25 Sep Episode 88: The Mythical Bygone Glory Days of “Free Speech”
Citations Needed | September 18, 2019 | Transcript
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Nima: We are often warned by conservatives, liberals and even some on the left that we live in a time of “free speech” being under threat from far left forces. “Political correctness” and “snowflakes” have shut down free inquiry, specifically on college campuses, and led to a crisis threatening the very foundation of our democracy.
Adam: But the origins of the label “free speech” — as it’s currently practiced — paint a much messier picture. Rather than appealing to the Vietnam-era Berkeley protest glory days of free speech, what one sees when examining the history of the concept is a temporary tactic used by the left in the mid to late sixties that has, since that late eighties, become a far right wedge, designed to open up space for racism, eugenics, genocide denial, trans and homophobia and anti-feminist backlash to present the opening of this space as an appeal to a universal value — after all, who could oppose free speech? — rather than a well-funded far right attempt to maintain a right-wing, largely male and cis version of political correctness.
Nima: On today’s show we’re going to discuss where the contemporary concept of “free speech” comes from, what its uses and misuses have been and how a rose-tinted time of pristine, perfectly free speech never really existed. We’ll be speaking with two guests today. The first is P.E. Moskowitz, journalist and co-founder of the media collective Study Hall. They are the author of the books How To Kill A City, and most recently, The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent.
P.E. Moskowitz: We talk about free speech in these super abstract ways, you know, there are opinion columns and news reports and that sort of thing that are debating the merits of free speech for Nazis and college students protesting and all those kinds of things and we never really recognize the material reality of free speech, that it’s more complicated than just what people can say and can’t say.
Nima: We’ll also be joined by Carolyn Rouse, professor, filmmaker and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. She is the author of a number of books, most recently Televised Redemption: Black Religious Media and Racial Empowerment.
Carolyn Rouse: When we hear these things about free speech and how great it was and how great it could be, this is a kind of free speech that allows for false information to be treated as equal to facts and issues, real issues. When Buckley and you know Baldwin were debating, they weren’t just freely making up facts about, you know, where a hurricane is going to land or what doctors do after a baby is born. So the problem with the free speech debate is the way it’s talked about now, this absolutist free speech. It is an antithesis to what goes on in the academy.
Adam: We want to begin by talking about the origins of the concept of free speech as a kind of political mantra. Most of you probably know, but for those that don’t, it began at the University of California, Berkeley, protests in the mid sixties. The University of California campus system had implemented a lot of restrictions against on campus protesting and the left sort of needed a mantra to kind of appeal to oppose these measures and they did so by embracing what they call free speech. Now a lot of the left that grew up in that time period from the likes of Noam Chomsky to Cornel West, still support the mantra of free speech, which is one we’re going to sort of get into. But just so you know that the origins of that concept do come from the left and the far left and left-wing activism. And then in and around the mid eighties, the early mid eighties, the concept of free speech was appropriated by the right and increasingly used to kind of push back against the left, which was seen as having too much power on college campuses.
Nima: As our guest P.E. Moskowitz notes in their new book, in 1987, Allan Bloom, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, wrote a very important book called, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. The main premise of this book is that quote “thanks to cultural changes brought about by phenomena like the hippies and rock music, as well as the popularization of postmodern philosophers like Michel Foucault, who challenged both the supremacy of American thought and power in the world and the very basis of the accumulation of knowledge in the university, most university students now saw all knowledge as relative, contextual, and ever-changing.”
Adam: Bloom, as Mosowitz notes in their book, was part of the wave of Koch and conservative billionaire intellectual funding that really took off in earnest in the late eighties. He received money from the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago which is funded by the Olin Foundation, which is several billionaire backers. As Moira Weigel, as she noted in the piece she wrote for The Guardian in 2016 on the origins of the term free speech, by, quote “October 1990 the New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein, who warned — under the headline “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct” — that the country’s universities were threatened by “a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform.” It was around ’89, ’90 that this really began to take off. The Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz decried the quote “brave new world of ideological zealotry” at American universities. And then in December — as we discussed in Episode 32 Attack of the PC College Kids — there was a cover of Newsweek that had a circulation of more than 3 million that featured the headline “THOUGHT POLICE” and then said: “There’s a ‘politically correct’ way to talk about race, sex and ideas. Is this the New Enlightenment — or the New McCarthyism?” A similar story was in New York Magazine in January 1991 and in April 1991, Time magazine reported on quote “a new intolerance” that was campus liberalism.
