Revolution #66, October 22, 2006
Some Thoughts on Freedom of Speech, Academic Freedom, Fascist Suppression…and the Minutemen At Columbia
Submitted by a reader
As many of your readers know, there has been a huge controversy in New York (and elsewhere) since the Minutemen speech at Columbia University. As Jim Gilchrist, leader of the Minutemen, began to speak, students took the stage with banners expressing their views that “No Human Being is Illegal”; Minutemen sympathizers attacked the students, and the speech ended.
I wanted to write on a few important questions that have come up in the course of this debate.
1) Do we need freedom of speech?
Yes, we do, and on a whole other level. We need the clash of ideas in order to more fully understand reality. And we need to understand reality as deeply as possible not only for its own sake, but in order to change it (and there is plenty that needs changing). People need to be free to follow their thinking where it takes them, and to air unpopular ideas and argue them out with others. This is essential in getting at and discovering the truth.
In capitalist society, the dominant ideas reflect and serve the interests of the dominant class in society, the capitalists. In that context, contending ideas are, at best, viewed as competing commodities in the “marketplace of ideas.” This is a framework that stifles the exchange of ideas and severely restricts the search for truth. Even in this context, supposed guarantees of freedom of speech are at best sharply contested under capitalism, and usually observed in theory only. There is a whole history in the United States, for instance, of the state jailing and even murdering revolutionaries and progressives—either through kangaroo trials, police assassination, sponsoring or turning a blind eye to lynchings, etc. Police, national guard and even the army have been called out to suppress people demanding equality or unions or opposing imperialist wars—again, all through U.S. history. In everyday life there is an ongoing pressure and chill not to get out of line, lest you lose your job or worse. And this doesn’t even begin to get to the ways that the major media and forms of dissemination of ideas are dominated by the most powerful imperialists, the everyday ways that public opinion is manipulated and opposing ideas suppressed. This is the reality of capitalist dictatorship beneath the democratic rhetoric: a climate of enforced conformity backed up when necessary by violent state suppression to protect imperialist interests.
Today the climate is especially chilling. From President Bush’s press spokesman telling everyone to “watch what they say,” to his minions threatening the New York Times with treason charges for exposing (illegal) government wiretapping programs; from the Patriot Act which allows all kinds of government spying and harassment to the new bill legalizing torture: this is the order of the day from the highest offices of the land. In New York, we have the great champion of “free speech” Mayor Bloomberg—who just two years ago refused people permits to demonstrate against the Republican Convention. At least two suits filed in Manhattan federal court said police detained more than 1,800 people during the convention, many of whom were not even demonstrators. From top to bottom, the state and those who support this state are embarked on a drastic program of fascist-style suppression.
And yes, as part of this, free speech and academic freedom are very much under assault on campus. But the assault comes straight from the right. The University of Colorado moves to fire Ward Churchill on the flimsiest of pretexts—when everyone knows it was really for his speech after 9/11. Meanwhile, David Horowitz puts out lists of “suspect” teachers for his storm-trooping students to hound and harass. He flies all over the country and gets tons of TV time, right-wing money, and support from Karl Rove to carry out his McCarthyite campaign. A real and justified fear of suppression stalks the campuses.
This is the real fascist threat to free speech in society right now; this is what must be opposed and fought.
2) What about the Minutemen at Columbia?
The Minutemen is a racist vigilante group. Their entire raison d’etre consists of patrolling of the border with guns in order to terrorize and hunt down immigrants, and to force them into ever more dangerous and even deadly situations. This is not something the Minutemen just advocate; this is something they do, and something they want to do more of, and everything they do serves that end. Their speeches are little more than the vocal equivalent of KKK cross-burnings and have no place on campus or anywhere else.
[Editor’s Note: For a revealing and chilling picture of this, see “Arizona Showdown: High-powered firearms, militia maneuvers and racism at the Minuteman Project” by David Holthouse, at the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org)]
And in actual fact, these thugs were NOT suppressed at Columbia. They came on campus and found themselves confronted by people who went on stage to hold banners to oppose them. This was not the state suppressing the Minutemen; these were masses challenging them. The Minutemen supporters attacked those holding the banners—and this can be seen on the Youtube videos—and then, like the bullies they are, these Minutemen posed as the victims. Now this has been whipped into a cause celebre throughout society—distorted and exaggerated by outright fascists like David Horowitz, the high commissioner of campus witchhunts and the pied piper of the modern-day equivalent of the Hitler Youth, and Bill O’Reilly, who can hardly let a show pass by without calling for the trial of one dissenter or another on charges of treason. They and the more powerful forces behind them pursue a larger agenda: they intend to destroy the campuses as any kind of space for free inquiry or critical thinking, as a key part an entire agenda that is attempting to cement U.S. power in the world as unchallenged and unchallengeable, and to hammer together social cohesion within the U.S. during a period of big changes and turmoil in society.
