Against Free Speech Pt. 2

My friends and colleagues already know well my position on matters of “civil liberties” and “free speech”: in short, 1) invocations for such things are often red herrings and/or diversions from real discussions about power and inequality, and 2) they are premised on such liberal utopian notions as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “marketplace of ideas,” which I argue never has existed, and never will in the context of a civil libertarian free market.

As I read the latest round of responses regarding the “fracas” at Middlebury College, the accompanying rebirth of arguments about the “coddling” of students, and new arguments for the alleged “tyranny” of “intersectionality,” I wasn’t sure if there was anything I wanted to do besides shout curses at Twitter. And there have been some very good pieces written in response to the backlash. But I do wonder if there are ways that we can think about this matter that have yet to be entertained by others. ** WARNING: This is probably going to be a random, impressionistic, and incomplete set of thoughts. **

Continue reading “Against Free Speech Pt. 2”

Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?

The latest Star Wars film, Rogue One, isn’t “political” according to Disney, the studio that produced the film. But according to Kate Aronoff of Jacobin, it is if we want to be. Aronoff argues that Rogue One is “politically substantive” from a leftist perspective, and a celebration of “rebellion from below.” Other outlets of cultural criticism, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, have published similar analyses of the film, ones that posit that Rogue One is anti-fascist, a much-needed boon to progressive discourse at the dawn of the age of Trump.

Aronoff is right to point out that the meaning made from the film will ultimately come from its viewers, and that the potential gains that may come out of making leftist meaning from the film, by coopting its narratives and signifiers, are such that we should not dismiss Rogue One and other pop culture blockbusters like it lightly. I want to argue, not contrary to this, but from a different perspective: that which sees Rogue One as a symptom of and contribution to what Nicole Aschoff calls the “meta-stories” of our neoliberal age. Rogue One may hold out interpretive promise, but it stands from the start as an expression of libertarian myths and symbols. Continue reading “Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?”

On Pragmatism and Principles

Ever since reading James Livingston and Louis Menand some years back, I’ve enjoyed some sympathy with the ideas of pragmatism.[1] In short, the philosophy articulated by Charles Pierce and William James posits that ideas cannot be separated from the contexts in which they operate. There is no objective truth; what is true is whatever is most useful or functional in a given time or place.

I’ve just begun reading Kim Phillips-Fein’s history of the anti-New Deal movement among businessmen, and I never cease to be struck by how at the nadir of the Great Depression, free market advocates adhered to certain truths, or principles, in their discourse. When Roosevelt sought to create the Securities and Exchange Commission, the du Ponts of the Du Pont corporation were horrified, understanding such an institution to threaten, as Phillips-Fein puts it, the “inevitable risks at the heart of life.”[2] As a quarter of Americans were out of work, the du Ponts were concerned about an imagined future where Americans would be too safe and comfortable. Continue reading “On Pragmatism and Principles”

Against Free Speech

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over a year now since I’ve set foot on a college campus. And feeling a bit removed from academia, when the matter comes up I feel somewhat reluctant to share my views with my colleagues about the present debates surrounding campus politics.

But the latest wave of headlines, those that have centered on events at the University of Missouri and Yale University, have orbited to varying degrees around the idea of free speech. And having thought quite a lot, and published just a little, about civil liberties, I do feel qualified to throw in my two cents. Continue reading “Against Free Speech”

The Avant Garde Liberalism of Auntie Mame: Or How Americans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Language of the Cold War

Auntie Mame was Hollywood’s highest grossing film of 1959. And historians have written a lot about the films of this period. (I know, I’m one of them.) So why has no one written about Auntie Mame?

Too often, we look to the margins when we should look at the center. (David Welky makes such a case in Everything Was Better in America, a study of Depression-era print culture.) For historians of the blacklist era, looking at the margins has yielded countless studies of anti-communist cinema gems like The Red MenaceInvasion U.S.A. and I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., as well as examinations of the blacklisted film Salt of the Earth. But more work needs to be done on mainstream films, particularly those of the late fifties. Continue reading “The Avant Garde Liberalism of Auntie Mame: Or How Americans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Language of the Cold War”

Are We Liberal Enough Yet?

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court voted in favor of same sex marriage rights, and this week, the South Carolina government voted to take down the Confederate flag, and these are good things, and they probably represent progress.

It’s a mistake, however, to imagine that progress as proceeding on a line that extends as part of a 1 dimensional spectrum, from “conservative” to “liberal.” Such a construction flattens the terrain on which people’s ideologies and identifications stand. And it ignores the ways in which progress towards tolerance is fundamentally different than towards structural and material change.

Of course, historians and cultural critics are no strangers to the idea that some forms of progress are easier made than others. Scholarly works such as Nancy MacLean’s Freedom is Not Enough and Jodi Melamed’s Represent and Destroy illustrate how tolerance and multiculturalism have worked in some ways to strengthen the systems that undergird inequality. Perhaps my favorite work that illuminates the two forms of progress is Wendy Wall’s Inventing the “American Way.” Wall’s argument is centered around the difference between governing discourses of “civility” versus those of “equality” (by which she means equality power and/or material wealth). At mid-century, prominent Americans in business, government, and even labor evaded the need for programs of equality by focussing on those that stressed civility.

