Free Speech Year

By Joshua Clover

While few would dispute that there has been renaissance of open white nationalism since Donald Trump’s election, it has proved difficult for many to narrate the white nationalist movement as a movement. Repeatedly over the last year, people — people in positions of significant power — have treated each rally, gathering, or other event as if it had arisen from nowhere, or from some subterranean roil, singular, independent of previous events. The treatment of each event as discrete, rather than as part of a sustained political project, is a political problem itself, one that has already cost and continues to risk more lives.

This difficulty does not lack for causes. There are at least three leading sources of mystification. First, it is hard to know where the story begins. Inseparable from the election, the movement was not born with it. For example, the neofascist rally in Sacramento last year, led by the Golden State Skins and Traditionalist Workers Party (at which nine antifascists were hospitalized, most of them having been stabbed), was no doubt a vitriolic response to aggressive protests of Trump rallies. At the same time, such gatherings have been a longtime feature of US politics, rising from the nation’s unbroken history of white supremacy and the ineradicable lure of European fascism. It is no easy task to hold these complex and enduring histories in mind while still accounting for what seems like the emergence of a new and volatile political phenomenon, and all too easy to get tangled in invidious debates about whether it’s really new, really fascism, and so on.

Second, the white nationalist movement, emboldened by the placing of representatives in the White House, comprises a welter of organizations with differing postures, logos, and espoused politics. Dozens, hundreds. “Alternative right” was first used in 2008; the Klan date to the end of the Civil War; Identity Evropa to March of last year. The motley crews orbit the gravitational pulls of genocidal ethnonationalists, libertarian patriot groups, and desperately resentful meme enthusiasts. They mobilize the social forms of the gang, the militia, the internet swarm. The name “alt-right” endeavors not to explain but merely to gather these tendencies, obscuring more than it reveals.

Third, the strategic hysteria of corporate media has made useful reporting very hard to come by. They have proved themselves impressively open-minded regarding the disavowals of rally organizers, passionately attentive to the specter of violence save that by police officers, and indifferent to historical and political knowledge. Moreover, in a strange inversion, the very journals whose claim on the public good lies in their promised facticity have adopted in this case a perpetual moral panic, shifting coverage from news or analysis to the opinion pages. We do not learn much regarding how Matthew Heimbach, who organized the Sacramento neo-Nazi rally in 2016, was a main force behind the “Unite the Right” gathering in Charlottesville. However, we hear quite a bit about the fact that killing someone with a car is bad, as is wearing a mask. To judge from the column inches, the latter is the greater abomination.

These factors have been mobilized incessantly by the movement itself to produce a cloud of unknowing, precisely so that each gathering can go about its corrupt business without bearing responsibility for the last. Richard Spencer’s famous on-camera punch was preceded directly by his fatuous claim, “Neo-Nazis don’t love me, they kind of hate me.” Nah, my man. Just: nah. And yet a version of that dissimulation has been offered by every manner of white nationalist party planner over the last few months, while organizing the next white nationalist party. We don’t know whoever was responsible for the last violent episode. We have nothing to do with them. We just want to discuss some contentious views. Nothing here to see here but the marketplace of ideas. It’s the fash version of “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” Seemingly ensorcelled, people acted over and over as if they believed such arrant nonsense.

All of this has led to perhaps the most bizarre political impasse of our moment: otherwise intelligent people seem unable to evaluate any given white nationalist event in the context of what has preceded it. One need not reach back to the horrors of Tulsa in 1921, as Claudia Rankine did so eloquently in the New York Times. One could just look at the previous month and draw a goddamned line. This has proved strangely challenging for pundits, politicians, and university administrators. The world begins anew each day. Each further provocation is treated as without history and thus presumptively legitimate.

It is as if the world’s oncologists, each time they encountered a sarcoma, were to say, “well, maybe this one is a nice tumor, how are we to know? It probably just wants to exercise its speech rights.”

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Against this it is worth noting that the last year has offered a fairly clear and coherent trajectory. No doubt the movement’s adherents demonstrate all kinds of internal differences and political disagreements; could we not say the same of the Democratic Party? Extreme misogyny features regularly. Many but not all come down firmly on the Hitler side of the “Jewish question.” Some enjoy threatening the lives of trans people, or attending rallies costumed as characters from their literary canon. Some were forged in the crucible of Gamergate, others in the fires of burning crosses. They are unified most immediately by a commitment to disciplining non-white people via violence and its threat toward the project of imposing an authoritarian regime of racial hierarchy, with visions ranging from brutal subordination to mass murder. This project, along with the willingness to devote time and resources to it, is broadly shared.

Indeed, the first and simplest way to describe the last year as been as an experiment in the naturalization of this project. To what extent can we walk the streets freely? How much nativist fascism can we get away with? In so doing, the complementary goals are to unify in practice groups conjoined already in their political orientation, such that they can function together more effectively; and to draw more recruits happy to learn that their violent racism is cool now. Because it is an experiment, each positive result will be followed by a test that pushes the limits further; each failure requires a retreat, recognizing that for the moment the limit has been exceeded. So has the year been.