Nima: Yeah, so you know this was definitely an ideological project proffered through the media. Weigel continues quote, “If you search ProQuest, a digital database of US magazines and newspapers, you find that the phrase “politically correct” rarely appeared before 1990. That year, it turned up more than 700 times. In 1991, there are more than 2,500 instances. In 1992, it appeared more than 2,800 times…”
Adam: In their book, Moskowitz, our guest today, notes that in similar searches of contemporary literature that the term political correctness was being asserted as something that was taking over, that had to be combated before it was even a thing. And when Weigel attempted to find the origins of the term, she spoke with several sort of contemporary academics and historians at the time and said that it was used ironically in the seventies and eighties to refer to people who were sympathetic to Stalin or Maoist who took a line that was in opposition to the good line. So they would say, ‘oh, you’re being politically correct,’ but there was never really any meaningful scale adopted as a sincere thing you had to oppose: political correctness. So the sort of ironic usage of it became, through this kind of transubstantiation being laundered through media, became an unironic thing that liberals were sort of sitting around going, ‘that’s not politically correct. Don’t do that. It’s not politically correct.’ And then the sort of backlash to the backlash, liberals began to say, ‘oh, well we actually do care about political correctness’ because they sort of attempted to reappropriate it. But there was never like a time where liberals stood around saying, ‘man, that guy’s not being politically correct.’ They would say he’s being racist or sexist or bad, that there was never this like uniformly understood — and anyone of course who has delved into the sectarianism on the left knows this — there’s never like a sort of uniform understanding of what is and what isn’t politically correct.
Nima: But then in the early nineties, as we’ve been saying, that term was really weaponized by the right. So in 1991 a young conservative commentator, whose name just so happens to be Dinesh D’Souza, released Illiberal Education. D’Souza’s book focused mostly on affirmative action and how the liberal insistence on equality was actually making campuses less equal and less intelligent. The Atlantic magazine actually ended up running a 12,000 word review of the book as a cover story just one month before its publication.
Adam: Which in retrospect is interesting, just how discredited D’Souza is. I mean he’s now this sort of wacky conspiracy, birther guy, but he was seen as this up and coming conservative firebrand that we all had to put on the cover of a sort of extensively liberal magazine or centrist magazine like The Atlantic, but it shows just what an op it was. They of course were not scared of political correctness or the stifling of free speech. They were scared that the traditional centers of power within universities — which billionaires rightly understand is actually important in terms of the broad ideological projects that they attempt to fund that you have to sort of push back against these things — is that they were kind of out of hand, that there was this backlash that had gone too far was now stifling quote unquote “free speech” on university campuses, which of course is the same thread that we more or less have today.
Nima: And what’s actually really interesting is that The Atlantic hasn’t really stopped this over the years. I do want to point out that there is currently an ongoing vertical at The Atlantic called “The Speech Wars” which is described by The Atlantic itself at the bottom of the articles that appear under this vertical, as quote “a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.” End quote. So we can still see where the kind of ideology pushes this issue and it’s not always obviously from the right, that there is this kind of right and liberal nexus of wanting to constantly discuss the pros and cons of free speech and the limits of such thing that then you get into these circular arguments and we’re not actually talking about anything.
Adam: Yeah and we’re going to discuss a lot of this with our guests but I don’t want to be unfair or ungenerous and sort of make it only a right-wing thing. What we’re arguing on this particular episode is that the concept in good faith has been co-opted and turned into a vehicle to push back against what is effectively women and black and non cis people, non sort of gender conforming people, demanding a space in academia. And this is ultimately what it boils down to that it is about competing versions of political correctness and that it’s not as if one side is appealing to a universal value and the other side is appealing to political correctness, it is that all sides are arguing their own version of political correctness and what you see, especially in the seventies and eighties is an understanding that if the movement towards a more open, more inclusive, more democratic and many ways more student run academic setting, that it would ultimately lead to a generation of people who were a bunch of bleeding heart anti-capitalists liberals and that was not acceptable. And you don’t want to come in saying, ‘okay, well we’re a reactionary.’ It’s sort of like the way the Tea Party, the Kochs funded the Tea Party. It wasn’t like, ‘oh, we’re all about locking women up to the stove and preventing black people from voting.’ So you sort of start with an extensively neutral or morally neutral position, right? A kind of politically neutral position of free speech. We don’t like high taxes, we don’t like government bailouts. Right? It kind of sounds elegant, right? It’s the way you kind of open up space. And then of course the Tea Party gets elected in 2010 and what do they do? They prevent black people from voting and lock women up to the stove. The kind of wedge, which is idea free speech, so sort of Free Speech capital, Left capital, as is really kind of what we’re talking about. Not so much litigating the principle as such, cause that’s a little bit beyond the scope of this episode. But free speech as a moral panic with which we understand it since the early nineties is almost exclusively a right-wing created mythology.
Nima: And there are real implications here, especially with the current administration. It wasn’t even a month into his presidency when Donald Trump tweeted out this quote, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” And then in March of this year, 2019, Trump signed an executive order called “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities.” And there was this big signing ceremony where he trotted up all of these students who had been silenced and there was just this silly silly signing ceremony during which Trump declared, “If a college or university does not allow you to speak, we will not give them money. It’s that simple.” And at a different point said while introducing and kind of praising the assembled students, obviously all conservative students there at this ceremony, he said this:
“You refused to be silenced by powerful institutions and closed-minded critics, of which there are many. You faced down intimidation, pressure and abuse. You did it because you love your country and you believe in truth, justice, and freedom.
Under the guise of “speech codes” and “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity, and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today.”
Adam: Yeah and if anyone spent ten minutes watching Fox News, it’s basically, at this point, I mean honestly, I mean without being hyperbolic, I’d say probably 15, 20 percent about college free speech.
Nima: It’s pretty much all like former MTV VJ Kennedy talks about.
