing extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tions such as the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Col­lege Repub­li­cans stuck by his side through all of this because, they said, they were com­mit­ted to free speech. Then it came out that he’d made some com­ments regard­ing the “arbi­trary and oppres­sive idea of con­sent” as it applied to chil­dren with suf­fi­cient­ly devel­oped gen­i­talia.

Free speech, chal­leng­ing lib­er­al ortho­doxy, upend­ing polite sensibility—but only so long as that’s work­ing to fur­ther geno­cide and harass vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple, not some­thing the bil­lion­aire Mer­cers actu­al­ly had a prob­lem with like full-throat­ed endorse­ments of pedophilia.

No one called it new Stal­in­ism or PC cul­ture run amok when folks stopped want­i­ng to book a child sex­u­al assault apol­o­gist. It was­n’t “can­cel cul­ture” to can­cel events sched­uled for a per­son who had sup­port­ed some­thing so awful.

It crushed Yiannopoulus to his plat­forms to grift while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly los­ing his pow­er­ful finan­cial back­ers, which is where these two issues dovetail.

Bil­lion­aires have much more pow­er than you or me because the Supreme Court has decid­ed that mon­ey is speech. Bil­lion­aires can buy com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies to con­trol them as well as buy advertisements.

They can influ­ence politi­cians— much more than unions because work­ers don’t get to “opt out” of their sur­plus-val­ue going to enrich busi­ness own­ers or “opt in” to allow those same busi­ness own­ers to use oth­er mon­ey to lob­by governments.

And on top of this, bil­lion­aires are not influ­enc­ing accord­ing to var­ied idio­syn­crasies like forc­ing tele­vi­sion sta­tions to air video from their wed­ding recep­tion, paint­ing gov­ern­ment build­ings pink, or cen­sor­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion that includes the let­ter “V”. It’s spend­ing all of their wealth to pro­tect and extend pow­er struc­tures that let them gain their wealth in the first place.

This is why chil­dren dying in camps requires civil­i­ty, but the idea of a wealth tax is rev­o­lu­tion­ary bar­barism: only one is actu­al­ly a threat to our oligarchs.

Moskow­itz’s book, by cen­ter­ing pow­er in the eval­u­a­tion of speech’s free­dom, reframes how some­one who sup­ports the ide­al of free speech ought to focus themselves.

The ACLU does not have unlim­it­ed resources. Every time it throws some of those resources toward Nazis, it comes at the expense of DAPL pro­tes­tors arrest­ed for stand­ing on their own land, Black Lives Mat­ter orga­niz­ers per­son­al­ly sued for the actions of any­one in their march, or trans peo­ple fired for existing.

Nor do you, with your time, atten­tion, or ener­gy have unlim­it­ed resources. Whether it’s tone-polic­ing col­lege stu­dents who want to feel safe from phys­i­cal dan­ger on their own cam­pus­es or show­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with white suprema­cists under the guise of free speech, it’s not a neu­tral act, regard­less of what­ev­er appeals to neu­tral­i­ty you want to make. Free speech does not exist, it nev­er has exist­ed, and it prob­a­bly nev­er can exist under the cur­rent system.

So if you’re going to go out of your way to advo­cate for some­thing, the least you can do is come up with a rea­son for the thing you’re actu­al­ly advo­cat­ing for rather than hid­ing behind a fan­ta­sy to avoid acknowl­edg­ing what you support.

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