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Chattering Class Solidarity
Free speech for those like me.
I first published this on Patreon on August 29, 2017. It seemed of renewed relevance following the open letter to the New York Times about its bigoted coverage of trans issues. The letter was attacked by many supposed free speech enthusiasts (Jesse Singal, Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias, etc. etc.
This seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t an open letter free speech? I think this piece helps explain the dynamics. Free speech isn’t for most of these folks a principle so much as a rhetorical trope to secure the material interests of a certain group of powerful people, the generally white, generally male, generally affluent segment of the chattering class. The signers of the New York Times open letter are pundits too…but perhaps they’re the wrong type of pundits.
This piece became the inspiration for the title of my collection of essays about bad pundits. The cover of that is above; you can buy it here if you’re so inclined. Or get a paid subscription and I’ll send it to you.
“Free speech” is an all-American value. Still, in an increasingly partisan America, it’s startling how concerns about free speech—or certain kinds of free speech, anyway—seem to be shared by people across the political spectrum. Specifically, if you are a campus speaker, and folks on the left protest against you, every pundit, no matter what their ideology, will line up to denounce them. If you protest against Germaine Greer’s transphobia, Rod Dreher on the right will speak darkly of the totalitarian left. If you protest against Milo Yiannopoulos’ sexism and racism, Jon Haidt on the center right will moan softly about how left protestors saying bigotry is bad empowers bigots—and he’ll be joined by Robby Soave on the libertarian right, Mark Lilla and Jon Chait on the center left, and by Lee Fang and Angela Nagle on the left left. The main threat to free speech, everyone agrees, is left protestors exercising free speech by protesting campus speakers. Who knew?
The odd thing about this criticism is that it is so monomaniacal. There are many, many things which threaten free speech more than people exercising their right to assembly. Even when protests turn violent, it’s hard to argue that students with relatively little power are the most important threat to free speech, even on campuses. Donors engineered the firing of Steven Salaita for tweeting support for Palestinians in a supposedly “uncivil” manner. State lawmakers regularly wield their budgeting power to censor classes on, for example, LGBT content that they don’t like. A Texas professor was just fired for saying that the hurricane was righteous payback for Trump voters. That is a horrible and disgusting thing to say...but free speech activists have assured me that we should defend even the speech of Nazis. So are Dreher, Haidt, Soave, Lilla, Chait, Fang, and Nagle rushing forth to defend this professor? Not really. Being prevented from speaking once on campus is apparently less important than being fired. And/or, a grossly insensitive statement about Trump voters is more offensive than grossly insensitive statements about trans people, women, or black people. Take your pick.
So, why do left protests against campus speakers cause such outrage among pundits—even left pundits? Well, as a lefty, I favor material analysis. I think pundits get outraged at protests against campus speakers because pundits make their money, or imagine they might make their money, as campus speakers. Pundits look upon Milo Yiannopoulos, and they see themselves. He is at the podium, they say. So might I be someday.
Jon Haidt aside, pundits aren’t usually professors; they don’t necessarily have much to fear from state legislators or donors. But they may well find themselves on college campuses speaking. Since that is the free speech that they imagine themselves participating in, it makes sense that they would see that as the most important free speech—and that they would see any abrogation of that speech as a real threat to all (since they are, after all, all.) “What if I wanted to say something unpleasant about trans people?” Angela Nagle thinks. “What if I were to say what I really think about black folks?” Dreher muses. “Would these threatening students protest against me?”
Pundits can imagine themselves on the podium easily. The people on those podiums are book writers, public intellectuals, mid-career savants with bylines and big ideas. The people at the protests, on the other hand, are nobodies. Students, trans people, black people—a half-formed rabble, none of whom have ever written for New York magazine or Jacobin. How dare these ignorant children presume to interrupt me, or people like me? Things Are Clearly Getting Out of Hand.
And so, the moral panic. Those in power, across the political spectrum, fume and fulminate against the uncredentialed mob. Right or left, libertarian or Marxist, every public intellectual has a stake in defending the prerogatives of public intellectuals. That’s chattering class solidarity. Hand out a few speaking fees, and even leftists will hate their own children and call it principle.
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