Adam: Yeah, it’s like all free speech because it’s, again, it’s about opening up space for ideas that they’ve been trying to push back against for decades. So that’s ultimately what we’re really talking about. There’s, you know, one thing we try to do on the show is we don’t talk about things in their kind of rarefied or academic contexts. We talk about them and how they manifest in reality and I’m actually less concerned with the principle of free speech and more concerned — as are both by the way our guests — with how free speech as such plays out in popular discourse and on college campuses.
Nima: Our first guest is P.E. Moskowitz, journalist and co-founder of Study Hall, a media collective. They are the author of the books How To Kill A City and, most recently, The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent, published by Bold Type Books. P.E. is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by P.E. Moskowitz. P.E., thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, happy to be here.
Adam: So your book begins, I want to sort of set the table here, as the cliche goes on this show, which is words like free speech and free speech crisis and the corollary anti-political correctness backlash that really began in earnest in the early nineties, for those of us who are of my generation, these things seem like they’ve always been there. They’re kind of background noise and we’re always sort of appealing to this mystical centuries old romantic idea of free speech. Can you give us a quick primer of where the concept of free speech comes from and to the extent to which it ever kind of really existed in any platonic sense?
P.E. Moskowitz: Sure. So I mean obviously the First Amendment would be a good starting point just in terms of the US and what we think of as our right to free speech, our right to free expression. But that isn’t really true historically in the sense that even when the First Amendment was passed, politicians were jailing people who they disagreed with. Some of the framers of the Constitution were calling for the imprisonment of political dissidents. And so there was never really a universal right to free speech like we’d like to think there was or is. Um, and it wasn’t really until the 1960s, seventies where we came to our current conceptualization of free speech going back a little further than that in the 1920s, unions used free speech as a way to like push for their kind of protest movements and to say that they shouldn’t be repressed for what they’re doing, you know, agitating for class revolution. And then in the sixties there was obviously the free speech movement in Berkeley, but now we’re in a place where free speech has been really redefined and captured by the right and without realizing it, liberals, progressives, even some leftists have kind of gone along with this multi-decade campaign from the far right and a couple of the usual suspects of billionaires who have been pushing this very specific definition of free speech that helps them and hurts everyone else.
Nima: Yeah you write in your book that you had actually been considering working on this book before the events in Charlottesville of August 2017 but that actually your presence there in Charlottesville and the subsequent trauma of that attack and of the neo-Nazi march gave this project new urgency. Can you just talk about that moment and how you think that influences why this is so important to talk about this issue now?
P.E. Moskowitz: Sure. So yeah, I was in Charlottesville. I had gone down there to cover it, but also, you know, I wanted to be there in support of the counter protesters. And I was about ten feet away from that car that killed Heather Heyer and subsequently was diagnosed with PTSD and have been working on that in many ways since then and it really just brought home for me that we talk about free speech in these super abstract ways, you know, there are opinion columns and news reports and that sort of thing that are debating the merits of free speech for Nazis and college students protesting and all those kinds of things. And we never really recognize the material reality of free speech, that it’s more complicated than just what people can say and can’t say. And a kind of gave me the thesis to this book or one of them, one of the few theses of it, which is that there is no really definable line between speech and action. I mean everything that happened up until Heather Heyer being killed was legal as free expression. James Alex Fields posting memes of cars running into protesters, people being in Charlottesville with semiautomatic weapons and Nazi insignias on them and flying swastika flags and all that kind of stuff was legal. Them organizing was legal, you know, being on forums and in-person groups and all of that was legal. So it was only really the murder which was not legal. And seeing how free speech helped those Nazis, helped those white supremacists do all that and seeing the kind of almost reflexive defense that the mainstream media had, even supposed liberals saying, ‘oh, you know, Charlottesville was terrible, but to do anything about it would be even more terrible.’ That just made me really angry and really want to investigate why we have this current, very specific and very odd definition of what free speech is.
Adam: So there’s two ways of bifurcating this. There’s free speech as a kind of legal principle that the government can shut you down. And then there’s the corollary, which I think probably occupies the majority of the conversation, which is a kind of broader principle, which is really where we get introduced to things like Antifa, which I want to ask about, which is more of a tactic than a group, but it’s a sort of loose connection of leftist anarchists, socialists, communists, etcetera, etcetera, who are about confronting white nationalists and Nazis in the streets. There’s a whole section covered about this and one of the things I thought was interesting — and it may not have been specifically about antifa, but I think with some of the protesters was — is that it wasn’t the sort of caricature, you’re kind of Tucker Carlson or Jon Chait character of like a hothead, hysterical 20 year old that there was actually a lot of thought put into these complicated questions and that the line wasn’t always clear, but the alternative of doing nothing wasn’t really adequate either. So I want to try to talk about those edge cases specifically in Charlottesville for example, and correct me if I’m wrong, there was a current of people who said ‘it isn’t so much that we want the government to prevent them from having a rally, it’s that we want to prevent the government from providing security for Nazis.’
P.E. Moskowitz: Right.
Adam: Can we talk about some of those? What the sort of overarching logic and criteria is for anti-fascist both what we consider Antifa and also just your kind of broader maybe more, for lack of a better word, mainstream protesters is?
