Free speech? Don’t talk to me about free speech. A new, hateful slurry of white supremacists, misogynists, and bigots are making a show of their speeches lately. Predictably, many on the left are once again trotting out the idea of free speech, and shaking their heads at those who wish to protest the bigots.
But this isn’t about free speech. Protesting Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists was never about their speech. Our protest about stopping their ability to mobilize for genocide. It is about ending a movement that seeks to destroy entire communities of people simply for how they look, love, or worship. It is about stopping their power-hungry lunge to oppress people and deny us our rights.
They are trying to enact a world that would lead to untold suffering. It is our duty to oppose them. We must stop them from taking further action on their hateful rhetoric.
I was in the streets of Charlottesville to oppose white supremacists at the “Unite the Right” rally, and was ten feet away from the terror attack that killed Heather Heyer. I’ve been in the streets a lot lately to oppose the jerks. Last year I was part of an effort to oppose notorious Nazi Richard Spencer at his group’s annual conference, when we got one of their events canceled, leaving them scrambling for another venue. I later debated Spencer during a 20/20 ABC news program filming – just debate, no punching – when it became obvious that the news program was going to find someone, anyone, claiming to be antifascist. So I believe that talking has its place. I stand against censorship and I support free speech when times are calm.
But when the white supremacists are gaining strength, making laws, and dialing up their oppression, the time for debate is over. When the wealthy elite, led by Trump, Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, and the rest of the sociopaths are actively moving against us, they are not going to stop to be swayed by our fine ideas. It is time for direct confrontation. Here are a few talking points for radicals during the inevitable debate you will have with your friends and family on free speech.
1) The Rich White Boys of the Far Right Don’t Need Their Speech Protected, Marginalized Communities Do.
Rich boys like Richard Spencer have had their speech heard way too much. How much more do white men need to be protected? Overwhelmingly, they are the ones writing our news, controlling our government, hoarding all of our wealth, judging us in court proceedings, shaping our academic thought, determining who we should fight in wars, controlling our places of work, and more. They don’t do these things because they’re any better than anyone else at these things. They do them because they’ve created a self-perpetuating system that keeps them in power and crushes the rest of us – people of color, women, indigenous people, the poor, and the all – into the raw labor that keeps the world going. Hundreds of subtle and unsubtle cues fool many of us into thinking white men are better than the rest of us.
It’s time to turn our ear to the people whose voices have been suppressed. Instead of worrying so much about whether these spoiled men have their special little podium from which they are allowed to organize for genocide, we should be focusing our concern on increasing the amount of airtime for voices that have historically been marginalized.
2) Free Speech Has Not Led Us to Continuous Progress for People of Color.
The proof is in the pudding, right? If free and open debate on important ideas worked to simply allow the best ideas to rise in popularity, then become law, we would have seen that working in our history, yes? Let’s look at an example that all of our liberal friends will agree is important: Ending the oppression of black people in the United States, and moving in the direction of racial equality.
More than 180,000 black people fought in the Civil War for their freedom from slavery. Afterwards, they were technically free, but a massive white backlash led to the formation of the KKK, the segregation of black people from all walks of white life, and white people torching homes and lynching black people. (This, by the way, was a topic of investigative reporting by Ida B. Wells, the legendary journalist from which Idavox draws its name.)
Free speech was used not to allow erudite debate in the pearly halls of truth, but to further debase and incriminate black people in white minds. Minstrel songs implied that black people wanted to go back to slavery out of a sense of nostalgia, and early silent films showed “silly, lying, chicken-stealing black idiots.” (From “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” 2007, Loewen, p164). Newspapers floated racist attacks and false notions that were used to drive black people out of skilled and unskilled professions.
This movement of racism following the Civil War, a period known as “Reconstruction,” happened in a context of free speech. And it had the impact of reconstructing racism, after an initial glimmer of hope once slavery was made illegal. No, there was not a nice, happy, uninterrupted trend toward emancipation for black people.
But free speech was alive and well, so shouldn’t it have contributed to openness and celebration of diversity? Shouldn’t it have led to our formation of a more just, equal, better society? No, it didn’t. The only thing that did change the situation of people of color in the United States was the Civil Rights Movement, when black people rose up and took their power back, mounting popular resistance. Only then did circumstances began to get a little better for people of color – a struggle that is obviously still ongoing, frustratingly slow in fits and starts, with questionable progress in this racist country.
It is worth noting that right wing factions are attempting to once again use their speech to degrade people of color, and generate false notions about them. We must stop them from acting upon their toxic words.
3) The United States was Founded on Popular Protest, not Free Speech.
For anyone who believes that this country was founded upon the free exchange of ideas, I’d suggest a simple glance into the hotbed that actually did lead to the American Revolution, which pulled us out from under the rule of the British government (but not the bankers, merchants, and early capitalists).
Early colonists in Boston, Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and more did not merely trust to discussion among rich, landed men in the British Parliament, or the circulation of early newspapers such as those of Benjamin Franklin, or other venues of speech. They were being oppressed and it was time to get physical. Taking action, they ransacked the homes of government officials and merchants who they had grievance with, leaving a wake of broken furniture, shattered mirrors and windows, destroyed china and crystal, and burned effigies. (They’d had practice in brutality, perhaps, from regular violent acts in stealing the land of indigenous people already here.) Eventually, the Boston Tea Party set off a wave of people in early port cities who dumped tea into harbors and sunk the ships that carried it.
Popular protest led to the American Revolution, which gave our country some small measure of freedom from the British. Yes, it was based upon ideas and rhetoric, but the time came for action.