The experiment started by sending mediagenic hate preachers to campuses known for progressive values, compelling the hosts either to allow ethnonationalist recruiting events plus practical endangerment e.g. undocumented students, or display their own illiberality. The results were mixed: while it shortly became clear that the events would be prevented by a mix of campus and community members, liberal sympathies for “free speech” were preserved.

The experiment thus moved to public parks, generally in the same or similar progressive enclaves. Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement brand and second only to Detroit in its relative dearth of Trump voters, has proved irresistible. A series of gatherings in Martin Luther King, Jr Park, three blocks from campus, must have felt like sly retribution for every grievance pricking the racist imaginary. These and parallel events produced more or less successful results for the white nationalists. Declared a “Rally for Free Speech” of some sort, each was broadly disliked but treated by the city and community largely as spectacle, with a state-conferred legitimacy. In Berkeley, cops declined to intervene in a daylong brawl between nationalists and the few antifascists who came out to confront them. A rally in Portland was successfully protected by police. More and more the events transpired without adequate opposition; they would be allowed to happen. In the strange calculus of the movement, these outcomes were wins. The euphoric and ascending vitriol of their message boards was clear enough. Inevitably the experiment, per the protocol, was repeated at a higher level in Charlottesville. Campus, park, costumes, the usual. But turned up a notch.

Drawing confidence from the that great wellspring of racial hatred that is Confederate heritage, “Unite the Right” largely forsook the rhetoric of rights. The grouping of groups instead revived the fascist chant of “Blood and Soil,” punctuated by niceties such as “Jews will not replace us” and sieg heil salutes, all the while summoning a long history of antiblack terror. They went full Nazi with a massive dollop of Klan. As all readers will know, the events featured numerous acts of violence including but not limited to the targeted, collective, and sustained beating of a black man; a disrobed Klansmen pointing his pistol at another black man and then discharging it; and an adherent of Vanguard America killing a white woman with his car while endeavoring to murder any number of other counterprotestors.

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It is heartbreaking to suppose there has been some virtue to the horrors of Charlottesville. And yet it seemed like a spell had been broken. That is the way death works in fairy tales, at least sometimes.  Some understood the fatality and surrounding violence as uniquely horrifying. Just like the rally itself it was not unique at all. It was an inevitable consequence of the murderous violence that had been a feature of the movement from its beginning.

That is how narratives work. In the arc of the white nationalist rallies, James Fields’ Dodge Challenger was the gun going off in the third act that had been hanging over the mantel since Sacramento. Except it had already gone off. It had gone off when white nationalist Jeremy Christian murdered two people in Portland immediately in advance of the “Trump Rally for Free Speech” there. It had gone off all too literally in January when a Milo Yiannopoulos fan shot a protestor near-fatally at a University of Washington speaking gig. These were all of a piece, shows of power-cum-recruitment rallies systematically featuring deadly force (apparently I am compelled to note that there are precisely no instances of similar force among antifascists over the same period). The white nationalist movement’s pretense of “free speech” was revealed for the idiot ruse it had always been.

The white nationalist movement did exactly what one would expect after such a failed experiment: dialed things back from celebratory genocide play and endeavored to reclaim the more salubrious terrain of free speech. It was not to be. Almost immediately, alt-right events were cancelled nationwide. It wasn’t exactly that people grasped that hate speech should not be protected. The realization was more that free speech was the wrong framework — that these events were designed to allow something else, to produce something else. Designed to produce death and threat of death, violence and threat of violence for nonwhite people and those opposed to white nationalism, most evidently. And to produce authoritarian power indissociable from that violence. The movement was a single cancer metastasizing to various parts of the body politic. Cancer kills. At least six state universities, from Michigan to Texas, cancelled talks by Richard Spencer. A gathering in Boston the next week ended abruptly when a few dozen white nationalists encountered 30,000 protestors. At that point, 67 “American First” rallies in more than 30 states were abandoned. Everyone seemed to get the message.

Almost everyone.

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Three days after James Alex Fields Jr. was charged with second degree murder, Carol Christ, the new Chancellor of UC Berkeley, declared the advent of “Free Speech Year” on her campus.

The Chancellor’s declaration was a gift to the white nationalist movement. As was clear from Boston, and then the Bay Area a week later where two further rallies were voided by antifascist coalitions, the supremacist walkback to a discourse of rights wasn’t really working. Facing loss after loss, denied the opportunities for naturalization and coordination, the internal divisions within the movement began to tear it apart. It limped toward autumn badly fractured. It needed a win. Enter Christ.

