When Free Speech Fell Out of Fashion

What if all the good free speech has been defended already? The United States government hasn’t gone after James Joyce, DH Lawrence or Theodore Dreiser in a long time. While the occasional local library might perk up against this book or that, it seems like the real free speech fights are all about Twitter running the right wing QAnon conspiracy group off of its platform or whether Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos can visit a college campus. Even progressives who value freedom of speech highly yawn at that stuff.

Dare to Speak by Suzanne Nossel
People won’t support freedom of speech if it’s all about freedom of noxious speech.

Who really wants to go to the mat for the organizers of a white supremacy march looking for a parade permit? Who has the time, energy or spirit to want to stick up for those people? Free speech has an image problem. If the voices most prominent suppressed by legal, corporate or cultural voices are the ones spreading hate, racism, conspiracies and misinformation, folks will not lose sleep over it.

In her new book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech in Our Time (HarperCollins, July 2020), PEN America president Suzanne Nossel explores our collective willingness to loosen our commitment to the First Amendment in favor of other values that seem at least as important right now. “If free speech is discounted as a retrograde precept used mainly to provide a safe harbor for hateful ideologies, these protections will be vulnerable as political attitudes evolve,” she writes.

Attitudes are changing quickly among the young, who seem to take a narrow view of free speech rights (only the government can censor you, nobody has a right to a book deal) and who increasingly believe the government should get into the content regulation business. In 2017, Smith College surveyed its students and asked if “free speech should be granted to everyone regardless of how intolerant they are of other people’s opinions.” Only half said yes. When Smith conducted the same survey in 2007, 70% answered affirmatively. Pew says that 40% of Millenials support the government regulating speech that might be offensive to minorities. Nossel recalls a Black woman employee at PEN telling her “The First Amendment wasn’t written for me,” and then concedes that her employee had a point.

Nossel sees danger here and attempts to address it from a couple of a couple of angles.  First, her book is a defense of free speech as an innate human right, necessary for self-governance, economic success and all creative endeavours. But she recognizes this is not enough. While Pen America steadfastly defends, say, the rights of white novelists to write from the point of view of characters from other cultures and while it refuses to support boycotts that threaten to stop publications or to shutter events, she believes that the commitment to freedom of speech will only erode if other values aren’t included.

So, for example, while she’ll defend the rights of white authors to create whatever characters they want, she’ll also push the publishing industry to diversify itself, for its own good and the good of society. Maybe people would object less to the white voice if it weren’t the only voice. She also warns against needless provocation, particularly online, and counsels that better quality speech (knowing what you’re talking about) might pre-empt those social media cultural cancellations that get so much press. It’s the ignorant statement, rather than the innocent statement, that tends to cause people trouble, after all. Also, cool it on calling people “snowflakes.” It doesn’t help.

Of activists compelled to protest the speech of others, Nossel has some requests that will likely be ignored. Say your piece, she says, but stop short of drowning out the speaker. Attack ideas with enthusiasm, she says, but if your activism denies other people the chance to hear a talk, buy a book or see a film, you’ve gone too far. Eschew “The Heckler’s Veto” and don’t celebrate using social power to get people removed from their jobs or books pulled from store shelves. But Nossel’s call for civility has already been rejected by activists who claim the rules for civil debate seem designed specifically to mute their impact.

All of this seems to point towards either a resurgence of government regulation of the content of speech or for the government to encourage and reward large companies and social media platforms for acting on its behalf by running services that look like public spaces but are, in fact, gated gardens where owners can make the rules.

Our current system, where the government takes a largely neutral approach to speech content is only a century old, emanating from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Abrams vs. The United States where the Supreme Court allowed for the imprisonment of left wing activists protesting the U.S. contravention of the Russian Revolution. We could easily slip backwards.

“University of Michigan Law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon argues that judicial interpretations of the First Amendment have been progressively corrupting, such that ‘once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful.’” writes Nossel. “She decries that a one-time shelter for radicals, artists, and activists is now used to protect Nazis, Klansmen, racists, and misogynists.”

Countries in the European Union routinely ban hate speech, Holocaust denial and the like. Such laws would be unconstitutional here, but Nossel sees that public opinion is shifting to where most people would likely accept such prohibitions as fine. Then, if laws also required social networks to conform, people wouldn’t object to that either. To most people, the EU is hardly oppressive. So what if it’s illegal for some chump to show off his white power tattoos?

