The Liberal Myth of Free Speech
Being unabashedly opposed to fascism has become, strangely, a position that requires increasing amounts of justification in modern America. Mainstream voices have used the growth of unapologetic hate movements with codified genocidal platforms to lump groups like antifa and Black Lives Matter in with an ideology whose explicit aims entail mass murder. To assert that the ‘moral weight’ of either side in such clashes is a question of the tactics they employ is to say that White Nationalism is merely another morally subjective political ideology to be given a platform in the marketplace of ideas. Fascism, with all of the violence it necessitates, has emerged from the darkness of intolerable evil into the realm of legitimate discourse. In opposing swift and decisive actions against a growing fascist wing in America, liberals and centrists have granted Nazis and other fascist groups legitimacy as a political movement.
Liberal arguments for fascist sympathy blend together seamlessly with those of the far right. The suggestion that fascists should not be allowed a platform is always met with the same indignant rebuttal.
“But don’t you believe in free speech?”
Such a question always forces me to assess whether standing by my own beliefs is more important than continuing to be heard in a conversation. Of all of the values pounded into our heads by liberal hegemony, the notion of ‘free speech’ simultaneously inspires unprecedented levels of impassioned defense and cognitive dissonance on the part of its supporters.
My disconnect from those who believe in free speech largely stems from the word “believe.” Most of those ravenously asserting a personal belief in free speech feel as though they adhere to free speech as a value. They assert a belief in free speech just as they would their belief in a candidate, a country, or a friend in need of a pep talk.
Before addressing questions of belief in terms of convictions I find it imperative to address the question of belief in a more objective sense. Belief, or disbelief, can be used to denote whether or not I think something exists at all. When someone asks if you believe in chemtrails, the ‘deep state’, or unicorns, these questions are not meant to ascertain where your allegiances lie, but rather, your basis in facts, evidence, and reality.
When you ask if I ‘believe’ in free speech, I view the question with the same regard that you would if I inquired as to your belief in unicorns. You do not stop and consider the question of whether unicorns would hypothetically be a force for good in the world. You don’t ponder the potential morality of a world in which unicorns exist. You would scoff, and say no, because in all of your life experiences, you have encountered no evidence to support their existence.
My own personal feelings about a society in which free, open, unobstructed discourse exists are irrelevant. I do not believe in free speech in that I find it ridiculous to think we currently live or for that matter ever have lived in such a society. Free speech as it pertains to the US should be viewed in the same light as any other national myth which abstractly conveys a hypothetical value system. Nice enough on paper, utterly non-existent in practice.
Yes, I do, as an American, have the ‘right’ to spew vile hatred for any demographic I so choose. After all, those who believe in the lie of free speech will religiously maintain that the most vile of speech is the most in need of protection. Any society which disallows the open advocation of genocide is on the slippery slope to fascism, so they say.
It is true that short of sending out actual death threats, there is very little which I can say as an individual that would put me at risk of being harmed or jailed by the state. In this sense I have the full freedom to speak as I so choose, with the caveat that I will no doubt find myself on a watchlist or two. For most liberals, this is enough proof that the state allows for all forms of expression. I will concede that in this regard, the vast majority of us are allowed the right to say whatever we please.
But the free speech fantasy crumbles time and time again once said speech becomes a credible threat to state power. Although impassioned and subversive, the rhetoric of Martin Luther King alone would not have been enough for the FBI to attempt blackmailing King into killing himself. Many a speaker before and after MLK have spouted much more incendiary rhetoric, but they did so before smaller crowds. The state fought MLK because he was influential. Though King advocated for nonviolence, his rhetoric against racism, war, and poverty undermined the neoliberal capitalist state’s legitimacy and posed a credible threat to its continued existence. The Black Panther Party, anti-war activists, and the Communist Party faced similar attacks in the era of COINTELPRO.
The state and its apologists point adamantly toward every madman going blue in the face, screaming about revolution on a street corner, as testament to the freedom allowed in our society. The state will always nobly tout the madman’s first amendment rights as inviolable right up to the when the madman strikes a chord and people start listening. Then the state will destroy him and whatever movement he helps to build. Infiltration, sabotage, blackmail, arrest, demonization through the media; all of these tools are still employed by the state against rhetorically subversive movements.