P.E. Moskowitz: I think it’s really important to talk about that distinction between government suppression of speech and the cultural suppression of speech or whatever you want to call it. And that in the 1970s the Koch brothers, the family of Betsy DeVos and a few other billionaires and millionaires purposefully tried to erase that distinction. They funded books, they funded over 300 centers at universities, they funded student groups that all pushed for this idea that freedom and freedom of speech were connected to freedom of the marketplace, were connected to the freedom of conservative ideas to be spoken without backlash. And that kind of directly led to the PC crisis — supposed PC crisis — in the early nineties where you have Dinesh D’Souza saying that college students were fascist because they yelled at conservatives and you can kind of see that continuing today. So I think there’s a lot of confusion over free speech and what is a violation and isn’t a violation of free speech because of that purposeful campaign that started many years ago.
P.E. Moskowitz: So to answer your question about Antifa and other leftists and what they think, I mean I think it’s really on a case by case basis. If you look at Middlebury, for example, where Charles Murray was deplatformed or no-platformed by a bunch of college students there, they wrote this huge document, I think it’s like 5,000 words or more discussing why they thought it was important to not give him a voice. But they made it very clear that this wasn’t a blanket policy or anything. And I think that’s true in terms of leftists too. What they see as the problem is that, you know, you could argue that there’s a slippery slope of punching people who you disagree with or whatever. But what they argue is that the slippery slope is allowing fascism to grow unchecked on our streets. And yeah, I mean I think they all recognize — leftists and especially people who have participated in antifa are not ones to really trust the government — so they are not going to say, ‘oh, we want laws banning X, Y, and Z kind of speech’ because we know that that’s going to be used against leftists eventually anyway.
Adam: Yeah. And of course it already is in some ways.
P.E. Moskowitz: Right and of course it already is. So what they say mostly is that there’s nothing in the First Amendment, and this is true, and there’s nothing within really any law that says that police have to protect everything. I mean, if I go out onto a street corner and start speaking, I don’t expect five cops to come and protect me. Right?
P.E. Moskowitz: But when fascists do it, there’s an expectation amongst the right and mainstream liberals too that they’d be protected for saying what they want to say. So I think what anti-fascists are calling out is that weird policy we’ve created of protecting fascist speech at all costs.
Nima: Yeah. It’s that whole thing of when Nazis march, they should, as long as they have the right permits then they get police stanchions and like an escort.
P.E. Moskowitz: Right.
Nima: And that’s all fine. And that somehow that is deemed to be totally fine.
P.E. Moskowitz: Mentioning the word permits is a great example of this kind of very specific definition of free speech we have there already because there’s already a restriction on free speech. For most protests you have to have a permit, you have to be able to afford the insurance for it and that’s all deemed legal by the government. So we already are restricting speech in all these like pretty obvious ways once you start looking into it. It’s just that we get angry over the restriction of speech in very specific circumstances that have to do with again that 40 year campaign to make conservatives seem like the most oppressed people in the room.
Adam: Yeah. ‘Cause one of the things you do, that your book does very well is you go through and you really muddy the waters about like this, you know, it’s like when people say ‘make America great again’ and you say, ‘well when was America great?’ That reveals a lot about their answer. So when people say there’s an erosion of free speech the question I ask is what year specifically was there this platonic free speech? And points of course you make in your book and others have made is that like by definition if you have a massive asymmetrical power dynamic and financial dynamic notions of free speech are very boutique and they really kind of miss the broader point. You talk about the Kochs kind of introducing this moral panic along with other billionaires. There’s a quote by professor of Law Yeshiva University Stanley Fish, who was one of the early anti-anti-PC voices, which was a very lonely place to be at the time and he wrote quote “Debates between opposing parties can never be characterized as debates between political correctness and something else but between competing versions of political correctness.” And you lay this out in your book from the switch from the fifties to the sixties how the left was simply attempting to advance his goals by opening up a space and appealing to a universal principle to do so because there already was right-wing political correctness writ large on college campuses. Talk to me about that quote and what does that mean about competing political correctnesses?
P.E. Moskowitz: I think that’s another example of how good conservatives in this country have been at using free speech and the idea of a kind of equal playing field or equal opportunity for all to mask what is actually happening and has happened in this country. I mean, if you just start from the very baseline from the founding of this country to now, we already placed severe limits on free speech and that kind of tracks with what we think is more important than free speech and free expression. So private property being the prime example of this, I mean we think we have free speech, but what we really have is free speech in a public area that doesn’t threaten people that the cops don’t get angry at and that might have to be permitted and insured. I can’t go into someone’s house and start speaking uninvited. They could shoot me in many standard ground states, right? You can’t protest in a Walmart, you can be arrested for that because that’s private property. So we’ve already valued certain things at a higher level than we have valued free speech and free expression and whatever you think of those particular values, it just goes to show that there’s never been a blank slate of free speech. And then the kind of politically correct version where there are all these restrictions, you’re either favoring restrictions of some kind or restrictions of another kind. So, you know, the right, again is very good at appealing to these universal values and saying, ‘oh well if we all fight for these same things, then we’ll live happily ever after’ or whatever. But what they’re really fighting for is not some kind of blank slate, but for a different form of politics with political correctness and of our material reality that benefits them.
