Thursday, 9 July 2020

Lofty liberals only reveal their own limitations and intolerance in calling for an end to 'cancel culture'

There's been wide reaction to a letter at Harper's magazine signed by varying notable figures calling for a greater defence of open speech and an end to 'cancel culture'.

As the piece states:

"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

Noam Chomsky, a longstanding advocate of universal free speech, is included as a key signatory to the letter. 

But his name sits alongside an array of more liberal voices with rather less rightful claim as defenders of truly fearless speech.

Chomsky is essentially correct in his basic premise about the fundamental right to free and critical speech. 

This may sit uncomfortably with many leftists, notably those more inclined towards varying forms of  'identity politics'. 

But Chomsky's imperative of free speech for all should be seen neither as a liberal clarion call, nor as an undermining of any radical politics or movements.

And, to be absolutely clear here, Chomsky is not defending racists, the far-right or, as even more ignorant charges suggest, Holocaust deniers. Nor does he defend any right to hate speech or incitement to violence.

But the real issue here is not actually with Chomsky or his position on free speech. 

Rather, it's the contrived way in which the letter itself is being presented as a 'noble liberal backlash' against 'intimidation' of those wishing open discussion.

And, as the great liberal alarm call over 'fake news' goes relentlessly on, this false narrative has even deeper implications for how the very 'problem' of free speech is being framed, and who has the right to frame it. 

Much more alarmingly, we're seeing how big social media corporations are now acquiring the power and 'moral authority' to decide what views are permissible - all in insidious agreement with elite state forces. 

Ban one from the right and 'balance' it up with exclusion of one from the left. All seemingly neutral, responsible and benign. Yet before you know it, big swathes of progressive voices are suddenly gone, leaving us with a vacuous landscape of safe, compliant liberal centrism.

Chomsky himself would certainly recognise and warn against that danger to free speech, unlike, one suspects, many others on this list.

A good litmus test for people like Frum, Ignatieff, Nelson, Rowling, Atwood and many other 'free-speechers' here is how they use their voices on Israel. 

How many of these 'guardians' of open, expansive speech are up in arms over the right to criticise Israel, or are seeking to amplify Palestinian voices? 

How many here are openly questioning the growing taboo and climate of fear around even mentioning Israel's crimes and its apartheid state? 

Even if they don't uphold Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, how many are ready to call for open and expansive discussion of the legitimate claims behind it? 

This is real cancel culture.

How many of these figures, so apparently concerned over the closure of probing discourse, are worried enough to condemn the Labour Party's McCarthyite witch-hunting of members who question the doctrine of Zionism? 

How many are calling out the dark alignment of forces within that party now purging anyone who dares critically discuss Israel's ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism and ongoing violations of international law? 

Chomsky does. Consistently. Do any of the others?

Remember all that liberal je suis Hebdo breast-beating in supposed defence of all political views, however difficult? In France itself, you're likely to get locked up now for condemning Israel.

Nor are you likely to hear many of the figures on this list speak up for Julian Assange, or call out the rest of the 'tolerant liberal media's' effective closure of discussion around both his vital journalistic exposures or his ongoing persecution. 

Chomsky, of course, again stands as a consistent and moral voice in this and all such cases.

Yet while Chomsky has earned the moral right to put his name to any letter on free speech, we're also entitled to wonder about the very usefulness of placing it here alongside such figures, and on a liberal  platform which itself serves to manage and control the parameters of 'dangerous' views and discussion. 

Publications like Harper's, as with almost all liberal 'mainstream' media, readily laud 'open, challenging speech' while effectively filtering, through 'in-house' selection, editorial omission and other such means the permissible range of 'difficult' topics and radical voices.

Paradoxically, and unfortunately, Chomsky's honourable position on free speech has been used here as kind of fig leaf to mask this publication's, and the wider liberal media's, own effective limiting of radical discourse.

It is pure liberal posturing.

The real issue for expansive, fearless discussion here is the vital part that safe, conformist, establishment-serving media and academia at large play in toning down dissent, incorporating radical movements and policing output which exposes that very liberal 'authority' and its claims to speak as the 'principal guardian of our freedoms'. 

The career interests at stake in the perpetuation of this self-promoting illusion are, of course, considerable.

All that much more vital discussion has been cancelled out by the faux liberal-generated narrative around this story. 

While bewailing 'cancel culture', such liberal voices have been only too ready to cancel, de-platform and ghost radical voices. 

And the most disgracefully ghosted and marginalised of them all over the years has been Chomsky himself.

Many such big names, again with the notable exception of Chomsky, have been all too willing to throw progressives and the causes they wish to raise under the bus. 

Again, one only need look at coy journalists at outlets like the Guardian in working relentlessly to cancel Corbyn and his left agenda, and using the 'antisemitism' smear to cancel out so many decent critics of Israel.

The easy liberal claim here is that we should all be striving for more brave discussion and debate. 

But where is their boldness of action in examining their own elite consensus, resisting McCarthyite culture and defending the truly cancelled?

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