It should come as no surprise that the current administration is flirting with fascist rhetoric and tendencies. Donald Trump slashed funding for government commissions against right wing terror as one of his first actions in office. Still, all bureaucracies have internal tensions. Fascism will inevitably come when the majority of neoliberal elites can no longer rationalize the hegemony of such a violent, unscientific, illogical system as capitalism via democratic means. Trump and his cabinet of sycophants face so much backlash from within their own government because the majority of the state’s servants still cling to the notion that capitalist hegemony can be fixed or sustained. While the presence of a handful of fascist apologists and sympathizers within the ranks of the government is a disturbing sign of things to come when capitalism inevitably decays, it is not enough in and of itself to declare that we live under a fascist state which serves explicitly fascist interests. The state in its current form still exists to serve the interests of neoliberal capitalism, in spite of its utter and apparent failure.
The state combats and opposes overt White supremacy only because it undermines and brings to light its own system of covert White supremacy, one in which neoliberal capitalism is given false legitimacy through psuedo-democracy. They find it disastrous for the state’s agenda to have groups openly calling minorities subhuman only because it calls into question the guise of equality and legitimacy worn by our capitalist, White supremacist system. Neoliberal politicians will go blue in the face reminding their constituents that markets are blind, and I must say that I am inclined to agree. Markets are indeed so conveniently blind to the centuries of oppression which undermine any real chance for disadvantaged groups to gain ground in a fake meritocracy, enforced by a state which violently suppresses dissent.
There is no free speech in practice for those who live hand to mouth. There is no free speech in practice for those whose educational systems are funded by paltry tithes from their own already destitute communities. There is no free speech when police have been given free reign to publicly execute minorities on the grounds that they are perceived as dangerous. Smoking a joint, playing with a toy gun, selling loose cigarettes, and owning a legal firearm have been upheld by our so-called justice system as grounds for murder. Police now operate with the understanding that merely perceiving a minority as dangerous will allow them to play the role of judge, jury, and executioner with impunity. The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that the same system which views ‘smelling marijuana’ as grounds to view a black or brown person as a credible threat would no doubt give the same pass for inflammatory ‘anti-police’ rhetoric. The precedent has been set that the rights of people of color end where the feelings of police begin.
Similarly it is no wonder that freedom of expression is given on paper so liberally to those denied the means to effectively express themselves. Heinously underfunded schools provide poor, disproportionately nonwhite children a quantifiably subpar education. This two fold attack on freedom of expression not only creates an uphill battle for those who are denied the rhetorical tools to most effectively articulate themselves; it also creates a rigid underclass with little options beyond wage slavery. Being forced into perpetual impoverishment denies the poor the luxury of abstract intellectual and ideological pursuits. In theory these impoverished individuals have the right to self advocate and peacefully demonstrate against the system, but most choose to prioritize not starving. All of these factors allow for the state to grant unprecedented levels of freedom on paper while effectively stifling free speech and expression. The gaping chasm between the supposed ideals of the state and the reality of their system’s consequences can only be reconciled by understanding that free speech in a capitalist society is a privilege reserved for the few. As it applies to the rest of us, it serves as a tool to insinuate that those who oppose the state are opposed to a free society. Those unheard masses are ridiculed for not using the plethora of rights they’ve been granted, in name and in name alone, in order to further themselves and their movements via legal and peaceful means. The state crafted the rules such that it can’t lose, and those who refuse to play a rigged game are locked in cages for it.
