How the far-right co-opted “free speech”

This column was published at Maclean’s on May 1, 2017

It was the third time in as many months that supporters of President Donald Trump gathered in Berkeley, Calif., the historic birthplace of America’s Free Speech Movement and the cradle of anti-war protests in the Vietnam War era—but when met with counter-protesters on Apr. 15, the confrontation escalated into “something resembling a war zone.” Even after confiscating numerous makeshift weapons, police say fireworks and pepper spray were slung amid the mass street fights. In the end, some 20 people were arrested and 11 injuries were reported. By far, the most remarkable image to emerge from the day’s brawl saw Nathan Damigo, a former Marine—and convicted felon, and white supremacist—punching a black-clad, female counter-protestor square in the face.

To the casual observer, these violent confrontations involving far-right internet personalities, their extremist militant allies, and so-called anti-fascist activists—ostensibly defending freedom of speech—were just another example of an increasingly censorial left shutting down voices that offend them.

But it’s clear that the attendees’ fundamental motivation for the “Patriots Day” gathering wasn’t, as billed, to “stand united against censorship”—it was to use free expression as a shield, to incite a physical encounter with an anarchist opposition, to live-stream the experience for an online audience, and position themselves as martyrs. Damigo, after all, has since become the alt-right’s latest folk hero, celebrated in the darkest corners of the internet and added to the growing list of cult-like figures promoted as a draw for future mass provocations.

The noble pursuit of defending, even pushing the limits of, free expression has been co-opted by far-right status-seekers grasping at relevance through the misappropriation of a previous generation’s moral activism. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this well-rehearsed performance—this protest-violence theatre—which has become essential to fundraise and recruit for, but more importantly, further mythologize, the so-called alt-right. But in the wake of recent protests over University of California, Berkeley’s cancellation of a February talk by now-disgraced professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos, and this past weekend’s demonstration following UC Berkeley’s initial nixing of a planned lecture from Ann Coulter, it’s clear this act is on an extended run.

While Berkeley was responding to “very specific intelligence” of credible threats to the security of Coulter, and acted on “the assessment and recommendations of law enforcement professionals whose primary focus is the safety and well-being of our students and other members of our campus community,” it is worth noting that the outright cancellation was a gross violation of Coulter’s First Amendment rights. After warranted condemnation from across the political spectrum, the university reversed course, offering to host Coulter at “an appropriate, protectable venue” on campus just days later than the initially planned appearance. But no matter the facts or the circumstance —“everything we’re doing is so the speaker and students can actually exercise their rights without disruption,” explained university spokesman Dan Mogulof—the early mishandling provided Coulter and her supporters cause for martyrdom.

Coulter contended the school “just up and announced that I was prohibited from speaking.” Last Monday, the Young America’s Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans filed a suit against UC Berkeley, claiming officials sought “to restrict and stifle the speech of conservative students whose voices fall beyond the campus political orthodoxy.”

But Bridges USA, a politically moderate organization involved in Coulter’s invitation, seems to have clued in to the swindle. Pranav Jandhyala, who founded the group’s UC Berkeley chapter, admitted fears “about it turning into a huge battle between [Coulter’s] conservative militia and antifascists and others …We’re worried about violence and student safety and our own safety as well. It’s a huge concern.” More importantly, Jandhyala acknowledged that it was now clear that Coulter’s intention wasn’t to engage in any real dialogue, but to prove her own point.

Coulter declined the university’s offer to reschedule, as framing the matter as one of pure censorship offers maximum propagandistic value—a strategy of capitalizing on free-speech issues that has proven to be something of a PR coup for grievance-mongers.

Berkeley’s far-right agitators routinely invoke the memory of activist Mario Savio, the standard-bearer of the FSM, going so far as to declare themselves “the new Free Speech Movement.” This, while boasting of the endorsement of America’s highest office: “The more abuse and harassment we suffer,” warned the Berkeley College Republicans in a joint op-ed following Yiannopoulos’s cancelled appearance, “the more controversial speakers we will invite to campus. We proceed fearlessly because we know we have the president of the United States on our side.”

Indeed, in February, President Trump implicitly threatened to withhold federal funds from the university for failing to cater to Yiannopoulos who, amid the renewed controversy involving Coulter, has announced a comeback, sensing an opportunity to regain status and rehabilitate his ego—not to mention, profit mightily.

“We will give out a new free speech prize—the Mario Savio Award—to the person we believe has done most to protect free expression at UC Berkeley and its surrounding area,” proclaimed Yiannopoulos in promoting Milo’s “Free Speech Week.” “Each day will be dedicated to a different enemy of free speech, including feminism, Black Lives Matter and Islam.”

This co-opting of Savio’s legacy is a calculated provocation, one that his son Daniel calls “some kind of sick joke.” Savio led the FSM to victory in ending all restrictions to political activity on campus, which included the rights of orators from all political perspectives. “Rather than ban speakers he disagreed with, Savio debated them, whether they were deans, faculty, the student-body president, or whoever,” wrote Robert Cohen, author of Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s. “And this was the spirit not only of Savio but of the FSM, which had an almost Gandhian faith that through open discourse anyone had the potential to be won over” to a cause.

Savio was a veteran of the civil-rights movement, and as Cohen details, “sought to convince the editors of the student newspaper there that their use of the term “n—-r” in the paper was hurtful and irresponsible … Savio did not deny students had the right to print what they chose, but asked that they reach out to their black classmates and reflect on whether in the future they could be more thoughtful about the impact their words had on the campus community.”

The FSM’s quest was decent and honest—it was about engaging in open, rigorous debate and the exchange of ideas, no matter how inflammatory or loathsome, with a goal of making progress. What’s happening now isn’t about discussion: it’s pure political tribalism. People like Coulter and Yiannopoulos aren’t brought to campus to contribute substance—hearing either speak for a few minutes quickly puts lie to claims of their brilliance. They are skilled antagonists who can reliably incite backlash from a perceived enemy; they are, as Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian describes, the “outcome of a grotesque convergence of politics, entertainment and the internet in which an empty vessel can thrive unchecked by turning hate speech into show business.”

Where trauma, real or perceived, has become a sort of morbid currency in some circles of the left, often used to justify unworkable demands of individuals and institutions, the self-described “politically incorrect”—adults who consider childlike behaviour to be heroically subversive—are in the grievance trade. Because each provocation inflates the value of a carefully-crafted persona, victimhood is actively—and ironically—sought; they prey on the vulnerable, ridicule targets of well-documented discrimination, then cry persecution when met with resistance.

While it’s vital to uphold and protect the right of all speech on campus—even the most abhorrent rhetoric from the ranks of the alt-right—it’s crucial to identify this new game being played and, as Savio desired, critically judge “whether the speech … is really free, or merely cant.”

And it matters that influential voices, while rightly demanding institutions uphold free speech norms, explicitly make that distinction.

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