This whole Minuteman incident is a provocation, a smokescreen, and has been seized on to reverse right and wrong and further push forward a repressive and reactionary agenda. And now there is talk of bringing in the state to punish these students—students!—for talking back during a reactionary, hate-mongering speech.
3) Would there be freedom of speech and academic freedom under socialism?
Yes there would be—and much more of it, by several orders of magnitude and in a qualitatively different way. Again, we need the fullest possible contesting of ideas and wrangling to get to the truth, and unlike the current system, this will not be distorted and suppressed on account of the basically irreconcilable contradiction between preserving the rule of capitalism on the one hand, and the more or less unfettered pursuit of the truth on the other. There is a joy in the process of coming to know the truth, and even more there is the necessity to know the truth, in as much of its complexity as possible, if one wants to change the world in a way corresponding to reality—and the state in socialist society must be all about changing the world, getting to a society totally free of exploitation and exploitative relations, of oppressive institutions and relations between people, and of the ideas that reflect those relations. And this society-wide contesting will be possible, for the first time, because access to means of getting out ideas will no longer be constrained by how much capital you control (or how well you serve those who do control it) and more generally by market relations. The state will NOT be set up as it is today, under capitalism, to suppress the masses of people and to keep whatever wrangling is allowed to exist within strict limits, and/or divert it into pathways that serve the maintenance of the status quo of exploitation and oppression, in one form or another. Instead the state will involve the broadest possible masses (with the exception of proven counter-revolutionaries) in wrangling over the future of society, as a necessary part of both overcoming exploitative and oppressive relations and institutions and ideas, and preventing and, yes, suppressing attempts at capitalist restoration from within and without.
This doesn’t mean that every single theory will be taught in academia or get “equal time.” There will never be unlimited resources for publishing books, producing movies, and so on, and there will need to be leadership given to which ideas are generally considered to be true and acted upon (even as they remain open to inquiry and debate), which ideas should be key focuses of debate, and which ones not really given much attention to at all. Things that have been proven to be untrue—theories that the universe was created by a god in six days, or that demons cause epilepsy—will not be taught in the schools, or widely publicized (though people will still be able to voice such theories). What is known to be true will be the basis for curricula in schools—though there will be room for debate over that, for all the reasons cited above, as well as the very important fact that what is understood to be true today can often be shown to be wrong, or at least incomplete, tomorrow.
Again, going forward requires not only basing ourselves on and going by what has proven to be true at any given time, and on that basis unleashing people to transform reality, but fostering widespread debate and dissent in order to constantly deepen our understanding of reality. This includes people being able to express opposition not only to government policy, but to socialism itself and to demand a return to capitalism; even though that would be wrong, it would also be wrong to suppress it, and for two reasons. First, because such suppression would put a chill more broadly on society. And second, because people raising those demands may have an element of truth to criticisms that they are making, or their criticisms may reflect important contradictions in society, and finding out about and debating these will help people learn more deeply about the world—even if the thrust and weight of their criticisms and advocacy are wrong and even destructive. These questions will be resolved by debate and struggle, not suppression—whether openly or by threats.
But there is a crucial difference in socialist society between advocating that the socialist state be replaced by capitalism, and actually carrying out criminal actions against that state. These would NOT be allowed. Socialist states have in the past (when they existed) and will in the future face real threats and cannot hesitate to forcefully respond to those. But again, the socialist state should NOT in doing that confound real counter-revolutionary attempts with people merely expressing opposing ideas, and we have to do much better on that in the future socialist states. This will be difficult and very complex but must be done, in order to move forward to a society of freely associating human beings, and a world ultimately without the need for states and apparatuses of repression. And that is a goal well worth moving toward and a road—a challenging and tortuous road but also an exciting road, full of intellectual ferment and stimulation—well worth exploring, and taking!
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