Nima: You speak of values and I think that there’s something really at work that’s kind of larger than even just free speech here. And it’s, it’s that the subtext of most of these debates and, you know, especially American culture, is this broader kind of fetishization of negative versus positive rights. And so you write in your book about how an anti-capitalist ideology effectively leads you to a place where you think that the former, the negative rights, without the latter, the positive rights, winds up being pretty useless. And we’ve actually discussed on this show in other contexts this very thing, this idea of, you know, property rights versus right to, you know, eat or get an education or have healthcare. But to what extent do you think this very particular, westernized, certainly Cold War and now post-Cold War notion of “rights” really just serves as this evergreen protection of conservative power?
P.E. Moskowitz: It really is one of the greatest examples of the success and efficacy of propaganda. Because what are we even talking about when we talk about rights? I mean you mentioned negative versus positive. I would argue that conservatives, or the establishment, is not even arguing for negative rights i.e. we all have an equal opportunity versus positive rights, we all have the same material reality based on those rights. They’re arguing for, you know, positive rights for a certain group of people. And again, it’s this universalist language that kind of masks the underlying realities. It’s one thing to say you’re in favor of everyone having free speech, but then you, if you really believe that in a material way, in a positivist way, you have to question who has free speech based in our current reality. So we’re all focusing on college campuses, we’re all yelling at each other about free speech in these very specific circumstances but we have tens of millions of people imprisoned in this country. We have immigrants being disappeared in this country. And is that not a free speech issue? Is the suppression of voters rights a free speech issue? I mean what we decide is universal value is not based on some universal consensus it’s based on very particular and in many cases very successful political campaigns waged by the powerful.
Adam: So let’s say someone’s listening to this and kind of says, all right, ‘it’s bullshit, but in principle, shouldn’t we at least strive for some kind of notion that freedom of speech,’ because people are skeptical about the kind of epistemology police obviously the cliche about how it gets turned — I mean, which is sometimes true — it turns on the left, right? Making BDS hate speech or black activist extremists being targeted by the FBI for their speech. If we’re not going to embrace free speech as a meaningful concept or something that’s just so polluted by right-wing forces is it worth preserving? What’s the kind of buzzword or a general principle do you think the left can kind of offer in its stead? Cause again, I think people have a romantic attachment to it. I’m kind of curious what you think. What’s the analog to that from a left or positive rights perspective?
P.E. Moskowitz: There are two things that I would say to that. One is that every other country that’s similar to ours politically and economically, they don’t have a First Amendment and yet they have an equal or even greater ability to speak for the average person. So if you look at most European countries for example, or even Canada, they’ve done fine without constantly reinforcing this idea of the First Amendment and free expression being protected at all costs because they recognize, I think, that there always is some kind of restriction on speech. You have to, there’s always some kind of balance you’re trying to strike. But the other thing is that if you believe that freedom of speech is a good ideal to uphold, I’m not against that. I just think that from a leftist perspective, you have to be a materialist. You have to say, if freedom of speech is good, then we need freedom of speech for all. And what does that mean? It means ending economic inequality. It means ending racism, it means ending mass incarceration and all of those things. And if you go back to, I talked about the unions in the twenties and a little bit earlier, they used freedom of speech for their cause in a really materialist way. They said freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything if you can’t realize what you’re speaking about. So it wasn’t only freedom of speech, it was freedom to be heard. If you can agitate for revolution and most of the working class wants a greater stake in our society but it never actually happens because the powers that be repress it, then that freedom of speech doesn’t matter. And that was basically their argument and it was a pretty successful one. So I’m not, I don’t think we necessarily have to abandon the concept of free speech or free expression. I just think we need to tie it to an actual material reality as opposed to just an abstract concept.
Nima: Well, I think that’s a fantastic place to leave it. We have been joined by journalist P.E. Moskowitz, co-founder of the media collective Study Hall and author of books How To Kill A City and, most recently, The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent, which has just been published by Bold Type Books. P.E., thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
P.E. Moskowitz: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Adam: We could have talked to P.E. for another half hour because there’s so much in their book about the history and the origins of it and also the sort of human stakes. I think one thing that their book does well is it really establishes what the human stakes are and as someone who did survive the Charlottesville attacks, it has a kind of immediacy to it, to the conversation, that I think is definitely needed and definitely check it out. It’s polemical, it’s a very good read.
Nima: Yeah. In 2017, a lecture was held at Princeton University. It was called “F%*# Free Speech.” There was an immediate backlash to even the title of this lecture, which granted, used different characters to kind of edit out the word “fuck” yet another sort of glib and comical way to address this issue of censorship. This lecture was conducted by Carolyn Rouse, a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton. This lecture, or really just the idea of it, more than anything else, because most people that wound up having a problem with this lecture didn’t actually watch it or they certainly weren’t in the audience. Most of them learned about this through a rundown of the lecture that was published online by a group called Campus Reform, a website and also online advocacy group that is uh, calls itself dedicated to kind of exposing the quote “bias and abuse” end quote directed toward right-wingers and conservatives on college campuses. So they reported on this and there was this immediate backlash. It was picked up by The National Review, Milo wrote about it and it basically started this deluge of right-wing backlash about snowflake students, enemies of the First Amendment and college campuses running wild, letting their professors decry and talk down the kind of fundamental aspects of our American democracy.
