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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, February 29th, 2020

Book Review: The Case Against Free Speech centers actual power over abstract principle

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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