The aforementioned progress that we’ve seen in the last few weeks may prove to be powerful symbolically, but for now, they’re changes towards civility more than equality. And the idea that progress in the former ultimately leads to progress in the latter just doesn’t bear out in recent history.

Furthermore, such an idea ignores the long history of liberalism in the United States. Commentators have recently been asking, somewhat incessantly, “is the Supreme Court ‘liberal’ now?” in a manner that elides the meaning of the term. It’s the right question being asked for the wrong reason. The court is liberal because it privileges an individual conception of the self, one which sees a person’s ability and right to enter into contracts with one another as the beginning and end of meaningful social interaction.

Bernie Sanders has taken flak from some corners of the media for his approach towards talking about race. But he appears to be the only candidate in the race that understands that liberalism is not the solution. A recent article on the New York Times website makes some of the problems around the usage of the term “liberalism” clear. In one of the many, many reasons why I’m loving Bernie Sanders right now, the socialist presidential candidate says “I’m not a liberal. Never have been.” And yet Nate Cohn, the author’s article dismisses the distinction as “slim” and proceeds to throw the word “liberal” around rather recklessly.

Commentators like Cohn write as if Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) exist only to make Hilary Clinton “more liberal.” I maintain that the last thing we need is for our presidential candidates, or anyone for that matter, to become more liberal.

Ferguson’s Libertarian Problem

I’ve been thinking about the “national conversation” that the tragic killings of unarmed young men of color in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere has spurred. Most recently, Ferguson is back in the news after the Department of Justice released the results of its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. The pop culture analysis that I perform as a historian hinges largely upon the importance of making a distinction between the discourse of “civil liberties” and “civil rights.” And it seems like this problem — that of racism, economic inequality, and police brutality — is  ripe for this kind of analysis.

In short, here is the distinction between civil liberties and civil rights: civil liberties are protections from the state, civil rights are protections provided by the state. Civil liberties limit the state’s power, and civil rights afford the state power. The first two amendments to the US Constitution are great examples of civil liberties. They protect the state (by which I mean the federal government) from impinging on the so-called “natural rights” that liberalism, in the classical sense, presumes every individual to have.

It’s more difficult to find an example of civil rights in this country, because quite frankly, it’s full of civil libertarians. If the country had an Economic Bill of Rights, as was conceived by Franklin Roosevelt and floated by Truman in 1946 before the Democrats were trounced that year, that would be a civil right. If the country had nationalized medicine and guaranteed health care for every citizen, that would be a civil right. It could be argued that the right to vote is a civil right. While it allows individuals to act as such within a system designed to legitimize and reify classical liberal theory, it also requires positive actions on the part of the state.

Since last summer, the discussion around the problem of the police has seen the problem as a disease rather than a symptom. In this framing, the enemy of the people is the “police state.” This is a reflex that has roots on the left — it goes back to Marx’s concept of the super structure — but it is also profoundly conservative and libertarian, dating back to the myth of Jeffersonianism that imagines the country’s success as the product of self-sufficient, independent, land-owning farmers. And in an era of globalization, neoliberalism, and waning state power, it’s profoundly run out of utility. (Actually, progressive intellectuals and activists of a hundred years ago, from Dewey to Debs, thought as much.) To blame the problem solely on the police is to ignore all of the reasons that crime and violence inhabit geographic spaces that are rife with economic inequality. Reasons that have little to do with state power other than its absence.

Last week, the radio show On the Media pointed out that protests in Ferguson carried out by local community members have been about not only police brutality, but also the lack of jobs and the struggles of “day to day” life. These local activists, the show pointed out, aren’t on Twitter, and aren’t the subject of national attention. Instead, national attention has gone to the civil libertarians. The case is likewise here in Asheville, North Carolina, where a strong civil libertarian and individualistic current takes the place of any kind of real progressive political discourse. Protesters, mostly dreadlocked hippie dudes, take to downtown with signs decrying the “pigs,” illustrating an intellectual sophistication and vocabulary rivaling that which I had when I was in seventh grade.

Gandhi once said that the greatest violence is that of poverty. Such violence — that which conjures no flashy headlines — requires no police state. Its superstructure — if we are to call it that — is multifaceted and diffuse, situated not only, and not even primarily, with local, state, or federal governments. (Such institutions, as Foucault would say, are only where power is most intelligible.) And to solve it requires an emphasis on civil rights, and not civil liberties per se.

And in the midst of this contemporary media environment, in which images of the recent killings are juxtaposed with those of the 50th anniversary of the historic events in Selma, Alabama, it’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought so too. The libertarianism of today would have confounded him, I think. In his 1967 Where Do We Go From Here, King called for the same thing that Roosevelt and Truman wanted: an Economic Bill of Rights, one that would provide the civil right of a guaranteed income and/or job.

To be sure, police violence and racism are abhorrent and calls to end it are just. But little real progress is made when the Justice Department, the White House, the Congress, the media, and the Left treat it as a disease rather than a symptom of the larger problem of structural racial and economic inequality.