4) Not All Ideas Are Created Equal. Sorry. I Know That is a Hard Thing to Hear, But It is True for Me, and It Should Be True for Everyone With a Heart.
When someone tells me that they want to deny my rights, including, yes, my own right to free speech, I am not friendly to that idea. After all, the Nazis, the KKK, white supremacists and their ilk want to deny people of color the right to exist, but many also want to deny women the right to engage in public life, vote, exercise reproductive rights, and live as we wish.
So as much as we all support freedom of speech and expression, they lose the logical flow of their argument when they try to rely on their own free speech in order to have a venue to deny me rights that are even more fundamental than free speech. In order to have freedom of speech, you much first have the freedom and right to exist. We all have the basic right to exist, but the Richard Spencers of the world seek to violate this fundamental of humanity. They seek genocide.
5) Their Speeches Aren’t Just Speeches, They Are Organizing Opportunities.
When someone tells me that they want to deny me my rights? When they say, “women and black people are inferior because I want to hold onto my white privilege and therefore I must ignore the overwhelming body of scientific evidence in order to cling to my belief and the past.” Of course, they have every right to say that. They’ve been saying that for years, and we’ve not cared.
When I’ve heard that in the past, I’ve been happy to laugh it off, issue some invective if I like, and walk away – because I have viewed the person as harmless.
What makes this political moment different is that these people aren’t just saying these things, they are expressing them through policies in the halls of government. The Trump Administration and right-wing lawmakers are already making policy that makes life hard – or impossible – for Muslims, immigrants, women, transgender people, and the poor. Creepy lap dog Jeff Sessions has supported strict punishment for small crimes like drug possession, usually used to oppress communities of color. Trump won’t let his Muslim travel ban go, and they’ve stepped up ICE raids in immigrant communities. Progress on women’s rights has come to a halt and it’s clear that the White House is now packed with misogynist snakes. Transgender people have lost their protections, leaving them subject to attack. Now Trump’s tax cut plan would put even more money into the pockets of the rich, while forcing some of us to pay more.
This is not fiction, and it is not hypothetical. Real people are subject to attack from our government. It is already happening.
So some bigot, racist, or misogynist just talking about an idea is one thing. It’s quite another thing once this unsavory person demonstrates that they are part of a movement with a direct line to the White House, where policy is being made that impacts me? Once that person drums up massive marches in the street, with white guys in polo shirts marching around with tiki torches, helmets, and shields, tear-gassing and beating my friends? Once they begin pulling the last of their white privilege strings in order to get judges to issue us warrants, to rule against us, to investigate us? Once their movement is in the White House? That’s when we fight them.
They have a direct line to those who are making policy, and that policy looks increasingly hateful and fascist. Again, it is our duty to oppose them.
6) May I Present the Evidence? Free Speech and Nazi Germany.
The rise of the Nazi Party in Germany was accompanied by free speech. The Weimar Republic’s constitution had specifically declared that no censorship would be exercised.
People talking to fascists did not have the effect of stopping the Nazi Party. It is worth noting, however, that troops with guns were effective at stopping the party when they had their first attempt to grab power, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, in which Hitler and the Nazis kidnapped local officials and shot up a beer hall. It took years for their horrific movement to recover.
7) Their Movement is Calling for Literal Genocide. Will You Do Nothing?
When all other logic fails with your liberal friends, remind them that this is ultimately about preventing genocide.
White supremacists and Nazis like Richard Spencer have called for genocide from the start – without using the word, of course. I wrote about the legal definition of genocide in a piece earlier this year:
“Legal experts have defined what genocide actually means. The United Nations has defined genocide as acts perpetrated against a group, such as a racial group. This was codified in the Genocide Convention of 1948. These acts include: “Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” That treaty, by the way, also makes illegal “direct and public incitement to commit genocide.” Just saying.
Spencer supports government programs of forced sterilization, or at least forced contraception, to prevent births among people of color. Here is what he said to Salon reporter Lauren M. Fox in 2013 on the topic of genetics:
“We are undergoing a sad process of degeneration… We will need to reverse it using the state and the government. You incentivize people with higher intelligence, you incentivize people who are healthy to have children. And it sounds terrible and nasty, but there would be a great use of contraception.”
So, he believes that “the state and the government” should reverse genetic “degeneration.” Spencer believes in the same tired eugenics of Nazi Germany. He believes in the genetic “inferiority” of certain people. Followers of the “Alt Right” movement believe in the debunked science of IQ tests as predictors of intelligence. (IQ tests tend to more accurately measure how uncreatively young minds have assimilated into the capitalist system.) So when Spencer says that he wants to preserve people with “higher intelligence,” he means he wants people of color to use “contraception” as part of a government program. That’s forced sterilization based on race, which is a form of genocide.
Also, “peaceful ethnic cleansing” isn’t a thing. No, ethnic cleansing is always violent — at best as violent as a concentration camp, or as violent as forcing someone to wear a straightjacket in a white rubber room. But Spencer called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” in a 2013 speech at the American Renaissance conference. Guess what? That too is genocide.”
Right-wing operatives have succeeded in dividing the political left over the idea of Nazis and white supremacists having free speech. But stopping genocide should be a no-brainer.
If we win, they need to stop trying to dominate others and accept the idea that all people are created equal. If they win, there will be untold suffering as people they deem inferior are killed. Right now, we still have a choice. The only logical course of action is to oppose them now, before their movement begins the slaughter.
If your liberal friends truly believe that we can save the world just by talking, maybe they’ll want to have a nice, long conversation with you about free speech. If you’ve taken a glance at this article, perhaps you’ll be equipped with some new material to convince them in the course of free and open debate. Good luck with that!