The year’s opening jamboree, “Free Speech Week,” is set for September 24-28; Milo will be the master of ceremonies. Among his many charms, Milo has of late sic’d his Facebook followers on a professor of color who had the temerity to note the obvious fact that many white nationalists liked to appropriate medieval symbols, drawing on the fantasy of a racially pure past to ennoble contemporary ethnonationalisms, and that this obligated teachers to consider the context of white supremacy. Milo, master of peer review, tagged his post “#FakeScholar.” The attached image encouraged his Facebook followers to imagine beating the professor with pseudo-medieval weaponry; multiple threats of violence ensued. To treat this as tolerable for a university visitor is impossibly shameful. To suppose you are not legitimating racist violence on your own campus is worse. And yet this is the Chancellor’s decision.

The local community of free speech fetishists, who resemble nothing so much as a bad novelist’s idea of trauma victims, trapped in a long-past episode through which they misinterpret every instant of the present, danced with self-righteous delight. Everybody else was dumbfounded and frightened. If the decision was not openly racist, it was the paradigm of tone-deaf. Like, read the room. Christ instead offered the humiliated concatenation of banalities, what we might call the free speech macro. Marketplace of ideas. Meet hate speech with more speech. Constitutional requirements (she has not accounted for why so many public universities have of late concluded they need not provide a platform to Spencer and his ilk). Moreover, she chancellorsplained, free speech played a special role in the Berkeley tradition. Among other things, it was a corporate incubator; apparently the movement helped to inspire the founding of famed local bistro Chez Panisse. Free speech practically rhymes with prix fixe, which on your average evening starts at 100 bucks.

One could here make the points that have been well-made elsewhere: that free speech is not a neutral terrain but has always been a shifting field, subject to the play of political forces; that free speech protections are meant to defend dissent, not wounded power; that the participants have no claim on speech as they are not entering into reasoned debate; that the safety of the campus and community is at stake, some people’s safety more than others; and so many more. One could linger on the gross irony wherein celebrated anthropologist Anna Tsing’s campus talk was cancelled because it fell on the same day as Milo’s, making a mockery of protestations to equal treatment for all speech.

These all bear consideration. I’d like to end instead with two other inquiries. One concerns the history of “objectivity” as a basis for deciding who is and is not allowed access to the campus community. The present argument presupposes that the foundation of education is the capacity of objective judgment. This we employ freely to select our own beliefs within the vaunted marketplace of ideas, measuring the merits of arguments by white nationalists and those who oppose them (the side regularly derided as social justice warriors and, somewhat obsessively by the right, as “cultural Marxists”). Free of interference from the administration, who of course seeks only to provide fair footing for this judgment, we will determine for ourselves the objective validity of the positions on offer. Only by this will we preserve a legitimate, variegated, and open community.

During the Cold War, the American university found itself in need of a justification for its own particular contributions to McCarthyism. Protections of academic freedom purported to rule out such discrimination. A workaround would be needed. In California it began with the “California Plan,” which mandated that all university hires, public and private, would be vetted by the administration in consultation with CUAC, the California Un-American Activities Committee. The vital adjunct to this plan, the Allen Formula, held that any political belief that lacked “objective validity” was proof of intellectual incompetence. This policy was used entirely against those professing an admiration for communism, who were considered according to this formula to be incapable of objective reason. The pretense of intellectual neutrality was not only preserved but leveraged to include some and while excluding others.

And so today. It is compelling in its own right to meditate on the subterranean relation between communism in the ‘50s and Black Lives Matters today as antagonists of the racial capitalist order. For the moment the crucial point concerns how, over the history of the university, “objectivity” has functioned as an administrative instrument of neither truth nor reason, but of racial and class domination. Good work, objectivity. An intellectual fiction in this case, it is nonetheless the premise on which the present Cal chancellor depends. The Allen Formula, as it happens, was developed by the President at the University of Washington in the late forties. Its success would land him his next job: Chancellor of UCLA. It is almost as if false claims on intellectual objectivity, weaponized to enact political preference, were a habit of the office.

But finally the most shameful thing about Chancellor Christ’s scheme is its own intellectual vacuity. It is a pure example of the case described at the beginning. An easily available historical assessment would grasp that a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos is not an isolated expression of contentious ideas but a constitutive part of the movement that in its long and distributed rally lynched Deandre Harris and murdered Heather Heyer.

Perhaps it is a memory failure. Who can remember back as far as mid-August? Or perhaps the Chancellor’s misprision is a version of “bad apple theory.” You will be familiar with this form of blindness wherein one supposes that, for example, every police murder of a black person is the consequence of a bad individual officer; each killing a singular event unrelated to the history and the structure of policing. No body count can reform this naïve belief, for it cannot imagine that there is a unity to the killings, a danger present every time a cop appears, every time the white nationalists rally. It is a way of seeing the world without seeing its structure or its history. And it is, in a perfect inversion, one of the core mechanisms through which structural racism does its deadly and miserable work. This is what we speak about when we speak about Free Speech Year.

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