The full-throated defense of even abhorrent speech might become an extreme position in American politics. Nossel is committed to it and her book is necessary right now, both as a guide for how to argue and as a celebration of the moral foundation of an open society. Nossel should win the day. But I’m skeptical she will.

Everybody Missed the Point of “Apropos of Nothing”

Finally finished Woody Allen’s engrossing and hilarious memoir and have been reading the reviews along the way, as well. The press has focused on the issues between Woody and former lover Mia Farrow and yes, the last third of the book is about what it’s like to live falsely accused of a horrible crime. But that’s not what the book is about and it’s too bad that we now lack popular reviewers who can read more deeply.

Apropos of Nothing is the tale of Allen’s artistic success and his loves along the way, for sure. Woody’s taken uncanny heat in the press for describing attractive women as attractive women, particularly for his jokes and poetic license. He’s even breen criticized for enthusiastically participating in the free love decades, as if the right thing to have done would have been to abstained in preparation for pruder times. But even this is really not what the book is about.

The heart of the memoir is Woody’s description of his character Zelig, the human chameleon who takes on the beliefs, appearance and mannerisms of anybody he’s with:

Zelig was about how we all want to be accepted, to fit in, to not offend, that we often present a different person to different people knowing which person might best please. With someone who loves Moby Dick, for example, the protagonist will go along and find things to like and praise about it. With one who dislikes the book, the Zelig character will get with the program and dislike it. In the end, this obsession with conformity leads to fascism.”

Zelig, trying too hard to fit in…

This is a memoir about the virtues of self-direction, without deference to the opinions, desires and morals of others not because there’s anything wrong with other people or the way they think, but because it’s dangerous for society when individuals cave to what they perceive as the whims of others.

Allen’s movies have never been for everybody, and that’s intentional. He remarks in the book that he has no interest in collaborating with his audience on his films, so he’ll allow his backers to hold focus groups to inform their marketing but he won’t change his films based on some sample audience reaction. In an age where technocrats think they can quantify creative success, Allen’s story is a refreshing counterpoint.

In the end, his insistence on being himself is why he’s such a polarizing figure. Too few people are willing to do that in a world designed to reward those who merrily go along. This is the tale of a great iconoclast.

Publisher with History of Defying Censorship picks up Woody Allen’s Memoir

Arcade Publishing, the press that brought out Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing in a surprise drop today, has a venerable record of fighting censorship and prudery. Its founder, the late Richard Seaver, brought D.H. Lawrence’s suppressed novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover to the public in the 1950s.

Suppressed book finds a home!

From the 2009 New York Times obituary:

“Richard Seaver, an editor, translator and publisher who defied censorship, societal prudishness and conventional literary standards to bring works by rabble-rousing authors like Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and the Marquis de Sade to American readers, died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.”

As editor in chief of Grove, he also published The Story of O as well as work by William Burroughs, Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade. Arcade, the publisher he founded and grew into one of the most important independent publishers in the U.S. has an impressive backlist that includes the memoir of director Ingmar Bergman, for which Allen provided an introduction.

How appropriate that this daring publisher has stepped up to douse the flames of 2020’s virtual book burning.

Brett Easton Ellis’ White is a Necessary Manifesto

I don’t recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.

Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.

No adult should be afraid of a writer.

Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”

Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.

From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).

There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.

There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.

There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.

Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.

The Ongoing Censorship of Woody Allen

Today’s contribution is a link to my opinion commentary at MovieMaker magazine, a publication that has supported the independent film industry and the visions of thousands of artists, since 1992.

Please read about it here.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism

I don’t know what it was that had me reaching for my Voltaire a few months ago — probably something in the cultural air portending a dissolution of standards and, yes, a Closing of the American Mind that must be dealt with.

Forget Joe Biden, we need Voltaire.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism:

  1. Don’t speculate about real people’s personal lives, you’ll never get it right.
  2. Never wish a creative work out of existence. Criticize it all you want, denounce it if you must, but never seek to destroy it or isolate it from other people’s attention.
  3. “De-platforming,” or whatever the scolds are calling it these days, has more in common with red baiting, blacklisting, book burning and Victorian shaming than it does to liberation or empowerment.
  4. The first amendment is a subset, and a damned small one, of free speech and expression. It does not define the concept.
  5. It’s fine not to work on creative projects that offend you morally, but it’s bankrupt to try to hinder them if the creators wish to move on without you.
  6. While you can reassess works you liked in the past, you shouldn’t ignore what initially attracted you to the art.  While you don’t have to laugh at the same joke over and over, you can’t unlaugh at something.
  7. Everybody has standing to create anything and to comment on anything.  This is the essential human right from which all others derive.
  8. Don’t make lists of ten, they’re too predictable.