Adam: Yeah. All based on the title of a speech. So one of the things we want to talk about when we’re exploring the concept of free speech is what does it mean when you have a right-wing incitement regime that basically coordinates harassment of private individuals? What does that mean in the context of free speech?
Nima: We’ll now be joined by that lecturer herself, Carolyn Rouse, professor, filmmaker, and as I said, chair of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. She’s the author of a number of books most recently Televised Redemption: Black Religious Media and Racial Empowerment. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Carolyn Rouse, professor, filmmaker and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Carolyn Rouse: Thank you. I look forward to talking.
Adam: The premise of this episode is talking about the kind of quote unquote “crisis of free speech,” specifically on college campuses, which is apparently now like 50 percent of Fox News’ coverage. Obviously for there to be a tax on free speech or an erosion of free speech there had to have been some antecedent glory days of free speech, but you argue and others argue that this notion of a free speech glory day never really existed for anyone who was not white kind of button-down cis male. Can we talk about this vague nostalgia for a time of free speech glory and what period do you think sort of people are trying to evoke or what idea of platonic free speech do you think people are trying to evoke?
Carolyn Rouse: In military magazine this month, September 2019, an economist named Walter Williams said that I called free speech, a political illusion and a baseless ruse to enable people to simply say whatever they want and that I had contempt for the First Amendment. So I just need to preface what I’m about to say with that because what I’m talking about is really more complicated than the Fox News talking points and I don’t have contempt for the First Amendment. In fact, I think of the First Amendment as a great aspirational ethic in the same way that equality is, in the sense that we’ll never attain full equality. There really doesn’t exist such a thing in the same way that I love that we aspire for free speech, but there really isn’t such a thing. And I look at it as an anthropologist. Language is a tool and you don’t, for instance, use a hammer when you need a nail or a drill when you need a saw. And so we can’t speak like that. We can’t use hammers when we need nails because you either make the wrong equipment or in the case of speech you say something that’s incomprehensible to the person who’s supposed to be trying to understand you. And so speech is partial in the sense that we have to kind of have a sense of what somebody is saying as they’re saying it. In a sense, language is always framed. If we didn’t have a sense of the frame, we wouldn’t actually understand language. We don’t really understand what somebody is saying. So for instance, somebody who’s African American who uses the n word, it’s framed by their race, by their character, who they are and that might be acceptable, but said by somebody else, that’s not acceptable because we don’t know the intention of the person, what the person might be thinking. And so it’s incomprehensible what they mean by using the n word. So language is not only framed by kind of having a sense of what somebody thinks and understands about the world, but also a sense of who that person is. So even when you look at some of these great debates, Cambridge debates, you know William F. Buckley and James Baldwin, there is a set of rules and procedures that govern this debate. It’s framed. And so when we hear these things about free speech and how great it was and how great it could be, this is a kind of free speech that allows for false information to be treated as equal to facts and issues. Real issues. When Buckley and you know, Baldwin were debating, they weren’t just really making up facts about, you know, where a hurricane is gonna land or what doctors do after a baby is born. You know, doctors don’t kill babies after they’re born. So the problem with the free speech debate is it the way it’s talked about now, this absolutist free speech. It is an antithesis to what goes on in the academy. Joan Scott has an incredible book that was published this year, Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom, in which she talks about the fact that academic speech is framed by a whole set of histories and language and schools of evidence and procedures and yeah that means that sometimes certain ideas are not considered what you might call, they might be heterodox ideas that take time to be treated as orthodox. But we have a lot of orthodox ideas in the academy because we couldn’t actually produce knowledge without a basis of orthodox ideas. We don’t for instance require students to relitigate whether or not gravity exists when we teach them physics. We base, you have to, you know, you have to move much quicker than that to teach them stuff based upon a set of accepted knowledge, accepted ideas. So the academy doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t just accept any old idea.
Nima: To this point, you actually told BuzzFeed News that there are these non-debatable issues such as you said quote ““Slavery, Jim Crow, Nazism, genocide, eugenics, McCarthyism, Japanese internment. They were all terrible social policies,” end quote. And so the idea that eugenics is something that can now be relitigated, right? That like Charles Murray pushing race science should be just one of many acceptable ideas. Can you talk about how we are constantly hearing that say people of color have to relitigate their own humanity and just how demoralizing and exhausting this is against this idea that only serious white men can just debate freely all these things because everything to them is just this intellectual baseball and others just need to fall in line.