The neoliberal capitalist state cares little for principles, and as such it will not hesitate to break its own rules when threatened. Any credible threat to the state will find itself infiltrated and demonized. Its leaders will be vilified, blackmailed, and even killed. Since COINTELPRO, the state has only expanded the arsenal of tools it employs against genuine workers’ movements on the behalf of capital. Having access to the phone calls, emails, and texts of every American citizen makes it possible for the state to merely rifle through our communications for anything that could be used to incriminate, embarrass, or blackmail potential subversives. The existence of these databases would have remained a secret forever if not for Edward Snowden, and it was only when this information was dragged forcibly into the light that the state began insisting that all of our data was used for strictly ‘legal’ means. The notion that the NSA and those state agents that use NSA surveillance data do so with a respect to our privacy is a lie on its face. The tactics and methodology of the state have consistently shown disregard for our supposed rights at best, and contempt at worst.
Free speech is not under attack in America because free speech has never existed in America. To disbelieve in free speech is not to declare war on self expression; it is an acknowledgement of reality. Neoliberal capitalism backed by a police state will always be antithetical to free speech in practice; a system so easily discredited by honest scrutiny can only continue to exist through the threat of force. To say communities have no right to fight back against fascists who seek to rot said communities to their core only serves to force dependence upon the state, which asserts that no violence is morally justified, save for its own.
The fact that fascists feel emboldened enough to directly threaten and at times outright attack people of color, LGBTQ people, and all who dare to oppose them is nothing but a failure on the part of all of us who could have been doing more to protect our own. The present situation would not be so dire had this new, fascist resurgence been stamped out in its earliest stages, before it had the chance to grow and take root.
It is implicitly built into the fascist platform that might makes right. The fascists that liberals protect will take power by any means necessary, and enact their genocidal platform in any capacity which they are able. The National Socialists in Germany did not wait for a mandate from the people; when they took power by force it was with a mere 30% support, and there is no doubt that America’s own growing demographic of racist thugs would kill and maim even more people on the path to even a fraction of such a figure. To assert that Fascists could never have the numbers to gain power through electoral means is to miss the point entirely. Fascists will never seek democratic legitimacy, because legitimacy is not needed to further a fascist platform and cause real destruction in the immediate. The spreading of fascist thought in and of itself will lead to more hate crimes, more dog whistle politics, and more fear within minority communities regardless of some perceived ceiling on its appeal.
Defending the free speech of fascists is an action which prioritizes the mythology of a state with no regard for such rights in practice over the very real and tangible suffering of those whom fascists seek to destroy. Fascists who kill are violent, as are fascists who celebrate violence committed by their kind, as is a fascist holding a sign minding their own business. Those who quietly advocate ethnic cleansing are admitting outright that the only thing preventing their direct involvement and endorsement of mass murder in the present moment is an insufficient power base. Every single fascist will become a violent fascist when given the numbers and strength to act with impunity. Liberals who ‘play by the rules’ are directly complicit in allowing these devastating consequences to come to fruition. Obsessing over the legality of your own activism is setting yourself up for defeat when facing opponents with no regard for such constructs. We will only win this fight if we are willing to take a page from the playbook of our enemies. Fascists and the state alike are never shy about doing what is necessary to propagate themselves. They will ignore the rule of law, the value of human life, and the cognitive dissonance of their own actions at the drop of a hat so long as doing so allows for their continued existence.
I would argue that our fight is much more important. We are not fighting for the continued existence of a self-serving power structure, but rather for the continued existence of our friends and neighbors. Their lives, and our lives, are at stake, as is the dream of a world in which all people can feel accepted.
A polite, peaceful fascist is a snake waiting to bite the hand that coddles it. Any liberals who champion the rights of Nazis should enjoy the high of perceived moral superiority while it lasts. When it’s you that the snake bites, you’ll probably just be left wishing you crushed its head when you had the chance.
[This article was first published on ItsGoingDown.]
*We really need your support to develop though and we’d like to ask you to support us by donating to us here.
Bella Caledonia remains free (and ad-free) and takes me hundreds of hours a month to research, write, commission and edit. If you value what I do, please consider supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing. GoCardless to set up a small monthly donation to support independent journalism in Scotland.
Go here to subscribe for free and get each Bella article sent to your email
Go here to follow us on Twitter @bellacaledonia
Go here to follow us on Instagram
Go here to join our Facebook Group
Go here to follow us on Spotify
Go here to write for us