Readers Are the Resistance

Wandering through the Tribeca Barnes & Noble today, I came upon something surprising in these repressed cultural times. The publishers of the maligned and protested American Dirt have stuck by their author, as has Oprah’s book club.

Not only that, but a store employee who likes the book is not afraid to say so.

Of course I’m not saying anybody should like this novel or buy it. But imagine letting readers decide, rather than giving into pressure from activists who are out for nothing more than to silence the people they dislike and the points of view they’re afraid to contend with.

Power to the readers.

Graffiti Art > Political Ads

My aim here is not to write much about politics but creative arts are often, if not always, political and lines cannot be clearly drawn all of the time. We’re in the midst of Democratic primary season for the 2020 presidential election and former New York City mayor and the multibillionaire founder of Bloomberg LP, Michael Bloomberg, is running on a “can do” mantra, touting his competency and accomplishments. Fine. But he’s also complaining that his campaign offices are being tagged around the country with spray-painted epithets like “Oligarch,” “corporate pig,” and “Eat the rich.”

Of course, the Bloomberg campaign will take exception to this but, at the same time, the candidate has said he’d spend maybe $1 billion of his own money on advertising. His ads became quickly ubiquitous on all major social media platforms and on cable television networks. He bought a massive amount of ad spots to run on MSNBC during a debate where he was a participant and MSNBC was one of the sponsors. He bought Superbowl ads. Bloomberg is using his massive wealth to flood and takeover public spaces both online and off.

Graffiti is a communications tool used by people without $1 billion to also get their message out to the public. A Mike Bloomberg campaign office is an advertisement to everybody who walks or drives by it. So is a graffiti tag. Bloomberg will never see it that way, of course, but in the spirit of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hambleton and more importantly, to resistance movements around the world, we should see these tags not as the affront that Bloomberg does but as artists taking back space that Bloomberg is buying in our minds.

Is Freedom of Speech Still Our Highest Value?

I grew up with and have long practiced a kind of first amendment absolutism that seems now to be out of step with our times. It’s not that people don’t believe in the first amendment — polls show that most do and pretty much everyone I know would say they do — it’s more that people will no longer rank it as the highest value as issues of safety and social equality have taken new precedence in our discourse.

I first encountered this impulse directly in the 1990s, as part of an Albuquerque-based theatre company producing Ntzozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf with a multiracial cast, a decision that ran afoul the sensibilities of a local bookstore and led to protests. It didn’t even matter to those offended that Shange had explicitly blessed the production and casting.

We tend to view new attitudes about speech and whats constitutes offensive speech as a highly contemporary development, but this has been with us since the social awakenings of the 60s and was huge in the 90s. Along the way, the right of anybody to say whatever they want has eroded and the simple dismissal “you’re just complaining about the social consequences of speech,” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. Not if those social consequences are shutting people out of global conversations.

In an online literary forum where the topic of American Dirt was raised, I wrote: “We all have an absolute right to tell any story we want.”

The first response: “Hard disagree.”

This isn’t exactly an attack on the Constitution is how the argument tends to proceed. The Constitution only guarantees that the government will not stop something like American Dirt from being written and published. It makes no promises about people buying the book, agreeing to sell the book or not protesting the book’s existence. That’s all true. The right to write a book is equal to the right for somebody to protest the book’s existence. That’s the deal.

But I sill believe that the conviction that certain people shouldn’t even attempt to tell certain stories represents the beginning of an erosion of free speech. “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt,” is just not an argument I can get behind even as “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt badly,” is one I’m fine with.

We should argue about the quality of speech, not the existence of speech. The Freedom Forum Institute, which conducts an annual poll about first amendment attitudes shows that absolute support for free speech is slipping. In 2018, 23% of the poll respondents said that first amendment protections “go too far.” That number climbed to 29% in 2019. Can nearly a third of Americans really believe such nonsense?

35% of respondents believe that student journalists in public schools should need school administrator approval to write about controversial topics in student run publications. 27% believe that teachers should be allowed to punish students for the contents of their social media posts.

We allow and accept, by the way, that employers can fire people for what they post on social media or for having political bumper stickers on their cars. We also allow and accept that the massive corporate gatekeepers of the internet and the wider culture, like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter can promote or ban whatever speech they want and we say that this is proper because they are private even though corporate censorship may be a bigger threat than government censorship in contemporary America.

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