Carolyn Rouse: So I was invited— I don’t know if you know about Amy Wax. She’s a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and notorious in terms of her beliefs that black people are intellectually inferior — and I was asked if I wanted to be there for the debate. There had been some publicity about it because it had been canceled and, you know, the free speechers were arguing that was wrong. So they tried to reschedule it and they asked me and I wrote to them and I said, here’s my problem. I said, what if I come to the Wakefield Society and demand a debate about whether tomatoes should be pronounced tomato or tomahto? Your answer rightly would be that a debate about the pronunciation of tomato has no value. The topic is essentially unimportant. Logically therefore, anyone who thinks Amy Wax is worth debating believes that there’s some value to what she has to say. The claim that we should debate Amy Wax to honor free speech is simply a mask. She was invited because someone believes that what she has to say has value, unlike me, who thinks this poor woman has a personality disorder. My sense is that holding a debate with Amy Wax is similar to a debate about the pronunciation of the word tomato. And so that’s my argument. So it’s a kind of a, ‘oh, well, these things are debatable. Well, they’re only debatable if you actually think there’s some value to the other side, so let’s be honest, you actually think black people are inferior or there’s some basis for that and that yes is absolutely demoralizing.
Adam: Yeah, I think it’s the kind of pretense that is also sort of annoying when Charles and David Koch don’t care about free speech. They care about right-wing ideology, but if you name your organization the Institute for Right-wing Ideology, it’s not very romantic, so you sort of give it some universal appeal. You’ve got a lot of hate mail. You appeared on Tucker Carlson, which is sort of a ground zero for white nationalist vitriol and to be mentioned by Tucker Carlson is basically to incite harassment and sometimes even violence. I think we’re at that point where one can say that. Can you talk about — you don’t have to get into the details, I certainly don’t want to sort of relive any kind of trauma you suffered — but can we talk about what those kinds of, I would argue, coordinated right-wing harassment regimes themselves say about free speech and our notion of free speech?
Carolyn Rouse: Well, so that was because I led a walkout of a Charles Murray talk. And my sense is is that I was introduced to Charles Murray in college and I, it was so racist, it was losing ground and I had no intellectual weapons. I had nothing. I didn’t know anything. And here I’m a black student and all I knew were experiences from my family and my friends who didn’t fit his descriptions of African Americans. But maybe that’s just anecdotal. And so in many ways, Charles Murray shaped my career and then came The Bell Curve and you know, I could barely read that and then came more, but it was a reiteration of everything that’s in Losing Ground. And so I now we’ve written about, we, we have the data that demonstrates how blacks were caught up in mass incarceration. We have the data about red lining. We have the data about disproportionate disciplinary action in schools. We have all this data now. We’ve challenged it. And so the fact that people are allowing him to continue to speak when in many ways, as an academic, you recognize he’s a bit of a hack. He makes things up. Just kind of, I loved his proposal in one of his later books, his more recent books, $13,000 a year for people and then $3,000 has to go to catastrophic insurance. And here I work with poor rural whites. A lot of them are poor because they have chronic illnesses. So what is $3,000 in catastrophic insurance going to do? And $10,000? If the roads cost money, if the schools cost money, you can’t get to school, you can’t put your kid in school. And it’s a made up number. So you read him as an academic, he’s just a hack. And so the idea that we continue to treat him with this kind of authority, and I know some African Americans who in some ways are much more intelligent, who have no degrees, who will never be invited to a university to speak. So Charles Murray has plenty of opportunities to speak. His speech is not being shut down at all. Speech is being shut down you don’t know about because it’s being shut down.
Carolyn Rouse: So my, my point was, why are we wasting our university money on this? So we walked in, he was introduced and the whole thing was, we just walked out and went about our day. The whole point was, we don’t have time for this. Wasn’t the, he can say whatever he wants. We just wanted to say, we have no time for this. So Tucker Carlson calls, when the Middlebury thing happened nobody in Middlebury was allowed to speak. So they spoke to me and I was, you know, I didn’t know what I was doing. Oh, I don’t know who Tucker Carlson is. I don’t watch Fox News.
Carolyn Rouse: But actually there were a number of people who regularly watch him who emailed me and said, you won that debate. So it wasn’t all negative and bad and the whole time I kind of wanted to reach out to the poor white folks who watch him and say, Charles Murray actually thinks you are genetically inferior too, it’s not, it doesn’t just hurt black people. Right? But of course you don’t have time to really get into it. But then I got a call from Tucker Carlson’s people the next year because of the incident where we had a faculty member who has used the n word as a lesson. He’s an incredible legal scholar and incredible professor. But this year it didn’t work. For 40 years it worked as a kind of pedagogical tool. It didn’t work this time. And, and so they called, ‘oh, but we’re sympathetic to your point of view.’ And I’m just like, no, you’re not. My whole reason for supporting my colleague is radically different than my reason for saying enough with Charles Murray. So, so a lot of the complexity that like Joan Scott writes about and other people who’ve tried to write about and talk about ‘what do you mean by free speech in the academy?’ is lost in the sort of media age.
Nima: Yeah. So much of these arguments about ‘kids these days,’ right? The snowflakes and too sensitive. So much of it is focused on college campuses and I think that, you know, as someone who works at a university, I’m just really excited to ask you this question, which is the idea that, you know, there’s this right-wing trope of colleges and universities: sheltered places where kids don’t actually know anything about the real world. You know, we’ve heard this since certainly the early nineties if not well before and it’s a really popular trope. But I think it’s a popular trope because it sounds good and it feels true. Like if you don’t actually investigate it, it’s used all the time. Right? Like there’s this cartoon version of what an academic space is like. In your experience, how does this caricature compare with what you observe on campus day-to-day?
Carolyn Rouse: It’s a great question. And students are complex. I love the energy. I love the passion. Now the younger folks are starting to ignite things, but in the process they’re making a lot of mistakes because we all make mistakes. If you look back at the civil rights movement, you know, how many different approaches to try to making social change did they have to, you know, work through in order to get to the Civil Rights Act, right? Social movements, it’s a long game, but their efforts at #metoo and their efforts at weeding out sexual harassment, there’s a lot of really interesting powerful stuff going on. Doesn’t really shut down anything in the classroom. And remember the classroom is a space of a different type of learning. So, you know, in the physics class nobody’s talking about politics. And in my anthropology classes we’re not talking about politics either in that sense. We’re actually doing sort of theoretical analysis, go in multiple directions and challenge all sorts of things that one would assume we would be on one side or the other. But we’re really not on anybody’s side. Economics is a field that is some way captured by conservative ideas and nobody’s challenging that. There’s not a lot of controversial. Even though as a progressive I, I wonder how one continues to teach utilitarian theories, economic theories when we know empirically that they don’t necessarily really map on to what’s real. In psychology, people are talking about other things. They’re not talking about Trump. So there’s a kind of, the pundits think that everybody’s talking like them and the news media and they’re not. We’re talking in other ways. We’re reading other things. We’re reading things written a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, we’re engaged in a different type of knowledge production, which is why we need that space.
Adam: Yeah, and that’s kind of one of the points you make, which is that like the whole idea of academia by definition, for it to work at all, for it to exist, it requires in effect the curation of speech and what is speech that’s allowed and speech that isn’t allowed. Otherwise your 101 course would be debating the existence of gravity for five years.
Carolyn Rouse: Yeah. We all have different approaches. In religion you use a religious text, right? You have other ways of, they’re developing evidence and truth and in well, it’s different right? Again, it wouldn’t, you don’t allow defendants to try, you protect defendants from trying to defend themselves. Right? You can’t just say anything in a court of law. A judge controls what you say, you know, when you say it. Every institution. Medicine, you know, I studied medicine for years. Lots of control of what people who are licensed can and can’t say because they could delegitimate the entire field of medicine if they have a license, you’ve given them a license saying they are a professional and they’re killing people with kind of their free speech medicine, or the equivalent of it. So, ‘oh, I have a cure for cancer. It grows in my backyard. I swear by it.’
Adam: Yeah. That would be frowned upon by the FDA. This was extremely informative and we really, really appreciate you coming on.
Nima: Carolyn Rouse, professor, filmmaker and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University, author of a number of books including Engaged Surrender, African American Women and Islam and Televised Redemption: Black Religious Media and Racial Empowerment. Carolyn, it has been great to talk to you. Thanks so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Carolyn Rouse: Thank you so much. Take care.
Adam: It’s a bit of a cliche, um, at this point to point this out, but the, the sort of hair trigger, paranoid and thin-skinned way that the right-wing media echo chamber responds to at the slightest provocation from a Princeton professor who’s doing a deliberately provocative and ironic title, um, looks an awful lot like the very thing that they criticize college students of doing. I know this is somewhat of an insipid criticism at this point, the gotcha hypocrisy, but, uh, it never ceases to amaze me just how, how much projection is involved in this process.
Nima: You mean, you don’t think that there’s like really good faith intentions behind this?
Adam: Yeah, it’s just a mantra at this point. Um, what you mean by free speech is a far more interesting question at this point than ‘do you support it?’ in the abstract. Uh, which you know, is a point that that Moskowitz makes in their book. Um, and it’s, it’s not a, it’s maybe not the most original point, but I think it’s one that, that we keep coming up against, which is, which is what do you mean by free speech? And then the, the answers to that question is the real conversation, not this kind of, um, posturing as to whether or not one supports it.
Nima: Well, right. Because if everything is fair game, then there’s never going to be any context to anything ever. Then like history is irrelevant. There are no lessons learned. There’s no progress ever being made because it’s like you can just appeal to the free speech argument to just do like endless Holocaust denial. Or, you could just keep doing that because, you know, ‘hey, that’s a fundamental principle of our democracy.’ And so that must be upheld. And I think like in a legal sense there are the arguments of that which, you know, we were talking about earlier at the beginning of this show like, we’re not actually litigating why free speech is really important. Yes, it is fundamentally important but the way that it’s used as a bludgeon, the way that it is weaponized to silence some while amplifying others is an absolutely political and ideological project of the far-right.
Adam: What they’re really talking about is what we, what we generally understand is free speech, not so much the principle in the abstract.
Nima: Right. Well, that is an excellent place to leave it. We thank our two guests for joining us and we thank you all for listening to this episode of Citations Needed. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support is so appreciated. It is the way that we are able to keep the show going. You can also review the show on Apple Podcasts and wherever else you happen to get your podcast content. But an extra special shout out, as always, goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Lead engineer for this episode is Marcus Dembinski. Research and writing for this episode by Ethan Corey. Our newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. And of course the music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 25, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.